Swift over mountain peaks Apollo swooped – to Delphi, poised on an outcrop facing west beneath the snows of Mount Parnassus. A cliff towers over it, while far below unfolds a rocky valley bristling with trees. Here the Lord, Phoebus Apollo, ordained his dazzling temple, saying: ‘This is the place that I have chosen for my radiant shrine, an oracle for all mankind, who for all time will bring to me here perfect sacrifices – all those from the lush Peloponnese, and all who live in Europe and on wave-lapped islands, when they come to question me. And in my sumptuous temple I will give to all of them my guidance, and it shall not fail.’
Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo, 281-93
Delphi seems suspended between earth and sky. At daybreak, when the sun’s rays flood across the crags of Mount Parnassus, washing the cliffs – the ‘Shining Rocks’ – in dazzling light and bathing terraces of treasuries and temples in a golden radiance, the sanctuary appears to float above the stillness of the valley far below. Later, as shadows shorten and the dry air, hot with the scent of thyme, is thrumming with the rasping of cicadas, eagles can at times be seen soaring effortlessly on the thermals overhead.
Delphi: Seat of Apollo’s Oracle, Haunt of Dionysus Photo Gallery
They are the birds of Zeus, and legend tells that, wishing to find the centre of the world, the god unleashed two eagles from the opposite and furthest edges of the earth, setting each on an unerring course. They met at Delphi, where in antiquity the location was marked by a cone-shaped altar stone, said to be the very stone that had once been fed to Cronus, the most sacred object in Apollo’s temple. It was called the Omphalos, the Navel of the Earth.
As if such a setting were not enough, close to the Omphalos was said to be a chasm, where the rock had split open in an earthquake. From it drifted vapours, which, when inhaled, induced a state of temporary madness and ecstatic (often incoherent) jabbering. The words might be incomprehensible, but their significance was clear: the speaker, possessed, was the mouthpiece of a god. At Delphi, the midpoint between opposites, mankind could commune with the divine.
In the historic period, Apollo reigned supreme at Delphi, but the Greeks traced the origins of his oracle much further back in time. According to mythology, the first to discover it was a goatherd rescuing one of his flock which had fallen into the chasm. Noticing that the beast was shuddering uncontrollably, he climbed down to rescue it. As he did so, he inhaled the vapours and discovered to his wonderment that he could see far into the past and future. In time, the people of the region appointed a girl to serve as priestess, the site became the oracle of Delphi, and goats were offered to the god in ritual sacrifice. It had once been sacred to Poseidon, god of earthquakes, who had torn the cleft apart, but some (perhaps deriving the name Delphi from delphus, ‘womb’) told how in the beginning it had belonged to Gaia, Earth, the mother of all gods:
First in my prayer, I honour Gaia, first prophet of the gods; next, Themis, who (tradition tells)was enthroned second on her mother’s seat of prophecy; third, amicably, not by force, another
Titan, Phoebe, Gaia’s child, succeeded her. She gave it as a birthday gift to Phoebus.
So says the priestess of Apollo in Aeschylus’ Eumenides. But the most common version of how Apollo came to Delphi (and a version ritually re-enacted there well into the Roman period) is also the most violent.