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Divination, Geometry, and Knowing the Mind of God: The Role of Apollo, Hermes, The Delphic Oracle,

Since ancient times, divination has held a key place in human history and religious thought. The Neoplatonic philosopher, Iamblichus, said: “Only sacred divination united with the gods truly gives us a share in the divine life, participating in foreknowledge and divine thoughts, and truly makes us divine.” Iamblichus was a teacher of theurgy, the art of communicating with the gods. He taught about the ancient Pythagoreans who considered divination as one of the highest sciences because it allowed people to interpret the intentions of the gods.

Although it may be doubtful that the many forms of divination that exist do actually predict the future, conceiving of divination, instead, as a way of knowing the mind of god puts it in a helpful new light. One might even think of geometry and mathematics as varieties of divination in their own right. Because they touch on beautiful and universal truths, subjects such as this allow us to see how the universe operates, and as such, these studies can be conceived of as a way of discerning and knowing the mind of god or divination. Metaphors about oracles and divination are, therefore, strongly pertinent to modern geometry and mathematics. They all point to the mind’s unrelenting search to understand the cosmos and universal order.

With the current emphasis on the importance of bees to life on our planet, a student of mythology who encounters myths about bees will naturally feel a particular resonance with these stories. Throughout ancient history, divination was often closely associated with the image of bees as well as the Greek gods, Apollo and Hermes. The information below will weave together stories that touch on these themes and characters. Perhaps this will allow us again to hold up bees and forms of divination as direct links to the beauty of creation, the mind of God and the creation of life on planet Earth.

Delphi and Mount Parnassus (Παρνασσός)

Delphi (Δελφοί) is famous as the ancient sanctuary of Apollo and the seat of Pythia (Pytho (Πυθώ), the oracle who was consulted about important decisions throughout the ancient classical world. The ancient Greeks considered Delphi as the center of the world, marked by the stone monument known as the omphalos (navel). It was considered to be sacred to Apollo, Dionysus and the Dionysian Mysteries, and was also the home of the Muses and the Corycian Nymphs. Another well-known oracular site was dedicated to Zeus at Dodona. However, Delphi, was the more famous and important site.

The site of Delphi is perched on the side of Mount Parnassus in the region of Greece called Phocia. The name of the mountain was also given to The Montparnasse quarter of Paris on the left bank of the Seine. Students in the 17th century who came to recite poetry in the hilly neighborhood nicknamed it after “Mount Parnassus”, because it was home to the nine Muses of arts and sciences in Greek mythology.

Mount Parnassus

Mount Parnassus

Map of Ancient Greece



The Ancient Sanctuary of Delphi

The name Delphi comes from the same root as δελφύς delphys, "womb" and may indicate archaic veneration of Gaia at the site. Apollo is connected with the site by his epithet Δελφίνιος Delphinios, "the Delphinian". The epithet is connected with dolphins (Greek δελφίς,-ῖνος) in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, recounting the legend of how Apollo first came to Delphi in the shape of a dolphin, carrying Cretan priests on his back.

Nymphs and Oracles

In earliest Greek times, priestesses delivered oracles received from Earth Goddesses.

Even before the Greeks adopted Delphi as the sanctuary honoring Apollo, this ancient site, like most mountains, was thought to be haunted by nymphs, daughters of Zeus. The nymphs were generally portrayed as attractive young women, who were wont to seduce shepherds and take them as husbands. They were thought to frequent the oracular springs, drawing from them wisdom and inspiration. The earth was thought to be the font of wisdom.

What are the Corycian Caves?

In Greek, the word “Corycia” is pronounced Kôrukia or Kôrukis. The English pronunciation is kəˈrɪʃən (cor-ee’-shun).

The Corycian Caves were one of many oracular sites in ancient Greece. Evidence has been found that the Mycenean cultures visited these caves, leaving behind more than 23,000 astralogoi or ankle bones used for divination. This evidence dates back as far as 1400 BCE, well before Apollo was said to have arrived at Delphi.

Why Bees?

As told by Homer in the Homeric Hymn “To Hermes,” the Corycian caves were believed to be the home of the bee nymphs of Mt. Parnassus. Homer tells of three nymphs who are described like bees – buzzing, swarming, eating honey. Bees have been associated with many oracles. The Pythia, or Prophetess of Delphi, is often called “the Delphic Bee”. The priestesses of Demeter and Artemis were also called Bees (Greek – Melissai).

Not only do bees haunt caves and trees and live near water, they were seen by the ancients as having pure souls and access to a portion of the divine mind. They subsist on honey, the sweet food of the gods, which inspires them with divine enthusiasm. Bees are also clean, orderly, and civilized, and there are legends that they taught these virtues to our earliest ancestors. Bee nymphs (melissai) were said to have first taught humans to eat fruit of trees. A nymph named Melissa was the first to taste honey and mix it with water to make hydromel. Hydromel could be slightly alcoholic and may have aided prophecy by taking in the divine spirit in the form of a substance drunk.

The use of bees in myth and legend may go back even further than the classical age of Greece. The bee, found in Ancient Near East and Aegean cultures, was believed to be the sacred insect that bridged the natural world to the underworld. The bee was the emblem of Potnia, the Minoan-Mycenaean mistress, a goddess of nature, of birth and death who was dominant during the Bronze Age. The Potnia was also referred to as “The Pure Mother Bee”. Her priestesses received the name of “Melissa, meaning bee. Appearing in tomb decorations, Mycenaean tholos tombs were shaped as beehives.

Gold plaques embossed with winged bee goddesses found in Rhodes are dated back to the 7th century BCE

Minoan Bee Pendant

Tholos Bee-Hive Shaped Tomb of the Treasury of Atreus

Bees and the Muses

Bees were also thought to serve the Muses, the divine patrons of the arts and sciences. The Muses are sometimes themselves described as bees. They also sent bees to inspire their devotees with honey.

Bees were said to have attended many of the great ancient poets and philosophers in their infancy and fed them honey (Plato, Hesiod, Pindar, Virgil).

The Corycian Nymphs Νυμφαι Κωρυκιαι - Nymphai Kôrykiai)

The three bee nymphs of the Corycian Cave are:

  • Melaina (Black One)

  • Kleodora (Famed for her Gifts)

  • Daphnis (Laurel)

The Homeric Hymn to Apollo acknowledges that Apollo's gift of prophecy first came to him from three bee maidens. It is not entirely clear whether these three bee maidens were the same as the Thriai, daughters of Zeus thought to be the first prophets, and often associated with Apollo’s gift of prophecy. Thriai is the word for pebble divination and thriasthai means “to divine. It was thought that Athena had originally learned pebble divination from the Thriai. But when Zeus granted Apollo exclusive right to know Zeus’ plans, he demanded that other forms of divination be made unreliable. Regardless of origin, Apollo, who governed both poetry and prophecy, did indeed associate prophecy with bees and instructed that when they were offered honey, the bee nymphs would rave and give true prophecies.

Pythian Apollo

Because Apollo was conceived of as the paragon of truthfulness and integrity, he was granted authority over oracles, a very important practice in ancient Greek society.

Among a diverse array of characteristics and powers, Apollo is:

  • God of purification, clear thought, and wisdom

  • God of truth and prophecy

  • Principle deity of oracles and divination

  • The archer god (along with his twin sister Artemis)

  • A distant god (like his sister Artemis - works from afar)

  • Ruler of solar energies (which purify and reveal)

  • God of sun and light

  • God of healing and diseases

  • Patron of music

  • Leader of the chorus of Muses (patrons of the arts and sciences)

How Apollo Came to be Associated with Delphi

When Leto became pregnant from Zeus, Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, drove her out of every land, making it almost impossible for her to find a place anywhere on the earth to give birth. When Leto arrived at Delphi, she was chased away by the monstrous serpent Python, who was born from Gaia. He dwelled in Delphi with his wife, the dragoness Delphune, where they guarded the Omphalos, the sacred stone marking the Earth’s navel. (Remember that the origin of the term “delphi” referred to the womb).

After searching for a place to give birth for 7 months, Leto finally came to Delos, where Zeus had made arrangements for her to give birth there. Delos could be used because it was a floating island and not connected to the rest of the earth. It is said that she held on tight to a sacred palm tree as she gave birth to Zeus and then a choir of snow-white swans flew seven times round the island to herald Apollo’s birth.

Apollo was born on Leto’s seventh day of labor during the seventh month of Delphinios, the month which began after the constellation Delphinus (the Dolphin) became visible in the morning. This was the first month after the winter solstice and contained festivals for Apollo Delphinios and Apollo Lukaios (Light Bringer).

The Constellation Delphinus

Leto’s twins soon grew big and strong and after only four days, Apollo asked for a bow and arrows and together with his sister Artemis and mother, went to Delphi to punish Python, who had been very inhospitable towards his mother when she was in labor. Apollo shot golden arrows into the darkness, hitting the dark dragon, who eventually died. As this battle ensued, the mountain nymphs and his mother urged him on, with the expression unique to Apollo “Ie! Ie Paian” (Paian was one of the Mycenaean Greeks names for Apollo). This scene is described in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo.

Apollo buried the corpse of the dragon at the foot of Mount Parnassus, commanding it to “Rot!” (Greek, Putheu!). This probably where the serpent got its name. His original name might have been Delphunes. Whenever the serpent stirs below, Delphi feel the quaking of the earth.

When the Pythia delivers oracles, she sits astride a metal tripod over a cleft in the earth where she inhales the prophecy-inspiring vapors (Pneuma Puthonos), the spirit of the serpent. The tall tripod raises the Pythia above the earthly realm, allowing her to see celestial secrets. It is said that the nearby cauldron used by the Pythia contained the teeth and bones from the Python and that they would rattle before the prophetess would issue a prophecy.

Apollo Atones for Killing Python

When Gaia discovered that Apollo had killed her son Python, she complained to Zeus. Zeus sent him to the Vale of Tempe to serve King Admetos. After a year performing his penance, when he returned to Delphi, he was wearing a laurel wreath and bearing a laurel wand, made from the sacred laurel tree in the Vale of Tempe. (There was a temple to Apollo situated very near a grove of laurels, which were used to crown the victorious in the Pythian Games established by Apollo. There are other stories about Apollo and Daphne, who was turned into a laurel tree to avoid the attentions of Apollo.)

After his stay with King Admetos, Apollo was known as Phoibos, meaning the Pure. He taught mortals healing songs called paeans. He also inaugurated the Pythian Games in the serpent’s honor, enshrining its teeth and bones as relics in the cauldron on the Delphia tripod. This story shows that even a god must atone for shedding blood.

Apollo and Prophecy

Since Apollo had killed the Python, he was granted power over the oracular site at Delphi, and kept the Pythia as its prophetess. He sought out the Corycian nymphs and learned pebble divination from them. It is said that before the Pythia would render a prophecy, the thriai bones in a nearby cauldron, sometimes thought of as the teeth and bones of the Python killed by Apollo, would rattle. Like the holy grail, the image of a cauldron is rich in symbolism. It is seen as an instrument of apotheosis, symbolizing rebirth into a divine state.

Apollo and Hyperborea

Pausanias, a Greek traveler and geographer from the 2nd century AD, recounted stories from Ancient Greece, telling us that Apollo’s temple in Hyperborea, where Apollo had his winter residence, was built by bees out of beeswax and feathers. Because Apollo and Dionysus shared Delphi, Apollo would winter in Hyperborea, the land beyond the North Wind (Boreas), allowing Dionysus to occupy Delphi during the winter months. He would mount his swan-drawn chariot and journey north to the Hyperboreans, a people said to suffer neither death nor disease. During these months, Apollo would delight in sacred festivals, celebrating with music and dancing. In the spring, when the constellation Delphinus rises in the east, Apollo returns to Delphi, bringing summer songs and prophecy back to Delphi.

The Role of Hermes in the Art of Divination

Hermes is known as a messenger for Zeus, communicating between Olympus and the world of mortals. He is a master of ingenuity, a guide, a boundary crosser, and interpreter. He is known as a god of clever speech, trickery and deceit. He possessed the unique ability to conduct souls into the underworld and back out, known as psychopompos, a soul guide.

Hermes is known for his winged shoes, which allow him to travel swiftly. He also bears the Cap of Hades, by which he becomes invisible, and the caduceus (featuring two snakes winding around a winged staff), through which he possesses the ability to journey into the heavens or the underworld.

Unlike Apollo, often associated with light and clarity, Hermes is more at home in the night, where appearances are obscure or changeable. Hermes puts people to sleep and wakes them up with his wand. As such, he is called “ruler of dreams” (hegetor oneiron). Because he brings nocturnal surprises and transformations, he became known as a god of mystery and magic.

Hermes mother was the nymph Maia, one of the Seven Sisters or Pleiades. After several trysts with Zeus, she became pregnant with Hermes. Right from when he was a baby, stories about Hermes as a thief develop. He found Apollo’s cattle in Pieria and devised a clever plan to steal them. It is said that Baby Hermes selected two of the best cattle for the first sacrifice, burning the meat for the gods, who liked to savor the burning fat wafting towards the heaven.

After performing the first sacrifice, Hermes spied a tortoise crawling out of a cave. He killed the tortoise and made the first lyre from the shell, stringing it with cow gut. He entertained himself on the lyre for the evening but in the morning, slipped back to the home of his mother and climbed back into his cradle.

As soon as Apollo discovered the theft of his cattle, he used his power of divination, specifically reading the flight of birds, to find the thief. The birds lead him to Maia’s cave, where he ordered Hermes to lead him to his cattle. To soothe Apollo’s anger, Hermes pulled out his lyre and began to sing a beautiful hymn. Apollo was so enchanted by the lyre that he offered to trade Hermes the cattle for the lyre. He made Hermes shepherd for his cattle and gave him a golden three-branched magic wand capable of any task in return.

Hermes made himself a reed pipe which also attracted the attention of Apollo. Hermes said he would trade it to Apollo if Apollo would teach him the art of prophecy. Because Apollo was granted the exclusive right to prophecy, however, he could not give it to Hermes but offered him instead skills in the art of divination through use of mantic dice, a lesser form of divination. Apollo told Hermes that there were virgin sisters with wings, their hair dusted with pollen, who hum and swarm about. If Hermes were to seek them out, he could learn the art of divination. These could well be the bee nymphs of the Corycian Cave. Apollo also informed Hermes that the sisters must be offered honey in order to speak the truth, for without it the prophecies would be unreliable.

Hermes and Apollo are both riddlers. Apollo was called “Loxias”, referring to his oblique and often ambiguous pronouncements. Delphic oracular verses were notoriously obscure. Greeks understood them as a challenge to mortals to use their wits and wisdom to understand them correctly. Through this exchange of gifts, both Apollo and Hermes became similar in bringing mortals both inspired divination and inspired poetry and song.

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