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Ancient History
of the Delphic Games
Archaeological site with the view of the Apollo Temple, Delphi, Greece

A Journey from Myth to Reality

In ancient times, the Greek city of Delphi, together with the Oracle and the Temple of Apollo, was the spiritual centre of the world as it was then. But it was the Delphic Games that took place in that city that were so valuable for modern times.

In ancient Greece the Oracle of Delphi was situated on the edge of the Parnassos mountain range. As early as the 15th century B.C. it was already considered a holy place. People consulted the Oracle to obtain advice from the Gods to help them make crucial decisions.

According to the saga, the god Apollo claimed the oracle for himself by killing its keeper, the dragon Python. The Oracle became the shrine of Apollo.

After defeating Python, Apollo left Olympia, the seat of the gods, for eight years in voluntary exile to atone for his crime. He did penance in Thessaly as a simple shepherd for the King Admetus.

The Delphic Games (also known as Pythian, Pythic Games) were held in remembrance of Apollo's victory over Python and his self-inflicted penance. The various Greek clans gathered in peaceful competition. Yet, over the years many holy wars took place to decide upon ownership of the Oracle, until at last the twelve clans of Greece united in the Amphictyony (executive council) and from then on held the games together. Thus the Delphic Games stand for reconciliation and under-standing amongst people.

From 582 B.C. on, the Delphic Games (a.k.a. Pythion, Pythic Games ) took place every four years, always one year prior to the Olympic Games. They were organised by the Amphictyony, an executive council made up of representatives of the twelve Greek clans.

The Games were dedicated to Apollo, the God of Healing, Poetry and Art, of Beauty and of Light. Therefore, the emphasis of the competitions was on artistic elements. Due to the music and painting competitions, along with the performing arts such as acting and dance, contemporaries described the Delphic games as being much more magnificent than the athletic Olympic Games.

The holy Delphic Peace lasted for three months, including the duration of the Delphic Games. For this time weapons were laid down, guaranteeing both competitors and audience safe passage back and forth between the games and their homes. Even then, people realised that cultural exchange and the striving towards spiritual perfection is only possible in times of peace. Unfortunately, much documentation on the ancient Delphic games has been destroyed, either by natural catastrophes or by human force, but those surviving sources emphasise the pomp and magnificence of the Games. The writings of Aristotle give us an impression of the festivities:

The Games went on for six to eight days, starting with an enactment of Apollo`s victory over Python. In a splendid, festive procession, a sacrifice was made at the Temple of Apollo. After a huge feast, the games started on the fourth day.

Music and drama competitions were held at the Theatre of Delphi. The artistic disciplines consisted of: a hymn to the god Apollo, flute and lute performances, drama and dance and painting. Athletic competitions were carried out in the stadium on the fifth day. On the plain of Krisa spectacular chariot races were held.

The Delphic Games were games of honour. The winners received no monetary prize, but a crown of laurel leaves, just as the winners of the Olympic Games received an olive branch in recognition. Sometimes a statue was erected in honour of particular competitors. The honour and esteem placed on the victor and his home town were invaluable, therefore the cities supported their representatives in every way, to get the best possible results in the games.

We can also read about the enthusiasm of the audience. Thousands travelled to Delphi bringing considerable revenue into town. The Agora, an art market that went on during the Games was an important trading place for works of art. In the year 394 A.D. Theodosius, Emperor of Rome and Byzantium, banned the Delphic Games and the Olympic Games as being pagan events.

1,600 years later, the International Delphic Council (IDC) was founded and organised the first Youth Delphic Games 1997 in Tbilisi / Georgia and the first Delphic Games 2000 (for adults) of Modern Times were held in Moscow / Russia.

Chronology of Delphi

4000 B.C.
First traces of a settlement in Delphi at the site where the shrine of Athena Pronaia was build later.

1500 B.C.
First provable worshipping of the earth goddess Gaia in Delphi. First prophecies are made by reading water currents and the rustling of leaves. The dragon Python is said to protect the oracle.

1200 B.C.
Apollo takes hold of the shrine. He drives out the earth goddess Gaia and kills Python.

800 B.C.
The Apollo oracle in Delphi reaches high significance in the life of the Greek "nation" and becomes the centre of "Pan-Hellenism". The Greek tribes and cities consult the oracle before all important under-takings (i.e. war, founding of colonies)

600 B.C.
At the instigation of the Athenian family Alkmenoid, the burnt-down Temple of Apollo is rebuilt.

600 - 590 B.C.
First Holy War. The war results in the Delphic inhabitants' rebellion against the predominance of the neighbouring city of Krisa, the main place of Phokis, which exerted a kind of protectorate over the shrine. With the Athenians', Thessalians' and others help; the Delphic residents win against Krisa. From that time on, Delphi is formally administered by an "Entire Greek Council".

582 B.C.
The Pythian Games reach their final form. They are held every four years.

560 B.C. approx.
Building of Sikyon's treasure house.

548 B.C.
Apollo Temple in Delphi is destroyed through fire.

525 B.C. approx.
Building of treasure house of Siphnos.

518 B.C.
Birth of Pindar, whose religious poetry is strongly influenced by Delphi, who celebrates many winners of the Pythian Games in his Ephiniks.

490 B.C.
Battle of Marathon. The Greeks win over the Persians and thereby foil their attempt to subjugate Greece.

490 - 485 B.C.
With the booty of their victorious war against Persia, the Athenians build their treasure house in Delphi.

480 B.C.
Battle of Salamis. The Greek scatter the Persian fleet and force Xerxes to retreat. Falling boulders destroy Athena Pronay temple in Delphi.

448 B.C.
Second Holy War. Delphi's inhabitants revolt against the Athenians' and Pericles' decision to return the shrine to the Phokers. With the help of Sparta Delphi regains its independence.

431 B.C.
Breaking out of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.

418 B.C.
Pindar's death.

405 B.C.
With the Battle of Aigospotamoi the Peloponnesus War ends. Predominance of Sparta in Greece.

400 B.C.
Building of the gymnasium and theatre in Delphi.

373 B.C.
An earthquake destroys the Apollonian Temple in Delphi.

370 B.C.
Beginning of the reconstruction of the new Apollonian Temple.

356 B.C. Alexander the Great is born.

356 - 346 B.C.
Third Holy War. The Phokers, supported by Athens and Sparta, try to snatch Delphi's Shrine away from Theben. Philip II of Macedonia intervenes in the battle on Theben's side and gets both Phokerian votes in the Amphicktyonian Council.

340 - 338 B.C.
Fourth Holy War. Macedonia finally gains predominance in Greece. The war is triggered off by Amphissa's intention to cultivate the plain of Krisa, which was to be left untilled. Philip II destroys Amphissa and beats Athens and its allies decisively at Chaironeia.

340 B.C. approx.
The new Apollonian Temple in Delphi is finished.

336 B.C.
Philip II dies. Alexander the Great is his successor.

323 B.C.
Alexander the Great dies.

279 B.C.
Aetolia and the Phokers rescue the Delphic Shrine from the Gauls under Brennus.

190 B.C. approx.
The Aetolian alliance loses control over the Shrine and the Oracle to the Romans, who beat Antiochos II of Syria at Magnesia.

168 B.C.
Battle at Pydna. Perseus, king of Macedonia, is beaten decisively by the Romans. The region becomes a Roman province. The eastern Mediterranean region is annexed by the Roman empire.

86 B.C.
During the war against Milthidates, Sulla confiscates all the Shrine's valuable oblations.

87 B.C.
Emperor Domitian restores the Apollonian Temple.

180
Pausanius, one of the first "travel authors", describes the shrine's magnificence in quite a detailed fashion.

200
The Delphic Shrine reaches a new heyday under Hadrian and his successors.

392
Theodosius, Emperor of Byzantium and Rome, declares Christianity state religion. Pagan cults are forbidden.

394
The Delphic Shrine is closed.

398
Demolition of Apollonian Oracle-Temple through Arkadios, son of Theodosius.

After the ban, forgotten for 1,600 years!

1676
The English explorer George Wheeler and the French scholar Jaques Spon become aware of Delphi.

1812
Lord Byron, the restless English philhellene, visits Delphi.

1834
The Greek King Otto I visits Delphi - accompanied by the archaeologist Ludwig Ross, representative of the scientific registration of all Greek antiquities.

1870
The German archaeologists Karl Otfried Müller and Ernst Curtius begin with excavations in Delphi, but are stopped from continuing by regional forces.

1892 Théophile Homolle, director of the French Institute in Athens, is granted the right for official excavations in Delphi and makes the shrine's magnificence accessible for his contemporaries and future generations.

1894
1500 years after the ban - Founding of the International Olympic Commitee in Paris / France on the initiative of Pierre de Coubertin.

1927 / 1930
Two Delphic Festivals at the archeological site of Delphi, organised by the Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and his American wife Eva Palmer-Sikelianos - against strong objections from the Greek government.

1960
On initiative of the Greek President Konstantinos Karamanlis the European Cultural Center of Delphi (ECCD) is launched and a Conference Centre is built.

1977
By act of Parliament, the European Cultural Centre of Delphi (ECCD) acquires its present legal status as non-profit cultural organisation in the form of a corporate body governed by private law, under the supervision of the Greek Ministry of Culture and the auspices of the Council of Europe.

1994
1600 years after the ban - Founding of the International Delphic Council in Berlin / Germany on the initiative of J. Christian B. Kirsch with participation of representatives from 18 nations / 5 continents.