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The name Pythia is derived from Pytho, which in myth was the original name of Delphi. Python after she was slain by Apollo. Those who discussed the oracle in any detail are from 1st century BC to 4th century AD and give conflicting stories. The 8th-century reformulation of the Oracle at Delphi as a shrine to Apollo seems associated with the rise in importance of the city of Corinth and the importance of sites in the Corinthian Gulf. The earliest account of the origin of the Delphic oracle is provided in the Homeric Hymn to Delphic Apollo, which recent scholarship dates within a narrow range, c. Apollo conveys a historical message, it is above all that there were once Cretan priests at Delphi.

There are also many later stories of the origins of the Delphic Oracle. One late explanation, which is first related by the 1st century BC writer, Diodorus Siculus, tells of a goat herder named Coretas, who noticed one day that one of his goats, who fell into a crack in the earth, was behaving strangely. According to earlier myths, the office of the oracle was initially possessed by the goddesses Themis and Phoebe, and the site was initially sacred to Gaia. Diodorus also explained how, initially, the Pythia was an appropriately clad young virgin, for great emphasis was placed on the Oracle’s chastity and purity to be reserved for union with the god Apollo. The scholar Martin Litchfield West writes that the Pythia shows many traits of shamanistic practices, likely inherited or influenced from Central Asian practices, although there is no evidence of any Central Asian association at this time. It was also said that the art of divination had been taught to the god by the three winged sisters of Parnassus, the Thriae, at the time when Apollo was grazing his cattle there. Though little is known of how the priestess was chosen, the Pythia was probably selected, at the death of her predecessor, from amongst a guild of priestesses of the temple.

These women were all natives of Delphi and were required to have had a sober life and be of good character. Plutarch would dedicate essays, other times who could not write her own name. The job of a priestess, especially the Pythia, was a respectable career for Greek women. Priestesses enjoyed many liberties and rewards for their social position, such as freedom from taxation, the right to own property and attend public events, a salary and housing provided by the state, a wide range of duties depending on their affiliation, and often gold crowns. During the main period of the oracle’s popularity, as many as three women served as Pythia, another vestige of the triad, with two taking turns in giving prophecy and another kept in reserve.

Only one day of the month could the priestess be consulted. Plutarch said that the Pythia’s life was shortened through the service of Apollo. The sessions were said to be exhausting. At the end of each period the Pythia would be like a runner after a race or a dancer after an ecstatic dance, which may have had a physical effect on the health of the Pythia. Several other officiants served the oracle in addition to the Pythia. Plutarch, who served as a priest during the late first century and early second century CE, gives us the most information about the organization of the oracle at that time.