Some five hundred-odd miles (805 kilometers) due north of Giza, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, which looms above the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth in northwestern Greece, is another extremely sacred place: Delphi, site of the famous Oracle of Apollo. Like Stonehenge, the origins of Delphi are lost in the mists of mythology and prehistory; however, we do know that very early on the ancient Greeks came to consider it to be the center of the universe.
The central feature of Delphi is the Temple of Apollo, which commemorates the god's slaying of Python, a terrible she-dragon that lived on the slopes of Parnassus. According to ancient Greek mythology, the goddess Hera sent Python to harm her husband Zeus's paramour, Leto, while Leto was pregnant with Apollo and Artemis. But Leto was saved in the nick of time by Poseidon, who hid her in the waves. In any case, four days after he was born, Apollo set out to find a location where he could establish his sanctuary. When he wandered onto the slopes of Parnassus, he encountered Python, who immediately attempted to kill him, just as she had his mother. Apollo loosed one of the magical arrows the smith-god Hephaestus had forged for him and mortally wounded the monstrous reptile. However, one of Python's tasks had been to guard the region, which had been sacred to her mother, the primordial earth-goddess Gaia, and so Apollo needed to purify himself and placate the slain monster's spirit. He exiled himself to Thessaly, did his penance, and when he returned to what was to become Delphi, he established the oracle that bears his name. In memory of Python, he named the woman who spoke with his voice the Pythia.
The name Delphi comes from delphin, the Greek word for "dolphin." When Apollo realized that he needed priests to interpret his words, he changed himself into a dolphin and lured a boatload of Cretan sailors to the shore beneath Mount Parnassus and convinced them to serve him.
From the earliest period in Greek history, Delphi was an extremely sacred place. Both individuals and cities came to Delphi to hear Apollo's oracles. Indeed, each major Greek city maintained a treasury along the Sacred Way that led up to the Temple of Apollo. The region around Delphi was nominally a dependency of the city of Phocis, although the site was in effect international territory and, except on rare occasions, unaffected by the wars that constantly pitted city-state against city-state, the most famous of which was the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.E.).
The mantic, or divinatory ritual, took place in a chamber deep within the temple called the manteion. The Pythia, who, in anthropological terms, was a shaman, that is, someone who goes into a trance and is either possessed by a divine being or is able to visit the spirit world, chewed a laurel leaf and then mounted a tripod that stood on top of the Omphalos Stone, which was believed to be the world's navel. According to several ancient eyewitnesses, including the second-century C.E. historian Plutarch, "noxious fumes" issued from a hole, about nine inches in diameter, directly beneath the tripod and surrounded the Pythia. Some modern scholars have suggested that the chewed laurel leaves might have been responsible for her altered state of consciousness, and that the fumes came from a natural source beneath the ground. However, we now know that no such source exists and that laurel is not a hallucinogen. The author of this article has suggested that the "noxious fumes" probably came from Cannabis sativa leaves burning in a secret furnace directly beneath the manteion, and that it was their hallucinogenic effect that put the Pythia into a trance. Unfortunately, all evidence of such a furnace has long since disappeared, and, until further research is done on the charring in the interior of the hole, this must remain a tentative hypothesis.
In any case, after the petitioner posed his question, the Pythia babbled incoherently. Her random utterances were then reshaped by the Delphic priests into coherent, albeit cryptic "responses," which frequently reflected current political realities or the size of the gift the petitioner or his city had made to the oracle.
In addition to the Temple of Apollo, the surviving ruins of which date from the fourth century B.C.E., when the oracle was at the height of its importance, Delphi includes several other temples, a theater, and the aforementioned treasuries. Although it declined steadily during the Roman period (after 150 B.C.E.), and especially after the spread of Christianity in the fourth century, the oracle remained a sacred place in the eyes of both the Romans and the Greeks, and it survived until 390, when the Temple of Apollo was finally closed by the Roman emperor Theodosius I (347–395), along with other pagan sites in Greece, including the Parthenon.
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