Xenoclea, the Oracle

This week’s Classical Lady is Xenoclea, one of the women that served as the Pythia.

Who was Xenoclea?

Xenoclea was a woman who was the Pythia at Delphi at the Temple of Apollo. She is mentioned by many authors as a character in a myth about Heracles.

What’s a Pythia?

The Pythia was the priestess that resided at this temple and provided prophecies for visitors. This oracle was established in the 8th century BCE, possibly earlier. Lots of ancient writers mention the Pythia, and the role was handed down to the next woman after the current oracle died.

What is Xenoclea known for?

She is known for refusing to give a prophecy to Heracles, after he had come to get advice after killing his guest Iphitus in the city of Tiryns. As he was unpurified from the blood, and as she was shocked by the crime, Xenoclea refused to help him.

What did Heracles do?

What follows is a famous scene in vase painting. Heracles stole the Delphic tripod, a ritual seat used in the process of granting prophecies, from the priestess. He would not return it until she agreed to help him. We find many images of Heracles stealing the tripod, and the god Apollo trying to get it back. Sometimes a Pythia can be seen in the picture as well, and this is Xenoclea.

Does she get the tripod back?

Yes, eventually Heracles returns the tripod and bathes himself to start the purification process. Xenoclea tells him the only way to purify himself fully of the death is to serve as a slave for a year, with the money paid for him going to the children of the man he killed. Heracles is bought by Omphale, the Queen of Lydia.

That’s the last we hear about Xenoclea, who is only significantly present for this particular myth.


13 thoughts on “Xenoclea, the Oracle

  1. I did not know we had a name for this particular Pythia!. Today I have been re-reading about Pythagoras, another Pythia Themistoclea is said to have been one of his teachers. Do youknow the names of any other Pythias?


    • I’ve heard of a few others, Perialla, Aristonike, Theoneike, Phemonoe. Some were possibly real and some were possibly mythological (as Xenoclea likely was), but history and myth do like to overlap sometimes. There’s a good section on the post in the chapter “Priesthoods of Prominence” in the book Portrait of a Priestess by Joan Breton Connelly, if you want to check it out!


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