Located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus high above the Gulf of Corinth, Delphi was considered by the ancient Greeks to be the center of the world. According to mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles from the ends of the universe to find the navel of Gaia, and this is where they met. This UNESCO World Heritage site was the center of our world for a full day.
We made the two-hour trek from Athens to Delphi on a tour bus after flying from Rome in the early morning hours. We passed geological formations that reminded us of Wyoming.
After checking into our hotel in the town of Delphi so we could drop off our luggage, we reboarded the bus for the short trip to the site. Our bus driver managed the winding, thin mountain road like a champ. (Note: After having ridden several buses in different parts of Greece, we admit to being very impressed by their drivers. They are masters at negotiating roads never designed for conveyances larger than chariots.)
Our guide led us up a steep slope into the center of the ruins before explaining the historical significance of the area.
In mythology, Python, a huge serpent, guarded the navel before the infant god Apollo stayed him. When Apollo’s arrows pierced the serpent, its body fell into a fissure and great fumes arose from the crevice as its carcass rotted. All those who stood over the gaping fissure fell into sudden, often violent, trances. In this state, it was believed that Apollo would possess the oracle and fill them with divine presence.
Named for the serpent, Pythia, the role of the Oracle of Delphi was played by a pure, chaste and honest young virgin. However, since young virgins were prone to attracting negative attention from the men who sought their council (which resulted in oracles being raped and violated), older women of at least 50 began to fill the position. They fasted and drank spring water to prepare, and then on the seventh day of the nine warmest months of the year, they held a dish of spring water and took their position on a tripod chair positioned over a fissure. Monarchs as well as mortals made the pilgrimage to Delphi to ask questions of the oracle. Although her answers were sometimes vague and could be misinterpreted, she was the most powerful person in Greece.
As to why the Oracle of Delphi experienced her visions, we can turn to a more modern explanation. In the late 1980s, a team of curious scientists discovered that the rocks beneath the Temple of Apollo were oily bituminous limestone and had been fractured by two faults that crossed beneath the temple. This had to be more than a coincidence. The scientists theorized that tectonic movements and earthquakes caused friction along the faults. Combined with the spring water that ran beneath the temple, methane, ethylene and ethane gas would rise through the faults to the center and directly into the temple. The low room, with its limited ventilation and lack of oxygen, would help amplify the effect of the gasses and induce the trance-like symptoms experienced by the oracles.
The site includes the temple of Apollo and the ancient theater (above), the Castalian spring, the gymnasium and a stadium where athletes competed.
The history of the Sanctuary is displayed in the site’s archaeological museum’s 14 rooms. Here you can learn the political, religious and social history of Delphi. The museum also includes several artifacts from the site and the surrounding region, including two magnificent sculptures of the Charioteer and the Sphinx.
We had dinner back at the hotel and spent the evening shopping in the boutiques that line the two streets that make up the town.
Next up: Athens!