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p976 Pythia

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp976‑978 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PYTHIA (πύθια), one of the four great national festivals of the Greeks. It was celebrated in the neighbourhood of Delphi, anciently called Pytho, in honour of Apollo, Artemis, and Leto. The place of this solemnity was the Crissaean plain, which for this purpose contained a hippodromus or race-course (Paus. X.37 § 4), a stadium of 1000 feet in length (Censorin. de Die Nat. 13), and a theatre, in which the musical contests took place (Lucian, adv. indoct. 9). A gymnasium, prytaneium, and other buildings of this kind, probably existed here, as at Olympia, although they are not mentioned. Once the Pythian games were held at Athens, on the advice of Demetrius Poliorcetes (Ol. 122.3; see Plut. Demetr. 40; Corsini, Fast. Att. IV p77), because the Aetolians were in possession of the passes around Delphi.

The Pythian games were, according to most legends, instituted by Apollo himself (Athen. XV p701; Schol. Argum. ad Pind. Pyth.): other traditions referred them to ancient heroes, such as Amphictyon, Adrastus, Diomedes, and others. They were originally perhaps nothing more than a religious panegyris, occasioned by the oracle of Delphi, and the sacred games are said to have been at first only a musical contest, which consisted in singing a hymn to the honour of the p977Pythian god with the accompaniment of the cithara (Paus. X.7 § 2; Strab. IX p421). Some of the poets, however, and mythographers represent even the gods and the early heroes as engaged in gymnastic and equestrian contests at the Pythian games. But such statements, numerous as they are, can prove nothing; they are anachronisms in which late writers were fond of indulging. The description of the Pythian games in which Sophocles, in the Electra, makes Orestes take part, belongs to this class. The Pythian games must, on account of the celebrity of the Delphic oracle, have become a national festival for all the Greeks at a very early period; and when Solon fixed pecuniary rewards for those Athenians who were victors in the great national festivals, the Pythian agon was undoubtedly included in the number, though it is not expressly mentioned (Diog. Laërt. I.55).

Whether gymnastic contests had been performed at the Pythian games previous to Ol. 47, is uncertain. Böckh supposes that these two kinds of games had been connected at the Pythia from early times, but that afterwards the gymnastic games were neglected: but however this may be, it is certain that about Ol. 47 they did not exist at Delphi. Down to Ol. 48 the Delphians themselves had been the agonothetae at the Pythian games, but in the third year of this Olympiad, when after the Crissaean war the Amphictyons took the management under their care, they naturally became the agonothetae (Strab. IX p421; Paus. X.7 § 3). Some of the ancients date the institution of the Pythian games from this time (Phot. Cod. p533, ed. Bekker), and others say that henceforth they were called Pythian games. Owing to their being under the management of the Amphictyons they are sometimes called Ἀμφικτυονικὰ ἄθλα (Heliod. Aeth. IV.1). From Ol. 48.3, the Pythiads were occasionally used as an aera, and the first celebration under the Amphictyons was the first Pythiad. Pausanias (l.c.) expressly states that in this year the original musical contest in κιθαρῳδία was extended by the addition of αὐλῳδία, i.e. singing with the accompaniment of the flute, and by that of flute-playing alone. Strabo (l.c.) in speaking of these innovations does not mention the αὐλῳδία, but states that the contest of cithara-players (κιθαρισταί) was added, while Pausanias assigns the introduction of this contest to the eighth Pythiad. One of the musical contests at the Pythian games in which only flute and cithara-players took part, was the so‑called νόμος, which, at least in subsequent times, consisted of five parts, viz. ἀνάκρουσις, ἄμπειρα, κατακελευσμός, ἴαμβοι καὶ δάκτυλοι, and σύριγγες. The whole of this νόμος was a musical description of the fight of Apollo with the dragon and of his victory over the monster (Strabo, l.c.). A somewhat different account of the parts of this νόμος is given by the Scholiast on Pindar (Argum. ad Pyth.) and by Pollux (IV.79, 81, 84).

Besides these innovations in the musical contests which were made in the first Pythiad, such gymnastic and equestrian games as were then customary at Olympia, were either revived at Delphi or introduced for the first time. The chariot-race with four horses was not introduced till the second Pythiad (Paus. X.7 § 3). Some games on the other hand were adopted, which had not yet been practised at Olympia, viz. the δολιχός and the δίαυλος for boys. In the first Pythiad the victors received χρήματα as their prize, but in the second a chaplet was established as the reward for the victors (Paus. and Schol ad Pind. l.c.). The Scholiasts on Pindar reckon the first Pythiad from this introduction of the chaplet, and their system has been followed by most modern chronologers, though Pausanias expressly assigns this institution to the second Pythiad (see Clinton, F.H. p195, Krause, Die Pyth. Nem., &c., p21, &c.). The αὐλῳδία, which was introduced in the first Pythiad, was omitted at the second and ever after, as only elegies and θρῆνοι had been sung to the flute, which were thought too melancholy for this solemnity. The τεθρίππος or chariot-race with four horses however was added in the same Pythiad. In the eighth Pythiad (Ol. 55.3) the contest in playing the cithara without singing was introduced; in Pythiad 23 the foot-race in arms was added; in Pythiad 48 the chariot-race with two full-grown horses (συνωρίδος δρόμος) was performed for the first time; in Pythiad 53 the chariot-race with four foals was introduced. In Pythiad 61 the pancratium for boys, in Pythiad 63 the horse-race with foals, and in Pythiad 69 the chariot-race with two foals were introduced (Paus. l.c.). Various musical contests were also added in the course of time, and contests in tragedy as well as in other kinds of poetry and in recitations of historical compositions are expressly mentioned (Philostr. Vit. Soph. II.27.2; Plut. Sympos. II.4). Works of art, as paintings and sculptures, were exhibited to the assembled Greeks, and prizes were awarded to those who had produced the finest works (Plin. XXXV.35). The musical and artistic contests were at all times the most prominent feature of the Pythian games, and in this respect they even excelled the Olympic games.

Previous to Ol. 48 the Pythian games had been an ἐνναετηρίς, that is, they had been celebrated at the end of every eighth year; but in Ol. 48.3, they became like the Olympia a πενταετηρίς, i.e. they were held at the end of every fourth year, and a Pythiad therefore ever since the time that it was used as an aera, comprehended a space of four years, commencing with the third year of every Olympiad (Paus. l.c.; Diod. XV.60; compare Clinton, F.H. p195). Others have, in opposition to direct statements, inferred from Thucydides (IV.117, V.1) that the Pythian games were held towards the end of the second year of every Olympiad. Respecting this controversy, see Krause, l.c. p29, &c. As for the season of the Pythian games, they were in all probability held in the spring, and most writers believe that it was in the month of Bysius, which is supposed to be the same as the Attic Munychion. Böckh (ad Corp. Inscript. n. 1688) however has shown that the games took place in the month of Bucatius, which followed after the month of Bysius, and that this month must be considered as the same as the Attic Munychion. The games lasted for several days, as is expressly mentioned by Sophocles (Elect. 690, &c.), but we do not know how many. When ancient writers speak of the day of the Pythian agon, they are probably thinking of the musical agon alone, which was the most important part of the games, and probably took place on the 7th of Bucatius. p978It is quite impossible to conceive that all the numerous games should have taken place on one day.

The concourse of strangers at the season of this panegyris, must have been very great, as undoubtedly all the Greeks were allowed to attend. The states belonging to the amphictyony of Delphi had to send their theori in the month of Bysius, some time before the commencement of the festival itself (Böckh, Corp. Inscr. l.c.). All theori sent by the Greeks to Delphi on this occasion, were called Πυθαϊσταί (Strab. IX p404), and the theories sent by the Athenians were always particularly brilliant (Schol. ad Aristoph. Av. 1585). As regards sacrifices, processions, and other solemnities, it may be presumed that they resembled in a great measure those of Olympia. A splendid, though probably in some degree fictitious, description of a theoria of Thessalians may be read in Heliodorus (Aeth. II.34).

As to the order in which the various games were performed, scarcely anything is known, with the exception of some allusions in Pindar and a few remarks of Plutarch. The latter (Symp. II.4; comp. Philostr. Apoll. Tyan. VI.10) says that the musical contests preceded the gymnastic contests, and from Sophocles it is clear that the gymnastic contests preceded the horse and chariot races. Every game, moreover, which was performed by men and boys, was always first performed by the latter (Plut. Symp. II.5).

We have stated above that, down to Ol. 48, the Delphians had the management of the Pythian games; but of the manner in which they were conducted previous to that time nothing is known. When they came under the care of the Amphictyons, especial persons were appointed for the purpose of conducting the games and of acting as judges. They were called Ἐπιμεληταί (Plut. Symp. II.4, VII.5) and answered to the Olympian Hellanodicae. Their number is unknown (Krause, l.c. p44). In later times it was decreed by the Amphictyons that king Philip with the Thessalians and Boeotians should undertake the management of the games (Diod. XVI.60), but afterwards and even under the Roman emperors the Amphictyons again appear in the possession of this privilege (Philostr. Vit. Soph. II.27). The ἐπιμεληταί had to maintain peace and order, and were assisted by μαστιγοφόροι, who executed any punishment at their command, and thus answered to the Olympian ἀλύται (Luc. adv. indoct. 9, &c.).

The prize given to the victors in the Pythian games was from the time of the second Pythiad a laurel chaplet; so that they then became an ἀγὼν στεφανίτης, while before they had been an ἀγὼν χρηματίτης (Paus. X.7 § 3; Schol. in Argum. ad Pind. Pyth.). In addition to this chaplet, the victor here, as at Olympia, received the symbolic palm-branch, and was allowed to have his own statue erected in the Crissaean plain (Plut. Symp. VIII.4; Paus. VI.15 §3, 17 § 1; Justin. XXIV.7, 10).

The time when the Pythian games ceased to be solemnised is not certain, but they probably lasted as long as the Olympic games, i.e. down to the year A.D. 394. In A.D. 191 a celebration of the Pythia is mentioned by Philostratus (Vit. Soph. II.27), and in the time of the emperor Julian they still continued to be held, as is manifest from his own words (Jul. Epist. pro Argiv. p35A).

Pythian games of less importance were celebrated in a great many other places where the worship of Apollo was introduced; and the games of Delphi are sometimes distinguished from these lesser Pythia by the addition of the words ἐν Δελφοῖς. But as by far the greater number of the lesser Pythia are not mentioned in the extant ancient writers, and are only known from coins or inscriptions, we shall only give a list of the places where they were held:— Ancyra in Galatia, Aphrodisias in Caria, Antiochia, Carthaea in the island of Ceos (Athen. X p456, 467), Carthage (Tertull. Scorp. 6), Cibyra in Phrygia, Delos (Dionys. Perieg. 527), Emisa in Syria, Hierapolis in Phrygia, Magnesia, Megara (Schol. ad Pind. Nem. V.84, Ol. XIII.155; Philostr. Vit. Soph. I.3), Miletus, Neapolis in Italy, Nicaea in Bithynia, Nicomedia, Pergamus in Mysia, Perge in Pamphylia, Perinthus on the Propontis, Philippopolis in Thrace, Side in Pamphylia, Sicyon (Pind. Ol. XIII.105, with the Schol.; Nem. IX.51), Taba in Caria, Thessalonice in Macedonia, in Thrace, Thyatira, and Tralles in Lydia, Tripolis on the Maeander in Caria (Krause, Die Pythien, Nemeen und Isthmien, pp1‑106).


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