Pagan Pilgrimage: The Oracle of Delphi

I discovered Greek Mythology in the second grade. The name of the book that introduced me to Zeus, Artemis, Hercules and all the rest has long escaped my memory, but the stories have remained with me ever since. My love of the ancient Hellenic world has stayed with me as I’ve grown older, and has included forays into Greek religion and history. When an opportunity arose to visit Greece this year my wife and I leapt at the chance, and on our “must see list” was Delphi and what remains of the Temple of Apollo which housed the Oracle all those centuries ago.

Delphi and Apollo’s Temple from a distance.

This article is not about the history of the Oracle (more accurately the Pythia-the Priestess who gave Apollo’s prophecies), but about my feelings for it, and what was invoked when I was actually among its remains. For me, Apollo’s Temple at Delphi, is unquestionably a place of Pagan Pilgrimage. It’s more than a historical site, it’s a spot where we know actual magick (divination-a form of magick) and worship (sacrifices and reverence for the gods) took place. The Parthenon in Athens is an amazing sight, but it’s never held my imagination in the way Delphi has over the decades.

What’s left of a treasury I think.

Jerusalem Fever is the name given to “a well-documented phenomenon where foreign visitors suffer psychotic delusions that they are figures from the Bible or harbingers of the End of Days,” and something similar has been associated with Delphi over the years as well. It was not evident during my 26 hour visit, but I could see why it might happen in Delphi.

The coliseum, located behind the theatre and Temple of Apollo. Built by the Romans.

The village of Delphi is a three hour bus ride from Athens, but it might as well be a world away. The village hugs Mount Parnassus and consists of only a small handful of extremely narrow streets. Its streets remind me a great deal of Glastonbury, as most of them are filled with tourist brick-a-brack designed to part the worshippers of Zeus with the euros in their wallets. Hotels and taverns are all named after the Greek Gods, we stayed at the Hotel Leto and ate at the Cafe Dionysus. The gods may not be worshipped in Delphi town, but they are certainly honoured there.

A short walk from the town of Delphi is the site most of us call the Oracle of Delphi, or Delphi. “The Oracle” (as the name of a place) was a large temple complex built directly into the mountain its self. In ancient times it consisted of treasury buildings (all the major city-states contributed to the Oracle), a theatre, a coliseum (perhaps the best preserved ruin), and of course the Temple of Apollo where the Pythia gave her prophecies.

Theatre. I think Dionysus was saying hello.

Though the coliseum and theatre are the best preserved of the buildings at Delphi, it’s the Temple of Apollo which still commands reverence and awe. Apollo’s columns may be worn and mostly fallen, but they still retain much of their grandeur from 2500 years ago. If one walks up above the Temple and looks down upon it, it’s even more impressive. Such a view provides the devotee with a true measure of just how big Apollo’s temple was in its heyday. Such a view also allows the imagination to wander a bit more, to contemplate just where the Pythia might have stood while breathing in the sacred vapours so that she could touch the wisdom of Apollo.

The question I’m most often asked when visiting ancient sacred places is “did you feel anything?” Two days before below Athena’s Parthenon at a long destroyed temple of Dionysus I felt great sadness. Standing in the remnants of Apollo’s most famous shrine I felt hope and gained a small degree of comfort from the gods.

I have no words, The Temple of Apollo

I’m not sure that I felt them in the way I might in the flickering candlelight of a Witch circle, but during my morning at Apollo’s doorstep I felt the ancientness of the gods. It’s a power and a memory that goes back beyond the Greeks to the Indo-Europeans who shared their gods of sea, sky, and sun. Much of what remains at Delphi was built by the Roman Empire, an empire and people who adopted the gods of the Greeks and then took them to the rest of Europe just as the Macedonian Alexander the Great took them as far as India. Gods more selfish than those upon Mount Olympus tried to remove Zeus and his family from history, but they re-emerged during the Renaissance just as powerful as before and brought with them music, poetry, and art.

That’s what I felt as Apollo’s rays bathed Ari and I in golden light and a healthy sheen of sweat. I was not moved to make any sort of prophecy at Delphi, nor did I find myself wanting to worship the gods while there. (In all seriousness, the swarms of tourist groups made any sort of prolonged contemplation nearly impossible, and we beat most of them to the sight-it only got worse as our time at Delphi progressed.) But I felt their power and their enormity and their timelessness, and it’s a feeling I’ll return to again and again in the coming years when my faith wavers or I find myself in doubt.

Temple of Athena Pronaia

ODDS AND ENDS FROM OUR TRIP

Less well known than the Temple of Apollo and less than a half of mile away stands what little remains of the Temple of Athena Pronaia. Unlike Apollo’s Temple it lacks ticket takers or a museum and the throngs of tourists that depart from buses to see the Oracle. I found this spot just as powerful as Apollo’s Temple, if not more so.

The “ray of light” I got on my Temple of Apollo pictures did not show up on the ones my wife took. I’m sure it’s just glare, but to me it felt as if Apollo himself was blessing us.

Am I a sucker for stuff with deities on it? Yes, I left Delphi with a Dionysus plate, two t-shirts, and an oak leaf/acorn wall hanging.

Apollo, of course I now own this on a t-shirt.

The art that’s been found at the temple complex is mostly all in the Delphi Museum. Not much remains, but some of it is absolutely stunning.

I’m writing this in Santorini, perhaps the island that inspired Plato’s stories of Atlantis.

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