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PYTHIA -- THE PRIESTESS OF APOLLO AT DELPHI

PYTHIA -- THE PRIESTESS OF APOLLO AT DELPHI


"Priestess of Delphi " (1891) painted by Hon. John Collier (1850-1934)

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Pythia (also called Sibyl): The priestess of Apollo at Delphi.

She delivered the answers of the god to such as came to consult the oracle, and was supposed to be suddenly inspired by the sulphureous vapors which issued from the hole of a subterraneous cavity within the temple, over which she sat bare on a three-legged stool, called a tripod. In this stool was a small aperture, through which the vapor was inhaled by the priestess, and, at this divine inspiration, her eyes suddenly sparkled, her hair stood on end, and a shiverng ran over all her body. In this convulsive state she spoke the oracles of the god, often with loud howlings and cries, and her articulations were taken down by the priests, and set in order.

Sometimes the spirit of inspiration was more gentle, and not always violent; yet Plutarch mentions one of the priestesses who was thrown into such an excessive fury, that not only those that consulted the oracle, but also the priests that conducted her to the sacred tripod, and attended her during the inspiration, were terrified and forsook the temple; and so violent was the fit, that she continued fot some days in the most agonizing situation, and at last died.The Pythia, before she placed herself on the tripod, used to wash her whole body, and particularly her hair, in the waters of the fountain Castalis, at the foot of mount Parnassus. She also shooka laurel tree that grew near the place, and sometimes ate the leaves, with which she crowned herself. The priestess was originally a virgin, but the institution was changed when Echecrates, a Thessalian, had offered violence to one of them, and none but women who were above the age of fifty, were permitted to enter upon the sacred office. They always appeared dressed in garments of virgins to imitate their purity and modesty, and they were solemnly bound to observe the strictest laws of temperance and chastity, that neither fantastical dresses nor lascivious behaviour might bring the office, the religion, or the sanctity of the place in comtempt.

There was originally but one Pythia, besides subordinate priests, and afterwards two were chosen, and sometimes more. The most celebrated of all these is Phemonoe, who is supposed by some to have been the first who gave oracles at Delphi. The oracles were always delivered in hexameter verses, a custom which was some time after discontinued. The Pythia was consulted only one month in the year, about the spring. It was required, that those who consulted the oracle should make large presents to Apollo, and from thence arose the opulence, splendor, and
magnificence of the celebrated temple of Delphi. Sacrifices were also offered to the divinity, and if omens proved unfavorable, the priestess refused to give an answer. There were five priests who assisted at the offering of sacrifices, and there was also another who attended the Pythia, and assisted her in receiving the oracle.

Sources
Paus. 10, c.5; Diod. 16; Strab. 6 & 9; Justin 24, c. 5; Plut. de Orat.; Eurip, In Jon.; Chrysost.

-- "Pythia" A Classical Dictionary by John Lempiere (1820)

THE SCRIFICIAL GOAT
The Importance of the Sacrificial Goat In order to determine if the day was right for an oracle the priests would splash cold water on a goat and observe if it shivered before sacrificing it. The goat had to tremble. If it did not tremble, the planned oracle was canceled.

In his Moralia, the historian and biographer Plutarch (A.D. 46-120) who held the position of high priest at Delphi for twenty years stated:"No oracle is given if the victim does not tremble and shake throughout its whole body, right to the extremity of its hooves, while it is dedicated. It does not suffice if it shakes its head as with other sacrifices. It is necessary that all its members shiver and shake together with a rattling noise. Without these signs it is declared that the oracle does not function, and Pythia is not introduced to it."

THE LAST MESSAGE GIVEN AT DELPHI (362 A.D.)
The last recorded oracle was a message to the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate, which said, "Go tell the king, the well-wrought hall has fallen in the dust; Phoebus Apollo no longer has a home or laurel or a murmuring spring. Even the talkative spring has dried up and is no more."

ETHYLENE DETECTED AT DELPHI

Jelle Zeilinga De Boer, a geologist at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, U.S.A., reported in Geology (Aug. 2001) that ethylene which produces euphoria rose through the fissures at Delphi.

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