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DELPHI AND ITS ORACLE


CHAPTER II


After entering the Gulf of Corinth the first port at which the steamers
touch is Patras, the largest city in the Peloponnesus, with about 40,000
inhabitants,--looking across to Missolonghi on the northern shore, where
Byron died and where his heart is buried. The only notable thing about
Patras in pre-Christian times was its inclusion in the Achæan League,
that last outburst of the Hellenic love of independence. In modern times
it has had the distinction to be the first city to raise the national
flag in the War of Liberation (1821). Its patron saint is St. Andrew,
who has a cathedral dedicated to him, with a crypt in which his bones
are said to have their resting-place. It is a prosperous and well-built
city, with a picturesque country behind it, rich in vines and olives,
and in front of it the inland sea which is the great highway of Greek
commerce. But its chief interest for the traveller is the fact that it
is the place at which arrangements can best be made for visiting Delphi
and Olympia, two of the most attractive spots in Greece.

Delphi is situated on the mainland. To reach it the traveller has to
sail across from Patras to Itea, a small port at the head of the famous
Crisæan Gulf. The drive from Itea to Delphi on a fine April day is one
of the finest in the world. For a few miles you hold northward along the
plain, passing through a long forest of olive trees, with gnarled and
twisted trunks, the fresh leaves glistening in the sun and changing
colour in the breeze, shafts of glowing light shooting through the
branches. In the distance rise hills on hills, crowned by the snowy
summit of Parnassus. But it is not till you leave the plain and turn to
the right, slowly ascending by a zigzag route to the village of Chryso,
the ancient Crisa, that you begin to realise the sublimity of the
surroundings. The solemn grandeur of the mountains is above you. Below
lies the fertile plain, which was dedicated to Apollo and became the
scene of the Pythian Games when they reached their full development. As
you look down, the olive wood presents a new appearance and seems to
wind, like a great river of oil, towards the sea, whose rock-bound
coast, in the opening made by the bay at which you landed, shows the
pink, white, and blue houses of Itea sparkling in the sun. The Gulf of
Corinth, of which you can only catch glimpses now and then, might pass
for a great lake, bordered by the hills of Achaia in the south, and
surmounted in the far distance by the glittering summits of Erymanthus
and Cyllene, which rise to a height of 7000 or 8000 feet. In the course
of the journey you may often come upon a mass of flowers, sometimes
covering the slope on the roadside, sometimes running into the field and
mingling with the ripe corn, which the rustics are reaping with the
old-fashioned hook. The most conspicuous and abundant of all the flowers
is the large scarlet poppy, which might be counted by the thousand, and
often spreads over a great extent of ground. After passing Crisa, almost
the only signs of life we saw on the way were flocks of black goats with
their tinkling bells, and a long string of heavy-laden camels, with
their young ones running by their side, moving along in solemn
procession from the east.

As we approached Delphi, the view presented sterner outlines and a wider
range, embracing the dales and gorges of the Pleistus valley, and the
rugged hills of Cirphis on the south, as well as the mighty range of
Parnassus, with its outlying spurs and precipices. Of these the most
remarkable and the most celebrated are the Phædriadæ or shining peaks,
overshadowing the ancient sanctuary of Apollo, which was for centuries
the religious centre of the Greek world, as the Vatican was to mediæval
Christendom. The world-wide influence exerted by the Delphian oracle is
one of the most interesting facts in all history. It was characteristic
of the Hellenic as compared with the Hebrew mind that the oracle should
hold such a prominent place in the national religion: for it was a
religion dominated by the imagination rather than the conscience. At the
same time it should not be forgotten that, until its decadence, the
oracle was more frequently consulted for guidance in the practical affairs of life
than merely to gratify curiosity as to future events. The Delphian oracle originated, no doubt,
in the superstitious awe which the place inspired as the supposed centre
of the earth, possessed of mysterious cavities by which it was believed
possible to hold communication with the dead. In the earliest times it
was connected with the worship of the earth-goddess Gæa or Gē, who
sheltered the dead in her bosom. Later, the presiding deity was Themis,
the goddess of law and order in the natural world. But during the whole
historical period Apollo was the source of inspiration, the god of light
and the highest interpreter of the divine will. During the three winter
months Dionysus reigned, in the absence of Apollo.

The reverence in which the oracle was held, even in the most enlightened
times, was largely due to the wisdom and prudence of the priests--five
in number--who belonged to the noblest Delphian families and held office
for life. They were brought into contact with leading men who came to
consult the oracle from all parts of the Greek-speaking world,--men like
Lycurgus and Solon and Socrates and Xenophon and Alexander the
Great,--and they appear to have been on terms of intimacy with such
national poets as Hesiod and Pindar and Æschylus. Pindar’s iron chair
was carefully preserved in the sacred precincts, and the priest of
Apollo cried nightly as he closed the temple, “Let Pindar the poet go in
unto the supper of the gods.”

The priests put their own interpretations on the ecstatic utterances of
the prophetess, which she delivered in their hearing and in the presence
of the inquirer after she had drunk the holy water, chewed the
laurel-leaf, and mounted the tripod to inhale the narcotic vapour which
arose from the chasm beneath. These interpretations they embodied in
hexameter verses, generally disappointing from a poetical point of view,
considering the auspices under which they were delivered, and frequently
ambiguous in their terms, when it did not seem advisable for the oracle
to commit itself to a definite opinion. One of the best known and most
interesting cases of this sort was the answer given to Crœsus, King
of Sardis, when he was deliberating whether he ought to go to war with
Persia. Before inquiring on so important a point he resolved to test all
the chief oracles, six in number, by asking each of them through a
special messenger to say what he was doing on a specified day, on which
the question was to be put. The oracle that best stood the test was
Delphi, and Crœsus proceeded to ask advice on the momentous question
about which he was so anxious, bestowing on the temple of Apollo at the
same time magnificent gifts of solid gold and silver, and immense
offerings for sacrifice. The answer was that if he went to war with
Persia he would destroy a great empire, which he at once took in a
favourable sense. He was defeated, however, and Cyrus became master of
his city and kingdom, thus fulfilling the oracle in an unexpected sense.
He would have been put to death by his conqueror had it not been that
when he lay bound upon a funeral pile, which had been already kindled,
his exclamations led Cyrus to inquire what he was speaking of, and on
hearing of Solon’s warning as to the instability of human greatness,
which the fallen monarch had been calling to mind, Cyrus gave orders
that Crœsus should be at once released. The flames had taken such
hold of the wood, however, that he would still have perished if Apollo
had not heard his prayers and sent a heavy shower of rain, which
extinguished the fire. The disappointment of his hopes gave such a shock
to Crœsus’ faith that, by the leave of Cyrus, he sent to Delphi the
chains in which he had been bound to the pile, with a message asking if
that was the way in which Apollo treated his faithful votaries. In the
reply he was reminded that Apollo had saved his life, and was told that
he had not been careful enough in his interpretation of the oracle, and
that it had been impossible any longer to avert the doom which rested on
him as the fifth in descent from an ancestor who had incurred the divine
wrath by the murder of his master and the usurpation of his throne.

With one exception--the encouragement which it gave on certain rare
occasions to human sacrifice--the general influence of the oracle was
salutary, from a social and political as well as an ethical point of
view. On the walls of the temple were inscribed some of the sayings of
the wise men of Greece, such as “Know thyself,” “Nothing to excess.” The
oracle did much for the protection of rights where no legal sanction was
available. It checked blood-feuds, and gave its sanction to the
purification and pardon of those who had committed homicide under
extenuating circumstances. It could even dispense with ritual observance
altogether where there was no real guilt. For example, to a good man who
had slain his friend in defending him against robbers, and had fled to
the sanctuary in great distress of mind, its answer was: “Thou didst
slay thy friend striving to save his life; go hence, thou art purer than
thou wert before.” It confirmed the sanctity of oaths. Herodotus gives a
striking instance of its high standard of morality when, in answer to an
inquirer who asked whether by repudiating his oath he might claim a
large sum of money which had been deposited with him, the prophetess
declared that to tempt the god as he had done and to commit the crime
was the same thing, and that the divine judgment would descend on him
and on his house. For “there is a nameless son of Perjury, who has
neither hands nor feet; he pursues swiftly, until he seizes and destroys
the whole race and all the house.” It also rendered good service, as
many inscriptions show, in connection with the emancipation of slaves,
whose deposits it took care of, until a sufficient sum was available for
the purchase of their freedom from their masters, who were interdicted
from making any further claim upon their services. Besides the light and
leading which the oracle afforded to some of the early lawgivers of
Greece, and the wise counsels which it gave on questions of peace or
war, it was specially useful in advising cities on all projects of
colonisation.

The scarped vertical face of rock, which may be seen above the figure of
the shepherd, shows the recently excavated site of the Place for the
Lustration of Pilgrims, to which the water of the Castalian spring was
carried by an artificial channel in the rock. The masonry to the left of
the drawing is part of a modern reservoir.]

It seems to have been almost the invariable practice for Greeks to
consult the oracle before resolving to plant a colony, so much so that
Delphi is declared to have been “the best-informed agency for emigration
that any State has ever possessed.”

Its prestige declined owing to several causes. The priests were not
always proof against bribery; and when it became known at any time that
they had thus abused their office, it produced a deep feeling of
indignation and distrust. There are several well-attested cases of
corruption, chiefly on the part of Spartans. One of their kings,
Cleomenes, procured the deposition of his brother-king Demaratus by
bringing private influence to bear at Delphi. When the facts of the case
came to light, the prophetess was deposed from her office, and her chief
adviser at Delphi had to take to flight. Another Spartan king,
Pleistoanax, who had been exiled for accepting bribes from Pericles,
succeeded, after eighteen years’ residence in Arcadia (where, for
safety, half of his dwelling-house was within the enclosure of a
temple), in obtaining his recall to Sparta with great honour, owing to
the injunctions to this effect, which were repeatedly given by the
oracle as the result of bribes. Lysander, the great Spartan general,
after he was deprived of his command, concerted a scheme with the
authorities at Delphi for getting himself recognised as king through the
publication of fabricated records, alleged to be of great antiquity, and
only to be opened by a genuine son of Apollo. Such a pretender they
secured, but the scheme broke down owing to the timidity of one of the
conspirators.

Another drawback was that the growing power of rival states rendered it
increasingly difficult for the oracle to hold the balance with any
fairness between them, and at the same time maintain its old and
intimate relations with Sparta. Its dignity was also lowered when,
instead of being open for consultation for a month once a year, more
frequent opportunities were afforded and trivial questions entertained.
But perhaps the most serious difficulty they had to contend with was the
growing intercourse and correspondence of the different cities of
Greece, both with one another and with foreign cities, and the general
spread of knowledge, which tended to impair the reverence in which the
oracle had been held, and deprived its priests of the monopoly of
general information which they seem to have at one time virtually
enjoyed. By the time the Christian era began, the Greek oracles had been
practically superseded by the Chaldæan astrologers; and when Julian the
Apostate in the fourth century tried to revive the glory of Delphi, he
received the answer, “Tell the king the earth has fallen, the beautiful
mansion; no longer has Phœbus a home, nor a prophetic laurel, nor a
font that speaks: gone dry is the talking water.” It was finally
suppressed by the Emperor Theodosius towards the end of the fourth
century.

Like the still older sanctuary of Dodona (where revelations were
supposed to be given through the rustling of a sacred oak), Delphi was,
alternately with Thermopylæ, the seat in historic times of an
Amphictyony or union of states, which existed for the worship of the
deity whose shrine they were pledged to defend, as well as for mutual
friendship and protection. Unfortunately the history of the oracle,
although a national institution, was marked at various times by deadly
strife among the different Hellenic tribes whose interests were
involved. At first the management of the oracle seems to have been in
the hands of the people of Crisa, who were Phocians, but after the
protracted war waged by the Amphictyony against the natives of Cirrha,
the adjacent sea-port, on account of the extortions they practised on
the pilgrims to the shrine and the outrages they sometimes perpetrated
on them, the trust was committed by the federation to the inhabitants of
Delphi, who were of Dorian extraction. Cirrha was laid waste, the whole
Crisæan plain was dedicated to Apollo, and the spoils of Cirrha were
used to establish the Pythian games on a more ambitious footing than had
been possible when they were held in the limited space available at
Delphi.

A second Sacred War, as it was called, broke out in 357 B.C., when the
Amphictyonic Council, after imposing a fine on the Phocians at the
instigation of their enemies the Thebans, which remained unpaid,
proceeded to confiscate their territory. The Phocians offered a long and
desperate resistance, asserting their old right to administer the
affairs of the sanctuary. In the course of the war their leaders had
recourse to the treasures of the temple again and again, melting and
coining the precious metals, and turning the brass and iron into arms.
Altogether they are said to have appropriated no less than £2,300,000,
which was required to keep up their large mercenary army.

The fabulous wealth of the place had often tempted the cupidity of
foreign foes, but on every occasion the god had been found able to
protect himself. When Xerxes sent a detachment of his huge army to
despoil the shrine, his soldiers were thrown into a panic and put
utterly to flight by great rocks tumbling down upon them from the cliffs
of Parnassus in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm. The rocks were
shown to Herodotus in the precincts of the temple of Athena,--perhaps
the same as are still to be seen in the low ground to the south of the
public road. A similar experience is said to have befallen the Gauls
under Brennus about two hundred years afterwards. At an intermediate
date (370 B.C.), when Jason of Pheræ, the powerful ruler of Thessaly,
set out for Delphi with, as it was believed, a hostile intent, under
colour of sacrificing to the god a thousand bulls and ten thousand
sheep, goats, and swine, he was suddenly cut off in the prime of life by
a treacherous band of assassins.

There was yet a third Sacred War, a few years afterwards. The objects of
Amphictyonic wrath on this occasion were not the Phocians but the
Locrians of Amphissa (now Salona), who had taken possession of Cirrha
and repeated the old offence of using part of the consecrated ground for
their own secular purposes.

The wall of polygonal masonry to the right is part of the _Heleniko_, or
terrace wall, of the Great Temple of Apollo. Three marble steps at the
back of the Athenian portico, with two Ionic columns in place, stand in
front of the wall. The “sacred way,” terminating at the east end of the
Great Temple above, passes in front of this portico, and the row of
marble seats along its farther side marks out its course. To the left of
the drawing is seen the mountain slope of Kirphis leading down to the
gorge of the river Pleistos.]

The sympathies of Greece were divided in this war, and the final outcome
of the struggle was that Philip of Macedonia, who had been called in to
finish the previous war, and had been admitted a member of the
Amphictyony in place of the dispossessed Phocian tribe, now became
master of Greece by reason of his victory over the combined forces of
Athens and Thebes at the fateful battle of Chæronea in 338 B.C.

Within the past few years French archæologists have done wonderful work
at Delphi. By the removal of the modern village of Castri, the
foundations of the temple and the remains of many of the surrounding
buildings and monuments have been brought to light. As you pass along
the “Sacred Way” you can identify many of the sites mentioned by
Pausanias, in the very order in which he describes them. In most places
the old pavement still remains, with grooves to keep the feet from
slipping. Some of the most precious relics have been removed to the
Museum, where there are also models of many of the most beautiful works
of art that have perished. Among the former is the famous _Omphalos_ or
“Navel-stone,” on which Apollo is often represented as sitting. It
marked the spot at which two eagles met, which had been sent out by
Jupiter from extreme east and west, of equal speed in flight, to
determine the exact centre of the earth. The marble stone which is now
shown, although apparently identical with that seen by Pausanias,--for
it was discovered on the same spot,--may be only an imitation of the
original, like another which has also been recently discovered; and the
golden eagles which stood beside the _Omphalos_ have also disappeared.
The chasm in the temple floor, from which the vapour ascended that was
supposed to inspire the prophetess, cannot now be found, having probably
been filled up somehow; but a little way off there is a rock with a rift
in it, on which the first Sibyl (mentioned by Plutarch) is supposed to
have sat and prophesied. The rift may have been the lurking-place of the
dragon which Apollo shot with his darts, when he came from Delos, the
land of his birth, to inaugurate the ministry of the Cretan travellers,
whom he had enlisted in the service of his new sanctuary. According to
the legend the skin of the dragon was left to rot, giving rise to the
ancient name Pytho, by which Delphi was known in the days of Homer. In
the hymn to the Delphian Apollo the scene of the combat is laid in the
gorge of the Phædriadæ, but the other conjecture is supported by the
proximity to the Sibyl’s rock of an enclosure like a threshing-floor,
which is supposed to be the place where the drama was enacted every
fourth year.

A little way above the temple is an open-air theatre--one of the best
preserved in Greece. It is in the usual horse-shoe form, with its
sloping back, enclosing the sitting accommodation for the spectators,
resting on a rising ground. The stadium is still higher, right under the
cliffs of Parnassus on the north, and shut in by rising grounds on
either side, but commanding a magnificent view to the south over valley
and mountain. It was the ancient scene of the Pythian games, and is
still recognisable as such in almost every feature. Apollo was regarded
as the leader of the Muses, and the Pythian festival was originally a
musical, not an athletic contest. The prize of laurel wreath was given
for the best song in honour of Apollo to the accompaniment of the lyre.
At the conclusion of the first Sacred War, nearly 600 B.C., the chariot
races (which are deprecated in the Homeric hymn) were inaugurated in the
plain beneath. But the higher form of competition still continued,
including even poetry and painting--a distinction of which no other
pagan cult can boast. Deeply interesting as the ruins are from an
archæological point of view, they bring home a sense of the
transitoriness of early glory when one thinks how little remains of the
thousand statues and trophies and votive offerings which once filled the
spot with “the glory that was Greece.” Time has robbed it of the
treasures of art which were to be seen in the days of Pliny, even after
the ravages of Sulla and of Nero. Happily, one of the most interesting
and beautiful of all the monuments has just been restored, namely the
Treasury of the Athenians, which was built of Parian marble in the form
of a small Doric temple, from the spoils taken on the field of Marathon.
It seems to have been overthrown by an earthquake, but almost all the
blocks of which it was constructed have been discovered among the ruins,
and have been fitted together with such skill and success as to
reproduce the old inscriptions engraved upon the walls, including
several hymns to Apollo, with their musical notation. The expense of
the restoration has been mainly borne by the city of Athens.

A few hundred yards to the east is the Castalian spring, in the cleft
between the lofty Phædriadæ. At one time it was believed to confer the
gift of prophecy on those who drank of it; but its rock-hewn basin is
now used by the village women for washing clothes. In ancient times its
water was used for sacred purposes by the prophetess and her attendants
and all who came to consult the oracle. That the purification sought was
not merely that of the body may be inferred from a prophetic utterance
which has been rendered as follows:--

    To the pure precincts of Apollo’s portal,
    Come, pure in heart, and touch the lustral wave:
    One drop sufficeth for the sinless mortal;
    All else e’en ocean’s billows cannot lave.

If the traveller pursue his journey a few hours farther to the east,
passing the picturesque little town of Arachova, about 2000 feet above
the sea, he will reach the ancient Cleft or Triple Way, in a scene of
desolate grandeur at the end of a long, deep, narrow valley. It was
there that Œdipus, seeking to escape the destiny which had just been
announced to him by the oracle, and unaware of his true parentage, met
his father Laius, King of Thebes, on his way to Delphi, and in a fit of
anger at the unceremonious way in which he was jostled aside by the
royal charioteer, slew the aged king and all his attendants save one,--a
crime which was the beginning of those many sorrows in his
family history which were to be the theme of some of the greatest of the
Greek tragedies. Pausanias mentions that the tomb of the murdered men,
with unhewn stones heaped upon it, was to be seen at the middle of the
place where the three roads met: the modern traveller finds a monument
with an inscription which tells how Johannes Megas was killed on the
same spot in 1856, in an encounter with a band of brigands, which he was
seeking to extirpate.





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