The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi stretches across terraces in the foothills of Mount Parnassos in Central Greece, between two enormous rocks called the Phaidriades, overlooking the valley of Phocis. 

The Delphi stadium below Apollo Temple.

For many centuries this was the religious and spiritual center of the ancient Greek world. According to mythology, Delphi was the navel or omphalos, the meeting point of two eagles dispatched by Zeus from the ends of the universe to find the center of the world.

The first traces of inhabitation in the region of Delphi go back to Mycenaean times to about 14th to 11th century B.C.  The main deity worshiped at the small settlement was Ge (Earth).  In the following period (11th to 9th century B.C.) the cult of Apollo appeared in Delphi, when the god installed himself after killing the Python, the dragon that guarded the oracle of Ge.  A festival, the Septerla, was held every year in which Apollo’s serpent slaying tale was reenacted. Another regular Delphi festival was the Theophania, an annual spring celebration of the return of Apollo from his winter quarters in Hyperborea. Python (derived from the verb pythein, "to rot") is thought to be the ancient name of the site, but The Homeric Hymn to Delphic Apollo cites the site as Krisa.

The only bi-level stadium in Greece is at Delphi.

During the 8th and 7th century B.C. the sanctuary of Delphi took shape.  The first stone temples were built towards the end of the 7th century B.C., one dedicated to Apollo and the other to his older sister Athena.

Treasury of the Athenians, left.

At the beginning of the 6th century B.C. Delphi became a member of the Amphiktyony, a union of city states with common political aims which protected the sanctuary from conquest.  In 582 B.C. the first Pythian Games were held in the only two-tiered stadium in Greece, below the temple of Apollo; every four years the games honored Apollo’s victory over the Python. The winners at the Pythian Games received a wreaths of laurel (bay leaf) picked in the Temple; the stadium was not only home to athletic games but to musical events.

From the 6th to 4th century B.C. Delphi flourished and was adorned with buildings and votives dedicated to Apollo donated by Greek cities and private individuals.  Public messengers (opropoi) were sent by worshippers to inquire a favorable oracle. The opropoi purified themselves in the Kastalia spring near the Apollo Temple where an animal was sacrificed at the altar of Apollo.  

Modern day Pythia foretells oracles.

The god’s oracles were uttered by the Pythia, the priestess of the shrine, and were interpreted by the priests of Apollo.  The formal procedure of the oracle acquired its final form in the 6th century B.C. and remained unchanged until the reign of Hadrian (2nd century A.D.). The Pythia entered a narrow fissure leading deep beneath the temple.  Many scholars posit that the oracle held a natural source of a gas high in ethylene, known to produce violent trances, that mystified the Pythia.  I had a great laugh when our Insight Vacations tour guide, Anna Zora, crouched in the declivity like an ancient priestess; she was reluctant to pass deeper into the oracle.

The main entrance to the sanctuary was at the southeast corner of the enclosure wall encircling it. This is the point where I followed the Sacred Way leading to the Temple of Apollo at the center of the sanctuary.

The Sacred Way passes Roman stonework.
Three building stages are visible in the remains, with the latest dates from 373 and 330 B.C.  To the left and right of the Sacred Way the Greek cities erected their statues, multi-figured sculptural groups, and small temples buildings (treasuries) in which to keep their dedications or votives. Dramatic and lyric contests were held in the sanctuary theater which dates to the 4th century B.C.

To the southeast of the Temple of Apollo is the temple of the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia. The two most important buildings in it are the goddess’s two temples dating from the 5th and 4th century B.C. and the Tholos, which was built about 380 B.C.

There are numerous beautiful artifacts at the nearby Delphi Museum, including Mycenaean figurines and bronze dedications of the Geometric and Archaic period, including  tripods, human and animal figurines, jewelry, weapons, and an unique Daedalic kouros (second half of the 7th century B.C.).

The modern Delphi Museum is a repository of ancient treasures.

The winged goddess or serpent?.

Some of the most beautiful carvings are on the fragments of metopes from the treasury of the Sikyonians (560 B.C.) and terracotta decorations from the roofs of the Archaic treasuries. Metopes were carved into the stone where the “A” of a roof met. The Sphinx of the Naxians, an early Greek tribe, was also found along with bull fragments of three chryselephantine statues, and ivory plagues.

The Temple of Apollo is the largest edifice at the site and was constructed by the Alkmeonidai about 510 B.C. on the east pediment' with the Gigantomachy on the west pediment. The god Apollo was seated on a tripod with Muses;  Dionysos and an akroterion of the winged Nike (victory) was found in the west pediment.  Akroterion was a Classical Period sculpture style carved in relief or in the round; think of flowing gowns frozen on a marble statue. In the inner hestia (hearth) of the Temple of Apollo, an eternal flame burned, possibly the forerunner of the Olympic flame.

Gold gleams from the past.

Other unique discoveries were megalithic upstanding portal stones called orthostats, with carved musical notations for two hymns of Apollo (about 120 B.C.) — the world’s first sheet music! A white Kylix (marble drinking glass) with a representation of Apollo pouring a libation (about 480 B.C.) made me think of the Downtown Club in downtown Delphi a mere mile away. A metope from the Treasury of the Athenians depicted the labors of Theseus and Herakles (about 490 B.C.).

The sanctuary of Athena Pronaia (5th century B.C.) was not without its own wonders. Incantations were muttered no doubt over the bronze statuette incense-burners cast in the form of a woman wearing a peplos (body-length garment), a flute-player, and a group of two athletes. Terracotta decoration of buildings were also found in the Athenia Pronaia and Hall of the Knidians.

Late Classical and Hellenistic dedications from the 4th to 2nd centuries B.C. depicted eminent members of the family of Thessalian Hieromnemon Daochos (336-332 B.C.).  I adored the column with the lithe dancing girls (about 330 B.C.) and a figure of a sleeping Eros.

The entrance to the Temple of Apollo.

Stoa of the Athenians below Apollo.

From the 2nd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. Delphi felt the Roman influence, and that empire was influenced by the grandeur of the site.  A round sacrificial altar from the sanctuary Athena Pronaia saw a continuation of the Apollo cult by the Romans.  My guide, Anna Zora, stated that she has hosted tours with underground elements of a modern Athena cult practicing their rituals at the site. A Roman frieze on a stele of Aemilius Paulus shows scenes of the battle between the Macedonians and the Romans at Pydna (168 B.C.). Another frieze from the proscenium of the impressive Delphi theater, depicts the labors of Herakles (Hercules -1st century A.D.).  Other Roman finds include a cult statue of Antinoos (130-138 A.D.), and a portrait thought to be of the Roman general Flamininus (early 2nd century B.C.).

The Delphi Museum’s pride and joy is the Charioteer, a bronze statue from the dedication of Polyzalos, the tyrant of Gela of Sicily (478 or 474 B.C.).  Parts of the horses and chariot and the base of the group is bestowed with important votive inscriptions.

The magnificent Delphi Theater is in use today for events.

The Temple of Apollo fell into ruins near the end of the Roman Empire, but the magnificent remnants and mountain visits remain for all to discover on an educational tour with Insight Vacations  All aspects of a Glories of Greece tour are incorporated in your journey into the past. 

Aquaducts carry water to Athens.

There are numerous hiking trails throughout the mountains around Delphi, the same range where Achilles of The Trojan War fame grew up. There is also an alpine hut-to-hut system for overnight bivouacs, and I discern that this would be oustanding mountain biking terrain.

Our tour group stayed at the Amalia Hotel in Delphi, which had superb views of the largest olive grove in Greece with over one million trees stretching to the coastline of the sea not far away.  Ancient and modern aqueducts nearby still bring refreshing water to the citizens of Athens.

Delphi, for me was beyond just a tour, it was more of a signature inspiration. I was, afterall, in the ancient omphalos of the universe. Read Jetsetters Magazine for more adventure features about The Glories of Greece Tour with Insight Vacations.

Hiking and biking trails abound in the Mountains of Parnassos.

— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.