The Oracle of Delphi: Location, Importance & Facts

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

The oracle of Delphi is a popular figure in myths and legends about ancient Greece, but how did the oracle get the prophecies she told to others? Learn more about the location and importance of the oracle of Delphi in this lesson.

The City of Delphi

Have you ever read or heard about the tragic story of the Greek king Oedipus, who accidentally killed his father and married his mother? Like many Greeks, Oedipus went to the oracle, or person who gave advice and prophecy typically on behalf of a deity, of Delphi to receive a prophecy about his future. As you can tell, the oracle was based in the Greek city of Delphi, a city on the southern part of the Grecian mainland close to the Gulf of Corinth. The city was considered the axis mundi, or ''center of the world,'' to the Greeks and was a religious center for Apollo, the Greek god of the sun and music. According to legend, the city was the site of Apollo's epic battle with and killing of the giant snake Pytho.

Apollo battling Pytho in Delphi
Apollo battling Pytho in Delphi

The Temple of Apollo

The city of Delphi was located on top of Mt. Parnassus. There was a chasm on the mountain and, according to legend, a shepherd noticed his flock acting strangely near this chasm. When he investigated, he went into a frantic trance and foretold the future! Of course, when others found out about this spot, they wanted to experience this trance — but because they were crazed, many people fell into the chasm and died. The Temple of Apollo was built on this spot, supposedly to prevent this, and was dedicated to the god.

We will talk more about these trances later when discussing how the oracle prophesied, but many people believe they were the result of gases coming out of a fissure near the chasm. Underneath where the temple was built, there were two intersecting fault lines: the Delphic fault that ran from east to west and the Kerna fault that ran from north to south. In 373 BCE, there was a massive earthquake that most likely closed this fissure. It is probably not a coincidence that the oracle seemed to stop prophesying not long after this.

Illustration of Mount Parnassus, which towers over Delphi, from afar
Illustration of Mt. Parnassus from afar

The Oracle of Delphi

Who Was She?

There was clearly a lot going on in Delphi, and the temple was an excellent place to prophesy from, so it is unsurprising that it became the center of the oracle of Delphi's work and prophecies. This oracle was named Pythia, after the name of the snake Apollo defeated there, and she was responsible for giving prophecies and answering questions brought to her from people within her city-state as well as foreigners.

While Pythia is called the priestess or the oracle, it is a bit of a misnomer as there was not just one person who acted as Pythia, but a group of priestesses made up of a variety of women with different backgrounds. Think of seeing Santa Claus at the mall during Christmas. One person is not Santa, but instead, there are several people who play this role; this is how the oracle of Delphi, or Pythia, was.

Prophecies and Rituals

Many people visited Pythia, so many that she had to change her schedule from seeing customers every year on Apollo's birthday to once almost every month. To prepare to give the prophecy, she went through various steps of ritual purification. First, she would bathe in the water of the nearby Castalian Spring. She would burn laurel leaves, which were not only a symbol of divination, but also of Apollo. She would drink holy water and sacrifice an animal as well.

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