View of Delphi Theater, Temple of Apollo and valley

How Women Ruled the Ancient World of Greece – Through Pythia, the Oracle at Delphi

You are a Greek general in the 5th century BC pondering whether to start a war with a neighbor to take over their land. You could be a Queen wanting advice on the future of your kingdom, or maybe you are a common villager seeking advice on a sick child. Who do you turn to? You seek a consultation with Pythia, the oracle in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece. A world ruled by men sought council, even at the highest levels, with a woman.

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi
The Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece

Gather your offerings such as a branch of laurel, large sums of money, and animal sacrifices and travel to Delphi. Walk along the Sacred Way leading to the Temple of Apollo. You’ve waited in line to see her; or you were rich and important enough to pay your way to the front of the line. Enter the temple and go to a restricted room at the back where you find her.

The Sacred Way in Delphi, Greece
The Sacred Way in Delphi, Greece

The priestess sits in a tripod chair near a crack in the earth. Fumes and gasses are swirling around and she’s in a heightened state, entranced with the essence and being of Apollo. Bay leaves (laurel), a sacred symbol of Apollo, are hung around the room and burned as incense. Priests relay your questions to her. In her trance, she speaks incomprehensible words so the priests translate for you. Her response is anything but literal. Ambiguous and metaphorical expressions may need some thought to process. Did you hear what you want?

Painting of the Priestess of Delphi
“The Priestess of Delphi” by Hon. John Collier

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the archaeological site of Delphi sits about six miles inland from the Corinth Gulf and 1,800 feet up on Mount Parnassus. Delphi was a religious sanctuary and the seat of the most important Greek temple and oracle of Apollo, the Greek god of prophecy, music, healing and light. The prestige of this particular oracle peaked between the 6th and 4th century BC.

There was usually more than one priestess to share oracle duties. They were real women carefully chosen by priests of the sanctuary. In their entranced state, prophecies flowed forth. The big mystery is – what caused the oracles heightened state and was she really high on something? Most scholars think it was botanical plants and/or fumes from the cracks in the earth. Others wonder about intoxicating spring water or even whether she really was high at all. In 2001, scientists discovered the presence of ethylene, a potential hallucinogen, around the temple and the nearby springs. Whatever it was, it’s clear oracles were very important to the Greeks who believed the gods communicated to them through this medium. Rulers, generals, the upper class and men at the highest levels of society all sought her advice before making important decisions. 

The site of Delphi is impressive with spectacular remains. Excavation began by Germans in 1860 and are ongoing. You’ll see two sanctuaries dedicated to Apollo and Athena, a theatre, a stadium that hosted the Pythian Games, gymnasium, many votive monuments, and the remnants of settlements and cemeteries.

The Temple of Athena, Delphi, Greece
The Temple of Athena, Delphi, Greece

Delphi is a port of call on Windstar’s Greece via the Corinth Canal and Turkey: The Marvels of Ancient Rivals itinerary. It’s an 11-day cruise round trip Athens, Greece which circumnavigates the Peloponnese Peninsula by slipping through the narrow, high-walled Corinth Canal – a passage off limits to large ships.

Windstar's yachts squeezing through the Corinth Canal
Windstar’s small yachts are perfect for transiting through the Corinth Canal

 

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