The Pythia, Ancient Priestess of Delphi


The Pythia was the name of the Oracular Priestess at Delphi in the Temple of Apollo. The Pythia was widely respected for her prophecies. She was said to be the most prestigious oracle in the ancient Greek world. The Oracle at Delphi was thought to begin around 800 BCE, and officially ended around 393 CE. When the oracle would perform her prophetic rituals, she would enter the inner chamber of the temple, known as adyton, and sit on a tripod like chair, while holding laurel leaves. Nearby her was the opening in the earth or omphalos which translates to mean navel in Greek. This is where the sacred vapors came from that put the Priestess into a trance like state.

When a person came for a prophecy, they would make a sacrifice, and present a question to a male Priest. The Priest would then go and consult the Oracle. After she gave her prophecy, the Priest would interpret it for the person who was seeking it. It is said that the life of a Pythia was exhaustive and that many died young. The cause of this was most likely the fact that they were inhaling poisonous vapors.

To become the Priestess of Delphi, there were certain things required of the woman chosen. She would have had to have led a life of purity, and been a person of good character. If you were chosen to be the Pythia, you had to sever all ties with your family, friends etc. The Pythia could have been from an aristocratic family, or she could have been a peasant. According to archaeologist John Hale, The Priestesses of Delphi were chosen based more on their ability than their social stature. Being the Pythia also meant that you were privy to many liberties. Like free housing and freedom from taxation, also a salary and an ability to own land. They were highly regarded in Greek society.

The Pythia only gave prophecies during the nine warmest months of the year. During the winter months Apollo was said to leave his temple and return in the Spring. A month after he returned, the Priestess of Delphi would undergo purification rites which included fasting, ritual bathing and drinking holy water from nearby springs. This was all done to prepare the Oracle for communication with the Divine.

Being the Oracle at Delphi was a highly honored position. She played a very important role in Greek society, so much so that virtually no major decision was made without consulting the Pythia first.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the ancient Priestess of Delphi!

Tara L. Reynolds