Day 164-XC, Δελφοί.
Delphi, April 19
The modern town of Delphi consists of three parallel streets along the mountain. In general, one is for hotels, one is for restaurants, and one is for souvenir shops. On the edge of town there is the archeological area with parking space for touring buses.
When we arrived yesterday evening, the mayor brought us lunch and assured us that the march could visit the old ruins for free. It was the least. We merited it.
Everyone agreed yesterday evening that the ascent was worth it. The topographical position of Delphi is “magnifique”.
Of old there used to be a shrine dedicated to Mother Earth on this site. Later on, the town became holy to Apollo, and Delphi came to host his most important sanctuary, the oracle.
One of the things that remained from the archaic cult was the link to the earth. On the place of Apollo’s temple there was said to be a deep crepice. Toxic vapours walmed up from it. If you sniffed them you could go into a wild trance, you would hear the voice of the god.
Only one person was allowed to expose herself to these vapours. Pythia, the priestess of Apollo.
She would do so whenever a traveller sought the advice of the god, and she would give his answer in the form of a completely incomprehensible ramble. The male priests of Apollo would translate this into more or less coherent language.
Usually the answer was cryptic and often ambiguous. This way it almost always fitted with what happened afterwards. And so the oracle reaped great fame of wisdom. People flocked from all over Greece and beyond to interrogate the Pythia. It became business, because without offerings the god wouldn’t answer.
In her darkest hour, when freedom loving Greece was about to be enslaved by the greatest empire the world had ever seen, an empire that had assimilated the peoples of the East and of Egypt under the single scepter of Xerxes, king of kings, the Delphians themselves interrogated their oracle. They wanted to know if there was any way to avoid doom and defeat the Persians.
The answer of the oracle was unambiguous this time. She told the Delphians to ‘pray to the winds’ and to have faith in the ‘wooden walls of Athens’.
The Persians were invincible on land. They were defeated at sea near Salamis, thanks to the Athenians and their wooden navy.
In the morning of April 19 the March to Athens enters old Delphi. The town is exposed to the east, to the mountains. From early one, hordes of mainly middle aged and elderly tourists walk the paths between the ruins, taking photos. There is no spirit here, like in the theatre of Stratos, just old rocks.
Most of the remainders are from the Roman period, with a few cosmetic reconstructions. For me, having all the big belly tourists around it’s hard to imagine what this town was like. But still I try.
I reconstruct the roads and the buildings. I’ve seen this image before. There are mainly hotels, taverns, souvenir shops and restaurants. Near the entrance there are the banks of Athens, of Corinth and of other important towns.
I see Delphi in the last stage of its decline. It has become a luxury holiday resort. The banks used to be little sanctuaries where the citizens from those towns left their offerings. In later times they turned into pawn shops.
A lot of money must have gone around here in Delphi. Under the Romans people came here mainly to enjoy themselves, to visit the theater, to watch a game in the stadium, to buy their souvenirs and to go out to dinner or to a brothel.
The end came with emperor Theodosius.
Known as ‘the great’ by christians, Theodosius was the man who liquidated the symbols of classical antiquity once the old faith had lost its meaning and christianity had come to be the only officially allowed religion of the empire.
Theodosius had closed the Great Library of Alexandria. He had extinguished the eternal flame in the Temple of Vesta on the Roman forum, he had ordered the panhellenic games at Olympia to cease.
When he came to Delphi in 393 AD to put an end to the cult, the oracle spoke for one last time.
“Tell the king the fair wrought house has fallen. No shelter has Apollo, nor sacred laurel leaves. The fountains are now silent, the voice is stilled. It is finished.”