Take a Pilgrimage to the Delphic Oracle

Sunday June 19th 2011
The priestess of Apollo – the oracle at
Delphi – imagined by the
Victorian painter JW Waterhouse.

Imagine that you are a rich resident of Alexandria in, say the second century AD. Your culture is Greek with a dash of Egyptian; your rulers live in Rome. But you have a dilemma – I don’t know – you make this bit up. Are you thinking of marrying? Going into business? Emigrating? Adopting an heir?

You ask your soothsayer, a fellow Greek, for some advice. After casting your chart, he turns a little pale and suggests you consult an oracle, a good one. You could go to Siwa, in the Western Desert – or you could go to Delphi, the centre of the world, the omphalos.

The greatest oracle in the world at that time was Delphi, nestled in a fold in mighty Mount Parnassus. This cave in central Greece was where kings, tyrants, emperors and legends went to hear the priestess of Apollo tell them their fate.

Only once a month was the priestess available – that was the 7th day after the New Moon, the day of Apollo. Delphi was also closed for three months. That meant there were only nine days available in the year for oracular predictions.

You had to be pretty important or rich to get an appointment. But you know people, and soon you are on a ship crossing the sparkling Mediterranean with a bag full of coins and a question on your lips. It’s a pilgrimage to one of the most sacred sites on earth – and a jolly.

Right now (June: I’m not in pretend any more), the sun is travelling through the sign of the twins. The tutelary deity for Gemini is the Sun god Apollo. So this would be an auspicious time to go and consult the priestess of Apollo. Unfortunately, she’s not there anymore. The Emperer Theodosius shut the place down in 395AD. I imagine this might be some cause for regret for the current Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou.

I visited this place for the first time many
years ago and I can still remember the power of it.

We’ve just had the New Moon, so I think Apollo’s day is the 21st or 22nd this year – midsummer.

There was a cluster of holy days at the beginning of each month of the ancient Greek calendar. But who was worshipped on this day depended on where you were. The hero Theseus, for example, was specially popular in Athens but not elsewhere. The list below is Athenian. The month always began with the New Moon.
Holy days at the beginning of each month.
  • Day 1: New Moon
  • Day 2: Agathodaemon
  • Day 3: Athena
  • Day 4: Heracles, Hermes, Aphrodite, Eros
  • Day 5: nada
  • Day 6:Artemis
  • Day 7: Apollo
  • Day 8: Poseidon and Theseus 

Here is a link to a fascinating discussion about the oracle on Radio 4.

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    1. Anonymous says:

      the Priestess is by
      John Collier (1850- 1934) was a British Pre-Raphaelite painter, illustrator and published author