High in the remote mountains northwest of Athens, the remains of a temple of Apollo overlook a magnificent panorama down to the Gulf of Corinth. Before any major decision, ancient leaders made the arduous journey here to consult the Delphic Oracle. Apollo spoke through the words of his priestess, the Pythia, as interpreted by a priest.
Ancient writers attributed the Pythia’s altered state to inhaling fumes from a chasm in the rock. The notion of real fumes was debunked in the 1950s but later revived after the discovery of hydrocarbon deposits and a fault line. The Pythia’s symptoms—usually a benign trance, but occasionally fatal delirium—are said to resemble effects of sniffing glue.
Before Apollo arrived in the shape of a dolphin and killed the monster python guarding the site, the same site featured worship and oracles of the earth mother goddess Gaia. Relief carvings on a remnant of Apollo’s temple show his forces defeating Gaia’s giants. Mythology, like history, is written by the winners.
Visiting Delphi last month, I heard Gaia’s voice more loudly than Apollo’s. The ancient temple is in ruins, the statues and treasure houses plundered centuries ago. Emperor Nero alone took 500 statues away to Rome. With little left of the elaborate structures built by people, the breathtaking natural setting still conjures up a sense of the divine.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.