You are here:
  1. » Home
  2. » Areas
  3. » Mythology
  4. » Europe
  5. » Greek mythology
  6. » Pythia

Pythia

by Jennifer Middlesworth
The Pythia was the priestess at Apollo's oracle in Delphi. The name comes from Python, the dragon that was slain by Apollo. The Pythia operated as a vehicle for Apollo's will to be known to those on earth. A believer would make a sacrifice and present a question to a male priest. The male priest would then present the question to the Pythia. The Pythia sat on a bronze tripod in the adytum, or inner chamber of Apollo's temple. In this sacred chamber the spirit of Apollo overcame the Pythia and inspired the prophecy. Some mythic traditions say the Pythia's trance was induced by vapors from a chasm below the temple or from chewing laurel leaves. Continuing his role of a middleman, the priest would interpret the Pythia's response for the questioner. (Powell 172)

The Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo is an excellent source for the story of Apollo founding his temple at Delphi and his intention to "welcome the tribes of mankind / who gather here, and tell them / most important of all, / what [his] will is," but it makes no mention of the Pythia (161-81). Theognis is the first to mention the Pythia, and the second is Aeschylus in his play Eumenides (Fontenrose 204). The first two lines of Eumenides open with the prophetess's reference to Gaia as the original god of the temple at Delphi.

Many scholars offer evidence to support the idea that the Pythia was an office originating in the cult of Gaia. Dempsey states that the office of the Pythia was always held by a female (originally a virgin, but later at least fifty years old and married) and he points out the connection between the Pythia's gender and the cult of Mother Earth (53-55). Dempsey also points out that the ecstatic nature of the Pythia's prophecy was an abundant characteristic in the cult of Gaia (53-5). A detailed account of the frenzy or mania of the Pythia is presented when Appius Claudius Pulcher visits the oracle at Delphi in Lucan's Civil War (5.64-236). Additionally, many scholars believe that the Python's death at the hand of Apollo symbolized the change in oracles at Delphi (Powell 172).

It is often difficult to piece out the historical elements in myth. Some scholars believe that the Pythia did go into crazed trances. However, scholars such as Joseph Fontenrose question the historical accuracy of the manic and possessed Pythia. As Powell points out, there is no evidence of a chasm, and laurel leaves are not hallucinogenic (172). The debate remains open.


Article details:

  • N/A

Page tools: