by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Psychoanalysis began with an accurate prophecy in Delphi


Descending the mountain path on his way back from the Delphic oracle, Oedipus was so stunned that he barely noticed his surroundings. Sitting on her iron tripod placed over a fissure in the ground from which mind-expanding vapours were rising, Pythia, Apollo's priestess, had foretold a nightmarish future for him: when Oedipus “returned home”, he would slay his father and marry his mother. The oracle was known for her accurate predictions without which no peasant would start harvesting his crops and no king would wage a war.

Oedipus decided to trick fate. He headed for Thebes instead of his father's palace in Corinth. Unaware of his past, he was convinced that he had never been there. Before reaching the city, at a place called Cleft Way where three roads converged, Oedipus encountered an unknown king and his retainers. A petty argument between the two developed into a fight and ended with the young man killing the stranger. Unwittingly, Oedipus had just fulfilled the first part of the prophecy. Soon, he would accomplish the second and several millennia later Sigmund Freud would come up with the Oedipus Complex.

Today, when driving to Delphi from Athens, you will pass by this fateful crossroads. As there is no sign, look out for the first bend to the right after the sign for Daulia. The Cleft Road is a narrow path meandering right of Road 48.

Look at it carefully, because when you get to Mount Parnassus, the site of the Delphic oracle, you will forget all about the nondescript road. It is only 2,475 m, or 8,118 ft, high, but the ancient Greeks' judgement was impeccable when they decided that its steep limestone slopes, dappled with sparse green specks of olive and pine groves, were the home of Apollo and his muses.

Temple of Athena, Delphi

Temple of Athena, Delphi

However, Delphi is something more. It is located in the centre of the world. Zeus himself established this by releasing two eagles to fly from the opposite sides of the earth, which was flat at the time. The birds met in the dip between the twin rocks of the Phaedriades. It provides a 180-degree panoramic view to the Pleistos Valley and on a clear day you can glimpse the sea in the Corinthian Gulf. The meeting place was marked with the omphalos, the navel stone, which is now in the Delphi Museum.

Archaeologists believe that there was a sanctuary at the foot of the Phaedriades as early as 4000 BC. It belonged to Gaia, the earth goddess. However, Delphi and its fame grew dramatically around 1400 BC, when the goddess was superseded by Apollo, who settled there after killing the serpent Python, which lived by the Castalian Spring. In the 8th Century BC, the shrine's oracle was already one of the most respected seers of the ancient world.

Nearly 3,000 years later you will enter the sanctuary and walk along the same Sacred Way as those who sought Apollo's advice. Modern tourists are relieved from the old obligation of visiting the oracle after performing various purging rites. The procedure included washing in the Castalian Spring, fasting and staying in the smaller sanctuary of Athena, situated about half a mile below that of Apollo. Today, people can just enjoy the walk across the ruins of the sanctuary of Athena and the three restored columns of the circular Tholos.

The remains of the sanctuary of Apollo have long ceased to reflect its past as the richest institution of its kind in antiquity. Even when it was at the height of its glory, Delphi was burned down several times during wars fought over it. After a Slavic invasion and a ban on pagan cults issued by Emperor Theodosius I at the end of the 4th Century, the ruins were completely deserted. Several centuries later they were occupied by the village of Kastri, whose inhabitants gladly used the ancient buildings as construction material for their houses.

When you set foot on the Sacred Way, which leads from the entrance to the remains of the large Doric Temple of Apollo, where Pythia made her prophecies, you will realise the erstwhile magnificence of the sanctuary. The ruins on either side of the meandering road are of the treasuries built by the strongest Hellenic cities. They stored the rich gifts they had given to Delphi. The only one restored today is the Athenian Treasury.

Delphi stadium

Delphi stadium

To get an idea about their contents, you should read Herodotus. With maddening meticulousness, he described the gifts of King Croesus of Lydia, who was renowned for his great wealth. When the Lydian saw that neighbouring Persia was becoming a threat to his kingdom, he decided to seek Apollo's advice. To predispose the god, Croesus offered up 3,000 sacrificial animals, couches coated with silver and gold, golden goblets and purple robes and then erected a statue of a lion made of pure gold on a pedestal of 117 gold bricks. The king also added two kraters, one of gold and one of silver, four silver casks and his wife's jewellery and only then dared to ask: “Shall I go to war with the Persians?”

Through Pythia's mouth Apollo replied that if Croesus started a war, he would destroy a mighty empire. The Lydian felt pleased with this answer and left without asking which empire Apollo was referring to. The oracle had told him the truth: after the war between Lydia and Persia, Croesus's state ceased to exist.

Pythia's answers were often ambiguous and usually in iambic pentameter. To interpret them correctly, the supplicant had to ponder them carefully or seek the help of the special priest at the temple. Probably this is why the words γνϖθι σεαυτóν, or know thyself, were carved in large letters on the temple wall.

Some people, however, had no intention of acquiring self-knowledge, especially if they disliked the god's reply. Alexander the Great was among them. He went to Delphi to ask when he would conquer the world. Pythia remained silent and then asked him to return later. Furious, the young man grabbed her hair and dragged her on the ground until she screamed: “Let go of me; you're unbeatable!” On hearing this Alexander dropped her, saying: “Now I have my answer.”

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

Taking into account preserved drawings on pottery and the ideas of Pre-Raphaelite artists, you will probably imagine Pythia as a sexy young lady with half-closed eyes. Her eyes might have been halfclosed, but this was probably due to her age. After several incidences of oracles eloping with supplicants, the temple's guardians decided to employ only virtuous women over the age of 50 as Pythias.

The stories recounted about the events in the Temple of Apollo are much more diverse than the site itself. When they reach it, tourists take a breather – Delphi stands on a very steep slope – and then continue further uphill to the theatre and the stadium of the sanctuary. At first glance, their presence in such a place may appear strange. But the theatre, which could seat 5,000 people, was used for poetic and musical contests dedicated to Apollo and the stadium was the venue for the Pythian Games. They were held every four years, like the Olympic Games. The winners' greatest award was the fame they acquired together with a wreath of laurel leaves, Apollo's sacred plant.

Perched on the steep slope of the Phaedriades, centuries-old and a witness to changing civilisations, the sanctuary is something more than a ruin on the UNESCO world heritage list. In fact, it has always been a huge stage of tragedies: intertwined like unravelled balls of thread, they have repercussions for modern life.

Oedipus's story, for example, started much earlier, again in Delphi. Long before his birth, his father Laius, king of Thebes, learnt from Pythia that his son would kill him and marry his wife. Just like Oedipus, Laius decided to trick fate. But Jocasta gave birth to a boy and Laius ordered his servants to take the baby to the mountain, pierce his feet with a nail and tie them together so that he could die hanging from a tree. However, Oedipus was saved and adopted by the king of Corinth – to the detriment of his kin and the benefit of psychoanalysis.



How can you hear Apollo's voice and his prophesies? People have always been interested in the way Pythia established a connection with the god. Plutarch, who served as a priest in the temple for some time, said that the priestess delivered her oracles while in an inebriated state – a result of vapours emanating from the floor of the temple, while chewing laurel leaves. The theory of the “stoned” Pythia seemed incredible even to the ancient Greeks and modern scholars abandoned it after an excavation in the 1920s found no fissures in the ground. Several years ago, new research established that Plutarch had told the truth. Delphi lies on the intersection of two major fault lines that separate three tectonic plates, which can bring hydrocarbon gases to the surface during an earthquake. In large concentrations they have a hallucinogenic effect. The role of laurel leaves, however, remains unclear.


Despite the European infrastructure development funds, the mountainous relief of Parnassus allows few routes to Delphi. You need to go either by car or bus. If you come from Athens, you have to drive via the “fatal” Thebes and then via Livadia. Buses leave from Terminal B at the bus station near the Omonia Square. From the Peloponnesus, drive into the mainland at Patra and then take the coastal road eastward. Those travelling from western Greece should use it too. But if you are coming straight from Sofia, which is probably unwise because of the distance, leave the motorway at Lamia and then follow the map.



• You want to see Delphi's real treasures? Then go to the nearby museum of the sanctuary. Its rooms are full of tripods and cauldrons dedicated to Apollo, the famous bronze sculpture The Charioteer of Delphi, several not so famous stone statues and a magnificent sphinx.
• Being a patron of music, Apollo may inspire you to sing. As long as you are not short of breath after the climb, you can sing on the theatre's stage. Tourists often do.
• Those without musical talents can always climb to the last row of seats and try the echo reverberating from the opposite side of the valley.
• Purge your soul. The two fountains of the Castalian Spring where Pythia, the priests and anybody coming to ask for Apollo's advice used to wash are restored. The older one, dating from the 5th Century BC, is by the road to the sanctuary – you could miss it because of the buses parked there. The other one is about 50 yards uphill, but it is more interesting because of the niches for gifts still visible around it.
• Take a break from ancient Greek dramas with a walk along the quaint streets of Arachova. The town is only 8 km, or 5 miles, from Delphi on the road to Athens. Despite throngs of tourists at the carpet and souvenir stands and in the taverns, it's a refreshing contrast.
• If you go in winter and have your skis, you have one more reason to visit Arachova: its slopes are quite good. The other option is the largest ski resort in Greece, the Parnassus Ski Centre, which is situated 28 km, or 17 miles, from Arachova.
• Since you are in Greece, it is likely that you will visit the beach in October. Try Itea. It is only about 20 km, or 12 miles, from Delphi.
• In case you feel sorry that Pythia is long gone and you need to ask her a question, visit the oracle's online alternative at http://
• Be the centre of the world. The original omphalos is in the museum, but if you look around the Temple of Apollo, you will find a replica that you can climb on.
• Feel closer to Apollo by searching for laurel trees in the area. According to one of the legends, he first came here while looking for the plants to pluck some leaves.


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