Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death: The Significance of the Oracle at Delphi

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea.

Oracle at Delphi – 560 BC

220px-John_Collier_-_Priestess_of_DelphiShe stands close to associations with the Earth, the musty damp womb of the dirt where decay and birth exist simultaneously. You can find her only after a journey, you can hope she will proclaim that you are destined for greatness or give clarity for your decisions, but she may also give omens of dread, of doom or mere unsatisfying riddles. Whatever she utters, for ill or good, are the words of divinity.

delphi-ancient-city-ruins-greece-mainland-tour-europe-dp7874493-1600_0Read the great mythologies of Ancient Greece and you will encounter over and over the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythia. She dwelled at a place that must have seemed to the ancients was the opening to the womb of the Earth itself, a seam from which the vapors arose giving the Pythia the power of prophesy. Her words can be found in many sources from the ancient world. But there’s so much more to the existence of the Pythia that captures my imagination, it is what she represents—a remnant of even older belief systems.

serpentThe serpent brings instinctive fear. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Devil, in the form of a serpent who tempts Eve, who, along with Adam are cast out from the Garden of Eden as punishment. The Medusa of Ancient Greek mythology with her head writhing with nest of serpents could turn a man to stone. Early civilization abounds with the association of women with serpents, something that continues into the Ancient Greek world. The very title “Pythia,” is a reference to themedusa great Python, the serpent beast who originally guarded the Delphi site.

Snakes frequently nest in crevices and the underground. They emerge from the Earth itself, as if born forth from a womb. Much like humanity, they can be beneficial but are also dangerous. The Oracle is the conduit, much like the Earth, or a mother for what thing that emerges. She is the womb of prophesy, just as filled with potential and uncertainty as humankind. While controversial, the studies of Marija Gimbutas bring entirely worthwhile connections. If the serpent is representative of what can emerge from the Earth, what other connections can we find? Gimbutas says upon death European Neolithic cultures may have believed, “new life grows from the remains of the old…symbolically, the individual returned to the goddess’ womb to be reborn.”[1] She goes on to place a direct correlation between what she calls the “tomb as womb.”[2] That is to say, in death everyone returned to the womb of the Earth and then ultimately were reborn.

The site at Delphi likely represented that regenerative cycle, further because of the presence of the fault line within. The Pythia was further reported to have drank from a spring that ran underground and back to the surface near Apollo’s temple.[3] The spring is yet another strong cyclic signifier. The mythological story of Apollo slaying the Python of Delphi and claiming the site as his own also points to this cultural memory. Some have argued that Apollo acts as a patriarchal symbol slaying a matriarchal belief system. If we interpret the serpent and Earth as female symbols, it is not hard to see a patriarchal connection to the slaying of the Python.

virgil_solis_-_apollo_python“Then Phoebus Apollo boasted over her (Python): Now rot here upon the soil that feeds man! You at least shall live no more to be a fell bane to men who eat the fruit of the all-nourishing earth…but here shall the Earth and shining Hyperion make you rot.”[4]

But even as Apollo takes control (by force) over prophesy, he cannot eradicate the origins of the Delphi site. Note that the Pythia, like many oracles in the ancient world, was a female specific position. While the Ancient Greeks believed that Apollo gave the words of prophesy to the Pythia, the oracular significance remains female. Joan Breton Connelly asserts that, “the Pythia Pythia Aegeus Themis Delphi[1]exerted considerable control over the oracles that she delivered,” and that while male priests existed they did not perform as oracles and further were not the ones who were the subject of attempted bribery.[5] Meaning, they had little control or influence over the Pythia and further, she likely was quite purposeful when she delivered her highly influential answers.

I suppose, some things don’t change after all.


[1] Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999), 55.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 76.

[4] “The Homeric Hymns.” Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Accessed 28 OCT 2017.

[5] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 78.

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