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prophetess of gaia

sacred she-serpent of prehistoric greece

the oracle of pythia

In mythical times a mystical python in a hidden cave communed with the Great Goddess Gaia. This snake, like many of her serpentine sisters in the ancient world, prophesied the future and dispensed divine knowledge, which later, in the Book of Genesis, was deemed forbidden and deadly.

The early people of Greece, around 1500 BCE, venerated the earth-goddess Gaia, and her daughter, Themis. Gaia communicated to them through the Oracle at Pythia in ancient Boeotia, a territory north of Athens. According to Greek literature, Gaia incarnated in the form of a great she-serpent, or Python, in order to communicate with her people. This python was the original Oracle, which we now call the Oracle of Delphi, as renamed by the Greek Indo-European civilisation which came to dominate the culture of Ancient Greece.

According to myth and legend, the original Pythia inhabited a cave, into which magical vapours rose from a fissure in the earth. Inhaling the vapours, Pythia entered a trance. In this suspended state, she received the direct counsel of Gaia. Gaia entered her body, transmuting it into the form of a Python, and spoke through the mouth of Pythia.

the apollonian conquest

The story that can be reconstructed from Greek myths and history is that the god Apollo, the prophet of Zeus, came from Crete to mainland Greece. He conquered the Oracle of Pythia, and slew the giant she-serpent. Apollo verses the monster in the form of a serpent is reminiscent of all the hero versus dragon myths that appear in mythology, from the conquest of Tiamat by Marduk and the banishing of the serpent by Yahweh, to St. George's slaying of the dragon. After conquering the Pythia, Apollo took her place, and instead of Gaia speaking through the mouth of the oracle, now Apollo prophesied.

Gaia, to avenge the banishment and conquest of her and her daughter, Themis, as the Oracle, by-passed Apollo by sending prophetic dreams to individuals, thereby obviating the need for the Oracular Shrine. At the bequest of Apollo, Zeus intervened and obliterated the dream oracles, restoring the conquest and power to Apollo and disenfranchising Gaia and Themis.

Pythia Dreaming

Cast marble

30 cm long

Perhaps because of the authority of tradition, the oracluar intermediary remained female, even though the deity behind her became male. In Greek times, people would petition Phoebus Apollo through the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythia.

the oracle of delphi: pythia, the female voice of god

The Apollonian Oracle of Delphi resided in a temple. The practice which can be reconstructed from written and archaeological sources indicates that the mediator between Apollo and the petitioner was an ordinary woman, past the age of menopause, who demonstrated mystical ability. Pythia, in the form of a woman rather than a snake, is said to have sat on a tripod over a chasm from which narcotic vapours rose. The Pythia, inhaling the vapours, entered into a trance, from which she uttered cryptic answers to the questions posed to her. It was up to the petitioner to interpret the utterances, which, like the Sphinx's reply to Oedipus, took the form of riddles. Surrounding the Pythia were her Prophetes, who 'translated' the riddles, and reproduced them in hexameter verse.

The tripod is a ritual offering vessel, the bowl of which is held aloft over a fire by three metal legs, hence 'tripod'. The Pythia was believed to sit in the middle of the bowl, where normally the sacrifical offerings to the gods would be transmuted into spiritual essence, fit for divine consumption. The bowl of the tripod was the liminal space between earth and heaven, an axis mundi, joining the mundane and the spiritual worlds and through which divine communion could proceed. The fire of the transmutation, in the Pythia's case, was spiritual rather than material, and perhaps symbolised the rising fumes which caused the Pythia to 'sacrifice' her ordinary humanity and become a vehicle or conduit for the divine to enter the world.

The tripod was concealed in a secret space, available only to the Pythia. The hearer and Prophetes remained outside the concealed space, hearing the utterances when they came forth.

Consultations were limited to one day per month, and records indicate that on this day the Pythia was so busy that three shifts were required to handle all requests, and three women were required to be the Pythia in turn. These women, past the age of fifty, wore the clothing of a young virgin. It is said that the original Pythia was a young virgin, with whom a petitioner fell in love and subsequently raped or seduced. Whatever the origins of the metaphorical implications of the clothing, the mature women who became the Pythia had to relinquish their married lives, and live like virgins, near the Oracular Cave in the temple, serving Apollo where once they had served Gaia.

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3/08/09 jr