The Oracle and Pythian Games of Ancient Delphi

Excavations of the Sanctuary of Apollo and other regional structures started around 1900. An increasing amount of information was learned throughout the years, especially during the late 1990s. In 1987, Delphi was deemed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In this article, you will learn some of the history of this ancient site in Greece.

A Visit to the Oracle

Only the Pythia could enter the small chamber in the Temple of Apollo that supported the famous oracles of Delphi. This is the name given to a priestess who transferred the words of Apollo (who was the god of prophecy) to those that came to ask questions. The Pythia was typically a middle-aged peasant woman, who was specially selected and trained to take on this duty. Before giving oracles, she was expected to practice sexual abstinence and fasted.

Questions were written on a tablet and passed on to the Oracle. There are still some examples of these tablets in existence. When delivering oracles, it is believed that the Pythia entered a mild trance state. When speaking for Apollo, the priestess spoke in a different voice and often chanted her responses, which were written down and sealed by a priest. The answers were then given to the inquirer. Unfortunately, no copies of Oracle answers have been found to this day. The Oracle was not available on a 24-hour, every day basis. They answered questions only on certain days and when specific circumstances presented themselves.

Plutarch wrote about an incident that took the life of one of the Pythia. Delphi temple authorities forced the Pythia to prophesy what was considered an unlucky day just to please members of a significant embassy. She went into the chamber against her will and was taken over by a strong, malevolent spirit. Her body became possessed and started to groan and shriek instead of delivering the charms typical of Apollo’s prophecies. She violently threw herself to the ground and eventually came running out of the doors. The Pythia collapsed, which prompted the priests and others to flee. They came back later and picked her body up, where she died a couple of days later.

The Pythian Games

Besides being home to the Oracle, the city of Delphi also held the Pythian Games , one four Panhellenic games held in ancient Greece. Competitors from all over Greece would come to display their skills, talent and strength. Held in honor of Apollo, the games were tradition since the 6th century BC. In the beginning, the games were a platform to exhibit poetry and musical talents , like the god Apollo. However, an expansion of competitions would also include athletic contests, such as the chariot race held in the stadium that is still visible at Delphi.

Winners of the Pythian Games were crowned with a laurel wreath from the city of Tempe in Thessaly. It was said that Apollo picked a laurel while on his way to Delphi. In 6th century BC, the Pythian Games experienced change as the political influence of the city increased. The structure of the Games was reorganized and the city enjoyed a golden age period that lasted until the Romans arrived in 191 BC.