Thursday, 27 March 2014

Day Return to Delphi

The Centre of the Earth

The story goes that Zeus sent out two eagles from each end of the earth, east and west, and Delphi was the place where they met, marking it out as the centre of the world. You can reach the centre of the world by public transport, it is possible, once you have hazarded a plan and surrendered your will to that of the gods.

The day begins early, even earlier than anticipated, as I discover the first flaw in my calculations. The 8 am bus turns out to be 8.05 and, given that the times are never rigidly adhered to, and buses are often late, I suddenly fear that I might not have enough time to dash across the road from the last stop, past the Balkan Crossroads where the men in black leather jackets hang out at the To Mesaio café, zip past the Sanctuary of Asklepios into the Ktel Fokidas office, and make the necessary negotiations, full of potential pitfalls, to secure a ticket before the bus left at 8.45. So I decide to get the earlier bus to Nafpaktos which, thanks to the fact that I was awake early, and got up in plenty of time, is possible. I leave the house at 7.40 and discover that I'm getting the bus that all the schoolchildren get. I've never seen the bus so crowded, and lots of people have to stand. More people get on at every stop, and we shuffle further up the bus until it starts to remind me of a Paris metro train. The driver is brilliant though, never a hint that he might turn anyone away.

The bus takes forever as people mount the steps slowly, validate their ticket, look in disbelief at the crowd and move reluctantly into it; the bus then wheezes away from each stop with its newly increased passenger load. At the school, all the students pile out, and for the last few stops the bus is almost empty. I have plenty of time at the KTEL office to buy my ticket, which all goes smoothly. The bus times have not changed since the day before, though the ticket seller has, it is now a fair haired woman who looks slightly cross at having to go through the procedure of selling me a ticket and indignant that I should ask if it's possible to buy a return (no, it's not). But in the morning sunshine the office looks less seedy and sombre than it did the day before, and even if it had not, its empty, down-at-heel aspect held a singular charm for me, inciting a private upwelling of joy. The sun shines on the green garden of Asklepios where a man is walking his dog, and on the bronze bust of the god which gleams in the morning light.

KTEL Fokidas bus station with Sanctuary behind it

Unusually, the day continues sunny, not a hint of rain. The bus follows the coast road, dipping down to small seeming deserted villages, with faded taverna signs, long promenades adorned with skeletal awnings, and bay after bay of blue sea. We change at Itea for the Athens bus, and I am the only person to alight at Delphi.

Valley below Delphi

The land tumbles down into the valley and the air is scented. I make my way to the ruins of the temples of Apollo and Athena, pay the entrance fee, and start up the path.

The Temple of Apollo (where the priestess pronounced her oracles)

The ruins – of temples, altars, treasuries, theatre – lie on the mountain slope, facing the sun. Apollo was after all, a sun god. As you climb the path through the ruins, you look out onto the mountain opposite. At some places, at some bends in the path, you can see right down into the valley. But for most of the ascent, it is hidden from view, so you are as if suspended in air, not truly part of the human world, with its bargains and conditions, its trade and compromises, its sense of incompleteness, its search for what will make it whole.

Altar of Apollo

Another view of Apollo's Temple

Looking down on the Theatre

My run of luck (or Asclepios) that has made this visit possible stays with me, as, despite the cloudy weather and heavy rainfalls of the past few days, I am able to see this place on a morning of clear sunlight, the mountains surrounded by a cupola of blue sky. The warmth and slight breeze carries changing scents of flowers and herbs. But by the time I leave, and walk the short distance from Apollo's temple to the narrow streets of present day Delphi, with its houses and shops, its cafés and restaurants, the clouds have already moved in.

Back in Nafpaktos, waiting to board the sixth and last bus of the day, a ferocious downpour forces me to shelter under a shop awning and I decide that the next morning, I would have to buy an umbrella.

But as I wait in the downpour for the bus, I think about the Sanctuary of Asclepios, just a few minutes walk away. The setting of the ruins at Delphi is truly magnificent and the columns of Apollo's temple indicate the grandeur of the architecture. But it was his son Asclepios who was the kindly and compassionate god.

In offering dreams, he is never didactic, in contrast to the Oracle's messages which were always, apparently, interpreted by Apollo's priests. So Asclepios encourages independence rather than subservience to unpredictable gods, who might choose to wish us well or act against us according to some whim of their own, despite all the offerings and prayers we might make to them. He reminds us too that the healing of an illness is not only to do with the treating of symptoms but also involves understanding the meaning of it.

And Asklepios feels accessible in time as well as place. He is just a few metres up the road and he is also a constellation in the sky, Ophiuchus, which depicts a man encircled by a large snake. People may not go to his temples any more to request healing dreams, but his symbol of staff and snake is still visible outside pharmacies and he will still assist you today if you ask him.


The Solitary Walker said...

The centre of the earth — it looks so beautiful there. And I like your championing of Asclepios. I'm converted!

dritanje said...

Delphi is extraordinarily beautiful, Solitary Walker. But I became fascinated by Asklepios several years ago, after reading Edward Tick's book, particularly when I read Ovid's description (in English translation) of his arrival in Rome. There was a curious sense of recognition about the place and the symbol of the snake, which I turned into a piece of fiction, not published yet....

Forest Dream Weaver said...

Wonderful post,beautiful photos.....thank you!


dritanje said...

Ruby, glad you enjoyed the post and photos. The Sanctuary of Asklepios in particular, was such a find. The photos remind me how it can look in sunshine too!

Anonymous said...

Lovely Morelle. This brings back fond memories of your wonderful talk on Asclepius at the SAA a couple of years ago. Those newer photos are really amazing. Ok if I tag some of your photos to share with some others? Mark xx