Delphi, lying on the slopes of Mt Parnassus high above the Gulf of Corinth, is one of the most famous cult sites in Greece, famed throughout the ancient Greek world and beyond as the sanctuary of Apollo and the shrine of his oracle. The site ranks with the Acropolis in Athens, Olympia and the island of Delos as one of the most important sites of the classical period of Greece; and the wealth of ancient remains combines with its magnificent mountain setting to make Delphi one of the high points of a visit to Greece.
The two crags known as the Phaidriades ("Resplendent Ones"), Phlemboúkos ("Flaming") and Rodiní ("Roseate"), enclose a rocky gorge containing the Castalian Spring, from which the ravine of the river Plistos, densely planted with olive-trees, descends to Itéa Bay. At the foot of the Phaidriades, close to the Castalian spring, there was in early times a shrine of the Earth Mother, Ge, guarded by a dragon known as Python. The myth relates that the sun god Apollo killed Python and, after an act of expiation in the vale of Tempe in Thessaly, became lord of the sanctuary as Apollo Pythios. The time when this take-over occurred is indicated by the fact that the female idols previously offered at the shrine began to give place to male idols in the ninth century B.C.
But although a male deity had thus displaced the earlier goddess, a woman still played a central role in the cult of the oracle of Delphi, which ranked with Olympia as the principal pan-Hellenic shrine. This was the Pythia, who sat on a tripod in the innermost sanctuary of the temple and whose stammered oracular utterances were conveyed by priests and prophets to those seeking the oracle's advice. During the three winter months Apollo travelled north to the land of the Hyperboreans and was replaced by Dionysos. The oracle's utterances continued during this period.
Many of the oracle's prophecies are known, dating back to Mycenaean times (second millennium B.C.). In those early days Orestes was told by the oracle that he could expiate the murder of his mother by fetching the cult image of Artemis from Tauris in Scythia. In historical times three of the oracle's pronouncements were particularly notable. Around 680 B.C. it directed settlers from Megara to found the city of Byzantion on the Bosporus (the future Constantinople). In 547 B.C. it told Kroisos (Croesus), king of Lydia in Asia Minor, that if he crossed a certain river he would destroy a great kingdom: whereupon Kroisos crossed the river Halys and was defeated by the Persians, so destroying his own kingdom. In 480 B.C. the oracle declared that Athens, then threatened by the Persians, would be invincible behind a wooden rampart - and so it proved when the fleet built by Themistokles (the "wooden rampart") defeated the Persians in the battle of Salamis. As these examples show, the Delphic oracle, which reached the peak of its influence in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., played a part in directing the establishment of Greek colonies and in reaching political decisions; and no less significant was the influence of Apollo, the god who granted expiation and made laws, on the development of Greek ethics and law.
The recipients of the oracle's advice expressed their thanks in votive offerings, which brought great wealth to Delphi, much of it stored in treasuries built by individual cities. Most of this has been lost, but some important items can still be seen in the Delphi Museum; and the bronze serpent column set up at Delphi in 479 B.C. after the Athenian victory over the Persians at Plataiai still stands in the Hippodrome in Istanbul.
Delphi enjoyed a final period of prosperity in the reign of Hadrian (A.D. second century), but its day was ended by earthquake damage and the edict by Theodosius I in A.D. 392 closing down all pagan shrines. Later the modest little village of Kastrí grew up amid the ruins of the temple. The site was rediscovered by a German archeologist, Ulrichs, and excavated by French archaeologists from 1892 onwards. A visit to Delphi falls into three parts: the sanctuary of Apollo, with the Stadion; the Castalian spring and the sanctuary of Athena at Marmariá; and the Museum.
The Delphi area offers plenty of scope for mountain walks and winter sports, mainly on Mt Parnassus (2,457m/8061ft:). There are bathing beaches at Itéa, Kírra and Galaxídi. The harbor of Itéa has customs clearance facilities.
Regular bus services from Athens.