The Fascinating, Flickering Tongue of the Pythia

This week I welcome an article from my friend and colleague, Monika Dominikowska at Symbol Reader.  As with a few other themes running throughout this blog, I’ll be following it up at some point with my own thoughts on drug use, “possession” and the Unconscious, as well as a bit of comparative mythology: Apollo/Christ, virgin pregnancies and trans-temporal representations of Good and Evil.  Enjoy!


First worship the Immortal Gods, as they are established and ordained by the Law. […]
Honour likewise the Terrestrial Daemons by rendering them the worship lawfully due to them.
— The Golden Verses of Pythagoras (his name means “spoken by the Pythia”)

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea,
I understand the speech of the mute and hear the voiceless.
–The Delphic Oracle

Tholos temple in Delphi, Greece

Tholos temple in Delphi, Greece

If, as Roberto Calasso wrote, erotic possession is the starting point for any kind of possession, Pythias and Sybils, the ancient priestesses and prophetesses, personified the principle of enchantment and a seductive call.  Wild and free, possessed by the gods but not belonging to anybody on earth, they held the keys to Mystery.

In ancient Greece, priestesses prophesied on behalf of male gods. The temple official (male) called a prophete would interpret the words of the female soothsayer to supplicants.  That does not mean that the role of the prophetess was secondary to that of men.  On the contrary, her authority extended to all areas of life in ancient Greece, and her words were always listened to and acted upon by all those who made powerful decisions.  In the seemingly patriarchal culture of ancient Greece, the voice of the sacred feminine was heeded and it had a lot of leverage.  In the West today, we worship our rational consciousness.  But do we realize that our ancient ancestors based their conscious, decision-making activity on the whispers of a shamanic female, who, chanting her verses in trance, acted as a conduit for the wisdom of the collective unconscious?  Only now are we reclaiming that voice and once again giving it proper heed. What I see in this ancient story of the Pythia, in the sacred function of her oracle, is a symbolic representation of a balanced interplay between male and female archetypal forces employed in the service of wisdom.

Ancient oracles were connected to the natural world.  A cave, a tree, sacred springs, crevices, rocks and the iconic laurel leaf sacred to Apollo, were extremely significant in the oracular process in Delphi. Before Apollo it was Gaia (Ge) who ruled Delphi and her consort was Poseidon.  The name Delphi is derived from a Greek word delphys meaning “womb.”  In Apollo’s temple stood two additional altars – one dedicated to Poseidon, and one hearth altar dedicated to the worship of Gaia’s chthonic powers.  The succession of divine rulership over the shrine of Delphi is described by the Pythia in a prologue to Eumenides, a tragedy by Aeschylus:

First, in this prayer, of all the gods I name
The prophet-mother Earth; and Themis next,
Second who sat-for so with truth is said-
On this her mother’s shrine oracular.
Then by her grace, who unconstrained allowed,
There sat thereon another child of Earth-
Titanian Phoebe. She, in after time,
Gave o’er the throne, as birthgift to a god,
Phoebus, who in his own bears Phoebe’s name.

The space for the oracle at the temple of Delphi was created in an underground chamber.  In this chamber was placed the omphalos – a white stone whose placement denoted the figurative centre of the earth.  It is in this cosmic centre that the world of gods and men met.  ‘Omphalos’ means ‘navel’ in Greek.  Where omphalos stood was a magical place of nourishment: through the metaphoric umbilical cord the gods were feeding their worshipers with wisdom from above.

The Omphalos

The Omphalos

Under the Omphalos, the beast Python was buried.  He had been conquered by Apollo before the god took charge of the oracle at Delphi and gave his chief priestess the name ‘Pythia,’ endowing her thus with the power of the serpent-monster.  Pythia sat on a tripod positioned above a crevice in the rock, inhaling the earth vapours that would inspire her to prophesy.  The form of the tripod seat was in fact a cauldron.  While the tripod is emblematic of the triple goddess, the cauldron is symbolic of the medial power of the water as a vessel of magic, germination, dissolution, transformation and regeneration, often identified with the womb.

Trance of the Pythia

Trance of the Pythia

Here is what Plutarch, a one-time Priest of Apollo at Delphi, had to say of the way the Pythia channeled Apollo’s words:

…in a mild trance, she was able to sit upright on the tripod and spend quite a considerable amount of time there. She could hear the questions and gave intelligible answers.  During the oracular sessions she spoke in an altered voice and tended to chant her responses, indulging in wordplay and puns.  Afterward, she was like a runner after a race or a dancer after an ecstatic dance.

The Pythia entered possession trance, which enabled the god to occupy her body as a vessel, or so the legend goes.  Being fecundated by spirit is the archetypal expression of the energy of the sacred feminine.  As Erich Neumann remarks:

…the vessel lies at the core of the elementary character of the Feminine. … Thus the woman is the original seeress, the lady of the wisdom bringing waters of the depths, of the murmuring springs and fountains for the original utterance of seerdom in the language of water. But the woman also understands the rustling of the trees and all the signs of nature, with whose life she is so closely bound up. The murmuring of the waters in the depths is only the “outside” of the speech of her own unconscious, which rises up in her like the water of a geyser.

The ancients believed that Apollo was speaking through the Pythia.  But does this mean that her brilliant verses were merely of his doing, that she was repeating what he had communicated to her?  Far from it.  We should look at Apollo in Jungian terms, as her Animus, i.e. the emanation of her own unconscious, her inner guide, a masculine archetype emerging from within her psyche.  In his highest expression, the Animus mediates between the unconscious and conscious mind, acting as a bridge and leading to the images of the collective unconscious.

The Pythia’s power, expressed in her name, was thought to come from the snake buried under the water spring.  As was mentioned before, prior to becoming the chief deity of Delphi, Apollo, then still a child, shot the monster Python with his arrows.

J.M.W. Turner, "Apollo and Python"

J.M.W. Turner, “Apollo and Python”

Symbolically, a child is a primal being, emblematic of the “formative forces of the unconscious of a beneficent and protective kind” (Cirlot, Dictionary of Symbols).  The child is also symbolic of the mystic centre.  The heroic child liberates the world from monsters and establishes the coniunctio between the unconscious and consciousness.  One of Apollo’s epithets was Delphinios, which in the first place suggested the dolphin, an animal sacred to Apollo and called the “uterine beast” by the Greeks; and secondly, the oracle of Delphi, which is etymologically associated with the womb and thus with the Great Goddess who presided over the shrine before Apollo took over. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo recounts how the god changes into a dolphin and, in this shape, carries Cretan priests to his new oracle in Delphi.  According to Jung and Kerenyi:

Just as the dolphin is the “womb” among animals, so Delphi is the womb among places: the name means that.  For the Greeks the rocky landscape symbolized what was itself symbolized by the dolphin, the sea, the womb; it was a symbol of the uttermost beginning of things, of the not-being that came before being and the life that came afterwards; of the original condition of which every symbol says something different and new, a primal source of mythologems.

At Delphi, Apollo, the most sublime god of light and consciousness, a healer and purifier, harnessed the enormous power of the underworld realm, of the instinct and the unconscious.  As Liz Greene writes:

He removes the pollution of corporeal reality and restores the unclean man or woman to a state of grace.  It is something like this – the loss of the sense of inherent sin – which is bound up with the experience of the Self. … Apollo is an image of the power of consciousness… He is ego-power at its most glorious, the victor in the battle with the underworld serpent Python, the vessel of God as human realization.  It is to Apollo that people pray when they need clear sight, for his arrow penetrates even the murkiest of dilemmas…

How were the Pythias selected for such a prestigious position?  Originally, Pythias were young virgins, but after a raping incident the priests changed the rules, asserting that all the Pythias had to be over 50.

They still channelled the maiden archetype, though, dressing as young girls.  The chosen ones had to leave their families and all familial obligations and start living in a separate house by themselves.  By accepting their new name they became vessels holding archetypal powers; they started to serve the collective.

Before the Pythia was established at Delphi, Phemonoe (a Greek poetess of the ante-Homeric period, daughter of Apollo) and other soothsaying Sybils revealed their enigmatic prophecies in beautiful verse and in a state of divine possession. In latter days of Delphi’s operation, priestesses did not speak in the hexametric verse.  However, in previous periods, speaking in impeccable verse was a must for the Pythia.

The oracle operated only from spring to autumn.  In winter, Apollo’s place at the temple was taken by his shadow side — Dionysus.  It is not clear whether the oracle was active in the secret ecstatic rites of the cult of Dionysus, but it is highly probable.  What I find fascinating about this is the ancient wisdom of the cycles.  Back then, a period of activity was always followed by a period of fallow; a structured Apollonian rite gave way to ecstatic Dionysian activity.  Roberto Calasso calls Dionysus “an emanation of Python, of the power Apollo had killed and left to rot in the sun.”  One of the phrases carved in the temple, along with the famous “Know Thyself,” was “Nothing in Excess.” There seems to be an alchemical communion of opposites achieved at Delphi: a delicate balance of opposing forces.  Apollo does not possess the Pythia’s possession: he tames it and harnesses it but not in excess and never fully.  Her name is forever bound with the snake, and the snake’s image speaks for itself with its “fascinating flickering tongue, its rattle or hiss and quick strike, its reticulated glistening skin, the coil and sidewinding, the panic rising on sudden sight of it” (James Hillman, Animal Presences).

Let us wonder at her polarity without petrifying her into conceptual meanings.

The statue of the Pythia at the Parisian Opera

The statue of the Pythia at the Parisian Opera



Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.

Sorita d’Este, ed., Priestesses, Pythonesses, Sibyls: The Sacred Voices of Women who Speak With and For the Gods.

Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate.

C.G. Jung and Karl Kerenyi, Essays on a Science of Mythology.

Erich Neumann, The Great Mother.

Plutarch, Moralia.


MonikaMonika Dominikowska, much like the Pythia, does not wish to be “petrified” by a bio.  You can weave together your own understanding of her by perusing her writing at Symbol Reader.


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6 responses to “The Fascinating, Flickering Tongue of the Pythia

  1. I did not know about the association of Apollo changing into a dolphin to bring people from Crete to Delphi. I have read about the significance of dolphins on Crete, which appears to have been a Goddess honoring culture. Apollo’s take-over of this site is something I have been wanting to look into more, so I am very grateful for this account. I like the final quote of not petrifying her meaning and being open to the mystery.

    • Thank you, Gray. I also find it fascinating that Apollo would be changing into a dolphin – the Sun god! I know that Demetra George wrote about the Pythia and about the asteroid of this name. I was happy to see that I have it in my 12th house widely conjuncting Venus and trining Neptune. I wanted to give the Pythia her power back – she was so much more than a mouthpiece for a male god.

  2. Pingback: The Modern Need of Oracles | symbolreader·

  3. Pingback: Apollo and the Pythia: the Oracle of Delphi | symbolreader·

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