The Delphic oracle appears often in Greek myth, even in the account of the repopulating of the earth after a great flood. The high god Zeus, distressed over mankind’s wickedness, sends a flood to cover the earth, but two pious human beings, Deucalion (Prometheus’s son) and Pyrrha (Prometheus’s niece), survive by climbing Mount Parnassus. With the ebbing of the flood, the two descend the mountain and come upon the Delphic temple site, where they hear a voice: “Veil your heads and cast behind you the bones of your mother!” Like many of the Delphic oracles, this one is initially enigmatic, but Deucalion and Pyrrha soon realize that the earth is their mother; so they throw rocks over their shoulders, and the rocks are transformed into men and women, saving humanity from perdition.

Another famous, or infamous, visit to the oracle was made by the young Oedipus—who, having been adopted as a baby, wanted to know the identity of his parents. (The third-century A.D. marble relief above shows Oedipus [center] sacrificing to the Delphic oracle in front of a statue of Apollo [left].) However, the Delphic oracle informed the young man that he would murder his father and commit incest with his mother. To foil the prophecy, Oedipus left Corinth, which he (erroneously) believed to be his native land. On his journey he killed another chariot-driver in a fit of ancient road rage—but unknown to him, the other driver was his father Laius, King of Thebes.

The oracle at Delphi was also consulted by non-mythical figures. In the sixth century B.C., King Croesus of Lydia, in western Anatolia, inquired whether he should attack King Cyrus of Persia. “If you attack,” replied the Pythia, “you will destroy a great kingdom.” Croesus attacked the Persians, suffered total defeat, and saw his kingdom absorbed into the Persian Empire. Croesus had destroyed a great kingdom—his own.

More than a century later, the philosopher Socrates—shown above in a Hellenistic bust—reminded the Athenians at his trial in 399 B.C. that the oracle had declared him the wisest of men, a fact that did not save him from execution.

After Greece was conquered by Rome, a number of Roman emperors posed questions to the oracle. Nero (54–68 A.D.) was warned to beware the 73rd year, and he was later assassinated by troops who made the 73-year-old Galba emperor in his place. Hadrian (117–138 A.D.), shown in the bronze statue above, ever the intellectual, wanted to know the birthplace of the poet Homer. (The Pythia’s answer: Homer was the grandson of Odysseus and born at Ithaca.) The oracle advised Diocletian (284–305 A.D.) to persecute Christians—which Christians avenged by destroying a number of oracle sites in the fourth century A.D. Finally, the envoys of the pagan Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (361–363 A.D.) received word of the oracle’s demise from the Pythia: “Tell the king the fair-built hall has fallen; Apollo now has no house or oracular laurel or prophetic spring; the water is silent.”