Pythian ApolloThe worship of Apollo included the establishment and maintenance of places of prophecy by means of which the gods could communicate with mankind and reveal futurity to such as deserved the boon. The early history of Greece abounds with accounts of talking trees, rivers, statues, and caves in which nymphs, dryads, or dæmons had taken up their abodes and from which they delivered oracles. While Christian authors have tried to prove that oracular revelations were delivered by the Devil for the purpose of misleading humanity, they have not dared to attack the theory of oracles, because of the repeated reference to it in their own sacred writings.

If the onyx stones on the shoulders of Israel’s high priest made known by their flashings the will of Jehovah, then a black dove, temporarily endowed with the faculty of speech, could indeed pronounce oracles in the temple of Jupiter Ammon. If the witch of Endor could invoke the shade of Samuel, who in turn gave prophecies to Saul, could not a priestess of Apollo call up the specter of her liege to foretell the destiny of Greece?

The most famous oracles of antiquity were those of Delphi, Dodona, Trophonius, and Latona, of which the talking oak trees of Dodona were the oldest. Though it is impossible to trace back to the genesis of the theory of oracular prophecy, it is known that many of the caves and fissures set aside by the Greeks as oracles were sacred long before the rise of Greek culture.

The oracle of Apollo at Delphi remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the ancients. Alexander Wilder derives the name Delphi from delphos, the womb. This name was chosen by the Greeks be cause of the shape of the cavern and the vent leading into the depths of the earth. The original name of the oracle was Pytho, so called because its chambers had been the abode of the great serpent Python, a fearsome creature that had crept out of the slime left by the receding flood that had destroyed all human beings except Deucalion and Pyrrha. Apollo, climbing the side of Mount Parnassus, slew the serpent after a prolonged combat, and threw the body down the fissure of the oracle. From that time the Sun God, surnamed the Pythian Apollo, gave oracles from the vent. With Dionysos he shared the honor of being the patron god of Delphi.

After being vanquished by Apollo, the spirit of Python remained at Delphi as the representative of his conqueror, and it was with the aid of his effluvium that the priestess was able to become en rapport with the god. The fumes rising from the fissure of the oracle were supposed to come from the decaying body of Python. The name Pythoness, or Pythia, given to the female hierophant of the oracle, means literally one who has been thrown into a religious frenzy by inhaling fumes rising from decomposing matter. It is of further interest to note that the Greeks believed the oracle of Delphi to be the umbilicus of the earth, thus proving that they considered the planet an immense human being. The connection between the principle of oracular revelation and the occult significance of the navel is an important secret belonging to the ancient Mysteries.

The oracle, however, is much older than the foregoing account indicates. A story of this kind was probably invented by the priests to explain the phenomena to those inquisitive persons whom they did not consider worthy of enlightenment regarding the true esoteric nature of the oracle. Some believe that the Delphic fissure was discovered by a Hypoborean priest, but as far back as recorded history goes the cave was sacred, and persons came from all parts of Greece and the surrounding countries to question the dæmon who dwelt in its chimney-like vent. Priests and priestesses guarded it closely and served the spirit who dwelt therein and who enlightened humanity through the gift of prophecy.

The story of the original discovery of the oracle is somewhat as follows: Shepherds tending their flocks on the side of Mount Parnassus were amazed at the peculiar antics of goats that wandered close to a great chasm on its southwestern spur. The animals jumped about as though trying to dance, and emitted strange cries unlike anything before heard. At last one of the shepherds, curious to learn the cause of the phenomenon, approached the vent, from which were rising noxious fumes. Immediately he was seized with a prophetic ecstasy; he danced with wild abandon, sang, jabbered inarticulate sounds, and foretold future events. Others went close to the fissure, with the same result. The fame of the place spread, and many came to learn of the future by inhaling the mephitic fumes, which exhilarated to the verge of delirium.

Some of those who came, being unable to control themselves, and having temporarily the strength of madmen, tore themselves from those seeking to restrain them, and, jumping into the vent, perished. In order to prevent others from doing likewise, a wall was erected around the fissure and a prophetess was appointed to act as mediator between the oracle and those who came to question it. According to later authorities, a tripod of gold, ornamented with carvings of Apollo in the form of Python, the great serpent, was placed over the cleft, and on this was arranged a specially prepared seat, so constructed that a person would have difficulty in falling off while under the influence of the oracular fumes. just before this time, a story had been circulated that the fumes of the oracle arose from the decaying body of Python. It is possible that the oracle revealed its own origin.

For many centuries during its early history, virgin maidens were consecrated to the service of the oracle. They were called the Phœbades, or Pythiæ, and constituted that famous order now known as the Pythian priesthood. It is probable that women were chosen to receive the oracles because their sensitive and emotional nature responded 

more quickly and completely to “the fumes of enthusiasm.” Three days before the time set to receive the communications from Apollo, the virgin priestess began the ceremony of purification. She bathed in the Castalian well, abstained from all food, drank only from the fountain of Cassotis, which was brought into the temple through concealed pipes, and just before mounting the tripod, she chewed a few leaves of the sacred bay tree. It has been said that the water was drugged to bring on distorted visions, or the priests of Delphi were able to manufacture an exhilarating and intoxicating gas, which they conducted by subterranean ducts and released into the shaft of the oracle several feet below the surface. Neither of these theories has been proved, however, nor does either in any way explain the accuracy of the predictions.

When the young prophetess had completed the process of purification, she was clothed in sanctified raiment and led to the tripod, upon which she seated herself, surrounded by the noxious vapors rising from the yawning fissure. Gradually, as she inhaled the fumes, a change came over her. It was as if a different spirit had entered her body. She struggled, tore her clothing, and uttered inarticulate cries. After a time her struggles ceased. Upon becoming calm a great majesty seemed to posses her, and with eyes fixed on space and body rigid, she uttered the prophetic words. The predictions were usually in the form of hexameter verse, but the words were often ambiguous and sometimes unintelligible. Every sound that she made, every motion of her body, was carefully recorded by the five Hosii, or holy men, who were appointed as scribes to preserve the minutest details of each divination. The Hosii were appointed for life, and were chosen from the direct descendants of Deucalion.

After the oracle was delivered, the Pythia began to struggle again, and the spirit released her. She was then carried or supported to a chamber of rest, where she remained till the nervous ecstasy had passed away.

Iamblichus, in his dissertation on The Mysteries, describes how the spirit of the oracle–a fiery dæmon, even Apollo himself–took control of the Pythoness and manifested through her: “But the prophetess in Delphi, whether she gives oracles to mankind through an attenuated and fiery spirit, bursting from the mouth of the cavern; or whether being seated in the adytum on a brazen tripod, or on a stool with four feet, she becomes sacred to the God; whichsoever of these is the case, she entirely gives herself up to a divine spirit, and is illuminated with a ray of divine fire. And when, indeed, fire ascending from the mouth of the cavern circularly invests her in collected abundance, she becomes filled from it with a divine splendour. But when she places herself on the seat of the God, she becomes co-adapted to his stable prophetic power: and from both of these preparatory operations she becomes wholly possessed by the God. And then, indeed, he is present with and illuminates her in a separate manner, and is different from the fire, the spirit, the proper seat, and, in short, from all the visible apparatus of the place, whether physical or sacred.”

Among the celebrities who visited the oracle of Delphi were the immortal Apollonius of Tyana and his disciple Damis. He made his offerings and, after being crowned with a laurel wreath and given a branch of the same plant to carry in his hand, he passed behind the statue of Apollo which stood before the entrance to the cave, and descended into the sacred place of the oracle. The priestess was also crowned with laurel and her head bound with a band of white wool. Apollonius asked the oracle if his name would be remembered by future generations. The Pythoness answered in the affirmative, but declared that it would always be calumniated. Apollonius left the cavern in anger, but time has proved the accuracy of the prediction, for the early church fathers perpetuated the name of Apollonius as the Antichrist. (For details of the story see Histoire de la Magie.)

The messages given by the virgin prophetess were turned over to the philosophers of the oracle, whose duty it was to interpret and apply them. The communications were then delivered to the poets, who immediately translated them into odes and lyrics, setting forth in exquisite form the statements supposedly made by Apollo and making them available for the populace.

Serpents were much in evidence at the oracle of Delphi. The base of the tripod upon which the Pythia sat was formed of the twisted bodies of three gigantic snakes. According to some authorities, one of the processes used to produce the prophetic ecstasy was to force the young priestess to gaze into the eyes of a serpent. Fascinated and hypnotized, she then spoke with the voice of the god.

Although the early Pythian priestesses were always maidens–some still in their teens–a law was later enacted that only women past fifty years of age should be the mouthpiece of the oracle. These older women dressed as young girls and went through the same ceremonial as the first Pythiæ. The change was probably the indirect result of a series of assaults made upon the persons of the priestesses by the profane.

During the early history of the Delphian oracle the god spoke only at each seventh birthday of Apollo. As time went on, however, the demand became so great that the Pythia was forced to seat herself upon the tripod every month. The times selected for the consultation and the questions to be asked were determined by lot or by vote of the inhabitants of Delphi.

It is generally admitted that the effect of the Delphian oracle upon Greek culture was profoundly constructive. James Gardner sums up its influence in the following words: “It responses revealed many a tyrant and foretold his fate. Through its means many an unhappy being was saved from destruction and many a perplexed mortal guided in the right way. It encouraged useful institutions, and promoted the progress of useful discoveries. Its moral influence was on the side of virtue, and its political influence in favor of the advancement of civil liberty.” (See The Faiths of The World.)

The oracle of Dodona was presided over by Jupiter, who uttered prophecies through oak trees, birds, and vases of brass. Many writers have noted the similarities between the rituals of Dodona and those of the Druid priests of Britain and Gaul. The famous oracular dove of Dodona, alighting upon the branches of the sacred oaks, not only discoursed at length in the Greek tongue upon philosophy and religion, but also answered the queries of those who came from distant places to consult it.

The “talking” trees stood together, forming a sacred grove. When the priests desired answers to important questions, after careful and solemn purifications they retired to the grove. They then accosted the trees, beseeching a reply from the god who dwelt therein. When they had stated their questions, the trees spoke with the voices of human beings, revealing to the priests the desired information. Some assert that there was but one tree which spoke–an oak or a beech standing in the very heart of the ancient grove. Because Jupiter was believed to inhabit this tree he was sometimes called Phegonæus, or one who lives in a beech tree.

Most curious of the oracles of Dodona were the “talking” vases, or kettles. These were made of brass and so carefully fashioned that when struck they gave off sound for hours. Some writers have described a row of these vases and have declared that if one of them was struck its vibrations would be communicated to all the others and a terrifying din ensue. Other authors describe a large single vase, standing upon a pillar, near which stood another column, supporting the statue of a child holding a whip. At the end of the whip were a number of swinging cords tipped with small metal balls, and the wind, which blew incessantly through the open building, caused the balls to strike against the vase. The number and intensity of the impacts and the reverberations of the vase were all carefully noted, and the priests delivered their oracles accordingly.

When the original priests of Dodona–the Selloi–mysteriously vanished, the oracle was served for many centuries by three priestesses who interpreted the vases and at midnight interrogated the sacred trees. The patrons of the oracles were expected to bring offerings and to make contributions.

Another remarkable oracle was the Cave of Trophonius, which stood upon the side of a hill with an entrance so small that it seemed impossible for a human being to enter. After the consultant had made his offering at the statue of Trophonius and had donned the sanctified garments, he climbed the hill to the cave, carrying in one hand a cake of honey. Sitting down at the edge of the opening, he lowered his feet into the cavern. Thereupon his entire body was precipitately 

drawn into the cave, which was described by those who had entered it as having only the dimensions of a fair-sized oven. When the oracle had completed its revelation, the consultant, usually delirious, was forcibly ejected from the cave, feet foremost.

Near the cave of the oracle two fountains bubbled out of the earth within a few feet of each other. Those about to enter the cave drank first from these fountains, the waters of which seemed to possess peculiar occult properties. The first contained the water of forgetfulness, and all who drank thereof forgot their earthly sorrows. From the second fountain flowed the sacred water of Mnemosyne, or remembrance, for later it enabled those who partook of it to recall their experiences while in the cave.

Though its entrance was marked by two brass obelisks, the cave, surrounded by a wall of white stones and concealed in the heart of a grove of sacred trees, did not present an imposing appearance. There is no doubt that those entering it passed through strange experiences, for they were obliged to leave at the adjacent temple a complete account of what they saw and heard while in the oracle. The prophecies were given in the form of dreams and visions, and were accompanied by severe pains in the head; some never completely recovered from the after effects of their delirium.

The confused recital of their experiences was interpreted by the priests according to the question to be answered. While the priests probably used some unknown herb to produce the dreams or visions of the cavern, their skill in interpreting them bordered on the Supernatural. Before consulting the oracle, it was necessary to offer a ram to the dæmon of the cave, and the priest decided by hieromancy whether the time chosen was propitious and the sacrifice was satisfactory.



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