The Delphic Oracle

By Julian Ochoa

Thee, the son of God most high,

Famed for harping son, will I

Proclaim, and the deathless oracular word

From the snow-topped rock that we gaze on heard,

Counsels of thy glorious giving

Manifest for all men living,

How though madest the tripod of prophecy thine

Which the wrath of the dragon kept guard on, a shrine

Voiceless till thy shafts could smite

All his live coiled glittering might.

Ye that hold of right alone

All deep wood on helicon 

Fair daughters of thunder-girt God, with your bright

White arms uplift as to lighten the light

Come to chant your brother’s praise,

Golden Phoebus, loud in lays. 

A.C. Swinburne, Delphic Hymn to Apollo 1925.

The Delphic Oracle or the oracle of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was one of the most influential institutions of ancient Greece. The temple system of Apollo and the city is located in lower central Greece besides mount Parnassus. The earliest records of the Delphic oracle can be found in the Homeric poems from the 8th century BCE.  However the establishment of the temple itself goes further back into antiquity. It is said that Apollo himself went to the site and restored the temple system that had been closed from when people used to worship Gaia. There are many accounts of the Delphic oracles and his prophecies, many famous characters of ancient Greece like Socrates, Alexander of Macedon, and many other Greek kings visited the oracle in search of answers, many influential figures like Plutarch were initiated in this temple. The Oracle as an institution in Greece lasted until the 4th century A.D, when Apollo left the temple due to the decay of time and the arrival of Christianity. 

In ancient times Delphi was called Pytho, initially it was a place of goddess worship and later of the orphic mysteries until the temple of Apollo was erected to continue the ancient mystery tradition of the world. The mythology of Delphi recounts that Apollo descended from his mythical home of Hyperborea which is north of Greece beyond any known lands. Apollo went to Pytho and killed a python dragon that was guarding the old temple site. The location of Pytho was important as it was considered to be the navel of the world. This myth is not very far from the original story of Apollo, H.P Blavatsky gives a small definition of Apollo: Apollo is Helios ( the sun), Phoebus-Apollo(“the light of life of the world”) Who arises out of the golden winged cup, (the sun): hence he is the sun-God par excellence. At the moment of his birth he asks for his bow to kill python, the demon dragon, who attacked his mother before his birth,  whom he is divinely commissioned to destroy.  After the defeat of the Python-dragon at Delphi, Apollo restored the temples and restored the ancient mystery traditions he appointed female priests to be the mediums between him and the people that came seeking advice. 

There is a popular myth about how the temples in Delphi were established, and its, that  a herdsman was passing by a cave when he noticed that his herd was acting weird, the herdsman entered deeper into the cave and he could smell this fragrance that suddenly allowed him to see his future. After this encounter all the peoples of the area were visiting the place to experience firsthand this incredible effect. 

After so much commotion the temple priests of the area noticed what was happening and to control the hysteria, they took control of the site and began to limit the entry of common people into the cave and instead hired women to be the ones to aspire this fragrance and to speak what they saw according to the enquiry. At first access to the oracle became restricted to four times a year, later on, after pressure from the people, access was opened to once a month.

The temple of Apollo in Delphi and in other parts of Greece became influential in the day to day affairs of the city states of Greece. Most people likened Greece to rationalism, philosophy and democracy and perhaps some remember the myths of the Gods via the Homeric poems. But never do people in modern times realize that the country that gave democracy and philosophy to the western world was also the bearer of the ancient mystery traditions and that to maintain a stable life inside any of the city states, kings and common people would participate either in the Eleusinian rites if permitted or visit the Delphic oracle in search of answers. In fact if the temples to Apollo and the other mysteries practiced across the Hellenic world were not around, Greece may not have had philosophy or democracy as these mystery schools thought its students the hidden mysteries of nature and science, moral and ethical instructions and it also thought them to respect and honour the Gods and its divine hierarchy. 

The temple of Apollo was made of priests and priestesses, the priests were trained to be able to interpret the messages of the oracles and the priestesses were trained to be the oracles. Both groups had to study the mysteries, practice celibacy, and lead a pure life. The oracle had to dress in white clothes to represent purity and prior to an invocation of Apollo the oracle had to fast for a few days and be completely serene before the ritual. Before the ritual incenses were burnt and the oracle was placed on a tripod from where she would seat to receive the GOD. Once the oracle was ready the person coming to seek advise would enter the room alone. People planning to visit the oracle were expected to fast and be free of any toxic substances and to try to have only pure thoughts for a few days before the visit. Around the arch of the entry to the temple of Apollo it was inscribed: “know thy self” this aphorism warned the visitor from entering. Before entering the temple a man stands outside requesting the fee, and offerings to Apollo, the fee was called pelanos. The pelanos being a sacred cake; so the seeker had to pay with a sacred cake, and with a sacrificial lamb to Apollo before entering the temple, if this did not happen the person could not enter the temple. 

Richard Stoneman gives a definition of oracle: The word oracle is from the latin oraculum, a thing spoke, which represents two distinct greek words, both chresmos and chresterion. Chresmos is from the active word chrao, “to proclaim: or “to warn” ( always in an oracular context), and the middle form of the verb, chraomai, means “to enquire of an oracle to seek a response.” Chresterion is where the utterance takes place. They are called oracles because responses are given from them; and oracle is from os, mouth. 

Once the person seeking advise entered into the oracles temple, the oracle would announce that the God Apollo was present and that he would speak through her. The oracle would advise the person to pay attention to the answers given. 

The messages the oracle transmitted for some were confusing. In many parts of Greece it was common to have charlatans passing as oracles, or there would be temples where oracles would take hallucinogenic substances to obtain a message from the Gods but all messages would be convoluted or unequivocal. At the temple of Delphi in its inception and for a great part of the Hellenic period the oracle transmitted helpful messages to the people seeking its wisdom but like all institutions around the time of Christ were not effective as before. Unlike in other temples, the oracles at Delphi were highly trained and did not need any substances to communicate with Apollo, they simply used their clairvoyant faculties to communicate with Apollo. The most effective of the oracles were called Sibyls; they used to be considered to be raving at the time when Apollo was speaking through them.

The Delphic oracles were so popular that in times of war if a truce were to be signed, free passage to see the oracle was included in the agreement. Kings from beyond Greece, barbarians, Persians and even Egyptians used to visit the oracle. In 548 BCE there was a fire and the temple was completely burnt, immediately after kings from all over the Mediterranean sent money to restore the temple. 

Most of the questions posed to the oracles were of personal nature but many were also about how to rule a kingdom, should i go to war, should i invade the territory of my enemy, should we found a new colony, what rituals should i do to build a new temple, which God should i worship, was the last oracle right? People travelled from far places to seek an answer from God, and if not happy they could not complain as the oracle was infallible as she was not herself or was not speaking independently. 

Many of the prophecies or messages the oracle gave were straight forward, for example, One of Socrates friends had asked the oracle of Delphi if any were wiser than Socrates. The oracle said “no” which greatly surprised Socrates. Socrates examined famous politicians, artists, and poets to prove the oracle wrong. After examining them and getting his victims into tight spots Socrates surmised that their wisdom was illusionary and the oracle was right. Naturally the people whom he examined were not very happy about being humiliated, and eventually arraigned him and gave him the death penalty. Other messages were more convoluted like the one given to Croesus King of Lydia  who was neighbour to the then newly born Persian empire. The oracle said: When a mule shall be king of the medes, then O’Lydian, flee and have no shame for your cowardice.’ Croesus may well be excused for no having understood in time that the mule was Apollo’s way of referring to Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire. Croesus resisted until Cyrus captured him. Croesus only realised when he was in prison that the oracle referred to Cyrus as a mule because he was of mixed race. 

There is a lot of controversy about the nature of her messages, be it riddles or misleading messages, it was partly because when she spoke for Apollo the male priests or scribes that were around would add their own interpretation to her message therefore the message was lost, like Chinese whispers. 

 One of the most famous Greeks that served at the temple of Apollo for one whole year was Pythagoras. Around 500 B.C.E Pythagoras had returned from a long journey through the east where he was initiated into the ancient mysteries. He had first lived in Judea for a period time and then moved to Egypt where he lived to 22 years, there he was initiated into the high mysteries of Egypt, he then travelled to Babylon where he was exposed to Judaic traditions and to the Chaldean mysteries, Pythagoras also travelled to India where he learnt from the Brahmins and was a disciple of the Buddha. Upon his return to Greece he moved to Delphi where he helped restore to a higher state the Delphic mysteries, the temple system was going through a low period and he arrived in time to introduce not only mystical teachings but scientific ideas, Pythagoras new teachings aroused Greece to become the centre of western philosophy.  At the temple of Delphi Pythagoras trained an oracle called theoclea, it is said that in the moment she heard his voice she knew he was her master. Pythagoras instructed her into the ancient mysteries and prepared her to be an exceptional oracle, her training was such that when she was deemed ready she entered into contact with Apollo and predicted that Pythagoras will leave to Italy to spread his teachings. 

Not everybody believed in the oracles, there were many that thought that the oracle and its priests were just phonies trying to take money from the people. When Christianity became a force to be reckoned with in the pagan world, the temple of Apollo was already in decay and Christians were forbid to visit the temple. By 300 A.D the temple was closed by Christians. The only stories of oracles you would find today are from ancient books, very few survived through the middle ages. The anecdotes that did survive described the oracle as entering into a form of trance by inhaling chemical substances that were coming from inside the temple that had an underground vault from where natural fumes would emerge and give the oracle the power to see the Gods.  There is one anecdote of an oracle that had not completed her training and was forced to sit on the tripod to communicate with Apollo. When she did she could not handle the fumes and ran in hysteria around the temple until she fell on the ground and died. 

In the 1900s a big group of archaeologists dagg around the old temple, the temple was sitting under an old mideval house. The archaeologists could not find the vault from where the fumes came out from and were disappointed and  deemed the oracle of Delphi a myth if not a farce. In the 1980s an American geologist  travelled to Delphi and discovered that the temple does sit on top of a fault, in fact, it sits on top of two faults that meet creating a cross. This find confirmed that there could have been a source to the fumes that some writers talked about. However some samples of rocks were taken from the fault and it showed that the fumes that did come out were too toxic for a human to breath. Two streams of water that came from inside of the earth cross the temple so it is believed that these natural springs could have given the oracle the energy to speak to Apollo.  

What modern scholars fail to investigate is the possibility that the oracles could have simply taken  a strict form of living in order to develop phsychic and claravoyant abilities. According to Edouard Shurer the oracles went through a strict regiment where they could not marry, they had to be vegetarians, meditate, exercise, study the ancient mysteries and were expected to follow strict morals; these were part of their daily training until they were apt to communicate with Apollo. 

The Delphic oracle sounds very fantastical and mythical, but one does not need to go far to seek an oracle, one only has to follow what it is written at the entry of the temple of Apollo, Know thy self. Most of the seekers of the oracle failed to listen to themselves and failed to understand by intuition the advice of the oracle. When one seeks spiritual guidance for ambition things might not work, but if one seeks it like Pythagoras to help in the advancement of humanity the oracle within and the initiates that are out there guiding humanity will advise you with the wisest words and with the best of intentions.