Delphi was not one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But when it came to status and importance, few sites were as powerful as Delphi, an easy two and a half hour road trip from Athens. For a thousand years, people rich and poor, kings and peasants from across the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, visited and venerated the sanctuary of Apollo. Its oracle was the spiritual centre of their world.
Delphi was a place you went to foretell your future: from questions about marriage and planting crops, to weighty matters of state like whether to go to war. The fortune teller—a middle-aged, devout village woman— is thought to have entered her trance by chewing bay leaves or perhaps something mildly poisonous. Her prophecies were famously obscure and open to various interpretations. Among the most celebrated was the advice given to Themistocles when he asked how to defend Athens against the Persians: “Trust in your wooden walls.” Themistocles set about reinforcing his fleet, which trounced the Persians in the naval battle of Salamis in 480 BC. The cryptic oracle thrived for centuries and those who came seeking answers made offerings as payment, turning Delphi into one of the Hellenic world’s wealthiest shrines.