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Delhi and King Croesos
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delphi temple
The Apollo temple ruins at Delphi.

There was something 'magical' in Delhi for several thousand years. And today Delphi is the most popular archaeological site in Greece after the Acropolis in Athens. Lying on the slopes of Mount Parnassos, the majestic ancient site of Delphi overlooks the Gulf of Corinth and a valley filled with olive and cypress trees.

The centre of Delphi was and is the sanctuary of Apollo on the southern tip of the mountain slope. The walls of that Doric temple were inscribed with wise words such as "Know Yourself", "Nothing in Excess", and "Don't take any Wooden Drachma".

In the temple lived he priestess Pythia, who seated on a tripod above a deep crevasse that fumes got up from, pronounced many prophesies.

Map of ancient Greece


The oracle, dedicated to the sun god Apollo

Delphi was the place of the oracle of the sun god Apollo. He foretold the future through his priestess. She was known as the Pythia, and responded to questions of visitors while in a trance over rising sulphur damps or something like that. Her quizzical cries at the time were interpreted and written down by an official interpreter. In earlier times it was done in hexameter verse, then later in prose.

The oracular responses were notoriously ambiguous, and their interpretation was often 'deduced' only after the event they referred to. That did not deter visitors from journeying to Delphi from all over the Mediterranean.

Apollo shared the sanctuary at Delphi with Dionysus. Every fall Apollo departed for his winter quarters in the land of the Hyperboreans, the fabulous land far away in the North. In his absence the Pythia did not deliver oracles, and Dionysus ruled over Delphi. That's what they tell.

During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, the sanctuary grew in prestige as it received splendid dedications from legendary kings such as Midas.

Its cultural role expanded in the 7th century BC, when the Pythian games attracted athletes and musicians from all over the Greek world for games or competitions. This festival, which originally took place every eight years, was expanded after the first Sacred War and held every four years on a scale that rivalled the Olympic games. By these things Delphi sustained the idea that it was the navel (omphalos) of the Greek world, a place where ancient visitors could ritually cleanse themselves to go to the sanctuary of Apollo by climbing a zigzag Sacred Way lined with treasuries and monuments till they got to the temple where Pythia sat on Apollo's tripod to deliver her oracle responses.
      In spite of much plundering by Roman emperors, much of the splendour of Delphi survives.


King Croesos

The Greek historian Herodotus tells that King Croesus (Greek Kroisos) of Lydia - the ancient land of western Anatolia - was the first person to mint gold and silver coinage, Reputedly fabulously wealthy, Croesus is said to have given great treasures to the oracle at Delphi and other places.

Herodotus writes further that King Croesus - he reigned about 560-546 BC and was the last king of the ancient country Lydia of Asia Minor - dispatched several of his men to test seven oracles to see if any of them could divine what the king was doing on the day of the test. Only Pythia, priestess of Apollo at Delphi, was able to divine correctly that the king was making a lamb and tortoise stew in a bronze kettle.

Convinced of her powers, Croesus then posed the question that really interested him: If he attacked the rival kingdom of Persia, would he be able to defeat its army? Pythia replied,

"When Croesus has the Halys crossed, a mighty empire will be lost."
      Croesus was not well enough alerted to the ambiguity of the prediction. He crossed the river, attacked, and lost his mighty empire. And even worse, Greeks in Asia Minor lost their independence due to that war. [From the ancient Greek historian Herodotus]

ANECDOTE The Greek philosopher Solon once visited King Croesus and wanted to teach him sound moderation. He warned Croesus that insensibly much prosperity could offend. Solon also decreed, "Call no man happy till he's dead." It has been used as a proverb later.

Cyrus and Croesos

Croesus enjoyed his wealth as best he could in spite of Solon until he was defeated by the Persian king Cyrus, who attacked and captured King Croesus' capital, Sardis. The historians, Heredotus and Xenophon, say that Cyrus condemned Croesus to death by fire.

The pyre was prepared and Croesus tied to a stake at the top. Cyrus ordered a torch to be applied and with barbaric cruelty watched it mount towards the man in the middle. Money couldn't help him at that point. But then there came a sudden, heavy rainstorm which put out the fire. And since Croesus at that moment uttered the name of Solon, the Persian king who allegedly admired the Athenian lawgiver, had Croesus cut down and set free. The ancients say it was the sun god that sent the rain.

King Croesos Freed Aesop

They say the Greek story-teller Aesop found favour at the court of King Croesus in Lydia, the ancient kingdom in West Asia Minor. Aesop told stories for men and women, and not everyone liked to be demasked by animal portrayals of that kind. But King Croesus freed him because he liked his stories, and later used him as an envoy.


Greek tales contain instructive lessons for men and women today too. Even though people did not always speak truth in antiquity, and even if they often had more than one version of this and that story, there are lessons embedded in many of them, such as in many fables of ancient Greece. Many lessons depend on how we understand the stories. There should be room for interpreting them in several ways, not just one.

Delphi oracle, King Croesos, Literature  

Bernstein, Peter J. 2004. The Power of Gold: A History of Obsession. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons.

Flower, Michael A. 2008. The Seer in Ancient Greece. Berleley, CA: University of California Press.

Simpson, Michael, tr. 1976. Gods and Heroes of the Greeks: The Library of Apollodorus. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

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