Delphi is one of the most surreal places you can experience in Greece. It’s fameous because it was once said to be the center of the ancient world. It’s where Kings and dignitaries would send delegations to ask the advice of the ancient oracle for advice.
Delphi in Legends
Delphi was the most sacred temple to the Greek god Apollo.Apollo was one of the 12 members of the Olympian Pantheon of gods. In Greek Mythology, Apollo’s father, Zeus, is said to have sent two eagles, his sacred animal, into flight. Wherever the two eagles met was said to be the center of the ancient world. Where did they happen to cross? Delphi of course!
How is Apollo connected to Delphi? Apollo the patron god of sunlight, prophecy, music in other myths is said to have battled a mythical serpent named the Python in Delphi. Python controlled the cave of the prophecies. The two fought one another, and it was Apollo defeated Python. From this battle, in honor or Apollo, the priestess or the maiden whom spoke as the oracle was known as the Pythia. There were also athletic games held in Delphi every 4 years known as the Pythian games in honor or Apollo.
In ancient times, every major city state depended on the ancient oracle for guidance. The priests to the god Apollo would consult the maiden whom the oracle spoke through and would answer in poetry the words the god passed onto whomever asked the question.
Delphi’s Pythia Discoveries
Today, Delphi is a small town and an ancient historical site. It sits at the foot of Mount Parnassus. Extensive research has been done on Delphi. It’s really hard to say how prophecies and advice were given out, but a scientific study that came out less than ten years ago has shed light on some interesting factors.
The most interesting is that there is a seismically active fault line that runs under the ancient site. From this fault line, traces of methane gas have been found.The largest concentration of the gases are located in the chamber of the Pythia, that unfortunately, is not open to the public. I really really wanted to see the chamber room. The latest and most widely accepted theory is that the Pythia may have inhaled these vapors and been induced drug ecstasy. From there, Apollo’s priests made up the rhymes and poetry that comprised of the oracle’s answer to questions.
Getting There and Delphi’s Layout
Delphi is about 3 hours from Athens. It is more than possible to get there taking the public KTEL bus, but it’s going to take you pretty much all day. If you intend to do this, I would highly recommend you stay overnight in the town of Delphi (Delfi in Greek) or the ski town of Arachova. You will be able to enjoy the site in the afternoon when it’s not busy and in the morning. Most tour groups arrive about 12 pm and only spend about an hour at Delpih’s main site.
The ancient site is actually divided into 4 parts. There is the sacred spring of Castalian, the famous columns you see in most photos of Delphi known as the Tholos, and the actual Apollo temple site and archaeological museum. If you decide to go on your own, or overnight, you can easily see everything. If you do a day tour, however, you will only see the temple site and museum. Pick and choose. I would recommend the day tour, personally, as I didn’t have enough time to justify staying overnight in Delphi.
If you do a day tour of Delphi, it makes it significantly easier to reach Delphi.Most tours include transportation, lunch, a tour guide and admission. You can find quite a few tour companies in Athens through your hotel or through an online search. I recommend Viator operates by Trip Advisor. When I went, the tour company I used asked me to meet them in a hotel right off of Syntagma Square. A lot of tour companies will ask you if you would prefer to be picked up or meet them in a specific location.
The spring of Castalian is located down the road from the main archaeological site. The Pythia and priests of Apollo would purify themselves here before entering the sacred way. There is a gate that keeps you from actually washing in the spring, but if you look closely enough, you can see if running down form the mountain into a small pond.
The Tholos was once a temple dedicated to Athena. It’s exact function is unknown, but it’s built in the style of classical architecture. It’s actually further from the main Temple of Apollo and museum than you would think. If you intend to visit it, it’s just across the road from the spring. It does involve hiking down the hill and some steep steps, but your ticket for the main temple will allow you access to it. I didn’t get to see if up close, but if know that this portion of the historic site is generally actually pretty empty.
The Sacred Way and Temple of Apollo
It can be really twisty and windy on the road to the Delphi historical site. Be prepared for your tour bus to drop you a short distance from the entrance. Depending on the time of year, the main portion historical site will either be open until about 3 pm or 7 pm. If you go in winter, plan accordingly!
After your purchase your tickets for Delphi, hold onto it! If you lose it, you will be unable to enter the museum afterwards. When you first enter the historical site, have your camera ready. There are many different vantage points to enjoy. There will be a lot of other tourists near you, ensure you keep an eye on your bags and valuables just in case.
One of the first pieces of historical treasures you will see are the pillars that once lined the Sacred Way. The sacred Way was the official entrance that lead pilgrims to the Temple of Apollo. This pathway once held statues and monuments to the various city-states around Greece that donated funds to Delphi and Apollo’s temple. They have largely been lost or stolen since ancient times.
As you begin your walk up the pathway, watch for loose gravel. Most of the steps are a little slippery. it can also be a little steep as you go up the hill. You will pass ruins and fallen columns. Sit for a moment and enjoy te view. If you listen closely enough, you may even be able to hear the sounds of water coming down the mountain towards the sacred spring.
You will encounter a large rock as seen above that resembles an egg. This was once a treasure from the city of Athens. Our tour guide didn’t go too specific, but each major city-state, as previously mentioned, donated money in order to show their wealth. These funds were protected in treasuries along the Sacred Way. I can’t imagine gold and other decorations lining the ruins now, but in ancient times, I’m sure it was a sight to behold. The ancients were never overly concerned about robbers or thieves as who would rob a temple?
The only facade of the treasury that remains belonged to the city of Athens. As you continue up the pathway, you’ll see the base of the Temple of Apollo. The Temple itself only has the base and a few standing columns. There is a chamber underneath the structure that held the ancient Pythia. The Temple is one that has existed since Archaic times in the 6th century BC! It has been rebuilt 3 times on the same site.
The columns are in the Doric style of ancient Greek architecture. This is one of the best spots to look closely in the distance for the Tholos. Can you spot it? I had to zoom my camera really carefully! Be advised here that no camera tripods are allowed in any ancient site. I got in trouble for my mini tripod I was using as a selfie stick.
The Theater and Gymnasium
If you decide to continue no, the pathway becomes a lot steeper as you are going up a hill. Take your time. You don’t want to be like me and run to the top because you spent too much time listening to the tour guide. I didn’t realize until it was almost two late my group would not be ascending the hill. I literally had to run and almost slipped a couple times.
You will see a beautiful wooded area when you reach the theater where plays and talks were once held by the ancients. Like all ancient Greek theaters, the acoustics here are perfect! A speaker could stand in the center of the stage area and be heard all the way to the very top steps and people in the nosebleed section. The Greeks invented the perfect shape and measurements of theaters.
At the very top of the hill are another purification area and the gymnasium. The purification spring was for the athletes to give their oath to Zeus and Apollo not to cheat in their respective events. The spring water comes from the top of Mt. Parnassus. When I was in Delphi, unfortunately the gymnasium was closed, but you could see the outside seating area and some of the ground ruins.
The most important event held at this stadium was the Pythian Games! It was similar to the Olympic Games in Olympia held every 4 years and in some ways was a larger event! The Pythia Games were not to see who could win the most laurel wreaths, but rather were an important religious ceremonies and rites to honor the gods. It was held exclusively for men.
As you descend and make your way to the museum, be advised you can not reenter it once you leave! Make sure you’ve seen everything you want to see before you for to the Museum. The Museum has the only set of restrooms available in the area. Use them before you enter!
The Museum houses many of the artifacts that the National Archaeological Museum in Athens does not have. The most spectacular items, in my opinion, are the 3 statues of Apollo, Artemis (his divine twin) and mother, Leto! These statues still have their facial features in tact and gold leafing! It is incredibly rare to have any statues in such good condition survive today. The only reason these survive is due to the fact they were buried deeply until the last 100 years or so.
The statues contain glass eyes that look fairly realistic. Don’t make the mistake and consider them to look Egyptian! Someone in my tour group mentioned this and greatly offended the guides and museum workers. The bodies of the statues have been lost to time.
The Museum contains several pieces of the art that once stood on the temple friezes (decorations outside the temple) and other artifacts found on site. The highlights include the twin statues of Argos, Roman statues and the chariot racer statue. I would recommend allowing at least an hour for the Museum. It can become overwhelming. It is helpful if you have a tour guide to point out the main pieces in the Museum.
The cafe is only open seasonally outside, so if you were planning on using it to have lunch, you may be out of luck. The best options for lunch are to go into the towns of Delphi or Arachova. My tour group had lunch at Hotel Amalia in Delphi. It was one of the most beautifully sceneic places I have seen and is said to be quite packed in winter!
We headed back for Athens at about 3 pm and it took about 2.5 hours to get back due to the traffic in Athens. Athens is the largest city in Greece and home to 3/4 of the Greek population. Once you leave the city limits, however, it’s easy to picture what Greece must have been like in ancient times.
If you are able to, visit Delphi! It is one of the most important sites in Greece and contains many tales to it. You will not be disappointed. It is an all day adventure, so plan accordingly if you are short on time. Hope this helps! Until next time, happy travels!