My Trip To Europe. Day 9. Sunday, October 12. Delphi

A visit to the Oracle (“The Pythian is not in today, we are not accepting queries”).  A leeetle bit more of Athens.

And the Coin of the Day is from Thebes.

Coin of the Day:  Theban Stater

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This stater dates from sometime between 395 and 338 BCE and depicts a Boeotian shield and an amphora.  (Thebes was the major city in the region of Boeotia.)

Thebes is not Delphi, to be sure, but you pass it on the way.

Thebes was known for its excellent fighters and is also famous for taking on and defeating Sparta.  But I have to back up a bit to explain that.

In the aftermath of the Persian Wars, Athens and a large number of other city-states formed the “Delian League,” where cities had to contribute either funds or triremes to aid in the common defense.  And in some cases, actual offensive actions against Persians holding Greek cities in what is now Turkey.  (The wars had started in the first case because Greeks in what we now think of as “Greece” were helping Greeks in Asia Minor rebel against the Persians, and the King of Kings didn’t like that in the least.)  This league was originally headquartered on the island of Delos (where the treasury was kept), but here is the funny thing:  When you pay for someone else’s military, there’s a strong tendency for it to become tribute and you to find yourself a vassal.

Athens provided ships.  Everyone else paid for them.  It wasn’t too long before the Delian league became a virtual Athenian Empire, and this became quite clear when the treasury got moved to Athens.  Cities that tried to leave the league were attacked by the very ships they had paid for, and were forced to rejoin.  Not an alliance any more, but an empire.

The Delian league came to clash with the Peloponnesian league, led by Sparta, in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).  Fighting in that war took place as far away as Sicily, as Athenian forces tried to conquer Syracuse, and fell short of doing so.

Athens lost not only in Sicily, but ended up losing the war.


But it wasn’t too long before a lot of Greeks concluded that the Spartans were worse.  How to break their power?  Sparta had for centuries had control over nearby cities (like Messenia) and could use them for slave labor while they devoted themselves full time to learning how to fight.

The Thebans came to the conclusion they’d have to do something about this, and rebelled against Sparta in 378 BCE.  Six years later, they had toppled Sparta.  How did they do this?

They didn’t frontally assault the city of Sparta.  Instead they went after Messenia, the Spartan power base.  With the Messenians freed, Sparta could no longer devote all of its energy to its military prowess, and it was no longer a threat to the rest of Greece.


This was another package tour day.  After a lot of fiddle-faddle gathering people from their hotels, we set off on the long ride to Delphi.

As an incidental, while waiting for people to arrive at our gathering point, I realized where we were.

Syntagma Square translates to “Constitution Square”, and we spent some time parked in front of the Greek Capitol.  I couldn’t get off the bus, but was able to photograph the building.  It might look familiar to people who remember the news coverage from the Greek financial crisis a few years ago.

Allowing for being in a moving bus with window glare, it’s not a bad picture.



After driving past Thebes and Livadia, we ened up on a two lane road that ran through Arachova.  In one spot actually in town, the road got very narrow and so of course our giant tour bus ended up facing a full-sized truck (not a semi, but nevertheless a large truck).  Murphy at work, as there was otherwise little traffic on this route.  It was a tight squeeze and the truck driver actually folded his side rearview mirror in to get through this jam.

I had a chance to photograph it on the way back.


Delphi is set halfway up the slopes of Mount Parnassus.  Once we got there, Parnassus was too close to effectively photograph, and flat-topped in any case, but this is part of it.


12-005aHere is something that looks more like a “mountain” but it’s one of the two Phaidriades, a lower part of Parnassus.  They come out of the slopes like wings and enclose the site of Delphi.

Delphi’s claim to fame is that this is where the most famous oracle was (more famous than the one at Didyma).  A woman, the Pythian, sat in a chamber in the temple to Apollo, over a fissure in the ground, inhaling fumes that wafted out of the crack.  She’d be in a trance, and the gods would speak through her.  Other priests were there to interpret what was no doubt very incoherent speech.

For quite some time modern historians believed the whole thing about vapors coming out of a fissure was pure legend.  However, it turns out that there is a natural fault in the area, and a small deposit of hydrocarbons down there.  In the past there was just enough geothermal energy being generated that those hydrocarbons could vaporize and escape.

The Pythian probably spent the entire day inhaling methane, ethane, ethylene, and a bunch of other similar chemicals.  She spent the whole day sniffing glue, in essence, and thus its no surprise that the life expectancy of Pythians was short.

This was true even though the Oracle was open for business only eight days out of the whole year.

If you want to ask a question of the gods, you’d better make sure you make your connecting flights.

The Oracle was famous for ambiguous answers.  The most famous example of this is Croesus, ruler of Lydia, wanting to know if he should take on the Persian empire.  He was told “If you attack Persia, a great empire will fall.”

Little did he realize it was his own Lydian empire that would fall.  (And thus, many Greek settlements fell under the Persian yoke, and they’d eventually rebel:  The chain of events that led to the Greco-Persian wars.  This history and lore that I’m giving you random pieces of, all ties together.)

Delphi was also the Center of the World.  According to the legend, Zeus let two eagles loose at the ends of the earth.  Delphi was where they, therefore it had to be the center of the world, the omphalos.

(There didn’t seem to be any allowance for a headwind.  Which for the other eagle would have been a tailwind.  Even a crosswind would have fubared the whole exercise.)

Delphi, quite naturally, was considered a very important place by the Greeks.  Various other city states paid to build things here, and to show people that they were generous.  One even got the privilege of getting to go to the head of the line on Oracle day.

The first thing we got to see was probably one of the last things built here, the Roman Agora.


12-007Imagine walking up this street, and seeing thousands of statues donated by other city states, some of them perhaps in solid gold.

12-008Some places even had treasuries here.  The Boeotians.


12-009The Athenians


12-010This stone marked the omphalos, the navel or center, of the world.

I piped up and asked the guide to confirm that Manhattan was NOT, in fact, the center of the universe.  (That got a good amount of laughter from the entire group.)

I kept to myself the information that of course Pikes Peak is the center. (What better way to mark it than with a large pile of granite?  Bigger than this little thing.)

The problem is, there are a number of those Omphalos cones [okay, okay, it’s a paraboloid] around here, so it’s hard to know which one is the “real” center marker.



12-011This is the rock of the Sibyl.  Apparently well before Classical times, perhaps back to the Mycenaeans, the oracle of the Goddess Ge sat here.  (Mycenaean artifacts, dating back to 1500 BCE or so, have been found here.)


12-012Later on, Leto sat with her infant son Apollo on this smaller rock (the Rock of Leto), and Apollo used a bow and arrow to slay the Python here.  This is how he claimed this area as his sanctuary.

[It’s possible I have the wrong rock, and it’s the one at far left.]

Elsewhere on this site (we didn’t get to see it) is supposedly the rock that Rhea wrapped up in swaddling clothes and gave to Kronos.  Kronos swallowed it, as he had all his previous children, thinking it was the infant Zeus.

This sort of thing may seem silly to us today, but it should give you a sense of how important this site was to the ancient Greeks.  It has to have been as important to them as Jerusalem is to Christians and Jews today.

In fact the path we have been walking on is called “The Sacred Way.”



12-013On this small pedestal, was a tall column, at the top of which was the Naxian Sphinx, dedicated between 560-570 BCE.  That sphinx is no longer here, but it is in the nearby museum.


12-014Behind both of these last two pictures, is a retaining wall with polygonal masonry.  The Athenians built a stoa here (a long structure with a back wall, a roof, and columns in the front) using the retaining wall for the back wall, and you can see the columns for it here.

There is a LOT more here.  I am sure I have forgotten eighty percent of it.  But enough to see the importance of this place, up until the Christian Emperor Theodosius closed it at the end of the 4th Century.  (Religiously tolerant, he was not.)

The retaining wall actually supported the foundation of the Temple of Apollo.


12-015This inscription granted Chios the right to be first in line to see the Oracle.


12-016Walk up one last ramp.  The Sacred Way had zigged west past the Agora (and a bunch things so ruined they weren’t worth photographing), done a hairpin turn at the Boeotian and Athenian treasuries, then after travelling east and uphill, arrived here, at the east end of the Athenian Stoa.  Up this ramp and finally one is on the level of the Temple of Apollo.

On the left, is the back wall of the Altar of Apollo, a separate structure that faced the temple.  It was donated by the Chians, which is probably why they got to be first in line.

Outside the frame to the right, is something I missed.  The base of the Plataean tripod.  This was one of the most revered items at this site.  The tripod (a low bowl supported on three legs), and the column that supported it, was paid for out of the booty taken at the Battle of Plataea (the last engagement of the Persian attempt to conquer the Greek mainland), and was supported on a bronze column made up of three intertwined snakes.

I did see the column, or what’s left of it.  On Wednesday.  In Istanbul.  The Roman emperor Constantine moved it there, and it is still in the old Hippodrome.  The tripod is long gone.



12-017Here is the other side of what’s left of the Altar of Apollo.  Off-frame to the right is the Temple of Apollo.


12-018Of the Temple of Apollo, little is left, certainly less than of the much larger one at Didyma (which I visited on Day 4).  We actually came up to the front of it, but too close for a good photo.  I took this one a bit later, a reverse angle.


12-019I did get a good picture of our guide holding up a picture of what we think the temple looked like, in its heyday, with the actual pillars in the background.

The ramp is still there, but the entire thing is roped off.

Following, are a couple more pictures of the temple, again taken a bit later.

12-02012-021In a basement in here, somewhere, the Oracle sat, inhaled the fumes from deep below the surface of the earth, and royalty and commoners alike, who had undergone arduous journeys to be here, hung on her every drugged-out word.

If you continue climbing, you reach the theater (which I did do, but if you’ve seen six of them, you’ve seen them all).  Further uphill (and beyond my reach in the limited “free time” we got) was the Stadium.  The original was built in the fifth century BC.  The one that’s there now that I didn’t see was built by Herod Atticus, 103-179 CE.  (Heck, there isn’t even a minus sign on that date.)  A sign that the Romans took this stuff pretty seriously too.

Everyone knows the Olympic Games were held every four years in Ancient Greece, and this is mirrored with our modern Summer Olympics.  Those games were held at Olympia, to honor Zeus.  Less well known is that there were three other Panhellenic games, one of them, the Pythian or Delphic Games in honor of Apollo, were held here every four years, two years after the Olympics.  (Given that our modern Winter Olympics are now held two years out of sync with the Summer Olympics, perhaps they should be called the Pythian games now.)  The other two Panhellenic games were the Isthmian games (honoring Poseidon) and the Nemean games (honoring Zeus and Herakles), and were biennial affairs.

We then went to the Museum.

You cannot, without writing a freaking book, hope to scratch the surface here, even though it’s a fairly small museum.  Fortunately, I did buy a book.

Delphi was, for centuries, buried under landslides.  When excavated, the buildings were destroyed beyond repair, but they were able to find many of the individual artistic elements.  The museum houses the decorations from the Athenian treasury, for example, and other pieces of the temple to Apollo.

12-022Here, for instance, is the Naxian Sphinx (with some restoration done on it).


12-023And this is the east frieze and pediment from one of the buildings.  I couldn’t tell you where it’s from; by this time my brain had overloaded.  Fortunately, I did buy that book, and I found it there.  It’s the East Frieze and Pediment of the Treasury of the Siphnians.  The theme here is the Trojan War.

A building I didn’t even notice on the tour.  I looked it up in the book, checked the map and realized that there was very little to notice.  The guide probably did point it out, but not knowing what would be in the museum, I forgot it almost immediately.

12-024This frieze came off the north wall of the Treasury of the Siphnians, and depicts the Gigantomachy, the battle between the Olympian gods and the giants, when the Giants rebelled.

The moons of Saturn are typically named after these giants, because of their association with Kronos (Saturn) in Greek mythology.  In fact the largest moon is simply named “Titan”  Of course, at some point they are going to run out of giants to name moons after.


12-025The Frieze of the Proscenion of the Theater:

12-026And this is very hard to see, but it’s a Hymn to Apollo.  You can tell it’s music because periodically a letter is written above the words.  That is how the ancient Greeks indicated musical notes.

Here’s a performance of it (at 5:09).


12-027Portrait of either a priest or a philosopher.  The backdrop is a picture of the excavation taking place.  Many of the people who lived here at the time were hired to dig it up.  I wonder how many of them were truly interested in what was found.  I know a lot of Greeks feel very connected to these ancients.

12-028The dancing girls.  This was a gift of the Athenians.


12-029Probably the most famous work here at Delphi is the Charioteer.  It dates to 475-450 BCE, and was dedicated by Polyzalos, the tyrant of Gela on Sicily, after he won the chariot race at the Delphic games in 478 BCE.  It was buried in a landslide a century later, which is fortunate, since it was preserved there for us to find.

That was the last thing we saw in the museum. Time for a very late lunch.


12-030A dinner, really, in a hotel, overlooking this bay.  It’s part of the Gulf of Corinth, on the west side of the Isthmus of Corinth–the isthmus cut by the Corinth canal, which I saw on Thursday.


We then returned to Athens.  Not very far into the ride, I glimpsed through the trees something that damned well should have been on the tour, but was not:  The Temenos of Athena Pronaia, including the Athena Tholos.   (The problem with this as a day trip is six hours of it is driving, leaving little time to see the stadium or the gymnasium, or this.)

12-031(A bus moving at full speed, and lots of intervening vegetation, and no warning, really, as to where to point the camera.  As badly composed as it is, this shot is almost a miracle.)

12-032And further down the road, is the Gymnasium.



12-033Another stop, to photograph Arachova.


12-035Driving past Thebes.  It’s a shame to give this historic place such short shrift.  But apparently, there’s not much to see here.  (I could find no tours online that weren’t of the Egyptian city of the same name–which certainly deserves touring!)


Athens, one last time

We got back to Athens before dark.  I had a chance to see two things I had missed the day before.  Quick, hop on the metro, go to the Acropolis stop, and walk FAST to get to…

12-036Hadrian’s Arch.  Another example, of course, of Romans honoring Greece.

Hadrian’s arch is right next to (what remains of) the Temple of Zeus Olympian, which I spotted from the Acropolis yesterday.

The light was fading, but I think in an odd way this made for better pictures.  I’ll just dump a bunch of them here:

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With this, that brings the Grecian phase of the trip to a close.  One last picture, the Acropolis, undergoing restoration, framed between two columns of the Temple of Zeus, the technology of the Present being used to preserve the glories of the Past–on which the Present was built.


In closing for today, let me mention one more thing about the Gigantomachy, the battle between the Olympian Gods and the Giants.

Both sides were immortal.  The story has it that Athena, fighting Enceladus, (oops, try this link)  had to subdue him–she couldn’t kill him–by dropping a big (and I mean BIG) rock on him.  He’s still trapped under that rock, and when he twitches, there is an earthquake.  To this day, the Greeks will talk about Enceladus moving when there is an earthquake.

The rock’s location is pretty well known.  The rock has a name, too.  I’ll be seeing it tomorrow.

It’s called “Sicily.”


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