Sunday, October 17, 2010

Oracle of Delphi, Greece

The Sunday Jump: I have a confession: I'm crazed about the Sybils. So crazed that I've dashed through the Vatican just to get to the Sistine Chapel, where I have gazed endlessly at Michelangelo's depiction of, yes, the Sybils. I've wandered through Cuma and Lago Averno many times. I also traveled to the center of the earth, so-called precisely because it was once the seat of the Delphic Sybil.

Why the fascination? Is it because I have a fuming question, one that could restore or save humanity's future?

Delphi is about a two hour drive from Athens, located close to the Corinthian Gulf. According to legend, Zeus released four eagles from the four corners of the Earth and they all met at Delphi, which then became known as the navel (omphalos) or center of the world.

Another myth claimed that Apollo wandered to the slopes of Mount Parnassus where he found a terrible python. The god slew the animal, throwing its body into a crack in the earth. He then established his temple here. Apollo's feat earned him the epithet Pythian and the women who guarded over his temple became the Pythias.

The Pythias should not be confused with the mythic Delphic Sybil. While Michelangelo depicted the Delphic Sybil on the Sistine Chapel, her existence is questionable. It is said that she made prophecies at the Temple of Apollo before the Trojan War. She is also said to have seen the coming of Jesus Christ.

The Pythias, on the other hand, were priestesses of the Apollo temple who gave oracles to men who came from across the Greek world to ask her questions. The existence of the Pythias are extremely well documented, with dozens of Greek and Roman writers mentioning the oracle. Our best source of information about them comes from the Greek historian Plutarch who was also a priest at the Delphic oracle. He explained that the Pythia was originally a young woman, but after a young virgin was raped in the 5th century B.C., an older woman was chosen. During the height of the Delphi oracle's prosperity, three Pythias could be consulted several days each month. They owned property, were exempt from taxes, received room and board from the state, and made a handsome salary. Their work also left them as depleted as athletes after a race.

Plutarch said that before prophesying the Pythia purified herself in the nearby spring. She then closed herself in the adyton of the temple and chewed laurel leaves. She seated herself on a tripod near the omphalos (navel of the earth) and breathed in gas vapors emitted from a chasm in the earth. The Pythia fell into a trancelike state, in which she saw the future. She pronounced her words in hexameters and priests (hosioi) interpreted her words. At times the future-telling work taxed the Pythia so much that she died in the act.

Scholars have been particularly mesmerized by the descriptions of vapors fuming up from a crack in the earth. Legend says that Apollo threw the dead python into the chasm of the earth and its rotting carcass gave off vapors that endlessly rose up from the chasm. Modern scientists maintain that ethylene gases indeed are emitted from the earth here. Whatever the truth, the question has rankled so many that pulitzer-prize winning author, William Broad, wrote a blockbuster book called The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Messages of Ancient Delphi.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The Pythias became so famous that emissaries of Greek cities came to leave lavish tributes to the gods. They stored their riches in treasuries along the Sacred Path leading to Apollo's Temple. Thanks to the treasuries, Delphi became the de-facto bank of the Greek world.

Treasury of the Athenians built to commemorate the Battle of Salamis

Gold, silver, and ivory items were stored in these treasuries. One example is this life-size chryselephantine statue, probably a depiction of Apollo. The anatomical parts were made of ivory and the garments and hair were made of gold leaf applied to wood:

Housed at the Delphi Archeological Museum

Delphi during the 5th century B.C. also became the site of the Pythian Games, the forerunner to the Olympic games. Every four years athletes from throughout the Greek world competed with one another in Delphi's large gymnasiums. The city also hosted musical competitions and the Delphi Archeological Museum currently houses the first known recorded musical melody.

Walking down the highway a little further east from the Temple of Apollo, a smaller sanctuary dedicated to Athena with two treasuries shows how vast this complex of religious sites must have been:

Athena Pronaia Sanctuary And Two Treasuries

The sancutary fell into decline when it became a Roman province after 146 BC, mostly due to looters and sackers who stole goods from the treasuries. After the 7th century A.D, Christians settled the area and created a small city called Kastri. By that time the ancient city had been buried through landslides. Only in 1893 did the French begin excavation of the area after displacing the local community.

Today, it's a mystical place of razed stones and winds that I believe carry fortunetelling voices. While standing by the Apollo Temple, I was so overcome with the expansiveness of the place that I had to create a question. My mind whirling, I thought quickly and hoped that the Sybil's prophesy could once again save humans from their errors. I stuttered: "Will the European man-bag ever go out of style?"

The answer, I believe, blew down into the valley from Mount Parnassus.

No comments: