Oracle of Delphi

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Themis in the role of Pythia prophesies Aigeus a son. Attisch- red-figure kylix of Codrus Painter to 435 v. BC, found in Vulci , today in the Antikensammlung Berlin .

The oracle of Delphi was a prophecy place of ancient Greece . It was located on the slope of Mount Parnassus near the city of Delphi in the Phocis countryside . The place of worship at Delphi with the oracle was the most important in the Hellenic world and existed until late antiquity . For a long time Delphi was even considered the center of the world, symbolically marked by the omphalos .


Temple of Apollo in Delphi

According to the myth , Zeus had two eagles fly from one end of the world, which met at Delphi. Since then, this place has been the center of the world.

The earth mother Gaia united with the mud that was left of the world after the end of the Golden Age and gave birth to the winged serpent Python (often referred to as the "dragon"). Python had clairvoyant abilities and lived in what would later be called Delphi. According to different versions of the legend, the python was female or male.

Hera , the wife of Zeus, was a granddaughter of Gaia. Gaia prophesied to her jealous granddaughter that Leto , her rival and one of Zeus' lovers, would one day give birth to twins who would be bigger and stronger than any of her children. So she sent Python to devour Leto before she could give birth to her children. This intrigue was prevented by Zeus, and Leto gave birth to Artemis and Apollo .

Tholos in the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia in Delphi

One of Apollo's first acts was to take revenge on Python for the attack on his mother. He stood against Python at Delphi and killed the dragon. Through the shed blood of pythons, their clairvoyant abilities were transferred to the place. So Delphi was wrested from Gaia's control and was henceforth under the protection of Apollo.


The cult at Delphi, which lasted until the fifth century BC. Chr. Pytho was called, according to mythological accounts, first of all the earth goddess Gaia and only later to Apollo . The exact time when Apollo took over the sanctuary can no longer be determined, but Homer already speaks of a cult of Apollo in Delphi. Finds show an ascent of the sanctuary from the eighth century BC. Chr.

It is due to the cultic veneration of Gaia that Apollo spoke not through a priest , but through the Pythia . This sat on a tripod over a crevice. According to tradition, vapors rose from this crevice, which put the Pythia into a state of trance. The end of the Delphic Oracle came through the Christian Emperor Theodosius I , who abolished all oracle sites by an edict in 391 AD .

Main sanctuary for Apollo in Delphi

Course of the oracle consultation

The oracle of Delphi initially only gave information once a year on the birthday of Apollo, the seventh day of the month of Bysios , and later on the seventh day of every month in summer. In winter it took a break for three months. According to Greek belief, the god stayed with the Hyperboreans , a legendary people in the north, during this time . The oracle was meanwhile ruled by Dionysus .

Before the oracle spoke, an omen was required : a high priest sprinkled a young goat with ice-cold water. If she stayed calm, the oracle for that day would be canceled and those seeking advice had to come back a month later. If the goat winced, it was slaughtered as a sacrificial animal and burned on the altar . Now the prophecies could begin: Accompanied by two priests, the Pythia went to the holy spring Kastalia , where she took a naked bath in order to be ritually pure. She then drank a few sips of the holy water from a second spring, the cassotis . Accompanied by two high priests and the members of the five-man council, the Pythia then went to the Temple of Apollo. She was now led in front of the altar of Hestia , where - according to some theories - the intoxicating vapors rose from a crevice, so that she would have made her prophecies in a kind of trance .

It is controversial to what extent the statements of the Pythia were interpreted and formulated by the priests and to what extent these insights gained from informants were included in their interpretation. Joseph Fontenrose came to the conclusion that the Pythia spoke directly to the questioners. However, only the wealthy clients received individual advice and received detailed, albeit often puzzling, answers. The poor had to make do with a binary oracle (yes-no oracle). They were therefore only allowed to ask questions that could be answered with yes or no. The Pythia then reached into a container of white and black beans and took out one of them: white meant yes, black meant no .

The Delphians gave a privilege to consult the oracle, the Promanteia . It was first given to cities and later also to individuals.

Explanatory approaches

Earlier geological investigations made it appear doubtful that real gases escaped from a crevice in Delphi. It was therefore believed that the myth made physical gases out of a spiritual breath . 2001 published research by the American geologist Jelle de Boer but could prove after extensive laboratory analysis, that the emerging in Delphi gas ethylene , the trance of the priestess might have caused.

Italian geologists working with Giuseppe Etiope, however, contradicted de Boer's thesis in 2006, since according to their results the ethylene could not have reached any neurotoxic concentrations. In her opinion, the priestess's trance is explained by the high methane and carbon dioxide content of the gases rising from the rock; this led to a lack of oxygen and hallucinations in the Pythia. De Boer, however, sticks to his thesis. He explains that today in Delphi no more high concentrations of ethylene can be achieved by the fact that the escape routes have been closed by the earth moving or sintering .

It is undisputed that Delphi, as one of the largest Panhellenic sanctuaries, regularly received travelers from all over the Mediterranean. Inquiries to the oracle, which could come from a polis or an oikist , for example , revealed their confidential political intentions or could provide information about colony plans. The Delphic priesthood thus had information like hardly any other group of people, was able to establish connections between them and certainly also make predictions in this way that cannot be explained by trance states alone.

Famous Delphic oracles

The most famous (alleged) Delphic oracle sayings are compiled below. Since the oracle of Delphi was already shrouded in legend in antiquity, some of its prophecies (and indeed the most famous ones) are judged to be legendary or fictitious in modern history. This applies in particular to all those sayings that are said to have gone beyond a mere “yes” and “no”. Following the individual famous oracles, their source, their historical assessment and the reference in the authoritative work by Joseph Fontenrose (1978) are given here: In today's research, they are all clearly or at least most likely fictitious.


According to the myth, the oracle of Delphi prophesied the king of Thebes , Laios, that his son would one day kill him and marry his wife. Then he had the newborn's feet pierced and tied and a shepherd set him down in the mountains. But the shepherd gave the rejected child to the royal couple of Corinth , who adopted it and named it Oedipus after its swollen feet . Oedipus grew up in Corinth without knowing where he came from. When an oracle announced to him that he would kill his father, he left Corinth out of concern for his supposedly biological father and set out for Thebes.

On the way he met Laios traveling with a small retinue at a crossroads; he thought Oedipus was a robber and did not want to let him through, whereupon Oedipus killed him and most of his followers. Thus one of the two prophecies came true. Then Oedipus succeeded in solving the riddle of the Sphinx and thus liberating Thebes from the Sphinx . As a reward he was appointed king of Thebes as the successor of Laios and got Iokaste , his mother, as his wife. Thus the second prophecy came true.

Not knowing that they were related, the two had four children together. When, after a few happy years, an epidemic broke out in Thebes, the oracle of Delphi announced that the murderer of Laios must be found. Oedipus investigated the case and found that he himself was the wanted murderer and had married his own mother. Then Iocaste hanged himself and Oedipus blinded himself.

Source: Numerous ancient documents, e.g. B. Sophocles , Oidipus Tyrannos .
Historical assessment: legendary.


The Lydian king Gyges of Sardis had his rule confirmed by the oracle of Delphi after he had resigned around 685 BC. Had murdered his predecessor Kandaules . Gyges thanked the oracle with generous gold gifts. But according to Herodotus , the Pythia is said to have also told him that Kandaules would be avenged in the fifth generation after him, Gyges. So it actually happened, because the fifth king after Gyges in his so-called Mermnaden dynasty , Croesus by name, was also the last: Croesus gambled away his rule with his failed Persian campaign (see the next section "Croesus").

Source: Herodotus, Histories 1, 13, 2.
Historical judgment: false; the exact number of ruling generations in the des Gyges family would hardly have been predictable.

In addition, the very rich Gyges is said to have considered himself the happiest person in the world. The oracle of Delphi could not confirm this to him when asked, but replied that Agelaos, an unknown and poor villager in Psophis, was much happier.

Source: Pliny , Naturalis historia 7, 46, 151.
Historical assessment: fake.


Croesus , the proverbially wealthy last king of Lydia , wanted to test the reliability of seven oracles (besides Delphi, for example, the oracle of Dodona or Siwa ). On the hundredth day after their departure, messengers were supposed to ask each of the oracles what Croesus was doing. As Herodotus reports, only Pythia gave the correct answer, and that too, as usually in a well-placed verse in the hexameter , following in the corresponding translation:

"I became aware of the scent of the turtle, the armored animal / Which is cooked in an iron cauldron, and pieces of lamb, / ore is placed under it, and ore will rest on the cauldron."

Indeed, in order to do something difficult to predict, Croesus had cooked a lamb and a turtle that day in a covered metal vessel.

Source: Herodotus, Historien 1, 47, 3.
Historical judgment: false; To test Delphi would have also meant challenging Apollo himself, and no ancient Greek or Lydian would have dared to do this.

But then Croesus fell ill with the oracle he requested before he died in 546 BC. . BC against the Persian king Cyrus II. Broke up, and was a Greek hexameter: Κροῖσος Ἅλυν διαβὰς μεγάλην ἀρχὴν καταλύσει Croesus Halyn diabas megalen archen katalysei, or in Latin translation: Croesus Halyn penetrans magnam pervertet opum vim, in German prose : When Croesus the Halys (today: Kizilirmak ) , he will destroy a great empire. Croesus related this prophecy to the Persian Empire, but it meant his own.

Source: Herodotus, Historien 1, 53, 3 (indirect); Aristotle , Rhetorik 1407a (as hexameter) and others; Latin translation: Cicero , De divinatione 2, 56, 115.
Historical assessment: fake. Addressing the questioner (Croesus) in the third person instead of in the direct you form is unusual for Delphi. In addition, the saying reveals knowledge that one could only have in retrospect, because the Persian campaign of Croesus could have ended without destroying either of the two empires.


The Athenians received 480 BC From the Delphic Oracle the instruction to leave their city and defend it with wooden walls. Themistocles correctly interpreted this in terms of ships and was thus able to defeat the Persians in the sea ​​battle of Salamis .

Source: Herodotus, Historien 7, 141, 3-4 et al
Historical assessment: highly doubtful, at least in the conspicuously long form handed down from Herodotus.

Chairephon / Socrates

Also famous is the answer that the Athens Chairephon received when asked whether there was a wiser person than Socrates . The Delphic Oracle decided that no man was wiser than Socrates. He explained this answer by stating that he was always aware that he was not really sure of anything, and that this was precisely the prerequisite for attaining wisdom. Many therefore name Socrates as the eighth wise men of Delphi alongside the seven wise men.

Source: Plato , Apologie des Sokrates 21a-c; Xenophon , Apologie des Sokrates 14 et al
Historical assessment: Contested by many scholars as a pious fiction of the Socratic school.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great is said to be 335 BC. Asked for advice in Delphi with regard to his planned Persian campaign, but Pythia put him off: The oracle only takes place at the times determined by the gods. Angry and unwilling to wait, he is said to have dragged Pythia into the temple by force by the hair. Thereupon she is said to have only called: "Let go of me, you are insurmountable, boy!" Then Alexander is said to have said: "Now I have my answer!" And let Pythia go.

Source: Plutarch , Alexandervita 14.4; Diodor , Libraries 17,93,4 et al
Historical assessment: legendary. The salutation of Alexander with the Greek vocative "pai" (boy, youth, son) refers to an older version of the legend, according to which Alexander was named by Zeus or Amun in an oracle from Siwa as his son.


Pyrrhus could Romans 280/ 279 v. BC twice defeated only with very large losses (hence the proverbial Pyrrhic victory ). Before this venture, he is said to have asked the Delphic Oracle for advice and received the following ambiguous Latin hexameters from Pythia:

“Aio te, Æacida, Romanos vincere posse. / Ibis redibis nunquam per bella peribis. "

Pyrrhus interpreted this (the following German translation in prose):

“I say, Aeacide (descendant of Aiakos , the grandfather of Achilles ), you can defeat the Romans. You will go and return and you will never perish in wars. "

Grammatically, however, the sentences can also mean (ambiguous subject or object accusative in AcI , ambiguous position of nunquam ):

“I say the Romans can defeat you, Aeacide. You will go and you will never return; you will perish in wars. "

And so it happened. Pyrrhus had to withdraw from Italy and fell in 272 BC. In the street fight in Argos .

Source: Cicero, De divinatione 2,56,116 after Ennius .
Historical assessment: undoubtedly spurious. The Latin verses were first composed by Ennius, a Greek original is nowhere known, although the oracle of Delphi only gave Greek answers. Evidently Ennius wanted to invent an oracle for Pyrrhus which, in its ambiguity, corresponded to the oracle for Croesus (described above).

The poor farmer's donation

The oracle of Delphi is also linked to a story that is related in content to the biblical story of the "mite of the widow" (Mk 12.41-44): A rich merchant from magnesia wanted to know whether he had made the largest sacrifices, and learned that the poor farmer Klearchus from Methydrion in Arcadia had achieved far greater things through his regular, humble gifts.

Source: Theopomp , fragment 314.
Historical assessment: legendary.


The Pythia supposedly gave the last oracle to the doctor Oreibasios in AD 362 , who visited it on behalf of the pagan emperor Julian . He wanted to know whether the oracle still had a future in a world turning to Christianity , to which Pythia is said to have answered:

“Tell the emperor that the beautifully built house has fallen. Phoibos Apollon no longer has a refuge, the sacred laurel withers, its springs are forever silent, the murmuring of the water is silent. "
Source: Philostorgios , Church History.
Historical judgment: fake, Christian fiction. Such a declaration of bankruptcy would hardly have been issued by the Delphi Oracle while it still existed. There are also indications that the oracle continued for a while after Julian.


Delphic Sibyl (detail from a fresco by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel , 1510)
Priestess of Delphi by John Collier (1891)

According to tradition, the inscriptions “Know yourself” ( gnôthi seautón , γνῶθι σεαυτόν) and “nothing in excess” (μηδὲν ἄγαν, medèn ágan ) are said to have been placed at the entrance to the temple of Delphi . In particular, the first, more well-known request indicates the actual intention of the cult or the venerated deity, namely the resolution of individual problems and questions by dealing with one's own inner personality. The knowledge of the "inner world" thus served as access to problem solving in the "outer world".

The second inscription ( medèn ágan , "Nothing in excess", "Everything in moderation") urges modesty in one's own actions. The right measure stands for a basic figure of ancient Greek thought, which in addition to the Platonic theory of being up to the Aristotelian virtue ethics also includes music, which covered mathematics, medicine and many other areas of society.

The existence of these inscriptions is known not from archaeological finds but from written records. So lets z. B. Plato in Phaedrus and especially in the symposium the Greek philosopher Socrates talk about the meaning of these inscriptions.

Far less known is that according to a tradition by Charmides and Plutarch's report, which is about 500 years younger , a third one, “You are” ( ), belongs to these two wisdoms . To what extent this adorned the portal is uncertain. According to Plutarch's account, it was probably more of a spoken response from visitors to the temple to the inscriptions. However, due to its importance gained later, it can legitimately be considered the “third Apollonian wisdom”.

While the self-reflective part of “gnôthi seautón” came to the fore later, gnôthi seautón was originally intended as a greeting from Apollon to the visitors. Plutarch writes: "When entering, God speaks to each of us, so to speak, with his 'know yourself', which is at least as good as 'salvation!'." In response, the visitor replied to the god "You are":

"We answer God with, eî '[" You are "] by giving him the designation that is true and does not contain a lie and belongs to him alone and to no other, namely that of being [...]"

Thus, “You are” was not originally directed at yourself, so it was not originally part of a self-reflection , but rather a homage to the god Apollo, or to divinity in general. Only later was the saying reinterpreted as an expression of knowledge and acknowledgment of the believer's own existence .

These and other wisdoms taught and lived through architecture and ritual in Delphi were famous throughout the ancient world. Around 200 BC A certain Kletarchos traveled from today's Afghanistan (see Ai Khanoum ) to Delphi to make copies of the proverbs and then to bring them to his hometown, where he had them immortalized in writing.


  • Hugh Bowden: Classical Athens and the Delphic oracle. Divination and democracy . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005, ISBN 0-521-53081-4 .
  • Thomas Dempsey: The Delphic oracle. Its early history, influence and fall . Blom, New York 1972 (reprinted Oxford 1918 edition).
  • Joseph Fontenrose : The Delphic Oracle. Its responses and operations. With a catalog of responses . University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif. 1978, ISBN 0-520-03360-4 .
  • Marion Giebel : The Oracle of Delphi. History and texts . Reclam, Ditzingen 2001, ISBN 3-15-018122-4 (Greek / German).
  • Michael Maaß : Ancient Delphi. Oracles, treasures and monuments . Theiss, Stuttgart 1997, ISBN 3-8062-1321-6 .
  • Michael Maaß: Ancient Delphi . Beck, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-406-53631-1 .
  • Evi Melas: Delphi. The oracle site of Apollo . Du Mont, Cologne 1990, ISBN 3-7701-2577-0 .
  • Herbert W. Parke, Donald E. Wormell: The Delphic Oracle . Blackwell, Oxford 1966:
    • Vol. 1 The history .
    • Vol. 2 The oracular responses .
  • Wolfgang Schadewaldt : The God of Delphi and the idea of ​​humanity . Insel-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1990, ISBN 3-458-32991-9 (reprint of the Frankfurt am Main 1975 edition).
  • Josef Wiesehöfer : The secrets of Pythia. Oracle and the knowledge of the traveling wise, in: Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp , Elke Stein-Hölkeskamp (Ed.): Places of remembrance of antiquity. The Greek world . CH Beck, Munich 2010, pp. 336-352.

Web links

Commons : Oracle of Delphi  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Fontenrose 1978, p. 288.
  2. ^ Veit Rosenberger : Greek oracles. Eine Kulturgeschichte , Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2001, p. 53.
  3. ^ Jelle Z. de Boer: The geological origins of the oracle at Delphi, Greece . In: Geological Society, London, Special Publications 171, 2000, pp. 399–412 ( PDF ( Memento of the original from December 26, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and Archive link according to instructions and then remove this note. ). @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  4. Giuseppe Etiope: Natural Gas Seepage: The Earth's Hydrocarbon Degassing. Springer, Cham / Heidelberg / New York et al. 2015, ISBN 978-3-319-14600-3 , pp. 184-186.
  5. Fontenrose 1978, p. 362 f., L 17 – L 19.
  6. Fontenrose 1978, p. 300, Q 96.
  7. Fontenrose 1978, p. 301, Q 97.
  8. Fontenrose 1978, pp. 301 f., Q 99, cf. P. 113.
  9. Fontenrose 1978, p. 302, Q 100, cf. P. 113 f.
  10. Fontenrose 1978, p. 316 f., Q 147, cf. Pp. 124-128.
  11. Fontenrose 1978, pp. 245 f., H 3.
  12. Fontenrose 1978, pp. 338 f., Q 216.
  13. Fontenrose 1978, p. 343 f., Q 230.
  14. Fontenrose 1978, p. 377, L 58.
  15. Fontenrose 1978, p. 353, Q 263.

Coordinates: 38 ° 28 ′ 58 ″  N , 22 ° 30 ′ 22 ″  E