Friday, January 9, 2015

A Trip to Delphi

I was asked to take you on my dream vacation. I hope you enjoy the trip.

Disclaimer: I'll warn you now, I will be using an eclectic mix of modern and ancient words. I just want to avoid "that word's too modern" in this post.
Helot—Spartan slave
Mothônes—helots that accompany the warriors-in-training
Perioikoi—non-citizens dwelling in the Spartan polis
Pythia—the Oracle at Delphi

My dream vacation? That doesn't just involve a place, but a time.

I plan on visiting the Temple of Apollo at Delphi during the 5th century BC while it still stood in all its glory. Plus I have a little question that I want to ask the Pythia.

You see I was a Spartan woman in a previous life.

Why a Spartan? I hear you ask.

Because other Greek women of that time were not afforded any of the liberties that Spartan women enjoyed. While I could own and administer property and move about as I chose, Greek women of other poleis were chattel. Mere possessions of the men in their lives, whether fathers, brothers, husbands or even sons made no difference in the other city-states. Even Roman women could only get away with independent behavior in later eras if they were very rich.

My name? Since I didn't die in childbirth, the stele on my grave doesn't bear my name and it has been lost to history. But I was just one of many women who did not give their life for Sparta. Even our mighty warriors had to fall in battle to be honored with a marked grave.

So if you will give me a moment, I'll inform my helot to pack for both of us and we'll be on our way.

Oh will you look at that? My husband sent a young warrior and his mothônes to escort us! Lycaretos  is one of the men in charge of training the warriors. But really, I'm not Helen of Sparta to require protection because of my gods-be-cursed beauty.

Just let me say, travel is not for the weak, especially as it's going to take weeks to walk all the way to Delphi. Fortunately, all Spartan girls are required to take part in physical training alongside the boys. Of course, we'll do a lot of camping along the way. These boys are really gung ho about showing off the skills my husband has imparted.

The helots load our mule with clothing and supplies, complete with a small tent for my helot and me. The youths are used to sleeping anywhere with only their cloak and whatever else they can find.

We have several excellent hosts along the way—families that offer us food and shelter for the night. Some are helots who give of what they have. Others are perioikoi tradesmen and merchants with slaves of their own to see to our every need.

But eventually, I see the slopes of Mount Parnassus rising before me. We will have to work our way up the mountainside path to reach Apollo's sacred precinct. Countless pilgrims have made this journey on their way to enlightenment. Although the Pythia is notorious for the mystery she shrouds her prophecies in.

Ahead a gleaming façade of limestone columns and bas relief stands out from the surrounding olive and almond trees. Weathered altars and a pair of smaller buildings that are either treasuries or archaic temples stand to one side of the pristine temple.

Surely this is not the great Temple of Apollo I have heard so much about.

"That's the Temple of Athena Pronaia," another pilgrim names the sanctuary.

Across the way, people flock to an old stone building set back from the road. A steady stream of pilgrims move into the building and return with wet hair.

I stop one of the pilgrims. "Is that the Kastalian Spring?"

"Yes. If you are coming to ask the Pythia a question, you need to enter and wash your hair and hands."

The road stretches forward before turning abruptly to the left, following the shoulder of the great mountain. A ravine cuts across the path, forcing the bend in the road.

I wonder what lies just out of sight. But first I must purify myself.

"Stay here," I tell my young protectors.

The warrior considers objecting, but he has been well trained, and subsides. At his nod, his mothônes leads the mule off to the side. Cypress and a few acacia offer some shade, but the area in front of the building had been cleared to ease the way for pilgrims.

"Come with me," I say to my helot.

"My lady."

I take the six steps down onto the sunken floor of the hallowed manmade grotto. I seem to have stepped into another place and time. The outside world is naught but a distant memory in the hushed cool of the space. Water splashes, echoing, and drowns out the indistinct murmur of prayers.

The interior is taken up by a marble-lined pool surrounded by benches. Men and a few aristocratic women kneel and offer paeans to the Lord of Light.

The age and holiness of the site rest like a weight on my soul. I kneel and quickly rinse my hair and hands in the pool. Rising, I note with wonder that only Kastalia's clear tones echo in the ageless nymph's house. Water drips down my shoulders, cooling my skin and soaking into my chiton, as I leave the spring house.

Now I am ready to approach the god and his Oracle.

Before us, framed by great slabs of rock shining in the noonday sun, rises the sacred precinct. The bright glittering glare dazzles my eyes, spots dancing in my vision. I squint and shade my eyes, unsure which is brighter the temple or the cliff face.

A wall encloses the holy site, climbing in tiers up the side of the mountain. Bright limestone and bold colors glow in the sunlight reflected from the Phaedriades, each level seeming to rest on the one before. It takes my breath away with its stunning display of wealth and power.

How had they built such grand structures into the very side of a cliff? The outright weight of that many buildings and monuments is staggering. Delphi is a behemoth and here Apollo reigns supreme.

The fabled Sacred Way stretches from the bronze gates, the cobbled surface worn smooth by the tread of countless feet. The road climbs the steep route in a series of switchbacks.

Flanking the roadway, monuments and treasuries from numerous city-states vie for pride of place. Statues and stele occupy areas too small to house colonnaded buildings. Everything is painted in vibrant colors.

There is the Rock of the Sibyl. The great, rough rock where the first sibyl chanted her oracles protrudes from the ground. Towering over it all atop a massive polygonal retaining wall, presides the shining Temple of Apollo.

While the young warrior sees to the proper sacrifice and offerings, I look around in awe at the beautiful temple.

The temple perches atop three gleaming limestone tiers surmounted by towering columns. The pediment topping the columns depicts Apollo's arrival in Delphi. Apollo's chariot drawn by four horses fills the center. Three beautiful korai stand to his left and three strong kouroi to his left. Lions savage a bull and a stag in the corners. The bright pigments used on the sculptures bring them to radiant life.

Flames rise from two bronze tripods flanking a ramp leading up the three tiers to the massive bronze doors of the temple. Surrounded by the columns of the portico, the walls of the temple are covered in rich geometric designs.

Soon it is my turn to approach the Pythia with my question.

Sun beams pour inside the antechamber, preceding me and lighting the space. The golden glow glints off the myriad votive offering left by the countless pilgrims as well as my addition, a bronze warrior.

Within the sanctuary, the sacred flame burns, giving a flickering quality to the thin shaft of sunlight entering the holy place. A row of columns marches down both sides of the sanctuary. Bowls of incense send tendrils of smoke streaming upward between the soaring pillars. To the right towers the cult statue in the sunken inner sanctum.

I peer at the shadowy sculpture. The size alone is awe-inspiring. Too bad I cannot approach the god in his house.

"What do you wish to ask of the Pythia?"

I turn to the young priest waiting impatiently for me. "Will I always be barren?"

The look in his eyes, is it pity or distaste? He needn't worry. I'm not his wife.

He leaves me to go deeper into the temple. I can just make out a shrouded figure perching on the sacred tripod Herakles once attempted to steal. He says something to her, most likely repeating my question.

The Pythia begins to writhe and moan. Strange words in a language I do not understand flow from her. Is she speaking some secret language of the gods?

Once she is silent, a trio of priests confers. They glance my direction a few times as if evaluating me. What do they see? A woman instead of the young girl they would have chosen as a wife? A woman who put herself forward instead of relying on her husband to come in her place?

Finally, the first priest returns. "The Pythia says that you are 'the true daughter of Hermione and as it was for her, so shall it be for you.'"

Ah, they know I am a Spartan. That explains their disapproving glances. No matter. We Spartan women are the only women who are mothers of men.

"All thanks to Apollo and his oracle." I motion for the young warrior to accompany me and smile at the priest's discomfort. He wouldn't feel any less comfortable in the company of Amazons.

I can't wait to return home and tell my husband the good news.


  1. You are so amazingly creative (and educational).

  2. Thank you! Learning is always easiest when it is fun or linked to something you can identify with.

  3. Fantastic journey. I feel like I am there.