Myths at Delphi

Mount Parnassus was where Deucalion’s ‘ark’ came to rest after Zeus destroyed most of mankind in a flood, but Homer mentions Delphi only as the location of the boar hunt which gave Odysseus the scar by which his nurse recognized him on his return to Ithaca.

By the fifth century bc, however, Delphi and its oracle were increasingly important in literature and mythology. Oedipus’ misinterpretation of the oracle leads to disaster in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, while in Aeschylus’ Eumenides the matricide Orestes flees to Delphi from Mycenae in the hope of being purified. But it is not to be. The Furies pursue him. In the terrifying prologue, the priestess of Apollo crawls trembling from the temple, horrified and outraged by what she has seen inside: Orestes, drenched in blood, a sword in one hand, an olive branch in the other, sits on the Omphalos as suppliant – while around him the Furies lie sleeping, ‘black, abominable, snoring, their breath repugnant, vile gobbets dripping from their eyes’.

Eventually, Orestes is acquitted of his crime in Athens, but he does not embrace a life of piety. In Euripides’ Andromache he returns to Delphi to engineer the death of Achilles’ son Neoptolemus (with whose Spartan wife Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, Orestes is in love). A vivid speech describes how Orestes persuaded the Delphians to kill Neoptolemus, who had spent three days admiring the sights, ‘going about the temple crypts all crammed with gold, and round the treasuries of men’. (Orestes claimed he was planning a robbery.) As Neoptolemus escaped from the temple.

Myths at Delphi Photo Gallery

The Delphians threw everything they could – arrows, spears, light skewers and sacrificial knives. They had him trapped; no room to breathe. So he left the altar where men sacrifice, and leapt. The Delphians turned like doves before a hawk, trampling each other, injured, as they jostled for the narrow exits. Then a scream, so terrifying and ghastly, reverberated round the sacred awe-inspiring walls and round the cliffs outside. And in the silence Neoptolemus stood still, his weapons dancing in the light. Then a second cry, blood-curdling and eerie from the inner shrine. It roused the Delphians. They turned to fight. And so Achilles’ son was killed there, struck in the lung by a sharp-edged sword. A man from Delphi killed him, one among many more. They took the body from beside the altar and flung it down outside the sanctuary.

Close to the Temple of Apollo, Pausanias saw a precinct said to contain Neoptolemus’ grave.

Another Euripidean tragedy, Ion, is set at Delphi. An altogether gentler play, it paints a vivid picture of the sanctuary awakening. Ion, a son of Apollo by Creusa (daughter of Athens’ King Erechtheus), who exposed him at birth, has been saved and brought to Delphi to work as a temple attendant. Preparing to sweep out the temple with a broom of myrtle twigs, he describes the morning sun blazing on the crags and addresses his fellow servants:

The smoke from dry myrrh rises to the temple roof. The Delphic woman sits on her sacred tripod, and sings the words Apollo makes flow through her. So now, Delphic servants of Apollo, go to Castalia’s swirling pools, and when you’ve purified yourselves in their sacred waters, return here to the temple. I shall perform the tasks I’ve been assigned since childhood, purifying the entrance to Apollo’s temple with fresh young laurel shoots and sacred garlands, sprinkling the ground with droplets of water. And with my bow, I’ll chase away the flocks of birds which soil the sacred offerings.

Mother and son are later reunited, and Ion returns to Athens to become the ancestor of the Ionians, many of whom settled in Ionia (in western Turkey).

All three plays presume some knowledge not only of the myths but also of the topography and rituals of Delphi, with which they were so closely linked.

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