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The Serpent Column at Delphi

"After bringing all the goods together, the Hellenes took out a tenth for the god at Delphi, and from this they dedicated a golden tripod set upon a three-headed serpent of bronze, which stands next to the altar."

Herodotus, The Histories (IX.81)

Aside from this tithing to Apollo, relates Herodotus, another tenth of the spoils was dedicated to Zeus for a bronze statue fifteen feet tall, as well as a tenth to Poseidon for a seven-foot statue. Writing five hundred years later, in the second century AD, Pausanias described the Serpent Column at the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi. "The Greeks in common dedicated from the spoils taken at the battle of Plataea a gold tripod set on a bronze serpent. The bronze part of the offering is still preserved, but the Phocian leaders did not leave the gold as they did the bronze" (Description of Greece, X.13.9). With the loss of the golden tripod in 355 BC at the beginning of the Third Sacred War, only the entwined serpents remained to commemorate the victory at Plataea in 479 BC.

The monumental base for the Serpent Column still is in situ in front of the Temple of Apollo. The view above is from behind the rope barrier at the end of the Sacred Way and was permitted by a sympathetic guard. Although the monumental stone base has been restored, the topmost drum is broken and in fragments, and it is uncertain how the tripod actually relates to the serpentine column that supported it. Presumably, the legs of what must have been a relatively small gold tripod rested on the heads of the three entwined serpents, a reconstruction that is represented by the model at Delphi. It also has been suggested that the legs of the tripod extended all the way to the base and a much larger bowl either was supported by the serpents' outstretched heads or cradled by their necks as they uncoiled from the entwined column. Given the size of the bronze shaft and its extended serpents, such a tripod would seem far too large to have been made of gold. The three cuttings in the surviving stone base, which are the fix points of the monument itself, seemingly are too close together to offer a secure foundation for a tripod that would have had to rest on a column that, in Gauer's estimation, was twenty-two feet high.

This model of the temple precinct in the museum at Delphi gives a better perspective of the sacred site. The column can be seen in front of the Temple of Apollo, the dark bronze of the cauldron barely visible.

"Now although the greatest share of honour was paid to this temple because of its oracle, since of all oracles in the world it had the repute of being the most truthful, yet the position of the place added something. For it is almost in the centre of Greece taken as a whole, between the country inside the Isthmus and that outside it; and it was also believed to be in the centre of the inhabited world, and people called it the navel of the earth."

Strabo, Geography (IX.3.6)

In 2015, it was decided to erect a bronze replica of the column at Delphi itself, based on a plaster cast of the original.

Amandry and Laroche have contended that the base usually associated with the Serpent Column actually supported the Tripod of Croton, which emulated the appearance of the Plataean tripod and was placed next to it. Rather, a limestone fragment, its curved cavity (insofar as the dimensions can be calculated) exactly matching the bottommost coil of the Column, is the actual base—as Laroche argues. But, whereas Herodotus records that the Column "stands next to the altar," this fragment is farther down the Sacred Way and outside the wall that enclosed the temple precinct.

In 2015, a replica of the surviving column in Istanbul (from a plaster cast of the original made in 1980) and a descriptive plaque were installed next to the base in Delphi.

References: The Landmark Herodotus (2007) edited by Robert B. Strassler and translated by Andrea L. Purvis; Pausanias: Description of Greece (1935) translated by W. H. S. Jones (Loeb Classical Library); "The Plataian Tripod and the Serpentine Column" (1977) by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, American Journal of Archaeology, 181(3), 374-379. An important study is Weihgeschenke aus den Perserkriegen (1968) by Werner Gauer (Istanbuler Mitteilungen, Beiheft 2), 75-96, also "Trépieds de Delphes et du Péloponnèse" (1987) by Pierre Amandry, Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, 111(1), 79-131; "Nouvelles Observations sur l'offrande de Platées" (1989) by Didier Laroche, Bulletin de Correspondance Hellenique, 113, 183-198.

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