Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Pagan Sites of Europe Remembered: (6) Delphi


One of the most famous and recognizable pagan sites in Europe is undoubtedly Delphi, once famous for its oracle. Lying at the foot of Mount Parnassos, within the angle formed by the twin rocks of the Phaedriades, Delphi was regarded as the navel of the world by the pagan Greeks.

Traces of occupation are rare and very fragmentary until the eighth century BC, when the cult of Apollo was established and the development of the sanctuary and the oracle began. The first stone temples of Apollo and Athena, who was also officially venerated, were built towards the end of the seventh century BC. According to literary and archaeological evidence other gods were associated with the sanctuary; these included Artemis, Poseidon, Dionysus, Hermes, Zeus Polieus, Hygeia and Eileithyia.

The sanctuary was the centre of the Amphictyonic League, an association of twelve tribes of Thessaly and the Sterea (south-central Greece). In the sixth century BC, under the League's protection and administration, the sanctuary was made autonomous, it increased its territory and political and religious influence throughout Greece, and reorganised the Pythian Games, the second most important games in Greece after the Olympics, which were held every four years.

The Delphic oracle was at its peak between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. Oracles were delivered by the Pythia, the priestess, and interpreted by the priests of Apollo. In the third century BC, the sanctuary was conquered by the Aetolians, who were driven out by the Romans in 191 BC. In Roman times, it was consulted by Hadrian and visited by Pausanias who gave a detailed description of the buildings and statues.

The Byzantine emperor Theodosius finally abolished the oracle and the precinct was destroyed by the Slavs in 394 BC. With the advent of Christianity, Delphi became an episcopal see, but was abandoned in the sixth and seventh centuries AD.

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