This work of fiction draws from historical elements relating to the Oracle of Apollon in Delphi, Greece and the challenges that might have faced a wealthy, educated young Athenian woman finding her way in the world after the death of her father. The story takes place in 340 BCE, a time when the religious, philosophic, and political landscape of Ancient Greece was changing dramatically.
First a word about oracles: In the ancient world, there were many oracles. Although the oracle in Delphi, dating to around 1400 BCE, was the most famous and most popular of the ancient oracles, the oracles of Siwa, located in modern Libya, and Dodona, located in Epirus in Northern Greece, were considered to be much older.
According to myth, the first oracle at Delphi was founded by the Earth Goddess Gaia who, according to Hesiod, was the foundation of the ever-lasting gods of Mt. Olympos. Gaia was mother of Uranus, the starry sky, Pontus, the fruitless depths of the sea, Oceanus, the world ocean, and all the Titans including Kronos, Zeus’ father.
Gaia set a drakon, a serpent, to guard her oracle and Apollon, who was a son of Zeus, slew the drakon and claimed the oracle for himself. Many scholars have written about a transitional period wherein people stopped worshipping mother goddesses and turned toward a male-dominated belief system. Oracles of Delphi imagines that conflict played out among the priestesses who believe the sacred site should still belong to Gaia and the powerful priests who control the prominent Oracle of Apollon and the Sacred Precinct that arose around it.
Today we think of an oracle as a person who dispenses wisdom. In ancient times, an oracle was often associated with a specific place or god rather than a particular person. At the site of the oracle, a priest or priestess would embody the prophetic wisdom of the god. At the oracle of Apollon in Delphi, the wisdom of the god Apollon was conveyed through a woman known as the Pythia. Over the years there were many Pythias and, in fact, for a time the oracle of Apollon was so popular that there were as many as three Pythias working in shifts.
With the rise of Christianity, and, some scientists speculate, with the reduced flow or elimination of the narcotic, trance-inducing gas issuing from a fault in the bedrock, the oracle of Delphi fell out of favor. The historian Plutarch (c. 46-120 AD), who served as the senior of the two priests of Apollon in Delphi, described the smell of the sacred pneuma as sweet and speculated that the weakening influence of the oracle in his time was caused by the pneuma’s sporadic and weak emissions. (For more on the geology of Delphi, visit http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/the-oracle-of-delphi%E2%80%94was-she-really-stoned/ or read The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets by William J. Broad.) In 393 AD, when Roman emperor Julian the Apostate tried to revive elements of classical Greek culture, he consulted Delphi’s famed oracle and in response, the last Pythia issued this statement.
Tell the King:
The fair wrought house has fallen.
No shelter has Apollon,
nor sacred laurel leaves;
The fountains are now silent;
the voice is stilled.
It is finished.
Although the Pythia of Gaia is a main character in the book, the Pythia of Apollon is a minor actor. Other than the conduit of the oracular prophecy, scholars are unsure about the role the Pythia of Apollon played in the day-to-day life of the temple and the Sacred Precinct in Delphi. Thanks to Plutarch and the historian Pausanias, they know a bit more about the role of the priests and, therefore, to highlight the tension between the female/male religious traditions, I have focused on the priests of Apollon rather than the Pythia.
Second, a word about society, politics and culture: In 340 BCE, the philosophical, religious and political landscape of Greece was in the process of seismic change. The foundations of modern scientific thought were being laid, new philosophical ideas were gaining prominence and the power of the old gods of Mt. Olympos was fading. Additionally, wars for control of the Sacred Precinct of Delphi had been repeatedly waged and many of the treasuries had been stripped bare of their offerings. Gold and silver had been melted down and turned into coinage to pay for mercenaries. Beautiful trinkets were passed around to soldier’s wives and lovers and many in Greece were outraged by the sacrilege. It was at this point that Philip II of Makedonía, who had set his sights on conquering Athens and controlling its powerful navy, stepped into the role of protector of Delphi, which was considered the navel, or omphalos, and center of the earth and was the most important religious site outside of Olympia. With Philip gaining power, Athens’ days as an independent democracy were numbered, and her leading politicians spent much of their time arguing amongst themselves about how to confront Philip’s armies.
Women in Ancient Greece, especially Athens, where Althaia is from, had very few rights. Although we are taught about the rise of democracy in Athens, democracy was only for citizens and citizenship was only for men. Women were often married at 13 or 14 years old and their husbands were always chosen by their closest male relative. In fact, in order to keep wealth in the oikos, or family unit, their husbands were often close male relatives. If a girl was the only surviving child of an Athenian citizen, she could inherit both money and property, but it was controlled by her kyrios, her legal guardian who was, if she was married, also her husband. In the case of divorce, that inheritance reverted back to her and went back with her to her oikos where it was under the legal control of her nearest male relative. In other words, the money or property was “hers” but she could not legally control it.
Slaves played a prominent part in the life of the Ancient Greek family, especially in Athens and slaves and free metics (non citizens) made up the bulk of the population in the city itself. Most citizens had at least one slave and in many cases, slaves were treated much like members of the family while in other cases, they were sent to toil away and die horrible deaths in the silver mines. It was not unheard of for slaves to run businesses on their own or on behalf of their masters. Often, beloved slaves were manumitted, or granted their freedom, or were allowed to save money in order to buy their freedom. Delphi was a popular place for dedicating newly manumitted slaves to Apollon. Today, visitors can still see the names of freed slaves inscribed in stone.
A note about setting: Anyone who has been to Delphi and sought out the Korycian Cave will know I fictionalized the setting around the cave itself. The amount of ground before the cave’s entrance and just below it are not large enough for the sort of funeral event described in the book and the plateau below is too far away for any mourners to have seen or heard what was going on above them. The setting for the funeral was truly a flight of fancy. For photos of Delphi and the cave itself, visit kristinamakansi.com.
Finally, a word about spelling and other things Greek: Instead of using the more familiar Latin spellings, most Greek words are spelled the way they would have been spelled or pronounced in Ancient Greece. For instance, the god Apollo is Apollon. The philosopher Socrates is Sokrates and Plato is Platon and the word stadium is stadion. I say, when in Greece.…