Dallying in Delphi

After an hours-long drive out of Athens, we reached the mountains. Parnassus came into view. Our ears popped with the change of altitude. We passed through a jarringly Nordic ski village, Arachova, before ascending higher on the sacred mountain, until a line of tour buses alerted us to our arrival at the Temple of Apollo’s complex where its priestess, the Delphic Oracle once moved men to make decisions, sometimes disastrous ones.

A layer of blueish-gray clouds hung overhead, obscuring the sun and chilling the air. I zipped up my raincoat and shivered. With the sheer face of a mountain behind me, I made a 240° turn to see mists circle the surrounding mountain tops and settle over endless olive groves in deep valleys below. I thought about petitioners coming here millennia ago when conditions might have been similar. Did they feel the damp and gloom brought them closer to the spirits of the place, the genius loci? Did they, too, shiver in their vulnerability and mortal weakness?

As we climbed a path, the Sacred Way, beginning at Delphi’s agora (αγορα), later incorporated into a Christian basilica, we passed the ruins of votive storehouses and a small marble temple to Athena, all the gifts of ancient wealthy petitioners and supporters. The stone path was slippery from light rain and the many tourists surrounding us added to the difficulty of climbing to the height where the Temple to Apollo stood as everyone younger than we hurried to bypass us.

Nevertheless, slowly and steadily we neared the temple’s dressed stone platform, reconstructed with a few standing Doric columns. I imagined myself there, in the fourth century BCE, led by a temple priest to the oracle. He would have heard my question and would have brought it to the oracle in the temple to her sanctuary of sanctuaries. Apollo’s priestess would be seated on a tripod probably behind a curtain and I would be confident she would be in direct contact with the god. My temple priest would offer her my question, be it political or personal, and I’d wait for him to reveal her answer to me. In reality—although in those times I would not have known or dared to think this—she was usually a local woman; more than one woman served in the role and they usually were girls or women drafted for the job.

The priestess’s seat stood over a vent formed by the intersection of two fault lines. Petrochemical vapors escaping from the vent intoxicated the oracle and she became ecstatic and spoke in tongues. The priest interpreted her gibberish, probably to meet the questioner’s expectations, but always phrased the answer enigmatically. Thus, however the petitioner understood the priest’s interpretation, he was responsible for the action he took and its outcome—not the priest nor the oracle.

Built into the mountain side above the temple stood a Roman theater. We climbed above it and stood between two towering cedars that dramatically framed our view of the whole precipitous slope and the site’s many architectural features. Although awe-inspiring, the view lost its mystery amid the plethora of selfie sticks and tourists posing for photos; but I understood the urge: how to resist taking photos when each step and stop around the site provided another spectacular prospect?

My best “take-away” from this Delphic experience was the sense of [tenuous] connection with those who came to Delphi so long ago in search of divine intervention and guidance. I did not pray or petition here, as I have done at other sites during my world travels, for those mountains around Parnassus looked indifferent, shrouded, and impenetrable. They signaled humanity’s inconsequence in the cosmos. The site’s beauty cannot be overstated, but its beauty is fierce, astronomical like the stars—out of time and beyond comprehension. Perhaps this place, sited in greater proximity to the gods, reveals humanity’s yearning for an oracle, one who could unravel and save our species from life’s deepest and terrifying mysteries.

 

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