A Reconstruction of the Oracle’s Chambers in Apollo’s Temple at Delphi

Bridget O’Hara

After Apollo’s visit to Olympus, where he was greatly admired for his beauty, the god of music travelled the Earth searching for a suitable home. His journey comes to an end at the port of Delphi, where he proclaims that he will build a temple that will serve as an oracle for men and a proxy for his revelations to them (Middleton, 285). Or, if you were to ask ancient historian Diodorus of Sicily, a goat shepherd happened upon a chasm while herding his goats and leaned his head over the divide whereupon he breathed in the vapors and went into a euphoric state and began predicting the future. Word spread amongst Delphi and soon the entire town was at the chasm predicting futures. Until citizens started falling in, that is. The danger of the abyss led the people to the genius idea of appointing a woman to the task of receiving visions from the vapor. She was sat upon a tripod over the chasm to protect her from falling in (Oppé, 218-219). Regardless of her true origins, divine or otherwise, the result of the chasm was the same: on the seventh of every month, countless people gathered to have their fortunes divined by the Oracle of Delphi from 1400B.C. – 381 A.D. (Roach). From dusk ‘til dawn, the people of Greece waited in line for the chance to hear their future. The first in line were the people of Delphi; second preference was given to a city chosen by Delphi; and the rest drew the remaining lots. Those who did not make it into the adytum that day had to come back next month and try their luck again (Parke).
While there are a number of plausible reconstructions of the Temple of Apollo, there are few, if any, of the adytum specifically. This is the area where the priestess would preform her ritual and receive her visions from Apollo over the vaporous chasm. I was inspired by the Oracle of Delphi and fascinated with the abyss that brought her divinations. My inspiration is what drew me to attempt a reconstruction of the Oracle Chambers in the Temple of Apollo. My chosen method of reconstruction is a blueprint drawing based on historical accounts and research of the temple. As an artist channeling my inner architect, I am interested in creating a historically accurate setting of the Oracle receiving revelations from Apollo. I hope to provide a context of the Oracle that helps art historians envision life in the temple during the Oracle’s golden age.
Luckily, geologists John Hale and Jelle Z. De Boer give an amazing description of the entire Temple of Apollo in their article from the 2002 November/December edition of Archeology Odyssey, “The Oracle of Delphi – Was She Really Stoned?” They describe the Sacred Way into the temple where fortune-seekers would wait all day to get into the lower chamber. If they finally made it downstairs, visitors were faced with great, golden statue of Apollo and the omphalos – or “navel” – stone. Connected to this chamber was the adytum (Greek for “not to be entered”). The adytum contained the priestess on her tripod above the fissure. Visitors would wait in the chamber outside the adytum and ask their question to a priest. The priest would relay the question to the Oracle and translate her answer back to the visitor.
Together, De Boer and Hale formed a team including chemist Jeff Chanton and toxicologist Henry Spiller to investigate Delphi. What they discovered overturned the generally accepted belief that the ancient Greeks had simply misconstrued the facts and mistaken the chasm for a nearby gorge and that the vapor emission were a myth. A.P. Oppé proposed this idea after his trip to the 1927 French excavation site of Delphi, where they found no evidence of a chasm. Amandry of the École Française d’Athènes reinforced Oppé’s belief in a 1950 publication. Amandry stated that hallucinogenic gasses could never have been emitted at Delphi because only volcanic activity could produce such fumes. What Amandry did not realize was that Delphi was actually a hot spot for tectonic activity, as Hale and De Boer’s team discovered on their expedition.
In 1996, De Boer and Hale’s team began surveying the area of the temple and discovered two intersecting faults. The first, which they named the Delphi Fault, runs east to west. The second intersecting fault, named the Kerna Fault, runs southeast to northwest. The Kerna Fault runs along the natural springs in the temple complex, the largest being the Kerna Spring for which the fault was named. De Boer conducted a study of the remaining active springs near Delphi and discovered evidence of ethylene gasses, known for causing disembodied euphoria. According to De Boer, the Delphi and Kerna faults meet underneath the Temple of Apollo. The vaporous fissure was likely caused by the crossing of these faults and has since been destroyed by the inevitable tectonic activity.
In any case, their research is vital to any discussion of the Oracle of Delphi. They set out to prove the scholarly community wrong with modern science and made amazing discoveries that prove the chasm at Delphi existed and emitted ethylene gasses. Their investigation and detailed research was essential to putting the pieces together to form my reconstruction of the Oracle’s chambers.

Works cited

De Boer, Jelle, and John Hale. “The Oracle of Delphi—Was She Really Stoned?” Archaeology Odyssey, 2002.

Middleton, J. Henry. “The Temple of Apollo at Delphi.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 9 (1888): 282-322.

Oppé, A.P. “The Chasm at Delphi.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 24 (1904): 214-40.

Parke, H.W. “The Days for Consulting the Delphic Oracle.” The Classical Quarterly 37, no. 1/2 (1943): 19-22.

Roach, John. “Delphic Oracle’s Lips May Have Been Loosened by Gas Vapors.” National Geographic News, 2001. Accessed April 19, 2015. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/08/0814_delphioracle.html.