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Apollo squinted in the bright sunlight and calmly tensed his muscles as he pulled his bow. He released his arrows one after the other until Python’s blood was spilled and his life escaped in the thin air. Python-dragon,the faithful guardian of Ge’s sacred ground, had guarded the hill for hundreds of years until his encounter with “far-reaching” Apollo. The new god despite his serene nature, or perhaps because of it, was triumphant in the epic battle, and with his victory he gained the right to call the rolling slopes of Delphi his sanctuary.
Oracle at Delphi
Delphi was inhabited since Mycenaean times (14th – 11th c. B.C.) by small settlements who were dedicated to the Mother Earth deity. The worship of Apollo as the god of light, harmony, and order was established between the 11th and 9th centuries. Slowly over the next five centuries the sanctuary grew in size and importance. During the 8th c. B.C. Delphi became internationally known for the Oracular powers of Pythia–the priestess who sat on a tripod, inhaled ethylene gasses, and muttered incomprehensible words that foretold the future.
The ancient people of the Mediterranean had such faith in Pythia’s view of the future that no major decision was made without consulting the Oracle of Delphi first. Greek and foreign dignitaries, heads of state, and common folk made the pilgrimage to the Delphi sanctuary, and paid great sums for Pythia’s oracles. Since the sanctuary only served the public a few days over nine months out of the year, great sums were paid by the more affluent ones in order to bypass the long line of pilgrims.
Plutarch served as a priest at Delphi, and in his histories he has left many details about the inner workings of the sanctuary. Pythia entered the inner chamber of the temple (“Adyton”), sat on a tripod and inhaled the light hydrocarbon gasses that escaped from a chasm on the porous earth. After falling into a trance, she muttered words incomprehensible to mere mortals. The priests of the sanctuary then interpreted her oracles in a common language and delivered them to those who had requested them. Even so, the oracles were always open to interpretation and often signified dual and opposing meanings.
“You will go you will return not in the battle you will perish” was an example of this duality of meaning. The above sentence can be interpreted two different ways depending where the comma can be placed. If a comma is placed after the word “not” the message is discouraging for him who is about to depart for war. If on the other hand the comma is placed before the word “not”, then the warrior is to return alive.
Such was the importance of the Oracle at Delphi that the ancients believed it to be the center (“Omphalos”) of the world. The oracle advised the great Persian Kings of the time, and when the Persians were poised to sack Athens, Themistokles turned the advice of the Oracle to a winning strategy that led to the Greeks’ victory in the naval battle of Salamina. The Oracle had simply advised that “wooden walls” would aid to victory, and Themistokles interpreted walls to mean the wooden ships of the Athenian fleet.
To commemorate the triumph of Apollo over Python the sanctuary organized the Pythian Games every four years which were athletic events much like the Olympics. In the 20th century Angelos Sikelianos organized a modern version of the Delphic games.
From the 7th c. B.C. and at least until the 4th c., the sanctuary of Delphi was part of the Amphictyonia. The Amphictyonia alliance protected the site from many invaders, and above all it prevented the Phocians who lived in the surrounding land from controlling it. In 356 B.C. the Phocians allied with the Athenians and the Spartans captured the sanctuary of Delphi, and in desperate need to finance their war they stripped the temples from the precious offerings. They held control of the grounds only for a short time until king Philip of Macedon liberated the sanctuary.
In 339 B.C. Philip interfered once again against the Amphictyonic alliance when the Krissans trespassed on Apollo’s sacred grounds. Philip punished the Krissans, and consequently in 338 c. B.C. defeated the combined armies of the Athenians and the Spartans, thus becoming the dominant force in Greek affairs.
The sanctuary of Delphi fell into Roman hands in 191 B.C, and was stripped of its treasures by General Sylla in 86 B.C. in order to finance his siege of Athens, and three years later Delphi was razed by the Thracian Maedi who -legend has it- extinguished the sacred fire which had been burning uninterrupted for centuries.
Despite some building revivals by the Romans, the Oracle of Delphi lost its influence over the next few centuries, and its spiritual fire was gradually extinguished as Apollo’s worship was replaced by a new religion imported from the East: Christianity.