Journey to Delphoi

By the dry pool where kings and ambassadors come
to purify and prepare themselves for the god,
looking for guidance, hoping for confirmation
of a decision already made in the depths of the heart;
I dip my hand in the cool water of the nearby spring
honing my own question for the priestess-seer.

The climb up the Sacred Way zigzags through an empty museum,
looted of its treasures long ago and dozing in the sun:
a journey to prepare the seeker in mind and body
for that brief encounter with the divine
in a remote valley at the middle of the world.

In this fierce light and relentless heat Apollo
tests our resolve, step by shadeless step,
until at last we come to the huge altar
drenched in the blood of vain sacrifices,
the smoke of burning animal fat and bones
rising in a sightless sky to the ritual cries of the women.

Six columns of the temple still stand, looking over the sacred valley.
How did they feel as they stood here looking at this scene,
awaiting their turn? What fears? What hopes? What expectations?
The priest leads me inside in my turn
to the dark rock cleft where an old woman sits
on a gold tripod, wreathed in sacred juniper fumes.

I ask my question to the midday silence. Apollo,
voiceless now without his Pythian interpreter,
stares intensely with his single eye
as if to burn an answer in my brain.
Serene and calm, he gazes beyond the world.
The silence is not broken: the search never ceases.



The Charioteer of Delphoi

The Iniokhos (Rein-holder) or Charioteer with a whole room to itself, is one of the main highlights of the superb museum at the archaeological site in Delphoi. The statue was buried in an earthquake in 330 BC and was only discovered in 1896. It is estimated that this statue was made during the 470s BC, possibly by Pythagoras of Samos (yes, that one) and is one of the few bronzes to survive from Ancient Greece.

The statue as it stands now looks too tall, but originally it was on a chariot (now lost) and probably in that context the perspective would then have corrected this impression. Several things struck me as I walked round it. The most immediate is the hypnotic, onyx eyes that draw your attention to the face.

Then there are the delicate folds on the upper arms of his tunic, followed by the delicate rendering of the right hand holding the reins.Finally, almost in contrast to the idealisation of the rest of the figure, there are those feet, veined, a bit gnarled, bigger than expected. Sometimes statues were made to be seen only from the front and the back of them can be rough and unfinished. But this is not the case here: the sculptor has taken as much care with the detail of the Charioteer’s back and tunic as with the front.

This statue features in a poem by Nikiforos Vrettakos that I read before visiting Greece last summer. I have just been trying to translate it, but it is rather flowery and a bit too difficult to get into reasonable English, so I’ll have to work on it a bit more before I can post it.

I’m conscious that this year I have been posting a lot of translations of poems and songs which I really enjoy. I hope that in 2018 I will get back to posting on some more of my travels in Greece, France and Sicily.

Happy New Year and enjoy your own journeys in 2018!







Good morning, sadness by Odysseas Elytis

Black Square – Kasimir Malevich (1915)

In this darkest time of the year, missing the sun and long, light evenings, my mood dips and I feel like hibernating. The classic symptoms of SAD which I have had since childhood. These light deprived days and our frequent leaden skies, remind me of that couplet from one of Baudelaire’s Spleen poems:
Quand le ciel, bas et lourd, pèse comme un couvercle
Sur l’esprit gémissant, en proie aux longs ennuis.

Looking over some of the Greek poems I have studied over the past year, I came across this one by Odysseas Elytis from his collection Maria Nefeli. I find he is often obscure and difficult to understand, but this short poem has the directness of everyday language and seems to speak out of a personal experience of depression. It offers no great insight or comfort, other than his own observation of sadness. It seems to me that Elytis may also have had SAD and that is why the sun is such a potent symbol in his work, and maybe why he described himself as ‘iliopotis’, a sun drinker.   

Good morning, sadness

Hello, sadness
Good morning, sadness
the insect that nestles inside me
and watches all night long for me to open my eyes…

Initially I have forgotten you:
I look at the lines on the ceiling –
but suddenly you invade
my consciousness.

You come and make my morning coffee taste bitter
and see off the least pleasure
of my hand on the window catch
you bring troubles to the bath water
provoke the first unpleasant telephone call
you are a monster
a miniature Minotaur that demands food
and is kept alive by the least thing…

Eat, eat, Minotaur:
this is flesh, not air
if you carry on this way, there’ll be nothing left.

Hello, sadness
Good morning, sadness
you have installed yourself permanently inside us
you are worse than viruses and bacilli
philosophers examine you through a spectroscope
you have given rise to an exceptional literature.




Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora in Athens

Stoa of Attalos - Athens

Here’s a shot of the Stoa of Attalos that I took last summer when visiting the Ancient Agora in Athens. Although it was actually rebuilt by the American School of Classical Studies in the mid 50s, it seems to be a very authentic restoration. There’s a fascinating museum on the ground floor which I will cover in a separate post and some interesting sculptures under the portico.

By plane and steamboat – Dionysis Savvopoulos

Here’s another great Greek zeimbekiko song, the latest in a little series (see here for my posts on Roza and Love Song) I’ve been doing as a result of repeated listening to the CDs of the live zeimpekiko concert that Dimitris Mitropanos gave at the Akti Peiraias with Dimitris Mpasos and Themis Adamantidis in 2005. This time the lyrics and the music are by Dionysis Savvopoulos and it’s called By plane and steamboat:

By plane and steamboat
and with our old friends
we wander around in the dark
and yet you can’t hear us.

You can’t hear us singing
with electric voices
in underground galleries
until our paths meet
your fundamental principles.

My father, Mpatis,
came from Smyrna in ’22
and lived for fifty years
in a secret cellar.

In this place those who loved
ate dirty bread
and their passions followed
an underground route.

Yesterday evening I saw a friend
going around like a goblin
on a motorbike
and dogs were running behind him.

Stand up my soul and turn the power on
Set fire to your clothes
Set fire to your instruments
let our great voices
start up like a black spirit.




Deciphering the Love Song of Alkis Alkaios

I posted recently about the obscurity of the lyrics in the Greek song Roza which was written by Alkis Alkaios. Here’s another very well-known example of his lyrics (again set to music by Mikroutsikos) which I have been struggling to understand:

Love song
In a dug-out you come and go
while it’s pouring with rain.
You wander in the land of the Visigoths
and hanging gardens win you over
but you rub your wings together.

Saltiness covered your naked body.
I brought you fresh water from Delphi.
You said your life will be cut in two
and before I managed to deny it three times
the key of paradise became rusty.

The caravan speeds through the dust
and hunts your mad shadow.
How can the mind be calmed with a sheet?
How can the Mediterranean be bound by ropes?
My love, whose name was Antigone.

What night has taken your light
and in which galaxy can I find you?
Here it’s Attica, a grey pit,
I am a cheap shooting gallery
where foreign soldiers, swearing, practise.

Once again it is the music that turns it into a great song, in spite of its obscurity, as here performed by Mitropanos, Mpasos and Adamantidis at the Zeimbekiko Live concert in Peiraias: