Delphic Oracle

The oracle at Delphi, famous throughout ancient Greece from about the seventh century B.C.E., was (at least initially) only available for consultation on one day in the entire year. It was also set in a remote location in the foothills of Mount Parnassos, several days' journey from most ancient Greek cities. How, then, did pilgrims manage to arrive there at the appropriate time?

There might appear to be little difficulty, because the date was clearly specified as Apollo's birthday, the seventh day of the month of Bysios. The problem is that in ancient Greece, even as late as the fifth century b.c.e., there was no universal calendar. Instead, each urban center reckoned its own lunar calendar independently. In theory, observations of the first appearance of the new moon were used to determine the beginning of each month, but these were often subject to political interference, and the same was true of the insertion of intercalary months to keep the calendar in step with the seasonal year. Different cities had different sequences of months, different god and goddess cults, and different festival dates. The month of Bysios, for example, could fall at any time from (what in our calendar is) mid-January to mid-March. Certainly, no pilgrim relying on their own city's civic lunar calendar could be sure of arriving at the oracle at the appropriate time, perhaps within several weeks.

The key, it seems, was in observations of the stars. Their use as seasonal indicators had been known to Greek farmers since at least the eighth century B.C.E., as is clear from the writings of Hesiod. By the fifth century—following the development of peg-hole star calendars called parapegmata—some cities at least were using star sightings to regulate their own civic calendars. We also know from at least one parapegma that the relatively faint stars of the constellation Delphinus were recognized as a dolphin from at least the fifth century b.c.e. Finally, the cult title of the god (Apollo Delphinios) and the name of the site suggest an association with Delphinus.

Weaving these various strands together, it is not surprising to discover that the heliacal rise (first pre-dawn appearance) of Delphinus occurred to-

The ruins of Delphi, Greece. (Corel Corp.)

wards the end of December. If pilgrims used this event as the cue to commence the journey to the oracle, then they would have arrived in good time. What is more, this celestial event may well (at least initially) have defined the date when the oracle held forth. The key to this notion is Delphi's location within the landscape: it is situated in a natural bowl surrounded on three sides by towering cliffs. The high eastern horizon means that from the temple itself, the first appearance of Delphinus did not occur until about the end of January. According to tradition, Apollo left Delphi for a three-month period each year, which coincides (at least approximately) with the period when the constellation was too close to the sun and hence invisible. The consultation, then, would have taken place on the seventh day of the first lunar month in which the celestial dolphin had returned.

All this is strongly suggestive that the cult activities associated with the god Apollo Delphinios, and in particular the day when the oracle made its pronouncements, were defined by direct reference to the annual cycles of appearance of the constellation Delphinus. This direct connection may well have been used by pilgrims to know when to commence their journey to the oracle.

See also:

Hesiod (Eighth Century B.C.E.); Lunar and Luni-Solar Calendars; Pilgrimage.

Temple Alignments in Ancient Greece.

Heliacal Rise.

References and further reading

Flaceliere, R. (trans. by D. Garman). Greek Oracles, 39. London: Elek, 1965.

McCready, Stuart, ed. The Discovery of Time, 74-79. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2001.

Parke, H.W. The Delphic Oracle. Oxford: Blackwell, 1956.

Salt, Alun, and Efrosyni Boutsikas. "Knowing When to Consult the Oracle at Delphi." Antiquity 79 (2005), in press. Tuplin, C. J., and T. E. Rihll, eds. Science and Mathematics in Ancient Greek Culture, 112-132. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

0 0

Post a comment