Ancient Greece was a world dominated by men. Men filled the highest positions in society, men fought on the battlefield and men ruled the mightiest empires. However, all these men, from the lowliest peasant to the emperor himself, sought the council and advice of one person – and that person was a woman.
The city of Delphi had long traditions of being the centre of the world; it was said that Zeus himself named it the navel of Gaia. According to legend, a huge serpent, named Python, guarded the spot before it was slain by the infant god Apollo. When Apollo’s arrows pierced the serpent, its body fell into a fissure and great fumes arose from the crevice as its carcass rotted. All those who stood over the gaping fissure fell into sudden, often violent, trances. In this state, it was believed that Apollo would possess the person and fill them with divine presence.
These peculiar occurrences attracted Apollo-worshipping settlers during the Mycenaean era, and slowly but surely the primitive sanctuary grew into a shrine, and then, by 7th century BCE, a temple. It would come to house a single person, chosen to serve as the bridge between this world and the next. Named after the fabled serpent, this chosen seer was named the Pythia – the oracle.
Communication with a god was no small matter, and not just anyone could be allowed or trusted to serve this vnerated position. It was decided that a pure, chaste and honest young virgin would be the most appropriate vessel for such a divine role. However, there was one drawback – beautiful young virgins were prone to attracting negative attention from the men who sought their council, which resulted in oracles being raped and violated. Older women of at least 50 began to fill the position, and as a reminder of what used to be, they would dress in the virginal garments of old.
The oracle sat upon her tripod in John Collier’s The Priestess of Delphi, 1891
These older women were often chosen from the priestesses of Delphi temple, but could also be any respected native of Delphi. Educated noble women were prized, but even peasants could fill the position. Those Pythia who were previously married were required to relinquish all family responsibility and even their individual identities. To be an oracle was to take up an ancient and vitally important role – one that transcended the self, and entered into legend. Pythia were so important to Greek civilisation that it was essential that they were a blank slate, so children, husbands and any links to previous life had to be severed in favour of Apollo and divinity.
The reason for the growing importance of the oracles was simple – the Pythia provided answers. For an ambitious and religious civilisation, this very visual and vocal link to the gods was treated with the utmost respect. For the nine warmest months of each year, on the seventh day of each month the Pythia would accept questions from all members of Greek society. This was to correspond with the belief that Apollo deserted the temple during the winter months.
After being ‘purified’ by fasting, drinking holy water and bathing in the sacred Castalian Spring, the Pythia would assume her position upon a tripod seat, clasping laurel reeds in one hand and a dish of spring water in the other. Positioned above the gaping fissure, the vapours of the ancient vanquished serpent would wash over her and she would enter the realm of the divine.
Home to the Pythia and her priesthood, the island was considered a sacred place by all Greeks
The exact origin of these magical vapours – assuming they weren’t actually being given off by the rotting remains of Python – remains something of a mystery. Excavation work of the temple ruins in the 19th Century didn’t uncover the sort of cave or hole in the ground archaeologists had expected to find, so for much of the 20th Century, scholars thought the Delphic fault was strictly mythological. That was until the late 1980s, when a new team of curious scientists decided to investigate the ruins for themselves. The rocks they discovered beneath the temple were oily bituminous limestone and were fractured by two faults that crossed beneath the temple. This had to be more than a coincidence. The scientists theorised that tectonic movements and ancient earthquakes caused friction along the faults. Combined with the spring water that ran beneath the temple, methane, ethylene and ethane gas would rise through the faults to the centre and directly into the temple. The low room with its limited ventilation and lack of oxygen would help amplify the effect of the gasses and induce the trance-like symptoms experienced by the oracles.
Others have suggested that the oracle’s trances might have been brought on by upon by snake venom, particularly that of the cobra or krait snake, which is known to be hallucinogenic, which the seer might have mistaken for divine visions. Of course, one of the most popular theories explaining the state of the oracles is that they were simply faking their trances. Because of the power that their prophecies could hold, it’s argued that the priests or the women themselves manipulated this power as they saw fit.
Back in Ancient Greece, once the story of the woman who could communicate with the gods got us, people to flocked to speak with her. Rather confusingly given the modern meaning of the word, people who requested an audience with the oracle were known as ‘consultants’. Many of those who wished to ask the oracle a question would travel for days or even weeks to reach Delphi. Once they arrived, they underwent an intense grilling from the priests, who would determine the genuine cases and instruct them the correct way to frame their questions.
Those who were approved then had to undergo a variety of traditions, such as carrying laurel wreaths to the temple. It was also encouraged for consultants to provide a monetary donation as well as an animal to be sacrificed. Once the animal had been sacrificed, its guts would be studied. If the signs were seen as unfavourable, the consultant could be sent home. Finally, the consultant was allowed to approach the Pythia and ask his question. In some accounts, it seems the oracles gave the answers, but others report the Pythia would utter incomprehensible words that the priests would ‘translate’ into verse. Once he received his answer, the consultant would journey home to act upon the advice of the oracle.
The god Apollo grabs the oracle by the hand as she slips into a divine trance
This was the tricky part. The oracle received a multitude of visitors in the nine days she was available, from farmers desperate to know the outcome of the harvest to emperors asking if they should wage war on their enemies, and her answers were not always clear. Responses, or their translations by the temple priests, often seemed deliberately phrased so that, no matter the outcome, the oracle would always be right. It was essential for the consultant to carefully consider her words, or else risk a bad harvest, or even the defeat of an entire army. When Croesus, the king of Lydia, asked the oracle if he should attack Persia, he received the response: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” He viewed this as a good omen and went ahead with the invasion. Unfortunately, the great empire that was destroyed was his own. In this way, the oracle, just like the gods, was infallible, and her divine reputation grew. To question the oracle was to question the gods – and that was unthinkable.
Soon, no major decision was made before consulting the oracle of Delphi. It wasn’t just Greek people, but also foreign dignitaries, leaders and kings who travelled to Delphi for a chance to ask the oracle a question. Those who could afford it would pay great sums of money for a fast pass through the long lines of pilgrims and commoners. Using these donations, the temple grew in size and prominence. Quickly, Delphi seemed to be fulfilling its own prophecy of being the centre of the world, and attracted visitors for the Pythian Games, a precursor of the Olympic Games. On the influence of the oracle’s statements, Delphi became a powerful and prosperous city-state. The oracle sat at the centre of not just the city of Delphi, but the great Greek empire itself. No important decision was made without her consultation, and so, for nearly a thousand years, the position of perhaps the greatest political and social influence in the ancient world was occupied by a woman.