The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 23: The Delphi Museum

Tiptoe through time with Thor and me as we admire artifacts from the Neolithic to the Hellenistic eras, witnessing the evolution of arts and worship at this ancient pilgrimage site.

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.

After our tour last week (blog post #22) of the Delphi sanctuary that followed the path of ancient pilgrims to the Oracle, let’s take a look at the artifacts found on the site, from prehistoric relics to the more familiar Classic and Hellenistic statues. I find it helpful to see a general timeline of historical evidence, so we can follow chronologically with some examples of artifacts from each era. (Disclaimer: I am not a historian, and am open to corrections of what I have gleaned from various sources.)

Greek History Timeline (approximate, relevant to Delphi):

2900-2000 B.C. – Early Bronze Age/Neolithic – Earth Goddess worship

2000-1400 B.C. – Minoan Age – Snake goddess, Bull worship. Around 1800 B.C. Mystery religions emerge

1500-1100 B.C. – Mycenaean Age – warlike. Trojan War around 1200 B.C.

1100-750 B.C. – Dark Ages – Greek alphabet, myths recorded. Oracle at Delphi recognized widely. Homer around 700 B.C.   Greek city-states gain power around 680 B.C.

750-480 B.C. – Archaic Period

480-336 B.C. – Classical Period. Dionysian festivals regularized. Democracy develops in Athens. Time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great

336-146 B.C. – Hellenistic Period – first Roman victory over Greece. Art moves into “decadent” styles

The first Neolithic settlement and Earth Goddess worship at the site of the later sanctuary of Athena Pronaia produced lots of pottery shards and stone and bone implements, as well as these clay figurines:

In the nearby Korykian Cave on Mt. Parnassos, many more artifacts from that era have been found.

Next influence from the Minoan culture arrived to influence art and worship of the Mycenaeans. According to myth and tradition, Dionysos as a dolphin led Minoan priests over the sea from Crete to establish a sanctuary and organize the oracle at Delphi. In a deep layer beneath the extant Temple of Apollo, archaeologists found this lioness-head rhyton:

The early Mycenaeans still venerated the Earth Goddess, as honored in these figurines:

The Mycenaean art also reflects the Minoan style in this fresco of a wild boar hunt from nearby Tiryns:

By all accounts, the Minoans enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence, but the Mycenaeans, though maintaining  respect for women and goddess worship, were a warlike people, so many of the artifacts consist of armor and weapons. Remember, this was the time of the Trojan War. The artifacts at Delphi segue into the Dark Ages (starting around 1100 B.C.).

This bronze shield is from around 8th century B.C., as is probably the helmet and accessories:

Moving into the Archaic Period around 750 B.C., we see more artifacts. Purely my own speculation, but it may be due to all the earthquakes that destroyed early temples and buried remnants. Some of the early temple materials were later repurposed for new buildings.

The most imposing Archaic presence in the museum is the twin kouros statues from around 580 B.C. Impressive at 6.15 meters tall, they probably represented the brothers Cleobis and Biton. According to Herodotus the historian, the pious young men hitched themselves to a chariot to pull their priestess mother six miles across rough terrain so she could worship at a festival of the goddess Hera. The mother asked Hera to reward her sons for their devotion, so the goddess granted them a peaceful, young death as they fell asleep in her temple and never woke up. (Remember the similar story last week about the architect of Apollo’s temple?)

The kouros figures originally had an Egyptian influence, but with the introduction of steel chisels (versus softer bronze ones of the Egyptians) allowed the carvers to use marble to achieve an idealization of the human form. They were deliberately stylized, with common poses and a geometric formula for the perfect proportions. (See my blog post about the Naxos Kouroi a few weeks ago for a glimpse of the process of carving in situ.)

More offerings from the Archaic Period include the remnants of a life-size silver-plated bull, probably a tribute gift to the sanctuary:

And these chryselephantine (ivory and gold) ornaments of statues honoring Apollo and his sister Artemis:

This Archaic perirhanterion supported a ritual basin:

The famous Naxian Sphinx on its Ionic column towers over the visitor at about 10 meters tall. Watch out if you can’t answer her riddle!

The Archaic style began to evolve toward the more naturalistic depiction of the human form in carvings from the early treasuries along the Sacred Way leading to Apollo’s temple. This metope is from the Treasury of Siphnos around 525 B.C., depicting scenes from the Trojan War. At left are seated figures of Ares, Aphrodite, Artemis, Apollo, and Zeus, along with battle details including chariots.

Seguing into the early Classical Period around 480 B.C., the depictions of the human form in sculpture started to reach the elegant perfection commonly associated with Greek art. The famous Charioteer bronze (see also top photo) illustrates the “severe” style, representing the move from Archaic conventions to Classical, idealized realism. The Charioteer calmly drives his chariot to acknowledge the crowd cheering his victory in the Pythian Games, exemplifying the restraint of emotions that Apollo urged. The beautiful details include eyelashes and lips of copper, a silver headband, and onyx eyes.

A marble statue of another victorious athlete illustrates the Classical ideal, the man fully naturalized with a sense of grace and movement:

A Classical statue of Dionysos:

Painted fragments of buildings built and decorated during the Classical Period give a sense of the colorful scene in the sanctuary:

Most writers seem to feel that with the advent of the Hellenistic Period around 336 B.C., the height of Greek art was declining toward a “decadent” depiction of individuals rather than glorified deities or heroes. But to my eye, the sculptures were still wonderful, like these lifelike statues posed in front of a mural of an early excavation on the site:

The tribute statue by the Roman Emperor Hadrian to his “favorite,” the beautiful Antinous, exemplifies the Hellenistic artistry:

The Hellenistic copy of the original Omphalos (navel of the world) is now thought to have topped the lovely Acanthus Column with the dancing maenads:

Regardless of age, these precious reminders of past glory still resonate with their reverence for beauty and the sacred. Chairete! Rejoice!


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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