Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Pythia

More seer research, but today it is on The Pythia.

The ancient oracle whose fame has best survived is of course that of Apollo at Delphi. The classical Greeks believed that before Apollo took possession of the shrine, Gaea and her daughter Themis had spoken prophecies at Pytho, a village nearby. An earlier myth held that Apollo had slain a monstrous python which was threatening his mother, and so acquired the holy place, after which he established the oracle. Note that we have just seen the conjunction of water, prophetic females, and a serpent of ambiguous intentions in the northern mythology. It is possible that writers in newly Christianized Scandinavia were influenced by exposure to European culture, but we may also be seeing here the survival of an ancient archetypal relationship. If Apollo's cult did not displace that of an oracular goddess at Delphi itself, the myths may reflect a memory of it having done so elsewhere.

Another story held that the the inspirational qualities of Delphi had been discovered by chance by a shepherd, who was overcome by its influence and began to prophesy. Later, Apollo recruited priestesses for the job. Historically, however, the major settlement of Mycenean times was located a little to the southeast, where a temple to Athena Pronaia had been built near the Castalian spring. Apollo moved into the neighborhood, so to speak, without displacing her.
Many stories are told of the Delphic tradition, some of them apparently folklore. There is, for instance, no geological or archaeological evidence for inebriating "fumes" arising from the earth below. What we have in the Greek texts, instead, are references to pneuma, a word which can mean breath or soul, or an atmos entheos, an atmosphere which causes "enthusiasm", emanations from the earth which affect the psyche rather than the senses.
The ancients themselves debated the source of the inspiration, and suspected that it had something to do with water. This does, in fact, fit with certain theories popular in metaphysical circles regarding the movement of earth energies along underground watercourses. The fluctuations of the earth's magnetic field are affected by the terrain. The area around Delphi, though not volcanic, is rocky enough to cause such perturbations, and many of the other oracles were located in rugged country and associated with springs and caves. The Chinese geomancers evaluate the power of specific sites according to what they call the "dragon force", which John Michell equates with this magnetic current and identifies with ley lines. In England, at least, dragon legends are often associated with springs.

There is the suggestion that the invisible pneuma which inspired the Pythia at Delphi might indeed be an upwelling of the magnetic current of the earth to which the seeress was sensitive. If the dragon, or serpent, image for such a current was as universal as Michell believes, it could account for the legend of the Python at the Delphic site, and the retention of the title of "pythoness" or Pythia for its priestess. It suggests that sensitivity to the "serpent power" of the earth, whether in a particularly powerful location or in general, may play a role in prophecy.
Be that as it may, the vehicle through which the divine information was transmitted was a priestess, called the Pythia. In earlier years she seems to have been a simple country girl. Later, however, the priestesses were recruited from wealthier families and were better educated. The Greek historian Plutarch dedicated a book on Isis and Osiris to one of them, a woman called Clea, and wrote a second work, The Brave Deeds of Women, in her honor.

Prophetic methods. In the shrines of Apollo we also have an analogue of the seidhjallR of Scandinavia. The Pythia at Delphi sat upon a "tripod", a three legged stool about the height of a bar stool. In Didyma, the priestess sat on something called an axon, which was apparently a vertical cylinder, next to a small sacred spring.

Another element found in both the north and south is song. In the third century, Apollo, speaking through his priestess, informed a questioner that the immortal gods did not need possessions or expensive offerings. What he himself preferred was song, especially when sung just before the delivery of the oracles. Choirs of boys made pilgrimage to Delphi every year to sing hymns of praise to the god. The timing of the singing, just before the oracle was given, suggests that it might have had a function in inspiring the priestess.

We have seen how the volvas of the north delivered their prophecies. An analysis of the practices at Delphi may help us to identify the essential features of the process. One major difference of course is in the setting, in a site originally chosen for its natural impressiveness rather than inside a farmer's hall. It should be noted, however, that in more temperate parts of Scandinavia, seidh magic was often done outside. The Pythia also seems to have answered only one question at a time. On the other hand, in both cases some kind of preparation was required-- for the volva, eating specific kinds of food, and for the Pythia, fasting.

In Scandinavia, the need of the people seems to have been enough to draw forth a response. In Delphi, the willingness of the god to provide inspiration was ascertained by pouring cold water over the sacrificial goat. If the unfortunate animal shivered, oracles would be given. In one instance, when the goat did not shudder and the priests, to please the questioner, forced the Pythia to try to prophesy anyway, she had a kind of hysterical fit, ran about raving and died soon afterward. I would interpret this as a rather extreme example of the damage that can be done to a sensitive individual whose psyche is already wide-open when trance is mishandled.
The normal procedure in Delphi seems to have been for the Pythia to purify and prepare herself by bathing and drinking water from the spring of Kassotis which was brought by a channel to the shrine. At Didyma, another Apolline oracle, questioners made offerings outside the shrine. The Seeress fasted for three days beforehand, went into a deep trance and awaited them inside.
The Delphic priestess burned bay leaves and barley meal on an altar and then ascended her tripod in the inner cave. She wore a wreath of laurel leaves and held a sprig of laurel in her hand. Some sources say that she chewed the leaves as well. Her seat was called a holmos, a hollowed stone set in the ring of the tripod. By the time her questioner arrived, she had been exposed to the influences of the place long enough to pass into a trance state.

According to Plutarch's account as summarized by Fontenrose,
Apollo moves her to speak, but she speaks with her own voice, and each Pythia according to her native endowments. The god does not speak with the Pythia's vocal chords and lips: Apollo puts the visions in her mind and a light in her soul that causes her to see the future; and she reveals the visions in her own words. As the sun makes use of the moon in reflecting light, so Apollo makes use of the Pythia in speaking oracles.

It should be noted, however that despite Plutarch, in some of the responses the seeress seems to be relaying the words of, if not actually possessed by, the god. Her mantic performance was mania in its Greek meaning-- enthusiasm, inspiration, ecstasy. After such a session, we are told, the Pythia would feel calm and peaceful, as a warrior feels after battle or a corybant after the dance, a normal response to the catharsis of trance.

Oracular responses. At some periods the seeress at Delphi provided her answers in verse, while at others (or from other seeresses) the answers were in prose. The responses seem to have been articulate, although sometimes ambiguous. Sometimes poets attached to the temple would then put them into poetic form. The Pythia was attended by priests, who managed the session and wrote down the answers.

The format of oracles follows a number of patterns. According to Fontenrose's analysis, the most common is a command "to perform a certain act in order to have success or to avoid misfortune..." or the converse, not to do a certain action. Other forms include clear instructions, especially those concerning the kinds of offerings or worship desired by various gods, or confirmation of a proposed course of action, such as founding a new colony. Another class are "conditioned commands" of the sort familiar from Macbeth; if an impossible or unlikely condition is met, then the questioner should act, or sometimes, will meet his doom. A variation is an instruction to do something when a strange or ambiguously stated event occurs. There are also a large variety of statements about past or future events.


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