It is not necessary to have lived in Classical Greece to have heard of the Oracle of Delphi. The place that for centuries predicted all kinds of futures through the god Apollo. And although in Greece at that time they were very given to mythology, in this case we are facing a true story. So real that even today, almost 3,000 years later, we can visit it and discover what the Greeks considered at that time to be the navel of the world.
Delphi is one of the most remarkable places to visit in Greece. At the time it was considered the center of the world and, as then, today a large number of people continue to travel there every year. Perhaps not to find out about its future, but to get to know in person one of the most important settings in the world considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
But… What was the Oracle of Delphi?
Entering to decipher the operation of the oracle can be a bit complex, but to understand its importance it is necessary to be clear about what it consisted of. It was located in a great sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, the god who acted as an adviser to foresee the future and was consulted from the 8th century BC. Its fame spread rapidly, so that not only crowds of pilgrims came to it on foot, but also city embassies seeking political advice. In this way, what the oracle said could be the perfect basis for ratifying laws, constitutions, founding new cities and colonies or undertaking war campaigns or not. So although Delphi did not have a political role, his words could be used as such.
In practice, and broadly speaking, a Pythia, or Pythoness, and a priest entered the scene at the Oracle of Delphi. In the first place, her consultant met with her to send her questions. Later, the Pythia purified herself in the Castalia fountain, coming from a nearby stream, and made offerings to Apollo. She entered the sanctuary dedicated to the god, sat on a tripod located on a crack in the earth through which certain gases emanated and there she received inspiration, in a kind of trance that made her prophesy and give answers that were interpreted by the priest. Sometimes the conclusions were so ambiguous that they could be taken as they most interested the consultant.
A visit to Delphi, the place of the oracle
Delphi has changed a lot since it fell into decline between the 1st century BC and the 3rd century AD with the Roman occupation, but the archaeological recovery work allows us to get a good idea of the magnitude of what happened here. The site is located next to the new Delphi, Δελφοί in Greek, next to Mount Parnassus and less than two and a half hours by car from Athens. To visit it, keep in mind that we are going to find three different spaces: the archaeological zone of the Sanctuary of Apollo, the Archaeological Museum and the archaeological zone of the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia.
- Archaeological area of the Sanctuary of Apollo
This is the space of ancient Delphi, where the Sanctuary of Apollo and the Oracle of Delphi were located. That is, the most important place of this trip. We will access it by following the Sacred Way, which for about 400 meters will take us to the Sanctuary of Apollo. First we will cross the Roman Agora and ascend leaving behind different structures, such as small temples, known as treasures. These treasures were given away by some cities, or even by individuals, in gratitude to the oracle for keeping their donations inside. They are numerous, such as the Treasure of the Sicyonians, the Treasure of the Siphnians or the Treasure of the Athenians, which is the only one that has been rebuilt.
We will also pass by the omphalos (ὀμφαλός), the stone that represented the navel or origin of the world according to Greek mythology and whose original is in the museum. Also in the museum we will see the Sphinx of the Naxios, which was located on a column 12 meters high that we will find as we continue our ascent.
We will see different ruins on one side and the other, all duly documented and with information panels, and we will arrive at the Temple or Sanctuary of Apollo. Over the centuries, the building was built and destroyed on different occasions, sometimes victims of fires and earthquakes, and its final end came in 385 AD, when Theodosius I prohibited pagan worship.
Nearby is the theater of Delphi, from the 4th century BC, in a good state of preservation and which had a capacity for 5,000 spectators. And a little further away, the Stadium, from the V BC and with a capacity for 6,500 people, where the Pythic Games and also musical events were held. The entrance to the archaeological zone of the Sanctuary of Apollo has a price of €12, or €6 from November 1 to March 31 and also includes access to the museum.
It is essential to visit the Archaeological Museum of Delphi and it is also very important to do so after visiting the archaeological zone of the Sanctuary of Apollo. In it we can see the best pieces recovered from the site, as well as a model that will put us in situation.
It is undoubtedly one of the best archaeological museums in Greece. We will see bronze vessels, figurines, statues, architectural sculptures from the temples and treasures, as well as minor works of art made from precious materials such as gold, silver and ivory. There are pieces that go from the 7th century BC to the 2nd century AD, already in the Roman period, and their visit follows a chronological order through 14 rooms. They include pieces such as the Sphinx of Naxos, a winged lion with a female head in marble; the frieze of the Treasury of the Siphnians, the column of the dancers, the sculptural group of Cleobis and Biton and, with special prominence, the Charioteer of Delphi, which made in bronze commemorates a great victory in the Pythian Games of the year 478 BC
- Archaeological area of the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia
And even if we leave it for last, this is a place that we should not overlook. It is located about 500 meters from the archaeological zone of the Sanctuary of Apollo, on the other side of the road and on a lower level of the hill, so if we do not look for it, we might as well leave it forgotten. In addition, on the way to this enclosure, we will pass by the Castalia fountain, the one used by the Pythonesses.
The entrance to the site of the Sanctuary of Athena is free and in it we will see the temple of Athena Pronaia, the Treasure of Massalia and the Doric Treasure, whose remains do not go beyond the floors of the buildings. But also here is one of the most famous structures of Delphi, a Tholos, or circular construction from the year 380 BC, formed by 20 Doric columns on the outside, plus 10 Corinthian columns on the inside, of which three have been rebuilt. Its silhouette is so representative of Delphi that one falls into the mistake of thinking that this was the place of the oracle, but the fact that it was not does not justify us leaving without seeing it because its image, with the valley in the background, is one of those are recorded in memory.