In Search of the Delphic Oracle

The Treasury of Athens - DelphiExploring Delphi 1Exploring Delphi 2Exploring Delphi 3Exploring Delphi 4Exploring Delphi 5Exploring Delphi 6The Temple of Apollo - DelphiExploring Delphi 7Exploring Delphi 8Above the Temple of Apollo - DelphiExploring Delphi 9Exploring Delphi 10Exploring Delphi 11Exploring Delphi 12Exploring Delphi 13Exploring Delphi 14Exploring Delphi 15Exploring Delphi 16Exploring Delphi 17Exploring Delphi 18Exploring Delphi 19Exploring Delphi 20Exploring Delphi 21Exploring Delphi 22Exploring Delphi 23Exploring Delphi 24The Castalian SpringSanctuary of Athena 1Sanctuary of Athena 2The Gymnasium of Delphi
I was on a quest, for what I wasn’t sure. One of the wise turtles I had met in Meteora had mentioned that there was a famous oracle to the south and that I may find my answers there. The turtle had told me that the ‘southern’ oracle was thousands of miles to the south, which seemed very far until I realized that I was talking to a turtle – Turtles are notorious for over-estimating distances! I consulted a map and, sure enough, the turtle had been wrong. It looked like a very short distance to the oracle, a comfortable daylong bus journey, so I decided to take his advice. There were no luck-dragons available in Kalambaka, so I settled on a southbound bus instead.

Southward I went into the unknown. I left the mysterious pinnacles of Meteora behind me as my bus followed the steel rails I had arrived on. Eventually we hit the coast and continued towards the Pass of Thermopylae. I looked out across the coastal plain to the Gulf of Malia. The scenery had changed drastically since King Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans led a small group of Greek soldiers against the full force of the Persian Empire back in 480BC. The famous pass is now a wide, flat plain bisected by a major north-south road. The ground that Leonidas and his Spartans fought and died on is now buried under twenty meters of dirt and stone, the result of nearly twenty five centuries of relentless erosion. Now a bronze statue of Leonidas stands on the east side of the road as a reminder. Sadly, my route turned before I got to see the statue. Instead, we were following a goat-path up into the mountains, a road that would have given Xerxes and his army an easy march into the heart of Classical Greece. The lovely coastal scenery quickly changed into a rugged, mountainous landscape. The small towns we passed along the way were amazing. One occupied a small ridge over a deep, enclosed valley. The town’s huge church stood like a sentinel overlooking the beautiful grove of olive trees that filled the valley. The orange tint of the scenery and the short, twisted trees reminded me a lot of the African savanna – It was a beautiful place.

It was mid-afternoon when the bus dropped me and a few other travelers off at a deserted bus station in a dusty little town. The other travelers were from Mexico and Spain, so we managed to communicate using a combination of Spanish and English. It turned out that we were all on a quest to see the oracle. With the help of a basic bus timetable in a Spanish guidebook that one of the other travelers had I confirmed the information I had deciphered on one of the Greek signs on the wall in the terminal – We had about two hours before the bus would arrive to take us the rest of the way. I headed into the town to find some food, which proved to be more difficult than I had expected. I returned defeated with what had become my usual lunch of freezer burned ice cream and a bag of crackers – As a kid I would have done anything for a regular lunch of ice cream! I sat and talked with my Spanish-speaking friends until the bus arrived and then we continued our conversation on the bus. We watched the sun set over the Corinthian Sea from our seats as the bus slowly labored up the slopes of Mt. Parnassus. We pulled into the modern town of Delphi after dark. I made dinner plans with my new friends and then I hoisted my backpack and headed into town, armed with a few budget hotel recommendations.

I quickly exhausted my list of possible hotels without finding a room. I walked into a nice looking place called ‘Hotel Pan’ on the main strip and the man smiled and said they had a room available. The price was not as scandalous as I had prepared myself for, so I checked in. I followed the man up a flight of stairs to the upper floors and then turned down a lovely, yellow, stone-accented hall. We stopped at a thick wooden door and then he welcomed me to my home for the next few days. My room was pure luxury. I had air-conditioning, cable TV, a modern bathroom, a king-sized bed and a lovely balcony overlooking the Corinthian Sea far down the slopes of Mt Parnassus – It was the most luxurious place I had stayed in since I slept on the floor of my parents’ room on my last night in Ireland, which doesn’t really count. I quickly got cleaned up and then I set off to find my friends. We had decided on one of three restaurants and, since two of the places were already closed, it wasn’t that difficult to find them. They were sitting at a table by the window of the third place. We spent the next several hours sharing stories from the road, mostly in Spanish. The Mexican man, Juan, spoke excellent English, so any time I hit a snag he helped me through it. My Spanish was definitely out of practice, but we had a lot of fun anyway. After we devoured our meals we each ordered a plate of baklava and a coffee and talked for a little while longer. When we finally emerged from the lovely little restaurant the streets of Delphi were deserted and we were all tired from our day’s journey. We said farewell and headed off into the night.

I woke up the following morning well rested and ready to start the day. I got dressed and walked out onto my balcony for some fresh air. It was a chilly morning, but the view was amazing. The greenish slopes of the mountain led down from my building to the Corinthian Sea. On the other side of the narrow channel of water was the Peloponnesian Peninsula. A brownish haze from the fires that were raging all over southern Greece obstructed the horizon, but it was going to be a beautiful day in Delphi! After breakfast I gathered my gear together and I made the short walk from New Delphi to its ancient predecessor. I paid my entrance fee and I entered the ancient city. I knew the oracle was located at the Temple of Apollo, so that is where I headed. As I climbed the hill I passed huge terraces filled with ruined buildings. The stonework was excellent everywhere I looked even in its ruined state. I had to stop and admire the wonderfully restored Treasury of Athens, a small Doric building built from beautiful white marble. It was one of the only buildings standing at the site, so every tourist was there with me and it was a big crowd. Hundreds of people from all over the world milled about around the ancient structure. There were rope barriers keeping everyone back about ten feet or so, but there were a few people who ignored them. Every time someone crossed the barrier a barrage of whistle blowing and shouting erupted from one of the angry guards as they ran at the offenders. Whistling and shouting continually shattered the peaceful silence as the scene was comically played out over and over again all over the site, but only a few of the offences were serious enough to get the person escorted to the exit. Behind the treasury a huge, marble retaining wall built with beautiful polygonal masonry rose up to the next terrace. Above that I could see a few massive columns rising up from an unseen foundation. I knew from my little map that that was the Temple of Apollo – I was almost there!

I walked along the sacred way, around the polygonal wall and the Stoa of the Athenians, where trophies from the Greco-Persian War were displayed, and then up to the foundation for the Temple of Apollo. The condition of the building told me that the oracle was not open and it hadn’t been for a long time! The turtle’s information had been a bit out of date. I guess I would have to look elsewhere for direction on my quest. I did learn something from the Oracle, though – Never trust a turtle! A bit of reading in my little site guide told me that Emperor Theodosius I had closed down the oracle, which was called Pythia in ancient times, in AD 395 when he forced all ‘pagan’ temples to close down.

It was exciting standing where one of the most powerful oracles in the ancient world had operated. It was believed that the God Apollo spoke through his oracle. Because of that, people came from all over the ancient world to consult the oracle before they made big decisions or started on big military campaigns. Kings and commoners, alike, consulted the oracle, though the people who gave the largest offerings got preference. In 336 BC Alexander the Great got a very good prophecy – The oracle had told him to go away and come back later, so he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her out of the temple and she screamed, “Let go of me; you are unbeatable!” The Pythia was always a woman and she gave her predictions in a trance-like state that current researchers believe was induced by a volcanic gas, such as ethylene, that seeped into the temple through small fishers in the ground. It was great to see the location of the oracle, but since she wasn’t there to give me my prophecy I decided it was time to move on. When I consulted my little map I saw an interesting notation on it that pointed out the original location of the serpent column, which was about where I was standing. I had admired the beauty of the bronze, spiral column when I was in Istanbul and now I was standing in its original location – Very cool!

I continued climbing the terraced slopes of the mountain. I passed the beautiful five-thousand-seat theater, pausing to take in the amazing views over the Sanctuary of Apollo, and then I continued up to the huge stadium. I ran a lap around the grassy field pretending that I was a competitor in the Pythian Games, one of the brothers of the Olympic Games, which took place in Delphi in ancient times. I spent a while in the stadium and then I headed back down the hill taking in the grand, ruined structures of one of Classical Greece’s most important cities. My camera was full and my stomach was rumbling, so I walked back into the modern town, removed my pictures from my memory cards and then ate a much-needed lunch on a patio overlooking the stunning green valley and the Corinthian Sea.

After lunch it was getting very hot outside, so I decided to spend a bit of time exploring the air-conditioned museum. Inside I found some amazing art and architectural features found at the site. There were some elaborate columns and exquisite statues of marble and bronze. There was a life-sized silver bull that had been crushed when one of the buildings collapsed in the earthquake that destroyed the site. There was also a lovely model of what the site would have looked like in ancient times – I smiled when I noticed the tiny spiral serpent column standing next to the Temple of Apollo, right where my little map had said it was. I also noticed a few amazing looking structures that I hadn’t seen in the main part of the ruins. After a little research I learned about the Sanctuary of Athena a little further down the road. I finished my tour of the museum at about the same time a pair of busses disgorged their loads of tourists into the museum entrance. I quickly escaped the noise and crowds and started walking down the road. A little past the entrance of the main part of the ruins, in a bend in the road, I came to a lovely little spring called The Castalian Spring. A few stone structures were nestled in amongst some old trees and there was still a bit of water running in the ancient spring – It was a beautiful scene. I continued a little further to the Sanctuary of Athena, showed the lonely man at the booth my ticket and started exploring.

The most famous structure at the Sanctuary of Athena is the Tholos, a circular building that once consisted of twenty Doric columns. Now, three of the columns are all that remain, though the structure is one of the most photogenic at the site. I was amazed as I walked through the ruins. The Tholos is pictured on every Delphi brochure you see, but I had the site completely to myself. I took in all of the ruined buildings at a slow pace and then I followed a path up to the top of a huge, stone retaining wall overlooking the Tholos and I took a seat. About half an hour later a few more tourists arrived, but it was still surprisingly quiet. It was getting late, so I quickly went and explored the last part of the ruins. The two-level Gymnasium consisted of a large open stoa on the upper terrace and a lower terrace with large circular pools. I took a seat on the ground near one of the pools and I absorbed the solitude and power of the site.

I had run out of water and I was starting to feel a little ill, so I decided to call it a day and I walked back into town. Thinking that the growling rumble coming from my stomach was telling me that I was hungry, I sat down at a small restaurant and ate a delicious dinner as I watched the sun set and then I headed back to my room for some rest. Just as I unlocked my big wooden door an alarming sensation swept through my body. It was a familiar sensation, though I hadn’t felt it since my first ill-fated exploration of the ruins of Tonina in Mexico. I quickly slammed the door behind me, dropped my bags to the floor and sprinted into my modern bathroom… So much for dinner! I spent a tortured evening in my luxurious room overlooking the Corinthian Sea. In the morning I felt horrible, but it seemed that the worst was behind me. I crawled down to the reception desk to let the man at the counter know that I needed to spent a third night there – He gave me an understanding smile and then I retreated to my room again. I slept through breakfast and lunch, waking from time to time to drink some water and look out my window. Slowly I regained my strength and started feeling like I needed to eat something. Just as the sun was setting I left my room, descended the stairs and went in search of some much-needed soup.

I am not sure if it was the wonderful dinner I shared with my friends the night before, the simple breakfast I had that morning, or the delicious Greek salad I ate for lunch that had caused my explosive case of Delphi belly, but, unlike my week-long Mexican ordeal, it was gone by the next morning and I was feeling great again. I thought it funny that I had managed to stay healthy during four months of eating and drinking whatever I wanted in Africa only to get sick in one of the biggest tourist destinations in Europe. Maybe it was the oracle speaking to me across the centuries! If so, who knows what it could mean? I checked out of the hotel, walked down to the bus station and got on a bus bound for the charred landscape of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. It was time for me to become an Olympian…

This entry was posted in Europe, Greece.

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