The call of Delphi

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.

Image result for Kastri village delphi

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.



Here’s an unusual poem, a haiku by Seferis. It uses the traditional form of 17 syllables that you find in classic Japanese haiku, but doesn’t quite adhere to the spirit of this verse form  which often has a twist in the final line.

In my translation I’ve tried to maintain the same number of syllables in each line as Seferis used in the original Greek


When it’s getting dark
or day’s breaking
it stays the same
the white jasmine.


Ancient Agora in Athens

Right next to the bustling tourist area of Monastiraki is the Agora, heart of the ancient city of Athens. It’s cut off from the modern city by the electric train line with its graffitied walls that separates it from Monastiraki. Rather incongruously, just over the other side of the track is the side of a partially re-built 2nd century AD Roman basilica. Once on site it’s hard to believe that you are in the middle of a modern city, it’s so quiet and peaceful, with wonderful views of the Acropolis.

This huge site, which originally contained temples, theatres, shops and government buildings, looks as though it has an unbroken link with the past, has actually been subject to enormous changes over the years. It was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC, the Romans in 86 AD, the Herulians in 267 AD, the Slavs in 580 AD, Frankish invaders in 1204 and then finally in 1826-7 during the War of Independence. The final insult occurred in the late 19th century when it was buried under the Vryssaki quarter. It’s amazing that after all this destruction there is anything left to see at all. 

The entrance is part of the Sacred Way, the road that leads to the Acropolis, and which was used in ancient Greece for the procession of the Panathenaia festival in honour of Athena.

One of the first buildings you come across is the Odeion with some impressive Tritons at the entrance, a theatre for music performances built in 15 BC by the Roman General Agrippa.

However my favourite building is the Temple of Ifaistos, built in the 5th century BC and one of the most complete ancient buildings in existence. All of its columns are still in place and some of the metopes (featuring the battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths), together with a roof. The roof however is not original and dates back to the time when the barrel-vaulted Byzantine church of St George was built inside it.

It reminds me of the equally wonderful Concordia Temple in Agrigento, another very well-preserved ancient Greek building. From its elevated position you have a good view over the whole site and of the Acropolis itself. I remember seeing it from the top of the Acropolis on our first visit to Athens, not quite believing that such a complete ancient building could still exist.

Nearby are some significant ancient government buildings: the Tholos, a circular building dating from 460 BC where the city council met: the Metroon (2nd century BC) where they kept city records, documents, official weights, etc:
and the 5th century BC Vouleuterion where the Assembly met:

There an enormously long Stoa (the Middle Stoa) that cross the site that dates from 2nd century BC.

I particularly like the site of an ancient water-clock that was used to mark the passing hours:

A further stoa called the Poikili Stoa lies outside the current site and was famous as the Painted Stoa which housed painted panel masterpieces. What a shame that those paintings didn’t survive! In fact there are no paintings that survive from ancient Greece, except in the form of mosaics.

Some of the building are hard to work out from what remains, for example the Strategeion, the Library of Pantainos and the Temple of Ares.

Between the site of the Agora and the Acropolis is the Areopagos, the place where St Paul preached when he came to Athens. In classical Athens it was the place where the Council of the Nobles and the Judicial Court met. At the edge of the Agora sits the hugely restored 11th century Church of the Holy Apostles.

Dominating the eastern side of the site is the two storey Stoa of Attalos, originally built in 159-139 BC, but completely re-built by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens in the 1950s.

The portico has a wooden beam roof and is a wonderful space for the display of selected statuary:

including a sculpted head of what is thought to be Herodotos:

The small museum is arranged in chronological order from the Mycenean through to the Byzantine era.

Here’s a lovely head of Apollo:
and what looks like a mask from a satyr play:

There are a lot of ostraka on display: these are sherds of pottery on which citizens scratched the names of politicians they wanted to send into exile (shame we lost that tradition). The examples below show Themistocles who was ostracised in 472 or 471 BC and ended up at the Persian court (the subject of Cavafy’s poem Satrapy). It feels strange to be so close to the evidence of such an ancient event..

A trainer potty is one of the odder and most endearing objects on display:

However, I think one of the saddest display cabinets is the one showing pottery from the Byzantine era. There seems to be so little of it left and what has survived is fragmentary and  disappointing in comparison to the fabulous religious artefacts we are familiar with:

Not far from the museum are the remains of a 5th century water-mill. Closer examination of the wall beneath the sign shows the grooves cut into it by the water wheel.

Finally on the site is a rather dilapidated spot where the Altar to the 12 Gods used to stand. There isn’t much to see now as most of it is covered by the perimeter wall and the electric railway line built in 1891. The altar was surrounded by a temenos, an enclosed sanctuary with stone columns that was famous in Athens as a place of refuge. It was also the point from which all distances were measured. However it fell into disrepair in the 4th century BC and was finally destroyed in 3rd century AD.






In 200 BC by Cavafy

In honour of the 85th anniversary of Cavafy’s death on 29 April 1933, here’s my translation of his poem In 200 BC.

“Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks except for the Lacedaemonians…”
We can well imagine
how completely indifferent they were in Sparta
to this inscription. “Except for the Lacedaemonians”,
of course. The Spartans were not there
to direct them and command them
like precious servants. Besides,
a Panhellenic expedition without
a Spartan king as leader
would not seem to them to be of much importance.
But then again, “Except for the Lacedaemonians”.

That’s one attitude. It’s understandable.

So, except for the Lacedaemonians at Granicus;
and then at Issus; and at the decisive
battle where the fearsome army was destroyed
which the Persians had gathered at Gaugamela:
the one that set out from Gaugamela for victory and was destroyed.

And from this wonderful Panhellenic expedition,
glorious, brilliant,
renowned, praised
as no other has been praised,
incomparable: we emerged;
a great, new Greek world.

We Alexandrians, Antiochians,
Seleucids, and the countless
other Greeks of Egypt and Syria,
and those in Midia and in Persia, and so many others.
With our extensive territories,
With our diverse ways of making thoughtful accommodations.
And our shared Greek voice
that we took as far as Bactria, to the Indians.

Why bother talking about the Lacedaemonians!

This is the penultimate poem that Cavafy published (in 1931). The inscription to which the poem refers is the one used by Alexander the Great for the booty from the Battle of Granicus which he dedicated to the Parthenon (‘Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks except for the Lacedaemonians, from the barbarian inhabitants of Asia’). The Lacedaemonians had refused to take part in Alexander’s expedition on the grounds that Spartan custom forbade them to take part in expeditions which they did not lead.

The narrator looks back 130 years from the year 200 BC to the three great battles (Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela) that Alexander fought against the Achaemenid empire of Darius III. The culminating victory at Gaugamela led to the downfall of the Achaemenid empire, enabling Alexander to expand his empire eastwards towards India. From this glorious triumph of the Hellenic world and all that followed it, Alexander pointedly excluded the Spartans for their refusal to take part in his expedition.

Dedicated to my mother who shared the same birthday as Cavafy.

Temple of Hephaestus

This shot of the interior was taken from the rear of the Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora in Athens, one of the most completely preserved buildings from Antiquity and a stunning example of Ancient Greek architecture.

I’m pleased to be back to my blog again after a prolonged absence. Now I have fully retired I’ve plenty of shots to upload and a lot of ideas for posts.

Our country is closed by Seferis

This poem was published in Seferis’s 1935 collection of poems, Mythistorima (Fiction). As with the Ritsos poem I translated here I find strong resonances with the political and social situation in our own country at the moment.

I was puzzled by what Seferis meant when he said that Greece was ‘closed’ and it was not until I understood the mythological reference in the penultimate verse that it became clear. He seems to be implying that Greece is closed off from the outside world by the Clashing Rocks, perhaps by the Metaxas dictatorship.

The rocks not only kill those who try to escape, but are also killing the people who still live in Greece because they are cutting it off from the rest of the world, causing rivers, springs and wells to dry up, and everything to become stagnant and hollow. Everything has closed in on the country, including the mountains and the sky, creating a feeling of claustrophobia. There is not even any spiritual support in this situation, as even religion has a hollow echo when people bow their heads in worship to the empty cisterns. It is as if people are becoming alienated from their past and any understanding of how they have come to be what they are.

This closing of the country also causes people to forget that they are alive and how they have in the past achieved the simplest of things, like building. This extends to people understanding how to relate to others (eg in marriage) and to have children. The evidence of what the Clashing Rocks are doing is provided by the images of the smashed wood and floating bodies from ships crushed by the rocks coming together.

In mythology the action of the rocks was destroyed by Jason, but in this pessimistic poem there is no sense of a hero who can bring the situation to an end. Nor is there any hero to rescue us in our situation either.

Our country is closed 

Our country is closed, day and night,
everything: mountains that have cover,
The low sky.

We don’t have rivers, we don’t have
wells, we don’t have springs.
Just a few cisterns,
even these are empty,
that echo when we bow to them.

A stagnant, hollow echo,
like our solitude,
like our love,
like our bodies.

It seems strange to us
that once we could build our homes,
shacks and sheepfolds.

And our weddings, cool
wedding crowns and fingers
are becoming puzzles
inexplicable to our minds.
How were our children born, how did they grow strong?

We don’t have rivers, we don’t have
wells, we don’t have springs.
Just a few cisterns,
even these are empty,
that echo when we bow to them.

Our country is closed.
Τwo black Clashing Rocks*
are closing it.

On the harbours on Sundays,
when we go down to take the air,
we see smashed wood lit up by the sunset,
from journeys that were not finished,
and bodies that no longer know
how to love.

*Note: the Symplegades (Clashing Rocks), also known as the Cyanean Rocks, were, according to Greek mythology, a pair of rocks at the Bosphorus that clashed together randomly. They were defeated by Jason and the Argonauts, who would have been lost and killed by the rocks except for Phineus‘ advice. Jason let a dove fly between the rocks and it lost only its tail feathers. The Argonauts rowed mightily to get through and lost only part of the stern ornament. After that, the Symplegades stopped moving permanently. (Wikipedia)  

Our country by Giannis Ritsos

This poem is from a collection by Ritsos called The wall inside the mirror and it was written in the village of Partheni on the Dodecanese island of Leros where he was being held in an internment camp by the Greek Junta. The date of its composition, 13 December 1967, also happens to be a very significant one in the history of the Junta.

On that day King Constantine attempted to stage a counter coup against the Colonels’ regime. He and his family flew to Kavala, east of Thessaloniki to try to rally loyal troops against the regime and then to take Thessaloniki. But the attempt was foiled by officers and troops loyal to the Junta and Constantine was forced to leave Greece and take refuge in Rome. He never returned and the monarchy was eventually abolished in 1973.

Our country

We walked up on the hill to see our country –
humble dwellings, modest fields, stones, olive trees.
Vineyards stretch down to the sea.
Next to the plough a little fire is smoking. From the old man’s clothes
we made a scarecrow to keep off the jackdaws. Our days
take their course with a little bit of bread and a lot of sun.
Beneath the poplars a straw hat is gleaming.
The cock on the gate. The cow on the yellow earth.
How did it happen that with a stone hand we dealt with
our home and our life? On the lintel
is the soot, year after year, from the Easter candles –
little black crosses that the dead traced
when they came back from the Easter Day service.
This place is much loved, with patience and pride.
Every night from the dry well the statues cautiously come out
and climb into the trees.

This poem haunts me a lot. It depicts an ordinary countryside scene, such as you could find all over Greece. A familiar and much loved land in all its ordinary detail. A land with a deep history and familiar, comforting traditions, like tracing the sign of the cross over the lintel at Easter. But at the same time there is all this unbelievable stuff going on: the poet is in exile, the country is in the vice-like grip of a dictatorship, the king has just tried to seize power back. How on earth did we get here?

I think this poem speaks to me so clearly because it expresses how I feel about the state of our own country at the moment. How the hell did we get here? It’s not a comfortable place to be, in the same way that being held in an internment camp wasn’t for Ritsos.

But strangely there is something comforting about the extraordinary image at the end of the poem. Though the source of life, the well, is dry at the moment, the country still has a deep connection with the past that the nightmare present cannot eradicate. Nothing can destroy that link with Greece’s history, culture and values. Even though the statues only come out at night and then ‘cautiously’, they are still there. We can only guess what they are thinking about Ritsos’s Greece and what our equivalents would think about our own situation. But at least those fundamental values haven’t been lost – and that’s worth hanging on to in these dark days.