Gaia, the personification and goddess of the Earth, was the first to foretell the future at Delphi, long before the birth of her great-grandson Apollon [Apollo]. She is also said to have been the first divinity to have a priestess serving as her spokesperson at this location.
In the 100s AD, a writer named Pausanias went on a tour of Greece and collected information from all over the country into a 10-book travelogue entitled Hellados Periegesis, the “Description of Hellas [Greece].” From his travel through the region of Phokis and the neighbourhood of the Parnassos Glen, he gathered five different mainstream versions of the story about the origin of the oracle and temple of the city of Delphi, some of them differing on very minor points from others. These five accounts are listed below, referencing the information provided in the last book of the Periegesis.
Going by chronological sequence, the first explicit prophecy delivered at Delphi was a lyrical poem sang by Phemonoe, the first priestess of Apollon at Delphi. (See #4, below, for further detail.) But there are references to earlier utterances being issued, with no mention, however, of what their content was. (This likewise is further elaborated below, passim.)
The first explicit consultation of this oracle, chronologically, occurs before Apollon’s first arrival at Delphi, immediately after the Flood, when Deukalion [Deucalion] and Pyrrha come to the shrine. (See #2 for more on this.)
1. The oracle was owned by Gaia, who appointed a local Oreiad (mountain-nymph) named Daphnis as her prophetess. (Aaron Atsma, of The Theoi Project website, speculates that Daphnis was Gaia’s daughter.)
Later on, at the end of this chapter (after listing the other four versions of the oracle’s origin), Pausanias says that, going by poetic tradition, Gaia had also appointed her offspring, the dragon Python, as the guardian of the oracle. After Apollon showed up and killed Python, the oracle was named after it Pythia.
2. The oracle was owned by Gaia and Poseidon in common. Gaia uttered oracles herself while Poseidon had appointed Pyrkon as his mouthpiece. Pausanias mentions nothing further to explain who or what Pyrkon was, but in the commentary of his own 1898 translation of the Description of Greece✭, Sir James George Frazer points out that, according to Hesychius, “At Delphi there were priests called pyrkooi (πυρκόοι) who divined by means of omens drawn from burnt sacrifice.” Citing Pausanias’ later mention of Poseidon’s altar in the temple of Apollon at Delphi, Frazer goes on to speculate that the pyrkooi may have served at this altar, perhaps tracing themselves back to this otherwise unattested Pyrkon.
To me Pyrkon looks suspiciously similar to Python, and perhaps it is possible that this is a typo on Pausanias’s part, or that this account preserves a version of the Delphic dragon legend in which the guardian monster’s name is Pyrkon rather than Python. Either way, if Pyrkon and Python are somehow the same entity, then in this tradition the creature is associated with Poseidon rather than Gaia. (The mythos of the Delphic dragon is, per se, a mixed-up mass of conflicting traditions, some of which hint at Greek dragon lore set in other parts of the world.)✭✭
Pausanias then quotes a poem entitled Eumolpia, the work of a certain Musaeus son of Antiophemus, which says that Gaia gave her share of the shrine to her daughter Themis, who later bequeathed it to Apollon. As for Poseidon, he traded his part of the shrine with Apollon in exchange for the island of Kalaureia.
In the middle of this chapter Pausanias also says that Poseidon’s son Parnassos was the first person to build a city in this region. From him, Parnassos, the famous mountain upon which Delphi was built, derived its name. Parnassos was also the first to use the flights of birds as a soothsaying device.
One century before Pausanias, the Roman poet Ovid followed this tradition in his Metamorphoses, wherein Deukalion and Pyrrha survive the Flood by sheltering themselves in a wooden chest which floats on the flood-waters and eventually, at the end of the cataclysm, settles into the groove between the twin peaks of Mt Parnassos. The two survivor spouses then walk down the mountain to find upon its slopes the shrine of Themis, who happens to be their grandmother (Deukalion’s father Prometheus and Pyrrha’s father Epimetheus are Themis’s sons), in order to inquire of her how they might repeople the Earth.
Going by the narrative chronology of the myths of Greece and Rome, this would be the first reference, in the timeline, to someone explicitly consulting the oracle at Delphi (rather than the prophecies simply being issued in song [spontaneously rather than upon request, so it would seem]).
In his play Eumenides, the Greek tragedian Aeschylus (roughly four centuries prior to Ovid) portrays Gaia as the first deity to give oracles at Delphi. In Prometheus Bound, another play of Aeschylus, the Titan Prometheus says that his mother, who would frequently reveal the future to him, has many names, two of which are Themis and Gaia. This could provide a way to combine this version with #1, in which there is no mention of Themis: there would not need to be such a mention if she is actually just a form of Gaia.
Moreover in Eumenides, there is an owner of the oracle in between Themis and Apollon. Themis gives her share of the oracle to her sister Phoibe [Phoebe], who then gives it as a birthday present to her grandson Apollon, who is also named Phoibos [Phoebus] in her honour.
There are yet two more variants of this tradition, as pointed out by Frazer:
According to Euripides (Iphig. in Taur. 1259 sqq.) Apollo
dismissed Themis and took her place at the oracle; but Earth, to
avenge the wrong done her daughter, sent dreams which disturbed and
confused the persons who consulted the oracle, till Zeus, at the
entreaty of Apollo, compelled her to desist. Some thought that Apollo
and Themis had founded the oracle jointly (Strabo, ix. p. 422).
Whatever the case, Deukalion and Pyrrha arrived at Delphi during Themis’s tenure thereat, and if this goddess was operating in conjunction with any other deity at the time, nonetheless she specifically is the one who was consulted, probably on account of the couple’s strong familial connection with her.
Deukalion and Pyrrha had a daughter named Melantho, who was violated by Poseidon. She bore the sea-god a son named Delphos who, when he had grown up, built the city of Delphi, to which he gave his name. In Eumenides, Apollon first arrives at Delphi while Delphos is ruling the city. Going by most other accounts, Delphos is a son of Apollon by a different woman.
✭ Pausanias's Description of Greece Translated with a Commentary by J.G. Frazer, in Six Volumes.
1898. MacMillan & Co. Ltd, London (UK) and The MacMillan Company, New York (USA).
✭✭DukeZhou [a fellow Mythology StackExchange user] has pointed out to me that Pyrkon's name could possibly be translated "Fire-Cone," from pŷr, "fire" + kônos, "[pine-]cone," which could have some potentially interesting implications as the designation of a prophet or priest (who might also perhaps be a terrifying dragon).
3. Shepherds feeding their flocks (consisting primarily of goats, it seems) inhaled the subterraneous vapour at the site and began to prophesy the words of Apollon.
A variant version of this tradition, however, has it that it is the goats that were being herded which, technically, were the first prophets here (not of Apollon but of the more ancient Gaia), as Frazer further elaborates:
The story of the discovery of the Delphic oracle, as told by Diodorus
(xvi. 26), is this. On the spot afterwards occupied by the inmost
shrine (adytum) of the sanctuary there was a chasm in the ground. A
flock of goats was browsing near the chasm, and each goat as it
approached the chasm began to skip and utter unwonted sounds. The
goatherd, observing this with surprise, went up to the hole, was
affected in the same way as his goats, and began to prophesy. The fame
of this was spread abroad, many people came to the chasm and fell into
prophetic ecstasy. So the place was deemed an oracle of Earth. At last
when many persons, in the height of their frenzy, had leaped into the
hole and disappeared, the neighbours resolved to appoint one woman to
the office of prophetess, and in order that she might receive the
prophetic influence and give the oracles in safety, they devised a
three-legged machine or tripod, which she mounted when she was about
to prophesy. The oracular chasm is described by Strabo (ix. p. 419) as
follows: “They say that the oracle is a perpendicular cavern, not very
broad at the mouth, and that an inspiring air is wafted up from it,
and that over the mouth of it stands a high tripod, which the Pythian
priestess mounts and receiving the air utters the oracles, some in
verse and some in prose, and the prose oracles are put into verse by
poets employed in the service of the sanctuary.”
A connection between this and the island of Crete occurs at the end of the same paragraph of Frazer’s commentary: “According to Plutarch (De defectu oraculorum, 42 and 46) the name of the man who first discovered the inspiring influence of the cavern by falling into it was Coretas. Some have taken the name Coretas to be etymologically connected with Curetes and Crete and hence have regarded it as a confirmation of the legend that the Delphic oracle was of Cretan origin.” He goes on:
Before the priestess descended into the cavern, omens were taken from
goats. Cold water was poured on the goat’s head, and if the animal
shivered and shook in all its limbs, the omen was good, the goat was
sacrificed, and the priestess descended into the cave. But if the
goat, when drenched with the water, stood motionless or only shook its
head, the omen was unfavourable, and the priestess did not go down.
The origin of this custom was explained by the story that the
inspiring influences which emanated from the cave had first been
experienced by goats. See Plutarch, De defectu oraculorum, 46, 49,
and 51; Diodorus, xvi. 26.
4. Phemonoe was the first prophetess of Apollon, and sang in hexameter verse. This, says Pausanias here, is the most prevalent view. The Periegesis implies that the first oracle sang by Phemonoe was a prophecy about the arrival of Apollon at Delphi and the destruction of Python upon that advent.
Phemonoe was a daughter of Apollon or of Delphos the founder of Delphi (in the latter of which instances she was a granddaughter of either Apollon or Poseidon). Her mother Kastalia, a daughter of the River Akhelous, transformed into a spring of water at the foot of Mt Parnassos in order to escape the advances of Apollon. Pausanias says that, in conjunction with an adjoining spring, the waters of Kastalia are what inspired the local prophetesses of Apollon with their oracular powers.
5. According to the Delphian poetess Boio [Boeo], says Pausanias, the shrine of Apollon at Delphi was built by a group of Hyperboreans led by Olen, Pagasos and Agyieos. Olen was the first prophet of Apollon, chanting the hexameter oracles. The Hellados Periegesis 10.5.8 qualifies this with the disclaimer that
Tradition, however, reports no other man as prophet, but makes mention
of prophetesses only.