Anthropology and Spirit Possession: A Reconsideration of the Pythia’s Role at Delphi

Published in Journal of Hellenic Studies 115 (1995) 69–86.

During a consultation at one of Delphi, servants imagined, heard, intuited, or feigned Apollo’s presence and then uttered Apollo’s divine response to the human client who made inquiry of the god. Such inspired mimicry appears incomprehensible to the non-believing distant observer to whom Apollo no longer speaks. Scholars hear nothing at Delphi and, steadfast in their faith in positivism, claim Apollo said nothing. In a similar fashion, scholars have pronounced that the Pythia, like Apollo, did not speak at Delphi, or that her attendant prophets reformulated her utterances and converted them into comprehensible prose or verse. Such a reconstruction of the divinatory consultation at Delphi, however, finds no support in the ancient evidence. Not one ancient source suggests that anyone other than the Pythia issued oracular responses.