The High Priestess: Priestess at Delphi
The priestess, engulfed in fumes escaping from a fissure, is called the Pythia. Both fissure and oracle are symbols of the unknown. The deep earth is mysterious, darker than the darkest night, and where we are buried after death. The fumes come from Python, the oracle’s eponym, and enable the High Priestess to access secrets hidden in the dark.
Python was the Earth Dragon, a child of the Earth Mother-goddess Gaia, who was herself the first of all beings to form from Chaos in Greek cosmology. Later, Apollo killed Python, and its body fell into a crevasse at Delphi. The legend claims that as its body decomposed, it released fumes. Powerful and primordial even in death, the gases pull the Pythia into a trance in which she communes with Apollo.
Thus, Apollo is the god of prophecy; yet, even Apollo must rely on the dark, feminine energy of the earth to access portentous and visionary power.
Many scholars believe that, before Apollo claimed a mystical residence at Delphi, it was a center of feminine spiritual authority, a site of worship for Gaia and possibly later of Themis, a Titaness and early goddess of “divine justice.” This initial goddess worship may be the structural root of the Delphic rites: The priestess was chosen by from among local woman beyond childbearing age.
Snakes at Delphi
Another hint at the ancient female origins of this place were the snakes. Snakes, a very ancient symbol of female power, were honored at Delphi even after Apollo’s takeover of the oracle and mythological killing of Python. One account claims priestesses entered a pit of sacred snakes to feed them, and the success or failure of this act was read as an omen for coming agricultural season.
Snakes at Delphi also licked the ears of the legendary and doomed Cassandra, gifting her with prophetic abilities, while the male god Apollo simultaneously cursed her that no one would believe her. To sit between darkness and light is to risk – or suspend – disbelief.
The High Priestess, the Pythia, sits between light and darkness. The darkness represents all potential, and the light knowledge, or formation. In the darkness creative ideas, new knowledge, and solutions form. There, they gestate before being born into the light.
Sitting on a tripod throne, the Pythia travels the borderlands between the known and the unknown, teasing mysteries into the light. How do we find solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles? History is full of stories of geniuses who did not know, of artists who could not create, but woke up with an answer, a lyric, a new idea. This is why people came to the Pythia in the ancient world. The high born, self-made, merchants, peasants and commoners all came to her for the answers they could not muster on their own.
We can look to the High Priestess to find a balance between the sacred feminine, the Pythia herself, and the sacred masculine, represented by Apollo. The ruby veil threaded with gold symbolizes the Pythia’s authority, esteem, and sacred femininity. She holds a bowl, a symbol of rejuvenation and of the womb, and a laurel sprig, sacred to Apollo and symbol of honor and victory.
The mythological history of the Oracle at Delphi portrays a strange and harsh reality. The Python represents the darkness within the earth. Apollo is symbolically the sun, driving his solar chariot across the sky every day. The darkness is a symbol of intuition and potential, the light of consciousness and action in the world.
From one perspective – albeit one that is too forgiving – Apollo’s murder of Python ensured access to wild serpent’s knowledge, establishing a means to bring secret, sacred ideas into the light. Pneuma is a Greek word meaning “spiritual essence,” and Python is the pneuma of the earth. Apollo is human potential. Humans can only reach optimal potential by listening deeply to the earth. (That Apollo’s solution was killing and exploitation is the “shadow” that must be confronted.)
Balance is the pinnacle of wisdom, and in the Tarot of Delphi the High Priestess represents the sacred balance of masculine and feminine principles, extrinsic and intrinsic knowledge, action and observation, assertiveness and reflection.
The Pythia is the darkness, the blackness that encircles our planet, the shade that protects us from the sun, the warm quietude of the comforting womb. We must navigate into the darkness and back out again into the sunlight. Otherwise, the creative idea is never born. At his most ideal Apollo provided the power to act, so that we don’t just find the solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles – we bring them to the world. The Pythia is the midwife.