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The Oracle at Delphi

    The ancient Greek shrine of Apollo rests on the side of Mount Parnassus. Mount Parnassus rises in a long arc from the Gulf of Corinth above a valley whose sides held the groves, caves, and ravines sacred to the gods of ancient Greece. Parnassus itself was sacred to Apollo, god of the fine arts, and the muses, the nine daughters of Zeus. The muses were considered demi-gods and were the guardian spirits of writers and artists. The most important of the mountain places of worship was the Delphic shrine where the most famous oracle of ancient times presided and prophesied.

    Greek legend recounts how Apollo chose Delphi as one of his chief places of worship, along with Delos. Greek mythology tells of a time when the gods of the sky overcame those of earth. Then the infant Apollo took control of Parnassus by killing Python, the dragon snake that had possessed it. Apollo took the form of a dolphin and swam out to sea to capture a group of sailors, whom he appointed the first priests of his cult.

    Apollo spoke through his oracle, who had to be an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants of the area. The sybyl or prophetess took the name Pythia and sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth. When Apollo slew Python, its body fell into this fissure, according to legend, and fumes arose from its decomposing body. Intoxicated by the vapors, the sibyl would fall into trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. In this state she prophesied. She spoke in riddles, which were interpreted by the priests of the temple, and people consulted her on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs.

    Upon arriving at Delphi, the supplicants registered and paid a fee; when their appointments neared, they purified themselves at the Castalian Spring, where the bathing trough is still visible. They then proceeded along the Sacred Way, a zigzag flagstone walk up the hill. The Sacred Way was lined with statues and offerings, most of which have long disappeared, although a few surviving examples can be seen in the Delphi Museum. Also along the way were a series of treasuries, small shrines sponsored by various Greek cities as thank-offerings for important victories. The best perserved of these is the Athenian treasury, built in 490 BC to celebrate the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon. Because of its balance, harmony, and purity of line, it is regarded as the finest example of ancient Doric style.

    The Sacred Way ended outside the temple. There the pilgrims would sacrifice a sheep or goat, whose entrails were examined by the priests for omens. Then the pilgrims entered one by one to ask the sibyl their question. A carved domed rock, the omphalos, or naval of the earth, was kept at the place of prophecy. In an ancient flood story about the human race, the omphalos was the first thing to emerge from the waters as they receeded. In another account, Zeus sent two ravens out from from the ends of the earth to find its center, and their beaks touched at the omphalos. The stone is presently kept in a museum.

    The centerpiece of Delphi was the temple of Apollo, built with donations from every Greek city-state and from abroad. The base of the temple still stands, with half a dozen of the original columns. On the outside of the base are over 700 inscriptions, most announcing the emancipation of slaves, which was considered a special act of piety to be performed at Delphi. At the far end of the temple is the altar, originally decorated with memorials, ex-votos, statues, and offerings.

    The myths said that during winter, when Apollo went to his other shrine at Delos, the slopes of Mount Parnassus became the playground of the god Pan, patron of fertility. Above and away from the shrine of Delphi is a grove that is difficult to reach, at the end of an ancient cobblestone trail called the Kalki Skala, or "evil stairway." Nearby are two pinnacles from which those convicted of sacrilege against the gods were thrown to their deaths. Also in the area is the Corycian Cave, sacred to Pan, and here each November ancient worship rituals involved drinking and sexual orgies took place. The contrast with the Delphic shrine is striking, and perhaps out of embarrassment, no attempt has been made either to publicize the place or to make it easy to visit. Pan's image in art -- half-man, half goat with horns -- was adopted in the Christian era as the image of the Devil.

    Above the Temple of Apollo is an outdoor theater with 33 tiers of stone seats that held about 5,000 people. A stadium seating 7,000 nearby was used for the Phythian Games, held every four years to celebrate the victory of Athens over the Phoenicians, who had attacked Delphi and tried to seize its treasures. Several centuries later, when Rome conquered Greece and Athenian protection collapsed, the Emperor Nero looted 500 statues from the shrine. In the fourth century AD, Julian the Apostate, a Christian emperor who returned to paganism, ordered Delphi's restoration as part of his campaign to restore the ancient gods, but in a eerie scene, the oracle wailed but refused to prophesy. That event was considered a sign of the end, and by 390 AD the shrine was closed by the Christian Emperor Theodosis. Soon after the temple was razed.