The best books about Delphi and its oracle

The Books I Picked & Why

Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

By Michael Scott

Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

Why this book?

Scott is an associate professor of classics and ancient history at the University of Warwick and his erudition shines through this comprehensive study of Delphi and, at its heart, the Oracle and Temple of Apollo. Yet this is never a dull, academic book, Scott's obvious love for the place and its history prevents that, as he chronicles the wars and disputes, the judgements and prophesies, as well as how the Oracle, the female Pythia, was set at the very centre of the ancient world. He evokes the place brilliantly, with its spectacular setting, and brings the history up to date with the rediscovery of the ancient site and its re-emergence from the mountainside. It was inestimably useful to me when I wrote Oracle, but it also reinforced my desire to return to what is a very special place.


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Oresteia

By Aeschylus, Christopher Collard

Oresteia

Why this book?

The three extant plays in Aeschylus' Orestaia trilogy - Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides - form one of the cornerstones of western literature. Written in 5th century BCE Athens, they tell the story of a family, in which Fate and the Gods decree that each generation repeat the crimes and endure the suffering of their forebears. All classical Greek drama was, in some way, political and these are no exception, showing how, with the help of Athena a new system of laws, determined by men, can halt the never-ending cycles of violence.

Some of the poetry is stunning. And from the outset, we are in a solid, real world with the watchman of Argos complaining about his boring lot, before he sees the beacon which indicates that Troy has fallen and his King, Agamemnon, is returning home. Eumenides is the play which opens in Delphi at the Temple of Apollo and it is this play that moves the audience away from the brutality of blood vengeance towards justice, and contains what I think is the first representation of a jury trial in western literature. I tried to capture that juxtaposition in Oracle too.


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The Bacchae and Other Plays

By Euripides, Philip Vellacott

The Bacchae and Other Plays

Why this book?

Euripides is the Greek tragedian who, in my humble opinion, appeals most to the modern sensibility. Even in his own time (5th century Athens, BCE) he was regarded as an innovator who questioned the certainties of previous ages. The Bacchae is probably his greatest play, but Ion is the play set in Delphi. It includes the oracle (the Priestess of Apollo), as well as Apollo and Athena, as characters and, in it, the playwright begins to question the legitimacy of the gods themselves. Ion is the result of a divine rape, taken from his mortal mother at birth. The son of Apollo, he believes his parents abandoned him and works as a dogs-body and general helper in Apollo's Temple in Delphi. Then his mother and her husband, childless, arrive for a consultation...


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The Mask of Apollo

By Mary Renault

The Mask of Apollo

Why this book?

I fell in love with ancient Greece through its mythology, but it became a real place for me when I was a teenager in the books of Mary Renault. The Mask of Apollo is typical, it captures the drama of history and politics while totally engaging the reader in the life of the time, including 'real' characters - Plato, Dion, Alexander. Mask encompasses the theatre too, as the central character is a prize-winning actor, who visits Delphi to appear in a play. The Pythian games, held at Delphi every four years, included dramatic performances, music, and art as well as sports. I re-read it regularly.

Do read it too (and try her other books, the two-part version of the Theseus and the Minotaur story, or her novel about the poet Simonides The Praise Singer, or The Last of the Wine about Socrates and the Peloponnesian War and the masterful trilogy about Alexander the Great and his legacy Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games). These are books for which I will forever have affection.


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See Delphi and Die: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery

By Lindsey Davis

See Delphi and Die: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery

Why this book?

This one's a bit of a cheat, but fun. It's one of the hugely successful Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsay Davis, set in Flavian Rome (first century), in which she recounts the adventures of the disreputable private investigator Falco as he walks the mean streets of Rome in search of truth, a denarius or two and a loose woman (though not in this book, he's well and truly hitched by then). Raymond Chandler meets Robert Graves. The first in the series The Silver Pigs won the Author's Club First Novel Award in 1989 and it's easy to see why. It spawned twenty more. Delphi is the seventeenth and our heroes only get to the shrine in Part Four. Their passage up the Sacred Way, as they try to rid themselves of a limpet like freelance guide is one of the funniest descriptions I've read of arriving the Temple (and that includes the ancient ones). 'The time-honoured Sphinx showed no reaction, but assuming she was a woman of the world, I winked at her.' An indulgence.


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