The Oracle of Delphi: Prophecies & Quotes

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.

Oracles were popular in the ancient world, providing advice or predictions about the future on behalf of a deity. In this lesson, learn more about the oracle of Delphi, Pythia, and her role in the politics and warfare of the ancient world.

Pythia, Priestess of Apollo

If you were able to have someone tell you what would happen in the future or give you advice on what to do to get a certain outcome, would you? For the ancient Greeks, this was not really a question. They, as well as people from surrounding nations, would visit Pythia, the oracle of Delphi, to learn about the future or get advice on what to do. The prophecies focused on politics and warfare on a national or city level, not on an individual and personal level. Pythia was a role played by a priestess of Apollo, the god of the sun, and as an oracle, she relayed messages from Apollo to her visitors that typically had something to do with the future or how to achieve a desired outcome. Pythia was incredibly famous during her time, so records of her prophecies have been written down: let's take a look at some of these.

Famous Prophecies of Pythia

Since Pythia prophesied for hundreds of years (remember, she was a role played by different priestesses, not just a single person) and people from around the world came to see her, there are many records of her prophecies, so we will only look at a few of the most famous. The prophecies were given while Pythia was in a trance-like state, probably as a result of gases filling the inner sanctuary of the temple she prophesied from. Her prophecies were sometimes direct, but more often were obscure and hard to interpret.

Painting of a man consulting Pythia, seated on her traditional tripod
Painting of a man consulting Pythia

Solon of Athens - 594 BCE

In the year 594 BCE, an Athenian lawmaker named Solon came to visit Pythia because he wanted to take over the island of Salamis, which was off the coast of southern mainland Greece. He asked Pythia for advice on how to do this best and actually got a straight answer. She told him, ''First sacrifice to the warriors who once had their home in this island, whom now the rolling plains of the fair Asopia covers, laid in the tombs of heroes with their faces turned to the sunset.'' While this statement may not seem direct in our 21st century context, Solon would have recognized what he had to do. He followed the advice, sacrificing to dead ancient warriors of the island, and captured Salamis.

Croesus of Lydia - 560 BCE

King Croesus was not so lucky. During Croesus' day, the Persian empire was gaining strength and Croesus wanted to attack the Persians. He sought the advice of Pythia, like many leaders did at the time before embarking on a military conquest. Pythia told him, ''After crossing the Halys, Croesus will destroy a great empire.'' Croesus took this as the motivation he needed to attack. This prophecy of Pythia's was not as direct as the one given to Solon, however. While this could easily be interpreted, at first glance, as Croesus conquering the Persians, there are other possibilities because the ''great empire'' is not named. In fact, when Croesus crossed the Halys River to attack the Persians, his Lydian empire was defeated—so Croesus destroyed a great empire that day: his own.

Spartans and Athenians - 480 BCE

By the 5th century BCE, the Persians, under Xerxes I, had gained a lot of power in the ancient world and were a force to be reckoned with. The Greeks, recognizing this, sought Pythia's help in fighting back against the Persians. Pythia told the Spartans, ''Hear your fate,'' and gave a bleak prospect that they would be wiped out in one of two ways. The prophecy held true, and they were defeated at the Battle of Thermopylae.

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