The Pythia – Priestess of Ancient Delphi

The Pythia – Priestess of Ancient Delphi


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The imposing archaeological site of Delphi sits over 1800 feet up on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus, about 6 miles inland from the Corinthian Gulf, central Greece. The ancient temple complex of Delphi, which dates back at least 2700 years, was known throughout ancient Greece and beyond as the home of the celebrated oracle of Apollo, the Greek god of prophecy, music, healing, and light.

One aspect of the ancient Oracle at Delphi which has fascinated scholars, scientists and laymen alike, is the nature and cause of the trance state attained by the sanctuary's priestess (or Pythia). Could it have been caused by the laurel leaves which the priestess is supposed to have chewed? The waters of the nearby Castalian Spring? Or the vapours rising up from an underground cavern?

It is widely known that laurel leaves are not hallucinogenic, and until recently it was thought that the Pythia's supposed frenzied state could not have been induced by toxic gases rising from cracks in the ground because excavations had found no traces of such fissures.

However, in 2001 CE an interdisciplinary research team of scientists, led by geologist Jelle Z. de Boer of Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, discovered evidence of the presence of ethylene, a potential hallucinogen, in the ancient temple's local geology and nearby springs. Thus the team have argued that ethylene intoxication was probably the cause of the Pythia's divinatory trances. Whilst this new research presents fascinating possibilities for the origin of the Pythia's trance state it also leaves a few questions unanswered.

The first is that if the enquirer and the priestess were face to face at ancient Delphi, as some researchers have suggested, then why was it only the priestess who was affected by these toxic gases? Another point is that the quest to find what exactly put the priestess of Apollo at Delphi into a trance ignores the fact that her altered state may well have been self-induced, perhaps to give the impression of objectivity when answering enquiries.

Another idea associated with the Pythia's supposed toxic high is the misconception that the Pythia rambled incoherent gibberish when in her trance, which had to be interpreted and reshaped into prophecies by the priests. In his book The Delphic Oracle, Its Responses and Operations, with a Catalogue of Responses (1981) American classical scholar Joseph Fontenrose (1903-1986 CE) challenged this notion.

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Examining ancient sources and separating literary artifice from the Pythia's genuine responses to enquiries, Fontenrose found that these answers were made in clear and precise prose, and the priestess herself was represented in these texts as speaking lucidly and in her own voice. Indeed, as Ruth Padel has noted, Apollo-induced possession was the literary norm in Classical Greece.

The most relevant example being Cassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba of Troy, who, like the Pythia, is described as being 'possessed' by Apollo, while she uttered her oracles in a kind of frenzy. The only difference was that Cassandra's prophecies were destined never to be believed. Perhaps then, the only influence on the Pythia's state was the affect of the pneuma (the 'soul' or 'vital spirit', often associated in antiquity with a vapor), not as a toxic gas, but as the divine wisdom or breath of Apollo.


Hidden women of history: the priestess Pythia at the Delphic Oracle, who spoke truth to power

Julia Kindt is a professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney.

An Attic red-figure kylix from Vulci (Italy), 440-430 BC, depicting King Aigeus in front of the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi. Wikimedia Commons

In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.

In a time and place that offered few career opportunities for women, the job of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi stands out. Her position was at the centre of one of the most powerful religious institutions of the ancient world. The competing Greek city states had few overarching authorities (political or otherwise), so the significance of her voice should not be underestimated.

Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the Pythia was at the core what we today call a &ldquoknowledge economy&rdquo. Her role may well have involved the gathering, re-packaging, and distribution of information, with the ultimate intent of providing sound advice on the trivial and not-so-trivial questions of life in the ancient world.

Jacek Malczewski Pytia, 1917. Wikimedia Commons

The &ldquoPythia&rdquo is the official job title. We know of several women by name who, during the long history of this institution (from ca. 800 BCE to AD 390/91), held that role, including Phemonoe and Aristonike. Indeed, at some stage Delphi became so busy that three Pythias were appointed to serve in the role simultaneously.

The oracle was consulted by the movers and shakers of the ancient world on a diverse range of problems. For the Pythia, this meant the opportunity to comment on a variety of issues of public and individual concern: cult matters, warfare, the relationships between existing city-states, and the foundation of new ones.

Numerous personal questions were also put to the oracle on matters of lovesickness, career advice, child birth, and how to get offspring. So, by all standards, this job was demanding yet also diverse and rewarding &mdash a position powerful enough to change the course of history.

Yet right from the beginning, efforts to deprive the priestess of her power prevailed, particularly in older classical scholarship. Surely a woman, especially one in such a paternalistic society as ancient Greece, could not hold that powerful a position?

Some scholars suggested that the Pythia actually babbled unintelligible gibberish and that her words were later put into beautiful, deep, and meaningful hexameter verse &mdash by male priests.

Yet in our ancient sources there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it was anyone other than the Pythia herself who came up with the responses. To the contrary: she is regularly named as the one and only source of the prophecies delivered at Delphi. There is no word of male priests, beyond those in purely administrative and assisting roles.


The Pythia, Ancient Priestess of Delphi

The Pythia was the name of the Oracular Priestess at Delphi in the Temple of Apollo. The Pythia was widely respected for her prophecies. She was said to be the most prestigious oracle in the ancient Greek world. The Oracle at Delphi was thought to begin around 800 BCE, and officially ended around 393 CE. When the oracle would perform her prophetic rituals, she would enter the inner chamber of the temple, known as adyton, and sit on a tripod like chair, while holding laurel leaves. Nearby her was the opening in the earth or omphalos which translates to mean navel in Greek. This is where the sacred vapors came from that put the Priestess into a trance like state.

When a person came for a prophecy, they would make a sacrifice, and present a question to a male Priest. The Priest would then go and consult the Oracle. After she gave her prophecy, the Priest would interpret it for the person who was seeking it. It is said that the life of a Pythia was exhaustive and that many died young. The cause of this was most likely the fact that they were inhaling poisonous vapors.

To become the Priestess of Delphi, there were certain things required of the woman chosen. She would have had to have led a life of purity, and been a person of good character. If you were chosen to be the Pythia, you had to sever all ties with your family, friends etc. The Pythia could have been from an aristocratic family, or she could have been a peasant. According to archaeologist John Hale, The Priestesses of Delphi were chosen based more on their ability than their social stature. Being the Pythia also meant that you were privy to many liberties. Like free housing and freedom from taxation, also a salary and an ability to own land. They were highly regarded in Greek society.

The Pythia only gave prophecies during the nine warmest months of the year. During the winter months Apollo was said to leave his temple and return in the Spring. A month after he returned, the Priestess of Delphi would undergo purification rites which included fasting, ritual bathing and drinking holy water from nearby springs. This was all done to prepare the Oracle for communication with the Divine.

Being the Oracle at Delphi was a highly honored position. She played a very important role in Greek society, so much so that virtually no major decision was made without consulting the Pythia first.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the ancient Priestess of Delphi!

Writer, artist, researcher and student of the ancient mysteries. Finding the path of the Goddess has brought me to my way in life. All of my inspiration comes from Her mysteries, and the cultures in which She was worshiped. I'm currently working on becoming an independent scholar in the field of Neolithic and ancient cultures, mostly as they pertain to the Goddess. As well as working to be come an author to teach other women of Her mysteries, because all women need the power of the Goddess. I hope you enjoy my writings!


Who was the Pythia?

Pythia was the name given to any priestess throughout the history of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The priestess was a woman over 50 years of age who lived apart from her husband and dressed in maiden’s clothes. According to Plutarch, who once served as a priest at Delphi, the Pythia first enters the inner chamber of the temple ( Adyton). Then, she sits on a tripod and inhales the light hydrocarbon gasses that escape from a chasm on the porous earth.

This phenomenon has been studied by modern geologists. As Ashley Cowie reports for Ancient Origins:

“In 2001, geologist Jelle Z. de Boer blamed “ethylene escaping from an intersection of faults beneath the temple” as the gaseous culprit of the Oracle’s visions, but then in 2006, professor Giuseppe Etiope of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome announced that “a simple cocktail of carbon dioxide mixed with methane could have induced the psychic trances that the Pythia used to channel the gods.” Etiope believed it was possible that the “toxicity problems [were] due just to a deficit of oxygen in the Temple room, where air ventilation was weak and the gas release from the soil was strong.””

Furthermore, Etiope and his team found methane in spring waters around Delphi. He told LiveScience in 2006 “This environment is prone to methane formation. the only plausible explanation is that in the past there was a bigger methane emission (with a small amount of carbon dioxide).” The “sweet odor” the Pythia was said to have inhaled, “may have come from traces of benzene, another toxic hydrocarbon found in the area,” said Etiope.

Nonetheless, scientist de Boer disputes Etiope’s claim, saying, “Benzene is a dangerous substance and after a number of sessions the Pythias would have become sick and possibly died.” And, “Frequent deaths of Pythias have not been reported by any of the classical writers. On the contrary, they seem to have lived a long and healthy life.”

After falling into a trance, the Pythia muttered words that were said to be incomprehensible to mere mortals. These words are then interpreted by the priests of the sanctuary in a common language and delivered to those who had requested them. Nevertheless, the prophecies were always open to interpretation and often signified dual and opposing meanings. This can clearly be seen in the case of Croesus. There are many other instances where the prophecies of the Pythia were ambiguous.


The Delphic Oracle I: The Pythia

The Oracle has encouraged me to channel about their presence at Delphi in Ancient Greece. I will provide through them a brief overview of five elements of Delphi, from a metaphysical perspective. The first element we shall explore together is the High Priestess of Delphi, known as the Pythia.

The Priestess of Delphi (1891) by John Collier

We The Oracle are most recognized by humanity for our presence at Delphi in Ancient Greece. In truth, we had a vast presence in antiquity, including Egypt. It is our desire to focus our attention on Delphi, the purpose of expanding your consciousness, as you begin to remember. It is our observation that the human colllective at this point in the time-space continuum has mostly forgotten about the mystical and sacred energies that bound you together centuries ago. The loose threads of the tapestry of All That Is will be rewoven by your remembrance of these energies during this time of Awakening.

We begin with our beloved daughters, the high priestesses of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi known as the Pythia. This female lineage served as oracles, agents of divine communication. Many sought the Pythia’s council, to receive her authoritative pronouncements which were used to make decisions of great importance, as well as ones of a more mundane nature. These pronouncements were revered as prophecies, and followed accordingly.

Originally, the place known as Delphi was called Pytho, and derives from the verb púthein which means “to rot” and references the great monster Python who was slain by Apollo and decomposed in the bright rays of Helios, the Sun god. Python was the earth-dragon child of Gaia, and guarded a stone known as the “omphalos” or “navel” which represented the center of the earth, which Ancient Greeks believed to be located there.

Here we pause to consider the metaphysical connection between the Divine Feminine and the Python. Those of you who were brought up in a Judeo-Christian religion will instantly recognize a parallel mythology, Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It was she who was “deceived” by the serpent to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, causing her and Adam to be exiled from Eden. It was written and accepted that Eve betrayed Adam through her naive belief in the cunning serpent’s counsel. This fear-based allegory diminishes the connection between the woman and the serpent. We look to our sister Isis who created a snake that bit Ra, the Egyptian Sun God who was the King and the Creator. Ra fell ill from the venom, and Isis offered to cure him on the condition that he reveal his true name, the knowledge of which carried great power. Ra eventually relented and gave his true name to her. Isis is considered to be “more clever than a million gods” and it is here that we pause again to reaffirm that which you have learned, that there is no wrong anywhere in the Universe. Cunning is judged by your society to be a negative trait. Because you live in duality in your physical incarnation, it is also true that cunning is a positive trait. It is the ability to be shrewd, to use one’s wit. It enables one to be wily and resourceful. It is a means of personal empowerment in adverse situations that cannot be surmounted by a display of brute strength. As a final note regarding the Divine Feminine and the Python, there is always a spectrum of Truth regarding mythology. The sacred archetypes manifest themselves in different ways in these myths and legends, and this is not by accident. Every sentient being, including the Gods and Goddesses, including You, are multidimensional.

Returning to the Pythia, she experienced what the Ancient Greeks called “enthusiasmos” which means “possessed by a god’s essence” (in this case, Apollo). As the Oracle of Delphi, she was considered the most prestigious and authoritative among all of the oracles. The process of enthusiasmos involved the Pythia being exposed to vapors rising from a chasm in a special chamber, where she sat atop a gilded tripod. Some of your scholars maintain that the vapors came from the burning of laurel leaves, while others cite scientific evidence of natural gas containing carbon dioxide and methane that was released by the soil, combined with the waters of a natural spring, into the subterranean chamber which had no ventilation. From our perspective, it matters not which method was used to put the Pythia into her trance state. We focus our attention on what was “necessary” at the time to compel the native population to seek the Delphic Oracle’s counsel. At that point in humanity’s development, superstitious belief was very intense, and “enthusiasmos” without the use of vapors would not have been as effective. We respect those among you who, even in “modern” times, have a strong desire for hallucinogens to connect psychically to higher energies and expand in consciousness. And while this may speed up the process, if you will, it is entirely possible to trance channel without them. Since you have graduated from blind superstition to a more rational state of being, you possess the inherent ability to connect directly to Source Consciousness.

The Pythia role embraced all physical aspects of the feminine. She was originally a young, well-educated virgin from an influential family. Later in the timeline, a woman past the age of fifty was selected, and it was not always the case that she was educated. It was her aptitude for channeling Apollo, not her inherent status, which made her a candidate to become the Pythia following the death of the previous one. In other words, it was her psychic gift that allowed her to ascend to this powerful role within her society.

The Delphic Oracle was open only on the seventh day of the nine warmest months of the year. Petitioners would draw lots to determine the order of admission into the temple, but city-state representatives or those who brought larger donations were secured a place in line. It is easy to imagine the great clamor among those who visited The Oracle. The rare opportunity gave the Pythia an air of mystique, yet another Divine Feminine trait.

The high priestesses of Delphi accessed higher dimensions from which profound truths resonated. She was a vital conduit, a bridge between the higher and lower dimensions. Her proclamations were greater than that of any leader, even great emperors. Her channeling of higher truth was powerful, because she was inherently empowered.

In a future communication, we shall provide an example of The Delphic Oracle’s prophetic verse, and connect it to the importance of superseding superstition as one expands in consciousness and true empowerment. Before that, we shall examine other aspects of The Oracle in antiquity.


The job and its challenges

Being a Pythia was not always easy. Several ancient enquirers sought to influence the kind of answer they hoped to get from the oracle. Subtle manipulation in how the questions were put, not-so-subtle bribery, and even an attempt to force the oracle to deliver responses on a non-auspicious day are all on record – as are complaints about unfathomable responses.

For instance the Greek historian, philosopher, soldier, and horse whisperer Xenophon allegedly enquired at Delphi to which deity he should sacrifice and pray so that the military expedition he was about to join would be a success. He was later reprimanded by the philosopher Socrates for having posed a manipulative question. Socrates felt he should have asked whether it would be a success, rather than how.

Cleisthenes was said to have bribed the Pythia to deliver the same response to all Spartan requests at the oracle, no matter the question: to free Athens from the rule of tyrants.

And after a series of spectacular mishaps based on misread oracles, the Lydian king Croesus complained at the Delphic Oracle about having been misled. The Pythia responded that he himself was to blame for his misfortune: He should have interpreted the Pythia’s word correctly.

We also know of several instances in which the Pythia refused outright to respond to a question that, in one way or another, seemed unreasonable.


The Story Behind the Painting: "The Priestess of Delphi" by Hon. John Collier

When Greece played host to the Summer Olympic Games in 2004, much of the world's attention became focused on that ancient nation and its rich history, mythology, legends and architecture. These characteristics are embodied in a famous site dating back to the 13th century BC, known as the Oracle at Delphi, or the Delphic Oracle, in the town of Delphi located in central Greece at Mount Parnassus. "The oracle of Delphi functioned in a specific place, the adyton, or "no entry" area of the temple's core, and through a specific person, the Pythia, who was chosen to speak, as a possessed medium, for Apollo, the god of prophecy." 1 The temple was constructed over an area of rock in which there were fissures and cracks leading from a deep cavern the fissures allowed vapors of gases contained in an underground stream to seep up through the rock. The Pythia - an initiated female priestess who had undergone extensive training and conditioning that included fasting - would sit in the adyton, breathe the vapors to induce a trancelike state, and prophesize to those who waited to hear her words outside. The prophecies were obscure and cryptic - in fact, one synonym for the word "cryptic" is "Delphic" - and open to very wide interpretation. The gases were "sweet and perfume-y" according to Plutarch - a known statesman and historian, and one of the two Priests of Delphi - and they did not affect the uninitiated in the same way that they would the priestess. Plutarch also noted that the gases were beginning to lessen and dissipate even during his time (in the first century BC.) The Oracle fell out of use in the 4th century AD with the onset of Roman Christianity, and until very recent times the existence of the gases and even the underground spring was in doubt modern science has revealed that the legend could have indeed been fact. In the painting, "Priestess of Delphi" by The Honorable John Collier, a priestess - the Pythia - is depicted in a trance state, seated over a fissure in the rock through which vapors rise from the underground stream. In her left hand is a sprig of laurel - in Greek mythology, Apollo's sacred tree - and in the other hand a bowl meant to hold some of the water from the stream containing the gases. British artist and writer John Maler Collier (1850-1934) was born in London and painted in the Classicist and Pre-Raphaelite styles. He studied under Sir Edward Poynter in Paris and was influenced by the work of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Sir John Everett Millais. During his lifetime he was named an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) - granting him the title "Honorable" - and was one of the 24 founding members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters established in 1891.


Pythia Often Provided Ambiguous Messages

For instance, according to Herodotus, one of the Pythias told the Athenians during the Persian invasion of 480 BC was “Far-seeing Zeus gives you, Tritogeneia (Athena) a wall of wood, / Only this will stand intact and help you and your children .” (Herodotus, The Histories , 7.141). While some Athenians interpreted this literally and concluded that the prophecy referred to the survival of the Athenian Acropolis (it was surrounded by a protective stockade in times past), other regarded the “wall of wood” as ships.

However, the latter interpretation failed to make sense of the last two lines of the prophecy, “Blessed Salamis, you will be the death of mothers’ sons / Either when the seed is scattered or when it is gathered in.” According to the official interpretation, if the Athenians were to engage the Persians in a naval battle, they were destined to lose.

Despite this seemingly inauspicious omen, an Athenian commander called Themistocles decided to challenge the oracle by arguing that if the Athenians were doomed, the tone of the oracle would have been harsher. The Athenians were convinced, perhaps not by Themistocles’ interpretation, but by the fact that it would be better to fight the Persians, rather than not do anything, as seemingly suggested by the Pythia. As you may have guessed, the Athenians gained a decisive victory over the Persians and that was a turning point of the second Persian invasion of Greece.

‘Battle of Salamis’ (1868) by Wilhelm von Kaulbach. ( Public Domain )

So, the next time you’re tempted to believe in prophecies, remember the story of Croesus, and the Athenian ‘wall of wood.’ In the latter, the misinterpretation of a prophecy caused Croesus’ downfall, and demonstrates the challenges involved in interpreting prophetic statements. In the latter, by defying the prophecy of the Oracle and taking their fate into their own hands, the Greeks were able to turn the tide against the Persians, and saved themselves from destruction.

Top Image: Depiction of the high priestess of Delphi, Pythia - ‘The Oracle’ (1880) by Camillo Miola. Source: Public Domain


Hidden Women of History: The Priestess Pythia at the Delphic Oracle, Who Spoke Truth to Power

In a time and place that offered few career opportunities for women, the job of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi stands out. Her position was at the centre of one of the most powerful religious institutions of the ancient world. The competing Greek city states had few overarching authorities (political or otherwise), so the significance of her voice should not be underestimated.

Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the Pythia was at the core what we today call a “knowledge economy”. Her role may well have involved the gathering, re-packaging, and distribution of information, with the ultimate intent of providing sound advice on the trivial and not-so-trivial questions of life in the ancient world.

The “Pythia” is the official job title. We know of several women by name who, during the long history of this institution (from ca. 800 BCE to AD 390/91), held that role, including Phemonoe and Aristonike. Indeed, at some stage Delphi became so busy that three Pythias were appointed to serve in the role simultaneously.

The oracle was consulted by the movers and shakers of the ancient world on a diverse range of problems. For the Pythia, this meant the opportunity to comment on a variety of issues of public and individual concern: cult matters, warfare, the relationships between existing city-states, and the foundation of new ones.

Numerous personal questions were also put to the oracle on matters of lovesickness, career advice, child birth, and how to get offspring. So, by all standards, this job was demanding yet also diverse and rewarding — a position powerful enough to change the course of history.

Yet right from the beginning, efforts to deprive the priestess of her power prevailed, particularly in older classical scholarship. Surely a woman, especially one in such a paternalistic society as ancient Greece, could not hold that powerful a position?

Some scholars suggested that the Pythia actually babbled unintelligible gibberish and that her words were later put into beautiful, deep, and meaningful hexameter verse — by male priests.

Yet in our ancient sources there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it was anyone other than the Pythia herself who came up with the responses. To the contrary: she is regularly named as the one and only source of the prophecies delivered at Delphi. There is no word of male priests, beyond those in purely administrative and assisting roles.

Insult by oracle
The position of the Pythia seemed to have entailed the extraordinary opportunity to speak unwelcome truth to those in power.

A Spartan once approached the oracle with the intention of being confirmed as the wisest man in the world. In response to this question the Pythia named another person who was wiser.

The Greek city of Megara allegedly asked the Pythia in about 700 BCE who were the best of all the Greeks, hoping to be named first. The Pythia mentioned two better cities , concluding with the line, “[Y]ou, o Megarians, [are] neither third nor fourth.” Surely, the Megarians did not see that coming!

Cleisthenes, meanwhile, the famous tyrant of Sicyon, asked whether he should remove the cult of the hero Adrastus from the city. He received an oracle that came straight to the point: “Adrastus is king of Sicyon, and you but a common slayer.”

This kind of reality check and straight talk would certainly have upset those with egos accustomed to flattery and agreement.

Of course, it is not always possible to tell whether these and other responses of the oracle were authentic or whether the whole incident was part of later historiographic lore. Yet whatever the case: the fact is that it was a woman who was attributed such a sharp, judgemental voice.

And her voice proved extraordinarily unimpeachable. The Greeks thought that it was the god Apollo who conveyed his superior divine knowledge through the mouth of the Pythia, so the priestess herself was largely beyond reproach. While itinerant seers, augurs, and oracle mongers feature in classical literature as corrupt and unreliable, the position of the Pythia seems to have stood above all criticism.

The job and its challenges

Being a Pythia was not always easy. Several ancient enquirers sought to influence the kind of answer they hoped to get from the oracle. Subtle manipulation in how the questions were put, not-so-subtle bribery, and even an attempt to force the oracle to deliver responses on a non-auspicious day are all on record – as are complaints about unfathomable responses.

For instance the Greek historian, philosopher, soldier, and horse whisperer Xenophon allegedly enquired at Delphi to which deity he should sacrifice and pray so that the military expedition he was about to join would be a success. He was later reprimanded by the philosopher Socrates for having posed a manipulative question. Socrates felt he should have asked whether it would be a success, rather than how.

Cleisthenes was said to have bribed the Pythia to deliver the same response to all Spartan requests at the oracle, no matter the question: to free Athens from the rule of tyrants.

And after a series of spectacular mishaps based on misread oracles, the Lydian king Croesus complained at the Delphic Oracle about having been misled. The Pythia responded that he himself was to blame for his misfortune: He should have interpreted the Pythia’s word correctly.

We also know of several instances in which the Pythia refused outright to respond to a question that, in one way or another, seemed unreasonable.

What did it take to become the Pythia? Was she a local girl from a neighbouring village? Was any kind of training provided to candidates? Or were they thrown in the deep end?

Unfortunately, the ancient sources are silent. The Nobel prize-winning author William Golding in his (posthumously published) last novel The Double Tongue, written from the perspective of a Pythia, sees her as a local girl who was unable to get herself married and so took on that role.

Yet again, this sounds like speculation designed to downplay the position.

The kind of skills required to be successful in the role are easier to reconstruct. The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi served as a marketplace for representatives from all over the ancient Greek world (and beyond) who came for a variety of reasons.

In addition to the oracle, the sanctuary housed regular athletic competitions (the so-called Pythian Games, analogous to the more famous Olympic Games). With its numerous temples and monuments, the site was also a popular tourist destination. All these activities together served to establish a busy hub, where information, news, and gossip of all kinds would have circulated freely.

So perhaps the key to the Pythia’s success was simply to listen closely? There is good evidence to suggest that the fantastic tales of prediction and fulfilment are a matter of the (later) historiographic tradition and that it was mostly quite straightforward questions of everyday life that were put to the Pythia for comment, along the lines suggested by the ancient author Plutarch, who was also a priest at Delphi: Will I win? Shall I marry? Is it a good idea to sail the sea? Shall I take up farming? Shall I go abroad?

If this was indeed the case, it would, more often than not, have been possible to glean the information necessary to answer any particular enquiry from the chatter of those queuing to consult the oracle, to watch or participate in the games, or to take in the monuments. The Pythia may have trailblazed the knowledge economy millennia before the arrival of “big data” and the invention of the internet.

By Julia Kindt, Professor, Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney. Reproduced with permission from The Conversation

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Pythia

The Pythia (or Oracle of Delphi) was the priestess who held court at Pytho, the sanctuary of the Delphinians, a sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god Apollo. Pythia were highly regarded, for it was believed that she channeled prophecies from Apollo himself, while steeped in a dreamlike trance. Originally the god was channeled only once a year, but at the height of its popularity up to three Pythiai were known to hold office. The sanctuary at Delphi was constructed in the 8th century BCE, and the final prophecy given around 393 CE, after the Roman emperor Theodosius ordered the closure of all pagan sanctuaries.

A Pythia was chosen among the priestesses of the temple upon the death of the previous Pythia. Moral character was of utmost importance, and even if the newly-chosen Pythia was married and had a family, she had to relinquish all familial duties in order to fill her role in the temple. Pythias were likely women from higher-class families, were educated, and well-read.


The practice of interpreting the word of Apollo entailed that the Pythia bathe in the Castalian Spring, which was followed by the sacrifice of a goat. She then descended into a special chamber called an adyton beneath the temple which was fumigated with barley meal and laurel leaves on a burning hestia. There, at the temple center, the Omphalos, she sat on a covered tripod cauldron over a deep well-like chasm. Seated in this way, enveloped by vapors while shaking bay branches, the Pythia would fall into a trance state and channel the god. In this way did the Pythia pronounce judgment and prophecy to those in attendance. Those seeking the counsel of Apollo and his priestess would bring offerings of laurel branches, gifts of money, and a sacrifice of a black ram.


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