Monday, June 09, 2008

Ask the Oracle

When our daughter was a little girl, she was given to asking--what's your favorite. . . So after we would return home from a family vacation, she would begin to pelt us with--what was your favorite part of vacation?

While I thoroughly enjoyed all parts of our visit to Greece, on reflection, I probably found Delphi the most enjoyable of all our stops. Set high in the mountains, Delphi is one of those places where you can immediately see why the ancient Greeks would have thought it a sacred place. As we drove toward Delphi (from Athens), we began to climb. The road was a series of switchbacks to gain altitude. Each turn revealed a new breathtaking view.

Before there were political polls, or endless analysts, there was the Oracle at Delphi. Not sure what to do, what course to chart, what action to take? Ask the Oracle at Delphi. At least, that's how many ancient Greeks handled things.

In addition to the Oracle, and because Greek mythology attributed a battle to have occurred on the site between Apollo and the Python (with the infant Apollo slaying the python), there was an extensive temple to Apollo at Delphi.

One reason I was particularly interested to see the location of the Oracle at Delphi is because it figures prominently in the story of Oedipus. When his parents, the king and queen of Thebes, had a son, Oedipus, they sought a prophecy of his future from the Oracle. The prophecy said he would kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, they had a guard take the infant away with orders to kill him. The guard, being soft-hearted, instead gave the baby to a shepherd, figuring the prophecy would never come true. The shepherd does not have the means to raise a child, so the infant Oedipus is eventually adopted by the childless king and queen of Corinth. When the infant grows to a man--young Oedipus--he too goes to the Oracle to learn his future. The Oracle once again predicts--you will kill your father and marry your mother. Thinking his adoptive parents are the topics of the prophecy, he flees home. In his journeys, he encounters (unknowingly) his real father, kills him, proceeds to the town of Thebes, where he frees them from the curse of the Sphinx, and as a reward, marries the widowed queen--his mother. Freud would have a blast with this story--oh wait, he already did!

The most famous pronouncement by the Oracle was given to King Croesus who sought advice on whether he should go to war against the Persians. He asked for advice on whether or not he should attack Persia.

The priestess answered:

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea; I understand the speech of the dumb and hear the voiceless.

The prophesy continued that if Croesus crossed a river, he would destroy a mighty empire.

King Croesus took this prophesy to be favorable and crossed the river and attacked Persia. He was defeated. When he returned to the Oracle to ask--what happened?--the real genius of the Oracle can be seen. The prophecies were always cloaked in somewhat obscure language that could be interpreted one way, or another. (Starting to sound more and more like current predictions, isn't it?) So, where Croesus assumed the prophecy meant he would defeat the Persian empire, instead he lost his own empire. (Hmmmm--I wonder if our current president should have consulted the Oracle before. . .oops, getting off point here!)

The means whereby the Oracle worked is quite fascinating. There was a priestess (sometimes several) who sat upon a tripod hovering over a crack in the earth. She breathed fumes arising from this crack and, in a swooning state, would speak in gibberish. The priests of the temple would take her words, and assemble them into a coherent prophesy.

Today, archeologists believe the fumes are likely a result of the volcanic and earthquake surroundings, which very likely are capable of inducing a swoon-like state wherein someone might speak nonsense. How interesting that this most famous of oracles (there were many in ancient Greece) would actually have been the result of natural geologic phenomena.

Well, enough background. Enjoy the rest of the photos.

My husband liked the stones above and below that he photographed--evidence of the construction techniques there.

This final photo is of a treasury--all along the road leading to the temple of Apollo were treasuries, where priests collected money.

The statues are in a small museum there, and are pieces that were found nearby. The charioteer, with the amazing close-up of his face showing eye-lashes, would have raced in a stadium at the very top of the site.


NCmountainwoman said...

Wonderful post. I've always longed to go to Greece and Delphi would be one of my first places to visit. The story of the Oracle makes a lot more sense than the "logic" of some of our leaders. Your photographs are marvelous.

JeanMac said...

Such great pictures - thanks for posting. I just read about the quake in Greece and wondered how the people made out.

Ruth said...

Interesting post. I had forgotten the details of the story of Oedipus.

Anvilcloud said...

That was very interesting. Thanks.

Rurality said...

I love your pictures from Greece! I would really like to visit there one day.

Lynne said...

Greece was my dream trip as a child. I never made it but am enjoying your photos and stories so much! The lighting in your pictures is golden and bright as I hear it was.

KGMom said...

NC--LOL on Oracle making more sense than some of our leaders. The priests who interpreted the utterances actually used NO punctuation--which would certainly make the prophecies even less sensible.

Jean--the quake was in a town we drove through on our trip!

Ruth--Oedipus is a powerful story. I continue to puzzle over the play and its meaning.

AC--you would like Greece--geography plus history!

Rurality--thanks for stopping by. Do go to Greece--it is a lovely country.

Lynne--there's still time. You may yet get there.

Trixie said...

Oh my goodness! I have always wondered what Delphi looked like. Spectacular! And the shot of the switchbacks, holy cow. Thanks for the trip to Greece. I think I would like to travel with you.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Donna,
My knowledge of Greek history and mythology is marginal at best, so it's neat to read the stories that go along with your trip. I'm also especially fascinated with those tall, columnar you know what kind of tree those are? (or maybe I'll find out as I continue reading your posts from Greece)