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Delphi: the navel of the ancient world and its oracle.

The ancient Greeks worshipped "devas," nature spirits that dwelled in trees, mountaintops, rivers and caves. They sought sacred sites where the veil between this world and the next could be penetrated and higher spiritual beings, such as the god who spoke and taught through Socrates, could advise, heal and prophesize.

The most famous of all sites for prophecies and spiritual guidance was the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. No other oracle in Greece equaled Delphi.

Cicero wrote, "Never could the Oracle of Delphi have been so overwhelmed with offerings from monarchs and nations if throughout all the ages it had not proved the truth of its oracles." Historian F.W.H. Meyers wrote, "Greek oracles reflect for a 1,000 years the spirit of a great people. The Delphian god became, in a certain sense, the conscience of Greece."

Today Delphi sits like a glowing gem of the gods on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus, whose awesome peaks rise to 8,070 feet. Apollo's magnificent temple is wedged between two 1,000-foot limestone cliffs known as the Shining Crags. At dawn sunbeams illuminate them in a radiant glow. Are they overshadowed by the presence of ancient gods? It feels like it.

Looking out from the temple, 10,000 silver-green olive trees shimmer. Here the attributes of Apollo, harmony balance and order, mix with a sense of the supernatural. Nature soars in mountainous wonder.

According to Greek mythology, when Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the earth, their paths crossed above Delphi, marking it as the center or navel of the earth. Famed as the dwelling place of Apollo from the 8th century B.C., the ancient world flocked here for advice on public and private matters, reaching its zenith in the 6th century B.C.

Famed for the dedication of war booty, it housed the world's most famous oracle and thousands of pilgrims came to consult the Pythia about their future. If an ancient state wanted a place to advertize its glory, this was the place to do it. King Croesus of Lydia dedicated a gold shield at the Temple of Athena Pronaia near the Apollo sanctuary. Some 2,000 shields were sent to Delphi following the Phokians's victory just before the Battle of Thermopylae. In 339 B.C., the Athenians sent golden shields to be hung on the new Temple of Apollo after the old one burned.

No city-state dedicated more monuments than Athens, building a treasury entirely of Parian marble and filling it with lavish offerings. They decorated it with sculptured metopes showing the exploits of their heroes Heracles and Theseus, supposedly financed by their victory at Marathon in 490 B.C.

Visitors who arrive as dawn breaks find even the air shimmers. Plutarch described it as "close and compact, with a tenseness caused by the reflection of the mountains and their resistance, but at the same time biting. It is as fine and close as silk."

It's been a shrine for at least 5,000 years. The first diviner to occupy the Delphic Oracle was the mother of the gods, Gaia, who was guarded by the legendary Pythia. Later, Apollo, who legend states arrived from Delos, took possession of the sanctuary. Although Apollo became the ruling god, the Earth Mother cult survived in the Pythia, a priestess who descended into a cavern and delivered the oracles of Apollo.

As Euripedes wrote:
"Now on the holy tripod-seat
"The Delphian priestess takes her place
"And daily to the Hellene race
"Her chanting tones repeat
"What her own words have heard--
"The thunders of Apollo's word."

At the entrance to the enormous temple and cave below stood a gigantic statue of Apollo encased in gold leaf and crowned with a traditional laurel wreath. The circular main room housed many precious gifts, treasures of gold and works of art presented to the oracle by pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean. The streets leading to the temple were lined with monuments and treasures.

To prepare for prophesying, the Pythia bathed in a natural spring, the Castalian Spring that sparkled and splashed down the mountainside. She abstained from food. She drank water only from the fountain of Cassiotis that was piped into the temple from a sacred well. The water contained tinctures of herbal plants which helped to induce her trance.

Following this, herbal meal and barley were burnt before her and then she chewed the bitter leaves of the laurel. Then her attendant maidens crowned her with these sacred leaves. She was clothed in sanctified robes. In a colorful procession attendants escorted the Pythia to the shrine, which she entered alone.

The dark, circular main room, which was lit by wall torches, was used for the ceremony when she was seated on a tripod placed over the mystic chasm in the center of the room. The original "omphalos," a stone that represented the earth's navel, was kept directly beneath her tripod. As the vapors rose, the tripod vibrated and clanging echoed through the temple.

Inhaling the vapors, the Pythia often struggled, shivered and tore at her clothes. Then slowly she calmed as she passed into a deep, catalytic trance and her eyes stared into space. From her lips came the prophecies as spoken to her by the god Apollo as five holy priests recorded her messages.

After completing the prophecies, she slowly regained consciousness. Such states, experienced several times a day left the Pythia exhausted. Their life span was brief. The three reigning Pythias were chosen for their psychic abilities. Plutarch, one of the most enlightened of philosophers, presided as a priest here. Plato became a devotee at Delphi.

Plutarch wrote, "The room in which those who came to consult the gods were seated is not often, but occasionally, filled with a sweet smelling vapor."

Recently a four-year study in the vicinity of the shrine revealed that two faults intersect directly below the Delphic temple and revealed evidence of hallucinogenic gases rising from a nearby spring that are preserved in the temple rock. As geologist Jelle De Boer wrote, "Indeed, there were gases that came through the fractures."

One gas he found was ethylene, which has a sweet smell and produces a narcotic effect described as a floating euphoria. He added that this ethylene gas may explain the trance and behavior of the Pythia, combined with expectations for her to deliver oracles.

Votive offerings in the shape of an omphalos were presented to the god by pious pilgrims from all over the world. Whenever any Greek city won a battle, its leader would erect a dedicatory offering to the oracle. As a result, the entrance to the sanctuary was cluttered with monuments.

Not only Greeks, but barbarian monarchs sent envoys to consult with the oracle and expressed their thanks in rich gifts. Croesus, king of Lydia, sent a 550-pound solid gold lion set on a pyramid of white gold, a mixture of gold and silver.

As the fame of the sanctuary became worldwide, the offerings boggled the imagination. During 250 years, four sacred wars were fought over the shrine and the sparsely populated town which served it, Delphi.

In the earliest times prophecy took place annually on Apollo's birthday. Later, it occurred on the ninth day of the months the god was said to inhabit the sanctuary. Traditionally, a goat was brought to be sacrificed, but before its demise it was doused with water from a spring. If the goat shivered from head to foot, this meant the god consented. If not, the Pythia could not sit on the oracular tripod.

Those seeking advice purified themselves, purchased a sacred barley cake and brought unblemished animals for sacrifice. Kings took precedence, peasants drew lots.

After listening to the sometimes incoherent Pythia sitting on her tripod, the chief priest and his scribes transcribed, edited and told inquirers the answers to their questions. The Pythia, hidden by a partition, was never visible. Prophecies were given publically in verse, then years later in prose, and thence verse made a comeback.

Emperor Nero consulted the Pythia, only to have the oracle accuse him of murdering his mother. As described by Philostratus, "the power of the god came upon the Pythia, her bosom heaved and she panted. Her face became red and then was drained of color. Her limbs jerked and quivered and her eyes blazed. Saliva frothed on her lips, her hair stiffened and she snatched off her headband. She seemed possessed by some entity." Then she screamed, "Your presence defiles me. Begone matricide! Beware of 73."

Enraged at her refusal to honor him, Nero had the priestess and the attending priests buried alive. He took her words to believe that he would live to age 73, but they alluded to his successor who was 73. Nero died the following year.

Before he died, however, he carted away 500 bronze statues and closed the oracle. It was reopened by the Emperor Hadrian, but later it was closed by the Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the official religion of Rome. He also ordered much of the magnificent statuary of Delphi brought to Constantinople.

The incomparable bronze serpents with the golden tripod and the seat where the Pythoness had sat over the mysterious chasm was removed by Constantine and placed as an ornament to decorate the Hippodrome in Constantinople.

The Pythia was responsible for sending the Greeks to found colonies at Syracuse in Sicily, in Byzantium and in Thessaly. Because of its essentially religious nature, Delphi became the arbitrator of morality. Many Greek standards of human conduct originated in lectures given at Delphi.

Also engraved at Delphi were two of man's great moral precepts--"Know thyself" and "Nothing to excess."

Local citizens administered the sacred precinct; originally a local girl was chosen as the Pythia, but in the 3rd century a vivacious young Pythia was seduced. Priests then decided to make the following Pythias middle-aged women. At the height of Delphi's popularity three priestess served at once. Although Pythias were untutored, their aides sometimes had sources of political intelligence throughout the ancient world.

Normally, questions concerned personal problems, but many times the Pythia's responses concerned when to make war, on whose side to fight and who should lead the various city-states.

In Delphi's glory days, many visitors came to gaze upon the Delphi's wonders, but the largest crowds came for the quadrennial festival, the Pythian Games. From 582 B.C. summons went out, inviting contestants for the athletic and musical contests to compete for Apollo's crown. Performers from the Aegean islands, Asia Minor, North Africa, Italy, Sicily and even France assembled at Delphi under a sacred truce.

Horse races were run on the plain far below the temple, athletic contests unfolded in the stadium, which still stands above the temple. Centuries-old odes praising Pythian victors have come down to us.

But wars and earthquakes took their toll. In 373 B.C. a tremor flung boulders down on the temple of Apollo; its Third Sacred War halted reconstruction in 356 B.C. The Fourth Sacred War erupted in 339 B.C. In 279 B.C. the sanctuary was saved from the plundering Galatians. The Romans captured it in 86 B.C., and Sulla plundered all valuable offerings. In 83 B.C. barbarians sacked the sacred site and torched the temple.

Finally, the rise of Christianity sealed its doom. The oracle shrine was totally destroyed by the Christian Emperor Arcadius in 398 A.D. Its temples turned to ruins and the earth buried its treasures for more than 1,200 years until 1671 when archaeological excavation began. Now modern travelers make the following stops on their Delphic pilgrimage, but first a tip: go early and alone, walking Delphi in silence. If you're not an earlier riser, go late in the afternoon. Read up on it before you go. For more tips, go to

Start your wanderings following the Sacred Way that leads to the Temple of Apollo. Once it was lined with more than 3,000 statues and treasuries built by city-states to house their people's offerings.

Then go to:

* The Temple of Apollo. A temple has stood here since the 6th century B.C. This great temple, whose ruins date to the 4th century B.C., is the most important building in the sanctuary. It was the center of the god's cult and oracle. Reconstruction work by the French hint at its original majesty.

* The museum. It houses a magnificent collection of early Greek sculpture, gold, carved ivory and outstanding artifacts ranked second only to those of the Athenian Acropolis. Its famed bronze of the Charioteer, dedicated in 475 B.C., and the white marble sculpture of Antinous, the favorite of Emperor Hadrian who was declared a god upon his death, reside here. In one room is a scale model that resurrects the glory that once was the Sanctuary of Apollo. Two rooms are dedicated to the Athenian and Siphnian treasuries with magnificent friezes

* The Temple of Pronaia Athena. A masterpiece of ancient Greek architecture, with its circular design and balanced proportions, the Tholos is surrounded by magnificent panoramic views. This rotunda, built in the 4th century B.C., was originally circled by 20 columns. Three were re-erected in 1938 offering a hint of its former glory. The function of this most photographed monument is shrouded in mystery. It remains one of the most fascinating buildings of ancient Greece.

* Stadium. Built in the 5th century B.C., the Pythian Games, with Pan-Hellenic musical and gymnastic contests, was held here. One of the best preserved ancient stadiums in the country, it was partially hewn out of limestone above the main sanctuary. Some 650 feet long, it held 7,000 spectators who gathered every four years for the Pythian Games, which grew out of the musical festival held in the theater every eight years to celebrate Apollo's mythical slaying of the Python. Winners were awarded laurel wreaths and allowed to have their statue in the sanctuary. Most of the Parnassian marble seats are intact and date from Roman times.

* Athenian Treasury. Dedicated in the 6th century B.C., it has been restored in situ. Only a few fragments remain of its metopes, but its magnificent carvings are found in the museum.

* Theater. This well-preserved edifice, built of Parnassian limestone, offers a breathtaking view of the sacred precincts and the lofty, forested mountains beyond. It is cut into the side of a hill as is the Greek custom. Only the stage building has disappeared. It would have been approached with frescoed porticos and adorned with statues.

* Coryclan Cave. Delphi is a perfect access to some of the area's most scenic hiking and a four- to-five hour roundtrip hike takes visitors to this famed cave.

* Castilian Spring. Before entering the Sacred Precinct, pilgrims are thought to have purified themselves in the clear, icy waters of this spring. The Pythia would also wash in these waters before making her oracular prophecies. The visible remains of the fountain probably date to the late Hellenistic period. Allegedly the poet Lord Byron plunged into these waters inspired by the belief that the spring would enhance his poetic spirit.

* Gymnasium. Once water from the Castalian Spring provided cold baths for athletes training for the Pythian Games. Ruins of the original cold baths still can be seen in a square courtyard. East of the baths lies the Palestra, or training area.

* When at Delphi, try the Hotel Athena, Hotel Pan or a pansion. If that's too expensive, try Apollo camping or the IYHF youth hostel. You don't have to be a youth to stay there.

* Local tavernas offer fine Greek fare at affordable prices. Delphi is a marvelous center for mountain hikes and a trek up Mount Parnassos is a must. Chill out at the summit or warm up at Itea's beaches a short bus ride below Delphi.

* From Itea, hikers can wind up eight miles through a surreal wonderland of olive trees, retracing the route of ancient pilgrims who walked up to the oracle from the sea. Arachova is a relaxed mountain village near Delphi, where one can sample the amber honey and saganaki, cheese dipped in flour and fried, and kick back in an outdoor cafe to enjoy the splendor.

Perhaps as the sensitive visitor wanders in silence through these ancient ruins, he or she may still feel the ancient energies that once flowed through this otherworldly place still bathed in nature's glories.

Harvey Hagman is a travel writer and frequent contributor to The World & I.
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Author:Hagman, Harvey
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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