Delphi History

The history of Delphi is actually not the history of a town but of a famous sanctuary. In ancient times, it was believed that Delphi was the center of the world, the navel of the Earth as it was called and the impressive thing is that according to modern research, it is indeed the center of the world! The myth says that in order for Zeus to find the center of the Earth, he set two eagles free, one to the east and another to the west, and these two eagles made the round trip of Earth and met above Delphi.

Delphi took its name from the word dolphin. The myth says that god Apollo got on board a dolphin and traveled from Crete to Delphi. There he killed a local monster and established an oracle, as he was the god of future telling. This oracle gained fame and people from all over the Mediterranean world would come to seek prophecy from god. This prophecy was given by the god through his high-priestess, Pythia. In order to give a prophecy, Pythia would enter the temple of Apollo and would chew laurel leaves. While chewing these leaves, she would fall in ecstasy and speak the words of God. These words were mixed up, so the priests of the temple would put the words in order and give the prophecy to the people.

When asking for a prophecy, people would come with valuable offerings to the oracle of Delphi. This is why Delphi had many treasuries to guard these gifts. For example, very important was the Treasury of Athenians, of Sifnians and of Boetians. The Athenians also created a stoa to honor god Apollo. Also before entering the temple, pilgrims had to wash in the Castalian Spring to wipe off their sins.

Every four years, a very important athletic event was taking place in Delphi, the Pythian Games, dedicated to god Apollo. Athletic competitions were taking place in the ancient stadium, on the highest spot of Delphi, and also religious ceremonies and drama performances were organized in the ancient theatre. Before the games, the athletes would practice in the gymnasium.

Apart from religious respect, Delphi also had strong political power. From the 6th century BC, the sanctuary worked as a political union for the towns of central Greece, called the Delphic Amphictyonic League. The towns of the same league could not go to war one against the other and they were obliged to offer military help to any town of the league that was in danger.

When the Persians attacked Greece in 480 BC, the Persian king Xerxes sent a fully armed battalion to steal the treasury of Delphi. However, the legend says that a thunderstorm came from the Sanctuary of Athena Pronea and falling rocks from the surrounding mountains caused the death of many Persians, while the rest thought it wise to retreat.

The oracle of Delphi was continually working until the 3rd century AD. This was the period when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion of the Byzantine Empire and after a decree of the emperor Theodosius II, the oracle of Delphi was closed as a pagan place.