WE are inclined, and not without reason, to regard the story of the Greeks, in spite of their many priceless achievements for mankind, as in a sense tragic, after all. Though some of the Hellenic states offer examples of wise statesmanship and prosperous growth which the founders of our own republic carefully studied, yet the race, as a whole, failed to weld its parts into a nation, and therefore, after spending its force in internal strife, succumbed to foreign conquerors. And, on the other hand, with all the beauty and spiritual truth which many of their myths reveal, we must feel a regret that the people failed to accept from their own sages that faith in one all-wise supreme Divinity which the Hellenic poets and philosophers dimly or clearly perceived, and taught with more or less confidence and courage; so that the bitter day was perhaps inevitable when their shrines were overthrown, their images shattered. Of course we do not forget that the fairest creations of the Greek intellect and imagination survived, the imperishable gifts to all future humanity from the race which may almost be called the discoverers of beauty. Yet it is a day of sadness when the staff is broken over a national existence or a historic creed, when
however firm our faith that
Now, Delphi was the chief, though probably not the earliest, seat of the Amphiktionic council, the origin of which is lost in the darkness enshrouding the earlier life of the Hellenes, but which seems, more than any other of their political institutions, to have held within itself the promise and the potency of true national union. And at Delphi, also, was the chief oracle and temple of Apollo, perhaps the loftiest and most human embodiment of the national faith, who, however, in the earlier days at least, was believed to utter his high precepts, through the priestess’ lips, only as the interpreter of his supreme Father’s will, or in obedience to a vague overshadowing Destiny, to which even the mightiest of gods must submit. To borrow an epigrammatic remark from M. Foucart, “ Apollo’s oracle made his city the religious centre of the Greek world. The council of the Amphiktious would have made it the political centre also, if Greece had been capable of unity.” At the foot of Delphi’s shining cliffs, therefore, the pilgrim stands in the true Mecca, within the holy close, of Hellenism.
The twelve clans composing the league of the Amphiktions had each two votes in the council. This organization, by clans only, indicates that its origin preceded the rise of the leading Greek cities. The meetings were held not only at Delphi (half a mile from the great temple, on a ridge overlooking the lower plain), but also at Demeter’s sanctuary, on the border of Thessaly, in Anthela by Thermopylæ, — or, as the orators call the pass, Pylæ. In historical times the usage was to convene at Anthela, and then, after certain formal ceremonies, to adjourn to Delphi, where the chief session was held. In the former place was also the chapel of Amphiktion, the imaginary founder of the league. One class of delegates were called Pylagoroi, and their assemblage Pylaia, even when they came together at Delphi. These are indications, among others, that Anthela was the earlier meeting-place of the league. Quite consistent with this is the overwhelming influence in the council enjoyed by the Thessalians in the earliest times, through the tribes politically dependent on them.
We are told that an oath was taken in the early days by the members, “ not to destroy utterly any Greek city, nor to cut off the drinking-water from it, whether in war or peace.” This oath was itself a confession of inability to maintain peace between the members of the organization. The penalty was the destruction of the offenders’ own cities by the league. But what power could be relied upon to execute such a decree ? The reader will doubtless be reminded of the mediæval Truce of God, by which the clergy attempted to secure the cessation of war and private feud, through a part of each week and during the great Church festivals.
Among the clans enumerated as members we find the Ionians and the Dorians. Despite the later development of these tribes, their descendants never received a proportionate increase of power in the council. Athens and Sparta, for instance, at the height of their greatness, were represented among the Amphiktions only as a portion of their respective clans. The league, perhaps in part because of this rigid and antiquated organization, never acquired any adequate means for carrying out its own decrees, and in historical times its functions rarely extended far beyond a general oversight of the national sanctuary and of the quadrennial Pythian games. It is a remarkable fact, noted by Mr. Grote, that Thucydides’ history and Xenophon’s Hellenica, our chief authorities for more than a century of Greek annals (that is, from 479 to 362 B. C.), contain no mention of the Amphiktions. The two chief exceptional cases of their political activity occur, one at the beginning, and the other at the very close, of the history of free Greece ; and both were fraught with the weightiest consequences to the Delphians and to Apollo’s shrine.
The earlier of these events was the crusade preached by the Amphiktions against the people of Krisa, a city even more ancient, according to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, than Delphi itself. This town commanded the approach to the oracle up the valley of the Pleistos. Its citizens were charged with maltreating and levying blackmail upon the pilgrims to the shrine. Many details of the war, notably the part played in it by Solon, may well be regarded as fabulous. The fall of Krisa, however, in the year 590, is considered as established. The council thereupon decreed that the whole fertile plain, between Delphi and the sea, should remain thenceforth forever untilled, a grazing-place for the numerous flocks of sheep required for the sacrifices at Apollo’s altar. From this date began the celebration of the Pythian games, inferior in importance only to those at Olympia. They were held in the lower plain, near the site of Kirrha, the port of Krisa, though a station for the short distance foot-race was afterward constructed at Delphi itself. Krisa seems never to have risen again, but Kirrha was rebuilt, doubtless in humbler and unfortified form, as a place of reception for the pilgrims approaching Delphi by sea.
The other event alluded to forces upon our minds that saddest truth of all, that Hellas perished untimely by her own suicidal hand. This thought comes to us even more bitterly at Delphi, than when we look across the Athenian plain, where once the Long Walls were broken down to the shameless music of flutegirls. For the last and most fatal of the civil wars began in an attempt by the Thebans to bring disgrace and ruin on the Phocians, through the antiquated machinery of the Amphiktionic league. Unable to pay the ruinous fine imposed, the Phocians turned in desperation to the only means of defense within their reach. For ten years the fires of war were fed upon the plundered treasures of Apollo’s sanctuary. The most striking memorial of the struggle yet remaining is the rampart which made Delphi the stronghold of the robbers. The strife did not cease before the holy place had been stripped of the wealth accumulated through centuries, and the battalions of Macedonian Philip had poured through an undefended Thermopylæ, destined indeed to efface from the earth the cities of the sacrilegious Phocians, but also to put an end to the freedom of the Hellenes. This destruction of the Phocian cities occurred in 346 B. C. In their stead Philip became a member, and inevitably the chief member, of the sacred league.
Seven years later a still more famous scene occurred at the Amphiktionic council-board, which is vividly described for us by the chief actor. Inflamed at an unjust attack upon his own city by the Locrians of Amphissa, the Athenian Æschines accused them, in turn, of rebuilding Kirrha and cultivating the sacred plain, and caused to be read the ancient decrees still preserved on their bronze plate among the archives. No denial was possible. The orator had only to point shoreward from the spot where he stood. Yet the Amphissians had acted with the tacit consent, at least, and probably for the convenience, of all Apollo’s votaries. The decree of ten generations ago had been utterly forgotten.
The Amphiktions and the whole populace of Delphi marched down early next morning, to demolish and set fire to Kirrha. Æschines’ motives are still open to dispute, but the result of his act was at once rightly foreseen by his great rival, Demosthenes. An Amphiktionic war ensued, in which the aid of the champion Philip was invoked. In attempting to check his triumphant march, the Athenians met defeat, and final loss of freedom, at Chæronea.
With these exceptions, the activity of the league is merely a part of the story of the oracle, to which we may now turn.
In the Eumenides of Æschylos, the opening scene reveals the temple at Delphi. The Pythia begins the prologue with a prayer before entering the inner sanctuary :
Earth, the first prophetess. Themis from her,
Her mother, fittingly received this seat
Prophetic : such the tale. With her free will,
In the third place, through no one’s violence,
Another Titan-child of Earth sat here,
Phoebe. She gave it as a gift at birth
To Phoebos, who from Phoebe has his name.”
Æschylos is here handling the traditional myths in his usual spirit. While too reverent to suppress the essential features, he is most anxious to perpetuate no detail unworthy of the divine beings. Hence his eagerness to emphasize the peaceful and voluntary nature of these changes. His lines, however, tell us with sufficient clearness what we hear from other sources also, that the worship of Apollo displaced that of older and ruder divinities.
The surroundings of the spot make this a natural supposition. The steep northern side of the valley through which the Pleistos has apparently cut its way is hardly fit for human habitation until the earth is held firm by terrace-walls. The two famous cliffs overhanging the town rise side by side nearly a thousand feet, while above their crests the tableland still slopes upward toward the supreme peak of Parnassos. Where these two walls of rock approach each other, the unfailing spring of Castalia gushes forth, while during the rainy season, in the innermost recess of the gorge, a cascade tumbles from the rocks hundreds of feet above.
This dark and dangerous glen, overhung by rugged cliffs and shaken by earthquakes, was a fitting seat for the worship of the gloomy Chthonian powers and of Mother Earth. This latter divinity seems, indeed, to have retained her full honors even in Apollo’s palmiest days. The rift over which the tripod stood was still “Earth’s mouth,” and her ice-cold breath maddened and inspired the prophetess. Even in Plutarch’s time Gaia (Earth) appears to have had also a separate place of worship near the great shrine of Apollo; for, in a dialogue of his from which we obtain many useful hints as to the topography of Delphi, there occurs this passage : “ So we passed around and sat down on the southern steps of the temple, looking toward the sanctuary of Gaia and the water.” (It is interesting to note that precisely this southern step of the temple may be seen to-day in position, beneath the cottages of Kastri, the modern Greek village on the site of the holy inclosure.)
Æschylos seems, however, to have passed over one important feature of the local myth, namely, that Poseidon “ the earth-shaker ” shared the possession of the original oracle. Poseidon appears to have been in the earlier time the chief divinity of the Eastern Greek world, but is found in the legends of many places waging a losing contest for the control of the land against his younger kinsfolk of the Hellenic Pantheon. The famous strife with Pallas over Attica, represented in the pediment of the Parthenon, will at once occur to the reader’s mind. The loser in such a struggle retains regularly a minor place in the local cult. Such tales of divine quarrels were extremely abhorrent to Æschylos, but have an important meaning in the early history of the race ; for the Poseidon worship, with its human sacrifices, slaughter of horses, etc., is a type of the primeval savage state, before the advent of the enlightenment and civilization represented by Apollo. Poseidon also retained a lesser position in the Delphian ritual. His altar was within the temple, and he is, indeed, invoked by the priestess later in this very prayer at the opening of Æschylos’ drama.
We need not attempt to reconcile the legends followed by the tragic poet with the tale of the she-dragon that dwelt in the grotto by the Castalian spring, and was slain by Apollo on his arrival. This monster was, according to the local legend, under the special protection of Gaia, who was wroth with Apollo at its death. This would have inclined Æschylos to avoid the story, but doubtless rendered it more attractive to the heretical Euripides, who in his Tauric Iphigenia gives a brilliant description of the spot: —
Earth’ s terrific prodigy,
Brazen-mailed, beside the laurel,
Rich in foliage and in shade,
Watched the Chthonian oracle.”
Indeed, the prevailing belief clearly was that the elder gods did not yield to the new-comer without a struggle ; and this belief is doubtless a reminiscence of a real strife between the upholders of the old faith and of the new. The ancient commentator on the opening lines of Æschylos’ play tells us that Pindar, who was usually no less careful to avoid details unworthy of the gods, had declared in a poem now lost — perhaps a pæan to Apollo — that the younger god seized on Pytho by force, and that Gaia attempted to banish him to Tartaros therefor.
It has been conjectured that Apollo may have been elevated to the chief place of honor, when the Dorian clan, on its long southward pilgrimage, acquired a strong influence over Delphi. Apollo is by no means an exclusive conception of the Dorian race. The Homeric Hymn bears emphatic testimony to the wide extent of his sway over the shores and islands of the Ægean. Indeed, in his original form, as the Sun-god and favorite child of the Sky-father, his worship is probably older than the dispersion of the Aryans, though only the Greeks seem to have made the natural change of his attributes from mere physical to ethical enlightenment. It is, however, quite true that Sparta, the head of the Dorian race, was also throughout the historical period the especial champion and protector of Delphi.
Æschylos makes Apollo come in person from Delos, the isle of his birth, to found his temple and oracle at Pytho. It is not, however, credible that the Delphic rites were in fact borrowed directly from the god’s island-sanctuary. The traces of influence from the north are quite unmistakable. It was the obvious policy of the Athenians to glorify the legends of Delos, the seat of their confederacy, as a counterpoise to the Spartan influence over the Pythian oracle. There is, moreover, in our earliest source of information, the Hymn to Apollo, no clear hint of so immediate a connection.
In that poem, the god, after the Pythian temple is built, descries a ship of Cretan mariners, and assuming the form of a huge dolphin drives them in terror around the whole Peloponnesos, into the gulf of Corinth, and finally forces them ashore near the mouth of the Pleistos.1 Appearing again as a beautiful youth, and making himself known, Apollo, “ gracefully stepping and high,” and playing upon his lyre, leads the Cretans up the fertile river-valley toward Pytho. When the ridge now crowned by Philomelos’ fortifications was passed, and the little rock-bound amphitheatre, afterward occupied by the holy Peribolos, came into view, the Cretan sailors, as the hymn tells us, were filled with dismay.
Thou hast conducted us, — so, it appears, hath it suited thy pleasure, —
How are we now to exist ? For this we implore thee to tell us.
This is no fruitful land, nor fair, nor abounding in meadows,
Whence we may gain a subsistence.”
But the god smiles upon their foolish anxiety, and merely bids them, clasping each one the sacrificial knife, slaughter the sheep which men shall bring in abundance to his temple. The colonization of Cretans in Delphi is doubted, though the little community does appear to have been quite distinct from the Phocians about it, living at enmity with them, and by Sparta’s aid usually maintaining its independence. At any rate, this promise of the god was richly fulfilled. The temple was for many a century a source of wealth to the entire folk of the town.
When the credulous and superstitious traveler Pausanias reached Delphi, near the close of his journey through Greece, in the second century of our era, he recorded some yet more remarkable legends which had sprung up about the shrine. He was told that the first temple was a hut constructed of laurel boughs, which were brought from the vale of Tempe. There really seems to have been some close original connection, never wholly forgotten, between the ritual of Delphi and northeastern Thessaly. In the Homeric Hymn, Apollo descends from Olympos into Pieria, and thence passes to Iolcos on his way to Pytho. The laurel for the wreaths of victors in the Pythian games was brought from Tempe. In that region the laurel grows luxuriantly, and forms little groves upon elevated spots.
A most interesting but mysterious ceremony, celebrated at Delphi every eighth year, and well known at least as early as the fourth century B. C., seems also to belong here. A boy, whose parents must both be living, set fire to a tent pitched in an open space, and then fled without looking behind. This was understood to be a symbolic rite of atonement for the slaying of the dragon, or rather, as the later Greeks explained, of a man named Dragon. The boy, impersonating Apollo, departed at once from the city, and his wanderings finally brought him to Tempe, where ceremonies of purification were performed. This legend, by the way, confirms the opinion that the local myths always held to the story of a violent seizure of Delphi by Apollo.
The materials of the second temple, reported to him as wings and bees-wax, perplex even the simple-hearted Pausanias, who suggests the rather desperate explanation that tradition may have confused the name of a builder, Wing (Pteras), with the material in which he worked ! For lovers of mysticism or of riddles it may be added that Pindar calls the priestesses of Apollo “ bees,” and that Plutarch gives as an example of early hexameters the following line, evidently referring to this temple : —
For the account of a third temple, of bronze, our traveler finds support in the existence of several such structures in his own day, to which Professor Middleton suggests that we may add the great tombs at Mycenæ and Orchomenos, which are generally stated to have been lined with plates of this metal. They appear, however, to have been in fact merely adorned with rosettes of bronze.
The fourth temple, Pausanias continues, was constructed of stone, by Trophonios and Agamedes. These architects are, however, named in the Homeric Hymn as the builders of the original temple under Apollo’s personal supervision. Pindar recorded a tale concerning the two illustrating that melancholy view of human life which, meeting us not rarely among the utterances of the Greeks, modifies our prevailing impression of their buoyant and day-loving nature. The brothers besought of the god the highest reward in his gift for their labor, and were told that it should be accorded on the seventh day. Meanwhile, he bade them feast and rejoice. But on the appointed day, having lain down, they fell asleep, never to wake again. A very different anecdote, in which these brothers come to their death in less reputable fashion, is related by Pausanias.
The temple reputed to be the work of these somewhat mythical artists really stood in Delphi until destroyed by fire in 548 B. C. And it is probable that a striking example of the masterly work done in that prehistoric day still exists in the great southern supporting wall of the upper terrace, within the Temenos, or sacred close. This wall has been traced for over five hundred feet, and must have divided the inclosure into two nearly equal portions. In the centre of the upper terrace stood the great temple, surrounded by many other monuments and votive offerings. The supporting wall has been gradually laid bare through nearly half its length, first by one of the greatest of German archæologists, Karl Otfried Müller (who lost his life through exposure and overexertion here in 1839), and later by French scholars, especially M. Paul Foucart, the learned and eminent director of the French school in Athens at the present time, and his associate M. Carl Wescher. It reaches a height of four metres (thirteen feet), and is “ polygonal ” in character ; that is, the blocks of stone are not rectangular, but irregular in shape. The lines between them are, moreover, not straight, but variously curved, — a peculiarity nearly or quite unknown elsewhere. The great stones, often more than a metre in height or length, are fitted together with remarkable exactness, and have endured their burden almost without moving through all the centuries since they were laid. This wall was utilized from about 300 B. C., in accordance with a widespread Greek custom, for the preservation of public or private documents. They were cut into the surface of the stone, in places smoothed beforehand for the purpose. More than seven hundred such inscriptions, many of great length, and often of historic importance, have been already recovered from this one wall, of which less than half the length has been exposed ! This polygonal work is constructed of a hard brown limestone. Resting upon it were found two or three courses of rectangular blocks. The material is here different, — tufa or “ poros,”—and the work doubtless much later. The polygonal wall itself, however, is unhesitatingly assigned by the latest and most careful investigator, Dr. Pomtow, to as early a date as 800 B. C. It is curious that a brief but striking mention of this wall (as well as of the older temple), the only allusion to it in ancient literature, is found in the Homeric Hymn, already repeatedly mentioned : —
Long and exceeding broad, and continuous ; on them the threshold,
Wrought of stone, was laid by Trophonios and Agamedes,
Sons of Erginos, and dear to the gods who live forever.”
In 548 B. C., as already stated, this elder temple was burned. Not many years afterward, the new edifice was begun by a Corinthian architect named Spintharos. Its cost was three hundred talents (about $350,000), and was met by contributions from the whole Hellenic world and from other civilized lands. Herodotos especially mentions the generous gifts of the Egyptians. An important crisis of Greek history is also connected by the chronicler with this work. The great family of the Alcmæonidæ were then living in exile from Athens, and endeavoring to drive out the tyrants. “ As they were employing every device against the sons of Pisistratos,” says Herodotos, “ they accepted from the Amphiktions the contract to erect the temple which now stands in Delphi. And being men of means and from a family of reputation, they built the temple finer than the specifications demanded. Especially, they constructed the façade of Parian marble, though poros was the material agreed upon. These men, as the Athenians state, being settled at Delphi, used to bribe the Pythia, whenever Spartans came thither, whether on a private or a public errand, to urge upon them the liberation of Athens.” So the Spartans at last sent an army to aid in expelling Hippias and his family, “ though they were on the most friendly terms; for they held the words of the god in more honor than those of men.” It should be noticed, however, that Herodotos heard this story, not in Delphi, but from the Athenians, who in his time were disposed to glorify Delos, and perhaps to discredit the Pythian sanctuary. The successful craft of their own citizens would trouble their consciences but little.
The site of this temple, which was doubtless overthrown by an earthquake, is entirely covered by the modern village of Kastri. By sinking pits in the narrow streets of the hamlet, it has been learned that much of the temple floor is still in position. There is little doubt, therefore, that the entire plan of the building will eventually be recovered. Even if no portions of the columns or walls remain in their place, the exact position and shape of their bases will be clearly though delicately revealed by the different tint of the temple floor, according as it was exposed to the weather or protected by the blocks resting upon it. Many fragments of Doric drums and capitals are already to be seen, and almost every house in the village is constructed in part from the remains of this and the other sacred buildings. Aside from its historic associations, the temple is of the utmost interest to students, partly from its early and well-authenticated date, and also from the modifications in structure which were doubtless made necessary by its connection with the oracle.
One of the most famous objects within it was the much-discussed and mysterious Omphalos, a hive-shaped stone, decorated with fillets and guarded by two eagles. This was doubtless an ancient fetich-stone, handed down from a forgotten faith and a ruder ancestral race. The Greeks believed it to mark the centre of the earth, and said that two eagles, sent forth simultaneously by Zeus from the extremities of the world, had met at this spot. Strabo makes the curious additional remark, “ But some say they were crows ! ”
Within the temple there were also statues of Zeus and Apollo in the character of Moiragetai, or leaders of the Fates, and also of two Fates themselves, though the orthodox number elsewhere was three. The best explanation suggested for the Delphic number is, that there are in truth but two events of the utmost importance to man, birth and death. The relation between the Olympian gods and these divinities, usually conceived as gray, ancient dames, dwelling afar on the confines of the universe, has been much discussed in ancient and modern times. As was remarked in the opening paragraph of this essay, Apollo sometimes speaks as the mouthpiece of his supreme father. So in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, where Apollo himself assures his younger brother that he may not teach him the prophetic art, having sworn a mighty oath of secrecy : —
Never another, shall know of Zeus’ mysterious counsels.”
But again, in a remarkably impressive passage of Herodotus, — the defense of the oracle against Crcesos’ reproaches, — seemingly intended by the author, or by his Delphian informants, as a careful exposition of the true creed, we hear it emphatically declared, “ It is impossible even for a god to avert the appointed fate.” And in the next sentence the word recurs as a proper name for the rulers of life: “ Apollo was desirous that the disaster should not occur until the time of Crtesos’ children, hut he could not persuade the Fates. Yet so much as they permitted the god accomplished for the king’s benefit; for he delayed the capture of Sardis three years.”
Nor is this the only source, by any means, from which we hear of these vague, half-personified forces on the outermost verge of the world, in whose grasp even the Olympian gods are helpless. We need not try to reconcile such diverse guesses at the inconceivable. The contradiction runs through nearly all Greek writers from Homer down, unless it be a chronicler like Thucydides, who renounces all theorizing as to the superhuman powers. It is natural to surmise that the gray, venerable Fates are merely the representatives of a justice so inherent in the supreme wisdom that he who rules cannot violate it. But why, then, is Apollo so often represented as at war with them, and yet in perfect harmony with Zeus ?
It is more likely that they represent a cruder need felt in all human thought. All our earthly conceptions are limited ones. Our fancies about the divine natures are necessarily only the reflections of our human experiences. So Zeus’ kingdom is only conceivable at all with some such limitations as must exist on earth. But, indeed, in the vivid imagination of the child-like men of a mythmaking age, diverse and even irreconcilable figures have abundant room to dwell together. The group of statues which suggested this discussion shows that the theology inculcated at Delphi, at least in later days, made Apollo and Zeus mightier than the Fates; but we cannot be warned too often not to seek a consistent body of theological doctrine where none ever existed.
Our digression has carried us so far from the account of the temple that it may be as well to add a word in regard to two other divinities included in the Delphic ritual, — Athena and Dionysos. Pallas Athena we are not surprised to find there. Her association with Zeus and Apollo is a very ancient one. Perhaps the group includes the earliest conceptions of Aryan theology. The keen-eyed maid, who springs into life full armed from Zeus’ head, is as clearly a nature - divinity in origin as the other two. In Homer the trio are customarily invoked together in prayers on important occasions. The warlike virgin had, in historical times, only a small sanctuary outside the holy inclosure, guarding the approach from the eastern side.
Bacchos, or Dionysos, is a much less frequent companion of Apollo, yet at Delphi he occupies a far more prominent position than Athena. Indeed, it is possible that his worship there antedates Apollo’s. In one ancient authority he is associated with Night as the earliest possessor of the oracle. He was said to have been buried by Apollo, when slain by the Titans, at the very spot where the tripod stood. The winter months of the Delphic year were devoted to him, Apollo being then absent from the sanctuary. Moreover, to return to the great temple itself, while the eastern pediment was occupied by Apollo,—with Artemis, their mother Leto, and the Muses, — Dionysos and his Thyiads, or frenzied women-worshipers, held the corresponding position at the western end. It will be remembered that the Shining Cliffs above Delphi were consecrated to Bacchos, and the still higher slopes of Parnassos were the favorite resort for his nightly revels. The most famous allusion to the region is in the splendid ode to Dionysos in the Antigone : —
Where the Corycian nymphs as Bacchants march
Beside Castalia’s stream.”
The structure of Spintharos, and indeed all previous sanctuaries, whatever their number, erected here, certainly included an Adyton, or Holy of holies, covering the ancient rift over which the tripod stood. We are, indeed, informed by a late compiler, in a dubious notice, that the Adyton was preserved, even in the later temple, as constructed by Agamedes and Trophonios “of five stones.” (Another reading, “ of Pentelic stone,” is quite as difficult.) In Spintharos’ building this chamber was lower than the rest of the temple, as words indicating descent are always used in connection with it. As to the exhalation from the chasm and its exciting effect upon the priestess there appears to be sufficient evidence. Indeed, we hear of one Pythia who lost her life by being compelled to mount the tripod against her will, when too feeble to endure the excitement.
Diodorus tells with realistic detail the story of the goatherd who discovered the exhalation through the strange antics and unusual cries of his flock when exposed to its influence. Upon approaching the chasm he was himself mysteriously affected, and found himself able to predict future events. The rumor spread through the country-side, and there was a great concourse of peasants eager to test the power of the marvelous spot. But after several had been crowded into the rift and vanished from sight forever, it was thought safer to appoint a single priestess to utter the prophecies. The simple mechanism afterward known as a tripod was invented for her security. The only criticism this tale seems to require is that it leaves Apollo out of sight altogether, and therefore is probably the invention of a later skeptical age.
The priestesses were originally youngmaidens ; but when one of them had proved susceptible to other influences than Apollo’s inspiration, a widow over fifty years of age was always selected. In the early time, and again after the power of the oracle decayed, there was one Pythia only. In the height of Delphi’s fame, three held the office simultaneously. At first, responses were given only on “ Apollo’s birthday,” in the early spring ; the natural time for seeking augury concerning crops, the opening of campaigns, plans for colonizing, etc. Later, the favorable days were more frequent.
Before mounting the tripod, the Pythia chewed leaves of the sacred laurel and drank from the holy spring, to put herself more fully under the divine influence. No doubt she, as well as those seeking the aid of divination, was further excited by the strange, rich odors, perhaps incense, of which we hear, and by music. If her responses were too incoherent or unpoetical, they were reduced to writing and to hexameter verse by the attendant priests, and delivered, either orally or upon a sealed tablet, to the questioner.
Our chief authorities for the period when the oracle’s influence was at its height are men who sincerely believed in Apollo, and in his guidance of human affairs through the mouth of the inspired Pythia. The attitude of Herodotos, for instance, whose volume is the best mirror of the age and interpreter of its faith, is that of reverent but intelligent belief. He is aware that the priestess has sometimes been corrupted by bribes or other influences ; but such sins were detected and severely punished. Some oracles, he also knows, have been forged after the event; but that again only shows how much assistance the supposed sanction of the god gave to the actions of men. He “ does not question, and cannot suffer others to question,” the genuineness of Apollo’s inspiration on many occasions.
Thoughtful students of the history of mysticism, ancient or modern, will at least agree that the utterances recorded are not to be hastily ascribed to a systematic cool-blooded scheme of deception. In the earlier days, at least, the priestess appears usually to have been in the condition perhaps best described as a trance. Nor have we the slightest right to doubt the sincerity and good faith even of the attendant priests who caught and interpreted her excited, halfarticulate words. They were probably informed beforehand, it may be through something resembling a confessional, of the questioner’s own hopes and desires. Often they knew that the nature of the response obtained might vitally affect the credit and prosperity of the temple and their corporation. Their human judgment, to use modern terms, doubtless influenced more or less consciously their priestly functions. But all this is not saying that the oracle was a mere machine, shrewdly worked to secure personal advantage from the credulity of mankind. It is essential to the comprehension of any religion to start with the assumption of sincerity on the part of priest no less than of people.
His awful Jove young Phidias wrought;
Never from the lips of cunning fell
The thrilling Delphic oracle.
The litanies of nations came
Like the volcano’s tongue of flame
Up from the burning core below.”
Even reduced to its crudest form, it is true that successful delusion almost always begins in self-delusion.
I am appealing for the moment merely to those who assume as self-evident that the ancient oracles were in no sense inspired ; but we have, of course, always the happier alternative, of believing that man has never in any age or land been wholly cut off from consultation, in the hour of his need, with the Rulers of life. Again Emerson’s glowing lines will best utter our thought for us : —
In groves of oak or fanes of gold,
Still floats upon the morning wind,
Still whispers to the willing mind ;
One accent of the Holy Ghost
The heedless world hath never lost.”
For those, doubtless the overwhelming majority, who view the question with utterly incredulous eyes, who would deny the Pythia and the priests any claim to inspiration or even to self-deception, it may be added that they will find much amusement and confirmation of their own opinions in Lucian’s account of Alexander. This “ false prophet ” organized a private oracle for revenue only, with all the machinery of deceit. There was no doubt whatever about the fraud in that case. Lucian fully exposed it, at the imminent risk of his own life.
It should be acknowledged that the information of Herodotos, and in a later age of Pausanias, was chiefly derived from the Delphians themselves, and was accepted with little effort to exercise the critical faculties. In that local atmosphere there was, of course, an irresistible tendency to recall, and perhaps to reshape somewhat, after the event, prophecies which had been verified, and to forget the utterances which had proved empty words.
The community of Delphi seems to have devoted all its powers to the service of Apollo. They produced no poetry, save in their interpretations of the Pythia’s words. Living in the great Art Museum of the race, they contributed only the workman who cut the inscriptions upon the base of the votive statue. Among M. Foucart’s discoveries was a series of inscriptions, recording the prize-winners, and the unsuccessful participants as well, in a long series of dramatic and musical contests. The opportunity appears to have attracted artists from every quarter of Greece ; Delphi itself is alone unrepresented. In the history of the Greeks, we rarely hear mention of any Delphian citizen, and then only in connection with the oracle or the temple.
But neither men nor organizations are likely to regret the consecration of all their powers to a single worthy task. It may well be doubted whether any community so small and so destitute of illustrious citizens has ever wielded a stronger or more beneficent influence than was exerted by the Delphic priesthood upon the fortunes of the Hellenic race and upon the destiny of mankind. Just how far the political movements among the Greeks were controlled from Apollo’s mountain sanctuary is indeed still subject of debate. There is no doubt that the great German historian, Ernst Curtius, trusting to his sympathetic insight into the spirit of Hellenic institutions and character, has sometimes overstepped the broken and uncertain lines of our classic authorities. It is clear, however, that the Delphians enjoyed for many generations the confidence of all Greeks. Thither every republic and monarch turned for guidance in the great crises of their existence. To the servants of Apollo the secret deeds and plans of each must have been truthfully confessed. The information thus gathered by the chapter was undoubtedly transmitted from generation to generation, and formed the basis of an enlightened and patriotic policy in the treatment of Hellenic affairs generally.
We know that inquiries were often answered at once, without recourse to the god. It may be, indeed, that the decision of the oracle was avowedly only invoked in matters of especial difficulty and doubt: as when the guardians of the temple themselves asked Apollo if they should bury or carry away his treasures, to save them from the advancing forces of Xerxes, and received the lofty reply that the god would defend his own. Perhaps we cannot close this inquiry more instructively than with a quotation from the Memorabilia of Xenophon. We must remember that one of the most devout of the Greek writers is recording words which repeatedly fell from the lips of Socrates, his teacher and friend, who in Delphi, at any rate, fell under no suspicion of heresy, but on the contrary had been declared by the oracle to be the wisest of men.
“ But he said they were mad who consulted the oracle as to matters which the gods permit men to decide by the use of reason. . . . He asserted that it was our duty to discover for ourselves so much as the gods allow us to find out; but whatever is not made plain for men, that we should endeavor to learn from the gods through divination : for he declared the gods made revelation to those men toward whom they were gracious.”
William Cranston Lawton.
NOTE. The principal ancient description of Delphi is found in the Tenth Book of Pausanias, though by far the best picture of the political and ethical influence of the oracle may be gained from the pages of Herodotos. Cicero’s treatise De Divinatione is a copious and graceful but rather hostile discussion of the prophetic art in general. The first modern visitor upon the site was Cyriacus of Ancona. The earliest adequate account of the remains is that of Ulrichs (Reise in Griechenland, I., Bremen, 1840). Most of the archæological work at Delphi in the present century has been done by the French, and a very readable description of the locality, and summary of its history, will be found in M. Foucart’s Mémoires sur les Ruines et l’Histoire de Delphes. The thoroughness and accuracy of the French work are attacked, somewhat harshly, in the latest and most thorough German monograph on the subject, Pomtow’s Beiträge zur Topographie Delphis (Berlin, 1889). In the Journal of Hellenic studies for October, 1888, Professor J. H. Middleton has made a careful collection of our scanty sources of information regarding the temple, and a somewhat audacious attempt at a reconstruction of the ground plan and elevation. Among the best recent German essays on particular monuments at Delphi is one on the Stoa of the Athenians, by Robert Koldeweÿ, who was an important member of the Assos expedition. Any one wishing to make a thorough study of the whole subject will find his most convenient starting-point in Busolt, Greek History, vol. i. pp. 470-493.
The present paper aims simply at giving an intelligible general sketch of the antiquities of Delphi, and especially of what we may call the environment of the oracle. Those familiar with the multifarious but usually late and fragmentary materials will appreciate the difficulties of selection and arrangement. It will be an easier task for reader as well as writer to follow in a subsequent paper the notable utterances of the oracle and their important influence on the Hellenic race.
- At this spot the god bids the Cretans erect an altar on the shore to him as Apollo Delphinios. It is likely, however, that both altar and title originally belonged to Poseidon, who as a sea-god seems to have a clearer right to both. But this whole episode appears to be invented to account for the mysterious name Delphi, through its resemblance to the word delphis, a dolphin. Its real origin is quite unknown. It is not even certain that its use is more recent than that of the other name, Pytho, but only that the latter occurs earlier in the extant literature. The significance of Pytho also is doubtful. The Homeric Hymn associates it, most unpoetically, with the root pyth, to rot, referring to the decaying body of the dragon ! Sophocles appears to allude twice in Œdipus the King to a more satisfactory meaning, “place of inquiry,” from a different verbal root of nearly identical form.↩