March 24th, 2011

Greece - Day Five


Delphi! I’d been looking forward to Delphi, partly because of all the stories in mythology and fiction that involve the Delphic Oracle, partly because it’s dedicated to Apollo (with whom I have a special fascination—as you’ll see, if you’re so inclined, in my upcoming urban fantasy, Bad Blood).  I’d also read in one of my guidebooks that it was the most beautiful of the ancient sites.  I don’t know about that—there’s certainly enough competition for that honor—but it is impressive.  Definitely, the stadium for the Pythian Games was worth the incredible climb.  Unfortunately, Ty wasn’t able to run this, as he did the track at Olympia, because this stadium was roped off, but it was something to see.  The Pythian Games took place every eight years at first, and then the interval was shortened to every four years.  They were held to honor Apollo.

The god of honor was said to live in Delphi for all but the winter months, during which he either visited the Hyperboreans (his mother Leto’s people) or hied off to a village at the foot of Mount Olympus.  In his absence, Dionysus took up residence and was honored in turn.

There’s so much to tell here—about how Delphi was said to be the navel of the world (discovered when Zeus released doves from either end of the world and they met at Delphi), about how it was first dedicated to the mother-goddess Rhea, but how Apollo, only four days old (according to one variation) single-handedly killed the huge Pythian serpent that guarded the sanctuary and claimed it for his own, accepting the punishment of temporary exile for “murdering” the mythic creature.  Apollo is probably best known as the gold of music and prophecy (although he later seemed to merge with Helios, the sun god).

The Delphic Oracles were originally young girls (maidens) who were expected to stay that way, but when problems arose, they were chosen from matrons instead, who were dressed like young girls and expected to leave their families to dedicate themselves to the sanctuary.    It’s debated what caused the trances from which their “prophecies” arose.  They were said to sit on a tripod over a fissure in the earth from which emanated gases (methane, ethane and ethylene, according to tests done at the site), which might have been part of the equation.  Also, they were said to chew laurel leaves.  Their usually incoherent words were then interpreted by the priest and put into verse for the supplicant.  A great deal of politics went into who got precedence in consulting the oracle.  Citizens of Delphi came first, after which those from certain cities that had contributed heavily or individuals who offered particularly large donations would be chosen.  After that, it was the luck of a lottery draw whether or not your question would be heard.  There was an entire preparation process, from walking the sacred way to cleansing in the Castellan Spring to offering up a sacrifice (often a goat).

The museum at Delphi held the famed Sphinx of Naxion, which would have stood on a sky-high pedestal looking down on the sanctuary.  It also contained the beautifully preserved bronze charioteer and some gorgeous representations of Apollo, his twin sister Artemis and their mother Leto (the latter not yet fully restored).  Like the statue of Zeus once housed in his temple in Olympia, they were chryselephantine, though discolored by the fire which damaged them.  They were found in a sacred offering –pit, which was where damaged or overflowing offerings were buried.  They couldn’t be given away or sold, since they belonged to the gods.

After half a day in Delphi, we were off to Kalambaka, a town at the base of Meteora, an impressive landscape of stones that seemed to ruse out of the earth like mountain-sized stalagmites on top of which man somehow managed to build.