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Apollo at Delphi
 
  The story of Apollo at Delphi begins with the god's conquest of the Python. According to some ancient accounts, the Python protected the oracle of Gaia, the mother of the gods and first inhabitant of the site. As described in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Apollo slew the serpent and then spent eight years on leave, in order to cleanse himself. Zeus also played a role in Delphi's mythological construction. Wanting to find the center of the Earth, Zeus sent out two eagles at opposite ends of the Earth. They collided at Delphi, and Zeus concluded Delphi was the "omphalos," or navel of the world. Though Zeus' surveying methods may not be sound, Delphi occupied a special place for the Greeks and their gods. In fact, Delphi's fame later spread well beyond Greece; during the 8th and 7th Centuries BC, the site received Mediterranean-wide recognition as the premier divine oracle. Note: the term "oracle" can be used in three ways. It indicates either: 1) the physical temple site, 2) the person who recites the divine message, also known as a "mantis," or 3) the words the mantis speaks.
  The Oracle was perhaps the oldest in Greece and practiced nearly every form of divination. Ancient authors claim that bird-watching and entrail-reading, two of the most popular forms of divination, actually began at Delphi. Delphi was also home to a group of priests who would interpret flames of sacrificial fires, and presided over a kind of divination by the drawing of lots. However, by far the most important form of divination at Delphi came from the preistess of Apollo herself, the Pythia. Apollo himself possessed the Pythia and spoke his enigmatic prophecies directly though her.
  Ancient sources provide us with accounts of the Pythia's divination process. Much of the detailed information comes from sources written many hundreds of years after the classical period (centered on the 5th c. B.C.E.) but it gives us a pretty reliable general picture. The Pythia began by cleansing herself at Kastalia, a spring sacred to Apollo located on Mount Parnassos. She took her seat deep inside the temple on Apollo's tripod, a three-legged stand upon which pots are placed over a cooking fire. Special priests of Apollo and assistants to the Pythia, known as the Prophetai, sacrificed a goat at the temple's great altar, and then cleansed themselves as well in Kastalia. Finally, the pilgrims and envoys to the Oracle formed a procession that climbed the Sacred Way to Apollo's temple. After another round of sacrifices the divination was ready to begin. One at a time, each pilgrim would pose a question to one of the Prophetai, who then relayed it to Pythia. In a deep trance, the Pythia received Apollo's inspiration. The Pythia's actual response was incomprehensible to anyone but the Prophetai, who rendered it into a hexameter verse, and passed it along to the pilgrim or envoy.Temple of Apollo at Delphi These responses were often ambiguous and deliberately obscure; in fact, the most famous oracles typically present two mutually exclusive interpretations, presenting a test of the petitioner's interpretive skills (and, as it happens, leaving the Pythia no way to be wrong). For example when King Croesus (6th c. B.C.E.) asked whether he should launch an attack against the mighty Persians, the oracle told him that if he did he would "destroy a great empire." When Croesus' attack leads to his total annihilation by the Persians, he protests to the oracle. The Pythia tells him that her oracle actually did come true, he was simply too blind to read it correctly. He DID destroy a great empire -- his own! Delphi's oracles achieved worldwide recognition on an unprecedented scale, for they offered, as Hoyle says, "a glimpse of truth given by the god, even if the answer was misunderstood, or sometimes wrongly interpreted" (39).
 
Sources:
  Hoyle, Peter. Delphi. London: Cassell and Company, 1967.
  Poulsen, Frederik. Delphi. trans. G. C. Richards. Washington: McGrath Publishing, 1973.
  Miller, Andrew. From Delos to Delphi. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986.
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