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Remains of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Xenoclea, who appears as a character in the legend of Hercules, was the Pythia, or priestess and oracle, of the temple of Apollo at Delphi.

The Delphic oracle was a historical reality and was established in the 8th century BC.[1]

In legend[edit]

According to Pausanias and others, Hercules travelled to Delphi to consult the Oracle following the death of Iphitus, whom he had thrown off a wall in the city of Tiryns while Iphitus was staying with him as a guest. Suffering from nightmares, Hercules sought advice as to how to be cured. However, when he came to address his request to Xenoclea, she refused to help him, considering that he was still unpurified from the blood and death of Iphitus and also being shocked by the nature of his crime. Her only answer to him was "You murdered your guest, I have no oracle for such as you".[2] This contemptuous reply so enraged Hercules that he sacrilegiously seized the priestess's Delphic tripod, took it away, and would not return it until she had agreed to grant his own request.[3][4]

After the return of her tripod, and after bathing in the Castalian Spring, Xenoclea pronounced that Hercules would be purified of the death of Iphitus only by serving a year as a slave, with the price he fetched going to the children of Iphitus as compensation for the loss of their father.[2] Asked who was to buy him, Xenoclea replied that it would be Omphale, Queen of Lydia. Hercules accepted the guidance of the oracle and agreed to serve Omphale for one year.[5][6]

Ancient depictions of the incident in the temple survive.[7] On one ancient vase, Hercules is shown carrying off the sacred tripod, while Apollo, holding a branch of laurel, struggles to recover it and Xenoclea, apparently terrified by the dispute, looks on from a window, awaiting the outcome.[8]

In modern fiction[edit]

In Geraldine McCaughrean's Theseus (2003), Theseus goes to Delphi to ask Xenoclea "why the gods have poured down this plague on us" and for the oracle's guidance on what to do in expiation.[9]

In Ngaio Marsh's Black as He's Painted (1974), a character is named Xenoclea, and when asked "Is it a made up job, then, that name?", Marsh's detective replies "Not by her, at least. Xenoclea was a mythical prophetess who wouldn't do her stuff for Hercules because he hadn't had a bath."[10][11]


  1. ^ Catherine Morgan, Athletes and Oracles (Cambridge, 1990), p. 148
  2. ^ a b Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, vol. 2 (Penguin Books, 1960), p. 159
  3. ^ John Lemprière, A classical dictionary: containing a copious account of all proper names mentioned in ancient authors (1822 edition), p. 620
  4. ^ Pausanias, Periegesis, book 10, c. 13; in Pausanias' Description of Greece, vol. 2 (G. Bell and sons, 1886), p. 243: "It is also recorded by the Delphians that, when Hercules the son of Amphitryon came to consult the oracle, the priestess Xenoclea would not give him any response because of his murder of Iphitus : so he took the tripod and carried it off..."
  5. ^ Graves (1960), p. 159: "'Whose slave am I to be?' asked Heracles humbly. 'Queen Omphale of Lydia will purchase you,' Xenoclea replied. 'I obey,' said Heracles, 'but one day I shall enslave the man who has brought this suffering upon me, and all his family too."
  6. ^ Referred to in Sophocles, The Trachiniae, 69
  7. ^ James Prendeville, Photographic facsimiles of the antique gems formerly possessed by the late prince Poniatowski, accompanied by a description and poetical illustrations of each subject, vol. 2 (Longman, 1859), p. 189: No 340: 'Hercules seizing the tripod of the Priestess of Delphi'
  8. ^ The Classical Journal, vols. 29-30 (1824), p. 122-123 and Plate xxx
  9. ^ Geraldine McCaughrean, Theseus (2003), p. 40
  10. ^ Ngaio Marsh, Black as He's Painted (G. K. Hall, 1974), p. 292
  11. ^ Xenoclea at wordpress.com