Steeped in mystery and magic, Delphi is considered by many in ancient times as the centre or omphalos (navel) of Mother Earth and is located on the foothills of Mount Parnassus, in central Greece. Just over two hours drive from Athens, with views overlooking the coast to the south and the valley of Phocis, Delphi is a destination that should definitely be included on any tour of ancient Greek sites. Its bespoke archaeological sanctuary, recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and the quaint traditional mountain villages of Delphi and nearby Arachova offer any visitor a myriad of activities all year round.
The site is so vast and of such well-documented archaeological importance that we can merely scratch the surface in this brief review. The real feel of the magic that is Delphi can only come from the experience of being there.
Wanting to discover the centre of Mother Earth, Zeus released two eagles in opposite directions from Mount Olympus. The eagles, having flown around the world, finally crossed paths at Delphi, making it the omphalos (centre) of the Earth.
Delphi is best known for the Oracle of Pythia (the name given to the high priestess), which was dedicated to Apollo and the worship of Gaea, the Greek deity representing the Earth. The initial name of the site was Pytho after the snake believed to have been killed by Apollo. Legend has it that Apollo spoke through the Oracle who would sit on a tripod shaped seat over the chasm (opening in the earth). There Pythia would fall into an intoxicated trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. The Oracle ‘Pythia’ would then answer questions that foretold the future. The Oracle could only consult during the warmer months as in winter Apollo was believed to visit the Hyperboreans in the north. However, Dionyssos would take his place during these months.
The most famous to consult the Oracle was Croesus, the king of Lydia, about whether to go to war with the Persians or not. The Oracle replied that if he went to war a great kingdom would fall, which, unfortunately turned out to be his own. The Oracle is believed to have successfully predicted the destruction of Deukalion, the Argonaut’s expedition and the Trojan War.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book 10:
XII. There is a rock rising up above the ground. On it, say the Delphians, there stood and chanted the oracles a woman, by name Herophile and surnamed Sibyl. The former Sibyl I find was as ancient as any; the Greeks say that she was a daughter of Zeus by Lamia, daughter of Poseidon, that she was the first woman to chant oracles, and that the name Sibyl was given her by the Libyans.  Herophile was younger than she was, but nevertheless she too was clearly born before the Trojan war, as she foretold in her oracles that Helen would be brought up in Sparta to be the ruin of Asia and of Europe, and that for her sake the Greeks would capture Troy. The Delians remember also a hymn this woman composed to Apollo. In her poem she calls herself not only Herophile but also Artemis, and the wedded wife of Apollo, saying too sometimes that she is his sister, and sometimes that she is his daughter.  These statements she made in her poetry when in a frenzy and possessed by the god. Elsewhere in her oracles she states that her mother was an immortal, one of the nymphs of Ida, while her father was a human. These are the verses:–
I am by birth half mortal, half divine;
An immortal nymph was my mother, my father an eater of corn;
On my mother’s side of Idaean birth, but my fatherland was red
Marpessus, sacred to the Mother, and the river Aidoneus.
History and Archaeology
Excavations show that Delphi was first inhabited in Mycenaean times (15th century BC). Two hundred years later, during the first the Sacred War, the Amphictyonic League was formed to destroy the town of Krista that made visitors to the Oracle pay taxes and gave free access to Delphi. The League then recognised the Panhellenic Pythian Games in 582 BC. The games were held to honour Apollo every four years, two years after each Olympic Game. Unlike the Olympics, they featured art and dance competitions, which pre-dated the athletic games, which were eventually introduced.
At this time the Delphic Oracle was at its height, consulting on private as well as state affairs. This influence led to further sacred wars with control of the Oracle changing between rival states, eventually being captured by the Romans in early 2nd century BC, who frequently looted the area.
Visitors from all corners of the ancient world would come to Delphi to enjoy the benefits of the sanctuary or consult the Oracle. They would first be cleansed in the Kastalian Spring, which cascaded down the rock face at Delphi, before entering the sanctuary. They brought with them lavish votive offerings of sculptures and other treasures to pay tribute to the gods.
Findings at the site in 1892 revealed a plan of the sanctuary and some buildings can be dated back to 2nd century BC as stated in the writings of Pausanias. The sanctuary was a rectangular area that was lined with monuments and treasuries up to the Temple of Apollo, which housed the Oracle in a room in the rear. The monuments were usually offerings made by states or individuals in gratitude to Apollo. Only the foundations, some steps and columns remain from the edifice that was built in 4th century BC. Remains from two earlier temples of Apollo have been found, several capitols and wall blocks from the first temple which burnt down while the second temple was destroyed by an earthquake. The Athens Treasury has been rebuilt using original blocks, which display inscriptions and hymns to Apollo.
The renowned Classical sculptor Phidias constructed bronze sculptures at Delphi, depicting Apollo, Athena, as well as various heroes from the Battle of Marathon, including General Miltiades. The epic battle clearly had a strong influence on the young Phidias as he himself was born in 490 BC, the very year that the battle took place. In later years, he produced the huge statue of Athena Promahos, which stood at the Acropolis of Athens.
The Site Today
As soon as we enter the site, we can see the remains of numerous statues and treasuries built to commemorate victories and offer thanks to the Oracle. The most impressive is the Athenian Treasury which was erected in commemoration of the Athenian and Plataean victory in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). One of the largest treasuries was the Argos Treasury which was inspired mainly from the Temple of Hera in the Argolid.
The treasuries will lead you to the Temple of Apollo, still visible today, which was built on the remains of earlier temples. The temple had the adage ‘Know Thyself’ carved into it, considered to be attributed to Apollo and given through the Oracle. The temple and other works of art were destroyed by Christian Byzantine emperor Theodosius I, in his effort to silence the Oracle.
The Stoa of the Athenians is located north-east of the sanctuary. It is built in the Ionic order, comprising seven columns carved from single pieces of stone. It was most likely built by the Athenians after their victory over the Persians to exhibit their war trophies.
Continuing up the hill, we find the ancient theatre of Delphi, an excellent vantage point to stop to admire the views of the sanctuary and the valley below. The theatre, built in 4th century BC, was remodelled several times and rests on the natural shape of the mountain. The orchestra was originally a circle of about seven metres and on the support walls you could once see inscriptions of fictional sales of slaves to the gods. The theatre could be entered through side corridors and had a seating capacity of 4,500.
Following a winding path even further up the hill, you can find the Stadium which was originally built in 5th century BC, and again remodelled later on. The existing seats, made of limestone, were built in 2nd century AD with funding by Herode Atticus. The Stadium is where the Pythian Games took place and could seat 6,500 spectators, and is now used as a venue for occasional cultural events on summer evenings.
Finally a visit to the Tholos at the sanctuary of Athena Pronaea, which is located about half a mile from the main site, is a must. The Tholos is a circular building, constructed between 380 and 360 century BC, which comprised twenty Doric columns on the exterior and ten Corinthian columns in the interior. Apparently, those who came to seek advice from the Oracle, first had to offer a sacrifice to Athena Pronaea, who was the guardian of Pythia.
A visit to the Delphi Archaeological Museum, located at the foot of the main archaeological site on the east side of the village, is also an absolute must. The museum accommodates an impressive collection of artefacts connected to ancient Delphi, including the famous Charioteer attributed to Pythagoras the Samian (questionably, the same Pythagoras of mathematical fame), golden treasures and the earliest known notation of a melody.
For those who care to spend a few more days at Delphi, in the cooler months this is an ideal area for hiking on the well-marked path above Delphi, which follows the ancient Kaki Skala (Bad Steps), where once the condemned were taken to be dropped from the top of the high cliffs to their gory fate below. At the top of the route even further up the mountainside lies the Korykion Cave, a huge cavern known as the Cave of Pan, where the god was once worshipped. Apart from the mythological context, this is of geological interest with its stalactite and stalagmite formations.
Site plan of the Sanctuary of Apollo, Delphi
Telephone: +30 22650 82313, +30 22650 82346, +30 22650 82312 (Museum)
Fax: +30 22650 82966
Tickets: Full: €12, Reduced: €6
Museum & Archaeological Site
Special ticket package: Full: €12, Reduced: €6
Ticket price from 01/11/2016 to 31/03/2017 6 €
Free admission days:
6 March (in memory of Melina Mercouri)
18 April (International Monuments Day)
18 May (International Museums Day)
The last weekend of September annually (European Heritage Days)
Every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31st
Archaeological site open: Daily: 8.00- 15.00(Last admission 14.30)
Museum open: Daily 9.00 – 16.00 (Last admission 15.40)
Closed on the following public holidays:
1 January: closed
25 March: closed
1 May: closed
Easter Sunday: closed
25 December: closed
26 December: closed