IN TOUCH WITH THE GODS: APOLLO’S ORACLE AT DELPHI
Apollo, who kept his distance from humans, communicated in cryptic terms
through the oracle, a term used to describe the gods’ prophetic shrines, the
persons who conveyed the gods’ words to humans, and the messages thus
conveyed. The most popular oracle was at Delphi, where a clairvoyant
priestess gave predictions and advice. The sacred precinct of Delphi on Mount
Parnassus included a theater, a stadium, and the temple.
Aeschylus mentions the prehistory of Delphi: after Gaea came Themis, her daughter and
Zeus’s second wife, who taught Apollo the art of prophecy.
Delphi’s reputation reached its peak between the seventh and fifth centuries
The facade of the temple was inscribed with maxims urging moderation in all
things: “Nothing in Excess” and “Know Yourself.”
Delphi, which means “womb,” was believed to be the center of the earth’s
surface; an omphalos (perhaps a meteor fragment), representing the navel, was
kept at the temple. Some sources claimed that the omphalos stone was the
same one that Cronus swallowed in place of Zeus.
NOTE: According to the mythologist Mircea Eliade, the phenomenon of pronouncing a
place the center of the world is widespread in world religions. Not only does it generally
signify the center of the world of humans, but it marks an axis going straight through the
earth to heaven above and the Underworld below. Through this axis, communication with
the powers can take place. Interestingly, a culture may have several “centers”; it is thus
often of more symbolic than geographic significance. Typical world axis places are temples
and churches, large trees or posts erected in or outside the village, and mountaintops. The
Maypole is probably a remnant of such a tradition.
Archaeologists have recently found evidence which supports the ancient
tradition that intoxicating fumes which came from a cleft in the rocks were
partly responsible for the trances of the oracle at Delphi and her utterances
there in the cave.
It is quite possible that worship of Apollo became prominent in Greece only
during the Dark Age (1100–800
.). No god of that name appears in the
Linear B tablets, but he is central to the plot of the
“Paean” is the English term for a hymn of praise to a god, and its derivation is from
“Paian,” a god attested at Knossos during the Late Bronze period.