How, when, why did it all begin?

At some time between the late seventh and mid-sixth century BC, the earliest origins of Delphi were explained in the form of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. This hymn, which forms part of a larger collection of hymns—attributed at different times to the authorship of Homer, Hesiod, Cynatheus of Chios and, as a result normally left anonymous—praising the different Olympian gods, charts Apollo’s life from his birth on the island of Delos through to his search for a suitable place to set up his oracle:

And thence you went speeding swiftly to the mountain ridge, and came to Crisa beneath snowy Parnassus, a foothill turned towards the west: a cliff hangs over it from above, and a hollow, rugged glade runs under. There the lord Pheobus Apollo resolved to make his lovely temple, and thus he said “In this place I am minded to build a glorious temple to be an oracle for men, and here they will always bring perfect offerings, both they who dwell in rich Peloponnesus and the men of Europe and from all the wave-washed isles, coming to question me. And I will deliver to them all counsel that cannot fail, answering them in my rich temple.”1

Apollo’s journey did not take him directly from Delos to the Parnassian mountains. Before eventually settling upon Crisa, he had passed through, and rejected, a number of sites throughout Greece: the Lelantine plain in Euboea, Thebes, Onchestus, Telphusa, and the city of the Phlegyians. After finally arriving at Crisa and establishing the foundations for his temple—completed by the legendary architects Trophonius and Agamedes—Apollo, according to the Hymn, had to do battle with a monster living nearby:

But near by was a sweet flowing spring, and there with his strong bow the lord, the son of Zeus, killed the bloated great she-dragon, a fierce monster wont to do great mischief to men upon earth…. She was a very bloody plague.2

There, the Hymn continues (lines 356–73), the dragon, in agony, died under the onslaught of Apollo’s arrows. The mountainside was filled with an awful sound as she writhed this way and that, her life ebbing away as the blood flowed from her wounds. The power of the sun slowly rotted her body, and this, according to the Hymn, is why the place is now called Pytho instead of Crisa, and why “men call the lord Apollo by another name, Pythian; because on that spot the power of the sun made the monster rot away [the Greek verb to rot is puthein].”

The Homeric Hymn also sets out what happened next. Apollo turned his attention to selecting the priests to run his new temple. He spied a boat full of Cretan sailors, and, having turned himself into a dolphin (in Greek delphis), he enticed the boat to go off course and brought it to the port of Cirrha (modern-day Itea—see map 3; fig. 0.1) on the plain below Crisa/Pytho/Delphi (lines 388–450). At which point, he revealed himself and commanded them to beach their ship, build an altar, worship him as Apollo Delphinios, then follow him, singing in his honor, up to the site at Pytho (lines 450–512). But once there, seeing the rocky landscape that would hardly sustain their community, the Cretans cried out in dismay, asking the god how they could possibly survive in this barren land. Apollo replied that they would survive thanks to the unstinting generosity of all those who came to worship and consult his oracle. But, he continued, such a privileged position came with a price: if they ever committed the kind of hubris (“arrogant folly”) common among men, they would become servants to the rest of mankind for all time (lines 513–44).

A complex tale thus sets out the story of Delphi’s beginnings, but it does not provide answers to all our questions, in particular how the site Pytho eventually became known as Delphi. Yet, in reality, the picture is even more complicated than this. For theHomeric Hymn is not our only source for Delphi’s origins. Around the same time, another lyric poet, Alcaeus, whose work survives only in fragments, recounts a slightly different tale in which Apollo is ordered by Zeus to set up his oracle at Delphi, but instead flies to live with the Hyperboreans. A year later, Apollo is convinced by enterprising Delphians to come back to Delphi (always known as Delphi) and is encouraged to set up his oracle there.3 Gone is the serpent, gone is Pytho, gone are the Cretans, and Apollo appears not so much the savior of Delphi, but more a naughty schoolchild eventually persuaded to do what his father ordered him to do in the first place.

The story becomes much more complex in the fifth century BC. The great tragedian Aeschylus, in his famous trilogy Oresteia, recounts the gruesome workings of the fated house of Atreus ending eventually with Orestes who comes to Delphi seeking salvation for having murdered his mother (Clytemnestra, who had murdered his father Agamemnon, who had sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia to get a fair wind to sail to Troy). In the final play, Eumenides (lines 1–19), the oracular priestess of Apollo herself tells the story of Delphi’s beginnings:

First, in this my prayer, I give the place of chief honour among the gods to the first prophet, Earth (Gaia), and after her to Themis; for she, as is told, took second this oracular seat of her mother. And third in succession, with Themis’ consent, and by constraint of none, another Titan, Phoebe, child of Earth, took her seat. She bestowed it, as birth-gift, upon Phoebus Apollo, who had his name from Phoebe…. With prophetic art, Zeus inspired his soul, and stabilised him upon this throne as fourth and present seer.

Aeschylus’s version not only offers a much longer history of the oracle at Delphi—stretching back to Gaia (also known as Ge), the “Mother Earth” goddess, and thus to the gods who ruled over the earth long before the Olympian deities (Zeus, Apollo, and the rest)—but also says nothing about Apollo having had to slay a she-dragon at the site.4 Instead the succession from Gaia to Themis to Phoebe to Apollo is a peaceful one. Later that same century, however, the famous tragedian Euripides, in his play Iphigenia at Tauris(lines 1234–58), offers yet another picture:

From the spot famed for their birth [Delos], she [Apollo’s mother Leto] brought them [Apollo and his sister Artemis] to Mount Parnassus, mother of surging streams, whose slopes ring with revels of Dionysus. There the dragon with wine-red eyes, with body of bronze and coloured scales, as fierce a monster as land or sea can show, lay in the leafy laurel-shade guarding the ancient oracle of the Earth [Gaia]. Though you were still a little child, Phoebus Apollo … yet you killed the dragon, and became successor to the sacred oracle.

Euripides’ tale eliminates the peaceful transition and reintroduces the slaying of the dragon, who is now guardian of Gaia’s oracle. But Gaia does not take kindly, in Euripides’ version, to this coup, for she sends dreams that reveal the future into the minds of men, thus stealing the oracle’s preeminence. Apollo, in turn, complains to almighty Zeus, who, amused, favors Apollo and his oracle and stops the dreams. In yet another version of the story, by an unknown author and seemingly prevalent by this time, Apollo did not get off so easily for slaying the dragon, but was forced by Zeus to pay atonement by suffering nine years’ exile from Delphi, at Tempe in Thessaly (in remembrance of which, at least in the third through first centuries BC, there was a special festival practiced every nine years at Delphi).5

The plot thickens. But the Homeric Hymn, Alcaeus, Aeschylus, and Euripides are not the only ancient sources to offer versions of a Delphic beginning involving Gaia, Themis, Apollo, a serpent, and exile. For Ephorus, the fourth century BC historian, Themis and Apollo held the oracular site together.6 For an ancient scholiast of Pindar, the divine personification of Gaia is replaced with that of the Night.7 Simonides, the lyric poet, thought the dragon was male, not female.8 Another interpretation, this by the first centuryBC geographer Strabo, has the Corycian cave, eight hundred meters higher up the Parnassian mountains from Delphi (see map 3, figs. 0.2, 1.2), as the home of the serpent and the area of the first Delphic community.9 Others thought it was not a dragon that Apollo fought but a fearsome warrior, and not at Delphi, but at Panopeus.10 Pindar related that Gaia did not respond with dreams to Apollo’s usurpation of her oracle, but with a request that Apollo be sent to Tartarus.11 Pausanias said the Cretans argued that they had purified Apollo, and not the Thessalians at Tempe, after the murder of the dragon, and also that the Argives and Sicyonians claimed they had been responsible for Apollo’s purification.12

For the ancient Greeks there were thus various ways in which to answer the questions how, when, and why the oracle at Delphi began, as well as how the site became known as Delphi and why Apollo here was worshiped as Apollo Pythios. Nor do the different versions simply tinker with details. Some intimate that additional gods were involved—for instance, Poseidon who may have had a home at Delphi in association with Gaia long before Apollo, and who may have given Delphi to Apollo in exchange for a sanctuary at Tainaron in the modern-day Mani area of southern Greece.13 Other sources cite Dionysus not only as being involved at Delphi alongside Apollo, but in fact predating him.14 Later sources evoke a second prophetess, a Sibyl, perhaps a daughter of Poseidon, operating at Delphi before Apollo.15 Pliny and Pausanias report the involvement of Parnassus, the eponymous hero of the mountains, as well as Delphus, both sons of Poseidon, in the invention of divination.16 Other ancient stories go even further and offer us an entirely different set of stories about why Delphi became important and how it got its name. Some report that Delphi was discovered by Zeus as the center of the world after he let loose two eagles from opposite ends of the world and they met at Delphi.17 Others believed that Delphi’s name was derived from the Greek word for “hollow,” “cavern,” or even “womb,” evoking its place as the center of the earth.18

In fact, pretty much every detail of Delphi’s beginnings comes in different forms in the ancient literature. And nor is it only Delphi’s origins that thus vary. The ancient sources also offer multiple interpretations for the history, and meaning, of particular parts of the Delphic sanctuary. For some, the omphalos stone (see fig. 2.1), supposed to be housed (somewhere) inside the heart of the temple of Apollo, was the marker of the center of the earth (with images of Zeus’s eagles inscribed on either side of it). For others it was the stone Cronus was tricked by his wife Rhea into swallowing (instead of the baby Zeus) so as to protect Zeus from being eaten, and that Zeus later, after he had killed his father and achieved world sovereignty, set up as a sign of his power. For others still the omphalos was a symbol of the “voice” of the gods. For others it was the tomb of the serpent Pytho, or even of Dionysus.19 Moreover, the lineage of the temple of Apollo at Delphi itself was contested. Pausanias (10.5.9–13) insists on four consecutive temples—the first made of laurel, the second of birds’ feathers and beeswax, the third of bronze, and the fourth of stone—the last of which was burned down in 548 BC. Pindar’s fragmentary eighth Paean, in contrast, attributes the bronze temple to different builders, and disagrees with Pausanias over the manner of its disappearance (for Pindar, it was swallowed up by the ground after a lightning strike).20

With so many varying stories, how should we understand Delphi’s beginnings, let alone the stories about crucial elements of its later sanctuary (for instance, the temple and the omphalos) and the nature of the gods worshiped there? Earliest scholarship worked hard to sort the different myths, to weigh their authenticity and come up with a single, synergized, “credible” story of Delphi’s foundation. Later scholarship has sought, instead of trying to collapse the different versions, to understand the narrative roles of these stories in their respective literary genres. As well, broader comparisons with the myth cycles of other ancient cultures have been undertaken in order to see whether different myths from different cultures at different times have influenced the Greek tradition.21


Figure 2.1. A Hellenistic/Roman version of the omphalos stone found at Delphi (Museum at Delphi).

What all these later approaches prompt us to keep in mind is the date of the sources themselves. The earliest, the Homeric Hymn, sits somewhere in the late seventh to mid-sixth century BC, the latest at the very tale end of the ancient world. None of them are contemporary with Delphi’s origins, nor, of course, would we expect them to be. But as a result, we need to understand that these different tales of Delphic beginnings tell us little about the reality of Delphic origins, and, rather, about how different eras, authors, and places in the ancient world sought, or rather chose, to perceive those beginnings. In response, our question has to change. Not how, when, why did Delphi begin, but how and why did Greek society, at a time when Delphi was already a successful and key part of their world, seek to explain its origins, development, and the nature of the gods worshiped there?

One of the key tenets of the story in the Homeric Hymn is how the geographical range of Apollo’s journey links him, and thus Delphi, to a wide range of places covering a vast swathe of the ancient world, that same ancient world to which, by the time of theHymn’s first known appearance (seventh–sixth century BC), Delphi was becoming increasingly central (see maps 1, 2). The Hymn thus portrays Apollo as forecasting what has now, demonstrably, come true.22 But the Hymn also delves into Delphi’s curious geographical position, which is, after all, precarious in the way it clings to the mountain slopes of Parnassus. As the Cretan sailors point out to Apollo, it is not an obvious choice for the founding of a community. Apollo’s rejection of the many sites he examines prior to Delphi cites three requirements for his oracular site: tranquillity, accessibility, and poverty of natural resources. Apollo’s priority list in the Homeric Hymn thus acts to justify the particularity of Delphi’s position, and, by assuring the Cretan sailors that they would always be provided for, reaffirms the gods’ will for the continuing success of Delphi as a place to which the world will come.23 It has further been suggested that the foundation of Delphi by Apollo as laid out in the Homeric Hymn also mirrors one of the activities Delphi was (seen to be) heavily involved in during the late eighth–sixth centuries BC: colonization. Its foundation story thus becomes a reflection of the oracle’s contemporary role in the Greek world.24

The emergence of myths that push the origins of Delphi much farther back, to the time of the pre-Olympian gods, and make the succession a fraught one, has been associated with the development in Greek thought of a clearer genealogy of the divine (following Hesiod’s Theogony), and subsequently of that genealogy describing a move from darker primordial forces toward a more civilized order, which Apollo’s battle with the serpent comes to represent.25 In so doing, at a time when Delphi’s position in Greek society has come, as we shall see in later chapters, to be associated with the establishment of law, order, and good relations between human and divine, the myths surrounding its origins come to mold that role as one for which Delphi was predestined and has been performing since its inception; indeed the very act of its inception enabled Apollo to establish order over chaos. Similarly, the myths surrounding the lineage of Apollo’s temple (built of laurel, then of beeswax, then of bronze by gods, then of stone by heroes, and finally by men) have been argued to articulate a continuing transition from the work of Nature, to that of the gods, of the heroes, and then of man, underscoring both Delphi’s key position in the traditional framework of the mythic history of the Greek world’s development, and also, as a result, justifying Delphi’s later central role in the ancient Greek world.26

At the same time, the emergence of stories that prioritize the longevity of Delphi and the tendency for there to be conflict over its ownership have also been argued to reflect the fact that Delphi was the subject of numerous conflicts during its archaic, classical, and Hellenistic existence. Conflict about the origins of Delphi and about the violent seizure of its sanctuary by Apollo mirror a series of fights for Delphi both in myth and history over its ancient lifetime, as it came time and time again to be the subject of hostile takeover.27 Equally, the importance of longevity and conflict in Delphi’s origins has been attributed to the developing competition for authority between different oracular sites in the ancient Greek world during the archaic and classical periods.28 The emergence and dominance of origin myths, which push Delphi’s origins back to the gods before Zeus and the Olympians, like Gaia, could be seen as part of the later propaganda game between oracular sanctuaries competing for business through a stress on longevity and thus importance.29 Pausanias (5.25.13), in the second century AD, informs us that Delphi was not the only oracle to play this game; the oracle of Zeus at Olympia also claimed descent from Gaia.

It is not only the hotly contested hierarchy of oracles (and their gods) that the varying stories surrounding Delphi’s origins illuminate, but also the more particular nature of Apollo as he was worshiped at Delphi (Apollo Pythios). How the site became known as Delphi, the oracle as the Pythia, and Apollo at Delphi as Apollo Pythios are all issues to which the many origin stories give conflicting answers.30 Yet despite the difference in detail, these stories all construct Apollo as the god who brought knowledge to mankind, as well as the one who imposed order over chaos. In theHomeric Hymn to Apollo, as soon as Apollo is born on Delos, he announces his interest in music, shooting with a bow, and divination. His privileged position among the gods as the only one who knows Zeus’s mind is underscored in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, when Hermes tries to trick his brother into giving him the gift of divination (Hom. Hymn Hermes 533–38). It is this position of power and the responsibility entailed in knowing the future, along with his interests in “cultural” activities like music, that associate Apollo, and particularly his worship at Delphi as Apollo Pythios, with the forces of order and lawful action.31 These qualities are also reflected in several other epithets under which he was worshiped at different sanctuaries around the Greek world: Apollo Prostaterios (protector); Delphinios (protecting and mediating the relationship between seafarers and the oceans, but also in terms of relations between cities especially in Asia Minor); Epikourios (protector of mercenaries); and Maleatas (associated with healing).32

Yet his warlike activities (particularly his brutal slaying of the serpent and his forceful taking of the oracular site from Gaia/Themis), his love of the bow, and perhaps even the etymology of the name Apollo, also call attention to a darker side to his character, as one who punishes those who cross the line he guards (see his threat to punish the Cretan priests if they commit hubris in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo).33 This duality of order and violence in the character of Apollo Pythios at Delphi, as expressed through the sources relating to Delphi’s origins, is an important feature of the way the Greeks conceptualized the role of Delphi and Apollo Pythios in their world, and it mirrors the duality of centrality and conflict that is the mainstay of Delphi’s story in ancient history.34

As such, the different emerging stories surrounding Delphi’s origins all seem to have been oriented toward explaining, justifying, and mirroring its later, central position in the Greek world, the dual nature of the site and its god, and even perhaps toward defending and buttressing that position in the face of increasing competition from other oracular shrines. It is even more fascinating that this process does not seem to have occurred only in ancient literature, but also on the ground at Delphi itself. The emergence of the importance of a lineage dating back to Gaia, particularly in literature from the fifth century BC onward, is evidenced in the archaeological development of the sanctuary at that time. In fact, our earliest solid datable evidence for an actual cult of Gaia at Delphi comes from the fifth century BC; statues to Gaia and Themis dating from the period have been found, not in the Apollo sanctuary, but near the Castalian fountain (see plate 1, fig. 0.2).35 However, we also know from the accounts of the Apollo temple reconstruction in the mid-fourth century BC that there was a sanctuary of Gaia inside the main Apollo sanctuary at Delphi by this time, and its continued presence in the first century AD is confirmed for us by Plutarch.36 Is this archaeological evidence of a cult beginning only in the fifth century BC (by the Castalian fountain and later being transferred into the Apollo sanctuary), or is it simply that evidence for a much older cult survives only from the fifth century BC onward? We can’t be sure. But it is an intriguing coincidence that, just as Gaia’s presence at Delphi in the ancient literature emerges from the fifth century BC onward, so too, in the physical space of the sanctuary and the local landscape, does Gaia’s worship at Delphi come into focus.

The many, often conflicting, stories regarding Delphi’s beginnings have in the past been taken as a way of filling in the blank canvas of the site’s early history and, by the first archaeologists of Delphi, as a guide to the identification of its earliest structures (see the following chapter). Few scholars would be prepared to use these myths in the same way today. Instead, the myths are considered products of their own time, a time by which Delphi was already an incredibly successful phenomenon (late seventh–fifth centuriesBC) that required an origin to match, an origin that could in turn be used not only to reinforce the natural order and succession of the cosmos, but also the particular importance of Delphi in comparison to other oracular sanctuaries, the details of its location, the dual nature of Apollo Pythios, and conflicting notions of Delphi’s history. The gods, which were supposed to be its earliest masters, may well have become the object of worship in its sanctuaries from only the fifth century BC onward, because, by the later periods of Delphic history, particularly of Plutarch and Pausanias in the first–second centuries AD, all these tales were part of the rich tapestry of stories that could be used to evoke, realign, and even reframe the place of Delphi, and indeed of Greece, in the ancient world.

So if the literary representations of Delphic beginnings tell us rather more about the mindset, needs, and desires of the periods in which they were developed than about Delphi’s origins, what can we know about how, when, and why Delphi developed? For this, we must turn to the archaeological investigation of Delphi and the surrounding landscape, which has transformed our understanding of Delphi’s early years.

Delphi’s earliest history was, however, by no means the prime focus of its initial excavators. During the first major excavation of the sanctuary, known as the “big dig” (1892–1901; see the final chapter), the landscape was rarely excavated to below archaic period levels, and most of the original excavation was focused on exposing the sanctuary as the Greco-Roman tour guide Pausanias had seen it during his visit in the second century AD. It is ironic that the oldest object to have so far been found in the sanctuary of Apollo was discovered during the big dig, but aroused no interest from the excavators at the time. It is now recognized as a lion’s muzzle, which formed the lower decorated edge of a Minoan rhyton drinking vessel, dated to between 1600 and 1450 BC.37 It bears signs of being repaired in antiquity, but, given the lack of context for its discovery, there is no way of knowing whether it came to the site shortly after its creation, or indeed many centuries later.

It was only during subsequent excavation seasons from the 1920s onward, spurred by an increasing awareness and interest in the possibility of finding significant material from much earlier cultures (cf. to Sir Arthur Evans’s excavation at the Minoan palace of Knossos beginning in 1900) that the French excavators actively sought to excavate lower levels at the site. Since that time, as the focus has expanded from the main sanctuary site to the wider Delphic landscape, a much more complex picture of Delphi’s earliest origins has begun to appear.

In the Corycian cave, 1,400 meters above sea level, and 800 meters above Delphi, traces of Neolithic occupation have been discovered dating to 4300–3000 BC. This cave (see map 3; figs. 0.2, 1.2), which will in later times be closely linked with the Delphic sanctuary by a processional path that still today can be followed as it clings to the sheers cliffs of Parnassus, seems to have been used for occasional habitation. The pottery remains have been argued to be similar to Thessalian ceramic from the same period.38 This is interesting because of the links that many scholars have claimed between the Delphic region and that of Thessaly to the north during the ninth and early eighth centuries BC. The similarity in the Neolithic ceramic may suggest a much longer-term connection between these two areas.

Throughout the early and middle Helladic periods (c. 2800–1550 BC), there is material evidence for the development of settlement in different parts of the (modern-day) Itean plain below Delphi. Yet, despite the lion-muzzle rhyton find, there is no evidence for consistent settlement in the actual region of the Delphic sanctuary until a period known as late Helladic III (part of a system of chronology based on pottery styles), which equates to c. 1400–1060 BC. At this time, the Corycian cave seems to have been out of fashion (very few finds dating to this period have been discovered there), in contrast to the plethora of objects discovered among the nascent community at Delphi.39 Most of the settlement from this early period covers the later Apollo sanctuary’s eastern side, stretching up the hillside from the area of the temple of Apollo to the lesche of the Cnidians. The impression is of a lot of poor housing and a particular fondness for terra-cotta animal figurines. Yet we also know of at least one rich dromos tomb in the area, along the later road leading from Delphi to Arachova, which contained a large number of vases and even a bronze sword (see map 3).40

None of this is evidence for cult practice, for an actual practicing sanctuary. Indeed, archaeologists have a hard time agreeing what, if any, archaeological material can definitively be declared as votive (that is, associated with cult practice) prior to the latter parts of the seventh century BC. But this has not stopped many from becoming very excited by Mycenaean period finds in the later Athena sanctuary (see plates 1, 3). For here, in the 1920s excavations, groups of female figurines (so called Phi and Psi figurines because their stance echoes those Greek letters of the alphabet) were unearthed. Coupled with the facts that no traces of habitation could be found in this area and that the later literary stories associated with Delphi claimed the site was held originally by the female Earth goddess Gaia, many scholars advocated that the later Athena sanctuary was the earliest site of cult worship of Gaia at Delphi, confirming the historicity of the literary myths. Today, it has been recognized that the collection, and burial, of these Psi and Phi figurines happened at a later time, perhaps associated with later reconstructions of the Athena sanctuary in the archaic period.41 But does this mean they should not still be associated with an early cult of a female divinity (perhaps Gaia-like) at the site? The debate remains open, although it has also been suggested, following comparison between these figurines and Mycenaean cult figurines from other sites, that the Delphic ones should be associated with funerary, rather than cult use.42

The traditional narrative of Delphic history based on the archaeology, up to the last years of the twentieth century, claimed a slow decline in the size and vitality of its habitation (and perhaps cult practice) toward the end of the Mycenaean period (c. 1100–1000BC), with a complete abandonment of the site until the early ninth century BC.43 That picture has been radically changed in the last decade, thanks to the most recent excavations at the Apollo sanctuary. Now, almost continuous habitation can be demonstrated in the area of the Apollo sanctuary between the eleventh and ninth centuries BC. The pottery associated with this period is distinctly local, mixed with a degree of contact with northern Phocis. Yet by the ninth century BC, there is evidence for an increased amount of contact between the Delphic region and areas farther north, in particular Thessaly.44

Through the ninth century BC, settlement in the area of the later Apollo sanctuary continued to expand, often building on (and reusing) the foundations and material associated with earlier Mycenaean structures. But at the beginning of the eighth century BC, there is substantial change, both in terms of style of building at the site and in influence on the styles of material culture found in and around the settlement. The most recent excavations have shown how, in the region of the later “pillar of the Rhodians” dedication to the east of the temple of Apollo (see fig. 1.3), the existing habitation, which seems to have existed on the natural incline of the mountain, was reorganized substantially by the construction of leveled terraces at that time. On one of these terraces, the remains of a house, known to the French excavators as the maison noire (the “black house”), have been uncovered. Gradually over the course of the eighth century, this house seems to have become part of an increasingly regularized pattern of what are known as row houses, with the wider settlement split into two main camps and an open spine, which seems to have served as the main access route for the settlement, running north-south up the mountainside.45 The decision to invest in the landscape and create a more organized, leveled building space was matched at the time by a decisive shift in the nature and style of objects brought to the site. Soon after 800 BC, the predominant Thessalian-influenced pottery is replaced by imported high-quality Corinthian pottery, although Thessalian influence continues for both metalwork and low-quality pottery. At around the same time, the first monumental objects that can be definitively associated with cult use (the three-legged bronze tripods) appear at Delphi.46

The beginning of the eighth century BC thus seems to have borne witness to much change at Delphi, which evolved from being a settlement connected to Thessaly and the north—with little contact to the sea and communities to the south, or with any powerful regional role—into a newly reorganized community strongly connected to the sea and the powerful settlements to the south (particularly Corinth), and with an increasingly important regional role.47 Nor was it the only place in the Greek world to undergo such transformation. The eighth century BC is often cited as thecritical period of change for the emergence of archaic and classical Greece, in part thanks to the influence of increasingly dense contact with the world outside. As the historian Robin Osborne has put it: “in 800 BC, the Greek world was poor, small, and lacking in general organisation. Its communities were small, and hard-pressed to survive in a hostile natural environment. Greeks had few contacts in the wider world and no special advantages.”48 During the eighth century BC, all this changed. The number of sites of habitation increased dramatically; the amount of resources available increased; the social and political organization of settlements seems to have been more open and flexible to question and change; the investment by communities in their tombs and sanctuaries increased substantially; and, on a larger scale, the influence of different cultures (e.g., the Phoenicians in the western Mediterranean, and the Greeks in Italy, Sicily, and the eastern Mediterranean) bear witness to a greater social mobility and international interaction. Places of cult worship seem to have been major beneficiaries of these changes in part because they were able to provide useful locations in which to conduct and display a material culture associated with these changing social priorities, attitudes, and interests. At the sanctuary of Kalapodi, for example, in the region of Phocis (see maps 2, 3), not far from Delphi, there are the remnants of construction for a more monumental cult structure at the end of the ninth century. On the island of Samos, the later sanctuary of Hera received its first temple c. 800 BC, as did the sanctuary of Hera at Perachora near Corinth. At Perachora, too, there is evidence for a vast range of international material culture being dedicated at the site (including no less than 273 Phoenician scarabs), while at Samos there is evidence for contact with Egypt, Cyprus, North Syria, Phoenicia, Phrygia, and Assyria.49

Yet, as has often been pointed out by scholars, this investment, particularly in cult spaces, was by no means uniform. Though Delphi clearly sees a change and increase in investment from the beginning of the eighth century BC, it is by no means on the scale of other sanctuaries such as at Samos or Perachora, or even nearby Kalapodi.50 The sanctuaries that benefited most in the first part of the eighth century seem to have been those tied more closely to growing political communities (the eighth century is also often known as the time of the “rise of the polis”). Conversely, sanctuaries like Delphi and Olympia, which would eventually become known as the great Panhellenic sanctuaries, are significantly less monumentalized than their counterparts more firmly attached to particular communities probably because they lie in this period outside the sphere of control of particular poleis. At the same time, as we shall see in later chapters, it is ironic that this very absence of attachment to a community in this early period would become in turn an important factor in the eventual successful development of these sanctuaries as places with Panhellenic significance.51

So just what is going on at Delphi during the eighth century BC, and how, if at all, can we understand the development of its sanctuary, cult activity, and oracular practice? It is clear that by the beginning of the century, there was an important settlement at Delphi. Yet it is unclear to what extent any of this space was considered sacred, unclear to what degree a religious cult had developed, and unclear whether any oracle was functioning. The arrival at the site in c. 800 BC of Corinthian fine-wear pottery and of more monumental votive offerings, and the increased investment in construction at the site mark our first clear indication of both wider interest in Delphi and a more insistent investment in cult practice. Delphi, it seems, had become part of Corinth’s broadening interest in the region, and part of its expanding trading network (a particular type of Corinthian pottery, known as Thapsos ware, which was reserved for export by Corinth, is found at Delphi from the middle of the eighth century BC onward). This interest of Corinth in Delphi may have been occasioned by Delphi’s longer-standing connections with Thessaly to the north, which Corinth may in turn have hoped to exploit for its own trading network (and this link to the north will become increasingly important toward the end of the eighth century). Yet we should not overemphasize Delphi’s newfound trading or cult importance in the first seventy years of the eighth century BC. Other sanctuaries with which Corinth was heavily involved, like Perachora, or even nearby sites like Kalapodi, have provided much richer material records for this period.52

As far as cult activity at Delphi goes, our evidence is based entirely on the contents of several later deposits (effectively rubbish heaps) of material found buried in different parts of the later Apollo sanctuary, which were used as packing to create a more solid floor level for building in the sixth century BC. What has been found proves cult practice at the site—pottery, charred bone, fragments of bronze tripods—but it is unlikely that this originated from any significant separate cult area. The origin of this material (particularly the pottery and tripods) reflects Corinthian interest in cult activity at the site, but also a significant Argive presence, some Thessalian, and a certain amount of (perhaps) locally made material for dedication. As for the oracle, no material find proves that it was in operation for the better part of the eighth century BC, or indeed during any time before that. Some scholars argue that the oracle was not instituted until the late eighth century, others that it may have had a much longer existence dating back into the second millennium, which is what motivated the continuation of settlement in this otherwise rather difficult physical habitat clinging to the mountainside.53

Whenever the oracle began, however, it is crucial that, in regard to that nascent phase of Delphic development, we distinguish between a real Delphi and the early Delphi described in later literary and historical sources. The literary sources, whichever story you choose to follow, paint a picture of a Delphi born for success and international prestige. Yet the archaeology reveals a different story. A tiny, isolated community with a connection to northern Greece slowly refocused its attention south and was drawn into the trading network of Corinth, and, in turn, benefited from the more general social and political processes of eighth century development, which, at the same time, left Delphi much less elaborated than many sanctuaries more closely tied to particular political communities. Many scholars, encouraged by the literary and historical sources for Delphi’s divine origins, have taken the traditional picture of later Delphic international and Panhellenic success and transposed it back onto the site’s early history.54 In reality, Delphi, through to the last quarter of the eighth century BC, did not play anything like such a role. It was not born into success as the center of the Greek world, but struggled, for centuries, to be anything more than a small and isolated community clinging to the Parnassian mountains.

And yet, in this formative phase of Delphic development, there are signs of the forces that will propel Delphi over the next century and a half to the forefront of the Greek political and religious world. One is the occasional glimpse of dedicated objects at Delphi that originate from much farther afield: eighth-century amber from Scandinavia, probably arriving with traders from Etruria; a Villanovian helmet from 800 BC; Italian spearheads from the mid-eighth century; tripods not only from Corinth and Argos, but also from Crete by the middle of the century.55 Another sign is not dedication, but destruction. The maison noire was burned down (hence its name “the black house”!) during the first seventy years of the eighth century BC, and rebuilt, suggesting a consistent desire for habitation at Delphi.56 A further sign comes from the references to Delphi in Homer’s Iliad(9.401) and Odyssey (8.79–81). Both these epics are thought to have coalesced into their near final forms during the course of the eighth century BC, and, while they do not refer to the oracular importance of Delphi (the references to Apollo Pythios are thought to be later interpolations in the text), they do give a sense of an acknowledgment that Delphi was (already by this time) a recognized place of wealth and importance.57 Yet perhaps the most interesting sign is that though other sanctuary sites, like Perachora, may have been showered with a far greater number of dedications than Delphi during the first half of the eighth century, the nature of most of those objects was personal and/or trade related.58 Perachora never received the kind of monumental offerings that Delphi was beginning to receive, seemingly (given their expense) from state elites.59 Delphi, which around 800 BC, had been a local and isolated settlement, was, by the last quarter of the eighth century (725–700 BC), seemingly (also) becoming a location serving the demands of (particular) emerging states and their elites. And it was thanks to the pressures, needs, and desires of those emerging communities that Delphi, from the last quarter of the eighth century BC, was to burst forth onto the international stage.

Apollo is the god who sits in the centre, on the navel of the
earth, and he is the interpreter of religion for all mankind.

—Plato Republic 427B

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