Thoughts on the image of the Oracle at Delphi – an example of stylized mythological representation?

Delphi picture I took Sep 9 2006_1

(A picture I took of the Temple of Apollo, looking eastward.  Delphi, Greece, September 9, 2006 – click to enlarge)

The Oracle (called the Pythia) at Delphi, Greece, has always interested me.  Considering that we’re looking at something that lasted about 1000 years its amazing that there are many uncertainties and inconsistencies about the Oracle, the oracle process, and what happened.  Really, we know very little.   Here’s some speculation I had about it:


The Oracle at Delphi, Greece, is often portrayed in a specific way:

  • She is sitting on a tripod, which is not designed as a chair or to sit on.
  • She is holding a dish of water in one hand.
  • She is holding a laurel leaf in the other hand (the laurel plant was associated with Apollo).
  • She is said to inhale fumes coming from the ground.
  • She is often said to be in a cavern.

These seem more like a representation of specific qualities and attributes than an ‘actual happening’ to me.  I find it hard to believe that the Oracle did this at every session, particularly something that lasted for about 1000 years.  I’m inclined to think that each trait represented specific qualities meaningful to the Oracle at Delphi.  In this way, its actually a stylized mythological representation of the Oracle at Delphi.  One could perhaps compare it to the images of Hindu gods, such as Siva, who is often portrayed with many arms, each hand holding something that has a mythological meaning to that god.  Its not that Siva “looks” like that, with many arms, but that the image represents aspects of him and his traits.  I often felt that the image of the Oracle at Delphi was similar.

If consulting the Oracle was a stylized mythological image it would make sense that people “said” that this is what happened at Delphi.  This is because it is perceived as a “mythical event” and, as a result, “always happened that way”.  We must remember that going to the Oracle at Delphi was viewed as a ‘confrontation’ with the god Apollo, so to speak, a god.  Any normal human ‘explanation’ would be altered as a result and a more mythological stance taken as ‘real’.  This would mean that the accounts describe what can be called a ‘mythological bias’, so to speak, and do not portray an actual real-world happening.  That is to say, they painted the event in relation to the mythological meanings its associated with and, in so doing, actually created a “biased” view of what happened.  Many religious happenings are viewed in this way where specific things and happenings are viewed as being “from god” or are viewed in a way that fits a specific mythological or religious image.  As a result, this is how its viewed and claimed.  This same situation seems plausible at Delphi and may account for all the gaps, inconsistencies, and confusions found about the Oracle and what happened there.  If this is true it would mean that people were describing a ‘mythological happening’, as they perceived it, not an ‘actual real-world happening’.

Did they even see the Oracle?

Assuming people spoke of the Oracle in this way (as a ‘mythological happening’), its often made me wonder it it may possibly mean that an actual confrontation with the Oracle may not of even happened at all!  If this happened it may probably originate from the fact that any answer they received from the Temple of Apollo, regardless of its source, would be spoken of as “from the Oracle”, regardless of whether they met the actual Oracle or not.  In fact, the answer may not of even come from the Oracle at all (perhaps it may of come through some other form of divination or someone else for that matter which did, in fact, happen at the Temple of Apollo).  But, regardless of this fact, it would be described as coming from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and it would be described as “from the Oracle” by everyone that went there.  This would make the accounts even more confusing and inconsistent as to what actually happened (which is the case).

If this situation were true, and people were actually describing a stylized mythological image of the Oracle, then it could very well mean this scenario was common:

The petitioner was led into the Temple of Apollo by a Proxenas – a local representative – and was told to wait before a door.  It appears that the “Oracle” was in a separate room in the temple, called the Adyton.  The petitioner was apparently left in a separate room called a Majaron or Oikas.  While waiting here their question was taken inside to the “Oracle”.  This, in actuality, could of been anyone:  the Oracle, Priests, other people, etc. . . .  the answer could of even been the result of some form of divining as far as we know.  After they were done, a Priest would walk out the door and tell the petitioner the answer.  The petitioner would then say that the “Oracle” answered the question, even though they never saw the Oracle or what happened.  Instead, they’d envision that the stylized mythical image had happened (the Oracle sat on a tripod, etc.) even though they saw none of it.  But because that’s how they perceived what happened that’s what they’d tell everyone and how they’d remember it.

To me, this “could be” a likely scenario.  This would lead to the fact that there is very little consistency in the accounts to describe a consistent and repetitive ‘actual happening’.  In effect, there is a possibility that the petitioner never saw what happened, or only saw a small part of it, and described what they thought was happening based on their own version of stylized mythological representation.  

This, of course, could of changed over its 1000 years history and there may of been variations in what happened as well, including how the petitioner associated with the Oracle.  From what I understand at this time, the petitioner probably saw the Oracle during the later years, perhaps as Delphi was losing its power and, perhaps, because Delphi’s “mythological power” was losing its meaning.  Unfortunately, this is all too vague.

What does all this mean?

That we really don’t know what happened with the Oracle.  All we can do is speculate.


I have often felt that the image of the Oracle, as described above, may possibly reveal aspects about the origins of the Oracle at Delphi.  That is to say, the stylized mythological image may be a conglomeration of qualities that accumulated over the years about the Oracle at Delphi.  In this way, it reveals things about the development of the Oracle at Delphi.

The Tripod

The tripod is basically a bowl with three legs (see  Above each leg, mounted on the rim of the bowl, are large metal hoops.  The meaning and purpose of these are unclear . . . did they serve a purpose? . . .Were they decorative?  As far as I know, we don’t know.  Where they originated from is also unclear.

The tripods appear to be associated with sacrifice and offerings to the gods.  More than likely something was burnt in it.  Most likely, it was a sacrifice of some form, probably of an animal.  In this way, the tripod appears to of been something like a ‘link’ to the gods.  For this reason, tripods were often given as offerings to temples, as awards in competitions (generally in the name of a god), and were often given as votive offerings.  This shows that the tripod was viewed as having a special association with the gods.

Because a tripod is used at Delphi it is very possible that it is a remnant of sacrifice and offerings to the gods that may of been predominant there at one time, perhaps before there was an Oracle.

I should also point out that, when looking at the tripod images, it always struck me as uncomfortable and awkward for someone to sit in the tripod . . . it obviously wasn’t made as a chair.  This led me to believe that it had other origins and that the image of the Oracle in the tripod had another meaning.

The ‘Something’ in the Tripod

The ‘something’ in the tripod is what was actually put in it as an offering to the gods.  As stated above, this was most likely an animal that was burnt (or part of one, such as a specific organ).  In other words, its a reference to sacrifice.  If this were the case, its practice has been lost to history, being completely usurped by the image of the Oracle.  This doesn’t sound so far-fetched as it would make sense that, as Delphi grew in political and social influence, the image of the Oracle would be the dominant image, making references to early practices fade into the background.

There are a number of possible remnants of these early sacrifices in the religious traditions that took place at Delphi.

  • Apparently, a goat was sacrificed in the morning of the oracular pronouncements by the Priests of Apollo.  In addition, when the goats were sacrificed, the Priests of Apollo used the sacrifice as a form of divination of the success of the oracular pronouncements.  Could this be a remnant of the original sacrifice/divination process?
  • Each petitioner had to sacrifice a cake, apparently purchased from the people of Delphi.
  • Each petitioner may of also sacrificed an animal before being received by the Oracle.

These sacrifices were done directly in front of the entranceway to the east of the Temple of Apollo.

Delphi_me at Delphi 9-2006

(That’s me in front of the entrance to the Temple of Apollo with its ramp, looking westward.  Behind the photographer is the area where they did the sacrifices.  Delphi, Greece, September 9, 2006) 

Goats seem a common theme at Delphi.  In addition to the sacrifice of the goat by the Priests of Apollo, there is also a tradition that a shepherd first noticed that his goats acting unusual around Delphi, suggesting that its a ‘sacred location’.  This suggests, possibly, that there is a long-standing association of goats with Delphi.  Because of the sacrifices of goats, as well as the association of goats with the discovery of Delphi, its possible that they sacrificed goats there, that it was the ‘something’ in the tripod and that they were used to divine the “will of Apollo”, but its difficult to say.

Interestingly, the only image of ‘something’ in the bowl happens to images of people or, rather, a god and an Oracle.  Early images of the tripod often show Apollo sitting in the tripod.  This would suggest that he is perceived as being “there”, so to speak, in the tripod.  As a result, it was perceived that Apollo was the ‘something’ in the tripod as an existing entity.  This would be comparable to the way that the ‘host’ was viewed as actually becoming the ‘body of Christ’ during Christian Mass.  It shows that the tripod is definitely viewed as a ‘link’ to the gods.  In other words, the tripod was, in a way, viewed much like an “oracle” suggesting that ‘something’ definitely took place in the tripod  and that this probably had an “oracle” quality.  I’m inclined to think it was probably a form of divining that was done in the tripod at one time.  That is to say, they may of burnt something and used it to determine the “will of Apollo” or some other god.


(An image of Apollo sitting atop the tripod with his lyre and bow, from a Greek vase.) 

This image of the tripod, as determining the “will of Apollo”, would establish Apollo as being “in” the tripod.  This created the image of “someone sitting in the bowl”, not because someone did but because it was an image of what “appeared in the bowl”.  Since it is a bowl, and not an actual chair, it was not intended for an actual person to sit in it.  What it probably really referred to, then, is the divination that took place there.  In other words, there was this association:

tripod>>divination>>presence of Apollo in bowl>>the image of Apollo in bowl

Later, this image of Apollo in the bowl of the tripod would be replaced by the Oracle sitting in the tripod . . . the familiar image we have grown to associate with the Oracle and Delphi.


(The Oracle at Delphi, sitting in the tripod, from a Greek cup.  This is the only known portrayal of the Oracle at Delphi.  Is this an accurate portrayal of what happened or a stylized mythological representation?  I find it hard to believe that the Oracle sat on the sacrificial tripod in this way . . . it looks horribly uncomfortable and, besides, what purpose did it serve?)

This suggests, perhaps, that the divination and Apollo was replaced, or became identified, with the Oracle.  Because of this, the Oracle was viewed as sitting in the tripod, being the ‘link’ to the gods, which was originally divination.  Instead of divining for the “will of Apollo” they now had an Oracle who did the same thing and pronounced words.  In other words, the Oracle may have replaced the original sacrifice/divination that was done in the tripod.  As a result of this, the Oracle became associated with the original sacrifice images and symbols of the tripod and is now described as sitting in it like Apollo.  This is a stylized mythological representation . . . not what really happened.

How and when the Oracle appeared and ‘usurped’ the divination is impossible to determine.  There’s also a possibility that they actually existed side-by-side at Delphi and slowly became fused together over time.

But, assuming that this did happen, its possible that this scenario took place in the development of the tripod:

  1. A burnt offering and sacrifice.   In this phase, the offering was probably viewed as only a ‘link’ to the gods in order to gain ‘blessings’ and such.  Who knows, at this phase they may not of even used a tripod at all?
  2. A method of divination.  They may have begun to use burnt offering as a means for divination, of receiving answers and direction from the god.  Perhaps this is when the tripod was ‘officially’ used?
  3. An Oracle appeared which became identified with symbols of divination  – the tripod – because of their similar functions.  Once this happen, it appears the divination disappeared to be replaced by the Oracle.  As a result, the Oracle is now viewed as being on the tripod..

The ‘Fumes’

It seems, to me, that the idea of the ‘fumes’ putting the Oracle in a trance originates from later belief, primarily from Roman times, when the Oracle was in decline.  It almost seems as if it is actually an ‘attempt’ at explaining the religious happenings at Delphi primarily because the belief in Apollo had declined by this time . . . they had to find some way to explain it in much the way science, nowadays, tries to ‘explain away’ religious phenomena.  ‘Fumes’, then, became an easy explanation.

There seems a number of possible explanations of the ‘fumes’:

  • A misinterpretation of the word pneuma.  The ‘fumes’, often called pneuma, may be a misinterpretion as well, but its difficult to say.  Pneuma often has the connotation of ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ and may of initially referred to the Oracle being “taken over” by the ‘spirit of Apollo’, so to speak.  They may of misinterpreted this to think that some form of ‘fumes’ put her in a trance.
  • Smoke coming off a burnt offerings.
  • The smell of rotting flesh due to sacrifices.
  • Laurel leaves that was burnt.  The laurel plant was sacred to Apollo.
  • Gas from under the ground.  I know that there has been speculation that the ‘fumes’ came from underground and that it put the Oracle in a trance.  I guess that’s possible but I have a hard time believing it at this time.  First of all, there’s no real “actual” evidence of it.  Secondly, what gas would of done it (ethylene, methane, etc.)?  And, more importantly, has this phenomena ever happened anywhere else in the world?  As a result of these, I’m particularly skeptical about it.
  • Some form of incense.  The accounts also state that there was often a sweet smell in the Temple showing that they did burn and incense in the Temple of Apollo.  Perhaps this led to this belief?
  • Some other unknown thing.

I’ve often felt that the “fumes” have origin with the sacrificial offerings to the gods.  I often think this is the case because of the mythic origins of Delphi which describe Apollo killing the dragon Python when he arrived at Delphi.  I’ve heard it said that the name Python originates from pytho, a Greek word meaning “to rot”.  If this is the case then it would actually refer to the rotting of the dragon.  In other words, the name Python may actually be the name of its rotting corpse rather than its actual name.  In this way, the rotting would refer to the ‘fumes’ or smell of the dead mythological beast and may refer to the remembrance of burnt offerings, and possibly the rotting of the sacrificial carcass, that took place there (that is, the rotting flesh or the smoke of the burnt offering).  The name Python also happens to be the source of the name of the Oracle:  Pythia.  This may again show the close association of sacrifice/divination to the Oracle and may be a reference or remembrance of the original sacrifice/divination applied to the Oracle.  Its actually because of this legend that I tend to believe that there is more to the ‘fumes’ than incense, gas, or misinterpretation of a word, though these may of helped promote this belief later on.  There seems to be an association:

Pythia (Oracle)-inhaling ‘fumes’-“to rot” (pytho)-the killing of Python-sacrifice/divination

I’m inclined to think that this is no mistake and may of shown that, at one time, there may of been great sacrifice at Delphi.

The Water

The Oracle holding a bowl of water may refer to the importance of the two springs that are located at Delphi, showing that the springs were viewed as holy.  Water had a number of references with the Oracle at Delphi:

  • The Oracle used to go cleanse herself showing its sacred connection.  This was at the Castilian Spring to the east of the Temple of Apollo.
  • Its been said that the Oracle took a drink from the Cassotis Spring, which went under the western part of the Temple of Apollo (even when the French excavated this area in the late 1800’s, they confronted flooding as a result of this spring).  The Oracle drank from the spring, apparently, before going into the Temple where the spring was exposed to the surface somewhere to the northwest of the temple.  Supposedly, it was a common belief in Ancient Greece that a person could become an oracle when drinking water from a sacred well.  No doubt, this is why they drank from it.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this spring is the origin of the actual “oracle tradition” at Delphi.
  • The Oracle was supposed to get their answer from looking into the bowl of water.
  • Before they sacrificed the goats they’d sprinkle the goat with water and would determine the future success of the Oracle by how the goat responded (by how they shaked).

These seem to suggest that the two springs probably had great sacred value at one time.  In fact, its possible that the Cassotis Spring, in particular, is what made this area sacred as its really the only definite defining landmark in the area.  In addition to this, the Cassotis spring is associated with the ability of being an oracle upon drinking even into the times of the Delphic oracle.   If this were the case it would suggest that the location of Delphi, in actuality, originated from the location of the sacred Cassotis Spring.

The Cavern

The cavern that the Oracle is said to be when making her pronouncements has always been assumed to be in the Temple of Apollo itself.  But, during the excavations of the Temple of Apollo by the French in the late 1800’s, no trace of any cavern has been found.  This has caused great mystification in many people as the accounts seem to suggest it.  This may be a good example of the power of the stylized mythological image in peoples accounts as I said above.

In actuality, it may refer to the Corycian Cave which is located 7 miles north of Delphi.  This cave was associated with sacred things even during the time of Delphi.  Its exact meaning, though, seems somewhat unclear.  But its association with the area has always been established.  Its remembrance may be the origin of the idea that the Oracle is in a cavern.

This cave has a very significant importance in the religious happenings at Delphi.  It was believed that Apollo was not at the temple during the winter months.  As a result, it was viewed that the god Dionysius inhabited the Temple of Apollo at Delphi during this time.  In fact, his tomb is often stated as being in the Temple of Apollo, under the Omphalos, or ‘navel stone’, perceived as being the center of the world and located in the Adyton by the Oracle.

Delphi picture I took Sep 9 2006_4

(A photo of the Omphalos, taken by me, at the Delphi Museum, September 9, 2006.  This is not the actual Omphalos, which has disappeared, but a copy that was placed on the Delphic grounds.)

It was during the winter, at night, that the devotee’s of Dionysius would march to the cave and do a secret ceremony in the cave.  Just like the procedure of the Oracle, this ceremony is shrouded in mystery.   This shows a definite association of Apollo-Dionysius-cave-Oracle that cannot be ignored.  The details of this association, though, is unclear.  There are some definite interesting qualities between Dionysius and Apollo at Delphi:

  • Both gods have myths of changing into dolphins.
  • Both gods are involved with the sacrifice of goats.
  • The first priests of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were said to be from Crete.  Its been said that Dionysius originated from Crete (but its not definite).
  • Both gods are gods of some form of art (Apollo is a god of song and music, for example, and Dionysius the theatre).
  • Apollo and Dionysius have contrary and opposite qualities (Apollo is associated with order and restraint.  Dionysius with lack of restraint.).
  • They are associated with some form of inspiration.  Apollo is supposed to be a god of prophecy.  Dionysius is supposed to be a god of ecstasy and visions.

The significance of things like these are unclear.  But I tend to feel that there is a close association between the two at Delphi.


I’ve often wondered if the first sacred site in the area was, in fact, the cave, possibly associated with Dionysius (or a similar god). The original remembrance, and tradition, of the cave would be remembered in the winter ceremonies at the cave.  This would mean that area by Delphi was originally sacred to Dionysius, which is why there is an association between Apollo and Dionysius at Delphi.  Later the springs may have became ‘sacred’ because they were on the way to the cave.  Being in a more easily reachable area the springs of Delphi became the ‘focus’ of the area switching the sacred emphasis from the cave to the springs.  This, then, set the stage for Delphi.  Because of the ‘sacred springs’ they may of done sacrifice/divination in the Delphi area, establishing the area as finding the will of god (which was later Apollo but could of even been another god early on).  The Cassotis spring, in particular, may of begun the tradition of the Oracle (by drinking from that spring and receiving oracle powers) which became increasingly influential and, at one point, completely usurped the sacrifice/divination.  This created a blending of images and symbols that became part of the stylized mythological representation of the Oracle at Delphi:

  • The Corycian Cave created the image of the Oracle in a cavern.
  • The Cassotis Spring created the image of the Oracle looking in a bowl of water.
  • The burnt offerings and sacrifices may of created the idea of the ‘fumes’ along with the myth of the rotting of Python.
  • The use of tripods for divining created the image of Apollo, and then the Oracle, sitting in it.

As a result, it may be the case that the stylized mythological representation of the Oracle at Delphi used symbols and representations of various themes coming from the Delphic area since early times.  As a result, its like a conglomeration of representations, accumulated over centuries, of the sacred site of Delphi and what happened there.

Since this image of the Oracle is a stylized mythic portrait it does not necessarily describe what actually happened.  In that way, it shows a ‘mythological bias’ in the interpretation of a happening, reflecting its mythic and religious significance creating something more on the lines of a stylized mythological representation . . . a religious symbol.


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

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