On the Delphic Oracle
“In classic antiquity, an oracle was a person or agency considered to be a source of wise counsel or prophetic predictions or precognition of the future, inspired by the gods. As such it is a form of divination.” Quoted from Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia.
One of the characteristics that most ancient oracles shared was that each was anchored to a specific place. Usually there was a myth that said how the place was discovered, and what made each of them god for oracular activities.
Delphi was situated in a breathtaking landscape. It was located in a rugged, mountainous area off the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth, about 90 miles northwest of Athens.
She represented itself as the centre of the world, and displayed the omphalos, or the navel-stone, that Zeus had once placed there to honour this fact. In ancient time when transportation was not easy, Delphi was a remote place that was exotic, which lend gravity to the act of making an enquiry.
Oracle could be considerable source of income. Each visitor to Delphi had to provide a sheep for sacrifice before consulting the God, from which the priests received a choice of cut meat.
Since the process of consultation at many oracles might consume days or even weeks, local hotels and taverns had a steady trade in housing and feeding visitors. In other words, visiting a major oracle had plenty of other stuff to see and do.
The Pythian Games, held every four years at Delphi, rivaled the Olympics, attracted competitors and spectators from around the world.
Purpose of Visit
People came to an oracle hoped to experience a close encounter with the divine. They wanted answers to their questions.
Criteria on becoming a Pythia
Pythia is a woman who was responsible for conveying Apollo’s words to people at the Delphic Oracle.
Plutarch was a priest served at the sanctuary. One of his essays there was a character named Theon, who commented on the sort of woman that all Pythias should be:
(1) She grew up in the home of poor farms.
(2) She was truly virginal with respect to her soul.
Why should the god choose such girl to convey his words of advice?
Firstly being grown up poor carried without her skills or ability or expertise when she went into the oracular shrine. Her inexperience of the world would free her from shaping her own ideas and thereby ruin her ability to be good transmitter of Apollo’s words.
Secondly, in traditional society a wife was considered with best quality if she was submissive to her husband. The Pythia was considered by some to be bride of Apollo, celibacy that equated to exceptional purity was a prerequisite for such role. This was not because engaging in sex was understood as an act of infidelity, but because sex – like defecation, urination and most other natural processes – was understood to pollute the body, and human bodies had to be pure when they interacted with the divine. Interestingly, choosing a young virgin would work well, but choosing someone who was postmenopausal and therefore unattractive (in the eyes of ancient Greeks) would work well too.
The Nature of the Oracle
The words used to describe the process, in short, said Apollo ‘possess’ Pythia spiritually in order to delivery the prophecy. There was archaeological evidence that the Pythia would inhale hallucinatory gas (ethylene) to produce an altered state of consciousness during which people could have out-of-body experiences, but remained lucid enough to answer questions.
Why should the god cause her to babble rather than speak clearly?
The enquirers who heard the oracles often came from a distant city, and carried Apollo’s words back home. There, the meaning of the words might be debated. Particularly in Athens, which had a long tradition of civic discourse, the correct interpretation of an oracle might be agreed upon only after lengthy discussion. For debate to take place, oracles had to be open to more than one interpretations, they had to be ambiguous.
Reflections for a Tarot Reader
Like giving an oracle by the Pythia, we interpret the meanings of the cards. In no way can the interpretation be truly objective, we say what we think is right.
Similar to the Delphic oracle, if one considers Tarot reading as an oracular process, such does not divest human individuals of all personal responsibility, nor their critical judgement. Through one’s own internal debate the querent can significantly change what the cards meant to him and therefore their effect on his world.
Johnston, S.I. Ancient GreekDivination. Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester, 2008.
Katz, M. Hekademia Tarot Course notes class 4 on the Oracular Tradition. Tarot Professionals Ltd, 2011.