Delphi: The Temple Of Apollo And Oracle Of Delphi

The Temple of Apollo is not only a symbol of the mythology of ancient Greece, but also provides a narrative of Delphi’s role as the centre of Greek religion and a source of international influence by virtue of the prophecies that were expressed through its Oracle.

The Temple of Apollo at Ancient Delphi is located within the broader expanse of the Sanctuary of Apollo. The temple was considered sacred to the god Apollo who endowed selected mortals with the gift of prophecy, one of whom was the Oracle of Delphi. The Temple of Apollo was constructed from carbonate rocks and marble and occupied the most central and prominent position in the Delphic Sanctuary. It is possible that the location was chosen so that the (Oracle) Pythia could inhale the vapours emanating from the sacred chasm.

The physical history of the Temple of Apollo which resulted in the Doric architecture we observe today has been one destruction and reconstruction. Throughout this history the temple continued to be significant to mythology because it was believed that the temple was used by the god Apollo as his terrestrial home. The Temple of Apollo was also available to the Oracle of Delphi whose hallucinogenic prophecies were sought by, amongst others, leaders and nobles. Other ruins of Delphi, equally as significant in their own way, can be explored in a separate post.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Who was Apollo?

Apollo was the mythological son of Zeus, twin brother of Artemis and half-brother of Athena. He was the God of the sun and the deity of light, purity, and truth – as well as the god of medicine, healing, music, poetry, fine arts, and eloquence. Apollo was considered to be more reputable than his father, and his ideal physical appearance, energy and poise led to his being the most popular of the Greek deities. Consequently, temples were erected in honour of Apollo all across Greece.

History of the Temple of Apollo

Apollo chose the most prominent position for his Temple
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

A Temple in the religious architecture of the ancient Greeks was erected to serve as a terrestrial home for an ancient Greek god or goddess. Services and rituals originally took place outside and in front of the temple.

The Greeks made use of temple structures as early as the 8th Century BC. The earliest buildings were of wood but later masonry structures imitated their architectural features when they were made not only of stone, but also of marble. The Temple of Apollo in this respect exemplified the development of Greek temples.

Ancient Greek mythology describes a series of Delphic temples dating from the 7th Century BC. The first and therefore most ancient in mythology as recounted by Pausanias was ‘a modest shelter constructed from laurel branches; a replacement was said to have been constructed from bees-wax and feathers; a third from bronze and by tradition, a fourth constructed from stone by the mythological architects Trophonius and Agamedes’. Trophonius was the brother of Agamedes and the son of a king, Erginus. Trophonius was said to be the divine son of Apollo. This temple was the earliest built on the current site but it burned down in 548 BC.

Apollo’s Temple remained in ruins following its destruction in 548 BC until the Alcmaeoids, a wealthy family living in exile from Athens, used both their personal wealth and funds contributed by cities and nobles, some of whom were foreign, to rebuild the temple between 514-506 BC. The limestone and marble temple was named in honour of the family as “Temple of Alcmeonidae”. The marble was quarried at Marathi on the isle of Paros, a quarry that provided marble to the ancient world. Parian marble is highly crystalline and composed almost completely of grains of clear, colourless calcite. Calcite is a form of calcium carbonate and the primary mineral in limestone. The complete metamorphosis of the host limestone resulted in masonry with grains that were uniformly distributed, resulting in marble with consistent colour and appearance.

This second Temple of Apollo of the archaic period on the current site was destroyed by earthquake in 373 BC. The restoration of this temple was completed in 330 BC. The temple emulated the Alcmeonidae temple, not only in form, but also in its use of Parian marble. We see the archaeological ruins of this temple today when we visit Delphi.

The footprint of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi of 330 BC showing its scale and design
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi as completed in 330 BC

Architecture of the Doric Temple of Apollo at Delphi

If you are new to the design and architecture of ancient Greek temples you might find the following basic description of Greek temples helpful when identifying the features of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo.

An artist’s interpretation of what the Temple of Apollo at Delphi looked like
An interpretation of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (Source: Ancient Delphi Archaeological Site Display Board)
The ruins of the most recent Temple of Apollo by the Alcmaeonids meet the criteria that describe the architecture of most Doric Greek temples of the period. The tri-level foundation the crepidoma or platform of the temple is rectangular in shape with steps on all sides. Entry into the walled inner chamber cella of the temple was through a door from the porch entrance or vestibule pronaos located at one end of the temple. The temple was of Doric order The order of classical architecture was primarily distinguished by the capital. In the Doric order the capital on top of the column was plain and undecorated, while the column rested on a stylobate of the temple rather than an independent base and the number of columns on its short and long sides was six and fifteen. The columns were mounted on a stylobate A continuous base common to all the columns that were aligned to support the entablature; the columns were wider at the base and formed a colonnade A term used to describe the aligned columns supporting the entablature surrounding the wall of the cella. The entablature made up of the architrave, frieze and cornice at each end of the temple consisted of the architrave the long, horizontal member is supported by the columns that spanned the width of the temple and which rested on the capitals on the top of each column. Above the architrave was the frieze A horizontal, non-structural, decorative element that sits above the architrave and under the cornice. Friezes of Doric order included trigylphs (vertical plaques with three divisions) and metopes (square spaces for either painted or sculpted decoration) above which is the cornice A horizontal member that sits above the frieze, separating the frieze and the architrave from the triangular pediment above it which with the pediment A triangular gable formed between the cornice and the sloped roof formed a gabled roof that enclosed the tympanum. The area enclosed by the triangular pediment The tympanum was richly sculptured. Some fragments of the revised Alcmaenoids temple are on display in the museum. Pausanias wrote that ‘the carvings in the pediments are: Artemis, Leto, Apollo, Muses, a setting Sun, and Dionysus together with the Thyiad women … There are arms of gold on the architraves; the Athenians dedicated the shields from spoils taken at the battle of Marathon (490BC), and the Aetolians the arms, supposed to be Gallic (279 BC), behind and on the left. Their shape is very like that of Persian wicker shields.’ An altar for sacrificial offerings can still be seen outside the temple.

The vertical columns of Apollo’s Temple at Delphi are probably the features that gain our attention first. The following image shows that the ancient Greeks carefully sectioned the columns at Delphi rather than construct them in one piece.

The columns at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were carefully sectioned and joined by a dowel
Doric columns of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi sectioned and joined

Each section of column, or drum, had to be carefully shaped to ensure it would fit as well as possible to the vertically adjacent sections positioned above and below. They were joined using a wooden dowel or metal peg that had been placed through the centre of each section. The sectioning of the columns was a practical success because it was easier to transfer and work with sections of columns rather than a complete column. Also, Delphi is in a seismic zone and sectioning the columns increased the tolerance of the columns to movementwhich resulted from tremors. Another excellent example of sectioning of temple columns are the columns of the enormous Temple of Zeus (Olympieion) in Athens. The columns have collapsed in sections on the ground.

Another Doric temple which is worth visiting is the Temple of Apollo at Ancient Corinth as is, of course, The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. The giant Temple of Zeus in Athens was also started as a Doric temple but completed several centuries later during the Roman occupation of Athens.

Inside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Pausanias gave us a little insight into the interior of the Temple of Apollo when he recorded ‘In the temple has been built an altar of Poseidon … Here you may behold the hearth on which the priest of Apollo killed Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles … Not far from the hearth has been dedicated a chair of Pindar (a lyric poet from Thebes). The chair is of iron, and on it they say Pindar sat whenever he came to Delphi, and there composed his songs to Apollo. Into the innermost part of the temple there pass but few, but there is dedicated in it another image of Apollo, made of gold’.

Pausanias continued, ‘In the fore-temple at Delphi are written maxims useful for the life of men, inscribed by those whom the Greeks say were sages… the seventh sage, according to the list of Plato, the son of Ariston, is not Periander, the son of Cypselus, but Myson of Chenae, a village on Mount Oeta. These sages, then, came to Delphi and dedicated to Apollo the celebrated maxims, “Know thyself,” and “Nothing in excess.”

‘These men wrote what I have said, and you can see a bronze statue of Homer on a slab, and read the oracle that they say Homer received:–

Blessed and unhappy, for to be both wast thou born.
Thou seekest thy father-land; but no father-land hast thou, only a mother-land.
The island of Ios is the father-land of thy mother, which will receive thee
When thou hast died; but be on thy guard against the riddle of the young children.’

The Destruction of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Delphi and the Temple of Apollo had long been the historical target of foreign incursions and according to Pausanias; ‘It seems that from the beginning the sanctuary at Delphi has been plotted against by a vast number of men. Attacks were made against it by this Euboean pirate, and years afterwards by the Phlegyan nation; furthermore by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, by a portion of the army of Xerxes, by the Phocian chieftains, whose attacks on the wealth of the god were the longest and fiercest, and by the Gallic invaders.’

The Romans occupied Greece in the second century BC and sacked nearby Corinth in 196 BC as a warning against the futility of rebellion. The punishment of Corinth was not immediately transferred to the Temple of Apollo, but the temple was subject to later plundering during Roman occupation. Pausanias adds that ‘It was fated too that Delphi was to suffer from the universal irreverence of Nero, who robbed Apollo of five hundred bronze statues, some of gods, some of men.’

Delphi and the Temple of Apollo were finally destroyed in 390 AD when Delphi was cleared of paganism by universal ‘Christianity’.

The crepidoma, or tri-level foundation, of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
Temple of Apollo and tri-level foundation (crepidoma)

The Oracle of Delphi at the Temple of Apollo

What was an Oracle?

The term ‘oracle’ is derived from the Latin word ‘oraculum’, meaning ‘prophecy’ and is related to ‘speak, utter, pray’. An oracle in Greek mythology is therefore a prophetic utterance from the gods. These utterances required interpretation by priests. The earliest oracle in mythology was of Zeus where priests at Dodona would render prophecies spoken by Zeus through the rustle of oak leaves.

Other mythology was that ‘in the earliest times the oracular seat belonged to Earth’ (Ge) after which the oracle belonged to both Poseidon and Earth in common. The Earth pronounced her oracles herself, but Poseidon used Pyrcon as his mouthpiece in giving responses. Myth holds that afterwards Earth gave her share to Themis, who gave it to Apollo as a gift.

Pausanias wrote that ‘in the temple has been built an altar of Poseidon, because Poseidon too possessed in part the most ancient oracle.’

Prediction was not the sole province of the oracle. It was claimed that Prometheus also educated Greeks in prediction: “The animosities, the consortings and attachments of birds; and the smooth surface of the viscera, and what hue the gall must have for the god’s pleasure and the mottled symmetry of the liver lobe; and the thigh bones in fat enwrapped, and the long chine I burned and initiated mortals into the mysteries of an occult art.”

Who Was the Oracle of Delphi and What Did She Do?

A non-photographic image of the Oracle inhaling vapour
Representation of the Oracle of Delphi; Heinrich Leutemann , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Temple of Apollo was attended by priestesses and the High Priestess at the temple was known as ‘Pythia’, the Oracle of Delphi. The use of the term ‘Pythia’ was a clear reference to the mythological defeat of the serpent ‘Python’ by Apollo.

‘The poets say that the victim of Apollo was a dragon posted by Earth to be a guard for the oracle. It is also said that he was a violent son of Crius, a man with authority around Euboea. He pillaged the sanctuary of the god, and he also pillaged the houses of rich men. But when he was making a second expedition, the Delphians besought Apollo to keep from them the danger that threatened them.’ – Pausanias

The Oracle of Delphi was held in high esteem. After all, she communicated with the gods! Her personal cost for this trusted and honoured responsibility was to dispossess herself of all earthly attachments and pursuits, including identity and family. The high priestess was referred to as ‘Sybil’ and the Rock of Sibyl can be seen adjacent to the Temple of Apollo but on a lower terrace. According to legend it was as this point that the first prophetess of Delphi, the Sybil Hierophile, stood to utter her oracles which are said to include the fall of Troy. Consequently, every Oracle who followed adopted the same name.

The vine covered Rock of Sybil at Ancient Delphi where the first Oracle offered her pronouncements
The Rock of Sybil covered in vines at Ancient Delphi – site of the first Oracle

According to Pausanias; ‘there is a rock rising up above the ground. On it, say the Delphians, there stood and chanted the oracles a woman, by name Herophile and surnamed Sibyl. The former Sibyl I find was as ancient as any; the Greeks say that she was a daughter of Zeus by Lamia, daughter of Poseidon, that she was the first woman to chant oracles, and that the name Sibyl was given her by the Libyans.’

The Greeks believed that the priestess was possessed by Apollo and able to provide inspired direction by divination. The Oracle of Delphi would first purify herself in the Castalian Spring and present herself holding laurel leaves and spring water. The Oracle would sit on a golden tripod and under the effects of hallucination utter frenzied and unintelligible ramblings that were then translated into verse prophecies by priests. The Oracle was never wrong. A failed prediction was always ascribed to a flaw in the interpretation.

The utterances of the Oracle and their interpretation by the priests at the Temple of Apollo were open to manipulation. For example, military leaders and rulers would return to their armies and countries following their inquiry of the Oracle and cite the meaning of the oracle that they personally preferred, justifying the advice as divine. The prices paid for the oracles were proportional to the status of the supplicant and the weight of the matter. The Temple of Apollo and its treasuries continued to be filled with what the petitioners were willing to pay. The locations of the Oracles in general were not easily accessible for ordinary Greeks and others to reach, and so the clientele of the Oracle of Delphi was usually drawn from the elite.

The Temple of Apollo is surrounded by Mt Parnassus
The Temple of Apollo in the foreground of Mt Parnassus

It has long been held that the Pythia were consulted outside the Apollo’s Temple but it has recently been proposed that the Pythia operated inside the temple. The ancient historian Plutarch conjectured that the Oracle would become inspired by inhaling aromatic and poisonous vapours that emanated from the domain of the defeated serpent, a chasm beneath the temple.

A Selection of Oracles Uttered by the Oracle of Delphi at the Temple of Apollo

The Oracle of Delphi considered a range of matters from civil to military, as well as matters pertaining to private affairs, travel, marriage and children. It was accepted that the advice offered would have improved in quality due to the priests accumulating knowledge and experience over nearly a millennium (7th Century BC to 4th Century AD). The following accounts are based on the writings of Pausanias.

Thermistocles

Direction from the Oracle of Delphi was sought by many prominent historical figures. For example, the Delphic Oracle influenced Greece’s defence against the Persian onslaught in 480 BC. Determined to avenge his father’s humiliating defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Xerxes proceeded in 484 BC to gather a combined Persian land and naval force, according to Herodotus, of 2.3 million men. Greece also made defensive preparations which included Leonidas’ consulting the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle instructed them to defend themselves with “wooden walls” and so the Greeks began strengthening their navy by building more timber ships. It proved to be the correct decision because although Greece lost the land battle at Thermoplyae, Thermistocles took the naval victory at Salamis.

‘Themistocles came to Delphi bringing with him some of the Persian spoils (Salamis) for Apollo … the Pythian priestess bade him carry them from the sanctuary altogether.

The splendid beauty of the Persian’s spoils
Set not within my temple. Despatch them home speedily.’

It was from Themistocles alone that the priestess refused to accept Persian spoils … It was said that the god knew that Themistocles would become a suppliant of the Persian king, and refused to take the gifts so that Themistocles might not by a dedication render the Persian’s enmity unappeasable.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great, following his ascension to the Macedonian throne in 336 BC, visited the Oracle at Delphi to gain assurance for his intentions to dominate the then world. The legend continues that on the day of his visit to Delphi, Alexander was not permitted to consult the Oracle. Alexander forced a prediction and in exasperation the Delphic Oracle exclaimed, “Oh child, you are invincible!” Alexander accepted the Oracle’s exclamation as a prediction of his victories.

Phalanthus

On setting out to found a colony (Tarentum) Phalanthus received an oracle from Delphi, declaring that when he felt rain under a cloudless sky (aethra), he would then win both a territory and a city.

‘He (Philanthus) succeeded neither in taking a city nor in making himself master of a territory, but called to mind the impossible oracle for never could rain fall from a clear and cloudless sky. When he was in despair his wife placed her husband’s head between her knees and began to pick out the lice. And it chanced that the wife, such was her affection, wept as she saw her husband’s fortunes coming to nothing’.

Phalanthus realized the meaning of the oracle for his wife’s name was Aethra (Gr: bright sky). And so on that night he took Tarentum from the barbarians, the largest and most prosperous city on the coast. ‘They say that Taras the hero was a son of Poseidon and that both the city and the river were named after him; Taras’.

The Temple of Apollo would have been a significant profit centre. The Delphic Oracle was consulted by Greeks and foreigners; kings and other rulers. The fees for consulting the Oracle was substantial, and the Sanctuary’s return for the imprecise, ambiguous and even absolutely incorrect direction the Delphic Oracle provided filled not only the Temple of Apollo with treasures but necessitated the construction of secondary treasuries to secure them.

The influence of the Oracle of Delphi eventually declined in a world of emerging powers and increasing rationalism, its final demise coming with the Roman overrun.

What Really Caused the Oracle of Delphi to Hallucinate?

The cause of the Oracle’s hallucinations are still the subject of contention.

It was mentioned previously that the ancient historian Plutarch conjectured that the Pythia entered her trance by inhaling aromatic noxious fumes emanating from a chasm beneath Apollo’s Temple. The possibility of the conjecture having merit is advanced by the knowledge that the Chryssa – Delphi – Arachova region has been frequently faulted and that a fault runs right through the Temple of Apollo – although the ‘domain’ of the defeated serpent is not in evidence today. Plutarch’s explanation was given additional support when traces of ethylene were found in the stone walls of the temple. The presence of aromatic ethylene is associated with both natural gas and petroleum and can cause the symptoms experienced by the Oracle – light headedness, confusion and dizziness.

The ethylene hypothesis has been challenged on the basis that ethylene could not exist in nature in sufficient concentrations to induce odour and hallucinations.

A competing hypothesis is that the trances could have been induced by a mixture of small traces of carbon dioxide and methane, the latter having been found in surrounding springs. What is not accounted for is the smell, but it has been proposed this may have been caused by traces of benzene.

So, to this day, the Oracle of Delphi stll holds her mysteries.

Our final thoughts on Delphi: The Temple of Apollo And Oracle at Delphi

The Temple of Apollo as a physical monument is important to our understanding of the skill and religious expression embodied in Greek architecture. The Temple of Apollo is also important to our undestanding the mythology and religion of ancient Greece. The hallucinogenic prophecies uttered by the Oracle of Delphi ensured Delphi would become and remain the centre of influence of all of Greece.

References:

Ancient Delphi Archaeological Site Display Boards
Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism

The Theoi Greek Mythology Website
Description of Greece 10. 1 – 16, Translated by W. H. S. Jones
<https://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias10A.html>

Harald Franzen
Gaseous Emissions at Oracle of Delphi Entranced the Pythia, 2001
Scientific American. New York :Munn & Co., 1845
<https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gaseous-emissions-at-orac/>

Valkaniotis, Sotirios and Pavlides, Spyros
Late Quaternary and Holocene Faults of The Northern Gulf of Corinth Rift, Central Greece
Bulletin of the Geological Society of Greece, 2017/07/27