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|Apollo - Oracle of Delphi and Stonehenge|
Apollo links Oracle of Delphi and Stonehenge in Prehistoric West to East Cultural Transfer.
Did the Oracle of Delphi have its origins in the prehistoric belief systems of Britain? In exploring this question there is some evidence that suggests that ancient Greece may well have developed a belief system whose roots were in the practices carried out by early man at Stonehenge and other similar aged monuments around the British Isles. Investigation of the world heritage site of Delphi, a four hour car journey from Athens, provides insights into the possibility that Britain hosted the forerunner of the ancient Greek religion of Apollo,
Delphi to the Greeks was considered the centre of the world and the ultimate source of wisdom. Here the Omphalos or conical stone stands at the supposed centre of the earth. At its heart was the Temple of Apollo located high on a mountain side amidst the trappings of an important religious and administrative city. The locality was first settled by the Mycenae’s around 1500 BC. and lasted for about 300 years. After about 1200 BC little is known until about 800 BC. when a belief system that included oracular prophesies prevailed based on the worship of Gaia. The Oracle of Gaia delivered prophesies from the rock of Sibyl, which can still be seen at Delphi. Sibyl was the name given to the priestess who voiced prophesies later to be replaced by Pythia, who guarded a sacred spring to the west of the rocks.
After 700 BC the worship of the god Apollo replaced the earlier beliefs and the Oracle of Delphi gained considerable reputation with prophesies that were to influence the national development. Emperors and statesmen visited the Oracle. A new, albeit replacement temple to Apollo was constructed, being completed in 330 BC. In the depths of this temple was an underground chamber where the Pythia recanted prophesises from the god Apollo. Vapours emerged from a fissure in the rock and the incoherent mutterings of the Pythia needed priests to interpret and clarify. Such incantations were enhanced by both the mind altering effects of the vapours and the chewing of laurel leaves. Each day the priests, visitors and the Pythia would wash in the Castalian spring nearby which was reputed to confer oracular properties. Thus there was a belief system that operated that involved a combination of divine guidance from a complex personification of the heavens. This produced the plethora of gods and legends of the Classical World. Although political influence fluctuated it was not until about 400 AD that the Oracle finally ceased to operate, at the end of a period of 1200 years.
As we see the development of the Oracular belief system of Delphi emerge, this coincides with the demise of Stonehenge as a place of gathering and shamanic worship. Insights into the nature of prehistoric beliefs in Britain can be gleaned from the now well researched Native American cultures of 1000 years ago, when they were still effectively in the Stone Age. The celestial bodies had major influence over daily events and life in general. The beliefs sought to explain the cosmos in a credible manner and utilise the contrived personification and understanding of the heavens to aid society to prosper and cope with the machinations of the natural environment that they found themselves in. Communication with and guidance from the gods through a “medium” or “medicine man” was an essential part of such beliefs. Given that such a belief system existed in Britain during the period when Stonehenge was active, what evidence exists to indicate that Stonehenge was the forerunner of Delphi?
Historian Diodorus wrote in the first century BC of a legendary island land of the Hyperboreans, so named because their home was beyond where the Boreas or North Wind blows, being a land of fertility and good crops. It is believed by many scholars that this was the British Isles. The inhabitants had a disposition that was friendly towards the Greeks and travellers journeyed to and from the lands. The earlier works of Herodotus survive from the fifth century BC. These works describe sacred offerings coming from Hyperborea, initially by female messengers and later by relay across borders. Leto, mother of Apollo was believed to have been born on the island of the Hyperboreans, resulting in Apollo being honoured above all other gods. Thus the Hyperboreans introduced the Greeks to the worship of Apollo leading to many centuries of contact after about 1250 BC. Diodorus also mentions the legendary magnificent sacred precinct to Apollo in Hyperborea, adorned with votive offerings and spherical in shape (Stonehenge), together with a city sacred to the god (Durrington Walls). The cyclopean nature of prehistoric stone structures in Britain has been noted for decades as having remarkable similarities to structures in Mycenaean Greece.
Like Delphi, historians propose that Stonehenge was the location of an oracle type of belief system. Stonehenge was a temple dedicated to the sun and its architectural alignments major on the solstices. After the mighty Zeus, Apollo is the best-known Greek God known as the Sun God, as according to legend he drove the fiery chariot that was the sun across the sky each day. Apollo is reputed to have visited the land of the Hyperboreans during the winter solstice period and this is interpreted by many scholars as travelling to and from Britain where such travellers would have experienced the culture as well as left personal artefacts, now being discovered by archaeologists. Here Apollo or his disciple in the form of a Priest would have learnt of the belief system of the ancient Britain’s and transferred the best and pertinent to Greece. Eventually this was to mature as the complex mythology and beliefs of the Ancient Greeks, which was to eclipse those of Britain over time.
Dr B. E. Osborne June 2010
Cummins W A. 1992, King Arthur’s Place in Prehistory – The Great Age of Stonehenge, Bramley, Surrey.Ch. 4.
Darville T. 2006, Stonehenge the Biography of a Landscape, Tempus, GB. Ch. 2. also p141-6, p175.
Haitalis D. 2008, Delphi, the archaeological site and museum. Barrage Ltd. Athens.
McKim Malville J. 2008, Prehistoric Astronomy in the Southwest, Johnson Books, Boulder US.
Delphi today – the rectangular Temple of Apollo is centre.
The Castalian Spring 1833 on the outskirts of the former village of Castri, before archaeology took over. Today the spring archaeology can not be viewed due to danger of rock falls.
Author at the Rock of Sibyl.