Delphi is located on the southern slopes of sacred Mount Parnassus, about 12 miles from the Gulf of Corinth. While some come here to question the oracle, most attend the site to celebrate a festival of Apollo or Dionysus. This reconstruction shows the entire Delphi complex, from the stadium at the top to the Sanctuary of Athena at the very bottom. The area of the plan is indicated in red.
The most famous oracle in Greece is that of Apollo at Delphi. It was discovered long ago that a cleft in the side of Mount Parnassus emitted a gas that caused seizures among the goats that grazed nearby. When a goatherd was also affected, the locals interpreted his convulsions and ravings as divine inspiration.
This became the place decreed by Apollo to be the omphalus (navel) of the world. Delegations now travel from all over Greece to seek advice, the words of Apollo interpreted through the medium of the Pythia, high priestess of Delphi.
The Pythia is crowned in laurel and seated on a tripod perched over the vaporous cleft. Any man (women are not allowed in the sanctuary) wishing to ask a question about the future must first be ritually purified by washing in the Castalian Spring, which is where Apollo killed the Python dragon.
The request is written down and given to the Pythia by a priest. Her utterances are usually so disjointed that her servant-priests are needed to interpret the answer—even then, they often get it wrong, to the questioner’s usually dreadful misfortune.
The celebrant climbs a steep road toward the sanctuary entrance at its eastern corner. During a major festival this road is lined by numerous stores selling the pilgrims food, mementoes of their visit, and sacrificial offerings to place on the many altars. From the gate, the Sacred Way rises steeply in a zigzag, between the votive altars and then the state treasuries of several city-states.
It takes a sharp bend in front of the Athenian treasury before passing close to the rock on which in ancient times the mythical prophetess Sibyl sang her predictions in Gaia’s shrine. From here, the procession continues up past the Porch of the Athenians. This stoa (a covered walkway) is built in the Ionic order, and has seven fluted, or grooved columns, each made from a single stone. According to the inscription, it was erected by the Athenians after 478 BCE to house the trophies taken in their naval victories over the Persians.
The Sacred Way now bends around to take the last, steep rise up to the great Doric temple dedicated to Apollo. Inside is the adyton, the seat of the Pythia.
Facing the steps to the temple’s entrance is the large altar of the sanctuary. It was paid for and erected by the people of Chios, in the 5th century BCE. The monument is made of black marble, except for the base and cornice, which are of white marble, resulting in an impressive color contrast.