This painting, by the British artist John Collier (c. 1850 – 1934), endeavors to bring to life an ancient priestess from the famous temple of Apollo at Delphi. Collier’s clergywoman is not just any priestess—she is a Pythia, a prophetess who, when sitting upon her specially-placed tripod in the temple, would utter cryptic messages that were said to have been mystically divulged to her by the temple’s patron god, Apollo. Prophecies and statements from the Pythia were highly valued in ancient Greece, and it was not uncommon for individuals and communities to seek advice from the Oracle before committing to any great decision or undertaking.
Even in ancient times, people in the Greco-Roman world suspected that the famous priestesses at Delphi might have been receiving help literally from the earth in order to enter their prophetic trances. The Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79), wrote of Delphi in a section of his Natural History that dealt with vents in the earth. He stated, “In other places there are prophetic caves, where those who are intoxicated with the vapour which rises from them predict future events, as at the most noble of all oracles, Delphi. In which cases, what mortal is there who can assign any other cause, than the divine power of nature, which is everywhere diffused, and thus bursts forth in various places?” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 2.95). Pliny’s contemporary, the poet Lucan (c. 39-65), also wrote an account of a Pythia of Delphi. In Lucan’s entertaining and fictionalized account, the poet describes the psychedelic escalation and decline of a Pythia, who seems tired and afraid of her hallucinogenic occupation. Lucan wrote:
“At last, terrified, the maiden fled toward the tripods.
She reached the cavernous depths and there remained,
and the power conceived in her virgin breast what the spirit
of the rock, unexhausted after so many centuries,
poured into the prophetess. At last he possessed
her Delphic breast—her body had never been fuller.
She searches long and hard
and barely finds it, buried among so many great fates.
First, rabid madness pours from her frothing lips,
groaning, loud howling with heavy panting breath,
then sad wails of lamentation echo
through the vast caves. At last, the virgin is mastered
and her voice rings out:
Then returning from the holy light where she saw Fate
to the common glare of day, a shroud of darkness falls.
Paean had poured inside her Stygian Lethe
that stole away the gods’ secrets. Truth fled her heart
and the future returned to Phoebus’ tripods;
struggling to revive, she falls.”
(Lucan, Civil War, Book 5, approximately lines 170-230)
As for the Pythia shown in John Collier’s painting, she seems to perhaps be in the early stages of her trance. Her appearance invites descriptions such as calm and anticipation, rather than wildness and dishevelment. Nevertheless, due to the crack in the earth and the plumes of natural gasses rising up into the space around her, the painted Pythia’s mind-altering trance is likely imminent.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Natural History, by Pliny the Elder, translated by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley (Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855), republished by Delphi Classics, 2015.
- Civil War, by Lucan, translated by Matthew Fox. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012.