Apollo’s Hydromancer

Ha’aretz reports on the oldest oracle to Apollo found in Athens – a place where a sacred seer drew water from a well to divine the future:

The Athenians built wells along the course of this river, some of them for public use.

“Water, and in particular drinking water, was sacred,” [Dr. Jutta] Stroszeck[, of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens] says. “In Greek religion, it was protected by nymphs, who could become very mischievous when their water was treated badly.”

To appease these emotionally precarious godlets, offerings such as miniature vessels containing liquids and other gifts were dedicated in the water.

An omphalos is a conical stone representing the navel of the world, where Zeus initiated the creation of the cosmos. 

The Athenian omphalos lay between an altar and the base of a cult image in the center of a rectangular enclosure.

Cleaning by the excavators in 2012 revealed that the omphalos had been meticulously mounted on a marble slab that, in turn, covered an opening. This prompted further investigation.

The omphalos was lifted carefully using a crane. Under it the archaeologists found a circular well.

The well was walled with clay cylinders and featured more than twenty inscriptions in Greek, all repeating the same phrase: “Come to me, O Paean, and bring with you the true oracle”. The term “Paean” is one of the epithets that designated the Olympian god Apollo, son of Zeus and the god associated with ritual purification, oracular activity (and the arts).

The neighborhood of Kerameikos included the ancient Athenian potters quarter (Demos Kerameon), including the monuments bordering its main street, which connected the ancient agora (marketplace) with the area of Plato’s Academy. The area also contained an ancient cemetery featuring funerary monuments that had been erected along the processional road to Eleusis, where the mysteries were celebrated every year.

This whole area was characterized by transition: from civic to rural areas, and from the city of the living to the place of the dead.

“In such areas, the presence of divine and the supernatural were experienced intensively, which is why cult and mantic activities are dense in such areas,” Stroszeck told Haaretz, adding that a fragment of a prayer common to the participants in the Eleusinian cult was found in a well right by the oracle well.