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Pythia, the oracle at Delphi, only gave prophecies the seventh day of each month, seven being the number most associated with Apollo, during the nine warmer months of the year; thus, Delphi was not the major source of divination for the ancient Greeks. Many wealthy individuals bypassed the hordes of people attempting a consultation by making additional animal sacrifices to please the oracle lest their request go unanswered. As a result, seerswere the main source of everyday divination.
The temple was changed to a center for the worship of Apollo during the classical period of Greece and priests were added to the temple organization—although the tradition regarding prophecy remained unchanged—and the apparently always-female priestess continued to provide the services of the oracle exclusively. It is from this institution that the English word, oracle, is derived.
The Delphic Oracle exerted considerable influence throughout Hellenic culture. Distinctively, this female was essentially the highest authority both civilly and religiously in male-dominated ancient Greece. She responded to the questions of citizens, foreigners, kings, and philosophers on issues of political impact, war, duty, crime, laws—even personal issues.Nevertheless there was a catch. The Pythia, when about to deliver, would chew leaves from Apollo’s sacred laurel tree and would then sit on her holy tripod, seated in the innermost sanctum, over a crack on the rock from where noxious volcanic fumes emanated. Dazed and disoriented, she would then be “possessed by the voice of Apollo” and utter inarticulate sounds before fainting. Only the priests were present there, and they had the task of “translating” her utterances in plain speech. The priests were extremely well versed on the various matters of state, as part of their work was to debrief pilgrims about all that they knew. In addition, no question to the god was ever dealt with immediately. After the query was submitted, several days of prescribed ceremonial had to be observed before Apollo was so satisfied as to speak through his priestess, which gave the priests precious time for research.
The semi-Hellenic countries around the Greek world, such as Lydia, Caria, and even Egypt also respected her and came to Delphi as supplicants.
Croesus, king of Lydia beginning in 560 B.C., tested the oracles of the world to discover which gave the most accurate prophecies. He sent out emissaries to seven sites who were all to ask the oracles on the same day what the king was doing at that very moment. Croesus proclaimed the oracle at Delphi to be the most accurate, who correctly reported that the king was making a lamb-and-tortoise stew, and so he graced her with a magnitude of precious gifts. He then consulted Delphi before attacking Persia, and according to Herodotus was advised, “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” Believing the response favorable, Croesus attacked, but it was his own empire that ultimately was destroyed by the Persians.
She allegedly also proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest man in Greece, to which Socrates said that, if so, this was because he alone was aware of his own ignorance. After this confrontation, Socrates dedicated his life to a search for knowledge that was one of the founding events of western philosophy. He claimed that she was “an essential guide to personal and state development.” This Oracle’s last recorded response was given in 393 AD, when the emperor Theodosius I ordered pagan temples to cease operation.
The oracle’s powers were highly sought after and never doubted. Any inconsistencies between prophecies and events were dismissed as failure to correctly interpret the responses, not an error of the oracle. Very often prophecies were worded ambiguously, so as to cover all contingencies – especially so ex post facto. One famous such response to a query about participation in a military campaign was “You will go you will return never in war will you perish“. This gives the recipient liberty to place a comma before or after the word “never”, thus covering both possible outcomes. Another was the response to the Athenians when the vast army of king Xerxes I was approaching Athens with the intent of razing the city to the ground. “Only the wooden palisades may save you“answered the oracle, probably aware that there was sentiment for sailing to the safety of southern Italy and reestablishing Athens there. Some thought that it was a recommendation to fortify the Acropolis with a wooden fence and make a stand there. Others, Themistocles among them, said the oracle was clearly for fighting at sea, the metaphor intended to mean war ships. Others still insisted that their case was so hopeless that they should board every ship available and flee to Italy, where they would be safe beyond any doubt. In the event, variations of all three interpretations were attempted: some barricaded the Acropolis, the civilian population was evacuated over sea to nearby Salamis Island and to Troizen, and the war fleet fought victoriously at Salamis Bay. Should utter destruction have happened, it could always be claimed that the oracle had called for fleeing to Italy after all.