There are a lot of interesting things in the press and on TV about the ancient Greeks and there are recurring references to the Oracle at Delphi ... frankly, I don't like what I've been seeing and hearing.
Perhaps a brief background of the Oracle at Delphi would be helpful:
According to the Homeric Hymns, the Oracle was established by the god Apollon in prehistoric times. Apollon stated that it was his destiny to make the will of his father Zeus known to the mortals of the earth. The Oracle at Delphi was to be the instrument of that destiny.
The mechanism of the oracle was really very simple ... supplicants would go to the Temple of Apollon near the town of Delphi and ask questions of the Pythia, i.e. the priestess/medium ... Apollon would speak through the Pythia and make the will of Zeus known to worthy patrons. The Pythia would traditionally give the prophesies of the god in hexameter poetry ... the verses recited by the Pythia would usually be enigmatic, i.e. they were mysterious but not necessarily unfathomable.
Assuming that you were coming from the city of Athens in ancient times, you would have had to make the seventy mile trek to Mount Parnassos either on foot, horseback or oxcart ... you would pass the home of the Muses on Mount Helikon and then arrive at the entrance to the precinct of the Oracle at Delphi. The Temple of Apollon was your ultimate destination but certain preparations were required before you could approach the Pythia with your question. After your journey to Delphi, you would most likely want to enjoy the experience and take advantage of the outdoor events and religious ceremonies ... there was a theatre for the performance of plays and an athletic field to watch a variety of physical contests ... but, it would seem, one of the most enjoyable parts of your stay would be the camaraderie of the other pilgrims.
The most important part of your visit to the Temple of Apollon was of course, to see the Pythia and have your questions answered. At the entrance to the temple you would find an abbreviated shopping mall where you could purchase animals for the necessary blood sacrifice ... venders would have small covered "booths" to display their wares and you could pick an animal that was appropriate to your budget and devotion. After the proper animal was selected for sacrifice, you would proceed to the foyer of the temple which was decorated with statues and other symbols representing the various Gods and Goddesses ... prayers, meditation and the sacrifice would prepare you for your encounter with the Pythia. You would be escorted into the inner sanctum where the Pythia, if she chose to answer your questions, would recite a poem which would be recorded by a priest ... the meaning or significance of the poem was not always apparent and in cases where groups of people or cities were involved, the Pythia's answers were hotly debated until a consensus was achieved as to its "correct" meaning ... individual people were left to decipher their own messages from Apollon.
The ruins of Temple of Apollon at Delphi
The modern skeptics and rationalists, who seem to dominate the media, don't believe in prophecy ... they don't believe in the ancient Gods and they view the citizens of ancient Greece as simpletons and dimwits. I personally find their skeptical and rational opinions lacking in human insight and ignorant of historical facts. The skeptics and rationalists indulge a form of selective amnesia and justify their all-knowing stance by pretending that all human experience is simply cause and effect ... they seem to believe that all things are unquestionably physical in the Newtonian sense and any person who has a psychic or religious experience is a charlatan, a certifiable psycho or some sort of cult fodder.
I have heard several infuriating explanations as to how the Oracle of Delphi "scammed" the ancient Greeks, Persians, Egyptians and Romans into believing that the prophesies of the Pythia were true ... the skeptics say that the prophecies were nothing more than hit-or-miss generalizations, out-n-out lies or hallucinations ... they believe that these meaningless prophecies were then interpreted to suit the predilections of the questioner and had nothing to do with actual prophecy or divine communication.
One rationalized theory states that the Temple of Apollon was accidentally located at the intersection of several fault lines and fumes from under the earth seeped into the temple to make the Pythia hallucinate ... the fume-induced intoxication would make her hear voices which she vaingloriously interpreted to be the voices of the Immortals.
Another pseudo-rational theory assumes, without historical reference, that the Pythia would "babble" incoherently and that a priest would pretend to decipher her garbled prattle into a vague poem. Let's be honest for just a moment ... if you went to a modern fortune teller, would you feel like you got your money's worth if the seer babbled and spoke incoherently? We're not talking about vague or cleverly worded answers or non-committal generalizations, we're talking about answers that are voiced in a language not known to human ears, i.e. true babble. Would you return to this babbling fortune teller time after time and keep paying to hear something that was obviously gibberish? Or, as at Delphi, would you walk or ride in an oxcart into the mountains just to hear babbling and pretend to be in communication with one of the gods? More to the point, would you jeopardize your kingdom or your fortunes on the words of a babbling woman and a priest who spouted poems with blurred meaning?
A third way to explain the Oracle at Delphi is to simply dismiss the whole business as a fraud ... the hard-core doubters contend that there was not even the pretence of a divine connection ... the Pythia and priests would give the supplicants a load of garbage cloaked in rhyme and then laugh all the way to the bank. This cynical explanation is really no explanation at all ... those who actually profess this theory seem to believe that any sincere belief held by someone other than themselves is based on a lie and that their beliefs, regardless of how absurd they may appear to others, are to be accepted as the unquestioned truth. This perspective is quite sad and un-evolved ... but, also sadly, not uncommon.
I don't accept any of those rationalizations ... or, for that matter, any sort of "logical" explanation for the existence and success of the Oracle at Delphi. You have to remember that the Oracle was an accepted institution in the ancient world for well over a thousand years ... the words of the Pythia were feared and respected in every ancient Mediterranean culture ... wars were fought (and not fought) without hesitation when the Pythia spoke ... kings and farmers were ardent believers in the veracity of the Oracle ... treasures were given to the Temple of Apollon in sincere gratitude for the wisdom and guidance the Pythia provided.
There is one documented case where the Pythia was bribed to lie ... the traveler and historian Pausanias reported that circa 505 BCE, the Spartan King Kleomenes (Cleomenes) induced a Pythia to "adjust" her responses to suit his desires. The two kings of Sparta had always maintained the delicate balance of cooperation and antagonism but their differences were usually settled by the Spartan elders in accordance with their laws and for the good of Sparta rather than the benefit of any individual. While Kleomenes had been out of the city with his army, his co-king Demaratus began a slander campaign against him. Upon his return, Kleomenes initiated a series of intrigues for the deposition of King Demaratus ... he bribed the Pythia to frame her response in accordance with his plans and eventually had Demaratus replaced as king. Kleomenes then lapsed into a form of madness where he wounded and maimed himself with his own sword. Since Kleomenes was no stranger to disrespectful behavior towards the Gods, the root of his madness was variously blamed on his desecration of a precinct sacred to Artemis, his killing of supplicants seeking refuge in a sacred grove and, of course, bribing the Pythia. We are not told the fate of the Pythia who dishonored her position and lied in the name of Apollon but I think that we can assume that her fate was not quick or painless.
I believe that women with psychic abilities from all parts of the ancient world were welcomed at Delphi where their phenomenal skills could be nurtured and honed ... the best of the best were promoted to the rank of Pythia and became the voice of Apollon ... in this capacity they would share their insights and prophetic visions with all sincere supplicants.
One dominate feature of the Temple of Apollon at Delphi was the Omphalos ... this was a conical stone which was said to be the Navel of the Earth. It is usually assumed that this meant that Delphi was some sort of geographic center of the earth's landmass. Perhaps a more esoteric explanation would better suit the nature and function of the Omphalos. If we think of this enigmatic conical stone as a true navel we can easily make the connection between the offspring and the parent ... if we consider ourselves to be the creations of a higher being, then we can visualize the Omphalos as the point where we were once connected to our parent/creator. The Omphalos was a point, a device, where the psychic Pythia could connect with her divine patron and learn the will of the Gods.
A replica of the Omphalos
Can any of this be true? For an answer, you need to ask yourself several matter of fact questions:
1) Do you believe in prophets?
2) Has a prophet ever lived on this planet?
3) Has a prophecy ever been documented?
I would have to answer YES to all of the above and say without reservation that the Oracle at Delphi was real ... the miraculous insights and prophecies attributed to the Oracle are true and anyone who says that they were phony or hallucinatory is to be pitied.