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.
Terms: Helot—Spartan slave Korai—maidens Kouroi—youths Mothônes—helots that accompany the
warriors-in-training Polis/poleis—city-state/city-states 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.