Delphi, The Early History of the Shrine and Oracle

Zeus took two eagles to the ends of the earth and instructed them to join each other as soon as they could. Swiftly they flew and with eagle eyes they scanned the horizon for each other. Finally they saw each other and alighted at their point of meeting. Zeus threw the Sacred Stone at this exact point, and this spot became known as the center of the world. It is here that the worship center of Delphi was built. Initially it was just a clearing in a grove of trees but as visitations increased so buildings and fixtures for worship were built. The stone which Zeus placed there was assumed to be an omphalos by the worshipers. The word “omphalos” means navel in ancient Greek and of course such a navel was believed to be the navel of Gaia who was located underneath it. Gaia was not just the goddess of the earth, she was the earth. Thus the early Delphi was probably a place for

the worship of Gaia, or mother earth, one of the very first goddesses. Delphi is located on a plateau on the slope of Mount Parnassus, on a semicircular spur known as Phaedriades, and overlooks the Pleistos Valley. Southwest of Delphi, about 15 km away, is the Corinthian Gulf. Early visitors had to beach their ships and walk 15 km to the holy place. But it was worth the walk. Visitors rewarded with a beautiful place with beautiful views. And it was an inspiring place and the visitors felt close to the gods. Some were so inspired that they built altars and shrines.

Snakes were very important to the worship of Gaia because they are seen going in and out of holes in the earth. In this way the snakes are seen as between the goddess and mankind. They could help the one communicate with the other. Now goddesses are all knowing of the past and of the future and it is natural for man to try to communicate with the deities to know what the future will bring. Naturally the original worshippers at Delphi would try to communicate with the snakes because they could go between god and man. Since this was often attempted it was natural to want to have a person whose duty it was to do this. Since the goddess was feminine it was natural that his task should fall to a priestess. Also snakes can be very dangerous and powerful and it was natural that the snakes would be used to defend the center of worship.

Since Python was born to a family of large snake guardians at Delphi it was natural that she would be happy with her life. She had the task of communicating with the priestess and protecting her. Since Python grew to be a large snake she was very good at protecting the priestess. She was also a good mother and had a brood of 50 offspring that she was proud of. Things went well with her life until and unfortunate thing happened over which she had little control. The goddesses Hera and Athena were attending a festival at Thebes. Hera was somewhat miffed that Athena was getting more attention than she. In fact worshippers brought Athena almost twice as many votive offerings as Hera. There were brass and ceramic statues, items of clothing and even bottles of oil. So Hera felt better when Athena confided that things were not going well with her. The snakes at her sanctuary on the Acropolis of Athens were disappearing. If she did not get some more snakes quickly then her worshippers in Athens would suffer. Hera immediately revealed that she knew where there were 50 snakes and she would gladly trade them for some of her worshippers. Athena agreed and Hera immediately went to Delphi and gathered up the children of Python and delivered them to Athena without telling Python anything.

When Hera was in Thebes her husband Zeus was in the company of another woman Leto. Because she was a goddess Hera knew what was going on but because Zeus was so powerful she could not do anything to him. So she decided to pick on Leto. When Leto became pregnant Hera decided to make Leto as miserable as possible. And she thought Python could help her.

You can imagine how unhappy Python was when she found her children missing. She was in tears and very upset. So she was ready when an old woman arrived and told her that she could get her children back. Now Python was ready to do anything to get back her children. But she was pretty disgusted when she heard what the old woman said. In return for getting her children back Python was to follow Leto and keep her in the sunshine because that would prevent her from giving birth to her children. Python knew what misery it was to not be able to give birth when a child wanted to be born. She was not happy with what she was asked to do. But for her children she would do anything. So she took out after Leto. The huge snake stayed so close to Leto that no one would take her in. They were too afraid of the Snake. Zeus finally saved Leto by sending Boreas (the North Wind) to carry her out to sea where the snake could not follow. Finally, the desolate rocky island of Delos, accepted her, because it had little to lose. The other goddesses gathered to help Leto as she gave birth. Hera stayed away and managed to detain Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, until Iris fetched her. Leto first gave birth to Artemis and then, after another nine days of labor, to Apollo.

Python went back to Delphi and awaited the return of her children but she was afraid they would not return because she had failed to prevent Leto from giving birth. Apollo soon learned of the distress Python had caused to his mother and swore to take vengeance. He learned of the worship center at Delphi and swore to take it and destroy Python, who had caused his mother such distress. Finally he left Olympus and went to Delphi. He found Python defending the shrine and in a poor mood because she was still missing her children. There he shot her with arrows and she bled to death. Her troubles were over but now Apollo had some trouble. He had not investigated the situation well enough. The priestesses of Delphi prayed to Gaia and she became aware of the situation. She in turn called on Hera to clarify what was going on. Hera had to admit her deal and Apollo was shown to have not acted right by killing Python unfairly. It was actually all Hera’s doing.

Apollo was believed to be the god of reason. He was associated with many forms of rational thought such as music, law, science, and prophecy. To many Greeks his slaying of Python was seen as a triumph. In their eyes they saw Apollo defeating old ways. No longer did Greeks sow their seeds in ignorance. They knew when to plant, when to water, and when to fertilize. They did not have to pray to Gaia for fertile crops. They grew them with knowledge. After the slaying of Python, Apollo left Delphi in self-imposed exile, as both punishment, and to purify himself before returning. He realized it was wrong to kill snakes just because the caused fear. They ate rodents and protected the crops. Sometimes you have to overcome fear and see the real nature of things. After a suitable time he decided he sould continue the process of taking over Delphi. Apollo identified a Cretan ship that contained worthy Cretan sailors. They were pious men who thought hard before they took any action. In this way their actions were purified. These were the kind of men he wanted to build his shrine at Delphi. Apollo took the form of a Dolphin and jumped into their ship. Then he leaped overboard to lead them to the Gulf of Corinth and Delphi. He did this by leaping over the waves in front of the ship. They sailed all the way into the Gulf of Corinth. When he sailors landed on the beach Apollo was there to greet them and lead them to the sanctuary. On his return to Delphi, Apollo was crowned with laurel and took over the oracle. From this point onwards the oracle of Delphi belonged to him. The priestess of Delphi was called Pythia, in honor of Python who lost her life because of a missunderstanding. Gaia knew that Apollo represented a new order and was content to have his temple built over her navel. She also knew that the reason of Apollo would help to protect her.

Also to honor Python the Pythian Games were established. At first these were contests of poetry and music to honor the god Apollo. Later were added athletic contests that the mortal heroes of Greece would attend for religious purposes. They would compete and the winner would be crowned with a Laurel wreath to honor Apollo.

The oracle of Delphi was considerably respected as Plato states: (Plato, Phaedrus 244 a-b): “but in reality the greatest of blessings come to us through madness, when it is sent as a gift of the gods. For the prophetess at Delphi [244b] and the priestesses at Dodona when they have been mad have conferred many splendid benefits upon Greece both in private and in public affairs, but few or none when they have been in their right minds; and if we should speak of the Sibyl and all the others who by prophetic inspiration have foretold many things to many persons and thereby made them fortunate afterwards,”

Homer mentions Delphi as sacred to Apollo so Apollo arrived at Delphi before the Trojan War. Even at that time the value of the shrine was known and visited by peoples of many different city-states. By that time a city, Kirrha, had formed where the visitors beached their craft to visit Delphi. The city grew so wealthy that they were able to build strong city walls. The wealth of Delphi was considerable also and a number of city-states recognized the danger of its loss and formed an organization to protect it. This organization, The Great Amphictonic League, was a military alliance formed to protect Delphi. Legend has it that it was founded about 1100 BCE for the protection and administration of the temple. This would insure that the sevices of the temple would be available to the persons of many city states for many years.

Kirrha could have seen Delphi as a resource for it future. The people of Kirrha could have been proud of the service they provided to the pilgrims to Delphi. But the got greedy and took advantage of its location to rob and mistreat pilgrims. They also tried to tax Delphi and steal its sacred land .The League consulted the oracle for advise on dealing with Kirra, and the reply was a call for total war. The members of the League vowed to completely destroy Kirra and ravage the surrounding areas. To this they added a curse in the name of Apollo: that the soil should bring forth no crops, that the children of the women and livestock should be deformed, and that the entire ethnic group that inhabited the city should be eradicated. The ensuing war lasted for ten years (595 BC-585 BC) and became known as the First Sacred War

The leader of the attack was the Tyrant, Cleisthenes_of_Sicyon, who used his powerful navy to blockade the city’s port. He then called upon an allied Amphictionic army to besiege Kirra. The earliest, and therefore probably most reliable, account is that of the medical writer Thessalos. In the fifth century BC he wrote that the attackers discovered a secret water pipe leading into the city after it was broken by a horse’s hoof. An asclepiad named Nebros advised the allies to poison the water with hellebore. The hellebore soon caused the defenders to be weak with diarrhea. The defenders were unable to continue resisting the assault. Kirra was captured and the entire population was slaughtered. Nebros was an ancestor of Hippocrates.


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