Delphi Greece: Visiting the Ancient Oracle’s Site

A panoramic view of Delphi, Greece. Gary van Hass photo
A panoramic view of Delphi, Greece. Gary Van Hass photo

The Splendor of ancient and new Delphi, Greece

By Gary Van Haas

Lord Byron once said, “God may have made heaven and earth, but it was the ancient Greeks who created Delphi.”

An ancient rendering of the Oracle of Delphi.
An ancient rendering of the Oracle of Delphi.

High in the breathtaking slopes, just below the majestic regions of mighty Mt Parnassos, lies the small mountain enclave of Delphi, one of the ancient world’s greatest treasures.

Equal to Machu Pichu in fame, Delphi reached its pinnacle in the 4th century BC where it was regarded as the center of the ancient world.

Mythological Beginnings

According to mythology, Delphi was created after the illustrious god, Zeus, released two of his prized eagles at opposite ends of the world, and when they returned again they met in Delphi.

I have been there many times, and believe me, it’s no wonder the ancients considered it their spiritual center.

But the true beginnings of Delphi go back to Mycenaean times when the earth goddess Gaea arrived on the scene, and it is generally believed the oracle began functioning on a regular basis at this time.

In later periods, Delphi became a sanctuary to the gods, Themis and Demeter, and at a much later date to the wily sea god, Poseidon.

Capricious Gods

Apparently, ancient Greeks were pretty fickle in their preference for gods because, by the conclusion of the Mycenaean period, Apollo had finally gained favor, thereby superseding all previous gods. And it was here, amongst tall, lofty mountain peaks, that a sanctuary was dedicated to Apollo.

This was where thousands upon thousands of devout believers arrived on a daily basis, slowly trekking up the steep mountain paths, offering votives and expensive gifts to the mystifying oracle in exchange for well-heeded, celestial advice.

All-knowing Oracle

The so-called Oracle itself was usually a mature priestess over the age of 50 called the Pythia, who sat solemnly on a tripod at the ingress of a chasm which spewed vaporous fumes. A male priest stood nearby to assist in the ceremony.  After a believer had presented his or her question, the Pythia slowly inhaled the fumes, fell into a trance and begin speaking in a strange, cryptic language.

The Delphi Tolos today.
The Delphi Tolos today.

For most people, of course, these divine utterances were unfathomable, and much to the relief of the seeker was later translated into some form of understandable verse by the attending priest.

Apollo Venerated

This most sacred and cherished of all oracles, was one of the most respected in ancient times and said to be none other than the embodiment of the great god Apollo. Historians say that in summer, Apollo was worshipped, but in winter the dynamic god Dionysos stepped in to take his place. Much to the delight of the people, the god of wine was honored with lavish banquets, feasts, orgies, and drunken merrymaking.

They also say wars, journeys, and the personal lives of thousands of citizens were all dependent upon the sole advice offered by the oracle.

Business as Usual

After the devastating wars between the city-states, the oracle returned to “business as usual”, where in exchange for advice, it was presented with great treasures by its victors. Not surprisingly, it soon was accused of favoritism by its impoverished losers.

Slowly but surely, the oracle’s reputation became tarnished and synonymous for partiality and its involvement in unscrupulous financial dealings. As Greece waned as a major power, Delphi was eventually taken over by the Romans in 191 BC where the oracle’s once all-pervasive influence had all but declined. By the time of the Christian era (4th century AD), the oracle was abolished altogether by the good old pious Emperor Theodosius, who declared it an ungodly pagan ritual.

An Ancient Flavor

The starting line at the Delphi stadium in Greece.
The starting line at the Delphi stadium in Greece.

No doubt Delphi’s main attraction to the modern traveler is its ruins, but the other point of interest is certainly the village itself. Known for its splendid, lofty mountain locale, this airy little hamlet is found nestled among the hillside, situated precariously close to the edge of a cliff.

If heights bother you, forget it! But once there, you’ll also discover a rather spectacular, sweeping view of the Gulf of Corinth, extending all the way down the mountainside to the deep valley below, lush with cypress and olive trees.

Delphi itself is a bustling little town with narrow streets and quirky little shops, and basically, you’ll find everything you need on the main roads of Vasileon and Frederikis. But despite all its commercialism and constant flow of tour buses, Delphi still remains intact with a marvelous ancient flavor about it.

The Delphi Museum is certainly well worth a visit and holds the renowned life-size bronze Charioteer statue. The museum is well laid out, easy to walk through, and said to have one of the finest collections of Greek antiquities in the world.        

Walking down from the Sanctuary of Apollo, in the direction of the city of Arahova, you’ll find the lovely Castalian Springs to your left, where believers once washed before consulting the great oracle.

Then continue down the mountain path to the Sanctuary of Athena, where Athena Pronaia was once worshipped.

There, you’ll discover a graceful, partially destroyed, circular shaped three-columned structure known as the Tholos. Built around the 4th century, Tholos (whose purpose is still unknown today) is situated in a quiet, pristine mountainside setting.

There are many more sites to see, but wherever you go most people will agree that Delphi is a unique experience and one which still holds the true to the spirit of ancients in capturing that particular eternal time and place in history.

It is also said, that if you walk alone among its crumbling temples and ruins by moonlight, one can still hear the cries and whispers of the mysterious Pythia priestesses whom once presided here.

The Archaeological Museum of Delphi

Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi, Greece.
Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi, Greece.

The Archaeological Museum of Delphi shelters the extensive artifacts unearthed during excavations at the Delphi Oracle and its vicinity. It is located adjacent to the archaeological site, and it is one of the top must-see museums in Greece, mainly because of the breadth and quality of the artifacts it includes.

The permanent exhibition covers over a thousand years, from the Mycenaean era to the Greco-Roman times.

Opening hours: Apr-Oct Mon-Sun, 0800-2000

Travel Tips:

Municipal Tourist Police- Tel. 22650 82900

Going there- Buses run regularly from Athens to Delphi, and the trip is about 3 hours.

Trains: No stops in Delphi. Livadia is the nearest town, 45 km away. So it’s best to take the bus, or better yet rent a car and drive there yourself.

Lodging-  Hotel Athina (4-star) at Frederikis 55. Sparse, but comfortable and reasonably priced (tel. 22650 82239)

Hotel Hermes (4-star) at Frederikis 29.Bigger rooms and medium priced. (tel. 22659 82318)

Hotel Amalia in Delphi, Greece.
Hotel Amalia in Delphi, Greece.

Hotel Amalia (5-star) at Apollonos 1. A bit expensive, but well worth if you want a swimming pool and all the amenities. (tel. 22650 82101)

Eating-  Taverna Vaklos, Apollonos 31, good taverna fare, reasonably priced and has a lovely view over the whole valley.

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Lefas Taverna, found on the main street, has good food, reasonable prices, pleasant country atmosphere.

The Arachova, is near the main street. It’s small, but authentic and cheap as tavernas go. A good bet for the money.   

Gary Van Hass

 

Gary Van Haas is a novelist and worked for many years as a feature writer for The Athens News, International Herald Tribune, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Time and Newsweek Magazines. He lives in Greece.

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