Delphi location

Delphi (), a place of the World Heritage, is one of the most beautiful and impressing landscapes of Greece. It is situated on the Mount Parnassus, overlooking the olive tree valley that stretches to the sea of Itea, a modern town by the central Corinthian Gulf, where the ancient harbour of Kirrha was situated.

According to the ancient myth, Dias (Zeus) released two eagles from opposite ends of the earth, one from the East and the other from the West. At the point where they met, he threw the sacred stone omphalos to locate the centre of the world, the navel (Gk: omphalos) of the earth. It was at that point that the pan-Hellenic sanctuary of Delphi, where the oracle of Apollo spoke, was developed. Blending harmoniously with the superb landscape and charged with sacred meaning, Delphi in the 6th century B.C. was one of the most important oracles of antiquity, a religious centre and symbol of unity of the ancient Greek world.

Delphi was inhabited in the prehistoric times and during the classic times, it obtained great importance. Apollo, the God of the genuine oracle, taught people the metron: prudence and modesty, which became the most ethical and peaceful expression of the Greek spirit.

The modern town of Delphi and the Archaeological Site

Apollo temple

Still a remarkable location, Delphi is a headquarters for international meetings, architectural, archaeological cultural symposia, congresses of ancient drama held under the auspices of the European Cultural Centre of Delphi that aims at reviving Delphi as a European and International cultural centre with global activities.

The modern Delphi is situated west of the archaeological site, passed by a major road linking Athens with Amfissa, the capital of the Prefecture of Fokis, along with Itea and Arachova.

Today, much of the splendour of Delphi survives, despite repeated raids. The ruins of Delphi were uncovered by the systematic excavations of the French Archaeological School, which began in 1893. The excavations revealed more than five thousands inscriptions of all kinds, statues, several miniature objects, architectural decorative pieces, all exquisite works of art, representing the major cities of Greek antiquity. The Museum of Delphi is one of the richest in the world, containing exclusively findings from the site, including the navel of the world (a Hellenistic or Roman copy of the Sacred Stone), the statue of Antinoos, the metopes from the Treasuries of Sicyon and Athens, the Karyatid and Zephyr from the Treasury of Siphnos, the bronze Charioteer (Iniohos), the head of Dionysos.

The visitor can still follow the steps of early worshippers and admire the ancient monuments: the 7,000 spectators Stadium, with the gymnasium, palaistra, running track and swimming pool, where the Pythian Games were hosted; the Doric Temple of Apollo (4th century BC), where Pythia sat on Apollo's tripod to deliver her oracular responses; a number of Treasuries (small buildings, dedicated to the Sanctuary by various ancient countries in order to keep the precious offerings); the Kastalia Spring, the Doric Tholos of the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia (a true architectural masterpiece of antiquity, dedicated to a female deity); the 5,000 seat Theatre, where the Delphic Festivals were held.

In the 1930s, it was in this theatre, that the poet Angelos Sikelianos and his wife, choreographer Eva Palmer revived the Delphic Festival for the first time since antiquity, wishing to "instil the forgotten Delphic watchword in all human souls". Their house still stands in the modern town of Delphi. Like for Delphi, Eva and Angelos Sikelianos spread all around the world, the reputation of the nearby small mountain town of Arachova, today a ski resort. Eva by teaching the art of handmade woven articles; Angelos by his highly intellectual poetry. At Livadi, close to Arachova, Coryceo Antro (Corycian Cave), a prehistoric cave-temple dedicated to God Pan has been discovered. Lord Byron said about the Arachovian women, that they were very careful and polite and the English painter Rey wrote that We cannot help admiring all the time the proud and big stature of the men of this village. As far as the women are concerned, they are able to become the best models in the art of sculpture.

Mythology and History of the Oracle

Delphi shrine

The first inhabitant of the area was either the goddess Gaia (Earth) or Themis and the region was called Pytho (a rocky place in Homers Iliad). During the Mycenaean period, the female deity of Earth was worshipped in the small settlement of Delphi. The development of the sanctuary and oracle though, began in the 8th century B.C. with the establishment of the cult of Apollo.

The first Sibyl uttered prophecies, guarded by her offspring, the chthonic serpent Python. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the god Apollo killed the Python, left it to rot (Gk: python, to rot) and after purification, he took over the Oracle (Pythian Apollo), thus introducing the worship of Delphinios Apollo at Krisa (a town in Phokis, today Hrisso). The area was called Delphi, possibly because Apollo appeared in the form of a dolphin. In Greek delphis is the dolphin and also the womb; distinguishing the dolphin from other sea-creatures as a mammal or indicating the archaic veneration of Gaia at the site.

Another legend tells us that Apollo passed by the nearby Arachova when he first went to Delphi and from the Katoptireon over Arahova shot his arrow to kill the dragon in order to leave the water running free for the people. Interestingly, in the Christian ages, Saint George killed the Dragon for the same reason and he is worshipped by the local people to this day.

Apollo represented harmony, order and reason and he shared the sanctuary with Dionysus, the god of wine, representing emotion and chaos, in contrast or complementary, according to the Greeks, to Apollo. Every autumn Apollo departed for his winter quarters, returning in the spring. During his absence Pythia did not deliver oracles and Dionysus ruled over Delphi. In 590 BC, the Oracle was liberated from the domination of Krisa and the fame of Delphi began.

Under the protection and administration of the Amphictyony (a religious confederation of representatives of twelve Greek tribes, who met every spring and autumn to vote on decisions which were executed by the Senate), the Pythian Games and Delphic Festivals (comprising sacrifices, performance of the Sacred Drama, whose main theme was Apollo's victory over Python, music contests and paeans in honour of the god) were organized every four years, in the third year of each Olympiad.

In 191 B.C., the Romans became masters of Delphi, and despite the attempts to revive the Oracle, eventually it ceased to be regarded as the navel of the world. With the spread of Christianity, the sanctuary lost its religious importance and was permanently closed down with a decree of emperor Theodosius the Great.

Pythia, the prophetess of Apollo

In the prophecy ceremony, visitors from all over the Mediterranean, who wished to consult the Oracle, paid the tax and were given the right to approach the altar of Apollo to offer sacrifices. During the 8th-7th centuries B.C., the sanctuary received dedications from legendary kings such as Gyges and Midas. It was Apollo who gave the order, through the Oracle at Delphi, for Orestes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

After purification in Kastalia spring, (the spring to the East of the sanctuary that takes its name from a girl of Delphi, who threw herself into the spring to escape the unwelcome advances of Apollo), Pythia, the prophetess of Apollo, responded on behalf of the gods by bending over omphalos and inhaling the hallucinating vapours of an open chasm. She entered a state of ecstasy and uttered incoherent words, which were then interpreted in earlier times into hexameter verse, later in prose by the Priest. The oracular responses were ambiguous and interprets endeavoured to render some meaning out of the prophecy. Heraclitus (c. 500 BC) said that Pythia never gave a straight answer. The oracle neither concealed nor revealed the truth, but only hinted at it. Herodotus reported of king Croesus of Lydia who asked if he should invade Persia. The reply was, if he did invade a mighty empire would be destroyed. Croesus thinking he would be victorious invaded, but it was his own empire that fell and destroyed.

The prophetic power of the Delphic oracle was attributed to a fissure in the bedrock, a gaseous vapour and a spring. Recent research has provided evidence that the intoxicating gaseous emission was not a myth, since the site of the oracle shows young geological faults intersecting below the temple, possibly emitting in ancient times light hydrocarbon gases from bituminous limestone which have intoxicating effects. The effects of ethylene inhalation match the well-documented effects of the ancient prophetic vapours.

About Apollo ()

In ancient Greece, Apollo was one of the twelve gods and goddesses of the Olympian pantheon (Greek gods had ichor in place of blood, the divine substance running through the immortals veins, drank nectar and ate ambrosia).

According to Hesiod (Theogony, 918-20), Apollo, the son of Dias (Zeus) and the Titaness Leto, was born with his twin sister Artemis, the Goddess of the hunt and the moon, on the island of Delos. Dias, the youngest son of Cronos and Rhea, was the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus, the spiritual leader of both gods and men. His main attribute was the thunderbolt and other attributes, apart from lightning, were the sceptre, the eagle and the aegis, the goat-skin of Amaltheia. Leto was the daughter of the Titans Phoebe and Coeus. Dias wife, Hera being jealous of Leto refused her to give birth on any ground. According to the hymns to Apollo, the floating island of Delos was the only place willing to accept to be birth-place of such a powerful god. Thus, Leto anchored Delos to the bottom of the Aegean with four columns, to aid its stability.

The Hippocratic oath

Apollo enjoyed eternal youth, beauty and good health. Temples and shrines were raised in his honour throughout the ancient world. Most famous were his birthplace, the isle of Delos, Delphi and the Asclepion on the isle of Kos, where Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, founded the western worlds first medical school. The Hippocratic Oath, taken by all doctors even to his day, is an oath to Apollo the Physician and to Asclepius and to Hygeia, the goddess of Health, daughter of Asclepius. The cult centre Asclepion was named for Asclepius, who was renowned for his knowledge and expertise in medicine. His most famous sanctuary was in Epidaurus in the NE Peloponnesus. It is the serpents of Asclepius that wrap around the caduceus, the staff of Hermes, which has become the symbol of medicine in modern times. The bowl of Hygeia, which has become the symbol of pharmacy, also bears Asclepius serpents.

Apollo, being a god of medicine and healing suggests an ancient association with plague and its control. He was the father of Asklepios, by Coronis, whom he killed when she was unfaithful. The unborn child was saved from the flames of her funeral pyre and handed to the Centaur Chiron, who became his tutor and mentor. According to the Pythian Odes of Pindar, Asclepius also acquired the knowledge of surgery, the use of drugs, love potions and incantations. According to Apollodorus, Athena gave Asclepius a magic potion made from the blood of the Gorgon, which had a different effect depending from which side the blood was taken. If taken from the right side, it could bring the dead back to life, but taken from the left it was a deadly poison.

Apollo was also the patron god of the arts, music (principally the lyre), poetry, archery (but not for war or hunting), prophecy and healing. His attributes were the bow and arrows, the cithara (or lyre, which was given to him by Hermes in compensation for the theft of his cattle), swans, wolves, dolphins and the laurel crown. Apollo was associated with laurel, the plant used at his festivals and in the rituals of the Delphic oracle, after the story of his rape of Daphne (Gk for laurel or bay-tree). But his most famous attribute was the tripod, the symbol of his prophetic powers. Being the god of prophecy, he taught Cassandra the art of prophecy after she had promised to sleep with him. Later, when she refused, he made her unable to convince anyone with her prophecies. Amongst the many epithets and titles of Apollo the following are the most common:

         Phoebos (radiant or beaming). Together with Athena, Apollo, under the name Phoevos, was designated as a mascot of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens

         Pythios, at Delphi

         Delphinios (of the womb; associating Apollo with Delphi and with dolphins in the Homeric hymns)

         Musagetes. At Delphi and the Parnassus he was the leader and the director of the choir of the Muses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddesses of memory, who inspired poets, philosophers and musicians. The number of Muses varies over time; initially there was but one and later three nymphs in Pieria (Melete, Mneme, Aoede), their cult brought to Helicon in Boeotia. Usually there is mention of nine muses: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, Urania.

         Nymphegetes, looking after the Nymphs: Daphne, Cyrene, Coronis, Castalia.

         Loxias (oblique - obscure, as god of prophecy)

         Apotropaeus (who averts evil)

         Smintheus (Gk: sminthos for mouse; destroyer of rats and bringer of the plague into the Greek camp in Homer's Iliad)

         Lykeios (Gk: lykos for wolf; God of shepherds protecting the flocks)


Hymns and Paeans to Apollo

The word hymn is derived from the Greek hymnos (Gk: hydein, to sing). Set to the accompaniment of the Apollo's instrument, the kithara, at first it was written in the epic measure like the oldest hymn to the Delphic Apollo, later in distichs or in the refined lyric measures of Alcæus, Anacreon and Pindar. The Paean was originally sung in honour of Apollo. In Homer, Paean was the physician of the gods. In the Ancient Greek Dorian mode, the paean was accompanied by the kithara. It was a choral ode and originally a leader sang in a monodic style, with the chorus responding with a simple phrase. Later it was an entirely choral form.

The Apollonian Hymns were stone inscriptions found in Delphi in 1893. They were sung at the Pythian Games to commemorate Apollo's victory over the Python, and in the springtime to celebrate Apollo's return to his sanctuary. The First Delphic Hymn to Apollo was written by an Athenian composer, around 138 B.C. In 1894, a year after it was discovered at Delphi by the French School of Archaeology, Baron Pierre de Coubertin chose to have it performed in an international athletic conference at the Sorbonne organised to promote the idea of reviving the Olympic Games, thus offering an opportunity to promote the ideals of friendship and the noble competition among nations. The Second Delphic Hymn to Apollo, that has received more attention, was composed by Limenios, around 128 B.C. The Athenian poet invites the Muses to leave Mt Helicon in order to sing for Apollo in Mt Parnassus, narrates the story of the Gods birth and while praising the god of Delphi he manages to bring in the goddess of Athens Pallas.


The ancient spirit that was expressed more than 25 centuries ago in Delphi still guides art and science, thus confirming its diachronic significance.

Delphic hymn to Apollo

Delphic hymn by John Keats