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The sacred sanctuary of Delphi

Last updated 23 July 2021

Standing in the mountains in mainland Greece, surrounded by the ruins of Delphi, you immediately understand why this spot became one of the most important sanctuaries of the ancient world. Mount Parnassus rises high above the site and the sacred nature of this space is almost tangible.

First settled over 3000 years ago, Delphi is best known as the home of the god Apollo and his prophesying priestess, the Pythia. Pilgrims from throughout the ancient world visited the sanctuary to receive Apollo’s wisdom and guidance in a ritual which took an entire day and was only performed a few times a year.

Sunlight spilling over the mountains
The ruins of Delphi on the slope of the mountain

There’s a calmness here, looking down the world. The ruins spill over the slope of Mount Parnassos and all around you are panoramic views over the mountains. The valley below is covered in ancient, gnarled olive groves sloping down to the Gulf of Corinth. When you’re here, it’s easy to believe you’re in the centre of the world.

And Delphi was considered the navel of the world in ancient times. Zeus had released two eagles – one flew to the east and the other to the west – and after they flew around the world, Delphi was where they met.

Visiting Delphi

Visiting Delphi now is a very different experience, but some of that same excitement and anticipation remains. If you visit early in the morning, before the tour buses arrive, you can be almost alone with the ruins and savour the sense of peace that imbues this ancient space.

Later in the day, Delphi will be busy with tourists and tour groups - it is one of the most famous Greek ruins after all. In many ways, that must reflect what the sanctuary would have been like in ancient times - bustling with pilgrims and visitors from many different places.

Columns at the Temple of Athena Pronaia
Looking down on the ruins of Delphi
A happy cat sleeping in the ruins

If you can, take your time visiting the site. Stay in the nearby town of Arachova and give yourself a chance to fully explore the ruins and discover the treasures in the museum. Visiting independently will allow you the most freedom, but a good guide can make the ruins and history come alive. Hearing the stories, it can be easy to imagine yourself as a pilgrim coming to make an offering to the ancient gods.

The gods of Delphi

Delphi was, of course, the home of the great sanctuary of Apollo. But he wasn’t always the god who ruled here, and he didn’t rule here alone. Originally, Delphi housed the prehistoric sanctuary of Gaia, the Mother Goddess. Encouraged by his mother, Leto, Apollo defeated the great python who lived in Gaia’s sanctuary, replacing chaos with order and harmony, and bringing this place under his protection.

The original name of the sanctuary was Pytho after the snake and Apollo’s great priestess, the Pythia, took the name too. She offered prophecy and advice to the supplicants who travelled from across the world seeking Apollo’s wisdom. But even then, there were other gods in Delphi – entering Delphi from the east, the first thing you see is the Temple of Athena Pronaia. With pronaia translating to “before the temple”, this was probably the first place pilgrims visited.

The Temple of Athena Pronaia at Delphi

The shrine of Athena sits in an olive grove below the Apollo’s sanctuary and once included two temples dedicated to Athena (the earliest from 500 BCE). The most memorable feature would have been the road tholos temple, which had 20 Doric columns and portrayed the Battles of the Amazons and Centaurs (you can see the remains of these in the Delphi museum). Many believe that the tholos was dedicated to other deities, not Apollo or Athena.

The Sacred Way

Walking along the main road up the the mountain slope was a ritual in itself. The path that guided pilgrims to the entrance of the Temple of Apollo is still there. First, you pass the sacred spring of Kastalia, which sits between the two sanctuaries and is strongly associated with the oracle – the priestess bathed in the spring before entering the temple, and priests and pilgrims cleansed themselves here before going any further.

The ruins of the Stoa of the Athenians in Delphi
A treasure house along the Sacred Way

As you make your way up the path towards the temple, you pass many ruins including the treasury houses which held offerings to the god. Two large – and somewhat unremarkable – rocks mark the places where Leto stood when she urged Apollo to slay the python, and where the first oracle gave a prophecy.

In ancient times, when the oracle was in residence, the sanctuary would have been bustling with pilgrims and priests. Marble and bronze statues, alters and other offerings would have lined the path, as supplicants stood in the hot sun (or rain) waiting for their turn to consult the oracle.

The Temple of Apollo

Not much remains of the Temple of Apollo but it would have been a formidable structure. At the threshold of the temple, the omphalos (navel) stone still marks the place where Zeus's eagles met and where Apollo killed the Python.

The remains of the Temple of Apollo

Beneath the temple, in the subterranean chamber, the Pythia made her prophecies. The Pythia was the only one allowed in this chamber, where she would chew laurel leaves, inhale the fumes from the earth. Here, she would enter her trance, eventually speaking her enigmatic riddles which ultimately revealed the Apollo’s wisdom to the pilgrims.

Initially, the oracle only gave her prophecies once a year, on Apollo’s birthday. Later, this was increased to once a month, except during the three winter months when Apollo was away. Her prophecies were widely believed and everyone from individuals to rulers of city states came to Delphi to seek the guidance of Apollo.

The top of the mountain

Leaving the temple, the path takes you to the top of the site, where you’ll find a theatre and temple which once seated up to 7,000 spectators. The views here are spectacular, overlooking the sanctuary and mountains to the sea in the far distance. There’s a sense of peace and calm up here, with the remnants of the ancient past and sacred knowledge strewn at your feet.

Spectacular views from the theatre at Delphi

And up here, I am struck by how much we still don’t know about this beautiful place and ancient religion. By spending time in this sacred space, I want to touch the knowledge and vision of the ancient oracle and see this sanctuary as it once was. Then, the buildings stood tall, people lined the streets and the smells of incense and slowly-roasting sacrificed meat would have filled the air. Up here, for a second you can almost see these ghosts of a distant time.

But now, the treasures are gone, the games almost forgotten and the ancient wisdom and practices are lost. The space was once home to many gods and the voice of one. Now they are silent, buried in the consecrated ground, bereft of prayers and offerings despite the many visitors.

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