A Taste Of Greek Mythology: Apollo, The Oracle And A Journey To The Centre Of The World.

The sun shone like a spotlight high in the sky, beaming down as I started the trek. As I made my way along the sacred path, on either side was evidence of a once-thriving civilisation. Treasuries, altars and monuments (many well-preserved) gave a glimpse into how grand the site must have been.

The stadium drew nearer, and I stopped to look down at the theatre and other monuments spread out below. It struck me that I was walking in the footsteps of thousands. Kings and pilgrims alike who had taken this same route so many centuries ago. I sighed then smiled because I was in Delphi, once considered the centre of the world.

A God marks the spot

In Greek Mythology, the story of Delphi starts with Zeus and his desire to find the centre of Gaia (Mother Earth). He sent out two eagles, one to the east, the other to the west and marked the place where the two paths crossed with a sacred stone called the omphalos  (navel of the Earth). From then on the ancient Greeks considered Delphi the centre of the world.

The sacred omphalos that Zeus used to mark the spot.

Apollo takes over

Greek mythology tells us that Apollo killed Python, Gaia’s serpent child and took ownership of the oracle. In the late 8th century B.C., priests from Crete brought the cult of Apollo and began to develop the sanctuary to the god. Yet Delphi is most well-known for being home to one of the most important figures in Greek mythology, the Oracle. Pythia, the high priestess at the Temple of Apollo was believed to speak on behalf of Apollo and was able to predict the future. She was consulted by kings and other leaders for her thoughts on key decisions and is mentioned in many myths and legends.

Delphi became a destination for pilgrims from all over the world but declined with the rise of Christianity. The site was re-discovered in the 19th century, and excavation began in 1892.

 

Visiting Delphi today

Athena Pronaia

Spread out between two imposing rocks of Mount Parnassus called the Phaidriades (Shining) Rocks, the first structure you will see when approaching Delphi is the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia (Athena who is before the temple (of Apollo)). Athena Pronaia was the gateway to Delphi and dedicated to the Goddess Athena whose duty it was to protect the sacred precinct of her half-brother Apollo.

The sanctuary of Athena Pronaia.

The most characteristic monument of the sanctuary is the Tholos, a circular building with a conical roof. It is  supported by a ring of Doric columns on its outer perimeter and Corinthian-style columns on the inside.

The tholos (circular temple).

The Sacred Way

Across the road and past the visitor centre you are on the Sacred Way, a path leading to the sanctuary of Apollo. 

Votive monuments including Spartan and Arcadian.

Along the way you will see altars, treasuries, monuments and other buildings including the altar to the kings of Argos and the remains of the Siphnian and Sikyonian treasuries.

Altar to the kings of Argos – built by the city-state of Argos to house the statues of its kings.
The treasury of the Sikyonians and above it the treasury of the Siphnians housed precious votives from their respective cities.

Go round a large bend called the ‘Crossroads of the treasuries’ to get to the most well-preserved of them all, the Athenian Treasury.

The Athenian Treasury constructed by the Athenians to house dedications and offerings from the city to the sanctuary of Apollo.

Constructed of highly prized Parian marble from the Greek island of Paros, it sits directly below the Temple of Apollo as does the Stoa of the Athenians built around 478 to 470BC.

Stoa of the Athenians, an ancient portico located south of the Temple of Apollo.

The Temple of Apollo (God of music, harmony and light)

The central and most important part of Delphi was the temple of Apollo, where the Pythia delivered her prophesies in the adyton, a a small room at the farthest end  from the entrance of the temple. This location was selected because of a sacred chasm beneath the site that emitted vapours which the Pythia inhaled.

The pythia were priestesses of Apollo and served as the oracles at the temple. They were considered mystical spouses of the god and delivered his prophesies in the sacred temple.

A group of Doric columns on the Temple of Apollo.
Altar of Apollo

Close to the temple are other monuments like the pillar of Prusias, built in honour of the king of Bithynia.

The Pillar of Prusias used to carry a statue of Prusias the king of Bithynia (now in northern Turkey).

Beyond the Sacred Way

Further up the hill from the temple is the Theatre of Delphi which gives an all-encompassing view of the sanctuary and valley beyond. The theatre can accommodate approximately 4500 spectators and in recent times hosted theatrical performances during the Delphic Festivals. 

Theater of Delphi.

At the very top of the trail you finally arrive at the ancient stadium. Built in 5B.C., its track is about 550 feet long and its stone seats could accommodate over six thousand spectators. The stadium was primarily used for athletic contests during the Pythian and Panhellenic games. 

The stadium of Delphi.

The museum

The Delphi Archaeological Museum on site is a must-visit too as it holds many artifacts from the excavations at Delphi. The Charioteer of Delphi, an example of ancient bronze sculpture found in 1896, the Sphinx of Naxos, a 2.2m tall marble statue, the South Caryatid of the Siphnian treasury and a theatre frieze depicting scenes from the Labours of Heracles are just a few wonderful examples of what’s on display.

The Charioteer.
The Naxian Sphinx.
South Caryatid of the Siphnian Treasury.
Theatre frieze depicting scenes from the Labours of Heracles.

Final thoughts

Delphi was  undoubtedly the highlight of my trip to Greece, a truly unforgettable place. We know that the first stone temples to Apollo were built towards the end of the 7th century B.C. but its history stretches even further back. A number of Mycenaean figures dating back to 1600-1100BC were discovered and evidence of rituals were found in a cave on Mount Parnassus dating back even further to the Neolithic Period (4000 B.C.) There is so much left to explore and learn. What secrets will Delphi reveal next?

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