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Secret of Delphi Found in Ancient Text


Researchers at the University of Leicester have unravelled a 2,700 year old mystery concerning The Oracle of Delphi – by consulting an ancient farmer’s manual.

The researchers from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History sought to explain how people from across Greece came to consult with the Oracle – a hotline to the god Apollo- on a particular day of the year even though there was no common calendar.

Now their findings, published in this month’s edition of the journal Antiquity, suggests celestial signs observed by farmers could also have determined the rituals associated with Apollo Delphinios

Postgraduate student Alun Salt said: “The manual, Works and Days by Hesiod, dating to the eight century BC, describes the right time to plant crops or harvest by observing a variety of signs. One particular event he frequently looked for was the heliacal rising of a star, its first appearance that year in the morning sky.

“I was playing around with a planisphere while suffering from insomnia. This is when I noticed that the constellation Delphinus would have been rising in the eastern sky in late December and early January. This is the same time that some cities were sacrificing to Apollo Delphinios.

“I wondered if ritual events could use the same system described by Hesiod. The problem was that January wasn’t the time Apollo Delphinios was questioned at Delphi. Delphi was a month late compared to other cities. I knew the cliffs at Delphi would delay the rising of Delphinus there, but I didn’t know by how much.”

Efrosyni Boutsikas, a fellow postgraduate at Leicester, had surveyed Delphi as part of her PhD and had the figures. She said: “The temple of Apollo at Delphi is overlooked by huge cliffs to the east. These block out the view of the lower part of the eastern sky. The horizon is so high the stars have to climb a long way before they are visible just before sunrise.

“This means that if you’re holding an early morning ritual like preparing to consult Apollo, and you want to see a constellation, you have to wait around a month after other cities with flat horizons.”

Alun Salt concluded; “The great advantage that constellation spotting has over waiting for the sun to rise over a stone is that this system is portable. It could be used by Greeks across the Mediterranean who wanted to know when to visit Delphi without having to rely on knowing what the local date was in Delphi’s calendar. It also explains why Delphi’s calendar is slightly out of step with calendars in places like Athens.”

Does this make Delphi a Greek Stonehenge? Could this event still be seen by visitors today? Alun Salt is doubtful: “The event still happens, about a month later these days because of the way the Earth’s movement in the heavens has changed since ancient times. The big problem is light pollution. The stars of Delphinus are quite faint. You won’t see them from Athens, and I don’t know if the sky around Delphi is dark enough to make them out. It’s a challenge for anyone at Delphi around the start of February.

The findings are published in this month’s edition of the archaeological journal Antiquity.

Alex Jelley | alfa
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