One of the most important people in ancient Greece was not a monarch or military leader, but a priestess and seer known as the Delphic Oracle. She resided at Delphi in central Greece, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. The ancient Greeks believed the Delphic Oracle spoke for the gods, giving advice to men concerning future events.
Priests from the island of Crete built the first settlement at Delphi around 1500 B.C. A few centuries later, Delphi was captured by the Greeks, who made it a sacred place of their own. According to legend, the sun god Apollo slew a dragon named Python in a cave below Delphi. The forever rotting body of this dragon sent vapors through a crack in the earth. It was believed that these vapors, if inhaled, bestowed the power of prediction.
One woman, called the Pythia, was elected by the priests at Delphi to inhale the vapors. This woman was at first a young maiden. In later times, she was an old woman. Once a month she would sit in a chair poised over the smoky opening in the earth. She would inhale the vapors and then offer advice to people who came to question her.
The accuracy of the Delphic Oracle’s predictions made her famous through much of the ancient world. Rulers came to the Delphic Oracle for advice and a glimpse of the future. Wars were begun, cities built, laws changed, and people sacrificed on her advice. Those who came to Delphi usually brought gifts, and soon Delphi was so wealthy that temples and treasuries had to be built to hold these offerings.
The importance of the Delphic Oracle began to decline after the fourth century B.C. The treasures of Delphi were later plundered by the Romans. But to the ancient Greeks, Delphi was the center of the world. A sacred stone there was regarded as the “navel” of the earth.