Education and Communications

A Day In The Life Of The Oracle Of Delphi – Mark Robinson

As the sun rises over Delphi in 500 BCE, Aristonike hurries
to the temple of Apollo. Like all Greeks, she’s known the legend
of Delphi since childhood. Two eagles released by Zeus
from opposite ends of the Earth met on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, identifying Delphi
as the center of the world. Marking this spot was a mysterious stone
guarded by a legendary serpent called the pytho. But when Apollo killed the pytho,
he made Delphi his home— establishing the city
as the best place in the world to seek guidance directly
from the God of Prophecy. Well, almost directly. At any given time, a single oracle known
as the Pythia communicates Apollo’s will. Reserved only for women, this is
the most important job in the city— and one that Aristonike will soon have to
take on as the current Pythia-in-training. Despite serving in the Temple of Apollo
for many years, Aristonike is still uncertain that she’s
wise enough to fulfill this role. But these doubts will have to wait. Today she’ll be shadowed by officials
from the city’s governing council. If her performance meets their standards, this is the day she’ll become
the new Oracle of Delphi. In the heart of the temenos,
or sacred enclosure, Aristonike greets the current Oracle
and the city officials. The group joins the procession
to the Castilian Spring, where the Pythia performs
a purification ceremony to prepare for a day of prophecy. To establish whether
Apollo is willing to be consulted, Aristonike brings water from the spring
to the temple priests, who sprinkle it on a goat. If the goat shudders,
it will be a prophecy day. If not, travelers from as far away as
modern day Sicily, Egypt, and Afghanistan will have to wait an entire month
to consult the Oracle again. Fortunately, Apollo
is in a communicative mood. Delphians are first in line, most seeking
advice about business or marriage. Following the locals are other Greeks
and then non-Greeks, including ambassadors from great
cities who plan to ask about whether to go to war,
or where they should found new colonies. Most supplicants bring two options
for the Pythia to choose between, alongside the obligatory sacrificial cake. Aristonike reports back to the Pythia, pointing out important figures
and sharing some of their concerns— all while the city counselor takes
notes on her performance. Then the Pythia disappears into her
oracular chamber known as the adyton. Inside, she’ll channel the inspiration
of Apollo, uttering ambiguous prophecies
the questioners must interpret. The adyton is the one place in the temple
Aristonike isn’t allowed to go. So while consultations continue, the Oracle-in-training sets off to collect
wood for the temple’s eternal flame. While gathering branches
from the sacred laurel trees, Aristonike spies wealthy Greeks
training for the upcoming Pythian Games. Second in importance only to the Olympics, these games bring great riches
and attention to Delphi. Typically, Aristonike would pause
to admire the athletes, but today she’s more focused
on impressing her observer. Taking the exact amount
of branches necessary, she hurries back to the temple
for her long awaited evaluation. The counselor who shadowed her
shares his notes with the other officials, and after a brief discussion,
their leader nods. He endorses Aristonike as the new Oracle— and the Pythia offers Apollo’s blessing
on their verdict. Approaching Aristonike
beside the sacred hearth, the Pythia finally unveils
the secrets of her trade. Passed directly from one Oracle
to the next, no history book will ever
record these details. But the Pythia’s insights will guide
all of Aristonike’s future prophecies— shaping wars, politics, and relationships
for years to come, and making Aristonike one of the most
powerful women in the ancient world. As the Pythia concludes her final lesson, she points to two inscriptions
on the temple walls: “know yourself” and “nothing in excess.” Left alone to ponder these ideas, Aristonike feels the first touch
of Apollo’s inspiration— the insight that keeping an open mind
may be more important than finding a single answer.
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