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Delphi Part II: The Other God

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Charles Seltman analyses the role of the darker deity in Ancient Greece. Second of a two part series. The first part can be read here.

The great reputation which Delphi enjoyed throughout the whole classical period of history was the result of three sets of circumstances. Firstly, in the age of Greek colonization no other place disposed of so much general knowledge about the whole Mediterranean littoral. Secondly, from the beginning of the seventh to the middle of the sixth century B.C. Delphi enjoyed the patronage and enthusiastic approval of the fabulously rich kings of Lydia. Thirdly, when this precious support suddenly failed, the Sanctuary became deeply indebted and deeply committed to an unusually wealthy Athenian clan, the Alcmaeonids, some members of which were among the cleverest statesmen in history. But subsequently, when the Persian threat turned into the reality of the great invasion, Delphi had shown signs of “Medizing”, the Greek name for “Collaboration”, and this was temporarily harmful to the repute of the priesthood. Nevertheless, for a brief spell the flush of victories over Persians at home and over Carthaginians in the West brought gratitude and glory to Pythian Apollo. That which the god especially prefigured—law and order, balance, moderation, self-knowledge and self-control—had so manifestly triumphed. The Greeks therefore set up splendid monuments at Delphi; the most celebrated being offerings from Gelon, ruler of Syracuse, in thanks for his victory over the western barbarians, and the great bronze serpent-column topped by a golden tripod, an offering from the allied Hellenes who had conquered the Persian barbarians. From this time on the oracle seems to have been consulted rather less frequently than in former days, partly because its reliability had more than once been under suspicion, partly because among very many of the Greeks a respect for human reason was overshadowing superstitious practices. But, since Apollo was himself the greatest promoter of law and reason, there were still postulants; there were spectators and competitors for the quadrennial games; there were pilgrims and sight-seers; and the Delphians, like the population of any famous place of pilgrimage, presently became little better than profiteers in the faith of simpletons and parasites on God. States now began to set up showy monuments at Delphi commemorating their little internecine wars and victories, so that the large, nearly rectangular sanctuary became a kind of “crowing-perch” from which rival cities proclaimed their deeds. At the lower end of the enclosure, on the right, there was a gate by which the sacred way entered, and here there seems to have been a demand for small sites on which states might set up commemorative groups of figures. The Spartans crowed over the Athenians, the Arcadians over the Spartans; and it is a significant fact that the people of Argos put up no less than three monuments; for in the great Persian wars these Argive people had “Medized” and their name was conspicuously absent from the list of allies engraved upon the bronze serpent-column. Consequently, they sought to compensate for their sense of guilty insufficiency by three ostentatious groups of figures. For the Greeks the first and most important aspect of Apollo was certainly his championship of law and order, an aspect which his famous temple maxims, “Know thyself”, “Don’t exceed”, “The Mean is best”, really emphasized. And what has been called his “legal activity” embraced criminal, civil and constitutional codes, for which reason his help was precious to every newly-founded Greek Colony in the Mediterranean lands. But here one must face the astonishing, the surprising, the uncomfortable fact that he shared Delphi with another god who came near to being his absolute opposite—Dionysos. This is no fancy. The facts were naturally and gladly accepted by the Greeks. It is we who too easily forget them. Plutarch, that brilliant historian and scholar, was himself for many years a priest of Apollo at Delphi, and we could wish for no better authority. “To Dionysos”, these are his words, “no less than to Apollo, Delphi is home.” When did this happen— and how? Those are the first questions to come to the mind; and it is only fairly recent scholarship that has been able to give the answers.

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