Tag Archives: Delphi

From Myth Into History

The Omphalos, centre of mythic Greece.
If there’s a place in Greece that stands on the border between myth and history, it’s Delphi. Its origins are lost in legend and folktale, but the fact of its influence and wealth can be seen in the incredible physical remains of the place.
According to one tale, the Omphalos above marks the spot where two eagles that Zeus released from the edge of the world finally met. According to another, it was the stone that Rhea fed to Chronos instead of the infant Zeus, and Delphi is where it fell when Chronos vomited it up.
Neither tale did anything more than burnish the already hallowed reputation of Delphi. The sanctuary of Apollo was where kings and emperors sought out the wisdom of the Sibyl, known as the Pythia, when they wished to know what the future held. When Leonidas of Sparta was told that a king’s blood must water the earth of Thermopylae if Greece was to resist Xerxes’ Persians, he strapped on his shield and went for a walk, taking only 300 bodyguards with him. Or so the story goes.
That the priests of Apollo were able to keep this gig going for centuries can be seen in the fact that the sanctuary was rebuilt at least twice, each time more magnificent than before. Until the Christian Era at last put an end to pagan superstition, Delphi endured. Even now, there’s something special about the place. Perched high in a valley above the Gulf of Corinth, bees still buzz in the trees there, and olives are grown in the soil below, much as they must have been in ancient times.
If you go there yourself, go at dawn or dusk, preferably the former. Sunrise over Delphi is something special, and it’ll keep you out of the worst heat of the day. Walk the same path that pilgrims seeking Apollo’s wisdom once did and savour having the place to yourself before the tour buses arrive.

The Tholos of the Santuary of Athena at Delphi.
If I’d stuck to the plan I made yesterday, I’d be mentioning Thebes now, home of legendary Oedipus, that most complex rex, but also Epaminondas and Pelopidas, two very historical figures who broke Sparta’s power at the Battle of Leuctra. Sadly, either the bus didn’t stop there or Alexander the Great did a too-thorough job when he razed it, as I didn’t see anything resembling a city, ancient or otherwise.
Instead, I did a Chicago, passing swiftly through Athens, across the Corinthian isthmus to Nafplio. If Delphi is half myth and half history, Nafplio has only a scrap of myth left to it. There are Mycenean walls beneath one of its fortresses, but the most of the stone here is nailed down to well-understood history. The imposing Fortress of Palmidi, which rears high above the city, is less than three hundred years old, for all that several of its many fortifications have been named for figures of Greek myth and legend.
The climb to Palmidi isn’t for the faint of lung, but the view is worth it. I got to the top just in time to watch the sun going down over the mountains on the far side of the bay and sat there looking at the much older city acropolis below until I was ready to try the stairs again.
All that exertion is done for the day though. As I write this, I have a beer in front of me on a balmy Aegean night. Not long ago, I was strolling along the waterfront enjoying a (real Italian) gelato in the dying light of the day. If that isn’t what a holiday is supposed to be, I’m not sure I want to be part of it.

Sunset from the Palmidi fortress.

Everything Echoes

Dawn over Meteora.

Twenty years ago, I was preparing to start college and live away from home for the first time. Sixteen years ago, I was about to interview for a job that, counting promotions, would keep me employed for the next dozen years. Three years ago, I watched the sun rise over Japan during a journey that was a reaction to losing several of the props of the life I’d built for myself and trying to figure out something new. Two years ago, I was beginning a Masters course that was a bigger challenge than anything I’d taken on in years, and one year ago I was completing it successfully. This year, I woke to see sunrise over the pinnacles of Meteora and will go to sleep in Delphi, the centre of the ancient Greek world, in time for sunset.
Draw any straight line through a life and you’re likely to find a similar degree of drama. This particular history sticks in my mind because my birthday and that of two thirds of my family fall within the space of a month at this time of the year. Late September and early October has always been, for me, a time of change and new beginnings. (That school years in Ireland, north and south, also begin at this time of year probably also helped to set this association in stone.)
For today though, I’m not so much starting something new as passing from one thing to another. Walking among other the monasteries of Meteora this morning (as the image above depicts) has been followed by much travelling by bus. Lamia, amid the mountains of central Greece, was my resting place for the past few hours. Unable to make my way to Thermopylae, only twenty kilometres away (sorry dad), I avoided being stuck in the bus station for four hours by heading into town for a stroll and a frappé (a Greek habit that’s proved worth picking up), returning to the station a safe hour before the bus to Delphi left.
Sunset was lost behind the mountains south of Lamia as we followed a road that Xerxes would have given a king’s ransom for. The closest I got to Thermopylae was passing around the wrong side of a mountain, though perhaps not far from the goatherd’s path that betrayed Leonidas and the 300 Spartans (minus two injured “tremblers” but plus their normally ignored helot slaves and allies). From there it was switchback corners up and down mountainsides into the gathering gloom, changing in Amfissa to take on even narrower mountain paths in the dark, heading towards a site of pilgrimage for a thousand years and more.
In Ancient Greece, travellers to Delphi went there seeking answers to what the future might bring. It was a dangerous business though, seeking out prophetic wisdom. Even if they heard what they wanted to, there was no guarantee that their interpretation was the correct one. Not for nothing has the word “Delphic” come to mean “enigmatic to the point of deliberate ambiguity.” (Look up Croesus for an example of the trouble misinterpreting prophecy can get you into.)
The Pythia’s not been in business for centuries though, and I’m not inclined to look for answers from inspired sources. For me, these blog entries have provided answer enough to something that’s been bothering me for a while. I’ve been trying to get back into the habit of writing for a few months but unable to break through a barrier of self-consciousness. What Greece has provided is a chance to get away from habitual surroundings and strip back my tools to the basics. (I have with me a pen and notepad for writing and an iPhone for posting notes and photos.) With less to worry about, I feel more relaxed, and I hope that shows in my writing. Unlike the ancient Greeks, I’ll be arriving in Delphi with no question in dire need of answering.

The Maliakos Gulf. Down there, Xerxes’ army once camped. I wasn’t quite so held up.