She proclaimed Socrates the wisest man in the world, predicted the rise of Alexander the Great, foretold the death of Nero and, as a test of her powers, told Croesus what he had for dinner on a specific day. She was part of nearly every single major decision of the classical world from 800 BC until she predicted the end of the Roman empire in 393 AD with her last recorded statement “all is ended”. Despite all of that, we know very little about who she was and how she did what she did.
The classical world is full of famous men who were philosophers, early scientists, historians, inventors, mathematicians, etc but women clearly did not have any real equality to men so many of them are lost to history. The Oracle at Delphi is an exception to this rule. The oracle was the most influential woman alive at the time she served as priestess and the modern world simply would not exist the same without her. Who was she?
On the island of Delphi, near the ancient Greek city of Corinth, was a a temple to Apollo, the Greek god of Wisdom. The temple was almost certainly dedicated to Gaia before being dedicated to Apollo because there are historical records, as well as myths about the transition. There is some evidence that the site was used as an oracle by the Minoans as early as 1,400 BC, far before classical Greece.
Location, location, location
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was important initially because of the rise of Corinth as a major city state in the ancient Mediterranean. After converting the temple to Apollo, the Greeks assigned a priest and a priestess to the temple. The priest would look over the temple and perform important rituals and rites to the god while the priestess would deliver prophecies. The priestess we know as the Oracle at Delphi was called the Pythia by the Greeks and is less confusing since an oracle was an answer to the question as well. The Pythia is the most famous sibyl, another word for priestess, of the ancient world.
Above the temple was famously written the phrase: Know Thyself (γνῶθι σεαυτόν).
In the beginning, the oracle was selected from just about any class. According to archaeologist John Hale:
The Pythia was (on occasion) a noble of aristocratic family, sometimes a peasant, sometimes rich, sometimes poor, sometimes old, sometimes young, sometimes a very lettered and educated woman to whom somebody like the high priest and the philosopher Plutarch would dedicate essays, other times who could not write her own name. So it seems to have been aptitude rather than any ascribed status that made these women eligible to be Pythias and speak for the god.John Hale
Not only was the location of the temple important to understanding the priestess and her function, the location of the priestess during the prophecy was also important. She was seated on a tall chair, resembling a tripod, over a chasm from which smoke or volcanic vapors would seep. The idea that the smoke and vapors from the crack was connected to her wisdom has been around since ancient times and has been studied heavily in modern times as well.
Once a question was posed to the oracle, she would issue a reply, often in verse but, in later antiquity, she would answer in prose. However, her behavior would often become erratic. There were many reports of her convulsing, becoming incoherent and was often described as being epileptic, known then as the “Sacred Disease” because they thought it was a pathway to accessing the divine. Heraclitus describes an experience with a sibyl like this:
The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.Heraclitus
Shockingly, whether Pythia was chosen from an illiterate household or a highly educated household, her statements were never doubted, by anyone. Even early Christians believed she was speaking the truth but attributed that secret truth to demons. No other position in the classical world had as much influence. Advice from Pythia determined the future of Alexander the Great, shaped the direction of the Peloponnesian War, the Persian Wars and the rise and fall of Rome. Even when abused or even killed by powerful men, her words were recorded and revered as truth.
Gases, Vapors and Psychedelic Herbs
One of the two origin stories of Pythia may have clues to the real mechanics of what may have been happening. According to Diodorus Siculus of the 1st century BC, a man was looking for a goat and found that it had fallen into a crack on the island. He noticed the animal was behaving strangely, so he jumped in to help it. When he did, he felt as if he could see the past and future.
Diodorus also outlines the origin story in a way that makes a whole lot of sense. After the man returns and tells people of what happened to him, they went to see for themselves and all fell into prophetic trances. Although recognizing the influence of Apollo or the divine, there was not a temple above the crack so people would go to the crack to get answers to their questions one by one. Because of the strange effects of the location, they would sometimes fall or throw themselves into the ravine. That is when locals decided to erect a temple and appoint a prophetess.
Pythia clearly served as a Shaman-like medium between humans and the divine and, much like Shaman in nearly every other culture in the world, was probably under the influence of psychoactive drugs. In fact, even in the ancient world, the idea that volcanic gases were causing her to enter a trance like state were common. There is also some evidence that, in a room under the seat of the priestess, they would burn coriander, the herb. Inhaling coriander smoke is known to cause very similar symptoms along with hallucinations and a euphoric mood.
Most archaeologists believe that ethylene, which has been found to be plentiful in the area and in the stream that runs under the temple, is the cause of the trance like state of Pythia. Isabella Herb, a modern anesthesiologists, tested ethylene and its tolerance across a number of patients and found that if the gas was administered at 20% or less of the air they were breathing, the subjects would be coherent, could answer questions somewhat logically but could not remember anything they said later. Over 20%, they noticed signs of epilepsy.
What were some of her predictions?
The prediction process was done in person. A person from somewhere in the Greek world would undertake the treacherous journey to Delphi and consult the oracle on an important decision. They would pose a question and Pythia would then give an answer which was often somewhat cryptic to the person at the time they received the message but would turn out to be meaningful later. It is important to note that most of these predictions were recorded before they were even proven true. Often, they determined huge decisions in antiquity.
A good example is the case of Nero, the maniacal Roman emperor who burned Rome and persecuted Christians. When he was 30, he went to ask advice and Ptyhia said:
Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!Pythia to Nero
Nero had killed his mother years before. Because of the matricide insult, Nero had her burned alive. He thought that the oracle meant that he would live to 73. However, he was killed in a revolt by Galba who was 73 years old at the time of Nero’s death.
Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, went to Pythia for advice and she told him that whoever could ride his horse could conquer the world. Nobody was able to ride the horse who tried. Alexander, just a boy, realized the horse was afraid of its shadow and was able to trick the horse into letting him ride him.
When asked by Chaerephon, he was told:
Sophocles is wise, Euripides is wiser, but of all men Socrates is wisest.Pythia to Chaerephon regarding Socrates
Lysander, the famous Spartan of the Peloponnesian war was told:
Also the dragon (serpent), earthborn, in craftiness coming behind thee.Pythia to Lysander
He was killed by a man wearing a serpent on his shield who stabbed in from behind.
The last recorded statement of Pythia was when Theodosius I closed the temple in 393 AD and the oracle said “It is ended”. Within 15 years, Rome fell to the Visigoths and Western Civilization plunged into the Dark Ages.