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This page is part of the "tools" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "tools" section provides historical and geographical context (chronology, maps, entries on characters and locations) for Socrates, Plato and their time. By clicking on the minimap at the beginning of the entry, you can go to a full size map in which the city or location appears. For more information on the structure of entries and links available from them, read the notice at the beginning of the index of persons and locations.
Sanctuary on the northern side of the Gulf of Corinth,
on the slopes of Mount Parnassus (area 2).
Delphi was only a village, which owed its importance to the fact that it was the seat of a most famous temple of Apollo, where people from all places would come to consult an oracle that was at all times in ancient Greece the most respected of all. The sanctuary was originally called Pytho and dedicated to chtonian gods, especially Gè (or Gæa, the Earth). Its tutelary demon then was the snake Python, whose interpret was the pythoness, until he was killed by Apollo, who established his own sanctuary there, buried Python under the Omphalos, the most sacred place of this sanctuary, that was supposed to be the center of the earth, and established in his honor the Pythian games. These panhellenic games, second in repute only to the Olympic games, were initially only a musical contest (Apollo was, among other, the god of music) held every nine years. Later, sports events similar to those in the Olympic games were added and, starting in 582 B. C., the games were held every four years (the third year of each Olympiad) in the summer.
The temple burned in 548 B. C. and was rebuilt through a collection that reached to Egypt, and huge contributions from the Alcmeonidæ, a wealthy noble family of Athens then in exile in the area (Herodotus, II, 180 ; V, 62). It was under the control of the Delphic Amphictyony, a league of mostly Thessalian and Dorian nearby states, whose foundation was ascribed to Amphictyon (hence its name), a son of Deucalion once king of Athens. The Amphictyonic council, composed of members named for four year terms, the hieromnemones, met regulargy either in Delphi or at the temple of Demeter near the Thermopylæ. Its primary purpose was to keep the sacred grounds independant from Phocis, the Greek province in which they were located. This led to several Sacred Wars, the last of which provided Philip of Macedon, who, by 346 had managed to become a member of the Amphictyony, with an opportunity to intervene in Greek affairs and eventually subject Greece. Yet, through the oracles, delivered by the pythoness from her tripod, Delphi played a major role in Greek politics, often as a pacifying influence, as can be seen through the numerous Delphic oracles quoted by Greek historians, especially Herodotus. The oracles were often ambiguous and could lead to disaster when interpreted wrongly, as witness may stories of the time (one of the most famous is the one relating to king Croesus of Lydia, which is told at length at the beginning of Herodotus' Histories, I, 46-91, and in which Croesus, who wanted to wage war against Persia, is told by the oracle of Delphi consulted for the occasion that, if he attacked Persia, he would indeed destroy a great empire, only to find at the end, after being defeated, that this empire was his own).
But the role of the oracle was not limited to politics and reached all aspects of Greek life, public and private. It is an oracle from Delphi, obtained by his friend Chærephon, which was at the start of Socrates' "mission" (Apology, 21a ; see also Xenophon's Apology of Socrates, 14). And Socrates ascribes to the Delphic God the motto that became his, the "Know thyself", that was inscribed on the wall of the temple there (Alcibiades, 129a ; Charmides, 164d-165b). In the Laws, Plato calls upon Delphi to help set laws on religious matters (VI, 729c) and establish festivals and rites (VIII, 828a) ; he also involves the oracle in settling matters of civil law where some sort of divine choice is required (IX, 856c-e ; XI, 913c-914a).
As a result, Delphi was a very rich place : along the Sacred Way leading to the temple of Apollo could be seen monuments holding the "treasuries" of various cities, that is, the offerings made by the cities and citizens of these cities in thanks to the God.