Delphic Oracle Provides Guidance for City-States Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Oracle at Delphi provided a common meeting ground for early Greek city-states and a religious ratification for individual cities’ decisions.

Summary of Event

The ancient Greek cities, as they entered recorded history about 800 b.c.e., were disunited. Except for temporary, often strained alliances against foreign enemies, they developed no common political institutions. They were permanently in competition with one another and often at war. Decisions had to be made, mostly about internal matters, but also about war, colonization, and occasional joint enterprises. These decisions were fundamentally matters of individual sovereignty. Yet there was enough sense of being Hellenes—Greeks—to permit the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi to emerge as somewhat of a common center. To understand this development, it is necessary to glance at prior religious and political arrangements. Phemonoe

From roughly 2000 until 1250 b.c.e., the brilliant, powerful “palace societies” of Crete and Mycenae dominated the area. The political-administrative form of these societies appears to have been bureaucratic aristocracy. Palace societies were originally worshipers of the Great (Earth) Goddess, but with increasing male military influence, Poseidon, the earth-shaking lord of the sea, and then Zeus, the weather/sky god, emerged as major deities.

The period from 1200 through 800 c.e. is termed the Greek Dark Age. The rich archaeological and even documentary evidence of a half millennium earlier does not exist. From what is known, Dark Age Greece was rudimentary and disorganized. The classical philosopher Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.), in his Politica (335-323 b.c.e.; Politics, 1598), held that the early Greeks lived “scattered about.” Each clan was a little kingdom, ruled absolutely by an elder male who was father, master, and king. Aristotle may be overstating the extent of patriarchy, which he sees as analogous to Zeus’s ascendancy as father and king of the Olympian gods. It was, however, precisely during this period that Zeus became dominant. His cult was established at Olympia in the early tenth century b.c.e.

Zeus was a deity appropriate to a period dominated by small-scale, quasi-feudal monarchy. Slowly, however, and no doubt in part because of the relative order provided by authoritarian patriarchy-monarchy, the small Greek communities began to recover and grow. The classical Greek form of political organization, the polis, or city-state, emerged. These early political communities were not yet the powerful, populous, often democratic cities of several centuries later, but neither were they scattered rural citadels of warrior chieftains. They represented the partial reemergence in Greece of civilized urban life, and as such required a revised religious orientation.

The god most related to this development was Apollo. The terms “Apollo” and “Apollonian” convey an image of beauty and harmony. Apollo is the god of Greek classicism, especially as Phoibos Apollo, the Radiant Apollo. He is the god of healing, purification, and music. Yet the Greeks could never forget the connotations of his name. With his characteristic bow and arrow, Apollo the “far-darter” seemed to be “The Destroyer.” Even the adjective phoibos was frighteningly close to the noun phobos, “fear” or “terror.”

This moral ambiguity is present in the tales of Apollo’s arrival at Delphi. Apollo was the son of Zeus, begotten on the nymph Leto. Enraged, Zeus’s sister-wife Hera sent the dragon-serpent Python to pursue Leto. Apollo was born on the Aegean island of Delos, met Python on Mount Parnassus and wounded him, and pursued Python to Delphi, where he killed him. Thus Apollo was established at Delphi.

At issue in the establishment is the question of precedence. Scholars debate whether the cult of Apollo took over an earlier oracle of the Earth goddess Ge, or Gaia. Complicating things is the question of whether Ge, Gaia, and Hera are all later personifications of the original Great (Earth) Goddess. Mythic traditions, combined with some archaeological and linguistic evidence, tend to affirm both prior occupation and theological identity. The moral implication is that both Zeus and Apollo acted unjustly and that redress was required. Zeus appears to have suffered only through the growing influence of Apollo’s cult. Yet Apollo is purified (on Crete, the Great Goddess’s center); he shares the shrine with the Pythia, his priestess and Oracle; and he further honors the memory of the slain Python with the Pythian Games, begun in 586 b.c.e.

There seems, then, to be an inner logic to the concomitant emergence of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi and the polis. Apollo is the new, young god. He represents a fresh beginning, a break with the obvious patriarchal order but also with the dimly remembered maternal religion lying behind it. Nevertheless, there is an evident compromise and implicit alliance of son and mother against father. Apollo is the personification of beauty and harmony but with an undercurrent of violence and injustice in his nature.

The Delphic Oracle issues a decree.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Given these characteristics, Apollo is the appropriate god for the classical Greek cities. They too represent a new principle, that of politics. Politics is the free intercourse of equal citizens, who conduct their affairs by speaking. Its authority stems not from the ancestral but from individual, often youthful excellence. Politics is also a spirited, often violent, sometimes terrible competition. It is a kind of order deeply in need of a neutral ground, and of moderation.

Delphi provided that ground and attempted to provide the moderation. Supposedly carved over the entrance of one of the several successive temples of Apollo were the sayings “Nothing in Excess” and “Know Thyself.” These famous pieces of advice capture much of the permanent spirit of the Oracle—a spirit communicated to cities and individuals with decreasing effectiveness as time passed. Yet they are not themselves utterances of Apollo’s Pythian priestess, Phemonoe. To imagine the priestess “prophesying,” that is, foretelling the future or uttering pithy, cryptic sayings, is to misunderstand, according to modern scholarship, normal Delphic procedure. (In this sense, Phemonoe, “prophetic mind,” seems misnamed.) The Oracle functioned approximately as a divine court of appeals. The “judges” were Apollo and, behind Apollo, at the omphalos stone marking the navel of the world, Earth herself.

Representatives of cities or, less frequently, private individuals initiated an inquiry. They did not, however, do so at their own convenience. The Pythia gave responses nine times each year, on the seventh of each nonwinter month. She did so seated on a tripod in the innermost sanctuary of Apollo’s temple. There is scholarly agreement that the most usual form of the response was “yes” or “no” to a policy question previously deliberated by a city and, moreover, that the reply was almost always to affirm the policy. This simple, nearly automatic sort of “oracle” renders irrelevant the interesting question of the Pythia’s state of mind when pronouncing. The traditional view, that she spoke under the influence of vapors emitted from a chasm in the earth, has been discarded. Those who admit as genuine some of the longer, more substantive responses reported speculate that the Pythia inhaled narcotic fumes or induced self-hypnosis.

Given that the Oracle’s usual response was an affirmation of policy proposals, it is understandable that Delphi’s greatest influence occurred in the first few centuries of its existence. The characteristic early political problems were the devising of law codes and the establishment of colonies. These proposals were both relatively easy to affirm and conducive to good reputation because they provided both internal stability and widening Greek influence. The most famous examples of legislation, Lycurgus’s at Sparta and Solon’s at Athens, were noted for their balance and moderation, and closely associated with Delphi.


Delphi’s broad political program appears to have been twofold—acquiescence in particular polis decisions while encouraging development of moderate institutions. This program implicitly acknowledged Delphi’s own limitations. At best, it might provide an opportunity for policy reconsideration in a setting suggestive of both a common Greekness and a superhuman perspective. Delphic moderation tended toward passivity, and was successful insofar as its member cities tended in the same direction. Early, most did; later, some, especially Athens, did not, and Delphi declined accordingly.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Translated by John Raffan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Widely recognized as the standard source, this book includes clear and balanced accounts of the Minoan-Mycenaean Great Goddess, sanctuaries and oracles, and Apollo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clay, Jenny Strauss. The Politics of Olympus: Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. This interesting work emphasizes the gender aspects of divine politics, including the Gaia-Python-Apollo relationship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dempsey, Reverend T. The Delphic Oracle: Its Early History Influence and Fall. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972. Superseded in scholarly terms, this short book is a useful, widely available introduction to the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fontenrose, Joseph. The Delphic Oracle: Its Responses and Operations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. An important scholarly effort, this work consists largely of an exhaustive, sometimes controversial evaluation of the historicity of the oracle’s responses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Catherine. Athletics and Oracles: The Transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the Eighth Century b.c. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. This work effectively links the rise of the Delphic Oracle to early Greek city-state development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parke, H. W., and D. E. W. Wormell. The History. Vol. 1 in The Delphic Oracle. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1956. The classic source, this well-balanced account takes a middle position on the historicity of responses.
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