What makes a site sacred? The atmosphere, the setting, the priests who declared it so, or the pilgrims who trek from far away to experience a oneness with their god or gods? Maybe all of the above.
My husband and I set out from Athens for a two-day trip first to visit sacred Delphi, once considered the center of the world. The following day we would visit another sacred site, Meteora, deep in the mountains of mainland Greece. The country’s economic woes were in full view, not only in the city with its empty store fronts, but even more so in the countryside where miles of abandoned buildings, some half-built, were everywhere that cotton fields weren’t. Fluffy cotton balls from the harvest drifted alongside the road to somewhat soften the scene on the fertile Plains of Thessaly before we began a climb into the mountains where, sadly, the roadways were lined in trash.
But religious sentiment was everywhere evident with dozens of tiny models of Orthodox churches, often painted the blue and white colors of Greece, placed near dangerous roadway curves where some unfortunate motorist met with disaster, or perhaps was saved from death by a miracle. We stopped for a coffee at a roadside stop where I slipped into a nearby chapel built for travelers who paused for a prayer before continuing their journeys. I lit a tall beeswax taper to join others casting glowing light on the icons painted in rich gold, red and blue.
We’d been to Delphi some years earlier. Set high on a steep slope not far from Mt. Olympus, it had been a quiet, mystical and enchanting experience with the ancient ruins overlooking groves of olive trees sweeping down to the bright blue sea. It was easy to imagine pilgrims coming to worship Apollo or wait in trepidation for the enigmatic prophecies of the fearsome Delphic Oracle who chewed on bay leaves and inhaled gases from a cleft in the rock for inspiration.
But would she have ever dreamed of today’s mass tourism with buses lined up to disgorge passengers who only wished to climb the marble-paved path to spend five minutes taking selfies before lunch? Perhaps she did, but we were too distracted by the noise and shoving to continue beyond the pillars of the Temple of Athena to climb the top of the hill where we’d previously sat to contemplate the mysteries of the past.
Giving up, we retreated to the quiet museum where we could marvel at the fragments of the treasures that have survived invasions and looting over nearly three millenia. The wonderfully-named chryselephantine heads made of ivory and gold depicting Apollo and and a haughty-looking Artemis brought to mind how religion has informed art until recently. The ivory is blackened by burning in one of the periodic desecrations by marauders or natural disasters, giving the gods an African appearance. I wondered if Picasso had seen them.
Nearby, is another treasure: pieces of a gold and silver life-size bull. Other rooms hold statuary, building fragments, curious egg-shaped pieces that represent the navel or center of the Greek world, and a gigantic sphinx.
And no one who has ever seen The Charioteer can forget the perfect serenity of the slender young man as he holds the reins to guide his horses to victory.
But my favorite is the small bowl finely painted with a scene of Apollo, the god of the sun, healing, music, and poetry, holding his lyre and pouring a libation while a sacred raven perched on a branch listens. What ancient tune did the god play? If we could hear it now, would we feel close to a sacred state?
Oracles & sibyls, those fascinating forecasters, were popular with ancient Greeks and Romans who wanted to learn their fates. I’m never quite clear on the difference between the two but my classical dictionary says that an oracle transmits the response of a god to a question asked by a worshipper. A sibyl was a female prophet who didn’t need a god to get involved in the process.
One of the most memorable days I ever spent immersed in the ancient world was a visit to Delphi, dedicated to Apollo and home of the Delphic Oracle, called Pythia, by tradition a local woman over age 50. The area was a center of worship before the first millennium BC and was still in operation in 385 AD when Emperor Theodosius abolished it. The site, not far from Athens, retains an aura of mystery because of the beauty of its surroundings and the evocative ruins of temples in the Sacred Precinct. This most famous shrine to Apollo rests on Mount Parnassus’ steep slopes. The location was considered to be the center of the earth and was therefore sacred to the god as well as home to the muses, personifications of poetry, music and learning.
After wandering around the ruins filled with temples, a theatre, gymnasium, and a museum where the exquisite bronze statue of a charioteer stares solemnly into the distance with his glass eyes, I sat among the ruins in warm, hazy air gazing on endless silver-green olive groves punctuated with whorled cypress trees all sloping down the hills. The age of Apollo seemed to return and it was easy to visualize the streams of worshippers bringing gifts, watching plays and cheering athletic competitions. But perhaps I was only breathing the faint fumes still wafting in the breeze from a chasm where the oracle sat on a tripod speaking in Apollo’s name. It is said that she chewed on laurel leaves and breathed the fumes from the rotting corpse of a giant snake, the Python, for inspiration. More prosaically, the fumes are thought to be ethylene which is known to produce out of body experiences. Whatever the genesis of her trance she provided devotees with answers to religious, moral and political problems. Ever curious about the future, I asked what my fate would be. But there was no response to my entreaties.
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Cumae, an ancient temple complex similar to Delphi but only a couple of hours south of Rome, was established by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC. Not much remains except the cave where the Cumaen Sibyl spun out her prophecies. She must have been a fearful sight if we can believe Michelangelo. Of the five sibyls depicted in the Sistine Chapel, she’s the ugly one, rendered with aged and masculine features and upper body and arms like those of a weightlifter. The sibyl was reputed to have shunned sex – thus Michelangelo painted her legs and feet primly poised together as she intently studies her book. Her fame rests on offering nine books of prophecies to an Etruscan king of Rome in the sixth century BC. He declined to buy them because of the cost. She burned three and offered the remainder to the king at the same price. He refused again whereupon she burnt three more. He gave in and purchased the last three at full original price. They were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome to be consulted in emergencies, not that in the end they did any good as both they and the Roman Empire were destroyed.
When she was “alive” she sat at the end of a 145 foot long trapezoidal tunnel cut through solid rock. The tunnel and the surrounding remains are located not far from the volcanic and sulfurous Phlegrean Fields as well as Lake Avernus, considered by the ancients to be an entrance to Hades.
Virgil described the sybil’s fearsome power: “Through the amplification of her hollow vaults, the sibyl cast her warnings, riddles confused with truth.” Despite her powers she came to a peculiar end. She asked Apollo to let her live as long as the number of grains of sand she held in her hand. Apollo granted her wish but because she forgot to ask for enduring youth she slowly withered away, ending up in a small jar. In the end only her voice was left, and that, too, is long gone thus preventing me from asking her any questions either.
The tunnel had a few openings for light cut into the cliff facing the sea. My husband and I stumbled along in the dimness. By the time we reached her cave at the end it was easy to think of the ancients quivering while awaiting some word on the future as she wrote their destiny in riddles confused with truth. The mood was unsettling and we didn’t linger, anxious to return to the emotionally cleansing sunlight.
When we emerged into the brilliance after one visit we were suddenly transported to a relic of the 18th century. A funeral cortege was passing by. In the lead was an enormous ornately carved Baroque black wooden coach drawn by six black horses with black plumes on their bridles. The coach was glass sided with two gold and silver lanterns, each at least six feet tall, a gold railing across the glass and a gold cockle shell adorning each of the lower sides. The wheel spokes were as elaborately carved as the coach body. On top were two screened domes to dispel the odor of decay. A coffin heaped with flowers rested on a red velvet bier inside the coach. Incongruously, the driver and his helper sitting on the carved and painted high seat were wearing ordinary slacks and windbreakers. No bewigged footman in sight. A dozen cars followed the coach as it slowly made its way along the road. The cars were hung with funeral wreaths so big that they were nearly buried in flowers. Were they headed to the cemetery or to Lake Avernus and the underworld to see the deceased off on his journey to an unknown destiny?