Priestesses of Apollo
Pythias--Priestesses of Apollo
Basic Information of a Pythia
Pythias, simple women with simple backgrounds, were very important because they were responsible for delivering one of the most important oracles of the ancient world. They were priestesses of Apollo who allowed him to enter their bodies in order for him to give advice to people from all over ancient Greece. The oracles of Apollo were given in the little town of Delphi, in central Greece. In return for the devotion of the Pythias' lives and bodies to Apollo, they were awarded many privileges. Due to the fact that religion played a very important role in Greek culture, Pythias received people's respect from all over the city-states(Hoyle 37).
Where is Delphi?
Delphi is located on the slopes of the holy mountain, Parnassus. It is located in Greece and is the center of one of the most know cities throughout Greece and the ancient world.
What is the legend of the Oracle?
Apollo, the god of medicine, music, and poetry, took over the town of Pytho after killing the goddess, Python, who had claimed that area in her name. He slew her in her home, a cave located at the foot of Mt. Parnassus. Legend states that the middle of the earth is the site where Apollo killed Python. He placed a marker on that spot which he named the omphalos stone. Omphalos is defined as the "center of the earth." In order to purify himself after Python's slaughter, he bathed in the springs of Delphi. Then Apollo went to the goat god, Pan. Apollo convinced Pan to educate him in the art of prophesying. He returned to Pytho and renamed it Delphi, after the dolphins which he sent out to attract sailors from Crete and bring them to Delphi to become his priests (Gray). Soon, a temple was built around the cave where Apollo slew the Python because Apollo had selected Delphi as the place to deliver his advice to the people.
What were the requirements of becoming a Pythia?
According to Simon (10), To become a Pythia, a woman had to . . .
Why were Pythias over the age of 50?
After Pythias were chosen, they had to take a vow of celibacy. The priestesses would live together in a house on the temple grounds. Vandenberg (129) notes that the first Pythias were young virgins, but later women over the age of fifty were chosen. The reason for this is explained by Diodorus (87):
"It is told that Echecrates, was present at a consultation and on looking at the virgin who gave prophecies, he fell violently in love with her because of her great beauty. He seized her and violated her. The Delphians decreed that in the future, the priestesses should not be young virgins, but a woman over the age of fifty. Pythias from then on were older women because their attraction to most men would not be less. A young woman could no longer become a Pythia (Hoyle 48)."
Preparation of the Pythia
On the morning of the day the oracle might be given, Pythias underwent a purification ceremony. They were accompanied by two high priests and the Hosioi, five members of the council. Servants from the temple also came. According to Vandenberg (129), the steps of the preparation were. . .
What was the oracle giving ritual?
In order to find out if any oracles could be delivered that day, the priests sprinkled cold water on a goat. If the goat shivered, oracles could be delivered. The goat was then sacrificed to Apollo. The smoke from the fire rose in the air to show the clients that they could come with their questions. If the goat did not react, no oracles could be given that day, meaning that there would be no oracles for that month (Vandenberg 130). Plutarch (37) reported:
"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. In default of these signs it is declared that the oracle does not function, and the Pythia is not introduced to it."
When oracles could be given, a Pythia would have to be put into a trance, therefore allowing Apollo to enter her. This was accomplished as noted by Hoyle (36). She inhaled smoke from a fire which burned barley and laurel leaves allowing Apollo to enter her body. She also chewed on laurel leaves. When she entered the trance, the priests carried her into adytum, the cave where the Python once lived. They placed her on a tripod behind a curtain. She held a cord attached to the omphalos stone in one hand. In the other hand, she held more laurel leaves. She sat there unconscious, waiting for Apollo to possess her (Vandenberg 130).
Who were the clients?
The clients, mostly males, who came for advice from the Oracle of Delphi ranged from farmers to leaders of large empires. The fee for consulting the oracle consisted of three things: the sacrifice of a lamb or goat, honey cakes which the priest sold, and money to pay for the oracle itself. A client would ask the priests their questions. Clients were not allowed in the adytum, so they waited in the waiting room for an answer. The priest would then ask the Pythia the client's question and wait to record the answer (Gray).
How were the oracles delivered?
Soon the laurel leaves began to shake and mysterious music would be heard. This meant that Apollo had entered the body of the unconscious Pythia (Gray). The oracle was delivered in one of two ways, prose or verse. Verse was not used between 100 BCE and 100 CE. Apollo's proses and verses were very complicated and hard to understand. Priests translated them, but the oracles were usually misinterpreted. After speaking, Apollo left the Pythia's body and she came out of the trance. She remembered very little, if any, of what had happened (Vandenberg 132).
What were the privileges of being a Pythia?
Some privileges of being a Pythia were. . .
The End of the Pythias.
In spite of all the wealth Delphi received from oracles, it fell prey to many invasions. Delphi was defeated by the Roman Empire during Rome's conquest of Greece, but Pythias delivered oracles until 390 B.C.E. According to Hoyle (49), the last oracle to be documented was:
Tell the king the fair-wrought house has fallen. No shelter has Apollo, no sacred laurel leaves. The fountains now are silent. The voice is still.
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This page was created by N.H. Last revised 3/27/00.