Delphi was an important ancient Greek religious sanctuary sacred to the god Apollo. Located on Mt. Parnassus near the Gulf of Corinth, the sanctuary was home to the famous oracle of Apollo which gave cryptic predictions and guidance to both city-states and individuals. In addition, Delphi was also home to the panhellenic Pythian Games.
Mythology & Origins
The site was first settled in Mycenaean times in the late Bronze Age (1500-1100 BCE) but took on its religious significance from around 800 BCE. The original name of the sanctuary was Pytho after the snake which Apollo was believed to have killed there. Votive offerings at the site from this period include small clay statues (the earliest), bronze figurines, and richly decorated bronze tripods.
For the Greeks Delphi was considered the centre of the world.
Delphi was also considered the centre of the world, for in Greek mythology Zeus released two eagles, one to the east and another to the west, and Delphi was the point at which they met after encircling the world. This fact was represented by the omphalos (or navel), a dome-shaped stone which stood outside Apollo’s temple and which also marked the spot where Apollo killed the Python.
The oracle of Apollo at Delphi was famed throughout the Greek world and even beyond. The oracle – the Pythia or priestess – would answer questions put to her by visitors wishing to be guided in their future actions. The whole process was a lengthy one, usually taking up a whole day and only carried out on specific days of the year. First the priestess would perform various actions of purification such as washing in the nearby Castalian Spring, burning laurel leaves, and drinking holy water. Next an animal – usually a goat – was sacrificed. The party seeking advice would then offer a pelanos – a sort of pie – before being allowed into the inner temple where the priestess resided and gave her pronouncements, possibly in a drug or natural gas-induced state of ecstasy.
Perhaps the most famous consultant of the Delphic oracle was Croesus, the fabulously rich King of Lydia who, faced with a war against the Persians, asked the oracle’s advice. The oracle stated that if Croesus went to war then a great empire would surely fall. Reassured by this, the Lydian king took on the mighty Cyrus. However, the Lydians were routed at Sardis and it was the Lydian empire which fell, a lesson that the oracle could easily be misinterpreted by the unwise or over-confident.
Delphi, as with the other major religious sites of Olympia, Nemea, and Isthmia, held games to honour various gods of the Greek religion. The Pythian Games of Delphi began sometime between 591 and 585 BCE and were initially held every eight years, with the only event being a musical competition where solo singers accompanied themselves on a kithara to sing a hymn to Apollo. Later, more musical contests and athletic events were added to the programme, and the games were held every four years with only the Olympic Games being more important. The principal prize for victors in the Games was a crown of laurel or bay leaves.
The site and games were managed by the independent Delphic amphictiony – a council with representatives from various nearby city-states – which levied taxes, collected offerings, invested in construction programmes, and even organised military campaigns in the Four Sacred Wars, fought to redress sacrilegious acts against Apollo perpetrated by the states of Crisa, Phocis, and Amphissa.
The first temple in the area was built in the 7th century BCE and was itself a replacement for less substantial buildings of worship which had stood before it. The focal point of the sanctuary, the Doric temple of Apollo, was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 548 BCE. A second temple, again Doric in style, was completed in c. 510 BCE with the help of the exiled Athenian family, the Alcmeonids. Measuring some 60 by 24 metres, the facade had six columns whilst the sides had 15. This temple was destroyed by earthquake in 373 BCE and was replaced by a similarly proportioned temple in 330 BCE. This was constructed with poros stone coated in stucco. Marble sculpture was also added as decoration along with Persian shields taken at the Battle of Marathon. This is the temple which survives, albeit only partially, today.
Other notable constructions at the site were the theatre (with capacity for 5,000 spectators), temples to Athena (4th century BCE), a tholos with 13 Doric columns (c. 580 BCE), stoas, stadium (with capacity for 7,000 spectators), and around 20 treasuries, which were constructed to house the votive offerings and dedications from city-states all over Greece. Similarly, monuments were also erected to commemorate military victories and other important events. For example, the Spartan general Lysander erected a monument to celebrate his victory over Athens at Aegospotami. Other notable monuments were the great bronze Bull of Corcyra (580 BCE), the ten statues of the kings of Argos (c. 369 BCE), a gold four-horse chariot offered by Rhodes, and a huge bronze statue of the Trojan Horse offered by the Argives (c.413 BCE). Lining the sacred way, which wound from the sanctuary gate up to the temple of Apollo, the visitor must have been greatly impressed by the artistic and literal wealth on display. Alas, in most cases, only the monumental pedestals survive of these great statues, silent witnesses to a lost grandeur.
In 480 BCE the Persians attacked the sanctuary and in 279 BCE the sanctuary was again attacked, this time by the Gauls. It was during the 3rd century BCE that the site came under the control of the Aitolian League. In 191 BCE Delphi passed into Roman hands; however, the sanctuary and the games continued to be culturally important in Roman times, in particular under Hadrian. The decree by Theodosius in 393 CE to close all pagan sanctuaries resulted in Delphi’s gradual decline. A Christian community dwelt at the site for several centuries until its final abandonment in the 7th century CE.
The site was ‘re-discovered’ with the first modern excavations being carried out in 1880 CE by a team of French archaeologists. Notable finds were splendid metope sculptures from the treasury of the Athenians (c. 490 BCE) and the Siphnians (c. 525 BCE) depicting scenes from Greek mythology. In addition, a bronze charioteer in the severe style (480-460 BCE), the marble Sphinx of the Naxians (c. 560 BCE), the twin marble archaic statues – the kouroi of Argos (c. 580 BCE) and the richly decorated omphalos stone (c. 330 BCE) – all survive as testimony to the cultural and artistic wealth that Delphi had once enjoyed.
Mycenae was a fortified late Bronze Age city located between two hills on the Argolid plain of the Peloponnese, Greece. The acropolis today dates from between the 14th and 13th century BCE when the Mycenaean civilization was at its peak of power, influence and artistic expression.
In Greek mythology the city was founded by Perseus, who gave the site its name either after his sword scabbard (mykes) fell to the ground and was regarded as a good omen or as he found a water spring near a mushroom (mykes). Perseus was the first king of the Perseid dynasty which ended with Eurytheus (instigator of Hercules‘ famous twelve labours). The succeeding dynasty was the Atreids, whose first king, Atreus, is traditionally believed to have reigned around 1250 BCE. Atreus’ son Agamemnon is believed to have been not only king of Mycenae but of all of the Archaean Greeks and leader of their expedition to Troy to recapture Helen. In Homer’s account of the Trojan War in the Iliad, Mycenae (or Mykene) is described as a ‘well-founded citadel’, as ‘wide-wayed’ and as ‘golden Mycenae’, the latter supported by the recovery of over 15 kilograms of gold objects recovered from the shaft graves in the acropolis.
Situated on a rocky hill (40-50 m high) commanding the surrounding plain as far as the sea 15 km away, the site of Mycenae covered 30,000 square metres and has always been known throughout history, although the surprising lack of literary references to the site suggest it may have been at least partially covered. First excavations were begun by the Archaeological Society of Athens in 1841 CE and then famously continued by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 CE who discovered the magnificent treasures of Grave Circle A. The archaeological excavations have shown that the city has a much older history than the Greek literary tradition described.
Atreus’ son Agamemnon is believed to have been not only king of Mycenae but of all of the Archaean Greeks and leader of their expedition to Troy.
Inhabited since Neolithic times, it is not until c. 2100 BCE that the first walls, pottery finds (including imports from the Cycladic islands) and pit and shaft graves with higher quality grave goods appear. These, taken collectively, suggest a greater importance and prosperity in the settlement.
From c. 1600 BCE there is evidence of an elite presence on the acropolis: high-quality pottery, wall paintings, shaft graves and an increase in the surrounding settlement with the construction of large tholos tombs. From the 14th century BCE the first large-scale palace complex is built (on three artificial terraces), as is the celebrated tholos tomb, the Treasury of Atreus, a monumental circular building with corbelled roof reaching a height of 13.5 m and 14.6 m in diameter and approached by a long walled and unroofed corridor 36 m long and 6m wide. Fortification walls, of large roughly worked stone blocks, surrounding the acropolis (of which the north wall is still visible today), flood management structures such as dams, roads, Linear B tablets and an increase in pottery imports (fitting well with theories of contemporary Mycenaean expansion in the Aegean) illustrate the culture was at its zenith.
The large palace structure built around a central hall or Megaron is typical of Mycenaean palaces. Other features included a secondary hall, many private rooms and a workshop complex. Decorated stonework and frescoes and a monumental entrance, the Lion Gate (a 3 m x 3 m square doorway with an 18-ton lintel topped by two 3 m high heraldic lions and a column altar), added to the overall splendour of the complex. The relationship between the palace and the surrounding settlement and between Mycenae and other towns in the Peloponnese is much discussed by scholars. Concrete archaeological evidence is lacking but it seems likely that the palace was a centre of political, religious and commercial power. Certainly, high-value grave goods, administrative tablets, pottery imports and the presence of precious materials deposits such as bronze, gold and ivory would suggest that the palace was, at the very least, the hub of a thriving trade network.
The first palace was destroyed in the late 13th century, probably by earthquake and then (rather poorly) repaired. A monumental staircase, the North Gate, and a ramp were added to the acropolis and the walls were extended to include the Perseia spring within the fortifications. The spring was named after the city’s mythological founder and was reached by an impressive corbelled tunnel (or syrinx) with 86 steps leading down 18m to the water source. It is argued by some scholars that these architectural additions are evidence for a preoccupation with security and possible invasion. This second palace was itself destroyed, this time with signs of fire. Some rebuilding did occur and pottery finds suggest a degree of prosperity returned briefly before another fire ended occupation of the site until a brief revival in Hellenistic times. With the decline of Mycenae, Argos became the dominant power in the region. Reasons for the demise of Mycenae and the Mycenaean civilization are much debated with suggestions including natural disaster, over-population, internal social and political unrest or invasion from foreign tribes.
Celebrated artefacts from Mycenae include five magnificent beaten gold burial masks (one being incorrectly attributed to Agamemnon by Schliemann), gold diadems, carved rings, cups and a lion head rhyton. A magnificent bronze and gold rhyton in the form of a bull’s head, large bronze swords and daggers with richly inlaid scenes on their blades, ivory sculpture and fragments of fresco also give testimony to the quality of craftsmanship and wealth of ‘golden Mycenae’.
First inhabited in the second millennium BCE, the first archaeological record of dwellings dates from 1900 to 1600 BCE. The Kronion hill at the site was perhaps the first place of worship, dedicated to Kronos. However, other sacred buildings at the foot of the hill in the sacred grove of wild olive trees, or Altis, indicate other deities were worshipped such as Gaia, Themis, Aphrodite, and Pelops. With the descent of western Greek tribes into the Peloponnese, though, it was Zeus, father of the Olympian gods, who would become the dominant cult figure at Olympia, Delphi.
The first large building on the site was the Heraion, a temple dedicated to Hera built around 650-600 BCE. In the 5th century BCE the sanctuary reached its peak of prosperity, and a massive Doric 6 x 13 column temple was completed in 457 BCE in order to house a hug e cult statue of Zeus. Designed by Libon of Elis, the temple was the biggest in Greece at that time and measured 64.12 m x 27.68 m with columns 10.53 m in height. The pediments of the temple displayed magnificent sculpture: on the east side the mythical chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos, and on the western pediment a Centauromachy with the majestic central figure of Apollo. Metopes from the temple represented the labours of Hercules. The statue of Zeus within the temple was by Pheidias (who had worked on the Parthenon and its statue of Athena) and was a 12 m high gold and ivory representation of Zeus seated on a throne and regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Other important building projects over the centuries included baths and a swimming pool (5th century BCE), the new stadium with embankments for spectators (mid-4th century BCE), a palaistra (3rd century BCE), a gymnasion (2nd century BCE), hippodrome (780 m long), the large Leonidaion or guest houses (330 BCE), and the Theikoloi (priest’s residence).
The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BCE at the first full moon after the summer solstice.
Sporting events were originally associated with funeral rituals, for example the funeral games instigated by Achilles in honour of Patroklos in Homer’s Iliad. Some mythological accounts credit Zeus with beginning the Games to celebrate his victory over Kronos; other accounts state Pelops began them in honour of Oinomaos. In any case, sport, a healthy body and the competitive spirit were a large part of Greek education, and so it is hardly surprising that organised athletic competitions would at some point be created.
The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BCE at the first full moon after the summer solstice. The winner of the first and only event, the stadion foot-race (one length of the stadium track, 600 feet or 192 m), was Koroibos of Elis, and from then on every victor was recorded and each Olympiad named after them, thus giving us the first accurate chronology of the Greek world. During a three month Pan-Hellenic truce, athletes and as many as 40,000 spectators came from all over Greece to participate in the Games. Individuals and city-states brought offerings to Zeus which included money, statues (including the magnificent Nike of Paionios, c. 424 BCE, and the Hermes of Praxiteles, late 4th century BCE), bronze tripods, shields, helmets, and weapons resulting in Olympia becoming a living museum of Greek art and culture. Many cities also built treasuries – small but impressive buildings to house their offerings and raise the prestige of their city.
Over time other events were added to the Games such as longer foot-races, wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, discus, javelin, jumping, and the pentathlon. At its peak there were 18 events spread over five days. However, it was always the original stadion which remained the most important event. Victors won crowns of olive leaves and an olive branch cut from the scared grove, but much more importantly they won glory, fame, and in a very real sense historical immortality.
A second important event held at Olympia was the Heraia Games for women, held every four years in honour of the goddess, Hera. Children, adolescents, and young women ran in separate foot-races over 500 feet of the stadium track (160 m). Prizes for victors included olive crowns and the right to set up a portrait of themselves on the site. The responsibility for the organisation of both Games and for maintenance of the site when not in use lay with the Eleans.
The Games continued through the Hellenistic period with the notable architectural addition of the Philippeion, a circular colonnaded building erected by Philip II of Macedonia which contained gold statues of the royal family (c. 338 BCE). The Romans, whilst giving little importance to the religious significance of the Games, continued to hold them in high regard and despite the attempt by Sulla in 80 BCE to permanently move the Games to Rome, continued to embellish Olympia with new buildings, heated baths, fountains (notably the Nymphaion of Herodes Atticus, 150 CE), and statues. Most famously, emperor Nero strove to win the glory of Olympic victory in 67 CE, competing in, and unsurprisingly winning, every event he entered.
With Emperor Theodosios’ decree to prohibit all cult practices, the Games came to an end in 393 CE after a run of 293 Olympics over more than a millennium. The site gradually fell into decline, was partially destroyed under the decree of emperor Theodosios II in 426 CE, and was taken over by a Christian community who built a basilica on the site in the early Byzantine period. Earthquakes in 522 and 551 CE destroyed much of the remaining ruins, and silt from the nearby rivers Alpheios and Kladeos eventually covered the site until its rediscovery in 1829 CE by the French Archaeological Mission and systematic excavation by the German Archaeological Institute from 1875 CE.