Monday, August 16, 2010

Grey Bear Navel Gazes

As many of you correctly guessed from my previous posting, I was recently on holiday in Greece again with my bipedal attendants and my god-bipedals. What a great time we had! While there we all took a road trip (bears love road trips) to the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi (or Delfi, or Δελφοί) on Mount Parnassus, which just happens to be the centre of the universe. I know what you're thinking: Grey Bear! - the centre of the universe? Really? Yes, I know that the Turks claim that the centre of the universe is in Istanbul, but it's true! It's in Delphi!

According to legend, the god Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the earth, an
d they came together at the spot which would become Delphi. In fact, an omphalos (or belly-button monument) was raised to mark the spot! The Turks only have a stupid pillar.

The site was once associated with a female oracle - the Pythia - who uttered the prophesies of the Python, a snake god who lived beneath the navel. But according to one tradition, the sun god Apollo killed the Python, ensuring that the Pythia would work for him instead. My female bipedal attendant went on and on about this representing the dominance of male-based religious cults over female ones, but I wasn't really listening to her.

Delphi was important for other reasons - you could say that it wa
s the world's first truly diversified visitors' centre: there was something for everyone. Besides the oracle, it had its own games (second in importance only to the Olympics) - the Pythian Games - every four years. You can still see the stadium (below left) which was built in the 5th century b.c.e. (and remodeled in the 2nd of our era), but those awful whistle-blowing security guards won't let you do any laps there.

There's also a lovely theatre (
built in the 4th century b.c.e.) just up the slope from the Temple of Apollo (below right), but you can't go in there either. I didn't even try. In any case, this also made Delphi different from the other pan-hellenic games: it had mousikos agon, or music contests. I guess it was something like Ancient Greece's Got Talent.

But back to the oracle: this new and improved priestess (or sibyl) - at least in Apollo's opinion - and now known as the Delphic Oracle, was the most important oracle in the ancient classical world. From the 8th century b.c.e. onwards, people needing answers - or good musical theatre or a spot of track and field - came to Delphi, although never in the winter. Perhaps she went south for a few weeks. After many plunderings by the Romans (can you say Nero?), the site was finally shut down in 390 c.e. by Emperor Theodosius because he felt it was anti-Christian ... duhhhh. Christians can be such killjoys.

Anyway, the priestess was always a 50+ year old woman
(there was a fear that a young woman might run away with a dashing pilgrim) of good character who was selected from among the peasants who lived nearby. At its peak in popularity, there were three Pythias on the payroll at Delphi, two working in shifts with one as a back-up.

The priestess sat in a cauldron or the pan of a tripod which was suspended over an opening in the earth (probably caused by seismic activity). This must have been very uncomfortable and scary during earthquakes. Whether it was hallucinatory drugs or natural
gases (ethylene, benzene and methane - pee-yoo! - have been suggested) emanating from the ground beneath her (some said that the fumes were from the decomposing snake-god - but how long does it take for a snake to decompose?) or the laurel leaves she chewed, she would fall into a trance and channel Apollo's answer to the question posed by pilgrims. Priests stood nearby to interpret her utterings and mutterings. It must have been like playing telephone.

Kings and paupers and legendary characters like Oedipus all came to the Temple of Apollo to consult the oracle on matters ranging from waging wars to affairs of the heart. Ritually purified and wearing
laurel branches, supplicants (whose order was determined by throwing lots) had to bring an offering of some sort, and while the minimum payment was a loaf of bread, those bearing a better gift got to jump the queue. Nothing's changed much in the world, has it? You humans always find a way to cheapen everything! Grateful pilgrims of means often set up statues and monuments by way of thanks. Needless to say, the oracle brought in a lot of cash for the priests who worked there and they even had to build treasuries for all of their bling.

Delphi em
its a very strong psychic energy (maybe it was the altitude) and while I was there I was drawn to the spot where the sibyl sat and communed with the god. And just as I felt the whistle-blowing security guards (just like the one on the Acropolis from my spirit of the Pythia - or maybe the god himself - take hold of me, I heard a sharp Tooooooooooooot!!!!, and saw a whistle-blowing security guard (like the one from my last visit at the Acropolis when I was called a "toy") tooting away and waving his arms. Whatever.

I'm not so sure Greece is a very bear-friendly country. I'd ask the Pythia myself about this, but they won't let me.

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