Delphi: Pythian Games and a Tricky Oracle
Apollo was famously associated with Delphi, one of the best-known and most influential shrines of ancient Greece.
As you recall from Chapter 12, Hera had sent a snake named Python to chase Leto while she was pregnant with Artemis and Apollo. The young Apollo pursued Python to Delphi and killed her. But Gaia, the mother of Python, demanded retribution. To appease Gaia, Apollo founded musical and theatrical festivals at Delphi, naming them the Pythian Games in honor of Python. (He also went to the Vale of Tempe to undergo ritual purification and be cleansed of Python's murder.)
In Delphi, Apollo learned the art of prophecy from Themis, a Titaness who controlled the oracle. (Some myths disagree and say that Pan taught prophecy to Apollo.) Apollo then took charge of the oracle, granting the power of prophecy to a priestess known as the Pythia. At Delphi then, people could receive communication from the gods and learn about their fates.
Apollo's prophecies were delivered by the Pythia, who would go into a trance and allow Apollo to speak through her and answer the supplicants' questions. The oracle was so busy that often the services of three Pythia at a time were required.
Prophecies given by the Pythia weren't always straightforward. For example, King Croesus of Lydia asked the Pythia if he should invade Persian territory. She replied that if he did invade, a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus assumed she meant that he'd destroy the Persian Empire. Only after he invaded and was defeated did he realize that the “great empire” was his own.
Pilgrims traveled from all over to consult the oracle. However, the divination only took place on nine days during the year: the seventh day of each month, except for three months when Apollo was not present in the sanctuary. Because the demand far exceeded the oracle's ability to answer every question, the pilgrims had to draw lots. Those who were chosen would undergo a purification ritual and then ask their questions. The Pythia would mutter something unintelligible, and a male priest would interpret her words for the supplicant.
The oracle at Delphi remained popular for many years. It began to lose its importance in the first century