Witches in History and Legend: Pythia, the Mistress of Divination and Necromancy

Updated on February 22, 2018
Ioana-R profile image

Alexa has studied faeries, witches and magical beings since she can remember. She hasn't seen one yet, but is a fervent admirer nonetheless.

Who was Pythia? What did she actually do? Did she practice both divination and necromancy? Why are there more Pythias mentioned by ancient writers? Is she a real witch or just a fraud? Read on to find answers to these questions and get to know the famous witch of both legend and history!

Who was Pythia?

Pythia was the high priestess of Apollo, who used to live and prophesize inside the Delphic Oracle, in Greece. She was a witch so great, that all the other high priestesses of the Delphic Oracle that came after, took her name. This is why they are remembered by historians as Pythias.

In ancient times, only men were allowed the honor to be mortal voices of the Greek Gods. Pythia changed this tradition with Apollo's love and blessing. So she became his voice and one of the first feminist witches in history.

After her passing, the Pythias continued to be the only oracles of Apollo, the one male God speaking with a womanly voice.

Pythia with the great Python
Pythia with the great Python | Source

What Does "Pythia" Mean?

The word pythia means snake and comes from the mythical Python slain by the God Apollo. Legend says the stones under the Delphic Oracle had been the battlefield where Apollo fought the python and won. When Apollo struck, the Earth itself opened and a chasm was formed. The Python was engulfed by the steaming air evaporating from the cleft and he fell within. On the monster's rotting body, the sorceress Phemonoe (The Prophetic Mind), built a temple for Apollo and took the name Pythia as a celebration of his deed. The temple became known as The House of Snakes and later as the Delphic Oracle.

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How Was a New Pythia Selected?

According to historians, the Pythia had to be a young virgin. However, after a while the custom changed. One of the young Pythias was raped. After the sad event, the Delphians decided that the Pythia should be a woman past the age of 50. She would continue though to wear the white dress the previous virgins used to wear, in loving memory of their first Pythia. The woman had to be of local origin and it didn't matter if she were of noble descent or just a simple peasant. What did matter was that she had a well established reputation as a good woman, mother and wife.

Pythia breathing the enchanted vapors
Pythia breathing the enchanted vapors | Source

What Did Pythia Actually Do?

Pythia was a mistress of both divination and necromancy. Those who witnessed her art and then wrote about it, describe Pythia's prophecies either as accurate and helpful, or highly nonsensical and useless, very much depending on the man and the problem he had come with. She could present ambiguous prophecies even to kings if she had the feeling that her choice was for the best.

Pythia the Diviner

According to Cicero, divination is a presension and a knowledge of future things. In ancient Greece, divination was an important part of everyday life, which means that almost everyone took part.

Pythia only prophecized one day in each month. Enquirers who came at the temple for a prophecy had to go through a purification ritual before they were allowed in the presence of the Oracle. Before the procedure, Pythia would purify herself as well, in the Castalin spring near the sanctuary. After that, historians mention her burning laurel leaves and barley meal to call and appease Apollo.

After the purification, the money had to be paid. A Vth century inscription describes an agreement between the people of Phaselis and the Pythias about the fees the enquirers had to pay. 7 drachmas and 2 obols had to be paid whenever the state of Phaselis consulted the Oracle, whereas individuals had to pay 4 obols.

When all these rituals were ended, the enquirer was admitted to a space below the level of the temple, where the navel stone marked the sacred spot. The Pythia was waiting in an inner sanctuary. Outside the sanctuary, visitors would ask their questions and wait for the response. In the inner room, the Pythia stood on her tripod, already under the influence of Apollo. No other woman except the Pythia was permitted to enter the inner sanctuary.

Statue of Pythia
Statue of Pythia | Source

The Trance

Under Pythia's tripod there was a chasm, left by the great battle of Apollo and from the chasm sweet vapors emerged. According to Strabo, the Pythia used to sit on her tripod, receive the magical pneuma from the chasm below her and give prophecies by inhaling this pneuma. Pythia experienced some kind of enthusiasm but not an uncontrolled frenzy and then spoke. Some say they had seen her dancing. Others state she had sternly spoken, or even furiously foretold . Perhaps the truth lies in between. Or maybe all statements are true.

Pythia tarot
Pythia tarot | Source

The Prophecies

During the consultation, the enquirer stayed at another room and it is possible that his question was transmitted orally or in written form to the Pythia, by one of Apollo’s priests, who were said to be present in the consultation procedure.

There are a few cases we know of, when the enquirer was allowed inside the inner sanctum and he watched the magic happening under his own eyes.

Here are two of the most famous prophecies Pythia had made, that both came true.

In 480 BC, before the battle of Thermopylae, when king Xerxes and his Persian army were plotting against Greece, The Athenians went to the Pythia, and, indicating they would not win the battle, she said to them:

"Now your statues are standing and pouring sweat.

They shiver with dread.

The black blood drips from the highest rooftops.

They have seen the necessity of evil.

Get out, get out of my sanctum and drown your spirits in woe."

The last prophecy the Oracle gave, predicted it would be her final one. A Roman emperor wanted to revive classic Greek culture, so he went to the Pythia and she said to him:

"Tell to the king that the cavern wall is fallen in decay;

Apollo has no chapel left, no prophesying bay,

No talking stream. The stream is dry that had so much to say."

Pythia depicted on an ancient coin
Pythia depicted on an ancient coin | Source

Pythia the Necromancer

Necromancy, which is as well a method of divination, was seen as the practice of consulting the dead. It was a way of communication between the living and the dead. For a real communication between the living and the dead, both sides had to enter into a common condition. In particular, the living had to die a little and the dead had to come to life for a while.

Pythia used the art of necromancy only when the divination or the information required was one that only the dead could provide, such as the time of death of those who are still alive or how the afterlife looks like.

Necromancy was strongly associated with the laying of restless ghosts and in order for the necromantic practice to be performed, the ghost had to be conjured up with some traditional rites, such as simple evocation, reanimation and manipulation of body parts or incubation in the place where the ghost was supposed to lay, whether this was a cave, a tomb or a battlefield.

If you want to hear the modern historians' opinion!

Tell us what you think about Pythia

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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Alexa R

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      • Ioana-R profile imageAUTHOR

        Alexa R 

        8 months ago

        Hello Charmaine!

        The day you had seems really magical! :)

        From what I've read, Pythia is usually a symbol of wisdom drawn from the unknown.

        Now, if you eventually decide to take a holiday, Greece is one of the places in this world where wisdom can still be found.

      • profile image

        threekeys 

        8 months ago

        Hi Alexa enjoyed your article!

        And within the last 24 hours:-

        ⌛ I came across a article that was about holiday places of the magical and mystical. And one of the places was The Delphi Oracle (Pythia) and it was my first chosen place to visit.

        ⌛My postal order was surprisingly early from the UK. It was my Tarot Deck, the Akashic Tarot Deck. You know what the very first card of this deck was as I removed the encasement? The Oracle of Delphi (Pythia)

        ⌛Late lunch today. Just came across your article on Pythia and the Delphi Oracle.

        Do you think Im suppose there is a message here? Something of relevance? Im not sure. Maybe its a big prod to take a holiday. Who knows? I know I am waaaaaay overdue for a change of scenery!

        Peace to You.

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