The foundation myth of the Oracle at Delphi is variously recorded in many literary sources. In all but two extant versions—the Homeric Hymn to Apollo and Alcaeus’ Hymn to Apollo —the god succeeds other deities—Gaia or Themis or both—who administered the Oracle before Apollo’s arrival at Delphi. Apollo’s succession to power is represented either as a peaceful process or as involving the use of force when Apollo slays the serpent that guards the Oracle. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, as in Alcaeus’ Hymn, the god does not encounter other oracular deities at Delphi. Instead, Apollo himself lays the foundations of the Oracle while mortals finish the construction. After the Oracle is built, Apollo slays a serpent, which, in contrast to the other sources where it guards the Oracle, lives by a spring nearby and poses a threat to humans and their flocks. Moreover, the foundation of Apollo’s Oracle in the Homeric Hymn follows upon the god’s failed attempt to build a temple at Telphousa, an episode that is not found in any of the other versions.
The discrepancies among the variants of the foundation myth have been an object of debate. For some scholars, the versions about the succession of prophetic deities at Delphi reflect the history of the site and suggest continuous cultic activity, while the hymn’s narrative echoes the propagandistic views of the Delphic priesthood, which redeem the god as the only founder of Delphi. Other scholars, in the absence of archeological evidence that shows a continuity of cults, propose that the version in the hymn represents the earliest cultic myth while the later variants are adaptations that serve literary purposes.
The foundation of the Oracle and the establishment of Apollo as the god of prophecy are presented in the context of reciprocity. The theme of reciprocity can be seen throughout the Greek literary canon and is especially important in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, where the collective success of one’s endeavors is reliant on the power of the gods alone. The rhetoric of mutual exchanges is employed not only to regulate in myth the irregular in reality but also to alleviate some of the anxiety that stems from the god’s introduction into a new territory since the construction of a temple marks the transformation of the landscape from secular to sacred. In the case of a new city or a new god’s importation from elsewhere, ritual space must be found, and confiscation of fields was one way of dealing with the need for space. Similarly, when a sanctuary had to be enlarged, space that was reserved for human habitation might have to be appropriated. In the case of a new colony, one lot of land was devoted to the god and could not be exploited by humans.
At Delphi, land for pasture was also dedicated to Apollo and remained uncultivated. The Hymn to Apollo acknowledges the tensions from the transformation of a conventional space into a sacred one but also emphasizes the beneficial consequences of such transformation.
Overall, the poet of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo praises the god for his capacity to benefit mortals in exchange for offerings, a manifestation of the principles of reciprocity, and positively transforming landscapes in order to facilitate the provision of such offerings. This quid pro quo relationship is encapsulated in the closure of the hymn where the poet invites the god to rejoice presumably in the hymn itself and promises in return that he will remember him in another song. Thus, the function of the hymn as an offering that awaits reciprocation requires that the narrative of Apollo as the founder of Delphi portrays a god who reciprocates positively with his worshipers and secures everlasting balanced exchanges.
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