Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Consulting the Oracle in Delphi

It’s been a while, but we finally head off to Phocis, where we explore the Panhellenic sanctuary of Delphi and meet the Oracle.

Josho Brouwers

Where has the time gone? When we last left off, all the way back in December, I had succeeded in ousting the Athenians from Megara. I then returned to my ship, the wonderfully named Adrestia, and set course for Phocis in order to report back to my employer, a shady character called Elpenor (whose name characters in the game insist on pronouncing as el-PEE-nor, based on the modern Greek pronunciation of the eta rather than the ancient one).

In any event, I sail across the Corinthian Gulf to Phocis, a trip that seems to take only minutes and is interrupted by the odd warship that tries to engage with me, but which I hurry past. After all, I have places to go and people to murder. (As an aside, Peter Gainsford, the “Kiwi Hellenist”, examined the shanties in Odyssey, noting that “the musical team have done a really good job”. Check it out!)

Running around Phocis

The Adrestia docks at Kirrha (modern Xeropigado), which is a port town. There are actually three different names – Kirrha, Krisa, and Kirsa – that may or may not all refer to the same place; even ancient writers weren’t sure about this (see Hansen and Nielsen’s Inventory of Archaic and Classical Greek Poleis (2004), pp. 419-420, for further details). But by at least the fourth century BC, so a little after the time that the game is set, Kirrha had become established as the port of Delphi.

The town itself resembles the other places we’ve seen in Odyssey already, except that the buildings seem a bit more spaced out. As you run through Kirrha to reach Elpenor’s house, Kassandra at some point will pipe up and comment about her mother telling her about the sacred wars. There were three Sacred Wars in total, the first fought – supposedly! – in ca. 590 BC, the second in 449-448 BC, and the last one quite some time after the game is set, in 356-346 BC.

This merchant is called Sargon, which suggests he’s from the Near East. He only trades his wares in exchange for “orichalcum”. Orichalcum is a bit of a mystery metal in ancient sources. It seems to have mythical connotations, as shown, for example, by the association of orichalcum with Atlantis in Plato’s Critias.

The Sacred Wars were fought over control of Delphi. Delphi was one of four Panhellenic sanctuaries, meaning sanctuaries that belonged to all the Greeks. Like Olympia, it attracted visitors from all over the Greek world and even beyond, who came to take part in festivals, consult the gods, dedicate offerings to the deities, and more. As at Olympia, games were organized at Delphi every four years, referred to as the Pythian Games. Delphi was considered by the Greeks as the centre or navel of the world, and an ancient omphalos, a physical stone “navel”, is on display at the site’s archaeological museum.

Supposedly, the First Sacred War was fought between the Amphitctyonic League of Delphi and the city of Crisa – perhaps, as noted above, the same as Kirrha – in the early sixth century BC. The Amphictyonic League consisted of a number of cities and peoples who vowed to safeguard the sanctuary, including Athens, Sicyon, and the Thessalians. The war came about as a result of the “impiety” of Crisa.

There’s a wealth of information available about the First Sacred War, but as Noel Robertson pointed out in his article “The Myth of the First Sacred War”, published way back in 1978 in The Classical Quarterly (28.1, pp. 38-73), there’s much about this early war that strikes the modern reader as dubious. The existence of a large and seemingly well-organized League in the early sixth century BC is a major problem, considering the nature of Greek poleis in ca. 600 BC.

In his article, Robertson dives deep into the historiography behind the First Sacred War and finds that “Down to the third quarter of the fourth century Greek literature is completely silent about the War. Although Delphi was at the centre of Greek history from the colonizing period [ca. 800-500 BC] onward, the Sacred War is never alluded to by any writer before c. 345, even in contexts where mention would seem unavoidable” (p. 39). Robertson shows, conclusively I think, that the First Sacred War never happened, and that the ancient city of Crisa never existed. And by extension, Crisa was thus not actually an alternate name for the fairly small town of Kirrha.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is set in 431 BC, so the “Sacred Wars” that Kassandra’s mother referenced must have been the one from 449-448 BC. This Sacred War was a direct conflict between Athens and Sparta over who should control the sanctuary, with Athens favouring the Phocians and Sparta wanting the sanctuary to be essentially independent. Within the context of the game, it sort of serves as a prelude to the larger conflict between Athens and Sparta, even if the effects of the outcome of this tussle probably left most visitors at Delphi unperturbed.

We present the duplicitous Elpenor with Nikolaos’ helmet and tell him that the Wolf of Sparta is dead. His office features book cases with distinctive cross-mounted shelves, ideally suited for storing papyrus scrolls.

In any event, I make my way through the streets of Kirrha and eventually reach Elpenor’s relatively humble home. In the cutscene, Kassandra walks up to Elpenor’s desk and slams the helmet on the table that she retrieved from the Wolf of Sparta. It’s at this point that he reveals that he knows Nikolaos is actually Kassandra’s stepfather. The plot thickens.

If it wasn’t clear by now, Elpenor clearly can’t be trusted. For whatever reason, he decides that Kassandra has outlived her usefulness. He makes his escape while you take control of Kassandra and have to murder Elpenor’s guards. With that out of the way, you’re free to explore Elpenor’s house and collect some clues as to where to go next. And all roads lead, inexorably, to the Oracle of Delphi.

Close to the Temple of Apollo is the Serpent Column. It’s a tall, sacrificial tripod that was made to commemorate the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). The Serpent Column was taken down and moved to Constantinople by Constantine the Great in AD 324; only part of it remains.

The sanctuary at Delphi is located on a slope of Mount Parnassus and offers a dramatic view of the surrounding countryside. When you’re there, it’s not hard to fathom why the ancient Greeks would have sited a major sanctuary in this place. According to some, the “navel” of the earth had once been guarded by a giant serpent called Python. Apollo had killed the beast, but may have named the place after the monster, Pytho. A special priestess was selected as the vessel through which Apollo would communicate with pilgrims: she was referred to as the Pythia or Oracle. Some claim that this woman entered a trance by inhaling vapours emitted from a cleft in the rocks, but no geological evidence supports this (Catherine Morgan, Athletes and Oracles: The Transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the Eighth Century BC (1990), p. 151).

In the game, it takes almost no time to climb up from Kirrha to Delphi itself. But I have to say, the developers outdid themselves when it came to modelling the actual site in the game. They included the walls that mark the site’s temenos or “sacred prencinct”, the “Sacred Way” that zigzags up to the Temple of Apollo, and a plethora of smaller buildings, including the Bouleuterion and various treasuries. The treasuries were essentially store houses where cities kept their offerings; one of the nicest is the Treasury of the Siphnians, about which Gareth Williams wrote an article. If I have one major complaint, it’s that the stone theatre featured in the game actually wasn’t built until the fourth century BC at the earliest.

The temple of Apollo at Delphi. While the broad strokes of the sanctuary are correct, some of the details are wrong. The pediment, for example, is far more flat in the game than it probably should have been. The original Archaic temple featured a Gigantomachy on the east pediment and Apollo in a chariot on the west pediment.

The centre of the sanctuary is, of course, the Temple of Apollo. The earliest temple that stood on this located dated to the mid-seventh century BC, but it burned down in 548 BC. A new structure was put in its place in 506 BC. This is the temple that ought to be represented in the game. It stood here until an earthquake brought it down in 373 BC, after which it was replaced by another temple that featured an adyton or inner sanctum within the temple’s main room or cella (also referred to in proper Greek as the naos).

In front of the temple of Apollo, we run into Barnabas and a man who turns out to be none other than the historian Herodotus. Herodotus’ dress is a little strange and he seems to wear what are knee-length shorts: the Art of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey book points out that the designers gave him some oriental traits on account of his home town being Halicarnassus. Halicarnassus was located in Asia Minor and thus within the borders of the Persian Empire. It’s a nice touch, I think, even if I somehow doubt he would have dressed in this manner after moving to Athens.

It’s Herodotus! He’s actually introduced by Barnabas as a “storyteller” and, well, he is. Often credited as the “Father of History”, he was in many ways the last of the logographers (chroniclers of stories). Ancient Greek historia actually means “inquiry”, and Herodotus’ work is more similar to that of investigative reporters than what we would call historians.

Herodotus is generally thought to have been born around 484 BC, so that would make him around 53 years old at the time of the game. His character model seems to fit that age, so kudos to the design time for getting this right. Herodotus is known for writing the Historiai (“Inquiries”), a book in which he sets out the history of the Greek and Persian Wars of the first decades of the fifth century BC. The book is not a dry summation of events, but rich in ethnographic detail. We rely on his book for much of our knowledge about ancient Greece in the period between ca. 550 and 479 BC.

After a brief chat with Herodotus, you venture inside the temple and meet the Oracle. (As an aside, Gareth Williams wrote about a possible Sibylline stone at Delphi.) You don’t really get the chance to ask any probing questions before you’re shuffled out of the door and back outside. After another chat with Herodotus there really is only one thing left to do: confront the Oracle at her home and try to get some real answers.

The Pythia receives you inside Apollo’s temple and tells you about the “Cult of Kosmos”, a cult created specifically for the game.

All we know is that the Oracle lives in a house in chora, the surrounding countryside around Delphi, and that it’s the biggest and nicest house around. This seems a reasonable supposition: priests and priestesses were usually picked from affluent and influential families. It seems likely that this was still the case during the time that the game is set, even though in later periods the people of Delphi supposedly preferred to pick uneducated women from the among the lower classes, believing them to be more innocent.

In the game, the Pythia is an attractive young woman. According to Diodorus Siculus, the Oracle used to be a young virgin, but after the Pythia was raped by a pilgrim who had been overcome by lust, only middle-aged women were allowed to serve as Apollo’s oracle (16.26.6). Diodorus lived in the first century BC and it seems unlikely that this rule was already in effect during the time that the game is set. Still, it’s hard to believe that the Pythia would apparently live in a house by herself, even one that is as well-guarded as in the game. Where is the rest of her family? (As an aside, one of the guards here was called “Homer the Insane”, which elicited a chuckle.)

The Pythia’s home stands out from the other houses in Delphi’s chora because of how luxurious it is. The walls of the courtyard even feature wall paintings.

After dispatching all of the guards, we’re free to enter the house. Talking to the Pythia and then again with Herodotus gives you all the answers you need, including the revelation – if that wasn’t obvious before – that Elpenor is a member of the “Cult of Kosmos”, a nefarious organization that operates in the shadows. Our next task is clear: assassinate Elpenor and get a disguise from him, so that we can attend a meeting of the Cult and learn more about them in the process.

Supposedly, Elpenor is hidden away inside Pharsalos Fort. The name is a bit confusing: there is a city called Pharsalus (modern Farsala) located in southern Thessaly, or quite a bit north from Delphi. I assume that the fort is named the way it is because it’s located on some inland route to the city? Be that as it may, we have to get to the fort and sniff out Elpenor. There’s little to add here to what I’ve written before about the forts in the game, so I’ll cut a long story short: it turns out that Elpenor isn’t at Pharsalos Fort at all. The guy we kill there is nothing but a decoy.

After dispatching all the guards, I broke down the door and confronted the Pythia. She tells me that I would need a disguise to attend the upcoming meeting of the “Cult of Kosmos”. That’s remarkably specific and useful information for an oracle!

Elpenor instead is hiding at the Snake Ruins in the aptly named Valley of the Snake. It takes a while to get there, but the sight is definitely one to behold: there are the ruins of a temple and the skeleton of a giant snake, no doubt a reference to Python, the monstrous serpent slain by Apollo. In any event, it doesn’t take long to dispatch all of the guards and Cult members who are patrolling here. Sending Ikaros, the eagle, up into the air allows me to locate Elpenor: he’s in the cave atop the small cliff overlooking the ruins.

While Elpenor doesn’t look formidable, he puts up a good fight. Eventually, of course, he bites the dust and this gives us access to his cultist costume, which we need to attend the secret meeting. I rush back to Delphi, where I find Herodotus outside of the Bouleuterion. He advises me to leave all my weapons behind, so it’s clear that whatever happens next, it likely won’t involve much in the way of fighting. But that, of course, is something best left for the next instalment of this series.