Delphi for Navel-gazing (2008)

Delphi for Navel-gazing (2008)

“Navel-gazing could make you dizzy” warns Nikoleta, our guide, tongue-in-cheek as we peer into what seems like a deep chasm overgrown with thick shrubbery.  We are at legendary Delphi which, ancient Greeks believed, was the ‘navel of the earth’. We ignore her remark and go down the pathway to investigate the hallowed site where for several centuries, men and women sought and received prophetic guidance on everything from routine everyday affairs to momentous decisions to go forth and transform the course of history.  Many actually did.
Delphi was the seat of the famous oracle.  Situated 178 kilometers northwest of Athens, the historical site is perched on the slope of Mt.Parnassos overlooking the Gulf of Corinth.  Even if Delphi had not been associated with the prophetic oracle, it would have attracted travelers because of its stunning location and cliff-hanger views.

What exactly is an oracle and how does it work, we wonder. It is not unlike modern day fortune tellers and astrologers whom the gullible and the troubled consult to get an inkling of what destiny holds in store for them. Like our own fortune tellers, the oracle claimed to communicate the wish of the gods through the priestess.  In ancient Greece, common folk and royalty alike routinely consulted the oracle on things sublime and trivial. They would want to know, for instance, when to plant their crop, when to begin a journey, whether to go for battle or whom to marry. The presiding deity at Delphi was Apollo and he spoke to devotees through a priestess, called Pythia after a python that was slayed by Apollo at the same spot.


But the mystique of the oracle unravels rather rapidly into something banal and even anti-climactic when you probe a little.  The chasm which served as the site of the oracle emitted noxious vapours and fumes which made anyone who inhaled it dizzy and sent them into a trance.  Now we understand what Nikoleta meant when she made that comment about navel-gazing making us dizzy.  The priestess always sat on a gilded tripod next to the chasm and became delirious with the fumes. Her utterances, inspired by hallucinations and delusions, spewed forth, enigmatic and incomprehensible sounding all the more divine for that reason!  They were then interpreted for the oracle seeker by a mediator who often edited the version to suit the query.

Whether everyone who came seeking divine directions actually believed in the answers they got we will never know, but they came in hordes, not just from nearby but from as far away as Atlantis and even Europe. Perhaps Plutarch who once officiated as priest at Delphi was privy to the secret for he did believe that vapours from the cleft in the ground where he sat made him ecstatic. Legend has it that Alexander came to Delphi to seek directions on his military plans, the oracle did not give him the answer he sought. Whereupon, he dragged the priestess by her locks and would not let go until she gave the answer he wanted to hear!  “Perhaps Alexander also knew” says Nikoleta with a twinkle in her eye.

Sniff, Sniff

A recent study reported in “Geology” journal found that Delphi lies on two fault lines that cross each other and noxious gases could well have emanated from tectonic movements and volcanic activity. De Boer, a geologist in Wesleyan University in Connecticut cited by National Geographic believes the gas was ethylene which produces euphoria on inhalation.
The Sanctuary of Apollo, dating back to fourth century BC is the main ruin in the archeological site although this temple was actually a late-comer to the location. Delphi was a sacred site from Mycenaean times (1600-1100 B.C) when earth goddess Gaia was worshipped here. Gaia, according to Greek mythology was born out of Chaos. Subsequently, a sanctuary to goddess Themis, and later to Demeter, god of agriculture and Poseidon, god of the seas came to be built on the same site.
You enter this UNESCO World Heritage Site through the Roman Agora – market place, community hall and administrative space all rolled into one – and work your way up the steep steps to marvel at the still-standing Doric Columns which must have supported the Sanctuary over 2400 years ago. Cypress and olive trees dot the slopes and there is an air of serenity that only antiquity can invest. En route you pass a sacred bull dedicated to Delphi by the city-state of Corfu. In the fourth century B.C, a golden statue of Apollo dominated the sanctuary. There was also an eternal flame on the hearth. Wise sayings of Greek philosophers are engraved on the architrave. “Know Thyself”, “Nothing in Excess” and so on. All that is left of the oracle site is the foundation of the once-magnificent temple and five exquisite Doric columns. The vapour-spewing chasm itself was never found. Tectonic movements could have shifted away from the site in the last two thousand years. We were disappointed that no amount of vigorous sniffing which would have put a police dog to shame, produced any effect on us!

We huff and puff up the slopes and come to a beautiful circular theatre originally built in 4 B.C and restored later by the Romans.  The Pythian Festival held once in four years at this theatre was perhaps the precursor to Olympic Games. We picture the theatre during the festivities, packed to the brim, aglow with torches and abuzz with voices.

(Published in Frontline dated Sep 27, 2008)

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