If you journey to Delphi by car or bus from the direction of Athens, as most tourists tend to do today, you arrive via a circuitous, vertigo-inducing two-lane mountain highway which first passes through a number of other tourist villages, catering to summer hikers and winter skiers. Delphi, when you finally get there, is unquestionably beautiful, but then this whole region of Greece is beautiful.
This storied epicenter of ancient culture lies just north of the Gulf of Corinth, the body of water which separates mainland Greece from the peninsula known as the Peloponnese. Here the mountain known as Parnassus rears to a height of more than 8000 feet (2440 meters). Delphi itself nestles within a semi-circular recess 1900 feet (580 meters) up the mountain’s southern slope, looking down upon a wide valley carved by the river Pleistos between Mount Parnassus and Mount Cirphis on the other side. From these commanding heights, you can take in not only the river and the mountain on its opposite side but the olive orchards of the valley below, the seaside towns of Itea and Kirra, and the Gulf of Corinth itself, glinting in the hazy distance some five miles (8 kilometers) to the south.
Still, the village of Delphi doesn’t initially seem to stand out from the others in this mountain range to the degree you might expect in light of its mythical and historical significance. It too is filled with a collection of restaurants, hotels, and gift shops, all as unpretentious and friendly as almost everywhere in Greece. The locals are happy to leverage the famous name of their village to sell more trinkets, but never seem to find it unduly moving to live in the shadow of ancient myth and history. The road tripper can be forgiven for seeing Delphi as just one more obligatory stop on the tourist trail. Even the ruins of the ancient city and temple that lie next to the modern village can all too easily strike anyone on a package holiday of Greece as just more of the same.
If you want to take the ruins in properly, you really need to prepare yourself. You need to spend some time out of the car, to linger and breathe the air of the place. Only by slowing down and opening yourself to your surroundings can you get a sense of what really makes Delphi special — of what made the ancients decide that this was a locus of spiritual power, blessed by the gods. You need to find the little spring known as Castalia, half a mile east of the ruins, where supplicants used to purify themselves before continuing to the Temple of Apollo:
Come, you Delphians, Apollo’s devout,
Go to Castalia’s silver springs
And dip yourselves in its crystal dews.
Then enter the shrine with lips all purged
Of hurtful converse. Set your tongues
As paragons of gracious speech
To those who would consult the god.
And you need to linger in and around the modern village at least one night, preferably several. At night, when the wind gets up, blowing as if it would dislodge the village from its precarious mountain perch, you can begin to understand why the ancients believed it to be the breath of Zeus, bellowing in anger or in exultation.
From the village, a taxing hike of seven miles (11 kilometers), past a monastery and fields full of sheep, will take you further up the mountain’s slope to Corycian Cave, where ancient revelers used to abandon themselves to Dionysian frenzies for a while. Animal bones of unknown origin are still scattered about the cave, and the huge pillars of stone that the revelers likened to divine phalli are still in place. Close your eyes there, and you can almost hear the pipes and drums, almost taste the wine, almost see the dancers gyrating naked before you.
Another hike from the village of Delphi, in the other direction, will take you down, down toward the beckoning sea, through acre after neatly planted acre of olive trees which look today much as they must have 2500 years ago. When you pop out of the trees suddenly at the rather down-at-the-heels resort town of Kirra, full of abandoned hotels and derelict beach-side cafés, it’s like waking from an imaginative idyll into the most depressing sort of reality. And yet even this unprepossessing place has a longer history than you imagine: it was once Cirrha, the ancient port serving Delphi, at which supplicants, rulers, diplomats, and heroes — and, yes, tourists — washed up from all over the known world.
But of course you can’t avoid forever the ancient ruins of Delphi proper, which stand on a steep beneath a pair of cliffs known as the Phaedriades, in a location more sheltered and even more auspicious than the one occupied by the modern village. Prior to the end of the nineteenth century AD, the ancestors of many of the people who live next door to the ruins today had this spot for their home. They called their village Kastri then, Delphi being a name long since consigned to history; many scholars then were unconvinced that a real place by the name had ever existed. But the descriptions of Delphi’s location and surrounding landscape in ancient texts, combined with the odd bits of inscription-covered rubble that kept surfacing around Kastri, gradually convinced historians that this otherwise unremarkable mountain village had in fact been built atop one of the most storied sites of all antiquity. At the turn of the twentieth century, a French archaeological team uprooted Kastri and moved it bodily to one side, despite protests and threats from the understandably discomfited locals. Then, they began to excavate. The things they found soon convinced the villagers to give up their protests along with the old name of their village; Kastri became Delphi again for the sake of the international tourist trade.
The atmosphere of Delphi today still fairly drips with intimations of spiritual potency, if only you’re willing to receive them. Nevertheless, it seems a place one comes to escape from the world rather than to engage with it. How strange to think that this backwater once had a political and practical as well as spiritual importance which the modern imagination strains to encompass. To say that Delphi was some combination of the White House, the United Nations Headquarters, the Fort Knox, and the St. Peter’s Basilica of its time wouldn’t be incorrect, but neither would it fully capture the reality. Delphi was integral to the ancient Greeks’ very perception of themselves; for them, it had existed already before humanity’s creation, and remained both a living link to their legendary past and an irreplaceable part of their everyday present after the Age of Myth passed into the Age of History. Most of the mythological gods and heroes came here at one time or another, and then most of the great historical soldiers and statesmen.
Yet Delphi wasn’t a uniformly Greek institution at all; virtually all of the lands bordering the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Aegean Seas regarded it with awe. All of them came here to worship, to negotiate, to schmooze, to spectate, to play, and of course to query the oracle about the murky future. Things which occurred here millennia ago profoundly shaped the world we know today.
The sheer multifarious multi-dimensionality of Delphi makes it a challenging subject for any writer. It’s one of those subjects you can never get to the bottom of, one that’s constantly revealing unexpected new depths, undreamed-of new connections. I knew going into this project that I could write a meticulous history of the Delphi which has been revealed by the archaeologists’ spades and quite probably end up with something readable and enjoyable as well as historically accurate. But I also knew that to tell the story only of that Delphi of reality, leaving out the Delphi of the poetic imagination, would be to capture only half of the subject at best.
This, then, is my attempt to encompass the whole scope of one of the most fascinating places that has ever existed in either realm. First we’ll explore the Delphi of myth, then move on to the Delphi of recorded history; by those means we can hopefully come to terms with Delphi as a whole. We’ll try to see the place and, indeed, the world of which it was such a fundamental part as the Greeks saw it; I’ll be writing in a style meant to capture some of their literary culture’s flavor, even as I’ve updated it to make it more accessible to the modern reader. (In that light, I do hope you’ll forgive me the use of some gendered language and even some sexual and racial stereotypes.)
If some of the stories in the mythic vein in particular aren’t true in the strict sense demanded — and justifiably so! — by our professional historians, they remain true enough as exemplars of the Greek poetic imagination. They grapple with questions of justice versus compassion, free will versus predestination, the call of love versus the demands of duty. They don’t take place exclusively or even primarily in Delphi proper, but all of them pass through the place, and all of them see their course irrevocably altered by the oracle who dwells there. For Delphi has always been associated with the truly eternal questions, the ones with which the characters in these stories must grapple — the ones with which will doubtless continue to vex our poor tortured species as long as it continues to walk upon this poor tortured planet of ours.
Before the time of mortal men, before even the time of the Olympian gods, there were Gaia, the Mother Earth, and Uranus, the Father Heaven. She was bawdy, intuitive, impulsive — the child at play, the predator on the hunt. He was rarefied, thoughtful, intellectual — the scholar at his books, the stars in their clockwork procession. Gaia was physics; Uranus was metaphysics.
Despite their differences — or because of them — Gaia and Uranus began to copulate, and produced twelve children known as the Titans. These looked much like you and me, but were much larger beings of enormous strength, able to shatter mountains with their fists alone.
After the twelve Titans, Gaia and Uranus parented three Cyclopes, beings of similar size and strength to their older siblings who had the unusual attribute of possessing only a single eye each, centered in the middle of their foreheads. And then came three even more bizarre children: the Hecatoncheires, beings with fifty heads and a hundred arms each. Uranus loathed both the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires; they offended his natural sense of proportion and beauty. So, he imprisoned them deep underground in a place called Tartarus, awakening the ire of Gaia, who loved them as she loved all her children.
Impulsive as she was, Gaia gathered her oldest children, the Titans, together. “We should punish the vile outrage of your father,” she said.
But only one of them dared to challenge Uranus: that was Cronus, the last-born of the twelve Titans. “Mother, I will undertake to do this deed,” he said, “for I reverence not our father of evil name.”
So, Gaia revealed her full plan to him, and gave him a long, jagged-edged sickle with which to carry it out. He waited in ambush for Uranus, then burst out of hiding to inflict a just punishment upon a bad father: he deftly snipped off Uranus’s penis. As his blood rained down upon the earth, Uranus slunk away in shame. There sprang up in three places where his blood struck the ground the three Furies, female personifications of the vengeance which Uranus would soon be seeking. But in other places, there sprang up the beautiful female nymphs of the forests, as gentle as the Furies were violent.
Cronus took his sister Titan Rhea as his queen and took his father’s place as the supreme ruler of the world. Yet he betrayed his mother’s wishes, leaving the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires in their underground prison, lest they challenge his authority. Grief-stricken by his betrayal, Gaia reconciled with Uranus, who lived meekly following the loss of his manhood, afraid to attack his wayward son directly. The two began to plot other, guileful stratagems in lieu of a direct assault.
Meanwhile the world was populated with more and more divine beings, all of them the descendants of the original union of Gaia and Uranus. Among them were the three Fates, the weavers of the ultimate destinies of all things.
One day, after consulting the Fates, Gaia and Uranus came to their estranged son bearing a prophecy which they revealed with undisguised pleasure: that he would eventually be overthrown by one of his own children — surely the most just punishment for his betrayal of his parents. Cronus decided that the only sensible response to this prophecy was filicide. Every time Rhea bore him a child, he swallowed it whole. He did this to his daughters Hestia, Demeter, and Hera, as he did to his sons Hades and Poseidon.
Rhea was wracked by more grief with every child whom Cronus swallowed. At last, pregnant with a sixth child, she appealed to her parents Gaia and Uranus for help. They spirited away this latest child, a male named Zeus, while she wrapped a large rock in a baby’s swaddling and gave it to her husband in the child’s stead. A none-the-wiser Cronus duly swallowed the rock, and Zeus grew up proud and strong in hiding.
And so, at last, the time of his revenge became nigh. The adult Zeus ambushed his father and, with the help of his grandparents, forced him to regurgitate his other five children along with the stone he had believed to be his sixth.
Cronus ran to his own siblings, the other Titans, demanding that they join forces with him to destroy these new gods, his own misbegotten children. Gaia cautioned them against doing so; she revealed another prophecy of the Fates, saying that in the future craft and wiles, the likes of which Zeus had in abundance, would win out over brute strength. But only Rhea and two other Titans listened to their mother and elected to join the side of the young gods rather than their siblings. The two others were named Prometheus and Epimetheus; Prometheus, whose name means “forethought,” was very wise, while Epimetheus, whose name means “afterthought,” was impulsive and a bit dim, but loved Prometheus above all his other siblings.
And then came war. For ten years, the two sides battled one another ceaselessly. But the six children of Cronus and the three Titans were outmatched by the nine Titans and their many offspring and allies, and the war slowly turned against them.
So, Gaia suggested to Zeus that he journey below the surface of the world, to Tartarus, where her other sons the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires were still imprisoned. Zeus did so, freeing them all from their long bondage. “Show your great might and unconquerable strength, and face the Titans in bitter strife,” he said to them, “for remember our friendly kindness, and from what sufferings you are come back to the light from your cruel bondage under misty gloom through our counsels.”
“We will aid your power in dreadful strife and will fight against the Titans in hard battle,” replied the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires. And the former trio bestowed upon Zeus a great gift. Their names were Thunder, Lightning, and Bright, and they combined the powers inherent in their names to make Zeus the storm god, able to hurl lightning bolts from on high and command the weather.
Then a battle began such as has never been seen since. The Hecatoncheires threw a storm of boulders at the Titans with their 300 hands, and Zeus rained his lightning upon them; the Titans countered with volleys of arrows, each of them longer and thicker than the biggest tree. The air rang with the sound of battle from the depths of Tartarus to the peak of Mount Olympus. The ocean whirled and churned with foam, the hills shook down to their foundations, and the very earth threatened to crack open and swallow the combatants. The forests and grasslands caught fire, and the rivers and lakes boiled away in the midst of the inferno. And then, suddenly, it was all over. The nine Titans lay defeated beneath the boulders of the Hecatoncheires.
Zeus proved no less cruel a victor than had Cronus. He threw the nine Titans and most of those who had fought with them into the prison of Tartarus, as far below the surface of the earth as the vault of heaven was above it. Poseidon fixed walls and gates of bronze around their cages, and the Hecatoncheires took on the duty of guarding the prisoners.
But Zeus reserved a special punishment for one of their number. He forced Atlas, a son of one of the first-generation Titans, to stand at one of the ends of the earth and hold up the vault of heaven for all eternity.
As the wounded earth slowly healed, the new divine order organized itself. The young gods took Mount Olympus in the north, the highest mountain in the world, as their abode. The three males among them took the greatest positions of power. Poseidon became the god of the sea, Hades the god of the underworld, while Zeus became the new supreme ruler of all the world, god of earth and sky, with Hera as his queen. Only Demeter chose to disassociate herself from her siblings. Taking upon herself the role of goddess of the harvest, she chose to dwell down below among the growing things of the earth, seldom or never visiting Mount Olympus, having only the most limited contact with her brothers and sisters.
These young Olympian gods proved an amorous lot, and thus many more gods and demigods followed, the products of their many unions with the other beings of the world. As the supreme god, Zeus’s own issue must be accorded special respect. Yet his relationship with his wife Hera was consistently rocky, and the couple had only two children together: Ares, the god of war, and Hephaestus, the god of engineering and craftsmanship. Both joined the other young gods on Mount Olympus — although Hephaestus, who was ugly and lame, was allowed to do so only reluctantly, after a long time spent in exile.
When Athena, goddess of wisdom, sprang, fully-formed and motherless, from Zeus’s head one day, her father allowed her as well to join the rest of them on Mount Olympus. Hera was outraged: “Would I not have borne you a child — I, who am at least called your wife? Now I too will contrive that a son be born to me without casting shame on the holy bond of wedlock between you and me.” And so she prayed to the older gods: “Hear now, I pray, Earth and wide Heaven above, and you Titan gods who dwell beneath the earth about great Tartarus! Grant that I may bear a child apart from Zeus, not lesser than him in strength — nay, let him be as much stronger than Zeus as all-seeing Zeus than Cronus.”
The older gods appeared to grant her prayer. The creature she birthed had a hundred heads, each breathing fire hot enough to melt iron. She named it Typhon, and gave it to a dragon named Python to raise. And Python raised it well, after her fashion, teaching it to kill and destroy. When the time came, it attacked Mount Olympus itself. But the old gods, most of whom had little enough love for Hera, had played a trick on her: Typhon was powerful, but not more so than Zeus. Zeus met its fire with his own lightning, and finally won the day. He cast it too down into the depths of Tartarus.
Python, however, lived on on the surface of the world, grieving for her surrogate child, still looking for ways to cause mischief for the god who had imprisoned it. And Zeus’s jealous wife also continued to do the same. Her indignation only increased when her husband fathered two more children through extramarital carnal unions and welcomed them to Mount Olympus as well. They were Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sex, and Hermes, the god of speech, protocol, and trickery, also the messenger of the gods.
Until this point, the world had been populated only by the immortal races of divine beings. But the new gods now decided this wouldn’t do. They delegated to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus, two of the three first-generation Titans who had joined their cause in the war against their nine siblings, the responsibility of creating the ephemeral creatures of the world.
Epimetheus begged his brother to be allowed to distribute traits to the new creatures, and Prometheus agreed. So, Epimetheus made some of them strong but slow, others weak but fast. He gave some deadly teeth and claws, and made others defenseless but stealthy enough to pass unseen, or able to fly away from danger. He gave some hides and hair that were resistant to cold, while he made others resistant to heat. He gave some a taste for meat, some for plants, some for a mixture of the two. He made those who were most at risk in the world capable of birthing many young who grew to become adults very quickly, while he gave those less at risk a longer period of pregnancy and a longer stretch of vulnerable childhood. By all these means, he hoped to create a balance in the world, preventing any animal from coming to utterly dominate the others, whilst also preventing any of them from going entirely extinct. He was rather proud of himself when he finished his work and stepped back to survey it.
Zeus himself came to look upon Epimetheus’s work as well. He chose the eagles, animals he found to be exceptionally majestic, to be his personal servants. He told two eagles, brother birds who flew at the exact same speed, to fly separately to the extreme eastern and western ends of the world. Then he ordered each of them to fly back the way he had come.
The place where the eagles met must mark the exact center of the world. It was a lovely place, sheltered in the lee of the mountain known as Parnassus. Here were two towering cliffs which Zeus named the Phaedriades, or “shining ones,” for the way that the sun glinted off their surfaces at noontime. A stream of cold, clear water plunged over the cliffs and collected in a pool at their base, on a plateau with a breathtaking view of the valley below, dotted with olive groves. Gaia, the Earth Mother, had long known of this beautiful place, and had long considered it sacred. She gave healing and enlightenment to anyone who drank its waters.
Zeus now decided to mark the place with the original stone which his father Cronus had been tricked into swallowing in his stead — the very object which had given him and the rest of the young gods their chance to reign. He renamed the stone the omphalos, a word meaning “navel,” for it now marked the navel of the world. And he named the place where it now lay Delphi — meaning a hollow or a womb, a name appropriate for the navel of the world and central locus of all of the world’s bounties.
But meanwhile Epimetheus was realizing that he’d miscalculated: he’d distributed all of the gifts that were his to bestow, but there was still one animal left naked and helpless, having received none of them. Ironically, this was the most pleasant creature of all of them to look upon, the only one whose form was close to that of the gods. When Epimetheus sheepishly told his brother about the problem, Prometheus decided it would be a grave injustice to send the handsome creature out into the world so ill-equipped to survive. So, he sneaked into the quarters of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and stole from her knowledge of fire; then he sneaked into the workshop of Hephaestus, the god of engineering and craftsmanship, and stole knowledge of those things as well. He gave all of these to the helpless creature which he named man. In doing so, he created an animal vastly more formidable than any other — the only one able to augment its innate physical gifts with tools which it builds for itself.
When Zeus saw what Prometheus had done, he was livid with him for creating a being neither fully animal nor fully divine, simultaneously too close to and too far from the gods for anyone’s comfort. And, indeed, these absurdly weak creatures began comporting themselves like gods in no time at all, building and making things and lording it over the other animals. For at this time there was no hardship in the world of men — no sickness except for that of old age, no war, no want. The land around them was bountiful and their work was easy.
Zeus demanded a meeting with the upstarts, to be brokered by their champion Prometheus, in which he would explain to them what was their domain and what was his. As the host of the meeting, Prometheus slaughtered a prize ox for his guests’ repast. But there was something odd about the two portions into which he divided it. One portion was made up of all the best cuts, sizzling temptingly there on the platter. The other was nothing but gristle, skin, and entrails. “How unfairly you have divided the portions!” exclaimed Zeus.
Prometheus merely smiled and said, “Zeus, most glorious and greatest of the eternal gods, take whichever of these portions your heart within you bids.” So, Zeus took the fine portion — only to discover that beneath the thin top layer of cleverly distributed choice cuts were only bones. Meanwhile the other portion, which went to the men, proved to disguise most of the best meat underneath its offal.
In a rage at being humiliated in this public way, Zeus terminated the meeting and took back from men Athena’s gift of fire, without which most of the arts of Hephaestus were useless. Undaunted, Prometheus promptly stole it back and returned it to them. This was playing a dangerous game indeed. Zeus narrowed his eyes and looked hard at Prometheus. The clever Titan, he said, wasn’t the only wily one in the world: “Surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire. A great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.”
He called together the other young gods and demanded that they create the most tempting woman the world had ever seen. Hephaestus gave her a body of perfect form and a face as beautiful as that of any of the goddesses; Athena clothed her in the finest garments and jewelry; Hermes gave her the most sultry of voices and taught her to beguile with it; Aphrodite gave her an erotic aura irresistible to men. When they were done, they named her Pandora, which means “gift.” Then Zeus fashioned a jar, and placed into it all of the evils of the world of men that we have since come to know: disease, toil, violence, and all the pain that accompanies them. He told Pandora not to open the jar until she was accepted into the society of man, for otherwise its contents would have no effect. Now, he just needed a messenger to take her down to his victims.
Knowing that Prometheus would see right through his gambit, Zeus delivered Pandora instead to his dimmer brother Epimetheus. Prometheus had in fact told his brother not to accept any gifts from the gods under any circumstances, but as usual Epimetheus had forgotten the warning. So, he duly introduced Pandora to the society of men, who, mesmerized by her beauty, rushed to welcome her in. Once inside, she opened her jar, and all of the evils of the world we know escaped to fester among men for all eternity. The earth was no longer as bountiful; resources became scarce. While some men tried to toil honestly, others tried to take from their peers the things they had by violence, while still others sickened and died before their time. For good measure, Zeus smote the proud cities which men had built into rubble, then watched from his perch on Mount Olympus as they scurried over the countryside like ants, squabbling with one another as they cast about frantically for food and shelter.
It now remained only for Zeus to take his revenge upon Prometheus. And, indeed, for him Zeus reserved the cruelest punishment of all. He bound Prometheus with chains to a mountainside and cut his belly open. Every day, an eagle — the special bird of Zeus — came to him and slowly nibbled his liver away; then, every night, the magic of Zeus caused the liver to regenerate for the next day’s torture. This was to be Prometheus’s fate for all eternity.
But just before he was bound, Prometheus did manage to bestow one final gift upon humanity: he gave them Hope, the only thing that could possibly make bearable the suffering which Zeus had inflicted upon them.
Although Zeus would never take it upon himself to relieve said suffering, he and the rest of the gods on Mount Olympus would eventually come to look more kindly on the race of mortals below who had been so grievously humbled by the contents of Pandora’s jar. The one of the gods’ number who would take them most to heart — and who for this very reason will become the most important of all the gods for our story — would be the one named Apollo, the god of art, music, poetry, archery, healing, rationality, and truth. And also, the god of prophecy, who would consult often with the Fates on behalf of men.
Apollo and his twin sister Artemis — goddess of the hunt, the forest, and virginity — were the products of a union between Zeus and Leto, a daughter of the first generation of Titans. In order to hide this, his latest infidelity, from Hera’s prying eyes, Zeus transformed himself and Leto into quails while they coupled. But the dragon Python was always sneaking about, always looking for ways to harm Zeus. She watched him transform his lover and himself and enjoy his trysts, then whispered in Hera’s ear about her husband’s betrayal. When Python learned that Leto had become pregnant, she rushed to share that news as well. Just as she had hoped, Hera ordered her to pursue Leto to the ends of the earth if need be and prevent her from giving birth anywhere where the sun shone.
So, Python harried Leto from land to land. Leto begged for sanctuary everywhere she went, but none dared offer it — not even Zeus himself, who knew he was in the wrong yet again and feared his wife’s wrath. She came at last to the strange island known as Delos, a conscious being which floated where it would upon the surface of the ocean rather than being anchored in place. Python was unable to reach here if Delos didn’t wish her to, for the island could move like the wind out of her path.
The actual landscape of Delos was as deserted as it was forbidding. A desperate Leto saw opportunity in her hardscrabble surroundings; she decided to offer Delos a bargain, involving one of the gods she knew herself to carry in her belly. “You will never be rich in oxen or sheep,” Leto acknowledged, “nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you sacrifices and gather here.”
“Joyfully would I receive your children,” replied Delos, “for it is true that I am ill-spoken-of among men, whereas thus I should become very greatly honored. But they say that Apollo will be one who is very haughty and will greatly lord it among gods and men all over the fruitful earth. I greatly fear in heart and spirit that as soon as he sees the light of the sun, he will scorn this island — for truly I have but a hard, rocky soil. He will go to another land such as will please him, there to make his temple. Yet if you will but dare to swear a great oath, goddess, that here first he will build a glorious temple, then let him afterward make temples among all men.” So, Leto promised that her son would make his first temple on Delos in return for the island’s protection.
Leto’s labor with the twins was long and difficult. For nine days she groaned in agony. Even the gods on Mount Olympus heard her sufferings and were moved to come and attend to her, with the exception only of the implacable Hera. At last, on the ninth day, Artemis and then Apollo burst forth into the sunlight before the other gods. “The lyre and the curved bow shall ever be dear to me,” Apollo said, “and I shall declare to men the unfailing will of Zeus.” Thus he stated his intention to be a god of music and archery, among other things — and to be the special friend of the mortal beings known as men. Because men would need to be able to find the temple he now raised on Delos, he anchored the floating island to the seafloor in the position where it still stands to this day.
But Apollo was also the god of prophecy, and he wished for another temple from which he could commune directly with his mortal charges about the tapestry of past, present, and future that was constantly being woven by the three Fates. For a long time, he roamed the world, looking for just the right location. He almost settled upon a sacred spring in Arcadia in the Peloponnese, the dwelling place of a nymph named Telphusa. “Telphusa,” he said, “here I am minded to make a glorious temple, an oracle for men, both those who live in the Peloponnese and those of the mainland and all the wave-washed isles. And I will deliver to them all counsel that cannot fail.”
Unfortunately, Telphusa’s spring was located just off a major road. Given this, she recognized that it just wasn’t suitable: “The trampling of swift horses and the sound of mules watering at my sacred spring will always irk you, and men will like better to gaze at the well-made chariots and stamping, swift-footed horses than your great temple and the many treasures that are within. But if you will be moved by me, build below the glades of Parnassus: there no bright chariot will clash, and there will be no noise of swift-footed horses near your well-built altar. The tribes of men will bring gifts to you, and you will receive with delight rich sacrifices from the people dwelling round about.”
Following this wise advice, Apollo flew north, over the Gulf of Corinth to Mount Parnassus, and so to the place at the center of the world known as Delphi, home of the omphalos stone and the sacred spring of Gaia. Indeed, Gaia had already set up an oracle of her own for men at Delphi, a young mortal woman who slipped into a trance when she inhaled sacred vapors that rose up from a crack in the mountainside. Once in her trance, she prophesied things that were normally known only to the gods.
Yet all was not well on Mount Parnassus. The dragon Python, Apollo’s mother’s old nemesis, had long resided in a cave called Corycian above the oracle, whence she harassed the supplicants who came to visit. Her presence was so often talked-of that Delphi had also become known as Pythos by this time.
Undaunted, Apollo ventured up the mountainside, sneaked up behind the dragon, and shot her with one of his deadly arrows. All the mountain shook as she writhed and gasped in her death throes, but Apollo was unmoved: “Now rot here upon the soil that feeds man! You shall live no more to be a fell bane to man!”
Then Apollo seized the oracle of Gaia and converted her to his service. “In this place,” he said, echoing the words he had so recently spoken to Telphusa, “I am minded to build a glorious temple to house the oracle for all men.” But this time he encountered no objections and thus truly did so, placing the omphalos stone of Zeus inside his new temple.
Hera was made furious by Apollo’s killing of her special servant, and Gaia was livid at his stealing her oracle and building his own temple at her sacred place. Wishing only for peace in the family, Zeus brokered a compromise: Apollo could have his oracle at Delphi, but he must give penance for his actions at a ceremony of purification, and must also institute and oversee a series of competitions to be held by men every four years there. Called the Pythian Games, they would celebrate music, dance, poetry, and sport, even as they also honored the gods, the bountiful earth, and, yes, the memory of Python. If he would but do those things, the other gods, recognizing Apollo’s special relationship with mortals, would otherwise allow him free rein at Delphi. Apollo agreed.
After doing his penance, Apollo, realizing he would need capable men to administer his temple and host the games, transformed himself into a dolphin and scoured the ocean. At last, he found what he was looking for: a large trading ship with a smart and able crew, returning to its homeland of Crete from the town of Pylos in the southwestern Peloponnese. He sprang out of the water before the crew’s shocked gazes, transforming back into his normal form. He took control of the winds, driving the ship back along its former course, then further northward to the Gulf of Corinth, then eastward to the shore just south of Mount Parnassus, all while the crew looked on helplessly. Finally he beached the ship there, at the foot of the great mountain. When the crew remained frozen in fear upon their ship, he spoke: “Why rest you so and are afraid, and do not go ashore? For that is the custom of men, whenever they come to land in their ships, spent with toil. At once desire for sweet food catches them about the heart.”
The crew answered him: “You are nothing like mortal men in shape or stature, but are of the deathless gods. What country is this, and what land, and what men live herein?”
“I am the son of Zeus,” answered the god. “Apollo is my name. I brought you here over the wide gulf of the sea meaning you no hurt. Nay, here you shall keep my rich temple, and you shall know the plans of the deathless gods, and by their will you shall be honored continually for all time.”
“Lord,” said the crew, “since you have brought us here far from our dear ones and our fatherland, tell us now how we shall live. This land is not to be desired either for fields or for pastures. We cannot hope to live thereon and also minister to men.”
“Foolish drudges and poor mortals are you,” smiled the god, “that you seek cares and hard toils and straits! Though each one of you with knife in hand should slaughter sheep continually, yet would you always have abundant store, for all the tribes of men will bring gifts here for me. You must merely guard my temple and receive the tribes of men that gather to this place, and especially show mortal men my will, and keep righteousness in your heart. But if you shall be disobedient, then other men shall be your masters and with a strong hand shall make you subject for ever. All has been told you: do you keep it in your heart.”
And so he led them up the trail to Delphi to begin their new lives. The place where he had beached their ship became known as Cirrha, the port serving Delphi. Here pilgrims soon began arriving from all over the world to consult Apollo’s oracle, even as others made the long journey overland.
So, as the race of men multiplied and spread, Delphi took on its prescribed role as the very center of their world. People came from far and wide to consult the oracle — who was always a young maiden, as she had been during the time of Gaia’s ascendancy as well — and to curry favor with the gods. Just as Apollo had promised, the descendants of those Cretan sailors grew rich off the gifts that were brought to Delphi, and built around Apollo’s temple a thriving town almost as beautiful as the surrounding countryside. Every four years, the mountainside rang with lutes and lyres, arrows and javelins, and voices raised in drama and oratory when the Pythian Games took place. Almost all of the great heroes and the great stories in which they played their roles would pass through Delphi at one point or another during the Age of Myth that was to come.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)