Delphi were not chosen randomly in antiquity for the construction of the temple and the oracle of Apollo, neither for their attribute as “navel of the earth”. The location has an amazing dynamic cretated by the strong energy flow, the naturally fortified spot with a unique view to the gulf og Itea along with the rich vegetation, sources which sprang from the rocks and a strategic location on the mountainous routes which connected eastern and western Mainland Greece.
It is possible that in this region existed a sanctuary dedicated to Gaea (Earth), due to the gaps on the ground, from where gas were released; when one came in contact with this gas one fell in trance. According to mythology, this ancient oracle was guarded by an
enormous serpent called Python. The god Apollo managed to kill the chthonic beast and then the oracle passed in his own jurisdiction. However, it is possible that this “prehistory” of the area is a later mythological
In the Iliad the oracle is already mentioned as rich ans powerful. It seems that it reached its peak at the end of the archaic and the beginning of the classical period, when the temple of Apollo was erected along with the oracle and the oracle archive it housed. In
the same period were built also most of the treasuries of the Greek cities, where ex votos were kept, precious either as artefacts or for their significance for the collective memory of the citizens (booty of battles etc). The oracle was related to two important facets of Greek history: the colonization and the Amphictyony. According to tradition, the Greek cities asked the oracle of Delphi to suggest a location for the establishment of their colonies. On the other hand, after the First Sacred War, Delphi became the sea of the Amphictyony, i.e. the confederation of Central Greece, a fact which sealed their later history. Around that time were permanently established the Pythian
Games, sacred athletic contests in honour of Pythian Apollo, which acquired a panhellenic status as well as a prestige similar to that of the Olympic games. The evolution of Delphi within the ancient world, therefore, is not accidental and thus the declaration of the present archaeological site as a World Heritage Monument was not random. The enhancement of the uniform architectural complex through systematic excavations at the end of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century, the danger it faces due to the steep inclination of the ground and the constant slandslides and particularly the importance of Delphi as an oracle, a centre of political and cultural evolution, as a panhellenic sanctuary and a place where panhellenic games were organized made the preservation of its history and of its archaeological remains as well as of the values which emerged through it an absolute necessity.
The most important of these values are summarized in the so-called Delphic maxims, which were inscribed in the
vestibule of the temple, which developed into symbols of the Greek thought, reaching, in the Hellenistic period particularly, the extremities of the Greek world.
See also: The written sources and the variations relating to the foundation myth of the sanctuary of Delphi and The historical evolution of the Oracle
Apollo was the god who symbolized light and regeneration, the protector of the arts and the highest manifestations of the spirit.
The qualities and characteristics of Apollo
As in most other ancient religions, there are many mythological versions regarding the birth and deeds of the god. Apollo was born on the 7th day of the month Vyssios, the first month of spring. When he was still an infant, he had to kill with his bow the Python, the dragon or snake which symbolized the powers of the underworld. According to another version, he killed the dragon at Tempi or in Crete when he was older and then he exiled himself to the land of the Hyperboreans, in order to be cleansed from the murder. In Attica Apollo’s return from the Hyperboreans and the regeneration which followed it were celebrated on the 6th and 7th days of the month Thargelion; on the first day there were lamentations whereas on the second joyous paeans were sung. The relation of Apollo with the underworld and his dominant position in the eternal game of death and rebirth is symbolized by the conviction that within the tripod of Delphi had been buried the remains of the Python or, according to the Orphic philosophers, the body of Dionysus who had been dismembered by the Titans.
The most important element of the cult of Apollo, ensuing exactly from his relation with the underworld and from his dominance over it, is the art of pronouncing oracles. According to the “theology” which developed in the Delphic cult, Apollo was incarnated through Pythia and gave the oracles himself. In extension of this power he had, Apollo became the regulator of the political and social life. The fact that the first codification of legislation was taking place on the walls of Apollo’s temples is not irrelevant to that.
Another well-known attribute of Apollo was music. Both in mythology and in art Apollo plays either the guitar or the lyre. His depiction in this form is relatively early, as proved by a Boeotian statuette from Thespies. Another myth, related to music, particularly popular among artists of later periods, was that of the contest against the satyr Marsyas, who dared challenge the god by saying that the flute was superior to the lyre. Apollo was enraged as he almost lost at the contest and he punished Marsyas very harshly: he tied him to a tree and skinned him alive. In the myth of Marsyas, however, is evident one element which is essential to the cult of the god as well as to the philosophical thought which followed, namely the differentiation between the apollinian element, symbolizing light, clarity of spirit and high ideals, and of the dionysiac element, symbolizing the world of passions and ecstasy. This distinction will be adopted by later European thought, culminating in the philosophy of Nietzche.
The qualities and characteristics of Apollo
Archaeological data point to the establishment of the cult of Apollo in ca. 1000-800 B.C. The function of the site as a cult centre is archaeologically attested since 860 B.C., and it evolved throughout the 8th century B.C. Other important sanctuaries of Apollo were situated on Delos island, where the god and his sibling, Artemis, were born, in Phigaleia (temple of Apollo Epicurean), at Didyma (a city-temple close to Miletos), in Claros and in Colophon; other sanctuaries, not as well-known and yet very early (9th century), are found at Yria in Naxos and at Epidaurus. The cult of Apollo was also transferred to Rome at an early date: starting out from the sanctuary and oracle at Cymae in Asia Minor, the cult was introduced to Rome in 431 B.C., in order to protect the Romans from an epidemic. Apollo was probably the first Greek deity to have been incorporated in the Roman pantheon.
Priests, rituals and celebrations
In each of the aforementioned areas the rituals and the form of the cult, of course, differed. Yet, the god’s cult in Delphi itself is probably more interesting and important. From archaeological and epigraphic testimonies it is deduced that there were two priests (maybe three in the 1st century B.C.), appointed for life. Delphic chronology was organised on the basis of the succession of the priests. Another life-long office was that of the neokoros, whose tasks are not particularly clear, yet he might have been a kind of superintendent of the temple. We know, however, that he was present in all acts of liberation of slaves, as attested on the manumission inscriptions. Plutarch, himself a priest at Delphi for a considerable part of his life, speaks also of the Hosioi (the Sacred Ones), a council consisting of five men, head of which was the “presvys of the hosioi” (elderly). These men were present during several ceremonies, yet they must have played a role also in the administration of the assets and property of the sanctuary. Administrative roles were held also by the “protectors” and the “epimeletes” (curators), who undertook several tasks of a practical character during various celebrations.
The establishment of the Sanctuary at Delphi
The myth goes that Zeus decided to establish an oracle at the center of the world. In order to find the suitable location, he let loose two eagles, the first flying towards the East and the second towards the West. The two eagles met above Delphi indicating that this was the center of the world, the omphalos or navel of the earth (Gaia).
Geographically, Delphi is situated at the heart of central Greece. The valley of the small river Pleistos is the natural passage from eastern to western Greece. At the same time, topographical studies showed that the road starting from Kirrha, the harbour-city of the Pleistos Valley, and passing through Gravia and the area of Mt. Oeti by way of Amphissa, connected the gulf of Krissa with the Malian gulf and Thessaly since the Mycenaean period (1500-1100 BC).
Delphi was built on the remains of a Mycenaean settlement. Tradition has it that initially there was a temple dedicated to the female goddess of the Earth (Gaia), guarded by the fierce dragon Python. Apollo killed Python and founded his own sanctuary there, manning it with Cretan priests, who arrived in Kirrha, the seaport of Delphi, having followed the god who had transformed himself into a dolphin. This myth was kept alive via ritual reenactments at Delphi, in festivals such as Septeria, Delphinia, Thargelia, Theophania, and the Pythian Games, which were held to commemorate the victory of the god over Python and included musical and gymnastic competitions.
Archaeological excavations have brought to light female figurines and a ritual vessel. This evidence was seen as archaeological proof of the later literary tradition regarding the existence of a “primitive” Oracle with goddess Gaia as its first priestess. This tradition was adopted by the Delphic priesthood and propagated by the poets of the 5th century B.C. Current scholarship questions the historical validity of the myth, considering that dating the Oracle’s establishment in prehistoric times is merely in accordance with the general theogonic conception, according to which the Greek pantheon evolved from the chthonic deities into the heavenly gods.
The Pythian Games were the second most important Panhellenic games in Greece after the Olympic ones. According to tradition, after Apollo murdered Python, he established musical competitions to commemorate that event.
The beginning of the Games dates to the early 6th century B.C, although some celebrations must have existed before as well. Initially, the games took place every 9 years – the same amount of time during which Apollo was absent, in order to cleanse himself from the murder of the beast. Paeans were sung to honor the god, accompanied by the sounds of the guitar. The games took place close to Krissa and the winners received a monetary prize.
After the First Sacred War, the games were reorganized following the model of the Olympian Games and they took place every 4 years, on the third year of each Olympiad, during the month of Boukation (late August) and under the supervision of the Hieromnemones.
Preparations for the games began six months earlier. Nine citizens from Delphi, called Theoroi, were sent to all Greek cities to announce the beginning of the games in order to attract athletes, as well as to declare the Hierominia, the period of the Sacred Truce. The truce aimed at protecting not only the Theoroi and the athletes who were on the move, but also the temple of Apollo at Delphi. In case a city was involved in armed conflict or in robberies during that period, it was not only forbidden to enter the Sanctuary, but none of its citizens were allowed to participate at the games or to ask the Oracle for advice. At the same time, the truce allowed the Amphictyony to focus on preparing for the games, which included restorations for all structures of the Sanctuary, from the temples to the streets and fountains.
Equestrian and athletic competitions, carried out in nude, were introduced within the context of this reform; laurel wreaths were set as prizes made from the branches of the oldest laurel in Tempi (the sacred location of Aphrodite on Pineios river) by a ‘pais amphithales’ (Plutarch, Moralia 1136α), a boy whose parents were both alive. We do not have adequate information on the games’ program and duration. Information comes mostly from Pausanias (Phocis 7) and according to that source the Pythian Games lasted for 6-8 days, beginning from 586 B.C., and they took place at various venues within the Sacred Land of Delphi, whereas later on they were carried out at the stadium, the gymnasium, the theater, the hippodrome.
The first three days comprised the religious ceremonies. The fourth day began with the musical competition, which in the first year involved singing and playing the guitar, playing the flute and singing accompanied by the flute in a mourning sound. The latter musical form was abolished by the second Pythian Games, as it was considered that lamenting songs were not becoming of such a celebration. Later on, painting competitions were introduced in the 5th c. B.C., dance competitions were added in the 4th c. B.C. and theater competitions were added in the Roman period, along with an increase in the duration of the musical competition.
On the penultimate day began the athletic competition, with four track sports (stadium, diaulos, dolichos and running with arms), wrestling, pugilism, pancratium and, finally, the pentathlon. These sports were established gradually in the course of the years.
The same thing occurred with the sports of the final day, which was dedicated to equestrian races; the latter gradually came to include: harness racing, synoris (a chariot drawn by two horses), chariot drawn by four horses and racing with a horse (without a chariot).
Pindar, the poet of the games
Pindar was born in 522 or in 518 B.C. at Kynos Kefales, a quarter of Thebes. He mentions that his birth coincided with a celebration of the Pythian Games (Vita Ambrosiana, frgm. 193), but it is not certain whether this was the Pythia of 522 or of 518 B.C. We do not know the date of his death. From dating his last surviving poem, researchers have reached the conclusion that he died around 446 B.C. He concluded his poetical training in Thebes as well as in Athens. Due to his reputation, his house became a sightseeing spot in ancient Thebes and Arrian mentions that Alexander the Great, as a token of honor for the poet, excluded this house from the destruction with which he punished the entire city in 335 B.C. (Arrian, The Anabasis of Alexander 1.9.10).
Pindar worked on lyric poetry for choruses. The largest part of his surviving works is the Epinikia (‘celebrations of victory’). They are chorus songs sung in the homeland of the winner of the Games upon celebrating his success or even in the venue of the competition.
The Greek aristocracy of the first half of the 5th c. B.C., mostly the tyrants of Sicily and the conservative aristocracy of Aegina, were the main customers of the poet, as they considered him to be an exquisite panegyrist of the old threatened aristocratic values, particularly at a time of abrupt political change.
Praising the athletic success of the winner and his virtue, his family and his fortune is an occasion to celebrate aristocratic values. The winner’s laudation is reinforced by being intertwined with myth, which however challenges the understanding of the poem’s content and requires a well informed audience. The poet uses his work not only to speak of the victory won by his client and his family, but also to accentuate the family’s history and its connections all over Greece. In his Epinikia, Pindar includes sayings and aphorisms, often short and witty, interspersed in the poem as general remarks on the human existence, luck’s whims and, often, moralistic observations.
These 45 victorious hymns which have survived to this day mention the winners in the four most famous panhellenic athletic competitions and they are divided in four groups: celebrating victories in the Olympian, the Nemean, the Pythian and the Isthmian Games. The hymns celebrating victories in Pythian Games include 12 odes.
The Pythian games were conducted until 393/4 A.D., when they were banned by emperor Theodosius I.
Apart from the Pythian Games, the inscriptions offer information on other games taking place in Delphi, the Soteria. As attested by their names, these were games established on behalf of a salvation from certain enemies, namely none other than the Galatians, who had been defeated by the Aetolian League. The Soteria were initally celebrated annually, comprised musical, dancing and theatrical contests and the winners were offered money prizes. For several years it was the Amphictyony which was in charge of these Games, yet around 244 B.C. the Aetolians undertook the task themselves and reformed the Games. From then onwards the Games were taking place every five years, the participants contested in music, horseracing and athletic games fought in nude, whereas the prize was a laurel wreath. The Soteria probably stopped in the 1st century B.C, possibly due to the attack by Sulla in 86, which also caused the Pythian Games to stop for a while.
It seems that in the late 3d century and definitely from the 2nd century onwards the Amphictyons were willing to accept the establishment of new games, provided that those who suggested it could also finance the games. Thus, we know that games were taking place in honour of the Pergamene kings, namely the Attaleia and Eumeneia, which were however funded by the kings themselves. Even a rich citizen of Kalydon in Aetolia, Alkissipos, managed to get his own annual celebration established, namely the Alkessippeia, by donating a large sum of gold and silver around 182/1 B.C.; although this celebration did not include games, it seems that it comprised a ritual procession, a sacrifice and a public meal.
Apart from the standard Games and celebrations, there were also extraordinary ones, which were organized on the occasion of special events. This was the case of the Athenian Pythaids, on which the inscriptions of the Treasury of the Athenians are so eloquent. We know of four Pythaids which took place in the period 138-98 B.C. All four of them included a ritual procession from Athens to Delphi, headed by prominent citizens; they also included sacrifices and rituals and, finally, horse races and musical contests. The inscriptions with the hymns of Apollo which have been preserved on the southern wall of the Treasury of the Athenians were carved exactly on the occasion of these Pythaids.
The Delphic landscape
The archaeological site of Delphi and its region, surrounded by the mountains of Parnassus, Giona and Kirphe, and stretching mainly among the settlements of Amphissa, Arachova, Delphi, Itea, Kirra, Agios Georgios, Agios Konstantinos and Sernikaki, constitutes a landscape of exquisite beauty, outstanding world-wide historical value and artistic importance. No wonder that Delphi has been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Besides the actual monuments of the archaeological site of Delphi, the region comprises a number of monuments and sites, dating from the Prehistoric to the Modern period; all of them stand out for their archaeological, historical aesthetic and social value which, along with the surrounding rural and forest regions, the so-called Delphic Landscape, constitute a testimony to the history of the region. Together they have contributed greatly to the formation of an educational and spiritual center which represents eternal human values.
For the protection of this region, which was considered “sacred land” in antiquity and was offered to the god Apollo, the Greek State has designated zones of protection. These zones aim at maintaining “the unique value of the monument which is born of the harmony among the ruins of the sanctuary and the unscathed environment (…). One has to let one’s gaze wander from the silvery sea of the olive trees to the valley of Pleistos and to the sparkling sea of the Gulf of Itea, in order to realize that the role of Delphi was to unite islanders and landlubbers in joint rituals”, to quote the report of ICOMOS for the enlisting of Delphi in the World Heritage List.
Geomorphology of Delphi
Delphi is built at the feet of the imposing Phaedriades, two enormous cliffs which form part of the south side of Mt. Parnassus. They command a narrow plateau, which formed –possibly – the only passageway leading from Attica and Boeotia to the heart of Phocis and Western Greece. Fossil examination has proved that the rocks belong to the Jurassic and the Cretaceous period. The softer soils are mostly limestone and schist. The schist plaques present faults, as is evident on the spot where the temple of Apollo was built. This resulted in making them vulnerable to earthquakes as well as to corrosion of the earth. Although they were erected on a mountainous and rocky area, the buildings of Delphi suffered damage from earthquakes several times in their long history and were often almost entirely destroyed. Corrosion of the ground, on the other hand, as well as land-sliding of the plaques cause rock-falls, such as the one which destroyed the first poros stone temple at Marmaria. Finally, the constant sliding of the earth under the ancient monuments, particularly in steep areas, like the one on which the ancient theatre of Delphi is built, presents a major threat.