August 28 – September 1
We had another early start Thursday morning in order to beat the crowds that flock to Delphi. Perched high on the southern slopes of Mt. Parnassus, and overlooking the Gulf of Corinth, it is possibly the most spectacular of Greece’s ancient sites. Back in the day, Delphi, also known as the Sanctuary of Apollo, was famous throughout the world as the home of a prophetess known as the oracle (a.k.a. the Pythia). As the mouthpiece of Apollo on earth, she told fortunes for pilgrims who came from far and wide seeking her advice on everything from affairs of state to wars to matrimonial problems.
The bus let us out below the main site so that we could visit the Sanctuary of Athena. Because of the area’s long association with Gaia (the ancestral mother of all life: the primal Mother Earth goddess), Athena was worshipped at Delphi along with Apollo. The most prominent attraction here is the tholos (c. 380 B.C.), a-round structure whose exact purpose is unknown. Its three reconstructed columns of the original 20 Doric that once held up a conical roof have become the most photographed spot in all of Delphi.
We re-boarded the bus and soon disembarked at the Archeological Museum where we’d spend about 90 minutes viewing a number of items found or saved from the site. The first big display to see is the Sphinx of Naxos (c. 570-560 B.C.), a marble winged lion with a female face that once stood brightly painted atop a 40-foot Ionic column in the main grounds of Delphi.
We spent some time examining the Twin Kouros Statues (c. 600-580 B.C.), at seven feet tall; these legendary twins of Argos yoked themselves to their mother’s chariot and pulled her five miles so she wouldn’t be late for the female Games. Upon arrival, they fell into a sleep so deep they never woke up.
Equally fascinating is the Bronze Charioteer, depicted as just having finished his victory lap where he won the Pythian Games of 474 B.C. Originally part of a 3-D ensemble that stood at the entrance to the theater, he is a life size 5’ 11” but is missing his chariot which was probably pulled by four horses. His face and attitude are calm and humble, the statue having been cast when Greece was emerging from the horrors of the Persian invasion. He expresses the wonderment felt as Greece finally left battle behind and rode triumphantly into its Golden Age.
We finished at the Museum and made our way to the Sanctuary of Apollo site, the star attraction of the day. It is the home of Pythia (High Priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi) who is commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi. She was a priestess of Apollo who acted as a seer by channeling the god’s spirit. The Oracle was always a female but was not the focus but rather they were vessels for the words of Apollo as interpreted by priests.
The Oracle presumably prophesied in a kind of trance, letting the spirit of Apollo possess her body and speaking as if she were the god himself. It is hypothesized that she was high on vapors that rose from the natural chasm in the inner sanctum floor, but science has found no evidence of the supposed chasm, though ravines and springs nearby do emit psychotropic gases. The trance might also have been caused by the Oracle eating or inhaling burned laurel leaves. Regardless of the source, the priests tightly controlled her ultimate message.
We entered the site and passed through the Roman Forum, which originally stood outside the sanctuary’s main gate and hosted an arcade of shops where pilgrims could pick up handy last-minute offerings, often small statues of Apollo, before proceeding to their appointment with the Oracle.
From there we started up the Sacred Way, lined with ruins of once glorious statues and monuments financed by satisfied pilgrims grateful for the Oracle’s advice. Just before making a turn up the hill we passed the Treasuries, small buildings that housed precious gifts to the gods. They were paid for by city-states and kings to thank the Oracle and the gods for giving them success, especially in war.
We stopped to admire an Ompahlos, a symbolic tombstone for the python that Apollo slew, one of a number that dotted the site, representing Delphi as the center of the world. Just ahead was a view of the Treasury of the Athenians, built to commemorate the victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. at the Battle of Marathon. The tiny inscriptions on the blocks honor Athenian citizens with praise and laurel leaf wreaths and when the ruins were rebuilt (1905-06), the restorers determined which block went where by matching up pieces of inscription.
We continued up the hill to a clearing and stopped close to the Tripod of Plataea (built to thank the oracle for victory in the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C.) where we could view one side of the Temple of Apollo. This structure, which in its day would have towered over the rest of the site, was the centerpiece of the whole sanctuary. It was dedicated to the god who ruled the hillside, and it housed the oracle that spoke in his name.
Largely funded by Philip of Macedon, it was gleaming white, ringed with columns with a triangular pediment over the entrance and a roof studded with statues. The six Doric columns that stand near the entrance today (reassembled in 1904) were complemented by 15 columns along each side. In its heyday, a pilgrim would be paraded ceremoniously to the temple and upon entering, find it cloudy with the incense of burning laurel leaves. After offering a sacrifice (often a goat although a loaf of bread was the minimum cover charge) on the hearth of the eternal flame, it was time to meet the oracle.
The priests lead you into the Adyton, the farthest back holiest chamber and there is the oracle, an older woman dressed in white, seated in the bowl of a tripod. While you wait, the priests present your question to the oracle. She answers, perhaps crying out, perhaps muttering gibberish and foaming at the mouth. The priests step in to interpret the oracle’s meaning, rendering it in a vague haiku-like poem. Then you are ushered out of the temple either enlightened or confused by the riddle. For many pilgrims, like Socrates, a visit to Delphi was only the beginning of their life’s journey.
We moved on up a steep incline to reach the Theater (one of Greece’s best preserved, 4th century B.C.), which was built to host song contests honoring Apollo. With 35 rows of white stone quarried from Mt. Parnassus, it could seat 5,000. The famous Bronze Charioteer statue (in the museum) likely stood outside the entrance in the middle of the road to greet playgoers.
As we continued up the steep path, we reached the back of the theater and its breathtaking view. At 1,800 feet above sea level, with the entirety of the Sanctuary in the foreground, one can see in the distance the valley of the Pleistos river, green with olive trees and beyond that the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Corinth.
Ten minutes up the hill brought us to our final stop of the day, the Stadium. Every four years, athletes and spectators from across Greece gathered here to watch the same kinds of sports as at the ancient Olympics. The Pythian Games were second only to the older and bigger Olympic Games in prestige.
This exceptionally well-preserved stadium, built in the 5th century B.C., was remodeled in the 2nd century A.D. by Herodes Atticus, who also built a theater in Athens and a fountain in Olympia (the Nymphaeum). There was stone seating for 7,000 (cushier than at Olympia) and one can still make out the midfield row of judges seats.
We worked our way back downhill to wait for the bus to collect us at the end of what had been a full and rewarding day. Our ride to Kalambaka at the foot of the complex of Meteora would take a little over two hours, allowing us some time to digest all we’d encountered during our visit to the center of the world.
We’d sleep that night hearing the whispered advice of the oracle. If only we could make out what she was saying.
Mt. Parnassus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Parnassus