Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Delphi

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DELPHI, Δελφοί, a town of ancient Greece in the territory of Phocis, famous as the seat of the most important temple and oracle of Apollo. It was situated about six miles inland from the shores of the Corinthian Gulf, in a rugged and romantic glen, closed on the N. by the steep wall-like under-cliffs of Mount Parnassus known as the Phædriades, or Shining Rocks, on the E. and W. by two minor ridges or spurs, and on the S. by the irregular heights of Mount Cirphis. Between the two mountains the Pleistus flowed from east to west, and opposite the town received the brooklet of the Castalian fountain, which rose in a deep gorge in the centre of the Parnassian cliff. The site of the ancient town is now occupied by the village of Castri, and the natural features of the scene have been somewhat altered by the earthquake of 1870; but the main points of interest can still be distinguished.

The principal building of Delphi was the temple of Apollo, which stood immediately under the shelter of the northern cliff. It appears to have been of the Doric order outside, and of the Ionic within. The front was built of Parian marble, and the sculptural decorations were extremely rich. One pediment was adorned with representations of Latona, Diana, Apollo, and the Setting Sun, and the other with Dionysus and the Thyiades; the eastern architrave was hung with gilded shields presented by the Athenians from the spoils of Marathon, and the western with similar trophies taken by the Ætolians from the Gauls; while among the subjects of the metopes are mentioned Hercules slaying the Lernean Hydra, Bellerophon and the Chimæra, Zeus and Mimas, Pallas and Enceladus, and Dionysus and a Giant. In the pronaos were inscribed the maxims of the Seven Sages of Greece; in the cella, was the sacred hearth with a perpetual fire and the ὀμφαλός, or navel-stone, which was supposed to mark the centre of the world; and in the adytum was the sacred tripod and the subterranean chamber from which the vapour of prophecy ascended. Of less important buildings may be mentioned the Lesche, or public hall, the walls of which were adorned with the works of Polygnotus and other master-pieces of ancient art; the theatre, where the musical contests connected with the Pythian games were held; the Stadium, of which there are still considerable remains; and, in the suburb of the same name, the Pylæa, or assembly hall of the Amphictyonic Council. The town was entered from the east by a road from Bœotia known as the Schiste, or Cloven Way, and from the west by the great Crissean road, which was used by the pilgrims who came from the Corinthian Gulf, and by another which stretched north-west to Amphissa. These roads were regarded almost as the property of the temple, and shared in its sacredness; and each Amphictyonic state was bound to keep them in repair within its own boundaries. About seven miles to the north of the town, on the side of Mount Parnassus, was the famous Corycian cave, a large grotto in the limestone rock, which afforded the people of Delphi a refuge during the Persian invasion. It is now called in the district the Sarant' Aulai, or Forty Courts, and is said to be capable of holding 3000 people.

Of the origin of the Delphian oracle nothing is known. One legend told how the prophetic virtues of the site were discovered by a shepherd whose goats began to frisk about under the influence of the subterranean vapour; and another related how Apollo, after he had slain the great serpent Pytho on the spot, boarded a Cretan ship in the neighbouring gulf, and consecrated the crew to his service. It seems almost certain that the place was the seat of a religious establishment previous to its connection with the worship of Apollo; but its whole historic importance—which can hardly be over-estimated—is entirely due to this connection. The first temple of stone was reputed to have been built by the semi-mythical personages Trophonius and Agamedes. It was burned down in 548 B.C., but was soon after replaced by the building which has already been described. The contract for the work was taken by the Athenian family of the Alcmæonids, who were at that time in exile from the tyranny of Hippias. They employed the architect Spintharus, and acquired great credit for the disinterested liberality with which they accomplished their task. The principal facts in the history of Delphi have already been narrated in the article Amphictyony (vol. i. p. 772), where the reader will also find an account of the relation in which the temple stood to the states of Greece. It only remains to tell how the sanctuary and its treasures, which had been miraculously saved from the Persians and the Gauls, were put under contribution by Sulla for the payment of his soldiers; how Nero removed no fewer than 500 brazen images from the sacred precincts; and how Constantine the Great enriched his new city by the sacred tripods, the statues of the Heliconian Muses, the Apollo, and the celebrated Pan dedicated by the Greek cities after the conclusion of the war with the Medes. Julian afterwards sent Oribasius to restore the temple; but the oracle responded to the emperor's enthusiasm with nothing but a wail over the glory that had departed.