Women of Delphi

The most powerful woman in the known world was Pythia, the Oracle at the Temple of Apollo. This was the world centred in Delphi, regarded as the navel of Gaia (Mother Earth). I tried to imagine what it would be like to be the Oracle, clad in diaphanous white robes, prophesying the future.

Temple of Apollo, Delphi

It was not all good news being the Oracle. I suppose breathing in sweet-smelling ethylene to get high could go either way, but there were some definite down sides – fasting before the specified prophecy dates on the seventh day after the new moon, not to mention spending hours sitting on a three-legged stool. More challenging would have been giving up her family and remaining ‘chaste’ for the rest of her life, and the possibility of being buried alive if her prediction did not suit the hearer –  that was Nero, who had just killed his mother, and did not like the Oracle’s statement that his presence angered the god, although he seemed OK about the prediction that seemed to indicate a long life, “The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall”.

No one seems to know much about how the women who became Pythia (named after the serpent Python who was killed by Apollo, therefore πύθειν púthein =”to rot”), but some reports are that she was often “older” (over 50 – probably that was unusual then?). However, her prophecies were written down and many have survived, particularly for important people of the time. She was right about Nero – he died at the hand of a 73 year old, not that it was much use to her.

There is evidence about some of the other women of the time – the slaves. A wall at Delphi is carved with “manumissions”, or legal documents by slaves who had bought their freedom through their owners “selling” them to Apollo. More than half of the slaves were women, and although two thousand year old legalese is still legalese, there are interesting snippets about their lives in some of the texts:

Euandros of Kyra, with the consent of his wife Damylla and his son Xenias and his daughter Sokrateia, sold to Pythian Apollo a homebred female slave, a skilled flute-player whose name is Sosikrateia, for the price of ten minas of silver, to obtain her freedom.

Timon of Amphissa, the son of Phillidas, sold to Pythian Apollo a little girl named Eukleia, of Delphian origin, whom her mother entrusted to him, for the price of three minas of silver. Accordingly Eukleia has entrusted the sale to the god, on condition that she shall be free and unseizable, and shall do whatever she wishes.

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Wall of manumissions, Delphi

The famous injunctions of Delphi Know thyself!” and “Nothing in excess!” are still good after two thousand years, and freedom from slavery is now an accepted human right. Who knows, perhaps in the future it will be too commonplace to need highlighting the age of important older women. But for now the Oracle is silent.