Promptly at eight o’clock, we are eating breakfast in the hotel’s cafe. We want to be sure of getting our nutrition before the kilometer walk to the archaeological site and our ascent into the terraced city of old Delphi.
Sacred Precinct at Delphi
It is a place where pilgrims from every corner of the civilized world came for prophesy or knowledge of the future. We come for knowledge of the past. The ordinary histories which we read give us little appreciation of the tremendous influence of this place in a time when people believed in magic and divination.
No one knows exactly when Delphi became famous. It happened some time in remote antiquity, long before Apollo and the other Olympian gods were worshipped by the Greeks. As the story goes, a shepherd grazing his flock noticed the goats, when they approached a rock cave, springing about madly, as if under some strange influence. He came up to see the place himself and right away fell into a trance.
Scientists recently discovered two geological faults intersecting beneath this cave, which expelled volcanic gases to the surface. Anyone breathing these gases quickly experienced hallucinations and loss of mental control. In ancient times this was seen as some sort of religious trance. So the reputation of the place spread very rapidly and, early on, a fortune teller known as the Pythian Oracle began to operate at the site.
Before a temple was built, Oracle sat upon this rock.
By the time the cult of Apollo had taken over at Delphi, this is the way it worked: the Oracle (a woman who supposedly communicated directly with Apollo), would be placed on a tripod in the Temple of Apollo — directly over the gas vent. After the vapors had their effect, the Oracle was carried to a public chamber, where she would wave her arms and babble in a nonsense language. The priests of Apollo would “translate” the gibberish and present it as “prophesy” to the waiting client.
Now the priests were very well-informed about what was happening in the world, and they did a lot of research on the people who came to consult the Oracle. So it was that they were always able to craft a prediction that met the expectations or desires of the client – and vague enough to have several different (and sometimes opposite) meanings.
The rise of the Delphic Oracle to greatness coincides with the spread of the Dorians over Greece – which comes after the legendary Trojan War. It seems that the influence of this oracle was, in old days, always used in the direction of good morals and of enlightenment. When neighboring states were likely to quarrel, the oracle was often a peacemaker, and even acted as arbitrator in disputes. By the sixth century BCE even the selection of political leaders was often sanctioned and promoted by the Delphic Oracle.
The treasure-house of Athens on the Sacred Way
At the same time the treasure-house of the shrine was the largest and safest of banks, where both individuals and states might deposit treasure, and from which they could also borrow money, at fair interest, in times of war and public distress. Delphi was thought to be the center of the earth’s surface, and certainly in a social and religious sense this was the case for the entire Greek world.
We walk to the entrance of the shrine, the lowest terrace where pilgrims of old began their journey along the sacred way up to the Temple of Apollo. In ancient times, pilgrims would first visit at the Kastalia spring, which bursts out from a fissure between the Phaedriades – two peaks that stand up a thousand feet over Delphi. A great square bath was cut in the rock, just at the mouth of the fissure. This was the place where arriving pilgrims purified themselves with hallowed water before approaching the temple. We cannot climb up to the site of the bath, but we fill our water bottles where the spring water bubbles down near the entrance of the sanctuary.
Pilgrims purified themselves at Kastalia spring
The great winding avenue leading up to the temple was once a perfect street of national monuments — treasure-houses, colonnades, giant votive statues. Now only the foundations and walls of these remain. Except for the Treasury of the Athenians, which has been restored to some degree, most of the important archaeological finds here are now displayed in museums. It is amazing to see how many monuments were once displayed along the sacred way. One of the most interesting we see is the stone “omphalos,” the navel of the world (it is shaped rather like a huge gum drop).
The stone omphalos – belly button of the world
When we finally reach the Temple of Apollo, we find main floor of the building and a number of columns, as well as the base where a giant statue of Apollo once stood. Most of the great statues were carried away by invaders long ago, and we can only imagine how they looked by reading ancient writings, which still exist. Walking around the temple, we can see that there are underground chambers. This must be where the oracle was exposed to the vapors that sent her into a trance.
The temple of Apollo is built over a geologic fissure
Above the temple, on the next terrace, is a well preserved theater built in the fourth century BCE. It seated about 5000 spectators for ceremonial performances. It is here that dramatic and lyric (singing to the accompaniment of a lyre) competitions took place. We stop here to rest and drink some water. It is very hot under the morning sun. After a short break, we continue upward to the stadium.
Theater where plays were performed during festivals
The stadium, which is outside the sanctuary, has many rows of stone bleachers and a grooved marble starting line for the racers who competed in the Pythian Games every four years. These games predated the ancient Olympic Games by hundreds of years. In addition, to athletic competitions, musical events were also held in the stadium. Above the stadium is a pine forest, which extends up a steep slope to the foot of the mountain cliffs. It is a beautiful location, and we are happy to be here ā€“ especially since a cooling breeze has started up and clouds are beginning to shade us from the sun.
Stadium at Delphi hosted the Pythian Games
On the way down the mountain, we see crowds of tour groups beginning to hike up the sacred way. One can imagine that it was something like this in ancient times, with pilgrims from every part of the known world coming to visit the Oracle.
The national importance of the Delphic Oracle lasted from the invasion of the Dorians down to the Persian War; but it never fully recovered from the bad advice it gave about the Persians. When the invasion of Xerxes was approaching, the Delphic priests, who knew about the immense power of the Persian army and navy, made up their minds that all resistance was useless. They counseled the Athenians to surrender or run away, which seemed at the time to be a good idea. Xerxes had assembled the largest army the world had ever known to defeat Greece.
But Delphic priests did not figure on the ingenuity of the Athenian leaders. The Athenians deserted their city and tricked Xerxes into believing that they were hiding in the waterway between Elefsina and the island of Salamina, a short distance from the city. Xerxes ordered his entire navy into that passage, and soon realized that he was trapped. Greek forces ambushed and destroyed the fleet, and then drove the Persian army out of Greece territory.
The Greeks had won, and Athens became the leading city state in Greece. Athenians very soon developed a secular and worldly spirit, and they were by no means awed by Delphic prophesies that threatened them or weakened their resolve, when their own courage and skill had brought them deliverance. At this point we can imagine Athenian leaders looking upon the oracles as little more than a convenient way of persuading the mob to follow a policy which it was not able to understand. Still, this was the beginning of a long decline for Delphi.
When Emperor Julian, the last Roman champion of paganism, desired to consult the oracle on his way to Persia, in 362 CE, it replied: “Tell the king the carven hall has fallen into the dust. Phoebus (Apollo) has no shelter left, no prophetic laurel, no speaking spring. The stream is dry.” So the shrine finally confessed that its power had passed away. The old religion was gone forever.
Temple of Athena, called “Tholos” because it is round
We pass hundreds of visitors on our way down the mountainside, and we are thankful that an increasing cloud cover has lowered the temperature. At the beginning of the sacred way, we continue on down the road for another kilometer to another ancient site, where a Tholos (circular building) temple of Athena stands, along with a couple of other temples, a gymnasium, and possibly a treasure house of the Phocaeans. Along the way we meet a school teacher from California and discuss some the wonderful sights we have seen.
We get back to the village and our hotel just as the rain begins.