Who Was the Oracle of Delphi?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Oracle of Delphi was a priestess who served at the Shrine of Apollo in Delphi, a Greek city. According to archaeological evidence, an oracle was associated with the site as early as the eighth century BCE, with the site being shut down in the fourth century CE because it was deemed inappropriate by the newly Christianized Roman Empire. Numerous contemporaries wrote about the Oracle and depicted her in works of art, and she is perhaps one of the most famous and enigmatic figures in Greek culture.

The Oracle supposedly communicated messages from the god Apollo.
The Oracle supposedly communicated messages from the god Apollo.

Obviously, a single person didn't serve at the site for over a thousand years. Instead, the Oracle of Delphi was chosen from among the priestesses of Apollo who served at the shrine. The Oracle had to be of good character, but she might be rich, poor, learned, old, ignorant, or young; the primary criterion appeared to be her potential fitness to serve. Once a woman became the Oracle of Delphi, she took the name Pythia, abandoning her previous life.

By tradition, the Oracle of Delphi sat on a three-legged stool over an opening in the Earth which supposedly conveyed messages from Apollo. Supplicants were supported from the Oracle by a barrier, and they were expected to sit quietly while she delivered her message as the mouthpiece of Apollo. The Oracle's proclamations were sometimes quite cryptic and at other times very clear, and many contemporary authors suggested that the Oracles gave advice and information in their own voices as often as they used Apollo's.

Delphi itself is a very interesting site, and thanks to the rich trove of archaeological treasures there, it has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. The Greeks believed that Delphi was the center of the world, and they went there to visit the omphalos, or navel-stone, which marked the middle of the known world. The ompahlos at Delphi was covered in a carved knotted pattern, and it was typically kept close to the Pythia.

Many societies have had some version of an oracle or a sacred priestess, suggesting a universal desire for information from the gods about the future. The Oracle at Delphi is only one among many such women, and she was obviously a topic of intense interest and discussion in Ancient Greece, with many people writing about her and their experiences at Delphi. Today, no oracle sits in Delphi, although some people claim that they feel an intense and almost supernatural connection with the site and its ancient history.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Today, a phrase or word is considered "Delphic" if it is over everybody's head and beyond common understanding. If a phrase requires a lot of work to interpret, or a lot of previous context in order to understand, it is often left open to multiple interpretations. It is possible that a lot of prophecies by the Oracle at Delphi were manipulated an interpreted for the sake of personal gain.


Numerous nations had elders and priests they would consult to know where they should go as a nation. Numerous soothsayers existed in the Roman empire. These could sometimes be a sham, but were often genuinely in touch with the spiritual. The ancient Mediterraneans were not so naive as to be fooled by fake prophets for such a long period of time.



I wouldn't be so quick to discredit the Greeks as so naive. I think they would have been aware if there were excessive fumes making the oracle high. I also believe that there was indeed a strong spiritual bond which bound the people of Greece and drove their intricate mythology and worldview.


I watched a documentary that showed fumes wafting upward from a deep underground oil well. Historians think that this is what may have caused the oracle to get high and go into a trance. Her "prophecies" were followed like law, when what was really going on is that a bunch of hardened warriors were listening intently to the rantings of a stoned teenage girl.

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