The Oracle of Delphi was one of the most important figures in ancient Greece and before you visit it really helps to understand why it was so powerful. Knowing a little about the history and legend behind the site allows you to have a more enjoyable and enriching visit. Below I will get you up to speed on the who, what, and where of Delphi and give you all the tips you need to plan your visit.
Where is Delphi?
The Temple and Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi is part of what is known as the Delphic archaeological zone. It lies on the slope of Mount Parnassus about 180 km (112 miles) from Athens and 121 km (75 miles) from Patras.
There’s a bit of a remote feeling to Delphi, and people often stay overnight, but many people see Delphi on a day trip from Athens.
What makes Delphi (Delfoi) special?
For ancient Greeks, Delphi was the center of the universe.
It was a religious sanctuary dedicated to the god Apollo, a meeting place of games and festivities for the Greek world, and the home of the most famous Oracle, or seer, of the ancient world.
Rather listen than read about visiting the home of the Oracle of Delphi? Check out my interview with renowned Delphi tour guide, Penny Kolomvotsos, about how and why you should visit Ancient Delphi.
A Beginner’s Guide to Delphi and the Oracle
Delphi is one of the greatest remaining sites of the ancient Greek world. In Greek mythology, Zeus released two eagles to find the center of the universe and they alighted at Delphi.
We know it was the center of the Greek world because of an Omphalos (or navel of Gaea) that marks the spot.
There are other ancient sources with different accounts. Some suggest the Omphalos stone marks the location of the tomb of Dionysus, and Homer recounts the myth of Apollo coming to Delphi as a dolphin.
Before Delphi there was Pythia
Delphi was not always called Delphi. It was once known as Pythia and the Oracle was known as the Pythia priestess.
Before the myth of Apollo had taken hold, it was the Oracle of Pythia that was consulted about all of the most important decisions facing Greek leaders.
A shrine to Pythia existed for several centuries but by the 7th century BCE, this prehistoric oracle became known as the oracle of Delphi who resided at the Sanctuary of Apollo.
Delphi became a site for the congregation of people from all over Greece, as well as Asia Minor and Egypt, with celebrations throughout the year including the Pythian Games.
The Oracle of Delphi
The Sanctuary of Apollo that grew at Pythia was founded on the legend that Apollo had slain a python or serpent (pythus) whose body fell into a great fissure where it rotted and released vapors.
There are several variations on the Greek legend that the Oracle of Delphi fell into trances whenever she came into contact with the sweet smell of the fumes rising from the fissure into a cave.
The gases have been assumed to be methane, ethane, and/or ethylene. Their strength was amplified by the low ceiling and enclosed nature of the cave where the Oracle would be in the divine presence of the god Apollo and hear his voice.
French archaeologists have excavated the site but whilst space was found underneath the Temple, no fissure was found during the excavations which could explain the escape of gases from within the earth into the Oracle’s cave.
However, in the 1980s archaeologists did find a crossing of fault lines which, due to the earthquakes in the area, could have caused gases to be emitted into a cave.
Who was the Oracle and what did she do?
The Oracle was the high priestess of Delphi and other priests and priestesses conducted elaborate rituals for the Greeks (and from important people right across the Ancient World) before they were sufficiently purified to ask their questions to the Oracle.
However, the Oracle of Delphi issued prophecies for 1000 years and became an essential part of coming to a decision about the most important matters in Greece during that time.
The Delphic Oracle was a woman over 50, generally from Delphi. The Oracle sat in the cave year-round except for the three winter months.
On the seventh day of each of these nine months, the Oracle sat on a tripod holding a laurel wreath and a bowl of Castalian spring water (holy water) and answered questions put to her.
It is suggested that she answered in garbled and nonsensical sentences that the priests and priestesses interpreted. It was important that the Oracle never gave entirely straight answers.
Like most religious speech, there needed to be room for ambiguity in the god’s answers.
This way of framing answers meant that any bad consequences flowing from her words would not be seen as wrong advice, merely misinterpreted advice!
It was also important that the Delphic Oracle didn’t cause the ruin of Greek society. One one occasion when the Pythia sat in her cave she was asked, for example, if an Emperor or city-state should go to war.
The Oracle would tell of the ultimate consequences of such an action (for example, there would be great prizes for the winner and terrible suffering for the vanquished), but would not actually say which side would win the war.
As a result of the Oracle’s direct channel of communication with the god Apollo, the religious sanctuary and its shrine grew into a powerful and wealthy city patronized by the ancient Greeks not just as a sacred place for ancient Greek religion, but also as a meeting place for different Greek states.
The Greek leaders and wealthy business people conducted trade and statecraft during the athletic contests known as the Pythia Games (that emulated the Olympic Games) which were held until at least 424 AD, even as the Roman Empire spread Christianity through ancient Greece.
It remained that way until its destruction along with all other religious sanctuaries on the order of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius in 393 or 394 ADE.
The Oracle’s Famous Prophecies
The Oracle of Delphi made a series of prophecies that changed the course of empires, kings, nations, and cities. The Colossus of Rhodes was never rebuilt because of the words of the Oracle.
She had told the Rhodians that it must remain in the sea and so it remained, after falling down during an earthquake, for 800 years.
The fate of the King of Lydia is perhaps worse. His name was Croesus and he wanted to invade Persia. He consulted the Oracle who said,
“If you cross a river, a great empire will be destroyed.”
Croesus guessed wrongly, and it was his great empire that was destroyed by the Persians. The Oracle hadn’t lied, but the prophecies could always be interpreted in different ways!
Now that you know all about the Oracle of Delphi, read on to learn everything you need to know about visiting Delphi and seeing for yourself if you think the legend might be true!
What is the Best Way to See Delphi?
While you can rent a car and explore Delphi alone, unless you have some knowledge of the site and what is said to have happened here. I think you are missing out.
Below are the best three entrance tickets – one is a stand-alone ticket, one is a combined ticket for the archaeological zone and the Museum, and the third is a 1.5 hr guided walking tour of Delphi, and includes the admission ticket.
They’re all fully cancellable up to 24 hours before your booking time.
- Best Entrance Ticket to Delphi: Delphi: Skip-the-Line Entry Ticket and Audio Guide
- Best Combined Ticket to the Delphi Archaeological Zone and the Delphi Archaeological Museum: Delphi: Archaeological Site & Museum Entry Ticket with Audio.
- Best Walking Tour and Admission Ticket: Delphi Guided Walking Tour and Admission Ticket
Visiting Ancient Delphi: Key Facts Snapshot
If you’re heading off the Delphi, check that the site is open, try not to go on a free day because it is crazy busy, and buy your skip-the-line express tickets a couple of months ahead of time, especially if you’re going in summer.
If you’ve visited any ancient sites in Greece, you’ll know that the queues for tickets can take an extraordinarily long time.
- Phone: +30 22650 82313 | +30 22650 82346 | +30 22650 82312 (Museum)
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Tickets: Full: €12, Reduced: €6
- Museum & Archaeological Site. A reduced rate often applies. This is a combination ticket that includes the Museum. Can be split over 2 days – one day at the archaeological site, and the other at the Museum.
Free admission days
- 6 March | 18 April | 28 October
- Last weekend of September
- 28 October
- Every first Sunday from November 1st to March 31
- Archaeological site open: Daily: 8.00- 15.00 (Last admission 14.30)
- Museum open: Daily 9.00 – 16.00 (Last admission 15.40).
- 1 January | 25 March | 1 May | 25 December | 26 December
- Easter Sunday (remember, the Greek Easter is not on the same date as the western Christian date and ancient sites are closed all over Greece on the Greek Easter Sunday.
What to See at Ancient Delphi: Top 7 Highlights
This is a large archaeological zone and, when you add the archaeological museum and the incredible Tholos half a mile away, it makes for a very busy day! If you are booking a tour make sure you have time to see these sites.
Temple of Apollo
The Panhellenic Sanctuary of Delphi has, at its most physically impressive heart, the Temple of Apollo. Another great building of the Classical era in Greece, the Temple of Apollo dates from the 4th century BCE.
This beautiful temple is made from marble-coated limestone and so it has decayed. It was a Doric temple with six by 15 columns and stood upon the foundations of several other earlier temples.
There were figures of the gods Apollo and also Dionysos as well as Persian and Gallic shields taken from vanquished armies that adorned the Temple.
But like the rest of Ancient Greece, this sanctuary, was destroyed on the orders of Emperor Theodosius I. It was then further razed by Christians.
The other large structure on the site is the Ancient Theater of Delphi which nestles in the upper slope of Mount Parnassus.
There is a 7-meter circular orchestra pit and it was the site of musical and oral contests that were held during the Pythian Games.
Athenians came to the Temple of Apollo and to visit the Oracle bearing expensive gifts.
They built a treasury along the Sacred Way so that all those visiting the Temple would pass their marble building and know of the wealth of the Athenians.
The metopes that line the building are reproductions, but you can see the real ones that depict the mythical king of Athens, Theseus, in the Delphi Archaeological Museum.
You will come across other Treasuries at Delphi, but the Treasury of the Athenians was built to show proclaim their victory at the Battle of Marathon. It contains extravagant votive offerings to show the world the prosperity and military prowess of Athens.
The outstanding statues of Kleobis and Biton you can see in the Museum were found in the Treasury.
Stoa of the Athenians
Like the Athenian Treasury, the Athenians wanted to celebrate their victories in the Persian Wars through storing treasures and war loot in Delphi because it was a site of such importance to Greece.
The Stoa contains the spoils of the victories the Athenians had at sea against the Persians. Left standing is some of the eight Ionic columns of the Stoa.
It is located in the center of the archaeological zone, next to the Polygonal wall.
Stadium and Gymnasium
The Pythian Games athletics events took place at the stadium which is well preserved. 6500 people could watch the games from the stone benches high above the Sanctuary of Apollo.
It’s still possible to see the holes for the pegs and the flagstones that marked the start and finish lines.
The Tholos (or circular temple) is part of the spectacular Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, half a mile from the Delphi archaeological site.
Three of the 20 Doric columns have been restored making it one of the most impressive structures still standing from the ancient Greek world.
In addition to the 20 Doric columns forming the circular exterior of the Delphi temple, the Tholos once had 10 Corinthian columns inside the temple. It is a photogenic and powerful site and dates from 380-360 BCE.
Try and squeeze in time – it takes a long time to get to Delphi – it would be a shame to come so far and not see this impressive monument!
The Delphi Archaeological Museum
The Delphi Archaeological Museum is one of the most important and most visited museums in Greece.
It is at the foot of the archaeological zone and the entrance fee is charged separately to the archaeological zone (or you can purchase a reduced-price ticket when purchasing entrance to both sites).
The Delphi museum contains the Sphinx of Naxos (above), a Delphi charioteer statue, and the earliest recorded melody!
There are many other treasures of the world’s ancient history that were found at Delphi housed in the museum. Make sure you see it before you head off to see the Tholos!