The Pythia, Oracle at Delphi, was (scholars report)
the most powerful woman of the Ancient World,
sought out by royalty and commoner alike to answer their questions
and predict their fates, prognostications she offered them
in dactylic hexameter as elegant and epic as any Homer wrote

though (others footnote) every fortune the Oracle uttered was claimed
to come out as hysterical raving in need of translation by her priestly keepers—
acolytes of Apollo and collectors of the payment each pilgrim brought
in tribute to the God and to his Voice—

the truth lying, as it always does, somewhere between
frenzied gibberish and enigmatic prophecy,
between priestess and priests
between woman and man.


Each priestess elevated to Pythia was (sources indicate) selected first
from among the as-yet-still-virginal, pure
and malleable as any young girl made figurehead for a community
of men and their God of Reason

though (reading further) later Oracles were old women
dressed up in maidens’ clothing,
a disguise deemed necessary after the rape of one sacred virgin
left her mouth too defiled to entrust with holy wisdom,

a logic that presumes violence as man’s true nature and desire
and matrons as dried husks gone beyond the reach of either—
or (a cynic might think) as actors better practiced
at concealing deepest wounds.


Crouching on her three-legged dais with its perforated seat,
the Oracle received supplicants while breathing in fumes
emanating from the ground beneath her: marsh gases (some say)
or hallucinogenic herbs (according to others) burning like incense,

or (ancients believed) vapors released by the rotting corpse of Python—
mighty godsnake sacred to Mother Earth, phallic and fecund thus entwined—
whom the Sun Lord slaughtered that he might build his temple
on the old religion’s tomb.

But reasons exist beyond smoke (I say) that bring forth a woman’s madness.


The Pythia (I can see her now), pulling her virgin’s veil close to conceal the hairs
that prickle from an age-softened chin. She squats on her tripod with thick thighs
like she squatted to birth sons and daughters decades before
and fingers herself in jaded boredom, sniffing the air for charred entrails of sacrifices
that danced as goats just that morning.

When kings are brought before her, she eyes their bowing and scraping
as askance as ever she looked at any god, absent or present,

sucks in a long wet breath over oleander leaves tucked
in her lower lip like a chaw of Skoal’s,

composes verses in her mind
and (howling)

releases them to the wind.



Alice’s myth/fairy tale project continues!

[Image: John Collier (1891). Priestess of Delphi.]

24 thoughts on “Oracle

  1. Second only to the legend(s) of Cassandra for me in Greek mythology is the story of the Delphic oracle. This poem is a gem of a retelling of the pythia’s life and role in the temple. The carefully placed links to today (feminism today) are just enough to make their (barbed) point, without overwhelming the flow of the poem as a whole. You’ve added a new voice to the Delphi literature, one that touches me heart, mind, and spirit. Thank you.

    (I may have asked you this before: have you read The Sybil, by Pär Lagerkvist? It’s from the middle of last century, but still shares a number of themes with your poem. If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend it.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’m glad the piece worked for you. What I was going for with all those (parentheticals) was also the importance and central role of personal experience in feminist analysis.

      I have been working to give myself permission, you see, to move beyond my compulsion to back up every claim I make with chapter-and-verse 25 thousand references to other people’s work! 🙂 To internalize confidence in my own ability and authority to create new knowledge, to acknowledge that I do really know enough by now to let myself say that I do know things.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Funny, my parentheticals weren’t a comment on yours, though I can see that it might look that way. That’s just how I write. Appositives’Я’Us.

        I did pick up on the personalization meaning of the parentheticals in the latter half of the poem, though I didn’t catch the link to feminist analysis (probably because I never actually studied feminist analysis; I’ve just picked up bits and pieces by osmosis here and there [not sure feminist analysis was even a thing at universities back when I went to school…]).

        What I took from them was a story within a story, almost — up until the last line of the third stanza, they are abbreviated citations of the authorities behind a statement, though they gradually become less and less scholarly. Then in that last line of that stanza, they become explicitly personal, and remain so til the end. It’s like a peek into the poet’s mind as she researches the topic, where she starts out relying on scholarly authority, but ultimately rejects it, having come to believing in herself, and her ability to see (and therefore speak) truth, based on her own abilities.

        Actually, as I re-read what I just wrote, I see that that too is feminist — the story of the female poet outgrowing the limits of external male authority, and growing into her own internal authority.

        I love this poem so much!

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! Your comment made me think of a point one of my professors made, back in the day when I was steeped in my studies of ancient mythologies and which I have never forgotten. A bit tangential to what you are saying, but still, I think, interesting to consider:

      We do not and cannot know the beliefs or practices of the earliest human communities (prehistoric peoples by definition having left no written records), except that they could not have been dominated by either gender; everyone’s full participation would have been required for such subsistence-level survival. So we have no actual evidence pointing to the pre-existence of matriarchal cultures. What we do have — again and again, in tradition after tradition, as humans learned to cultivate food and developed adequate resources/surplus to start putting energy into more complex systems of community/governance/civilization-building — are *stories* about an earlier time when women dominated men…and how they were so terrible at it, in one way or another, that men were forced to take over control. I’ve been taking note of and collecting such “whew! thank heavens for patriarchy! it was so. much. worse. when the girls ran things, amirite??” myths ever since.

      While the origin myth of the oracle at Delphi resembles but doesn’t entirely fit into this model, that’s precisely why I like it so much. Yes, Apollo comes and stamps out the preexisting goddess worship — but the story doesn’t contain much “they were so terrible, he had no choice but to kill them” after-the-fact justification. It thus cannot fully conceal the brutality of his actions or motivations.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Agamemnon, really?? How fascinating! Please tell me, if you remember, what made stand out as so appealing to you — all the versions of stories he appears in notwithstanding, I somehow have never thought of him as anything other than the king who sacrificed his daughter to the gods at the start of the Trojan War, and then got Cassandra killed (tho inadvertently) at the war’s end. I love hearing how other people engaged with the myths!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I still remember him as a great tragic King and hero. In fact when Sean Connery played him in “Time Bandits”, that was exactly how I had, as a child, imagined Agamemnon. I read a lot of myths and SF and I often identified as a male character. After all they were the one having all the interesting lives…..

        ….and I’ve been a tomboy all my life!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I identify deeply with Cassandra (perhaps too deeply for my own sanity), and so I have always seen Agamemnon as the archetypal brutish male, the culmination and deserved consequence of the cursed house of Atreus. The blasphemous insult to Artemis, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the merciless total war against Troy, the taking of Cassandra as his personal sex slave, all make it impossible for me to admire the man. I will say, though, that I can see why you would rather be Agamemnon than Iphigenia or Cassandra (or Polyxena, whose death is disturbingly similar to Iphigenia’s): all of these stories make it clear who has the power, and therefore the freedom to do as they please, and — spoiler alert — it ain’t the women.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. …and remember, this was the young me, an bright working class girl in 1960’s England. I had no female role models apart from Shirley Bassey (oh, the glamour) and Catgirl! No wonder I identified with heroic men. I also wanted to grow up to be Buzz Aldrin (still admire the man).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. If aspiring to be Catgirl is not a completely legitimate life-goal, well then I don’t wanna be right!

          Re. Agamemnon and other ancient heroes: it’s so interesting to me how and why our interpretation of these figures shifts over time. The recent advent of feminist criticism and the quest to retrieve/reimagine missing women’s perspectives from the past has obviously altered our modern viewpoints considerably — but the process of shifting itself is not new. Even within the source material from the ancient Greeks, whose version you read determines what judgments you find.

          I had forgotten, Cheeseseller’s Wife, about the Sean Connery interpretation! Thanks for the giggle (and hey! big shout-out from one Time Bandits enthusiast to another!). In appreciation, I’ma share with you my own brief interpretation of Agamemnon, in case you’re interested:

          🙂 alice

          Liked by 2 people

        2. my name is Kim, but I’ve never interacted with the Net using myown name. His time I chose the name of a hypothetical award winning ‘issues’ novel suggested by my teenage son as he monologued at dinner about the awful novels he has to read for his Literature classes. I love your Cassandra poem, I can imagine that truly being her train of thought. And I found the Picasso touching. THEN I spotted that previous post and realised you are a firefly fan. Truly a kindred spirit. Of course, a woman as a Spaceship Engineer would have been exactly hat I needed to see as a child. The women in classic Star trek were far too girly for me…………. 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

    1. Oleander leaves (either chewed or smoked) is one theory about how the Oracles went into a hallucinatory state — so nope, not deadly*. At least, not immediately so! Not hemlock-deadly, I mean.

      [*The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the opinions of the blogger and do not constitute actual medical advice. Please consult your own physician before deciding if oleander is a safe hallucinogen for you.]

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, thank ye kindly ma’am! 🙂

      A friend and I are doing this collaborative project on fairy tales/mythology, sexual violence, and writing as a tool of recovery. I am having!!

      Liked by 1 person

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