Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Garden of the Sacred: Climbing with Alexander




            We climbed the Sacred Way to the Oracle at Delphi. In Ancient Greece, Athenian generals asked the Delphic oracle how to defeat the invading Persians. "A wall of wood," they were told. They built a navy and defeated the invaders, keeping Greece free of control by the Persian Empire.
            King Oedipus sent messengers to ask the oracle for the cause of the plague devastating his kingdom and was told that the cause of the corruption was the king. From there, Oedipus's tragedy unfolds. Socrates asked the Oracle how to find wisdom, and was told "Know thyself." The Western philosophical tradition ensued.
            Alexander asked the Oracle whether he would achieve victory in a coming battle. When the priestess charged with interpreting the ravings (or babblings? drugged incoherence?) failed to produce a clear reply, he dragged her by her hair until she shouted, "You're relentless!" OK, Alexander (on the way to being 'Great') concluded, I've got my answer.
            We explored the remains of Delphi last week, viewing the site of the Temple of Apollo (top photo), the still viable theater in which the tragedies of Sophocles were performed, and then climbing up to the "stadium" where the athletic games were held. No Oracle or priestess takes questions at Delphi there any more. The rise of Christianity eventually put an end to the practice some time in the 5th century AD. Just as well; I wasn't sure what to ask.
            The Oracle at Delphi was in many ways the center of the ancient Greek world.
            Compared to the 'body' of monuments, sanctuaries, memorials, and 'gifts' erected at Delphi in its long-ago heyday, the remains are skeletal. Petitioners and visitors climbed to the site to query the Oracle, or spectate at the celebratory "Pythian Games," along a sometimes steep route called "The Sacred Way." Messengers sent by the powerful to make their inquiries -- almost any important decision of state was referred there at one time -- but also business opportunities, law suits, marriage decisions, and who to back in the 800-meter at next year's Olympics -- climbed the Sacred Way, along with the great names of the era we remember. Alexander. Socrates.
            Buildings and statues were erected along the way to honor, or placate, the God Apollo. In the cabinet of the gods, Delphi was in his department. Apollo had a large brief; he was the god of the sun, but also the god of music; and later was chosen to symbolize a cool, rational, orderly manner of thought. A tough man in a negotiation. His arrows put an end to frivolous suits.
            Of these ancient buildings only the stone footings remain along with various inscriptions valuable to scholars as 'authentic' texts of their period.  The Roman stoa (a roofed colonnade) was added in somewhat later times to serve as a convenient market place for trade. Shops sold what we would call 'souvenirs' -- votives and momentoes.  (Second image.)
            The home of the oracle was the Temple of Apollo, a huge rectangular structure the size of the Parthenon, of which only the columns on one of the shorter sides remain (fourth image, drawing).          
            The Oracle -- the name given to the prophetess who was given hallucinatory herbs in order to see the future and produce some words of guidance, however vague, ambiguous or merely nonsensical -- was housed in a 'sacred' chamber at the room's far end. Here words were interpreted by priests.
            The Oracle's site, regarded as the 'center of the world,' was concretely symbolized by an elliptically shaped stone called the 'omphalos' (third image down). This site of the world navel was supposedly determined by Zeus's release of two eagles from opposite ends of the earth. Where they met was the center. 
            The site also includes a stone theater in the round, where the plays of Sophocles were performed (last photo; not, however, Sophocles).
            A small temple-like structure, called the Treasury of the Athenians is regarded as the best preserved building. The history here is important, since this monumental building carried the gifts from 5th century Athens to commemorate either the fall of a tyrant and the establishment of Athenian democracy, or the victory over the Persians at the battle of Marathon that made the city's self-government possible. Either way, ground zero for Ancient Greece.
            Located about a two and a half hour drive from Athens, Delphi was the heart of the birthplace of the Western civilization. Prophecy is not central to modern, or monotheistic religions. But it is revealing that the civilization that birthed philosophy (the 'love of wisdom'), theater, naturalistic art, and natural science, and self-government among its gifts to a rational, humanistic way of life -- rather than superstition and tyranny -- sought to connect at its deepest levels with some power beyond the mind of man. To divinity. The gods. An oracle.