From Athens it’s about a 200km drive to Delphi. Turning off the motorway towards Eleusis and passing through the outskirts of Thiva (Thebes) towards Lefkadeia ia like driving through ancient Greek history. Between Thiva and Lefkadeia the long, straight road crosses a flat plain.
The red soil is clearly very fertile and there are many vegetables being grown, but also a curious plant about 18″ high with dark green potato-like leaves from which hang small round balls that look like some sort of fruit. It’s only later that we discover that the mystery crop is cotton: Greece is one of the world’s top cotton producers, and one of only two cotton-growing countries in Europe (the other being Spain). Lefkadeia is a cotton spinning town and the mills we see in increasing numbers as we approach the town turn the cotton hulls into animal feed. Also on the outskirts of the town there are a lot of temporary accommodation structures, presumably for the migrant workers we have seen working in the fields.
After a quick stop-off at Arakhova a ski station village, we push on to Delphi about 6 miles down the road to find our hotel, the Acropole. From our balcony we have a great view down the sacred valley towards the Gulf of Corinth and the towns of Itea and Galaxidi.
The hotel owner advises us to go to the museum in the evening as it stay open to 8.00pm and it is much quieter once the coaches have left for the day. I’ll cover the museum in a separate post as it has a remarkable collection of finds from the site.
So, the first question is: what is the appeal of Delphi? Well, primarily it’s because of its place in ancient history, and not just Greek history. For a thousand years from its first emergence in the 8th century BC to when it finally fell silent in the 4th century AD, it was a focal point for much of the ancient world. It was visited by emperors, kings, philosophers, writers, representatives of countries, city states and islands from all over the Mediterranean, as well as ordinary folk. The common link was a desire to find a solution to a problem.
The next question is then, why did the ancient Greeks, who developed philosophy and the basis of law and who prized reason, go out of their way to listen to the ravings of an old woman on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere? That’s much more difficult to answer. Of course, there was an ancient tradition in Greece of consulting oracles (eg Dodoni – equally remote in the Epiros region of NW Greece). But there must have been something about the accuracy of the oracles at Delphi that made people trust it.
Some historians (eg Professor Michael Scott) have argued that it functioned a bit like management consultancy for communities which had reached a bit of a stalemate over a course of action. Consultations could take months. First of all, they had to decide what question to ask and then it took time to get to Delphi. Secondly, the oracle only functioned on a very limited number of days a year (the 7th day of the month and only for 9 months a year). Thirdly the consultation process wasn’t straightforward. Ritual purification had to take place and a procession to the Temple of Apollo. Your place in the queue for the consultation depended on your community’s standing with Delphi. Some states were able to queue jump because they had promanteia (higher priority) thanks to their donations to the sanctuary.
Then again before the oracle started the priests sprinkled a goat with water: if it shivered, then the oracular consultation could go ahead. If it didn’t there would be no consultations at all that day, which meant another month’s wait. On one famous occasion, the priests emptied a load of cold water over the goat in an attempt to make it shiver and the Pythian priestess (oracle) started raving so much that it caused panic and people fled from the temple.
So, by the time the community got the oracle’s response it had more time to reflect on the matter and apply this to the interpretation of what could often be an ambiguous response.
Parking the car on the road, beneath the Phaidriades (the shining rocks), two limestone cliffs:
between which rises the Castalian spring where the Pythian priestess and supplicants would come for ritual purification.
In the early 1st century BC the stone pool you see today was replaced by one further back from the road in the cliff face. However today access is closed off by a wire fence due to the danger of rock falls. The stone pool is dry now but a spring still rises to the side of it.
The site itself is on a steep slope and is huge but you can’t see much of it from the road, mainly because it is obscured by trees, over 35,000 of which were planted by the French Archaeological School when they excavated the site.
The entrance to the site is through the 2nd century Roman agora.
Delphi was originally dedicated to the worship of the Earth goddess (Gi) until it became associated with the myth of Apollo in the 8th century BC. The Sacred Way up the Temple of Apollo today follows a zig-zag path, but this is a bit misleading as it was only cut during the excavations to facilitate the railway track laid down to take away soil. In ancient times there were multiple access routes to the temple.
These routes were strewn with statues, columns, votive offerings and treasuries (that held the often valuable offerings made by city states). It must have been like walking through a huge outdoor museum. Indeed it was a site where the rivalry between countries and city states played out through the siting and magnificence of their dedications. It was also a place where history could be re-interpreted and even re-written in later times to suit the victors.
At a crossroads where the road tuns right towards the temple complex there are a trio of treasuries: the Sikyonian, the Siphnian and the Athenian.
The Athenian treasury is the most complete building on the site, originally built out of Parian marble in the early 5th century to commemorate the Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490BC:
However, it only looks remarkable complete because it was rebuilt using the original stones by Athens in the 1950s. The walls bear inscriptions and two paeans to Apollo with the original musical notation (some of the earliest musical notation found to date). Later in the 2nd century AD it functioned as the Delphi pawnbroker’s – a bit of a come down. But in spite of the fact that it’s reconstructed, it gives a very good idea of what it would have been like to visit Delphi at the height of its fame.
Nearby stand a replica of the omphalos (navel) a stone which was supposed to mark the centre of the world. It relates to the Story of Zeus who released two eagles to fly in opposite directions round the world to find the location of its centre at the point where the two eagles met. That point was Delphi – hence its description as the navel of the world.
Just above the Athenian treasury is the Rock of the Sibyl, one of the oldest parts of the site where the original oracle may have made her pronouncements.
Also near here stood the Naxian sphynx (now in he museum). Sphynxes were associated with old Greek religious cults and as the protector of tombs and sanctuaries.
A little further on stand four columns – all that remain of the Stoa of the Athenians which was built to commemorate Athenian naval victories in the late 6th and early 5th centuries BC.
The Athenian Stoa stands hard against the retaining wall of the base of the Temple of Apollo. The wall is an amazing piece of construction which uses polygonal stones to give the wall a stronger bind: it also happens to be a beautiful piece of design:
On the retaining wall, dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BC there are some 1300 inscriptions of manumissions (declarations of freedom for slaves) carved in small letters which are now very hard to decipher. A German archaeologist in the 19th century died from sunstroke as a result of spending a long time in the heat trying to decipher the inscriptions.
On the right as you go up the steps towards the temple, stands the replica of the lower portion of a bronze column of a three-headed serpent which was originally surmounted by a tripod. It was a dedication by the Athenians following their victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479BC. Constantine had it removed to the Hippodrome in Constantinople in 330AD. Part of it is still there though the serpent heads aren’t: they were cut off by a French cavalry office with a sabre in the 19th century.
On the left, and in front of the temple itself, stands the enormous altar that was a gift to Delphi from the island of Chios (and partially restored by the Chiots in the 1930s).
What we see today is the remains of the third temple built on this site and dates from 4th century BC. A few columns have been raised to give some idea of what it must have looked like.
It was here that were inscribed on the pronaos the famous gnomic utterances: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ (know yourself ), ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ (nothing in excess) and the mysterious letter Ε (no one knows what it meant – even by Plutarch’s time in 2nd century AD its meaning had been forgotten).
There has been much debate about where the Pythian priestess sat and how she made her pronouncements. Some people have argued there was a chasm over which she sat in her tripod (uncomfortable, I would imagine) and that the fumes from the chasm put her into an altered state of consciousness from which she made her pronouncements. I would have thought that one look at the consumers of psychotropic substances in the 1960s and their pronouncements might have undermined that particular theory. Why would she had said anything of an import while off her head on drugs, least of all anything that you might rely on for a life or death decision? However, no chasm has ever been found underneath the temple – although earthquakes to which the area is prone may have closed it up. Apparently geologists have found very low doses of psychotropic substances in the water supply. Other explanations for the Pythia’s prophetic gifts include chewing laurel leaves and burning oleander leaves.
The curve in the stones on the left hand side of the above picture show the extent to which the foundations of the temple have been moved by earthquake activity.
The most likely place where the Pythia sat is in the adyton on the far side of the temple in the picture below, while those next in the queue sat in a separate part of the temple cella nearby:
Above the Temple is the theatre where festivities for the Pythian games (one of the four main games in Ancient Greece) were celebrated. Originally built in 4th century BC, it was restored for Nero’s visit in 37AD. It could hold 5,000 people.
Finally on the site there is a long and steep climb to the stadium where the Pythian games took place.
When Delphi finally fell silent and it was forgotten and covered over by earthquakes and landslides, it wasn’t discovered again (by western Europeans at least) until an Italian merchant called Cyriac of Ancona visited the site in 1436. However it wasn’t until the late 18th century that it started to become more well-known, as would be visits to Italy for the Grand Tour were curtailed by the Napoleonic Wars and people started to come to Greece instead. Archaeological interest in the site started from the 1830s, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that the French Archaeological School got formal approval from the Greek government to excavate properly.
Amazingly a whole village called Kastri had been built over the site, through which stuck up some of the ruins of the ancient site. The inhabitants had to be relocated to new homes in the modern town of Delphi so that the site could be fully excavated.
Delphi is a beautiful spot and very atmospheric in spite of the number of visitors. I certainly felt that Apollo was in residence that day. It was 36 C on site, and despite the number of trees there isn’t a lot of shade for most of the site. I am not normally affected by the heat, but because I didn’t drink enough water, it took me a good 24 hours to rehydrate.