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Delphi: A site of Oracle or a hub of Cultural Value

Delphi was a Mycenaean village from 1500 to 1100 BCE. By the mid of 4th century CE this is the most over inspiring and spectacular place in the entire ancient world. It is the combination of art religion and money making place. Before a century or two it was a lost world. As per the accepted view Greece was the centre of European culture. Walking through Delphi is walking through the story old ancient Greece. Mainly Delphi is famous for its oracle[i] and Omphalos[ii] but this should not only be the reason. Delphi was not just an oracle as per records found. Oracle repeated every nine days of the year. It was a large and interstate sanctuary, at which plethora of other activities taking place[iii].  For approx. hundred years city was the centre of conflicts and every one put up a monument to celebrate their struggle. It is more about Politics and less about religion. It is more to show tire empowerment. It was the place of Apollo so nothing had been demolished till time. It was the place where Greek can come together and worship. At the same time place to express their difference at extreme. It is story board of mutual hostility. Literary testimonial offers us a detailed view of the sanctuary as crowded place of constant (comparative) interaction.[iv] Delphi was centre of extreme political rivalry. In the mid of the 4th BCE Macedonians tried to overpower Greece with their governance and for Greeks it was the end of competition. Macedonians came to Delphi and declare their power.

Establishing their power Romans contributed to Delphi as well to the other aspects of Greeks. They restored the temple of Apollo, increased the Gymnasium etc. By the 1st century CE Oracle was no longer headed. By 4th ACE Constantine after establishing his new Christian capital at Istanbul calling it Constantinople, declared that omphalos was not Delphi it was Constantinople where king was also crowned in Hagia Sophia.

Even today site is forecasting many messages to many people. The question is why the physical space of the sanctuary has not been taken up with as much enthusiasm as the oracle or the story it could offer, which will help to achieve a more nuanced and better understanding of activity within the sanctuary and of the sanctuary pan Hellenic place in the wider Greek world.

There are two major shrines at Delphi one is dedicated to Apollo and other to Athena. By inspecting only these two structures at the site on can easily contemplate the consequences that had happened during the time and to which Delphi is witnessing today. There were lots of people with their own support and disputes as well. But they were the followers of one: Apollo.

Delphi was originally devoted to the worship of the Earth goddess whom the Greeks called Gaia[v]. Around 1000 BCE the worship of Apollo became dominant when this new god was brought to the region by either Dorians from Crete or northern tribes from Thessaly.Located roughly one-half mile from the main concentration of buildings at Delphi, Athena Pronaia was the gateway to Delphi. The site, having been occupied since the Neolithic Period (5000-3000 BCE) and later by the Mycenaean, may actually predate Delphi as a sacred place. Originally dedicated to the worship of an Earth Goddess, the shrine was eventually occupied by Olympian deities, Athena in particular. It is also suggested that this shrine is the gateway to Delphi. As Apollo is the chief deity and she performed her duties well so she is guarding the Sanctuary. Basically it’s about politics in religion. The site originally belongs to Athena but later Occupied by Apollo god of group of people so they indirectly demoted the existing deity assigning her sanctuary ‘The gateway to Delphi’.

It was built in the classical Doric style by the architect Theodoros of Phokaia[vi] The “tholos” featured twenty lightly coloured, unusually thin, marble columns encircling the sanctuary space, each positioned on a stylobate of dark marble wedge shaped slabs of identical size.  The pale exterior and interior columns and light marble orthostates, threshold, and walls contrasted sharply with the dark marble used to construct the stylobate, floors, and the facing of the ledge supporting the interior Corinthian columns.

Temple of Apollo was erected on the remains of an earlier temple, dated to the 6th century BCE which itself was erected on the site of a seventh century BCE construction attributed to the architects Trophonios and Agamedes.

The 6th century BCE temple was named the “Temple of Alcmonidae” in tribute to the Athenian family who funded its reconstruction following a fire, which had destroyed the original structure. The new building was a Doric temple of 6 by 15 columns. This temple was destroyed in 373 BCE by an earthquake. The pediment sculptures are a tribute to Praxizs and Androsthenes of Athens. Of a similar proportion to the second temple it retained the 6 by 15 column pattern around the stylobate. Inside was theytonad, the centre of the Delphic oracle and seat of Pythia sitting on which Sibyl used goes in trance.  The temple had the statement “ know thyself”, one of the Delphic maxims, carved into it (and some modern Greek writers say the rest were carved into it), and the maxims were attributed to Apollo and given through the oracle and/or the Seven sages of Greece (“know thyself” perhaps also being attributed to other famous philosophers). The monument was partly restored during 1938.

The temple survived until 390 AD, when the Christian emperor Theodisious I silenced the oracle by destroying the temple and most of the statues and works of art in the name of Christianity. The site was completely destroyed by zealous Christians in an attempt to remove all traces of Paganism.

First monumental discovery in 7th CE was the treasury dedicated in Apollo sanctuary by Corinth.

The orchestra discovered is built in a complete circle in front of the stage, separating the spectators from the stage.  The orchestra was sometimes delineated by simply drawing a circle on the ground, although orchestras also have been found marked by rough-hewn stones.  The orchestra was considered sacred ground with an altar placed in the centre to honour the gods and goddesses.  Sacrifices were made on the altar before and after the performances, marking them as sacred events.

The Charioteer  from Sculpture Siphian treasury is another ancient relic that has withstood the centuries. It is one of the best known statues from antiquity. The charioteer has lost many features, including his chariot and his left arm, but he stands as a tribute to athletic art of antiquity.

Keeping in mind these light pieces of references one can think about the real importance of the site but unfortunately instead of fostering about the knowledge of art, architecture and society we only note superficiality. Instead of talking about the mental tendency of the people which we should we talk about their sub consciousness? We can easily configure that religion was very dominant even at that time and people took advantage of that. On inspecting it closely we can easily conclude that Delphi was not just about Oracle and Omphalos rather an Omphalos of Greek Art and Culture.


[i] According to the version of Apollo: The sibyl or priestess of the oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia; she had to be an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants of the area. She sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth. When Apollo slew Python, its body fell into this fissure, according to legend, and fumes arose from its decomposing body. Intoxicated by the vapours, the sibyl would fall into a trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. In this state she prophesied. It has been speculated that a gas high in ethylene, known to produce violent trances, came out of this opening, though this theory remains debatable.

[ii] An egg-shaped stone which was situated in the innermost sanctuary of the temple in historic times. Classical legend asserted that it marked the ‘navel’ (Omphalos) or centre of the Earth and explained that this spot was determined by Zeus who had released two eagles to fly from opposite sides of the earth and that they had met exactly over this place.

[iii] Scot, Michael. Delphi and Olympia: The spatial politics of Pan Hellenism in the Archaic and Classical Periods. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Pg7.

[iv] Scot, Michael. Delphi and Olympia: The spatial politics of Pan Hellenism in the Archaic and Classical Periods. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.Pg8.

[v] Herbert William Parke. The Delphic Oracle, v.1, US: Ares Publisher 1956. Pg7.


[vi] Pedley  John.  Sanctuaries and the sacred in the Greek world. New York: Cambridge University press,2005. Pg151.


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