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Mythology and History of Delphi

Human traces in the area of Dephi go back to the Neolithic period as it is evidenced by the finds of the cave Korykeio Andro, situated at the slope of Mount Parnassos. It seems that at this place people worshipped Gaea (the ancient Greek word for “earth”), a primordial goddess, known in Greek Mythology as the mother of gods and humans.

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According to myths, Zeus, the king of gods, after he had defeated the Titans, released two eagles, one from the East and the other from the West; the two birds met each other at Delphi and Zeus marked the place with a huge rock which he threw down; ever since this place would be the navel (“omphalos”) of earth, the center of universe. The Korykeio Andro was the first oracle, as it was there that Gaea, under the name of Pytho, gave her prophecies; the cave was guarded by her son, the awesome dragon Python. The use of the cave goes back to the mid-2nd millennium b.C. whereas the myth seems to have been formed during the Mycenaean period. It is thought that this first sanctuary was situated on the road leading from the Minoan settlement of Krissa (actually called Chrysso) at Corinthiakos Bay, to mainland Greece. The myth about Python states that Apollo, still a baby, had killed Python and was forced to leave the place of Delphi, until he expiated his crime. Later on he came back, founded his own sanctuary and set the area under his protection. Ever since he was called Apollo Pythios, in memory of the dragon he had killed; his priestess took the name Pythia and the whole area changed its name to Delphi. There are several suggestions about the etymology of this name: one of them connects the name with the word “dolphin” (dolphin), as Apollo arrived to Krissa on a dolphins back. However, the most well known is the one that connects Delphi with the word “delphys”, which in ancient Greek means “uterus”. Many feasts in honor of Apollo and others recalling the killing of the dragon by him took place at Delphi throughout antiquity: “Septeria”, “Delphinia”, “Tharghelia” and “Theophania” were some of the best known feasts, whereas the Pythian games, Panhellenic games taking place every four years, were athletic and music games established in memory of the victory of Apollo. 

Whatever the etymology or the myths tell, the historic core is that Minoans had had a great influence in the area. Moreover, literary sources state that Krissa, situated at the fertile plain of Itea, was a very important place which took possession of the Oracle from the very beginning and kept it throughout its history.
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The village of Kastri

The archaeological site of Delphi has been inhabited as early as in the Byzantine times; the village established on the once famous oracle was called Kastri (“castle”) probably in memory of the past glory of the place. The plan of the excavations previewed that this small village should be moved, as the houses were built on the ancient monuments. However, the stubborn locals would not consent to this until a strong earthquake caused severe damages to the village. It was then that they moved in a newly built village close enough to the old one. Thus, in 1893 it became possible to start excavations of the site which brought to light the important buildings and the impressive finds the visitors admire today.

Travelers of modern times

By mid-15th century the area of Delphi rouses the interest of many people who start to visit it. The first traveler recorded is the so-called “Ciriaco of Ankona” who came to the area during the period of Renaissance; he visited Kastri, then a tiny, totally unknown village which however, had been built just on the ruins of the ancient sacred place. The number of visitors from Europe, most of them wealthy and well educated, increases dramatically during the 19th century, just before the Greek Independence War in 1821. All those people are stimulated by their ancient Greek education, then flourishing in Europe, but also by the spirit of philhellenism that reaches its peak in this period and continues after the end of the Independence War.

These travelers are also amateur archaeologists; during their tours they detect “lost” ancient monuments still visible and some of them would excavate them. Every body would bring along a souvenir from the ancient sites or would incise their name on a column; the most well known case of this latter is Byron, the famous British poet and philhellene. After 1800 A.D. most of the travelers are British professors, architects, diplomats, officers, collectors, art dealers. In this period of time, every British noble would start his adult life with a “peregrination” to the antiquities of the Mediterranean. British travelers are followed by Scandinavian and French antiquaries, while Germans, especially from Bavaria, will arrive in mass after the establishment of the Greek state.
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Excavations of the site

It was during the reign of Otto that Greek professors of the newly established University, along with foreign scholars started to record the antiquities of the country. On 1846 the French Archaeological Institute was established in Athens and soon, several other countries followed this practice aiming at excavating the ancient sites. Of course, the Greek state was unable to finance the excavations of Delphi, since the whole site not only was buried under tones of earth, but also a village was built upon the ruins whose residents should be moved and their properties reimbursed. The Greek Archaeological Society, assisted by intellectuals and wealthy Greeks of the diaspora, would undertake this task by 1880. However, in 1881 the director of the French Archaeological Institute in Athens had already asked for permission to carry out excavations at area of the village; the situation in Europe makes the issue of excavations at Delphi a major political affair. The Greek government aimed at gaining the support of France, so that the negotiations during the Berlin Congress in 1878 which concluded in the Convention of Istanbul in 1881 that gave Thessaly to Greece, end up successfully for Greece. The negotiations with the French about the excavations lasted for more than ten years and were carried out mostly by Charilaos Trikoupis, who asked for political and economic benefits in exchange. Finally, in 1891 the two parts concluded in an agreement: the French would invest 500.000 francs to reimburse the properties of the residents of Kastri, pay the costs of excavations and  restore the choragic monument of Lysicrates in Athens.Greece.

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Thus, in 1892 the so-called “major excavation” was officially inaugurated. The works lasted for some ten years and occupied hundreds of people: workers, craftsmen, engineers, scholars would work feverishly. Day after day, layer after layer, the history of the place is uncovered; the Christian site is followed by the ruins of the Roman era and lower down the Hellenistic and Classical remains are gradually brought to light. It is but an easy task; the site had been developed on a mountain slope and the earthquakes and landslides of the past had disturbed the stratigraphy. Moreover, the majority of the buildings had been built and demolished several times. The recent village had been constructed with materials taken from the ancient ruins. Even today, there are parts missing and the “puzzle” has not been finished. It is in this way that the “major excavation” proceeded uphill, bringing to light the important and impressive monuments of the site, almost following the description of Pausanias. The Treasury of the Athenians, the best preserved monument, is uncovered in 1893; today it is totally restored. By the same year two “twin” statues are found which initially were thought to present Cleovis and Viton, the two brothers who pulled the carriage of their mother, a priestess of Hera, to the temple of Argos; later on, scholars suggested that the statues presented the Dioscouri, Castor and Polydeukes.

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During 1893 it was also found the torso of Sphinx, broken in three pieces. The torso had been found some 30 years earlier but had been covered with landfills. During the next year the marble statue of the 2nd century b.C, presenting Antinoos, the handsome young companion of Emperor Hadrian was excavated. Several other monuments followed, until in 1896 was brought to light the statue of the Charioteer, a votive offering of the Sicilians; the famous bronze statue was dated in 480 b.C. In 1898 it was uncovered the Gymnasium; the monument was situated underneath the monastery of Panaghia and had been detected by several early travelers. One year later, in 1899, the famous fountain of Castalia was brought to light; the place where Pythia took her bath was also known both from ancient and from more recent travelers. In summer of 1901 the archaeologists started to excavate the Tholos which had been detected in 1891 with 15 columns of the temple of Athena Pronaea still standing in front of it. After that the excavations proceeded to the cemeteries; once the western one had been fully excavated, they decided to construct the Museum there. But of course, the target of archaeologists, as of the travelers, was to discover the temple of Apollo and identify the exact place where Pythia gave the oracles. However, both the layout of the building and the exact place of Pythia still remain uncertain today.

Later on, Millier, the director of the French Archaeological Institute in Greece said: “We are very happy because we were lucky enough to excavate the place where Apollo was born (the island of Delos) and the place he chose to live (Delphi)”; with this statement the eminent scholar emphasized the importance of Delphi for the French Archaeological Institute in Greece.
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