Wikipedia's article on the Delphic oracle says:

The usual theory has been that the Pythia delivered oracles in a frenzied state induced by vapors rising from a chasm in the rock, and that she spoke gibberish which priests interpreted as the enigmatic prophecies preserved in Greek literature.

But also:

The idea that the Pythia spoke gibberish which was interpreted by the priests and turned into poetic iambic pentameter has been challenged by scholars such as Joseph Fontenrose and Lisa Maurizio, who argue that the ancient sources uniformly represent the Pythia speaking intelligibly, and giving prophecies in her own voice

I’m confused. If all the ancient sources say unanimously that the priestess spoke intelligibly, why does anyone believe she spoke in tongues? If they don’t say the priestess spoke intelligibly, what are Fontenrose and Maurizio talking about? Also, do historians know if the oracle generally gave straight answers, or deliberately ambiguous ones?

  • This is going to depend a lot on the definition of "spoke intelligibly" in this context. It's quite possible to form a sentence that contains clearly defined words following proper grammatical structure (i.e. is "intelligible") and still have a meaning that could be described as "gibberish". – Steve Bird Mar 9 '15 at 8:53

Probably not. Wikipedia's claim that the Pythia goes into a vapor frenzy and spoke gibberish is not so much a usual theory as it is a common misconception.

According to Pierre Amandry, the idea of an ecstatic and unintelligible priestess was sparked by Plato in his Phaedrus, section 244. Amandry argued that early Christian writers adopted this image of hysterical women, and this subsequently became the popular image of the Delphi oracles.

However, there's no evidence to support that impression. In fact, what evidence we do have suggest the Pythia formulated the prophecy herself and delivered it calmly and intelligibly. Otherwise there'd be little point in bribing the Pythia for a favourable prophecy, for instance.

There is no evidence for the view that the priests interpreted and reduced to intelligible form the incoherent and unintelligible words that the Pythia spoke during her inspirations. Rather, the evidence tends to show that it was the Pythia who was the shrine's porte-parole; for in the numerous records of consultations it is either Apollo or the Pythia, but never the priest-prophet, who is said to speak the response directly to the consultant.

- Joseph Fontenrose. La mantique Apollinienne a Delphes: Essai sur le fonctionnement de l'oracle by Pierre Amandry. The American Journal of Philology Vol. 73, No. 4 (1952), pp. 445-448

AFAIK this has been the consensus since Amandry's findings were published some six decades ago.

  • 2
    @YannisRizos Doesn't it talk about both? "For the prophetess at Delphi and the priestesses at Dodona when they have been mad ..." – Semaphore Mar 9 '15 at 11:55
  • Yes. Apparently, today I fail at reading. – yannis Mar 9 '15 at 13:11

I would highly recommend this podcast for more information: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00txj8d

Around the 24 minute mark, Pythia is discussed. The historian on the program says that some of the women who served as Pythia likely did speak gibberish, which provided a chance for "translation" into a well-composed answer (Plutarch's theory). However, she believes that there were some talented priestesses who could directly give answers in hexameter, though they likely saw the questions beforehand.

The questions had to phrased in a certain form, which allowed some vagueness with the answers. Most of the questions were asked in a yes/no format. In the most famous example, an Athenian man who was exiled on pain of death asked the oracle if it was best to return home. The oracle replied, "you will find good law in Athens." When the man returned to Athens, he was executed.


This subject is covered in detail in the Wikipedia on the Pythia. I have not read any ancient account that describes the Oracle as speaking "gibberish". They commonly speak of the Oracle giving hints and riddles, or saying mysterious or ambiguous things, not gibberish.

The account of Strabo circa 10 B.C. reads as follows:

They say that the seat of the oracle is a cave that is hollowed out deep down in the earth, with a rather narrow mouth, from which arises breath that inspires a divine frenzy; and that over the mouth is placed a high tripod, mounting which the Pythian priestess receives the breath and then utters oracles in both verse and prose, though the latter too are put into verse by poets who are in the service of the temple.

In the first book of Herodotus (5th century BC) it says of one oracle:

...the moment that the Lydians entered the sanctuary, and before they put their questions, the Pythoness thus answered them in hexameter verse:-

I can count the sands, and I can measure the ocean
I have ears for the silent, and know what the dumb man meaneth;
Lo! on my sense there striketh the smell of a shell-covered tortoise,
Boiling now on a fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron-
Brass is the vessel below, and brass the cover above it.

In the August, 2001, issue of the journal Geology a paper was published "New evidence for the geological origins of the ancient Delphic oracle (Greece)" (pp. 707-710) claiming a geologic fault emitting gases was located directly below the location of the shrine.

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