Thousands of years ago, a group of women was able to communicate with the divinity to transfer their prophecies to humanity in the oracle of Delphi. They were the pythias or pythonesses. The name "pythia" is closely linked to the original legend of the sanctuary: the sacred place would be guarded by a colossal serpent, daughter of Gaea (Mother Earth), called Python. Apollo, in some sources for revenge and in others for power, killed the serpent to take over the government of the area, and had a temple built in his honor. It was here that the Pythias carried out their prophetic and divining work, so that their name contains a double reference: to the original serpent and to their condition as prophetesses of Apollo.
The city of Delphi, located in the shelter of Mount Parnassus (the one where, according to Greek mythology, the muses lived), was one of the most important in Classical Antiquity since one of the myths of Zeus placed it as the center of the world. Its oracle, although it was not the oldest, was the one that achieved the greatest fame: there was no campaign that was undertaken, a peace treaty that was signed or a city that was founded without first having gone there to consult the Pythias. Plutarch tells us that the Pythia had to be a woman born in Delphi, that she was chosen with great care among the others and that she had to consecrate herself to Apollo until the moment of her death, promising chastity, a condition linked in the Greek imagination to "true words". .
Only the pythia had access to the part of the temple where the oracle (the adyton) was located. There, in a ritual ceremony, he used divinatory instruments such as a bowl with sacred water from the Kassotis spring and a bay leaf. Seated on a tripod, she received the prophecy, communicated it through an intelligible language to the priest who acted as her assistant, and he transmitted it in prose or verse, orally or sometimes in writing, to the person who had requested the intercession of the pythia The prophecy was not a closed message, but advice for the correct interpretation of which one had to count on the two virtues promoted by the maxims of the temple: "know yourself" and "nothing too much".
The figure of the Pythias can be understood in terms of tradition and the legacy of pre-patriarchal cultures. In many of them, the serpent was associated with divinity, and divinity was associated with the feminine. We find these survivals, for example, in the material culture of the Minoan civilization and in the goddess Nammu of the Sumerian civilization, also in the founding story of the Python serpent. The relationship between divination, snake and woman is also found in the onomatopoeic etymology that gives its name to the sibyls and the adjective sibylline. Another current term that draws from these female figures is "enthusiasm": enthousiasmós was the name given to the state of trance and ecstasy that pythias and sibyls reached before issuing the prophecy.
Sometimes, the sibyls and the pythias are referred to interchangeably as if both terms were synonymous. In a way they are, but with nuances: the sibyls are those women with the gift of divination in general (the prophetesses), and the Pythias were the ones who exercised it specifically in Delphi. In Greek pottery they are depicted seated on a tripod, with a bowl in one hand and a bay leaf in the other. They appear dressed in a peplos, clothing that, when associated with the goddess Athena, endows them with divine authority, and with their heads half covered by a veil. This element, the veil, symbolizes what is hidden but is now revealed, so the partial covering of the head with it is intentional.
Plutarch, Pausanias, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Pliny, Diodorus of Sicily and even Plato are some of the authors through whom we can get closer to their history and the ins and outs of the ritual they carried out, as well as the important role they played in mythology. and history of Ancient Greece due to the authority they held as intermediaries of divinity and possessors of the gift of clairvoyance. Part of the negative weight that the words "pythoness" or "sibylline" have today could be due to the continuous efforts to make the power that women had invisible and to ridicule or degrade the scope of their words, which would explain why something that before it granted authority to women today it is used to take it away.
By Eugenia Tenenbaum