Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi, was the name of any priestess at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus ( thought to be around 1400 BC).
The Pythia was widely credited for her prophecies inspired by Apollo. It is said that she predicted the Trojan War (The Delphic Sibyl).
The usual theory has been that the Pythia delivered oracles in a frenzied state induced by vapors rising from a chasm in the rock, and that she spoke gibberish which priests interpreted as the enigmatic prophecies preserved in Greek literature.
To prepare for prophesying, the Oracle of Delphi would bathe in a spring of Castalia for cleansing. Then, she would drink from another stream. After that, to see if the Pythia was ready to foresee the future and accept Apollo’s powers, a priest would pour ice water over a goat. If the goat was to shake from being cold, then Apollo was present and had invested powers in her. If the water didn’t phase the goat at all, that meant the Oracle was not ready. Lastly, the Oracle of Delphi would inhale the gas emitting from the chasm near the temple, and after a frenzy, she was ready to give seekers their prophecies.
It is now believed that the vapours were hallucinogenic gases, while others say the hallucinations come from snake bites, or by burning bay leaves.. However, other scholars challenge this theory and state that the ancient sources show the Pythia speaking intelligibly, and giving prophecies in her own voice.
From a late myth that deviates from much older ones, when young, Apollo killed the chthonic serpent Python, named Pythia in older myths, but according to some later accounts his wife, Pythia, who lived beside the Castalian Spring, according to some because Python had attempted to rape Leto while she was pregnant with Apollo and Artemis. The bodies of the pair were draped around his Rod, which, with the wings created the caduceus symbolic of the god. This spring flowed toward the temple but disappeared beneath, creating a cleft which emitted vapours that caused the Oracle at Delphi to give her prophecies.
- It is reputed that the last prophecy the Oracle gave predicted it would be her final one. A Roman emperor wanted to revive classic Greek culture. He went to the Pythia and she said:
“Tell to the king that the cavern wall is fallen in decay;
Apollo has no chapel left, no prophesying bay,
No talking stream. The stream is dry that had so much to say.”
That prophecy could be interpreted as a sign that Apollo has died and the time for reviving Greek culture is over.
- Another prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi was given in 594 BC, to an Athenian lawgiver; Solon. Solon wanted to capture the island of Salamis and so he asked the Pythia for her advice. She said:
“First sacrifice to the warriors who once had their home in this island,
Whom now the rolling plain of fair Asopia covers,
Laid in the tombs of heroes with their faces turned to the sunset.”
Following the advice of the Oracle, Solon was able to claim the island of Salamis, and gave much credit to the Oracle for her fulfilling advice.
- The Oracle also told the Athenians that a wall of wood could protect them. They followed her advice, winning that battle, but it was hopeless for the Spartans. The Pythia told the Spartans before the battle of Thermopylae (in the words of Herodotus):
“Hear your fate, O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces;
Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons,
Or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon
Shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles,
For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him,
Strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus,
And will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.”
Every last Spartan who fought in the battle that the Oracle foresaw as doomed died, making even the most skeptic of people become believers of the Pythia’s powers.