Architecture Around the World

The Sanctuary of Delphi, Greece

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View from the sanctuary

Olive trees

Artist's conception of the Sanctuary in Classical times

Detail

Athenian Treasury

Athenian Treasury

Athenian Treasury: triangular pediment, dentils, triglyphs, metopes

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

Theatre of Dionysos

Theatre of Dionysos

Theatre of Dionysos

Stadium

Stadium

Stadium

Stadium

Stadium

Ionic column

Bead-and-reel molding ... Anthemia

Bead-and-reel molding

Ionic capital

Mutules

Sanctuary of Delphi

In this place, with its exceptional and peculiar terrain, the largest religious center of ancient Greece was founded and enjoyed unprecedented preeminence, the sanctuary of Delphi. Its renown, which spread throughout the Mediterranean world, was due to the presence of the oracle within the sanctuary. This oracle was very ancient and, according to tradition, was founded because of a fissure in the earth through which natural vapors issued which sent man into a trance and enabled him to foretell the future.

The first oracle was dedicated to Ge, the Earth Goddess or Mother Goddess, who was worshipped in prehistoric times, along with her consort, Poseidon and her daughter, Themis.

These early sovereigns of the sanctuary were later succeeded by Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto, who left his birthplace Delos and came to this spot. The new god must have attained predominance only after several difficulties, as is revealed by the myth concerning Apollo's struggle with the Python-dragon guardian of the Sanctuary of Ge. To cleanse himself after shedding blood, in slaying the Python, the god left Olympus and went into self-imposed exile in the Vale of Tempe. For eight years he tended the flocks of Admetos, king of Pheres. Only after his atonement and purification did he return to Delphi and by this example taught men a great moral lesson. For he demonstrated that expiation for bloodshed could be achieved by means other than new bloodshed, as had been the practice until then.

Apollo was worshipped at Delphi as god of light, harmony and order. He was also the god possessed with the power of prophecy and through his oracles communicated the infallible will of Zeus to men, so helping them solve their problems, great and small.

From the remotest reaches of the then-known world official envoys came to Delphi to hear the god's divination on major matters of state and ordinary folk in search of an answer to their personal troubles. They made a sacrifice, paid the determined sum and awaited the god's reply, as uttered through the mouth of the Pythia-seer-priestess whose incomprehensible mutterings were dexterously interpreted by the priests.

The period of the sanctuary's great acme commenced in the 6th century. It gradually increased in extent, major festivals were established and its reputation continued to grow. Then it was that the splendid buildings were erected and rich votives dedicated by private individuals, cities and foreign kings, such as Kroisos of Lydia et al. The festival reached its peak in the 5th century BC and continued through into the 4th. Intensive building activity during these years endowed the sanctuary with edifices of great architectural and ornamental beauty, while, alongside, votives continued to multiply.

In later times the village of Kastri was built on the ruins of the sanctuary, eventually covering them entirely. At the end of the last century the French Archaeological School undertook the excavation of the site. The village was completely demolished and rebuilt further west, in its present position, and named Delphi. Systematic investigation of the site began in 1892, under the direction of Th. Homolle, and continued for a considerable period of time by other excavators. Their excavations brought to light two temenoi (sacred precincts), that of Apollo and that of Athena, the Kastalia Fountain, the Gymnasium and the Stadium.


Temple of Apollo

The ruins we see nowadays belong to the 4th century BC temple, which was the third to occupy this site, the two preceding ones being constructed in Archaic times. The first temple was built in the middle of the 7th century BC and destroyed by fire in 548 BC.

The second was erected at the end of the 6th century BC with money gathered in a panhellenic collection. In 373 BC this temple too was destroyed, most probably by an earthquake, and shortly afterwards building of the third temple commenced, again financed by funds from all over Greece. After several interruptions this temple was completed in 330 BC.

Its architects were the Corinthians Spintharos, Xenodoros and Agathon and, like its predecessors, the temple was in the Doric order, with a peristasis of 6 columns on its narrow sides and 15 columns on its long ones.

The temple of Apollo is the the most significant and sacred building in the Delphic sanctuary, the Poros stone and gray limestone were the principal building materials. The sculptures of the pediments were the work of the Athenians Praxias and Androsthenes. Only the wonderful figure of Dionysos is preserved (in the museum).

A ramp in front of the east entrance to the temple leads to the peristyle and thence to the pronaos, on the walls of which were inscriptions of such well-known sayings as "Know thyself," "Nothing in excess," as well as the famous letter E, the interpretation of which has absorbed generations of scholars from antiquity till the present day.

The pronaos was followed by the cella (pron. SELL a) which seems to have been partitioned into an east and west sector. In the first there was the altar of Poseidon, statues of Zeus Moiragetes and Apollo Moiragetes, the iron throne of the poet Pindar and the altar of Hestia, in which the immortal flames always burned.

The second part of the cella was the adyton of the oracle, the place destined for prophesying. Unfortunately its arrangement is not known with certainty, since this sector was found in very badly damaged condition by the excavators and the descriptions of the ancient authors are most imprecise. It seems that there was a subterranean chamber in which was located the Kassiotis spring, the fissure in the earth from which vapors emanated, the oracular tripod on which the Pythia sat and the omphalo (umbilicus). Only the Pythia was allowed to enter the cavern with these holy articles, while the priests and those seeking an oracular pronouncement awaited in the chamber outside.

Originally the oracle prophesied only once a year, on the 7th day of the month Bysios (February - March), on the day of Apollo's birth. Later, however, demand increased and oracles were given each month, apart from the three winter months when the god departed for the land of the Hyperboreians.

Those seeking a prophecy were obliged to pay a special levy called the pelanos, then to sacrifice an animal on the altar, preferentially a black, unblemished goat. If the sacrifice was favorable they were permitted to enter the temple to consult the oracle, which was given by the Pythia, after observing the following procedure. First, she, like the priests, washed in the waters of the Kastalian spring; next she entered the temple and censered the hearth in which burned the everlasting flame and then descended to the cavern from where she would prophesy. There she mounted the oracular tripod, right beside the omphalos, drunk water from the Kassiotis spring, which trickled within this chamber, chewed laurel leaves and inhaled the vapors issuing from the chasm. She then fell into an ecstatic trance and began to utter incomprehensible sounds which were then interpreted by the priests who heard them in an adjacent room, written in verse (later in prose) and the answer given to the theopropoi.

Oracles were given for simple matters as well as on important issues. The theopropoi could, for example, consult the god on personal concerns such as matrimony, journeys etc., or about political affairs of significance, such as the founding of colonies, legislation, declaration of war etc. Quite often the replies were intentionally unclear, ambiguous or even biassed. But the truth of the prophecies was never doubted, so great was the faith of the theopropoi and their conviction that it was not easy for man to understand the will of the god and so the oracle's reputation remained invincible throughout antiquity.

The entire north side of the temple was closed by a long retaining wall, known as the ischegann (literally, hold back the earth). During excavations statues were found behind this wall, just where they had been buried in ancient times, after the temple had been destroyed by earthquake in the 4th century BC. These include the statues of the pediments of the second temple of Apollo and the famous bronze statue of the Charioteer.


The Theater of Dionysos

Note the coexistence of the cult of the god Dionysos, the god of wine, within the actual Sanctuary of Apollo. The god Dionysos, representing a totally different spirit, occupied the sanctuary for the three winter months when Apollo withdrew to the mythical distant land of the Hyperboreians.

The theater is built of local Parnassos limestone and, like most of the Greek theaters, was made in the 3rd century BC, and subsequently repaired several times. It acquired its present form in Roman times and consists of three parts: the stage (skene), orchestra and auditorium (koilon). Very few of the stage buildings have survived. The orchestra, 18.5 m. in diameter, is paved and surrounded by a stone conduit for carrying away the rain water. The auditorium of the theatre, which spreads out before us, consists of 35 rows of seats and could accommodate some 5,000 spectators. In addition to dramatic performances, music contests were also held here for, since Apollo was god of music, these, along with poetry competitions, had priority in the sanctuary.


Pythian Games / Stadium

Delphi was also the site of the Pythian games, the most famous festival after the Olympics. The Games commemorated Apollo's victory over his oracular predecessor here, the snaky Python. Because Apollo was the god of music, the Pythian games had more artistic contests (flute, lyre, dances and plays staged every every years) than the Olympic games.

Panhellenic centers such as Delphi constituted a link between the Greeks, who were divided into small city-states and needed such centers where their ethnic bonds could be reinforced. All Greeks were acutely aware of these bonds when they gathered at Delphi every four years for the Pythia, the second most important panhellenic games after the Olympic.

In the beginning the contests were held every eight years and were exclusively musical. After the end of the first Holy War, in 582 BC, the Pythia were organized more systematically and it was laid down that they be held every four years. The music and poetry competitions were enriched and athletic and equestrian events added. The music and poetry contests were held in the theatre, athletics in the Stadium (running, pentathlon, wrestling, boxing and pancration) and horse-riding in the Hippodrome on the Krisaion field, the present-day Plain of Chrisos, where there was a suitable expanse of land.

The games lasted eight days and the victor's trophy was a wreath of laurel, the tree sacred to Apollo, and the right to erect a portrait statue within the sanctuary.

The first stadium was constructed on this site in the 5th century BC and was of much simpler form with only temporary seats. Its present form was acquired in the 2nd century AD due to the generous interest of the wealthy Athenian, Herodus Atticus and is made entirely of Parnassos limestone.

The magnificent entrance to the stadium was on its east side and was three-apsed. Only the lower part stands today. The track is 177.55 m. long and 25.50 m. wide. There are 12 tiers of seats on the north side and 6 in the semicircular curved end and on the south side. The stadium is estimated to have held some 7,000 spectators and it was here that, from the 5th century onwards, the athletic events in the great panhellenic festival of the Pythian games took place.


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Photos and their arrangement © 2001 Chuck LaChiusa
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