Delphi was an ancient religious sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god Apollo. Developed in the 8th century B.C., the sanctuary was home to the Oracle of Delphi and the priestess Pythia, who was famed throughout the ancient world for divining the future and was consulted before all major undertakings. It was also home of the Pythian Games, the second most important games in Greece after the Olympics. Delphi declined with the rise of Christianity and was ultimately buried under the site of a new village until the late 1800s.
Located about six miles (10 km) from the Gulf of Corinth in the territory of Phoics in Greece, Delphi is situated between two towering rocks of Mount Parnassus known as the Phaidriades (Shining) Rocks.
The site contained the sanctuary of Apollo, the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia — meaning, “Athena who is before the temple (of Apollo)” — and various other buildings, most of which were intended for sports, such as the gymnasium used for exercise and learning.
When visitors approached Delphi, the first structure they saw was the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia (hence its name). This sanctuary contained the most characteristic monument at Delphi: the Tholos, a circular building with a conical roof supported by a ring of outer columns.
Visitors would then walk along the Sacred Way, a path to the sanctuary of Apollo that was lined with treasuries and votive monuments. Given that Delphi was a pan-Hellenic sanctuary, it was not controlled by any one Greek city-state and instead was a sanctuary for all Greeks — city-states constructed the treasuries as offerings to Apollo and to show off their power and wealth.
Temple of Apollo
The central and most important part of Delphi was the temple of Apollo, where the Pythia delivered her prophetic words in the adyton, a separate, restricted room at the rear. The temple of Apollo sat atop a large terrace supported by a polygonal wall.
The Sacred Way also led to the theatre of Delphi above the temple and the stadium (for athletic contests) further up.
Delphi also contained settlements and cemeteries, which were built outside and around the two sanctuaries.
Delphi in Greek Mythology
Greeks considered Delphi the center (or navel) of the world.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles, one to the east and the other to the west, to find the navel of the world. The eagles met at the future site of Delphi — Zeus marked the spot with a sacred stone called the omphalos (meaning navel), which was later held at the sanctuary of Apollo.
Greeks believed the site was originally sacred and belonged to Gaea, or Mother Earth, and was guarded by Gaea’s serpent child, Python. Apollo killed Python and founded his oracle there.
According to legend, natives of the island of Crete, accompanied by Apollo in the guise of a dolphin, arrived at the port of Delphi (Kirrha) and built the god’s sanctuary.
Who Built Delphi?
Priests from Knossos (on Crete) brought the cult of Apollo to Delphi in the 8th century B.C., during which time they began developing the sanctuary to the god.
They built the first stone temples to Apollo and Athena towards the end of the 7th century B.C.
However, Delphi’s history appears to stretch back much further.
Archaeological evidence suggests a Mycenaean (1600–1100 B.C.) settlement and cemetery once existed within the sanctuary area. Around 1400 B.C., Delphi may have held a sanctuary devoted to the deity Gaea or Athena that was destroyed by a rock fall at the end of the Bronze Age.
What’s more, archaeologists discovered artifacts and evidence of rituals in Korykeion Andron, a cave on Mount Parnassus, that date back to the Neolithic Period (4000 B.C.).
Early History of Delphi
In the early Archaic period (beginning in 8th century B.C.), the Delphi sanctuary was the center of Amphictyonic League, an ancient religious association of twelve Greek tribes.
The league controlled the operation and finances of the sanctuary, including who became its priests and other officials.
Over the years, the nearby harbor community of Krisa had grown wealthy from trade and traffic to Delphi. Around 590 B.C., Krisa inhabitants acted impiously towards the sanctuary of Apollo and pilgrims headed to see the oracle, though what exactly Krisa did is unknown (some historical accounts claim that people defiled the temple and captured the oracle).
The league launched the First Sacred War, which legends say lasted 10 years and ended with the destruction of Krisa.
The league subsequently recognized Delphi as an autonomous state, opening free access to the sanctuary, and reorganized the Pythian Games, which were held in Delphi every four years beginning in 582 B.C.
Oracle of Delphi
The prestige of the Oracle of Delphi was at its height between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C.
Delphi became a powerful entity, with rulers and common folk alike seeking consultation with the Pythia, who only operated over a limited number of days over 9 months of the year. These pilgrims expressed their gratitude with lavish gifts and offerings; what’s more, because of the high demand for the services of the oracle, affluent individuals would pay great sums to Delphi to skip to the front of the line.
The Oracle of Delphi was consulted on both private matters and affairs of state. City-state rulers would even seek the oracle before launching wars or founding new Greek colonies.
For these consultations, the Pythia would enter the adyton and then sit on a tripod chair, possibly behind a curtain. After Apollo’s priests relayed questions posted by petitioners, the Pythia would inhale light hydrocarbon gasses that escaped from a chasm in the ground, falling into a type of trance.
While in this trance, the Pythia would mutter incomprehensible words, which the Apollo priests would translate (sometimes conflicting with one another) for petitioners.
Greeks believed the Oracle of Delphi existed since the dawn of time and accurately predicted various historical events, including the Argonaut’s expedition and the Trojan War.
The End of Delphi
The Delphi priests became powerful, able to bend both military and political powers. But over the centuries, Delphi and the sanctuary of Apollo suffered multiple catastrophes and changes in authority.
In 548 B.C., the first temple was destroyed by fire and remained in ruins for at least three decades until the Alcmaeonids (an Athenian family) rebuilt it.
The fame and prestige of the oracle also resulted in three Sacred Wars in the middle of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., with the sanctuary coming under rule of the Phocians from central Greece, and then Macedonians under the reign of Phillip II (father of Alexander the Great).
In the 3rd century B.C., the Aetolians conquered Delphi and held it for roughly 100 years until the Romans drove the Aetolians out in 191 B.C.
Though Delphi remained culturally important to some Roman emperors, such as Hadrian, others pillaged it, including Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 86 B.C.
In A.D. 393 or 394, the Byzantine emperor Theodosius outlawed the practice of ancient (pagan) religions and the pan-Hellenic games, putting an end to the power of the oracle. The temples and statues of Delphi were subsequently destroyed.
Christian communities settled in the area and in the 7th century A.D., a new village called Kastri grew over the ruins of Delphi.
In the 1860s, German archaeologists began the first research into Delphi.
Some 30 years later, the Greek government granted the French School at Athens (an archaeological institute) permission to conduct intensive excavations at Kastri. Before this “Great Excavation” could commence, the government relocated the Kastri villagers to a new site that they named Delphi.
Workers demolished Kastri houses and installed a mini-railway to remove the debris; excavation began in 1892 and has continued throughout the following decades.
Delphi, Description; Ministry of Culture and Sports.
Delphi, History; Ministry of Culture and Sports.
Thomas R. Martin. An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander. Perseus Digital Library.
Archaeological Site of Delphi; UNESCO.
Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi; Kahn Academy.
Delphi; Ashes2Art (Coastal Carolina University and Arkansas State University).
Timothy Howe. “Pastoralism, the Delphic Amphiktyony and the First Sacred War: The Creation of Apollo’s Sacred Pastures.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, vol. 52, no. 2, 2003, pp. 129–146. JSTOR.
History of the excavations at Delphi; Digital Delphi.