It is the first known place in Athens where Apollo was invoked to divine the future, in this case by consulting the waters to see if the god would deliver messages or visions in them. (“Hydro” means water and “mancy” means divination or prophet). The archaeological team working at the site, from the German Archaeological Institute, says the oracle (a shrine consecrated to the worship and consultation of a prophetic deity) was in use in early Roman times.
“The finding is exceptionally significant as it identifies the spot as the first and unique Apollo divination site in Athens, confirming the worshipping of the ancient god along with his sister Artemis and restoring the accurate interpretation of the site as a shrine rendered by K. Mylonas in the late 19th century to a third goddess, Hecate,” says the Archaeology News Network.
The wall of the well has the phrase: ΕΛΘΕ ΜΟΙ Ω ΠΑΙΑΝ ΦΕΡΩΝ ΤΟ ΜΑΝΤΕΙΟΝ ΑΛΗΘΕC, which means 'Come to me, Paean [a common epithet refering to Apollo], and bring the truthful prophecy.’ The site has 20 inscriptions with the same content, which reveals the place as the only oracle of Apollo in Athens where he was worshipped along with Artemis, a goddess of the wilds, chastity and girls.
Apollo and Artemis on a Greek cup from about 470 BC. Apollo, who was the Archer, is on the left. Artemis, the huntress, is shown with the bow. (Wikimedia Commons)Kerameikos was also a settlement of potters and a burial ground from about 2700 BC. The uncovering of the well and apparent shrine to Apollo and Artemis from the Roman era shed new light on the full significance of the site.
The worship of the god and goddess together at the same site seems to point to a yin and yang type of dichotomy: Apollo, famous for his pursuit of nymphs, was worshiped as the protector of domestic flocks and herds and the patron of the founding of colonies and cities. While Artemis, who protected girls, seems to recall an earlier time as the goddess of hunting and nature.
A 5th century BC funerary stele with griffins and other figures from Kerameikos cemetery (Photo by Marsyas/Wikimedia Commons)The book The Goddess Within quotes A History of Greek Religion: “Artemis was the most popular goddess of Greece, but the Artemis of popular belief was quite a different person from the proud virgin of mythology, Apollo’s sister. Artemis is the goddess of wild Nature, she haunts the woods, the groves, the luscious meadows. A favorite subject of archaic art is the figure formerly called ‘the Persian Artemis,’ now the ‘Mistress of Animals,’ a woman holding in her hands four-footed animals or birds of different kinds.”
While the site of Kerameikos is the only known oracle to Apollo in Athens, he had other oracles, including at Delphi on Mount Paranassus, where he slew the Python that protected the place, which had been considered magical from great antiquity.
At Delphi, a Pythia or priestess, first young virgins and later crones, would repeat prophecies or oracles Apollo revealed to her. This was a different kind of oracle than the one at Kerameikos, which involved water.
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“Priestess of Delphi”, by John Collier. Photo source: Wikimedia.The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend says Apollo was sometimes called Loxias, which means crooked or ambiguous, because his prophecies were hard to understand. However, Plutarch seems to contradict this in his work Moralia:
The prophetic priestesses are moved [by the god] each in accordance with her natural faculties. . . . As a matter of fact, the voice is not that of a god, nor the utterance of it, nor the diction, nor the meter, but all these are the woman's; he [Apollo] puts into her mind only the visions, and creates a light in her soul in regard to the future; for inspiration is precisely this.In an article titled “The Delphic Oracle” at the Theosophical Society’s website, Eloise Hart writes that the oracles were unusually clear and direct. And other websites that recount some of the prophecies showed how they came true, though modern people may ask whether historical events were later attributed to an earlier Pythia. The Delphic injuction “Know Thyself” was carved into the lintel of Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Could there be a pithier (Pythia) admonition?
Hydromancy, as opposed to the serpent oracle, involved reading the movements, flows and changes in water as well as the visions that a seer might see in them. Similarly, when fortunetellers gaze into crystals they may see visions, ghosts or future events.
Featured image: This is the mouth of the well where modern archaeologists believe ancient Athenians invoked Apollo to tell the future in the water. (Photo by Greek Ministry of Culture)
By Mark Miller