An 1,800-year old ancient oracular edifice might just be the first oracle ever discovered in the capital city of Athens. Now historically, the scope of ancient oracles and divination have always been connected to the famous Delphi (along with other sites) in Greece. But this fascinating discovery, conducted by the Kerameikos excavation project (by members of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens), might shed new light into how Apollo’s cult with its intricacies and secrets, may have also been popular in Athens. As for the well in question, it was possibly used for hydromancy – a divination method that entails the medium of water.
Coming to the location of this Athenian oracle well, the Kerameikos site is almost in the middle of the city, just northwest to the renowned Acropolis. While historically being the district of potters, the neighborhood was sumptuously supplied by water from the Eridanos River. Suffice it to say, the Athenians built many strategic wells that were connected to this water system, with some of them serving on a public basis. And it was this very sustaining ‘force’ of water that endowed it with a symbolic significance in Greek mythology. As Dr. Jutta Stroszeck, director of the Kerameikos excavation, said (to Haaretz) –
Water, and in particular drinking water, was sacred. In Greek religion, it was protected by nymphs, who could become very mischievous when their water was treated badly.
Physical attributes of this ancient Athenian oracle well include its walling with clay cylinders. These components were etched with Greek inscriptions, all containing the same phrase roughly translated to “come to me, O Paean, and bring with you the true oracle”. Now in terms of Greek mythology, Paean (Greek: Παιάν) or Paieon (Greek: Παιήων) was the Greek physician of the gods. The name later became an epithet for Apollo, since he was identified as the god of healing and purification.
Interestingly enough, the archaeologists were initially drawn to this Kerameikos site (since 19th century) because of the conspicuous omphalos located within a 6,500 sq ft sanctuary. Now omphalos in itself pertains to a conical stone that symbolically represents the navel of the world. In that regard, the famous omphalos of Delphi was believed by ancient Greeks to be the very center of the entire world – as measured by the machinations of Zeus, who then dropped down a conical stone from the skies to mark the point (an ‘artifact’ which can still be seen today).
As for the Athenian omphalos, it was located in the center of an rectangular parameter, between an altar and the base of a cult image. And fortuitously, the archaeologists discovered a marble slab in 2012 that was furnished as a pedestal for the omphalos. This conical stone was then carefully lifted by a crane, thus revealing the long-forgotten, ancient oracle well hidden underneath the entire structure.
Lastly, the researchers have also come across an ancient bathhouse that is even older, harking back to a period between 5th and 3rd century BC. Possibly the spa that was mentioned by Aristophanes, the comic playwright of ancient Athens, this establishment may have served patrons from Plato’s Academy as well as numerous craftsmen.