Knowing When to Consult the Oracle at Delphi

By Salt, Alun; Boutsikas, Efrosyni | Antiquity, September 2005 | Go to article overview
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Knowing When to Consult the Oracle at Delphi

Salt, Alun, Boutsikas, Efrosyni, Antiquity


Each city in Classical Greece had its own calendar governing ritual observance, and each calendar had a local political significance that was certainly exploited. But there is no evidence of an accurate concordance of calendars between states. So how could pan-Hellenic events be coordinated in a politically neutral and accurate manner? The famous oracle at Delphi was originally only consulted on one particular day in one particular month of the year. So how did the different cities of Greece know when this was? We have found a correlation between festivals devoted to Apollo Delphinios, the major god of Delphi, and the movement of the constellation Delphinus. With so many stars in the sky this is perhaps not surprising. However, we also believe that we can show that this correlation is meaningful in explaining the timing of the consultation of the Oracle at Delphi.

The landscape and geology of Delphi

The religious sanctuary of Delphi is dramatically perched in the mountains of Phokis on the foothills of Mount Parnassos. The existing temple ruins nestle within a magnificent natural theatre of limestone cliffs which tower on three sides, leaving a view to the south, looking over the valley of Amphissa and the Gulf of ltea (Figure 1). The geological formations are awe-inspiring and have contributed to the placing of several buildings at the site. An ancient springhouse has been found on a fault line crossing the site (de Boer et al. 2001: 708), and it has been argued recently that the temple of Apollo itself is built to use the vapours from such faults (de Boer et al. 2001; Piccardi 2000). The geology would appear to add weight to the opinions of ancient authors such as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch who saw natural gases as an essential agent in the consultation of the Oracle. Tradition has it that the Pythia, a woman who would act as Apollo's mouthpiece (Parke 1956: 33-40; Graindor 1930: 7), sat above a chasm in the rear of the temple. In this chamber gases arose from the bowels of the earth helping to induce her religious trance and her contact with the god Apollo. This explanation had fallen out of favour after French excavations at the site during the first half of the twentieth century found no evidence of this chasm (Parke 1956: 21; Fontenrose 1974: 414-5) though recent work has seen the notion return to academic mainstream. Curnow's (2004) catalogue of oracular sites shows a strong correlation between oracular sites and geological features such as springs or vapour emissions. Therefore, the geology could partly explain why the Oracle attracted visitors from distant cities. A trip to Delphi would entail either a trek through the mountains of Phokis, or else sailing to the harbour at Krissa and then ascending 2000ft into the hills from there. However, it would not be sufficient to simply arrive in the right place to question the oracle. As with so much ritual in the ancient world, it was also necessary to put a question to the oracle at the right time.


The problem of Bysios

Originally the oracle delivered its pronouncements on an annual basis, the day chosen for the event being the seventh day of Bysios, Apollo's birthday (Flaceliere 1965: 39). The month of Bysios is accepted as being approximately the equivalent of the Gregorian month of February (Trumpy 1997:212; Fontenrose 1974: 383). This is only a rough guide, since the mechanics of the Greek calendar mean the year-to-year correlation is somewhat more complex. The Greeks shared a common way of measuring time, based on lunar months (Geminus Elementa Astronomiae 8; Herodotus II.4). If and when they worked correctly, Greek months started with the New Moon (Mikalson 1975: 9), which nominally produced months of 29 or 30 days in length. However, 12 lunar months are 11 days short of a tropical year, as is seen in the modern Islamic calendar, which moves forward by 11 days each year with respect to the seasons (Figure 2).

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Knowing When to Consult the Oracle at Delphi


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