The Pythia

The_Oracle_of_Delphi_Entranced
Heinrich Leutemann, The Oracle of Delphi Entranced

Who was the Pythia?

 

Map_Greek_sanctuaries_Delphi
Courtesy of Wikid77, Wikimedia Commons.

The Pythia was the oracular priestess at Delphi.  This oracle was of importance as early as the seventh century BCE.1 The sanctuary’s peak is dated from the period following the Greek victories in the Persian Wars to the destruction of the sanctuary’s temple to Apollo by fire in 373 BCE.2  Although there was a belief during Plutarch’s time that the oracle had a three thousand year-old reputation.3  However, Connelly (2007) relates that the first recorded mention of this priestess is found in Theognis who was active in the sixth century BCE.4  The position of oracle was active until the fourth century CE when the emperor Julian the Apostate, who reigned from 361 to 363 CE, sent an envoy to Delphi only to find “that … the Pythia spoke no more”5 and when the emperor Theodosios “banned divination and closed all oracular shrines” in 391 CE.6

 

 

Temenos_of_Delphi
Plan of Delphi with the temple to Apollo in the centre. Courtesy of P. de La Coste-Messeliere and ManosHacker, Wikimedia Commons.

The Pythia was typically selected from a class of women who lacked social status and wealth,7 and she was usually chosen from the resident population at Delphi.8  She was required to be celibate upon taking the position of priestess but she did not have to be a virgin before acquiring the priesthood; she could have had a husband and children prior to becoming the Pythia, however she had to abstain and could not cohabit with her husband when she undertook the position.9  Traditionally, the Pythia was a young maiden however after a young Pythia had been violated “in ancient times,”10 as Diodorus Siculus related, she was always over fifty.11  The older priestess continued to dress as if she were a maiden.12

 

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Camillo Miola, The Oracle, 1880. The Pythia, here depicted as an older woman, prophesizing to a pair of suppliants.

 

Before the Pythia prophesized she used to perform ritual purifications,13 and burned laurel leaves and barley meal on an altar,14 after which she would to sit on a tripod, where she pronounced her oracles.15  This tripod was located in the adyton of the sanctuary of Apollo, placed before a crevice from where vapours rose.16  As she was prophesizing, she used to wear a bay leaf crown while holding a bay sprig in her hand.17  The Pythia was usually in a trance or ecstatic disposition while she prophesized, believing to be under “divine possession.”18  There were ancient descriptions of the Pythia’s mantic sessions of prophecy where she was raving in madness; however, these are often interpreted as extreme cases.19

 

Consulting the Pythia

 

The Pythia seems to have been asked questions mostly by men, however, it is probable that some men asked questions on behalf of women as well.20  Surviving oracles are written both in prose and hexameter verse;21 the main tradition was that they were written in verse.22 Plutarch asserted that she delivered prose oracles before his time.23  Approximately a third of the Pythia’s responses’ were ambiguous in content.24  Herodotus offered examples of such ambiguity, such as: when the king of Lydia, Croesus, asked whether he should pursue war against Persia, the oracle responded that a great empire would fall.25 However, Croesus did not consider that it would be his own.26  Another famous example is when the Pythia advised the Athenians to protect themselves with their “wall of wood”27 when the Persians were invading Greece28 which led to a debate whether this meant the Acropolis’ wall or the Athenian navy.29 Themistokles persuaded most that it was the latter30 and the Athenian navy defeated the Persians at the battle of Salamis.31 However, the most consistently asked oracles seemed to be related to religious affairs such as declaring a location as inviolable, or related to private affairs.32

 

Delphi_temple-650px
Foundation of the temple to Apollo at Delphi. Courtesy of Stan Shebs, Wikimedia Commons.

The sanctuary was open for inquiry during nine months of the year since Apollo, the patron god of Delphi, was said to be in the land of the Hyperboreans during the winter.33  The Pythia only prophesized on the seventh day after the new moon, thus there was likely to have been many inquirers on each day of consultation.34  It is unknown how many people used to consult the Pythia, since there were many other oracular shrines and it is probable that it was the Delphians who consulted the oracle most often.35  Also, it is unknown how long an inquiry lasted.36  When the sanctuary was extremely busy during the Classical Period there were three Pythias present: two to alternate in delivering prophecies and one to act as an apprentice,37 although Bowden (2005) says that this third Pythia acted as a reserve for the other two.38

 

Eugène_Delacroix_-_Lycurgus_Consulting_the_Pythia_-_Google_Art_Project
Eugene Delacroix, Lycurgus Consulting the Pythia, 1835/1845. Lycurgus sacrificed a goat before consultation, which was one of the rituals one was  required to perform before consulting the Pythia.

Those who wished to consult the Pythia had to undergo purification rites and sacrifices before being admitted to the adyton to ask the Pythia their question.39  Their questions could be on virtually any topic.40  Often, important political questions were asked and the oracles were ambiguous to mask the dangers of the future.41  For example, Croesus was told that he should flee when “a mule becomes king of the Medes;” this referred to Cyrus, who had parents of different nationalities.42 But many questions seemed to have been straightforward petitions as to whether something would be better to do or not.43  Plutarch remarked that in his time because there was a lack of wars and other major evils, people often asked the oracle simpler questions, in these cases there was no need for them to be in verse.44 Herodotus supported this by providing examples of “questions concerning health, spiritual or ritual pollution, colonization opportunities, and any other problems (business risks) that might confront anxious human beings.”45  From the Archaic Age into the early Classical Age “human ignorance of the unknown, faced with the gods’ unpredictable jealousy … and the dread of pollution (… whether physical or spiritual)” led the Greeks to consult the oracle because of its “divine omniscience” into which it might provide them “a privileged glance.”46

Why was it a Woman Who Acted as Apollo’s Mouthpiece?

 

The Delphic oracle was a famous sanctuary in the ancient world. Therefore, to have a woman as the oracular priestess was an interesting choice. Below I provide multiple suggestions for such a decision, but ultimately one cannot be certain how a woman received such a prestigious role.

Religious Influences

Anthropologists deduce that often women enact roles of spirit possession because it allows them to behave differently than is usually expected of them, especially when they live in patriarchal societies.  Possession allows for women to partake in religious and political life or decisions, “to express their frustrations, fears, demands, and criticisms in male-dominated societies”, and “as methods of healing” usually involving reproduction.47  This seems as an unsatisfactory explanation for the Pythia’s female biological sex since it secularizes the religious institution that was the core of the oracle:48 the Pythia truly believed she was Apollo’s mouthpiece49 and the majority of those inquiring would have believed in the establishment as well,50 especially because of the physical phenomena of the Pythia being possessed through the causation of pneuma, which was probably vapours arising into the sanctuary and “divine inspiration” itself.51

Naples_Archaeology_Museum_(5914217379)
Dionysus (centre, left) with Satyrs and Maenads (or Bacchantes), late 2nd century CE, Roman relief, Naples Archaeological Museum (uploaded by Marcus Cyron), courtesy of Dave and Margie Hill/ Kleerup, Wikimedia Commons.

The process of such divination may have been cathartic, since a trance-like experience would probably have felt otherworldly.  This may have led to the scholarly belief that the Pythia was influenced by the introduction of Dionysus at Delphi.52  Since the Bacchantes, who were the followers of Dionysus, were usually female, this may explain why the important position of oracle was conferred onto a woman.53 However, Chappell (2006) explains that the Pythia did not usually prophesize in an ecstatic state therefore such an assumption is not a satisfactory response as to why the Greeks chose a woman to act as the god’s mouthpiece.54  The Dionysiac influence may have some value if one takes into consideration the ancient view that women were lesser than men55 and more susceptible to possession.56  Perhaps this is related to the ancient medical belief that women were more absorbent than men57 thus could be filled by such divinities.  Maenads were possessed by Dionysus while in a similar fashion the Pythia was possessed by Apollo.58  Plato attributed a type of madness to each god respectively, and he stated that prophetic madness belonged to Apollo.59

Apollo’s Role in Possesion

Apollo_with_lyre,_fresco_fragment_from_the_vicinity_of_Augustus_house,_Palatine_Museum,_Rome_(8401736810)
Apollo with lyre, fragment of a fresco found in the vicinity of the Augustus House, Rome, Palatine Museum. Courtesy of Carole Raddato, Wikimedia commons.

Apollo was responsible for providing inspiration to the Pythia, for without him she could not provide answers to inquiries;60 this was similar to the way in which Apollo was thought to inspire a poet to compose,61 especially concerning topics that a typical poet knew nothing about.62  Plutarch asserted this belief for he described that the oracles were actually composed by the Pythia herself after Apollo “put into her mind … the visions.”63  The Pythia allowed herself to be Apollo’s instrument to reveal his thoughts.64  However, Plutarch stated that since she was uneducated she could not bring much poetic imagination, and thus her oracles might not have been perfect.65  Maurizio (1995) senses that this is a passive view of poetic inspiration but takes to the idea that composition of poetry had an element of the divine, since archaic Greek poetry often contained an invocation to the Muses.66 The poets added their own creativity to their works and were not merely recording the gods’ words.67  Nevertheless, this explanation is not completely fulfilling since many poets were men and yet they were possessed with Apollo’s divine inspiration like the Delphic Oracle, however it was poetic and not prophetic.

“But when Thou joinest with the Nine,

 And all the powers of song combine,

We listen here on earth:

 The dying tones that fill the air,

 And charm the ear of evening fair …”

John Keats, “Ode to Apollo”, here he discusses Apollo’s ability as a poet but the poem also references other poets and their relationship with Apollo’s poetic inspiration.

Bowden (2005) believes that since the Pythia was typically from the lower classes, she would not have had much influence over major, typically political, decisions since she believed to be the instrument of the god.68  In a footnote he specifically makes reference to Maurizio, stating he thinks the latter’s attribution of power to the Pythia is implausible.69  Bowden (2005) remarks that since she was an uneducated woman there was no need to worry of her acquiring power in political decisions.  And by being the instrument of the god the political consequences of her utterings would not have been directed at her.70

Comparisons to Other Female Oracles

610px-Themis_Aigeus_Antikensammlung_Berlin_F2538_n2
Aegeus consulting Themis, 440-430 BCE, Attic red-figure kylix from Vulci

The Pythia’s female biological sex might have been a nod to the ancient past in that the oracles used to be under the guidance of Gaia or Themis.71  Plutarch described that it was believed that the oracle used to belong to Earth but that she “became inferior to the god [Apollo] and lost her august position.”72

435px-Cassandra_prophecies_MAR_Naples
Cassandra (centre) predicting the fall of Troy, c.20-30 CE, from the House of the Metal Grill, Pompeii

It seems plausible to agree with Maurizio (1995) that the Pythia was not in some way sexually possessed by Apollo.73  Often the Pythia is compared to Cassandra, but as Debnar (2010) argues, there is nothing to suggest that the Delphic oracle was Apollo’s consort of any kind.74 Green (2009) is of the same belief.75 Debnar (2010) expresses her argument that Cassandra arrived at Agamemnon’s house a virgin in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.  If one is to compare the oracle to Cassandra then one can assume that she was also in this virginal state.  If Cassandra had had relations with the god she probably would have borne him a child, as was common in myth.

The Purpose of a Human Oracle

296px-Collier-priestess_of_Delphi
John Collier, Priestess of Delphi, 1891. The Pythia is entranced by the rising fumes.

Diodorus Siculus stated that the Pythia was appointed her position as oracle because after some herdsmen discovered a chasm at Delphi which emitted vapours.  But after they informed the locals of their discovery, some people fell into the chasm under the trance caused from the vapours.  To prevent further incidents one person was appointed as oracle.76  This was the period ca. 875-860 BCE.77  The oracle was a virgin since virgins “were alleged to be well suited to guard the secrecy of disclosures made by oracles.”78 Chappell (2006) suggests that the position of having a human oracle at Delphi arose from the political and social changes occurring in the eighth century BCE which continued into the seventh and sixth centuries.79  One needed someone who could provide a more detailed answer than simply “yes” or “no”, as is assumed other methods of divination, such as trees, functioned.80  Therefore perhaps the fact that the Pythia was a woman may not need to be questioned and simply taken as a long tradition that arose from the changes taking place in the Greek world.

Conclusion

The Delphic oracle is a piece of history that openly involved a woman but, more importantly, one should not forget the importance of her role in the religious establishment:81 those consulting her believed her and likewise she believed that she was Apollo’s instrument.82  They truly believed they were gaining “more-than-human insight” into the future or advice regarding the best course of action from the god; ultimately they believed there was a divine element which “govern[ed] human affairs.”83

External Links

An article from Sunrise magazine can be found here, which is a good introduction to the Delphic oracle.

An article on the Pythia’s intoxication can be found here.

A good introductory video about the oracle by Julia Kindt can be found here.

A documentary on Delphi itself can be found here.

An English translation of Aeschylus’s Eumenides can be found here, in which the Pythia opens the play. (The Greek text can be found here.)

An English translation of Plutarch’s De Pythiae Oraculis can be found here. (The Greek text can be found here.)

A sample of William Golding’s The Double Tongue can be found here, which is a novel about a Delphic oracle.

A full version of Keats’ “Ode to Apollo” can be found here.

Endnotes

  1. Bowden, 2005, p. 13; Green, 2009, p. 29
  2. Bowden, 2005, p. 13
  3. Plut. De Pyth. 29
  4. Connelly, 2007, p. 73
  5. Connelly, 2007, p. 81; Green, 2009, p. 36
  6. Connelly, 2007, p. 81
  7. Bowden, 2005, p. 16; Connelly, 2007, p.73
  8. Bowden, 2005, p. 16
  9. Connelly, 2007, p. 73
  10. Diod. 16.26
  11. Connelly, 2007, p. 73; Diod. 16.26
  12. Bowden, 2005, p. 16; Connelly, 2007, p. 73; Green, 2009, p. 34
  13. Bowden, 2005, pp. 16, 18
  14. Connelly, 2007, pp. 76-77; Plut. De Pyth. 6
  15. Connelly, 2007, p. 77
  16. Connelly, 2007, pp. 75-77; Diod. 16.26; Green, 2009, p. 37
  17. Connelly, 2007, p. 77
  18. Green, 2009, p. 31
  19. Connelly, 2007, pp. 77-78
  20. Connelly, 2007, pp.78-79
  21. Connelly, 2007, p. 79
  22. Bowden, 2005, pp. 22, 33
  23. Plut. De Pyth. 19-20
  24. Connelly, 2007, p.79
  25. Hdt. 1.53
  26. Hdt. 1.86; Green, 2009, p. 29; Lateiner, 2007, p. 814
  27. Hdt. 7.141
  28. Hdt. 7.141; Green, 2009, p. 29; Lateiner, 2007, p. 814
  29. Hdt. 7.142; Lateiner, 2007, p. 814
  30. Hdt. 7.143; Lateiner, 2007, p. 814
  31. Hdt 8.84-8.94
  32. Green, 2009, pp. 30-31
  33. Bowden, 2005, p. 17; Connelly, 2007, pp. 73-74
  34. Connelly, 2007, p. 74
  35. Bowden, 2005, p. 17
  36. Bowden, 2005, p. 17
  37. Connelly, 2007, p. 74
  38. Bowden, 2005, p. 16
  39. Bowden, 2005, pp. 19-21; Connelly, 2007, p. 79; Maurizio, 1995, p. 83; Lateiner, 2007, p. 812
  40. Connelly, 2007, p. 79; Plut. De Pyth. 28
  41. Plut. De Pyth. 26
  42. Hdt. 1.55; 1.107-108
  43. Bowden, 2005, pp. 22-24
  44. Plut. De Pyth. 28
  45. Lateiner, 2007, p. 812; Hdt. 7.140
  46. Green, 2009, p. 28
  47. Maurizio, 1995, p. 75
  48. Green, 2009, p. 39
  49. Bowden, 2005, p. 25
  50. Green, 2009, pp. 38, 45
  51. Green, 2009, pp. 38, 45
  52. Chappell, 2006, p. 344
  53. Chappell, 2006, p.344; Maurizio, 1995, p. 70
  54. Chappell, 2006, pp. 344-345
  55. Parker, 2015, p. 109
  56. Hall, 2008, p. xxx
  57. Parker, 2015, p. 110
  58. Plat. Phdr. 244b-c
  59. Chappell, 2006, p. 345
  60. Chappell, 2006, p. 345
  61. Maurizio, 1995, pp.77-78; Green, 2009, p. 31; Plat. Apol. 22c, Ion 533e, 534b-d
  62. Maurizio, 1995, pp.77-78
  63. Plut. De Pyth. 7
  64. Plut. De Pyth. 21
  65. Plut. De Pyth. 22
  66. Maurizio, 1995, p. 78
  67. Maurizio, 1995, p. 78
  68. Bowden, 2005, p. 25
  69. Bowden, 2005, p. 25
  70. Bowden, 2005, p. 25
  71. Chappell, 2006, p. 340; Diod. 16.26; Green, 2009, pp. 33, 35
  72. Plut. De Pyth. 17
  73. Maurizio, 1995, p. 71
  74. Debnar, 2010, p. 132
  75. Green, 2009, p. 34
  76. Diod. 16.26; Bowden, 2005, p. 18
  77. Green, 2009, p. 33
  78. Diod. 16.26
  79. Chappell, 2006, p. 347
  80. Chappell, 2006, p. 347
  81. Maurizio, 1995, p. 86
  82. Bowden, 2005, p. 25; Maurizio, 1995, p. 86; Green, 2009, pp. 38, 45
  83. Green, 2009, p. 42

Reference List

Bowden, H. (2005). Classical Athens and the Delphic oracle: Divination and democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Chappell, M. (2006). Delphi and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 56(2), 331-348. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44933421

Connelly, J. B. (2007). Portrait of a priestess: Women and ritual in ancient Greece. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press.

de La Coste-Messelière, P. (1936) Au Musée de Delphes. Recherches sur quelques monuments archaiques et leur décor sculpté. Paris, FR: E. de Boccard.

Debnar, P. (2010). The sexual status of Aeschylus’ Cassandra. Classical Philology, 105(2), 129-145.doi:10.1086/651713

Diodorus Siculus. (1989). Library. In C. H. Oldfather (Trans.), Diodorus of Sicily in twelve volumes with an English translation by C. H. Oldfather (Vols. 4-8). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, UK: William Heinemann Ltd. Available from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0084%3Abook%3D9%3Achapter%3D1%3Asection%3D1

Green, P. (2009). Possession and pneuma: The essential nature of the Delphic oracle. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 17(2), 27-47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40646042

Hall, E. (2008). Introduction. In J. Morwood (Ed. and Trans.), Euripides: Bacchae and other plays (ix-xxxix).Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published in 1999).

Herodotus. (2007). The histories. (A. L. Purvis, Trans.). In R. B. Strassler (Ed.) The landmark Herodotus (1-722). New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Keats, J. (2006). “Ode to Apollo.” In J. Barnard (ed.), The Complete Poems (5th ed. with revisions) (43-44). London, UK: Penguin Books. (Original work published in 1848).

Lateiner, D. (2007). Oracles, religion, and politics in Herodotus. In R. B. Strassler (Ed.) The landmark Herodotus (810-815). New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Maurizio, L. (1995). Anthropology and spirit possession: A reconsideration of the Pythia’s role at Delphi. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 115, 69-86. doi:10.2307/631644

Parker, H. (2015). Women and Medicine. In S. L. James and S. Dillon (Eds.), Women in the ancient world (107-124). West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell. (Original work published 2012).

Plato. (1966). In H. N. Fowler (Trans.), Plato in twelve volumes (Vol. 1). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, UK: William Heinemann Ltd. Available from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.

—. (1925). Ion. In W. R. M. Lamb (Trans.), Plato in twelve volumes (Vol. 9). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, UK: William Heinemann Ltd. Available from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DIon%3Asection%3D530a

—. (1925). Phaedrus. In H. N. Fowler (Trans.), Plato in twelve volumes (Vol. 9). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, UK: William Heinemann Ltd. Available from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DPhaedrus%3Asection%3D227a

Plutarch. (1936). De Pythiae oraculis. In F. C. Babbitt (Trans.), Moralia (Vol. 5). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, UK: William Heinemann Ltd. Available from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2008.01.0247%3Asection%3Dintro

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