Delphi was considered the center of the Ancient World, and served as an influential religious and cultural center which attracted travelers from all parts of the Hellenistic world. According to Greek mythology, Zeus sent two eagles from opposite ends of the earth and Delphi was the location they met, giving it the title of the omphalos of the Ancient world.
1) Who you’ll meet in Delphi
If you are traveling to Delphi, you will meet travelers from all over the ancient world who were either hoping to receive prophesies from the oracle or taking place in the Pythian games. Delphi was inhabited as early as the Neolithic period with sites dating back to the Mycenaean Civilization. (1)
“The Phokians took over Delphi when Herakleides was president there. “(Pausanias pg 408)
2) How you’ll get there
The journey to Delphi is an arduous one. The city of Delphi is located in the region of Phokis, which contains ports all along the jagged north coast of the Corinthian gulf, with Dombraina in the east and Itea in the west. (Pausanias, 405) If you are traveling to Delphi by land,you will need to take a route from the city of Daulis which was located at the eastern foot of Mount Parnassos. The route heads sharply westward before it begins the ascension through the long and narrow valley leading to Delphi. (Macmillan,231) The road from Daulis joins the road from Thebes through Lebadeia, and eventually with the road from Delphi. The meeting of these three roads is called “the Cleft Way” or the “Split Road” and from this point onward, the road to Delphi ascends steeply through a narrow valley enclosed by the rocky slopes of Mount Parnassos to the north and Mount Cirphis to the south. It is about a four hour voyage from the Cleft Way to Delphi and you must trek along a winding path through steep vineyards until you reach the village of Arachova. From Arachova you will have to descend further westward through the valleys of olive trees and vineyards until you finally approach the sacred city of Delphi sitting amidst the slopes of Mount Parnassos.
Fun Fact: The Split Road was considered to be the location where Oedipus murdered his father Laois, who he mistook as a stranger. The Split road and Phokis were believed to have been polluted by Oedipus’ patricide. (Pausanias 414)
3) Why Would you go to Delphi?
The Delphic Oracle
One of the main reason’s for traveling to Delphi was to consult the Oracle of Delphi. Visitors to Delphi traveled from near and far to receive counsel from the Pythia, the priestess of the Oracle who operated as a vehicle for Apollo’s prophesies.(2) Visitors who sought divination from the oracle hoped to receive advice concerning either personal or familial matters, while many came with more political concerns regarding affairs of the state. Warfare strategies and tactics relied on the oracle’s prophesies, and before engaging in battle, it was necessary to embark on the pilgrimage to Delphi to receive militaristic advice. The Oracle was believed to reside in the sanctuary of Apollo, and in order to provide answers to inquiries, the Pythia first had to ritually prepare herself by chewing laurel and bay leaves and bathing in the sacred Castilian springs. The Pythia then sat atop a bronze tripod which was placed directly above a chasm located in the inner chamber of the temple, called the Adyton. Vapors would expel from this fissure, and when inhaled, the Pythia entered into a trance-like state.(3) While in this trance, the Pythia would mutter incomprehensible words, which were believed to be directly from Apollo. The priests who led visitors into the temple, would then interpret the oracle’s words and then relay them back to the inquisitors. These messages were often ambiguous and in the form of riddles which typically required further interpretation by the person receiving counsel.
If you are visiting Delphi to gain counsel from the oracle, it is important to schedule your trip on the dates that the oracle will be available to give prophesies. Up until 480 B.C. the oracle was only available once a year for inquiries. However, this was eventually changed to the 7th day of each month, with the exception of the winter months when Apollo was believed to reside with the Hyperboreans.(3) Because of the limited availability of the Oracle, the lines to receive prophesies may be long; however, it is possible to bypass the lines if you are willing to pay a larger sum.
Fun Fact: Many claim that the vapors which came from the chasm contained hallucinogenic powers which caused the Pythia to enter into the dream-like trance, and instead of receiving divination, many have argued that the Pythia was actually high off the fumes.
Fun Fact 2: The remains of Dionysos were believed to have been buried in the Adyton at the Temple of Apollo (4)
The Pythian Games
The Pythian Games initially started as a musical competition, however athletics were later incorporated into the competition in the early sixth century by The Amphictyonic League. (Pausanias, 421) The Games were held every 4 years, and with the addition of sporting events it mirrored the Olympic games. The games were held in honour of Apollo and winners would receive bay wreaths.
Visitors who came to Delphi to consult the oracle, were first required to offer a sacrifice at the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia. This sanctuary was first constructed in the 4th century B.C.E. and contained several altars, temples, treasuries, and the infamous tholos. The tholos was unique due to its circular construction and marble columns, however the actual function that it served is unknown.
4) Holland, Leicester B. The Mantic Mechanism at Delphi, American Journal of Archaeology , Vol. 37, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1933), pp. 201-214
6) Frazer, James George. Commentary on books IX-X: Boeotia, Phocis. Addenda Volume 5 of Pausanias’s Description of Greece, 1898.
7) Pausanias, Guide to Greece 1: Central Greece, 1971.