As I move onto more modern topics with this book blog, I wanted to take a moment to discuss one of my favorite ancient sites in Greece: the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.
Not only is this Temple situated with a breathtaking view from the side of Mount Parnassus, it also held incredible religious and fiduciary significance to ancient Athens. This Temple served as the neutral meeting ground between Athens, Sparta, and other Hellenic states, along with housing a treasury, and most importantly, the Oracle.
The role of the Oracle became associated with Apollo, god of the sun, around 800 BCE, though there are records of the use of an Oracle in this area as early as 1400 BCE, right at the start of the Mycenaean era.
The words of the Oracle at Delphi were spoken by a priestess, an older woman dressed as a virgin, known as the Pythia. This name is derived from one of the early myths about Apollo, in which the god slew a monstrous serpent, the Python. The name is related to an archaic verb “to rot,” and the sweet, rotting smell of the Python Apollo killed.
In the early days of this practice, the Oracle was usually a young, virgin girl — however, over time, this role switched to older, widowed or single women. This switch was intentional because so many young women would die from this role, given that the Oracle would smoke toxic fumes either from burning laurel leaves or sulfur gas produced by local volcanic activity. Essentially, this girl would get high, and while in this trance, “predict” the future, and then die within a span of months due to the toxicity of the fumes – only to be replaced by another young girl. In the meantime, priests of Apollo were located on the premises to interpret her words for the questioner.
What is so amazing about this is that the Greeks based many decisions, even major war decisions, on the hallucinations of this Oracle. Moreover, it’s remarkable to me that not only would the Greeks be able to build such a massive structure, on the side of a mountain, no less, but also pinpoint the exact spot where hallucinatory natural gas was emitted as a result of the crossing of two major fault lines…located right underneath where the Oracle’s chamber would have been located.
If you are planning a trip to Greece, I would absolutely recommend this location as a must-see sight, whether as a day trip or a few nights stay in the quaint town of modern Delphi, just up the road.