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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Python

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The primitive Aryans worshipped a deity named, from ἀπέλλα, ‘the fold,’ Ἀπέλλων or Ἀπόλλων, ‘he of the fold,’ the special god of the cattle-pen, the patron deity of cattle-rearing. He was also called Αύκιος, ‘he who frightens away the wolf.’ As Φοῖβος, the sun-god, was the deity who opened the ἀπέλλαι (‘cattle-pens’) in the morning and drove out the herds, the one god became identified with the other. Apollo dwelt in caves._ Certain tribes of Aryan Hellenes who invaded and conquered what is now called Greece brought with them their cave-dwelling deity. One of these tribes settled in a narrow vale shut in between Mount Parnassus and Mount Cirphis. The place, afterwards called Delphi, was then named Πυθώ or Πύθων. In Πύθων was a cavern which emitted vapour of a more or less mephitic character. To the autochthons this was clear evidence of the presence of a chthonian spirit, most probably nameless, whom they worshipped. The cults of the two cave-dwellers inevitably amalgamated, and Apollo took the place of the nameless chthonian spirit and was called Πύθιος._ The name Πύθων is in some way connected with πύθειν, ‘to rot.’ Such a cave in primitive times was certain to have been a resort of serpents, and an aetiological myth arose to the effect that the cavern, which had been possessed by Themis, had been guarded by an immense serpent called Πύθων who was the offspring of Gaia, produced from mud after the flood of Deucalion. Four days after his birth Apollo, the child of Zeus and Leto, killed the serpent, from whom he took the name, its carcass being allowed to rot where it was killed._

Cattle-rearing being the chief employment of the earlier Aryans and Apollo being the protector of the fold, we can understand how helpfulness became one of his characteristics. This developed along two lines. (1) He suggested means by which calamities might be avoided. This led (2) to the conception of a power of prediction. In this way Apollo became the prophet of Zeus. Plato calls him ‘the interpreter of religion to all mankind.’_ His oracle made Delphi particularly famous,_ he became the most typical representative Hellenic deity, and his oracle at Delphi the most powerful influence in guiding and moulding the growth of Hellenism._ At Delphi his cult and oracle-giving became recognized and organized institutions. The oracle in historic times was of the ecstatic, enthusiastic, or epileptic kind. The chief agent was the Πυθία (the fem. of Πύθιος). When an oracle was asked, she, after preparation, drank the water of the sacred stream, chewed the leaves of the sacred laurel, mounted a tripod above the cavern from which the mephitic vapour arose, and then began to speak. Near her were the ὅσιοι, five priests who listened and interpreted her sayings._ Thus the Πυθία, a virtuous woman, became a mere tool in the hands of the Holy Ones, whose power has been aptly compared to that of the prophet Samuel._ Apollo had the power of communicating this gift of oracle-giving to others besides the Πυθία._ Persons who were ventriloquists, in the original sense of that term, would naturally be supposed to have had it conferred on them. Hence Πύθων meant equally the divine being and the person whom it possessed. These ἐγγαστρίμυθοι were apparently very common throughout the countries where Greek influence predominated. They were called Eurykleidai, Sternomanteis, and Pythones.

Such diviners belonged to the lowest grade of the profession and were evidently for the most part ventriloquists._ One such is brought before us in Acts 16:16-18, in the Greek city of Philippi, during a visit paid to it by Paul and Silas. She was not a priestess of the Pythian Apollo, or in other words an accredited agent of the Delphic Oracle, as has been supposed,_ but a female slave, probably a ventriloquist, afflicted with lunacy of a mild chronic type,_ whose peculiarity was, according to the ideas of the time, looked upon as caused by her being possessed with a Pythonic spirit._ She was accordingly consulted by those who desired to have the future revealed to them, a business which produced a considerable revenue. She was not a slave mantic owned and exploited by a syndicate, as has often been stated,_ for οἱ κύριοι does not mean ‘masters’ but rather, as A. Souter has pointed out, the girl’s master and mistress._ These dealt with her cries as the ὅσιοι did with the deliverances of the Delphic priestess, framing out of them answers to those who consulted the girl.

For the Patristic view see Hermas, Mand. 11.

P. A. Gordon Clark.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Python'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/p/python.html. 1906-1918.

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Monday, June 1st, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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