Go Ask the Oracle at Delphi

Trip Start Sep 07, 2008
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Trip End Dec 09, 2008


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Flag of Greece  , Central Greece,
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Our second day in Delphi began in the cool morning air that smelled of last night's rain. In ancient times, Delphi was the most visited site in Greece, where you went to seek advice from the Pythian oracle and tell the Greek world about your victories. Indy pointed out base stones from which "a forest of bronze dedication statues" once rose. Pheidias, our friend who made the chryselephantine sculptures in Olympia and Athens, is also believed to have created some of these sculptures in his early work.

As we wound through the ruins, we saw larger and larger stone slabs, the result of the Greek city-states' efforts to one-up each other in their victory monuments. Each city-state would erect a monument when it triumphed in war, and the monument's placement and size would try to block the view of another city-state's monument. Indy scorned this practice, saying it was "celebrating the very activities that led to the downfall of the Greeks. Their disunity led Thebes and Athens to be crushed by Philip II, Alexander the Great, and later the Romans."

Then we passed the Athenian Stoa, which housed trophies from the Greek victory in the Persian War such as decorations wrenched off the bows of Persian ships. The stones of the stoa were inscribed with manumissions, documenting the freeing of slaves. Slaves were permitted to have their own cottage industries and keep the profits, and in this way they could buy their freedom and have a permanent record of that freedom carved into the stone.

Indy mentioned that the road of stone we were walking on had once been full of inscriptions, too. When archaeologists see flat paving stones made of marble, they are guaranteed to pry them up and find inscriptions on the other surfaces. The original marble stones of this walkway were dug up by French archaeologists and placed in museums so the inscriptions could be studied. What we walked on were replacement stones.

Finally we came to the major site, the Temple of Apollo. The god was believed to know the future, and supplicants could come to his temple to ask questions about what they should do. Apollo's answer was channeled through his oracle the Pythia, a young girl who sat in a tripod bowl and babbled incoherently, and then the priests would translate the prophecy. Theories abound about what actually caused the Pythia's feverish rantings. Chewing laurel leaves? Drinking from a naturally narcotic spring? Breathing hallucinogenic gas seeping up from a fissure below the monument? We don't know.

Beyond the Temple of Apollo was a theatre which featured choral singing, double flute, and kithara. And then we climbed up, up, up above the theatre to the stadium near the top of the mountain, surrounded by pine trees. On our way back down, the students wedged themselves into a crevice under the Temple of Apollo and emerged through an even tinier hole quite a few feet away. Possibly this is the underground fissure where the Pythian priestesses went to breathe in the gas that would give them their prophetic visions from the god.
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