The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 22: The Sacred Way at Delphi

Follow along with Thor and me as we retrace the millenia-old path of pilgrims to the ancient Temple of Apollo and Oracle of Delphi.

NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.

The historic site of Delphi occupies such a narrow shelf of rocky land in the cliffside beneath the Phaedriades outcrops that the many monuments and temples erected here over hundreds of years from Mycenaean through Hellenistic periods were pretty much crammed in cheek by jowl. The remaining footings and columns look at first like a confusing jumble of marble pieces, but the site maps and informational signs usher the modern visitor along the traditional path of a pilgrim arriving to make sacrifices and ask a question of the famous oracle. First, let’s look at a relatively modern interpretation of the sanctuary at its Classic height around 300 BC, with this 1894 painting by Albert Tournaire (public domain/U.S.):

A typical pilgrim would have entered the sanctuary after purchasing a sacrificial animal or other items at the agora, or marketplace, at lower right, outside the enclosure. Then the visitor would follow a switchback pathway of paving stones, winding upward between the jostling displays of statuary and treasury buildings from various city-states (often celebrating and storing spoils from conquests). The labyrinthine progress may have reflected a spiritual journey, according to Richard G. Geldard, PhD, in The Traveler’s Key to Ancient Greece:

“As in most approaches to temples in Greece, the Sacred Way delivered the pilgrim to the gate of sacred experience as though through a labyrinth, in this case a labyrinth that began down in the depths of the valley and wound upward through the Gate of Athena at Marmaria, through the underworld of the Kastalian Spring, and then into a sculpted and golden world of manifest divinity…. The labyrinth passed by the awesome precinct of the Mother Goddess and directed the gaze to the cliffs rising almost directly overhead, pressing down and yet opening out to the sky. The final approach, through close walls and broad steps, shielded the temple from view until the pilgrim turned to face the massive statue of Apollo gazing out over the valley. Here was the goal of the journey, the figure of the god before his temple, within which could be gleaned some measure of understanding, should the heart be open to the experience.”

Arriving in Delphi, the visitor should first honor the original power in this place, Gaea or the Earth Mother, in the Neolithic site just below the main Delphi sanctuary. Situated on that rocky shelf  just below the road that follows the ancient route, the later Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia still shelters footings of temples to Athena (a Classic manifestation of the goddess), as well as the breathtaking remnants of the Tholos. Its unusual circular design may have been derived from older sacrificial pits of earth-goddess worship. Again from Geldard: “From this circle, so carefully crafted, the circle of the world takes shape, and from that circle the goddess who resides here is made manifest.”

After paying our respects to the Goddess in her various incarnations, we proceeded to the Kastalian Spring flowing from the porous limestone of the cliffs. Ancient pilgrims, as well as the priestesses and priests attending the shrines and oracle, purified themselves here before entering the sanctuary.

There are convenient spouts from the spring for the modern visitor, and Thor took the opportunity to purify himself while cooling off in the broiling September heat baking off the cliffs.

We then entered the site, first passing the agora with its distinctive wall and a few restored columns.

Carved marble remnants still display beautiful artistry, on the left part of a Corinthian column:

We started along the Way.

Beautiful mosaics remained from an unidentified structure.

Stone tiles funneled spring water from higher on the hillside to a small aesculapium, or healing center.

Past the footings of several treasuries and monuments, we climbed and turned until we came to the replica of the Omphalos stone, the “navel of the world” next to the restored Treasury of the Athenians. This part of the site is termed the “precinct of the goddess,” in her various incarnations and ages.

And here is an artist’s rendering of the Treasury in its heyday, with shields and other spoils of war displayed:

Although at the end of the Mycenaean era the new god of order, Apollo, claimed the site and the oracle, the “goddess precinct” still reminds us that the Earth Mother was here first. Next to the Treasure of the Athenians, the huge Rock of the Sibyl is a solid presence planted in the earth. The original oracle was probably situated here beside the boulder that might have marked the spot where Apollo slew the ancient Pythia, or earth serpent. An underground spring historically ran under this area, carrying volatile gases leached from the limestone. Modern geologists and chemists suggest that the intoxicating vapors could have created the enthusiasmos, or ecstatic trance, that allowed the priestesses to channel the goddess/god and utter prophecies. I thought it was interesting that the boulder is covered with ivy, one of the sacred plants of Dionysos, who ruled Delphi during the winter when Apollo was absent. (We’ll delve into the Dionysian mysteries in a later episode.)

Just past the Sibyl Rock is the Halos, or circular dancing floor. This is where ceremonies were held every eight years to reenact Apollo’s youthful slaying of the Pythia, a crime for which he was punished by temporary banishment. The ceremonies served to purify the sanctuary.

The Naxian Sphinx now resides in the Delphi Museum:

Where the Sphinx used to guard the Goddess Precinct, we made the acquaintance of the new Temple Cat:

Next, we passed the Polygonal Wall, an amazingly fitted buttress of large shaped stones that supported a terrace built as a base for the last three Temples of Apollo. (There were supposedly six in total, as the early wooden ones burned, and later ones were destroyed by attackers or earthquakes in this land of Poseidon the Earth-Shaker.) In front of the wall are columns restored from the Stoa of the Athenians.

Turning left and up steps past the Polygonal Wall, we admired the Serpent Column and monumental bases for now-absent statues, including the giant statue of Apollo that would have dominated the approach to the temple.

Finally we came to the ramp that would have beckoned the pilgrims to enter the Temple of Apollo between the Doric columns.

This final temple, finished around 350 BC after the previous similar temple was destroyed by an earthquake, measured 78 by 195 feet. Apparently the architects of the fourth temple on this site followed sacred inspiration in the design and were rewarded by Apollo with a peaceful, early death. I guess that says something about the rigors of old age and warfare in that tumultuous time. Inside the later temple walls, inscriptions in gold reminded pilgrims of sayings from the Seven Wise Ones, such as “Know Thyself” and “Nothing in Excess.” These sayings honored the balance and harmony that Apollo fostered among humans.

An overview shows the extent of the temple footings:

In an inner adyton, or enclosed place, the priestess of the newer Delphic Oracle sat on a tripod over one of the clefts in the underlying rock to inhale the mystical vapors and utter the prophecies in response to the pilgrims’ questions. Before receiving their answers, the seekers had offered their gifts and sacrificial animals to the god Apollo.

Turning upward again past the Temple of Apollo, Thor and I climbed to a higher level, to the stone tiers of the open-air theater, where musical competitions and dramatic performances were held, probably honoring Dionysos (patron of dramatic arts) as well as Apollo (god of music). The remaining theater was built by the Romans on the site of earlier Greek theaters.

From above the theater, an expansive overview of the site and the Pleistos River valley below:

One more steep climb in the heat of the afternoon brought us to the ancient stadium high above the sanctuary, site of the Pythian Games, held every four years like the original Olympic Games.

Following in all those ancient footsteps was tiring but exhilarating! We’re already planning a return pilgrimage to this magical sacred site.

Next week: More mythology from Delphi and Mount Parnassos.


You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at

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