For centuries, hundreds of women sat in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, peering through smoke and predicting the future…
These women spoke with philosophers, kings and shepherds alike, and their prophecies made them arguably the most influential women in Greek and Roman society. Commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi, The Pythia was the name for a priestess who made prophecies.
Famous Roman orator and politician Cicero once noted that ‘no expedition was undertaken, no colony sent out, and no affair of any
distinguished individuals went on without the sanction of the oracle’. Supplicants would journey from far and wide to the temple of Apollo, which sat above a mystical spring where a naiad supposedly lived. Once they arrived, they might have been interviewed by the priests who took care of the temple’s administration. They then took part in rituals and presented gifts to the temple.
Supplicants would have travelled up a winding path to reach the oracle, bearing laurel leaves, an animal sacrifice and a monetary fee. Carved into the stone entrance were the words; ‘Know Thyself’ and: ‘Nothing in Excess’. The Pythia would be seated on a three-legged stool, perforated with holes, above a cleft in the earth from which rose the sacred pneuma. She would have held a laurel branch and a dish of spring water. Once the question was asked, she would inhale the vapours and commune with Apollo. Descriptions of the Pythia’s trance vary; she would seem to enlarge, her complexion would change, she would pant and convulse and her voice was described as inhuman.
Croseus and the Pythia:
In 560 BCE, King Croseus of Lydia created a trial or all the oracles in the known world. He asked them to predict what he was doing on a specific day. To make his test extra hard, he did the weirdest thing he could come up with and boiled lamb inside a tortoise shell. The Pythia said:
‘…The smell has come to my sense of a hard shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with a lamb’s flesh in a bronze pot: the cauldron underneath it is of bronze, and bronze is the lid.’
The Oracle of Delphi was thus proclaimed the winner. The next task Croseus set for her was to ask her advice on his planned war with Persia. The Pythia predicted that if he went to war with the Persians, a great empire would be destroyed. Satisfied, Croseus mounted a campaign against the Persians. As the Pythia had predicted, a great empire fell – that of Croseus.
We don’t know how the Pythia was chosen, only that once one woman died, a new priestess took her place. She was always a local from Delphi but that is where the similarities between the various oracles end. The Pythia may have been a young virgin or an old widow, rich or poor, noble or peasant, sometimes she was highly educated and sometimes she was unable to write her own name. The role was still a coveted one, as priestesses had freedoms many Greek women could only dream of. They could own property, earn a salary, were free from taxation and permitted to attend public events.
The office of the Pythia died out with the advent of Christianity in Rome and Emperor Theodosius I, who ordered all pagan temples to close. The very last known response was given to Oribasius, a doctor working on behalf of Emperor Julian I. The sad last statement from the woman who sat in the temple at Delphi was:
‘Tell the emperor that my hall has fallen to the ground. Apollo no longer has his house, or his mantic bay, or his prophetic spring; the water has dried up.’
Encyclopaedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce Salisbury
The Double Tongue – William Golding