The Pythian Games theatre at Delphi, Greece.
The Pythian Games theatre at Delphi, Greece. Jim Eagles

A question to the oracle of Apollo

IF I could turn the clock back 2500 years, to the time when this magnificent Temple of Apollo at Delphi was home to the Pythian Oracle, the most famous prophet in the ancient world, what would I ask her?

Will I rule the world? I know the answer to that one. When will I die? No thanks. Should I buy a Lotto ticket? That might be seen as an insult and the Oracle was known to give people misleading answers, which got them into a lot of trouble. Perhaps I'd be better accepting that what will be, will be.

In any case, the reality is that it is well over 1000 years since supplicants last came here seeking glimpses of the future. The great temples and treasuries, the theatre and stadium, lie in ruins; the presiding priests and prophets have been replaced by scruffy wardens with walkie-talkie radios.

Nevertheless, of all the marvellous archaeological sites in Greece, for me Delphi is the one with the most powerful atmosphere, just the sort of place you would expect gods and oracles to dwell.

Even with modern roads and the power of the internal combustion engine, it's no easy place to reach. From the tranquil shores of the Gulf of Corinth our van seemed to climb forever, winding its way through barren valleys and up precipitous rocky inclines, to reach the fabled site, 2500m up on the lofty slopes of Mt Parnassus.

In ancient times it must have been a huge ordeal to make this journey and yet for 800 years the rich and powerful seeking advice on whether to found a new city or go to war and the poor and humble wondering whether to marry or what crops to plant, risked their lives to come here from all over the Mediterranean world.

Among them were leaders whose names are still remembered today: Lycurgus, who created the militaristic constitution which made Sparta so powerful, and Solon, the lawgiver largely responsible for Athens becoming the cradle of democracy; Croesus, King of far-off Lydia, whose name is still a byword for incredible wealth; Themistocles, founder of the Athenian Navy, and Lysander, who led Sparta to victory in the Peloponnesian War; Socrates, the brilliant philosopher and Cicero, the great Roman orator; Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great; and Roman Emperors such as Nero, Hadrian and Diocletian.

What drew them here? And why do tourists still come in their busloads today?

It's a place that has been sacred to successive gods since the earliest times. The peak of Parnassus looming above was the dwelling place of the Muses, who inspired the creation of literature and the arts. It was also the resting place of the ark in the Greek version of the great flood.

Delphi was said to have been marked by Zeus, ruler of the gods, with an omphalos stone - a copy of which can be seen in the local museum - showing it to be the navel of the world. Gaia, the old earth goddess, once presided here. It was home to Python, a serpentine earth spirit, slain by Apollo when he decided to establish himself on the site. And then, of course, came the long reign of the god of truth and light and the oracle he chose to prophesy on his behalf.

But Apollo was eventually displaced by the rise of Christianity as, of course, the oracle had forseen. In 393 she prophesied to the Emperor Theodosius 1:

Tell the king; the fair wrought house has fallen.
No shelter has Apollo, nor sacred laurel leaves;
The fountains are now silent; the voice is stilled.
It is finished.

And so it proved. Copying Apollo, the Christians built their village of Kastri on the home of their defeated foe, wiping it off the map. It was not until the 1890s that archaeologists eventually discovered where this most famous of ancient sanctuaries was situated, persuaded the inhabitants to move to a new village and excavated the remains that can be seen today.

We arrived at the archaeological site right on opening time, aiming to beat the crowds and take advantage of the beautiful light provided by the rising sun, but as is often the case in Greece the gatekeepers felt no such urgency and so we waited until they were able to drag themselves from their beds.

Fortunately there was plenty to be seen outside. On the roadside near the entrance I had seen water gushing from a stone fountain. Was that, I asked our guide, flowing from the Castalian Springs? It was. Aha. I had read that the oracle used to wash in the springs before consulting Apollo and that supplicants also cleansed themselves in its waters before approaching the temple. So I washed my face and hands and, for good measure, filled my water bottle.

Perhaps it was the magic of the water, or more prosaically the effect of the morning light in the clear mountain air, but the views were stunning.

Below us, across the road, the surviving white marble pillars of a small Temple of Athena stood silhouetted against the dark green chasm of the fertile Pleistos Valley. Above, the awesomely high red and grey cliffs hovered protectively over more splashes of marble.

Eventually the gates opened and we strode quickly up the steep incline of the sacred way so as to reach the main temple ahead of the tour bus crowds. I knew that once it would have been lined with gaudily painted buildings, some 3000 statues and the Treasuries where the Greek city states kept the offerings they presented to Apollo in acknowledgement of his help. But most are now little more than piles of shaped stone decorated not with painted friezes but spring flowers.

We did get a glimpse of how they might have appeared from the recently restored Athenian Treasury, the grandest of all apparently, built in gratitude for some good advice. Asked how Athens could combat the vastly bigger Persian Empire, the oracle advised the city to reply on its "wooden walls". The Athenians interpreted this as a reference to their ships, built up a powerful navy and inflicted a crucial defeat on the Persians at the sea battle of Salamis.

Pilgrims approaching the temple two thousand years ago would have been greeted by the inscrutable figure of a sphinx perched on a pillar, a 16m high statue of Apollo, and the famous inscriptions, "know thyself" and "nothing in excess." You can still see the sphinx in the museum, along with a few surviving statues.

Not much is left of the actual temple either - just six mighty columns standing on the stone foundations of what was clearly a huge building - but it somehow retains its aura as a seat of power. We spent some time wandering around ruins, admiring the way it still seemed to look out on the world from a position of high authority, even though its gods had gone.

I asked one of the official wardens if she knew the location of the chasm the oracle used to visit, breathing in its mysterious vapours (ethelene, some have suggested), falling into a trance and speaking mysterious words which the priests then interpreted. "No," she said. "It has gone. In an earthquake probably."

But we could stroll around the marvellous theatre, 3000 years old and able to seat 5000 spectators, which for several centuries was the venue for a famous festival celebrating music, drama and poetry. Further up the hill is the stadium for the Pythian Games, probably older than the games at Olympia and with a more impressive site as well, though it is closed to the public because of the danger of rock falls from the cliffs above.

We spent several hours wandering this marvellous place, and the excellent museum associated with it, and by the time we were ready to leave I thought of something important I might have asked the oracle. But of course I was centuries too late.

When we passed the temple on our way out, however, there amid the columns where the oracle once walked was a white and ginger cat. Like all cats it had a lordly, all-knowing air, so I wondered if it might perhaps be the modern representative of Apollo.

Just in case, I asked my question. The cat looked at me scornfully, twitched its tail and walked off without deigning to answer. My mistake. I thought the gods played rugby. And it was just before the Rugby World Cup.

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