Ancient Delphi | The Ruins Tell of Conflict, Religion and Competition

The ruins of the archaeological site of Ancient Delphi, the Sanctuary of Apollo, are a record of the conflicts that existed between nations or city states, the use of religion and cult to venerate the gods, and the role of theatrical and athletic competition to provide opportunity to establish personal supremacy.

The archaeological ruins of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Ancient Delphi testify to the architectural skill of the ancient Greeks, their commitment to their divinities through religion and cult, and a culture embedded in mythology. The generous spaces and treasuries allocated for votive offerings along the Sacred Way reveal a belief that the gods had to be entreated either out of fear or out of gratitude to ensure success; the stately temples were the basis of an integrated polytheistic religion for within them the gods could be worshipped ; the wonderful theatre where Apollo was venerated through song and poetry revealed an expressive culture and a deep obligation to his oversight; and athletic celebrations, although at times brutal, through competitive games at the stadium provided opportunity to satisfy ambition and by success be raised in the eyes of Apollo above one’s community.

A Map of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Ancient Delphi

A site map of the ruins of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Ancient Delphi identifying the major monuments addressed in the post
Site map of the ruins of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Ancient Delphi

Ancient Delphi was beautifully located at an elevation of about 600 metres on the steep southern slope of Mt Parnassus overlooking the deep gorge of the Pleistocene River. The ruins of the archaeological site of Ancient Delphi include the Sanctuary of Apollo which was sacred to the god Apollo because according to Greek mythology, it was on Mt Parnassus at Delphi that Apollo slew the serpent ‘Python’.

The Sanctuary of Apollo at Ancient Delphi was originally enclosed by a wall which separated the Sanctuary from the city. The wall is still visible at some locations. The entire site was terraced to maximise the space that could be made available for the erection of treasuries and votive offerings. The treasuries and votive offerings lined The Sacred Way, a pathway that snaked its way up to the Temple of Apollo and beyond to the Theatre and the Stadium.

Conflict and Religion – Votive Offerings at Ancient Delphi

The votive offerings at Ancient Delphi demonstrated the deep dependence and consciousness of the ancient Greeks on their mythological gods. A votive (Latin; votivus: promised in a vow) was a religious dedication to a god and was made by Greek city-states and their colonies. The votive was offered to recognise noble deeds, to seek favour, or to express worship.

Votive offerings took many forms and were displayed in their hundreds. They included marble and bronze memorials, columns, statues of both gods and mortals – some with dedications, bronze horses and bulls, images and art, axes and other implements, and food in the form of fruit or fish. The offering in the form of food was donated as a tithe in either grateful response for ‘divine’ favour or in response to mandate.

The votive offerings were displayed along the Sacred Way, a serpentine path that ascended through the Sanctuary of Apollo from its entrance adjacent to the agora. City states were allocated a station along the Sacred Way for their votive. The Sacred Way was therefore populated along its entire length with a plethora of monuments.

The offerings were not always benign in nature, however. They memorialised military victories – military victories that not only involved conflicts against external international aggressors, but also against nearby city states. For example, the votive of Sparta and Argos are both located very close to the entry into the Sanctuary and are adjacent to each other. These two city states had a history of conflict between themselves and some of the offerings they displayed were expressions of their triumphs over the other.

Some city-states accommodated their votive offerings in small buildings that resembled temples. The first temple-shaped treasuries were erected in the 6th Century BC, as were the Treasuries of the Athenians (later restored), Megarians, Boeotians and Siphnians.

The Ruins of Votive Offerings Along the Sacred Way at Ancient Delphi

Votive Offering of Lacedaemonians

The image below show the station along The Sacred Way reserved for the offerings of the Lacedaemonians.

The area reserved for the Votive of the Lacedaemonians on The Sacred Way was just inside the entrance to the Sanctuary and adjacent to the Agora
Area reserved for the Votive of the Lacedaemonians on The Sacred Way

The Lacedaemonians were inhabitants of Lacedaemon, an area in the Peloponnese that included Sparta and its surroundings. Sparta was the pre-eminent military force on the Peloponnese and so their success in claiming one of the premier positions in the Sanctuary of Apollo for their votive is not difficult to understand. Sparta, the great military presence on the Peloponnese, displayed among their offerings the spoils of their victory over Athens, ‘the Dioscuri, Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, and beside these Poseidon, Lysander, son of Aristocritus, represented as being crowned by Poseidon, Agias, soothsayer to Lysander on the occasion of his victory, and Hermon, who steered his flag-ship… Behind the offerings enumerated are statues of those who, whether Spartans or Spartan allies, assisted Lysander at Aegospotami’.

Opposite the offerings of the Lacedaemonians were the stations for the votive of the Corcyraeans and the city of Taras.

Votive Offering of the Corcyraeans

The votive of the Corcyraeans was in the form of a bronze bull and exemplified the incorporation of mythology into the offering of a votive. Pausanias recounts that ‘the story is that in Corcyra a bull, leaving the cows, would go down from the pasture and bellow on the shore. As the same thing happened every day, the herdsman went down to the sea and saw a countless number of tunny-fish. The Corcyraeans … sent envoys to Delphi … sacrificed the bull to Poseidon, and straight away after the sacrifice they caught the fish, and dedicated their offerings at Olympia and at Delphi with a tithe of their catch’.

Votive Offering of Argos

Image Credit : Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The semi-circular zones on either side of the Sacred Way were reserved for the votive of Argos
The votive of Argos at Ancient Delphi

Argos is a city in Argolis of the Peloponnese and prospered through agriculture. Argos rubbed shoulders with the territory of the Spartans and became rivals to Sparta during the 7th to 5th Century BC. Pausanias tells us (abbreviated) that, ‘the sybil foretold a struggle between the Lacedaemonians (Sparta) and Argos for the district called Thyrea. The Argives claimed that they had the better of the engagement, and sent to Delphi a bronze horse, supposed to be the wooden horse of Troy … there were statues dedicated to the gods and heroes … and likenesses of the captains who made war with Thebes … a chariot … and other statues.’ History records that Argos acquired Thyrea in 545 BC but it must have been sobering for Sparta to have to had continuoulsy set eyes on the votive that represented Argos’ claim to have had the better of the conflict.

Votive Offering of Taras

The site for the votive offering of Taras is difficult to discriminate because of the overgrown grasses
The ruins of the Taras votive overgrown with grass at Ancient Delphi

Taras was a commercially successful colony of Sparta in Southern Italy. Taras’ prosperity required paid defenders to safeguard the city and no doubt some of Taras’ silver found its way to Ancient Delphi as a votive to express appreciation for any perceived favours and to ensure their continuation. The occupation of Taras was completed following the interpretation of an oracle given by the Oracle of Delphi. We outline the account in the post.

The Ruins of Treasuries Along the Sacred Way

Whereas it was customary to place the votive openly along a thoroughfare such as the Sacred Way, the votive offerings were sometimes placed in small buildings called treasuries. The treasuries resembled temples which reinforced the inclusion of religion into the offering. The treasuries were first erected in the 6th century BC. There are remnants of six treasuries along just this length of the Sacred Way; The Treasury of Sikyon, The Treasury of Cnidia, The Treasury of Siphnos, The Treasury of the Athenians, and The Treasury of the Boeotians. The content and value of the votive varied within each treasury.

The Treasury and Votive of Sikyon

The Doric Sikyonian Treasury was built around 500 BC from carbonate rocks and stood high at its location on an exaggerated foundation of over three metres.

The Treasury of the Siphnians is opposite the Treasury of Megara and the Treasury of the Boeotians
Sikyon Treasury on the Sacred Way adjacent to the Votive of Taras

Sikyon was an ancient city-state which was located west of Corinth in the northern Peloponnese. Sikyon had a port on the Corinthian Gulf and benefitted from the crops that could be grown on the fertile plain adjacent to the gulf.

Sikyon was ruled by a number of tyrants during the archaic and classical periods and it is thought that the treasury was erected to house a votive in the form of the chariot of one of the tyrants, Cleischenes, who had been victorious in the initial Pythian games of 582 BC.

The Treasury and Votive of Cnidia

Adjacent to the Sikyon Treasury was a smaller treasury to house the votive of the Cnidians. Pausanias’ account states that by the time he visited Ancient Delphi ‘there is no treasure to be seen either here or in any other of the treasuries. The Cnidians brought the following images to Delphi: Triopas, founder of Cnidus, standing by a horse, Leto, and Apollo and Artemis shooting arrows at Tityos, who has already been wounded in the body.’

The Treasury and Votive of Siphnos

Treasury of Siphnos (b/g) against the Pleistocene Gorge

The Siphnian Treasury was adjacent to the Sikyonian treasury and was constructed of marble which reflected the wealth of its community.
Siphnos is located within the Aegean archipelago and its wealth was derived from gold and silver mines. The Treasury of the Siphnians, which dates to 525 BC, secured the offerings of the inhabitants of Siphnos who were required ’by their god’ to pay a tithe to the Sanctuary. They ‘continued to pay the tithe until greed made them omit the tribute, when the sea flooded their mines and hid them from sight.’

The Treasury and Votive of the Athenians

The Treasury of the Athenians is located immediately behind the Omphalos. The treasury was constructed from limestone and Parian marble and dedicated to Apollo Pythios, but it is uncertain whether the Treasury was erected to commemorate the Athenian victory in the conflict with the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) or for securing Athenian democracy (510 BC). Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that the votive consisted of items seized following Athenian victories which included ‘those taken from the army that landed with Datis at Marathon … the Peloponnesians and their Greek allies.’

The Treasury of the Athenians is a highlight of Ancient Delphi because as it is still in excellent condition since its rebuild, it is able to characterise a Doric temple.

The Treasury of the Athenians, constructed of marble and limestone, is the best preserved of Delphi's ruins
The Treasury of the Athenians at the Sanctuary of Apollo

The treasury has the distinctive rectangular tri-level foundation on which, in the absence of individual bases, the columns rest directly. The walled inner chamber was accessible by a door which was approached from the porch entrance. The top of the column shaft was capped by a plain, undecorated capital. The architrave, frieze and cornice that make up the entablature are clearly evident, as are the tryglyphs and metope of the frieze. And, of course, the triangular pediment is visible above the cornice.

The Treasury and Votive of Boeotia

The sparse ruins of the Temple of Boeotia lie near the Sacred Omphalos of Ancient Delphi adjacent to the Treasury of Siphnos.

Boeotia is located east of both Ancient Delphi and Mt Helicon, and north of the Gulf of Corinth. The principal city of Boeotia, based on its military strength and strategic location in the centre of the region, was Thebes. The Boeotians were generally united in the face of conflict brought about by foreign enemies but competitive between their own cities. The Boeotians participated in the battle against the Persians in 490 BC and no doubt sought favour through offerings of a votive from their divinities on that, and similar occasions.

The economy of Boeotia has been identified as emphasising manual skills such as the production of pottery and agricultural implements, notably wagons and ploughs. Thebes was proximate to the Gulf of Corinth and with cooperation between cities took advantage of the maritime opportunities it provided. Votive offerings were proffered to extend godly favour.

A cluster of temples at Ancient Delphi, namely Siphnos, Megara, Boeotia, Athens and Asclepius
The locations of the Siphnos, Megara, Boeotia, Athens and Asclepius temples at Ancient Delphi

Delphic Mythology: The Sacred Omphalos of Ancient Delphi

The conical Sacred Omphalos of Ancient Delphi is located at the foot of the Treasury of the Athenians. The Omphalos was important to the mythology of the Greeks that Delphi was the centre of the world, a belief promulgated by Pindar in one of his odes. One of Delphi’s well-reported mythologies is that Zeus released two golden eagles in two different directions in order to find the centre of the world and threw a stone down to the earth from where the two god-birds met. The stone ‘of white marble’, Omphalos, landed in Ancient Delphi. The mythological Omphalos was considered sacred and remained with other sacred objects where the Pythia uttered her oracles – inside the Temple of Delphi.

A copy of the Sacred Omphalos of the Athenians is located adjacent to the Treasury of the Athenians and the sparse archaeological ruins of the Treasury of Boeotia.

The unoccupied space to the left of the Omphalos is the former site of the Treasury of Boeotia.

The Ruins at Ancient Delphi Near the Temple of Apollo

The Polygonal Wall

The 6th century BC Polygonal Wall is located further up the incline past the Treasury of the Athenians. This geometric wall on the higher left side of the Sacred Way was to retain the terrace on which the Temple of Apollo was constructed. A level foundation made from linear courses of smaller rocks appears to have been constructed rather than simply placing the first course of the polygonal wall onto the existing terrain, as was done by earlier civilisations in Greece. The rocks that made up the wall were then shaped to adapt to the adjacent spaces in preference to laying a wall in distinct courses. You might like to check out the masonry of the protective wall surrounding the Tiryns Citadel for the comparison.

The wall was decorated with what are even now very intelligible inscriptions. The inscriptions are written into the stone along the entire length of the wall. Also, admire the masonry skill that produced such a flat facade.

The Ruins of the Portico of the Athenians

The colonnade of the portico indicates the prior existence of a covered walkway or entrance, the colonnade bearing the weight of the roof. The use of colonnades is also evident in the Archaeological Site of Ancient Corinth but their use by the Egyptians dates back well before the thirteenth century BC.

The image shows the portico colonnade in the foreground of the Polygonal Wall at the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi
Portico columns in front of Polygonal Wall at the Sanctuary of Apollo

The Ruins of the Temple of Asclepius

Asclepius was the Greek God of Medicine and his the temples in which he was worshipped were ubiquitous across Greece. Ancient healing by Asclepius was as much a religious experience as it was medical. It would be expected that a temple to Asclepius, its archaeological ruins now no more than the foundations, would be erected in the Sanctuary of Apollo as Asclepius was the son of Apollo. The Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus was the main centre of sacred healing in Greece and you can read about Asclepius, his sanctuary and the role of religion in early Greek medicine in the post Epidaurus: Ancient Healing in the Sanctuary of Asclepius

The Ruins of the Area of Halos

Opposite the Polygonal Wall and on the open lower right side of the Sacred Way are the ruins of two of the original circular Area of Halos (“threshing floor”). These semi-circular structures (exedras) which may or may not have been rooved provided seating for conversation or for making arrangements. The area was also significant to both religion and mythology at Delphi for every eight years it was here that a re-enactment took place of the god Apollo’s slaying of the serpent ‘Python’ (the Sepeterion).

The Rock of Sybil

The Rock of Sybil is one of the earliest sites of Delphic religion. It is located next to the Polygonal Wall where the first Oracle of Delphi pronounced her divinations. Read more about the Rock of Sybil in the post describing the Oracle of Delphi.

Ancient Delphi: The Temple of Apollo

The Temple of Apollo is one of the major monuments within the Sanctuary of Apollo at Ancient Delphi. The temple was constructed on the terrace that overlooks the Area of Halos. We have allocated the Temple of Apollo its own post and discuss its history, mythology and architecture.
Our comprehensive description of the history, mythology and influence of the Oracle of Delphi is also found in the same post.

Competition at the Theatre at Ancient Delphi Celebrated Apollo

An image showing the breadth of the Theatre at Ancient Delphi in one frame
The breadth of the Theatre at Ancient Delphi

The Delphi Theatre, with more than definable features, is located just beyond the Temple of Apollo. This very impressive 5,000-seat theatre enjoys a spectacular location that overlooks the gorge of the Pleistocene River. In the days when the Sanctuary of Apollo was populated, this part of the Sacred Way was decorated with an image of Dionysus, the second-most important god to Delphi and the god of good wine, fertility, unbridled celebrations, theatre, and religious ecstasy.

Mythology and religion was important to the theatre at Ancient Delphi which was also the site of the Pythian Games and other competitions of Hellenic culture. The Pythian Festival was second to the games which honoured Zeus at Olympia and which were said to have originated in the 7th Century BC. The format of the Pythian Festival evolved over time and although it included athletics (6th Century BC), it retained an emphasis on the performing arts in honour of and to worship its patron, Apollo, who was the god of music and poetry.

The original festival featured harping without singing with subsequent competitions for flute. Physical competition was gradually included in the form of, among other things, athletics over short and long courses, two-horse and later, four-horse chariot events, and races in which the contestants dressed in armour.

Theatre at the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi overlooking the Pleistocene gorge
The Theatre of Delphi at the Sanctuary of Apollo

The original architecture of the Delphi theatre is unknown but similar to many other theatres in Greece it is likely to have started with wooden seats inlaid into the slope of the sanctuary. These seats were replaced during the 4th Century BC by stone seats derived from the carbonate rock that prevails across Mt Parnassus. This improvement of the Delphi theatre from local carbonate rocks contributed to its prominent role in the dramatic and musical contests of the Pythian Games. Marble features were added later. The theatre underwent further development from its original 4th Century BC construction during the first century by Eumenes II, King of Pergamon. Eumenes had a significant influence on Greek culture, and we referred to his contribution to the Athens Acropolis.

The design and architecture of the Theatre at Ancient Delphi was characteristic of the many semi-circular, ramped theatres that were built across Greece. The acoustics of the theatres were excellent allowing for sound to be transmitted across them extremely efficiently. The outstanding example of an ancient Greek theatre was at Epidaurus, and we identify the reasons why the sound was so good.

The presence of the theatre at Ancient Delphi reminds us that Delphi was also an institution of culture. It is more than a site of representing conflict and religion, but also of music, performance, poetry, prose and the many other forms of expression that allowed those at Delphi to express their inner selves and compete.

The theatre at Ancient Delphi compares well in design with the great theatre at Epidaurus and its smaller sibling, the (Little) Theatre at Palaia (Ancient) Epidaurus.

The Stadium at Ancient Delphi Hosted Athletic Competions

It’s time for a longish walk, and for some a strenuous walk, up the mountain along the Sacred Way to the 7,000 capacity athletic Stadium of Ancient Delphi, the attraction at Delphi’s highest elevation.

The Stadium at Ancient Delphi hosted the athletic contests of the Pythia religious festival, one of four Pan Hellenic festivals that emerged for the worship of the gods through prayer, sacrifice and athletic competition. The Pythian festival at Ancient Delphi emphasised song and dance to honour Apollo in addition to athletics, Apollo being the God of poetry and music. Other festivals included the Olympian (c 776 BC) and Nemean festivals which were dedicated to Zeus, and the Isthmian festival which was held in the Sanctuary of Poseidon near Ancient Corinth, dedicated to Poseidon.

The stadium draws its name from the term that defines a rounded rectangle; ie stadium, and the design of the Delphi stadium is very similar to other stadia throughout Greece. The stadia had tracks of approximately 220 yards (200m). Three distances were decided for competition; 200 metres, 400 metres and 4,500 metres.

Stadia throughout Greece were in the shape of a rounded rectangle and close to the start and finish at opposite ends
The rounded ends of the stadium at Ancient Delphi showing the finish line

Initially, in the 5th century BC, a racing track was formed at Ancient Delphi by levelling the ground; the spectators occupied the grassy slope either side of the stadium. The starting blocks, finish line constructed of stone and judge’s seats with backrests are clearly seen in the images. During the 2nd Century AD, under the Roman emperor Hadrian, the Stadium was supported with funds from the wealthy Athenian Herodes Atticus. The results included the addition of marble seats and the monumental, three-arched entrance.

The Stadium at Ancient Delphi shared its proportions with other stadia throughout Greece. The judges seating with backrests are seen in the front centre
The Stadium at Ancient Delphi hosted athletic contests. The judge’s seats with backrests are seen in the front centre

The origin of athletic competition at Ancient Delphi was born out of early Greek festivals associated with the funerals of individuals who were considered to be heroes. These occasions were religious and involved worship of the gods. Homer relates in his Iliad that at one such funeral, that of Patrochus, warrior companions of Achilles set aside their weapons and established their valour instead by competing against one another in contests such as boxing, wrestling, discus, javelin throwing and chariot racing.

The opportunities the festivals provided for competition were adopted across Greece, including Delphi. Combat surrendered to a competitive athletic culture as a means to resolve conflict, but the competition between participants was no less intense than if they were locked in battle, and the acknowledgement of the gods no less passionate.

A variety of athletic events were contested at the stadium at Ancient Delphi, usually on the fifth day of the Pythian Games which ran for six to eight days. The pentathlon comprised five disciplines: running, long jump, discus, javelin, and wrestling. Running events were over one, two and twenty-four stadia. The athletes at some of the Pan Hellenic festivals ran completely nude as it was considered that clothes not only inhibited the athletes’ agility and ease of movement, but carrying the weight of the clothing during competition required an unnecessary expenditure of energy. At Ancient Delphi, athletes wore a helmet, shin guard and carried a shield.

The seating at Delphi was ramped to ensure a clear view for all spectators with the 2nd Century three arched entrance near the starting point where the starting blocks are still in place
The 2nd Century monumental three arched entrance at Delphi stadium with starting blocks and ramped seating

Some events were held in the Plain of Crisa now near the town of Chryso.

The Crisa Plain below the foothills of Mt Parnassus was flat land suitable for some of the events of the Pythian games
The town of Chryso on the Crisa Plain which was the site of some events of the Pythian games

Contests in chariot racing were over a distance of eight stadia during which two of four horses drew open-backed vehicles mounted on small wheels. Chariot racing was prestigious, not for the competitor, but for the owner of the horses and chariot because he was awarded the prize.

Boxing contests resulted in the disfigurement of many of the participants because apart from being extremely fierce, the contestants sometimes wore an early style of ‘knuckle-duster’ in the form of strips of leather studded with metal inserts.

Wrestling was equally violent and a reminder that these sports were originally contested by warriors. One form of wrestling, a predecessor of Greco-Roman wrestling, restricted holds to the upper parts of the body. An alternate form allowed almost anything, with only gouging of the eyes, biting and scratching being prohibited.

Winners in ancient Greek athletic contests were crowned with wreaths that were usually made of tree leaves and adorned with flowers. Victors in the Pythian Games received a crown made of laurel. Those who won events in the Olympian Games received a crown made from wild olive leaves and the crowns of the Isthmian Games were made from pine. The crowning at Ancient Delphi was a symbol of the favour bestowed upon the victor by the divine patron of the games, Apollo. The content of the crown confirmed that the power of the athlete was derived from the forces of nature. There were no secondary prizes, for the ultimate goal of each athlete was ‘Victory, Nike’. Victory was considered to be a true reflection of the physical and moral character of the winner. The victor would return to his home town in a procession of triumph and adulation. A statue would be erected in his honour as an offering to the gods – an honour that set the victor apart from mortals.

You may wish to compare the stadium at Delphi with the stadium at Epidaurus.

“When we returned down the Sacred Way we ambled along the same path and again sat overlooking the Theatre. In the late afternoon when the air is still and quietness descends across the valley, there is solitude and peace. It is easy to linger. We sat motionless locked into our thoughts, meditating on our own beliefs and how they contrasted with those who without the advantage of modern knowledge had to decipher a world virtually unknown to them”.
Late afternoon meditation in the peace and solitude of The Sanctuary of Apollo, Delphi
Lingering in the afternoon solitude at Ancient Delphi … we sat motionless locked into our thoughts

The Agora at Ancient Delphi

The ruins of the agora at the archaeological site of Ancient Delphi are adjacent to the site’s main entrance. The agora was a Roman development of the original Greek agora, an open space which was commonplace in most Greek towns. Even though the agora was used both as a market and a public meeting place, it had religious significance because it was populated with monuments and statues in veneration of the gods.

The architecture of the agora incorporated a colonnaded stoa which was occupied by shops and produce. The images below show the ruins of a colonnade and the masonry decoration of the facades of the buildings. The columns were of Ionic order, an order that found its way to mainland Greece during the 5th Century BC. The base of each column within the agora is mounted on a pedestal, the base itself demonstrating the distinctive torus of the Ionic order.

The image shows colonnades and masonry cubicles that make up the Agora
The Roman Agora adjacent to the Main Entrance, Delphi

The agora at Ancient Delphi was located outside the enclosing wall of the Sanctuary of Apollo. The remains of the wall around Ancient Delphi can be identified in the left of the following images. The surrounding wall was extended over time to include the Delphi theatre which is located at a higher elevation. The stadium and the town remained outside the enclosure.

Commercial custom would have been very profitable at Delphi given the large number of prominent visitors, both local and international, who attended the Sanctuary to seek direction from the Oracle. In fact, Homer referred to Delphi’s wealth.

The agora at Ancient Delphi is quite small in comparison to both the ancient agora in Athens and the ancient agora in Corinth.

Ionic columns and rounded arches indicate the Roman influence in the Delphi agora
IOnic columns, arches and masonry decoration on the facades of the Agora’s cubicles

Religion at the Temple of Athena at Ancient Delphi

Athena in Greek religion and mythol¬ogy is the goddess of wisdom, purity, fertility and health and the favourite offspring of Zeus. She was also the half-sister of Apollo and so a logical choice for his protection. Athena presided over the arts of peace as well as war and the work of all craftsmen and artisans. She attended to men to ensure skills in handling horses and to women to ensure proficiency in handicraft and weaving.

The image shows the Temple of Athena at the Sanctuary of Apollo which is located at a lower elevation than the main site
Temple of Athena at Ancient Delphi

There were three temples in the Sanctuary of Athena, spanning the 7th to 4th centuries BC. The order was Doric with the colonnade made up of 12 and 6 columns (count them in the image).

The eastern part of the precinct preserves the foundations of two Archaic temples of the goddess. Both temples were Doric; the first dates to the mid-7th Century BC and the second to around 500 BC.

The second was peripteral (with a surrounding colonnade), with six columns on its narrow sides and twelve on its long sides. Its interior was divided into two chambers, the pronaos (porch) and the cella, where the cult statue of the goddess stood. The columns and capitals supporting the entablature are Doric. This temple was destroyed by earthquake in 480 B.C.

The third temple of Athena was built in the mid-4th Century BC in the western part of the precinct and was made of local limestone. Its facade was decorated by six Doric columns, and the opening between the pronaos and cella had two Ionic columns. This temple did not have a surrounding colonnade.

The Ruins of the Palaestra at Ancient Delphi

The ruins of the Santuary’s Palaestra and gymnasium are also located on the lower level adjacent to the Temple of Athena. The gymnasium was usually reserved for adults, whereas the Palaestra was an athlete’s school for young boys where they would train in traditional classical Greek sports to prepare for competition in the Isthmian Games. There appears to be remains of the portico that surrounded the courtyard. The courtyard was an open space for exercising and physical training whereas the areas under the cover of the portico were used as libraries and classrooms. Various citizenship initiation rites of Grecian youth were also associated with the worship of Athena.

Gymnasium area at Delphi
Ruins of area of Delphi’s Gymnasium and Palaestra

The Castalian Spring at Ancient Delphi

The Castalian, or Sacred Spring, a spring sacred to Apollo and the Muses, is located opposite the training facilities. Worshipers purified themselves at the spring before they entered the Sanctuary of Apollo. The water was sweet to drink and pleasant to bathe in. Pausanias; ‘Ascending from the gymnasium along the way to the sanctuary you reach, on the right of the way, the water of Castalia, which is sweet to drink and pleasant to bathe in. Some say that the spring was named after a native woman, others after a man called Castalius. But Panyassis, son of Polyarchus, who composed an epic poem on Heracles, says that Castalia was a daughter of Achelous. For about Heracles he says,

“Crossing with swift feet snowy Parnassus he reached the immortal water of Castalia, daughter of Achelous.” (work unknown)’

Drive to Ancient Delphi

If you are driving from Meteora or Thermopylae in the north, then you will find the post What You See as You Drive from Meteora to Delphi very informative.

Alternatively, if you are driving from Athens check out 7 Reasons to Drive from Athens to Delphi Across the Gulf of Corinth

The image below shows car parking facilities at Delphi and directs attention to the site’s steep incline set against its background mountains.

Car parking facilities available at Delphi and general sloping landscape
Arrival at Delphi. – note the slope of the incline

Ancient Delphi, as magnificent as it is, may bring you challenges. Be aware that;

  • A walking tour of Ancient Delphi can take anything from a few hours to at least an entire day. It simply depends on the quality of the experience you want
  • Although your ascent up the considerable slope of the site will be assisted by a serpentine walkway, you still need to be aware of your levels of fitness. Some sections can be quite strenuous
  • Greece can get extremely hot in spring and summer. It would be most unwise to walk through Ancient Delphi without water and even without something to nibble on
  • There is not a lot of parking immediately outside the museum or main entrance to the site. It might pay to get there early in peak seasons to avoid having to park some distance from the entrance
  • Even though there are display boards with information and diagrams at each attraction, we would recommend you bring a site map with explanatory literature, such as this post
  • A site plan that illustrates what each attraction would have looked like when Delphi was in its prime and where the attraction was located would be particularly valuable.

Final Thoughts On Ancient Delphi

Some simply enjoy the pleasure that comes from visiting such an intriguing and atmospheric site and enjoy the archaeological ruins and setting.

Some visitors relate to the history of the site – when Ancient Delphi was established, its role in conflict and survival of invasion and periods of reconstruction. They see Ancient Delphi as integral to understanding the whole story of Greece and how its sources of religion, mythology and intellectualism shaped its influence and its culture.

Some say it’s a very religious experience in that a visit to Ancient Delphi can engage the whole person and not only the intellectual.

A visit to Ancient Delphi appeals to some intellectually and that Delphi, which is steeped in the past and yet intangibly connected to the present, engages the mind more than it does the eyes.

Finally, some find a visit to Ancient Delphi to be somewhat pleasantly paradoxical and contradictory. Ancient Delphi appeared on the one hand to be a site for rational and scientific investigation of its past through archaeology – a site of excellence and beauty – but at the same time a site embedded in mythology, superstition and manipulation.

Delphi archaeological site from direction of Temple of Athena
Site Overview on leaving Delphi and the Sanctuary of Apollo

References:

Site Information : Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism

The Theoi Greek Mythology Website
Description of Greece 10. 17 – 31, Translated by W. H. S. Jones
https://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias10B.html