A Sibylline stone at Delphi?

There’s a large block of worked limestone at one end of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. What is it? What function did it serve?

Written by Gareth Williams on

Situated near the western end of the temple of Apollo at Delphi there stands a solitary upturned block of worked St. Elias limestone.

Many tourists filing past this artifact are unaware of the significance that has been attributed to it, for its origins could lie at the very heart of the mantic process at Delphi.

To understand this assertion we firstly need to discover what related objects existed within the inner chamber of the Delphic temple.

The centre of the earth?

According to a French archaeologist who excavated at Delphi, this stone was removed from the floor of the adyton, a small, sunken room reputedly measuring 2.7m × 3.7m and located at the south western side of the cella (inner chamber) of Apollo’s temple.

The picture above may verify that statement for the left side of the stone clearly exhibits cuttings for hook clamps which attached it to its neighbouring pavement block - although when they were cut is difficult to say. Within the adyton the reputation of the Delphic oracle was created, for here sat the Pythia, perched on a tripod emanating Apolline oracles.

Although the adyton at Delphi no longer exists, a sunken room discovered at the rear of the Temple of Zeus at Nemea may help to visualise it, although it is slightly larger at 3.7m × 4.4m. This room was accessed from the temple floor by descending a flight of six steps - although only four remain.

A sunken room at the rear of the Temple of Zeus at Nemea, measuring 3.7m × 4.4m. The adyton of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi may have been similar. Photo: Gareth Williams.

A similar descent at Delphi would explain why the pythia was said to “go down” into the adyton (Plutarch, Moralia 438B). No oracle has been associated at Nemea and the purpose for this room is unknown. The walls of the Nemean basement are rough, perhaps indicating they were plastered before applying further finishes.

The Delphic adyton was reputed to be the centre, or navel, of the earth. Apparently, Zeus released two eagles to circumvent the earth and they converged at Delphi. This point was marked by an omphalos, a bee-hive shaped stone. The word omphalos means navel, centre, or the boss of a shield. That this stone was apparently located near the Pythia is suggested by – among others - the playwright Aeschylus, who describes the prophetess becoming startled at viewing a bloodied Orestes awaiting an oracle in the “inner temple (…) at the navel-stone” (Eumenides 39-41). Strabo adds that the omphalos featured upon it the “likeness of the birds of the myth” (9.3.6).

Interestingly, a votive Spartan relief (fifth century BC) portrays an omphalos flanked by two eagles positioned next to the pythia seated upon the tripod. Pindar also indicates the relationship between the tripod and omphalos when he tells us that the “priestess (…) sat beside the golden eagles of Zeus” (Pythian 4.4-5).

A white-ground lekythos (oil flask) in Athens. It depicts a woman and a youth at a tomb shaped like an omphalos. Photo: Gareth Williams.

Strabo further informs us that the stone was “draped in fillets”, or the ornamental headbands worn by worshippers who marched in procession to consult the oracle (9.3.6). It may be that such enquirers discarded their fillets in the adyton as a gift to Apollo. An Athenian white lekythos (oil flask) depicts a woman and youth at a tomb shaped like an omphalos decorated with fillets (ca. 430-420 BC). But if the omphalos is a grave marker, then who’s grave is depicted at Delphi?

Adyton Furniture

Two notable burials are recorded as taking place in Delphi: Dionysius, and the dragon, Python, the former guardian of the site who was slain by Apollo (Callimachus, Hymn II 97-104). After Dionysius’ dismemberment by the Titans, his body parts were collected by Apollo and buried in the adyton at Delphi.

Plutarch, who served as a Delphic priest, informs us that the Delphians believed that Dionysius’ remains rest “close beside the oracle” (Moralia 365). Philochoros, a historian of the third to second century BC, describes the grave marker as a bathron, a kind of step or stairway. A fifth-century Attic votive relief depicts Apollo seated on a tripod with his feet resting on a bathron, a stand consisting of two steps.

A red-figure oinochoe (jug) in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, depicting a tripod on a two-stepped bathron. Photo: Gareth Williams.

Another votive relief from the Piraeus shows Apollo again seated on the tripod but this time his feet rest upon an omphalos flanked by two eagles. Additionally, a relief from Sparta depicts the omphalos and eagles positioned on a low rectangular base.

Of further interest is the fact that the lekythoi mentioned above, portraying a grave shaped as an omphalos, is itself standing on a two-stepped bathron. Whatever the artistic, poetic, or literary licence, the tripod and omphalos are often depicted as being in close proximity.

The stone, the tripod

How does this information help us to define the possible function of the stone (1.5m × 0.96m) displayed at Delphi? As noted above, the stone is divided into two easily discernible parts by a sinuous channel forming a circular base on the left hand side of the stone.

The surface of the stone is covered in heavy calcareous deposits possibly due to continuous exposure to the lime impregnated water of the spring of Cassotis which ran under the temple (Pausanias 10.24.7). This gutter seems designed to divert the water away from the circular area of the stone.

Features of this circular area consist of a number of cuttings: three similar sized rectangular holes positioned around a larger central rectangular opening. This immediately brings to mind the settings required to support the legs of a tripod with a central support for the lebes, or dish, placed on top where the Pythia would have sat.

Such a design is not unusual. For example, in the Athenian agora stood the Monument of the Eponymous Heroes. At each end there were displayed tripods stood on bases of Pentelic marble. Similar markings can be observed: impressions for double T clamps are evident, along with three indentations for the tripod legs and a central circle for the pillared support. Vase paintings sometimes show tripods stood on stepped bases with central supporting pillars.

A marble base for a tripod at the monument of the Eponymous Heroes in Athens. Photo: Gareth Williams.

Plutarch observed that the Pythia’s reactions to the intermittent strength of the vapours entering the adyton varied dramatically. Sometimes, it seems that she thrashed around like a “labouring ship … filled with a mighty and baleful spirit” (Moralia 438B).

We can imagine that at such times it was necessary to stabilise the tripod. Perhaps the two diagonally placed holes are evidence of securing features such as hooks for cords or some other device.

The stone, the omphalos

What of the right hand side of the pavement block? As discussed above, the omphalos was situated close to the tripod. The same French archaeologist mentioned above claimed to have also excavated the original poros omphalos (0.385m across the base and 0.287m high).

This omphalos has an unusual feature - a 4cm square hole piercing its entire length from top to bottom. Explanations for this distinctive feature consist of a socket to retain a wooden shaft used to support the golden eagles presumed to be displayed on top of the relic. This does not, however, explain why the hole penetrates the full length of the stone.

Beneath the adyton, the French excavators’ original reports identified a number of fissures in the rock created by the action of water seeping through the limestone. It seemed that the adyton was built to encompass these cracks where gases and groundwater could seep through.

Latest geographical reports state that an intersection of faults lie beneath the temple. Gas could conceivably escape into the adyton through such fissures, although, as stated above, Plutarch professed to their intermittent strength (Moralia 437C).

Was the hollow shaft of the omphalos - being positioned above the central hole of the pavement block - a way of attempting to channel or concentrate the vapours to a specific place - the immediate area of the Pythia? Because of the dimensions of the poros omphalos it could easily sit on the right hand side of the paving stone leaving room for two flanking eagles.

Plutarch, our Delphic priest, attests to the presence of vapours, citing as witnesses “many foreigners and all the officials and servants at the shrine”, but whether these vapours were visible to an observer I am not qualified to comment upon. Nevertheless, Plutarch does comment on an “exhalation”, a “current of air”, but whether its presence was viewed or announced through a “delightful fragrance” wafting toward those present to consult the Pythia, we do not know (Moralia 437C-D).

Curiously, Pindar (fr. 45) speaks of the “smoking omphalos” of Athens - possibly alluding to the smoky sacrifices upon the altars of the Athenian acropolis. Was this image of a smoking omphalos garnered from the eyewitnesses at Delphi, who may have sometimes witnessed “smoke” - or perhaps warm air carrying gases causing a blurring effect - coming from the Delphic omphalos? Such conjecture is probably impossible to prove.

Conclusions

I suppose a measure of faith is needed in order to attribute the standing stone displayed at the rear of the Temple of Apollo as the central mechanism for oracular dissemination at Delphi.

Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence is appealing, and, possibly to some, convincing. I have always been interested in the role of this sanctuary in the history of Greece and somehow, to have unearthed a paving stone that supported the tripod and omphalos at Delphi, well, it all seems too good to be true. Doesn’t it?