April 23- Delphi
Monday we decided to attempt one of our two longer-distance daytrips. Ancient Delphi is a ways to the northwest of where we were staying—about a three-hour trip each way, part of that on winding mountain roads. We had a particular interest in going there on the 23rd, as one of the books had mentioned that the nearby town of Arachova puts on quite a celebration for St. George's day. Our particular group of travelers is hardly a walking compendium of Feast Days, but we have a sense of nostalgia about that date, because back in 1999 on our trip to Britain, we fortuitously managed to spend April 23 on good St. George's old stomping grounds, visiting the supposed site of the dragon-vanquishing, across the street from the Uffington White Horse (Dragon?), and catching the celebrations in the nearby town. So we were a bit curious to see the Greek analog. (Dragon-slaying, not incidentally, is also associated with Apollo, the key deity of the Sanctuary of Delphi).
Delphi, of course, is the site of the Oracle, reputedly the center of the world, as determined by the highly scientific procedure of Zeus releasing an eagle at the northern and southern edges of the earth and noting where their paths crossed. The site maintained ritual importance from Neolithic times, and according to legend rose to pre-eminence in the Mycenean era when its oracle foretold the siege of Troy. I should point out here that during our travels we had a fantastic, if somewhat overly new-agey guidebook that I had found at the library the day before we left: "The Travelers Key to Ancient Greece" by Richard Geldard. (a little too much attention to the male power of Apollo vanquishing the cult of the Earth Mother, that sort of thing). It had 35 pages just on Delphi, for instance, and was quite invaluable not just for the detail on the layout of the sites, but also history of use, archeological finds, and the landscape context.
I happen to be fairly interested in questions like, "Why here? What makes this particular place a sacred landscape that persists across centuries? Why not three miles down the road or on the other side of the mountain?" This book, drawing heavily on another source dedicated to that exact question ("The Earth, The Temple, and the Gods" by Vincent Scully), really got into that. Delphi is located on the north slope of an east-west mountain valley, with the sea just barely visible to the southwest, nestled onto a shoulder of Mt. Parnassus (still snow-topped in April) at the base of a sheer cliff, and facing out onto a pair of more rounded hills to the south (mammarian associations apparently deliberate). The area is also riddled with caves, springs that bubble out and then dive back into the limestone, that sort of thing. All in all, a pretty evocative spot. As an aside, the landscape reminded me strongly of another site we visited, in Spain three years ago, where we toured a cave with Paleolithic paintings, which I found pretty interesting from the perspective of elements of sacred landscape in ancient cultures.
Anyway, the book did a great job of describing what a trip to Delphi would have been like for the ancient seeker of oracular wisdom. Unlike us, with the benefit of internal combustion engines and paved mountain roads, the ancients would have taken a ship across the Gulf of Corinth and come up the valley floor. They would first reach the "Pronaia" or "Gateway to the Shrine." (The road now runs between the Pronaia and the main site.)Oddly, this "Gateway" and not the main part of the sanctuary is what is most frequently pictured in association with Delphi, the remains of a circular shrine or tholos sacred to Athena (but with archeological evidence of use back to 5000 BC). This would have been the first stop by the pilgrim. They would then make their way up the hill to the Kastalian Spring, where the supplicant would have a purification bath before approaching the main sanctuary. The main area is further up the hill, along a path "the Sacred Way" that would have been lined with treasuries displaying the tributes various leaders brought after omens were fulfilled (lots of these items are on display in the site museum, which we actually went to first, and which helped us visualize the site as we toured it.) To the casual observer, the main feature of the site appears to be the temple to Apollo in the middle; without our handy guidebook we would have walked right past the place where the actual oracular activity took place, which is a big rock just downslope from the temple. A spring emerges from where the temple is and goes back into the ground behind the rock, and supposedly the oracle sat there and was exposed to "the vapours" from the ground. (I read large sections of the "Travelers Key" out loud, here and at other sites, and people actually stopped to listen. It was kind of cool.).
After our fairly full exploration of Delphi (we were there for about 4 hours), we headed back to Arachova, which we had driven through on the way there. It is quite possibly the loveliest little town we've ever seen and they did indeed have a big celebration of St. George's day; unfortunately, it all took place while we were at Delphi. (We had seen them roasting entire lambs on outdoor spits at several spots in town on the way in, as well as a bunch of decorations, it was clearly a big day). Oh, well. We still had a really nice walk around the town, found a great spot for another fantastic dinner, overlooking the village and the valley, and then made the trip back to our hotel.