Oracle of Delphi

Oracle of Delphi image

How to seek a prediction: Travel to Delphi, (possibly, find a priest to) ask the Oracle (or the priest?) your question

(Sample) Equipment: none

Personnel: The Oracle of Delphi (a middle-aged woman from a nearby area), possibly along with a priest who might be needed to ask the oracle questions and interpret answers on behalf of petitioners, if they do not ask on their own

The Ancient Greeks thought that Delphi (located in modern-day Southwest Greece, at the base of Mount Parnassus) was the center of the world. (Indeed, the Greeks called it the omphalos, which means “navel.”) Apollo’s temple, adorned with his famous maxims (e.g. “Know Thyself”) stood in Delphi from approximately the 7th century BCE until 390 CE.

Apollo was purported to speak to those who sought him out through a mouthpiece, the Oracle of Delphi (also known as the “Pythia” or the “Sibyl”). The Oracle was a middle-aged woman chosen from Delphi or a nearby area. She is described as wearing the clothes of a younger woman and sitting on a three-legged tripod. Once a month, men lined up to ask the Oracle a question. Before a petitioner could ask a question, he had to first cleanse himself by bathing and then sacrifice a goat to Apollo.

Many details about the Oracle of Delphi are still unknown, including the specifics of the Oracle’s process for divining an answer. There is speculation that the Oracle’s trance was the result of intoxication, possibly caused by natural gases that were present in Delphi, though this contradicts some accounts which describe Oracle as calm. Additionally, some accounts describe the Oracle as giving her responses as poetic riddles, though there is no “official” written record of the Oracle’s predictions. There is also an unresolved question about whether or not questions were asked directly to the Oracle or if the questions were relied from the petitioner to the Oracle through a priest. In any case, this was clearly a very #human-influenced way of seeking guidance from the gods about one’s future.

The Oracle of Delphi

Meet the Expert: Professor Emma Dench

Professor Emma Dench is the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History and of the Classics at Harvard University. She is the author of Romulus' Asylum: Roman Identities from the Age of Alexander to the Age of Hadrian. Professor Dench has been awarded the Harvard College Professorship, an awarded given for excellence in undergraduate teaching, mentoring, and advising.

Additional Resources