Friday, September 7, 2012

Apollo's Delphi, "the navel of the world"!

Delphi was considered by the ancient Greeks as the "navel of the world". Tradition has it that this was the meeting point of the two eagles that Zeus had commanded to fly simultaneously from East and West, in order to define the centre of the world. The archaeological site of Delphi remained hidden for centuries beneath thick deposits of debris and earth. The little village of Kastri had been built upon it, which eventually proved to be its salvation. Delphi belongs to the region of Phokis. It is located on the south slope of Mt Parnassos, in the high valley of the River Pleistos. In prehistoric times Delphi was known as Pytho and Homer refers to it as "rocky Pytho".

There are various versions of the myth recounting how the oracle-shrine came into Apollo's possession. According to one, Apollo achieved his domination in a dynamic manner. Immediately after his birth on Delos, Themis gave him the food of the gods, nectar and ambrosia. Apollo grew so quickly that, after first ascending Mt Olympos, he began to wander the earth, in search of a place to found his oracle-shrine, in order to express the will of his father Zeus. Delighted by Delphi, he decided to build his temple there. However, Ge was already worshipped there and had established her oracle-shrine, guarded by the female serpent Python. Apollo, using his arrows and a flaming torch, slew Python, that is why he is known as Apollo Pythios. Now sovereign of the place, he was able to build his temple and establish his oracle-shrine. 

Apollo himself chose his first priests. These were merchants who were voyaging from Crete to the Greek Mainland, when the god, metamorphosed as a dolphin, directed them towards the harbour of Kirrha. There,  disguised as a handsome youth, he guided the astonished Cretans to his temple, where they served as priests. The reference to Cretans perhaps conceals a link between the worship of Apollo and the Minoan Civilisation.

Apollo brought with him a new spirit that was to influence the social and political life of the Greeks for centuries. God of light, or order, or harmony, of measure, poetry and music, cultured and intellectual in character, he was the first to teach by example the endeavour to compromise opposites and to temper morals. After the murder of Python, Apollo had to be purified. He lived for eight years in the Vale of Tempe, as an ordinary mortal, in the service of the King Admetos of Pherrai. Through this penance he gained absolution and the pure disposition of the moral man. A clear heart was most important for the Delphic God. 
Upon returning to Delphi, he became the God of catharsis as well as of the sound solution of men's problems, through delivering his oracles. In remembrance of his purification, the Septeria were celebrated every nine years. These included a re-enactment of the slaying of Python and the god's flight. Characteristic of the spiritual profundity of Apollo is the fact that at the Pythia, the intellectual contests, in music and poetry, were highly esteemed, in contrast to Olympia, where physical prowess predominated. 

There are numerous indications in delphi that indicate that other deities or heroes were worshipped there too, such as Poseidon (Ge's husband as God of fresh water and humidity). Hermes, Hestia, Herakles, Neoptolemos and Antinous also had their place. The cult of Dionysos was the last to be introduced at Delphi, as indeed in Greece as a whole. Apollo ceded his sanctuary at Delphi to Dionysos for three months a year, every winter, when he himself made his journey to the land of the Hyperboreians. During this interlude, because of Apollo's absence, no oracles were pronounced. Nevertheless, festivals, in honour of Dionysos, were held on Parnassos instead. 

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