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Delphi: Castalian Spring


The Castalian Spring (Delphi, Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.
The Castalian Spring today
Castalian Spring: source near the sanctuary of Delphi, dedicated to the god Apollo and the Muses.

The Castalian Spring is not in the sanctuary of Apollo itself, but about 500 m east of its main entrance. According to Euripides' play Ion (94ff), visitors of the oracle went to source first to ritually cleanse themselves. Washing one's hair was sufficient, but murderers had to wash themselves completely.

The water was also use to sprinkle the temple of Apollo. It came down from the two rocks that were known as the Pheriads, and plunged down as a little stream, the Papaddia, from the rocks, and joined the river Pleistos below Delphi. According to the Greek author Pausanias, it had a delicious taste (Guide to Greece, 10.8.5).

The same author records several ancient traditions about the origin of the name, one of them being that the source was called after a local lady. The Carian poet Panyassis, who is quoted by Pausanias, appears to have called Castalia a daughter of the river Achelous, and others -including the lyrical poet Alcaeus- believed that the spring was connected to the Cephissus river.

According to legend, Apollo planted here a shoot of the laurel that he had brought to Delphi from the Tempe Canyon, which was all that had been left of the woman he loved, Daphne. There may indeed have been an ancient cult for a tree; there appears to have been a statue for Ge, Mother Earth, as well. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus states that close to the Castalian Spring, one could find a sanctuary that was dedicated to Autonous, a local hero who helped to push back the Persian invaders in 480 BCE (Histories, 8.39).

Today, one can see a rectangular square basin of about 9x3 m, hewn out in the hard soil. Next to it is a long reservoir in which the water from the Pheriads was collected, before it was fed to seven jets, which had the shape of lion heads. This monument dates back to the Hellenistic (or Roman) period, and is not the oldest building on the site: a fountain house from the Archaic period has been discovered as well.

The Castalian Spring, on a Byzantine mosaic from Qasr Libya (Libya). Photo Marco Prins.
The Castalian Spring, on a Byzantine mosaic from Qasr Libya.

The source was well-known throughout the ancient world, and "Castalia" could be used as a synonym for Delphi (e.g., Pindar, Pythian Ode, 4.163). In the Roman age, the word could be a way to describe poetic inspiration (e.g., Virgil, Georgics, 3.293). It could even be a synonym for wisdom, and it is therefore not very surprising to find a representation of the Castalian Spring -which was, when all was said and done, a pagan cult object- depicted in a Christian church, like the one at Qasr Libya in the Cyrenaica.

The British classicist Peter Levi records, in a footnote to his translation of Pausanias' Guide to Greece (1971; vol. II, page 426) that there in the 1960's, there was still a believe that the Castalia's water was magically medicinal, and that it was privately and secretly bottled for these uses.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 7 February 2008
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