First appearance of the Delphi Oracle in Greek myths

  • The history of Perseus begins with the oracle of Delphi, when the King of Argos is told that one day a son of his own daughter will kill him.

    Being Perseus one of the most ancient Greek mythological heroes, I wonder if this is the first time the oracle of Delphi appears in Greek mythology, besides of course the myths of Zeus finding the center of the world and Apollo slaying Python.

    Does Delphi appear in any other myths giving oracles before this one of Perseus?

    Let me know if Adrinka's answer is more what you were looking for. *(i.e. I can edit my answer, which would free up to change the accepted answer..)*

  • Adinkra

    Adinkra Correct answer

    5 years ago

    Gaia, the personification and goddess of the Earth, was the first to foretell the future at Delphi, long before the birth of her great-grandson Apollon [Apollo]. She is also said to have been the first divinity to have a priestess serving as her spokesperson at this location.

    In the 100s AD, a writer named Pausanias went on a tour of Greece and collected information from all over the country into a 10-book travelogue entitled Hellados Periegesis, the “Description of Hellas [Greece].” From his travel through the region of Phokis and the neighbourhood of the Parnassos Glen, he gathered five different mainstream versions of the story about the origin of the oracle and temple of the city of Delphi, some of them differing on very minor points from others. These five accounts are listed below, referencing the information provided in the last book of the Periegesis.

    Going by chronological sequence, the first explicit prophecy delivered at Delphi was a lyrical poem sang by Phemonoe, the first priestess of Apollon at Delphi. (See #4, below, for further detail.) But there are references to earlier utterances being issued, with no mention, however, of what their content was. (This likewise is further elaborated below, passim.)

    The first explicit consultation of this oracle, chronologically, occurs before Apollon’s first arrival at Delphi, immediately after the Flood, when Deukalion [Deucalion] and Pyrrha come to the shrine. (See #2 for more on this.)


    1. The oracle was owned by Gaia, who appointed a local Oreiad (mountain-nymph) named Daphnis as her prophetess. (Aaron Atsma, of The Theoi Project website, speculates that Daphnis was Gaia’s daughter.)

    Later on, at the end of this chapter (after listing the other four versions of the oracle’s origin), Pausanias says that, going by poetic tradition, Gaia had also appointed her offspring, the dragon Python, as the guardian of the oracle. After Apollon showed up and killed Python, the oracle was named after it Pythia.


    2. The oracle was owned by Gaia and Poseidon in common. Gaia uttered oracles herself while Poseidon had appointed Pyrkon as his mouthpiece. Pausanias mentions nothing further to explain who or what Pyrkon was, but in the commentary of his own 1898 translation of the Description of Greece, Sir James George Frazer points out that, according to Hesychius, “At Delphi there were priests called pyrkooi (πυρκόοι) who divined by means of omens drawn from burnt sacrifice.” Citing Pausanias’ later mention of Poseidon’s altar in the temple of Apollon at Delphi, Frazer goes on to speculate that the pyrkooi may have served at this altar, perhaps tracing themselves back to this otherwise unattested Pyrkon.

    To me Pyrkon looks suspiciously similar to Python, and perhaps it is possible that this is a typo on Pausanias’s part, or that this account preserves a version of the Delphic dragon legend in which the guardian monster’s name is Pyrkon rather than Python. Either way, if Pyrkon and Python are somehow the same entity, then in this tradition the creature is associated with Poseidon rather than Gaia. (The mythos of the Delphic dragon is, per se, a mixed-up mass of conflicting traditions, some of which hint at Greek dragon lore set in other parts of the world.)✭✭

    Pausanias then quotes a poem entitled Eumolpia, the work of a certain Musaeus son of Antiophemus, which says that Gaia gave her share of the shrine to her daughter Themis, who later bequeathed it to Apollon. As for Poseidon, he traded his part of the shrine with Apollon in exchange for the island of Kalaureia.

    In the middle of this chapter Pausanias also says that Poseidon’s son Parnassos was the first person to build a city in this region. From him, Parnassos, the famous mountain upon which Delphi was built, derived its name. Parnassos was also the first to use the flights of birds as a soothsaying device.

    One century before Pausanias, the Roman poet Ovid followed this tradition in his Metamorphoses, wherein Deukalion and Pyrrha survive the Flood by sheltering themselves in a wooden chest which floats on the flood-waters and eventually, at the end of the cataclysm, settles into the groove between the twin peaks of Mt Parnassos. The two survivor spouses then walk down the mountain to find upon its slopes the shrine of Themis, who happens to be their grandmother (Deukalion’s father Prometheus and Pyrrha’s father Epimetheus are Themis’s sons), in order to inquire of her how they might repeople the Earth.

    Going by the narrative chronology of the myths of Greece and Rome, this would be the first reference, in the timeline, to someone explicitly consulting the oracle at Delphi (rather than the prophecies simply being issued in song [spontaneously rather than upon request, so it would seem]).

    In his play Eumenides, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus (roughly four centuries prior to Ovid) portrays Gaia as the first deity to give oracles at Delphi. In Prometheus Bound, another play of Aeschylus, the Titan Prometheus says that his mother, who would frequently reveal the future to him, has many names, two of which are Themis and Gaia. This could provide a way to combine this version with #1, in which there is no mention of Themis: there would not need to be such a mention if she is actually just a form of Gaia.

    Moreover in Eumenides, there is an owner of the oracle in between Themis and Apollon. Themis gives her share of the oracle to her sister Phoibe [Phoebe], who then gives it as a birthday present to her grandson Apollon, who is also named Phoibos [Phoebus] in her honour.

    There are yet two more variants of this tradition, as pointed out by Frazer:

    According to Euripides (Iphig. in Taur. 1259 sqq.) Apollo dismissed Themis and took her place at the oracle; but Earth, to avenge the wrong done her daughter, sent dreams which disturbed and confused the persons who consulted the oracle, till Zeus, at the entreaty of Apollo, compelled her to desist. Some thought that Apollo and Themis had founded the oracle jointly (Strabo, ix. p. 422).

    Whatever the case, Deukalion and Pyrrha arrived at Delphi during Themis’s tenure thereat, and if this goddess was operating in conjunction with any other deity at the time, nonetheless she specifically is the one who was consulted, probably on account of the couple’s strong familial connection with her.

    Deukalion and Pyrrha had a daughter named Melantho, who was violated by Poseidon. She bore the sea-god a son named Delphos who, when he had grown up, built the city of Delphi, to which he gave his name. In Eumenides, Apollon first arrives at Delphi while Delphos is ruling the city. Going by most other accounts, Delphos is a son of Apollon by a different woman.

    ✭ Pausanias's Description of Greece Translated with a Commentary by J.G. Frazer, in Six Volumes.
    1898. MacMillan & Co. Ltd, London (UK) and The MacMillan Company, New York (USA).

    ✭✭DukeZhou [a fellow Mythology StackExchange user] has pointed out to me that Pyrkon's name could possibly be translated "Fire-Cone," from pŷr, "fire" + kônos, "[pine-]cone," which could have some potentially interesting implications as the designation of a prophet or priest (who might also perhaps be a terrifying dragon).


    3. Shepherds feeding their flocks (consisting primarily of goats, it seems) inhaled the subterraneous vapour at the site and began to prophesy the words of Apollon.

    A variant version of this tradition, however, has it that it is the goats that were being herded which, technically, were the first prophets here (not of Apollon but of the more ancient Gaia), as Frazer further elaborates:

    The story of the discovery of the Delphic oracle, as told by Diodorus (xvi. 26), is this. On the spot afterwards occupied by the inmost shrine (adytum) of the sanctuary there was a chasm in the ground. A flock of goats was browsing near the chasm, and each goat as it approached the chasm began to skip and utter unwonted sounds. The goatherd, observing this with surprise, went up to the hole, was affected in the same way as his goats, and began to prophesy. The fame of this was spread abroad, many people came to the chasm and fell into prophetic ecstasy. So the place was deemed an oracle of Earth. At last when many persons, in the height of their frenzy, had leaped into the hole and disappeared, the neighbours resolved to appoint one woman to the office of prophetess, and in order that she might receive the prophetic influence and give the oracles in safety, they devised a three-legged machine or tripod, which she mounted when she was about to prophesy. The oracular chasm is described by Strabo (ix. p. 419) as follows: “They say that the oracle is a perpendicular cavern, not very broad at the mouth, and that an inspiring air is wafted up from it, and that over the mouth of it stands a high tripod, which the Pythian priestess mounts and receiving the air utters the oracles, some in verse and some in prose, and the prose oracles are put into verse by poets employed in the service of the sanctuary.”

    A connection between this and the island of Crete occurs at the end of the same paragraph of Frazer’s commentary: “According to Plutarch (De defectu oraculorum, 42 and 46) the name of the man who first discovered the inspiring influence of the cavern by falling into it was Coretas. Some have taken the name Coretas to be etymologically connected with Curetes and Crete and hence have regarded it as a confirmation of the legend that the Delphic oracle was of Cretan origin.” He goes on:

    Before the priestess descended into the cavern, omens were taken from goats. Cold water was poured on the goat’s head, and if the animal shivered and shook in all its limbs, the omen was good, the goat was sacrificed, and the priestess descended into the cave. But if the goat, when drenched with the water, stood motionless or only shook its head, the omen was unfavourable, and the priestess did not go down. The origin of this custom was explained by the story that the inspiring influences which emanated from the cave had first been experienced by goats. See Plutarch, De defectu oraculorum, 46, 49, and 51; Diodorus, xvi. 26.


    4. Phemonoe was the first prophetess of Apollon, and sang in hexameter verse. This, says Pausanias here, is the most prevalent view. The Periegesis implies that the first oracle sang by Phemonoe was a prophecy about the arrival of Apollon at Delphi and the destruction of Python upon that advent.

    Phemonoe was a daughter of Apollon or of Delphos the founder of Delphi (in the latter of which instances she was a granddaughter of either Apollon or Poseidon). Her mother Kastalia, a daughter of the River Akhelous, transformed into a spring of water at the foot of Mt Parnassos in order to escape the advances of Apollon. Pausanias says that, in conjunction with an adjoining spring, the waters of Kastalia are what inspired the local prophetesses of Apollon with their oracular powers.


    5. According to the Delphian poetess Boio [Boeo], says Pausanias, the shrine of Apollon at Delphi was built by a group of Hyperboreans led by Olen, Pagasos and Agyieos. Olen was the first prophet of Apollon, chanting the hexameter oracles. The Hellados Periegesis 10.5.8 qualifies this with the disclaimer that

    Tradition, however, reports no other man as prophet, but makes mention of prophetesses only.

    Even though I doubt Pausnias had a qwerty keyboard, r is suspiciously close to t and k is kinda close to h...

    Haha! Indeed! It cannot have been a Qwerty... coz that fellow used a T9 cellphone NumPad in that antique pre-touchscreen era :D (That's why it was so tough keeping track of those spelling boo-boos ;-P )

    Great answer. I wasn't even thinking about pre-Apollo Delphi!

    PS: I doubt very much the rho-kappa and theta are interchangeable. The folks on Latin could likely confirm this. You're dealing with different roots--"pur" for fire vs. "puth" for for divination (but related to "rotting") and they are listed as deriving from different PIE stems. Still I still see a connection in the "py". Fire represents a type of divine inspiration, related to divination (remember that Prometheus means "forethought", a form of looking into the future.) It's not random that "bright" Apollo became patron of Delphi, and his light can be helpful or destructive, like the sun.

    Thank you. & right you are. I am certainly not suggesting that the writer himself mistook "ρκ" for "θ", but rather more along the lines of a scribal copyist's error, or something like a Freudian slip: the writer meant to inscribe "Πύθων" but jotted down "Πύρκων" instead. In the context of the passage, however, I find that extremely unlikely (Pausanias seems to mean that the _Eumolpia_ definitely has a _**Pyrkon**_ in mind as the primaeval prophet of Delphian Poseidon), which is why I do suggest that perhaps the dragon's name could have sounded a bit different in a variant tradition.

    Your points on the symbolism at work here in reference to divination, Prometheus and Apollo[n] are all spot-on! I was tempted to include in my Answer a note that perhaps Pyrkon has something to do with fire, as his (or her?) name can be broken up in to "Πύρ" (just like you've observed) + κων. But because I've got nothing sensible to offer for the 2nd syllable here (might U happen to know if it could plausibly mean anything in Ancient Greek?), I decided to just leave it at the aforementioned commentary.

    The second syllable is just the conjugation, and it wouldn't be considered meaningful, but when I looked at (loosely) κων I did come across κῶνα which is equated to πίσσα ("pitch" as in the kind that burns,) and it's also related to κώνης, as in "pine cones" which topped the thyrsus. I can't recall if these cones were actually ever lit, but the thyrsus is associated with divine madness, which is a type of divine inspiration, similar to the pythoness' trance.

    A fiery thyrsus strikes me as a rather priestly (or prophetic) symbol. I wonder if Hesychius's _pyrkooi_ might have wielded any kind of sceptre. All these links to fire & pitch, etc (if they genuinely are present in this particular aspect of the mythos or tradition) would be quite interesting since they would be the attributes of a character associated with the god of the sea.

    @Adinkra I don't know if I've come across them as part of this tradition specifically, but was thinking in general how the symbols relate. It also occurred to me with the "rotting" root of Python, things only rot in the sun and heat. Python/Pyrkon/Drakon/Typhon seem all to be connected.

    Incidentally, I was looking at πυρκόος today, and the second part of the word, derived from κοέω means "perceive". But when I searched on κόος specifically it led me to a word that means "cave". I don't know what serious linguists would make of that, but it is certainly interesting.

    All very good stuff! The divining _pyrkooi_ being "fire-seers" makes a lot of sense. That also makes Frazer's connection between them & Musaeus's Pyrkon yet more convincing too. If they are indeed linked to the Delphian dragon, then the "cave" interpretation is also of interest since the monster serpent seems to be an at least partly (which, mythically speaking, is the name of Apollon's maternal grandfather)?

    @Adrinka Brilliant insight. It make absolute sense that Apollo's grandfather is Coeus representing intellect and the inquisitive mind. The PIE roots aren't listed on the etymology link, so I'd have to do more digging. We also shouldn't overlook Pandora as *pithou*, which is very close to the puth (pyth) root for Python and everything involving Delphi.

    I also take back what I said about the κων in Πύρκων not being meaningful *(I'd forgotten we were taking about a name, where compound words are standard.)* κων is also the root of "cone" *(the Ancient Greeks were obsessed with conic sections;)* My new theory is that Pyrkos means volcano, for which there wasn't a formal word, as distinct from the non-fiery, but still vaporous, Python. Here is an interesting essay that makes the point about "volcanic gas naturally released from both active and many inactive volcanoes."

    Yet more great material! I've added a note to my Answer indicating your _Pyr-Konos_ = "Fire-Cone" input.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM