This week we had a chat with Nicole Rallis of Leila and Olive, creator of the Pythia Botanica Oracle Deck. Her lush illustrations of plant life make this deck among the most beautiful we’ve seen. While her artwork and brilliantly colorful Instagram feed may have immediate surface appeal, her work is rooted in thousands of years of history and myth. Her deck is named after Pythia; more commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi.
Pythian priestesses were said to speak the words of Apollo himself. This belief ensured that during this practice, these women were the most powerful women in the classical world. Although the most well documented religious practice from Ancient Greece, we still don’t know too much about how these Priestesses received their visions. It is thought that the details were so well known between 6th Century BC and 4th Century BC, that no one felt the need to elaborate in any of their writings. After that, the stories conflict.
Priestess of Delphi . John Collier
One theory is that Priestesses would sit over vents in the earth, breathing in ethylene gas, methane, or benzene. The temple may have even been built intentionally over two faults in order to trap this gas. Another is that they would consume oleander in their rituals; both by chewing the leaves and by inhaling smoke. My favorite theory is that the Priestesses made themselves immune to snake venom, and then used it in small doses to enter a trance. The temple was thought to have been built where the god Apollo slew the serpent Python, after all. Any (or a combination) of these conditions could produce a dreamlike state, and allow a Priestess to receive messages from Apollo.
Thankfully, now we have safer options for getting in touch with the divine. Pythia Botanica stands out; we were eager to learn more about its inspiration and history. Nicole was kind enough to answer some of our questions.
Courtney Goe for Birds N Bones: What appeals to you most about the myth of Pythia? What made you want to name your deck after this oracle?
Nicole Rallis of Leila and Olive: In ancient literature and lore, men were given key roles in every message and story. The Pythia -- the High Priestess and voice at Apollo's Oracle of Delphi -- was an inspiring exception, a beacon of feminine strength worth applying to the present. Her voice commanded a role that was too true to dismiss. Simply put, she gave me hope and yet challenged me. As an artist, I couldn't ask for more. Given my own Hellenic heritage, there was no going back.
CG: What are some other myths or legends from which you draw inspiration?
NR: Medusa, Antheia, Patti Smith (the legend, not the myth!), there's too many to list.
CG: How did you choose the artwork for the back of the cards? Is the serpent related to Python, from Greek myth?
NR: Serpents hold great value and meaning for me, and have needled their way throughout my work in light of that. The Greek myth certainly applies well to the back of the card, but the idea came from a much more personal place.
CG: Who are some of your influences as an artist?
NR: The garden we have here and the many gardens that I've crossed paths with in my travels. If I had to pick just two influences, greenhouses and music are a solid go-to.
CG: What is your favorite plant to illustrate and why? What is your favorite botanical myth?
NR: Lately, Protea has been my favorite flower to illustrate. Its mythical function fits its form so well, too. Protea represents transformation in the shifting seas, and either dried or in full healthy bloom, it's one of the few flowers that feels like it could have drifted in from anywhere in the world. While Proteus was a male god, this flower has become a goddess of change in my home.
CG: We love that you encourage people to share the readings they do with your oracle deck. What has been your favorite part of this practice?
NR: It's been an incredibly humbling and touching experience to watch how others connect from afar to a work that began so close to me.
CG: What is your favorite Birds n Bones piece, and why?
NR: The Moonology Ring is so beautiful. Its texture in particular evokes the nuance of my favorite heavenly body.
CG: Thank you so much for your time, Nicole!
Make sure to check out Nicole’s Field Notes for tarot tips and pictures of this incredible deck in action.