Greece – Delphi

OLYMPIA lay on the plain; Delphi on the slope of Parnassus and under the shadow of the Shining Cliffs. Olympia drew all Greece to it; but Delphi claimed to be the navel, the very centre of the world. As Olympia was the site of the great athletic games for all Greece, so Delphi became a sanctuary of national interest and importance. In neither place was there a city; both were away from the main centres of population and far apart from each other, — Olympia in Ells near the Ionian Sea, and Delphi in Phocis, north of the Corinthian gulf. The fame of Delphi rested on its oracle; but the Greek love for athletics and dramatic art revealed itself here in the course of time, and not only was there a magnificent temple of Apollo, but a stadium, and once in every four years the Pythian games were celebrated. The place had also a great political significance as the seat of that interesting and ancient federation of States, the Delphic Amphictyony.

In marked contrast to my trip to Olympia my journey to the Delphic oracle was made entirely alone. What better day upon which to consult the voice of destiny than one’s birthday? Taking the train from Athens to Corinth, I crossed the gulf in a steamer to Itea. The boat was as tipsy as if it had a cargo of wine aboard, but Dionysus could not be blamed; the Corinthian gulf was in a sulky mood.

From the gulf, Parnassus, being one of a range of peaks, does not seem so high as it really is. The snow that lay on it was a warning that an ascent would not be advisable. At Itea I hired a tough pony with a boy, another Greek Nicholas, for a guide. The moon rose beautifully as we crossed the plain winding through olive groves. After an hour in the valley the road steadily ascended, for Delphi is some two thousand feet above the sea. We passed through the picturesque village of Chryso, its white houses brilliantly illumined by the full moon. A clear stream of water through which my pony splashed flowed down one of the narrow streets. Men and women in the doorways responded to my greeting.

The village of Delphi was set on the steep mountain-side. It added much to the mystic spell of the old oracle to approach the place by night. The bright moon flooding the valley and silvering the gulf, the deep shadows of the great cliffs, the water rushing through the narrow gorge between them, the dark masses of olives below, the ominous silence broken only by the voice of the fountain, the remoteness of every suggestion of modern life, — all seemed to harbor deep and hidden mysteries which might find utterance in some new-old oracle.

There is no inn at Delphi, but I found accommodation in the house of the keeper of antiquities, Paraskevas. With more faith in the Christian than in the pagan tradition he asked me if I would please allow the lamp to burn under the icon of the Virgin in a niche in my chamber. I respected his piety and was blessed with dreamless sleep.

I rose at half-past four, and after a breakfast of boiled eggs, white bread and milk, left with a mule and guide for the Corycian grotto. The road ascended in short zigzags up steep terraces, till after a rise of several hundred feet we skirted the mountain and descended into a beautiful wooded valley where peasants were cutting timber for their new houses at Delphi. The French Government had bought the whole village, and as fast as possible houses were being removed to make way for excavations. Almost lost to view under their loads, heavily timbered fore and aft with projecting bowsprits and elongated rudders, these beasts of burden looked more like a flotilla of rafts or a detachment of battering rams than like mountain mules. We halted in the hollow near a large pond of water and unbridled and tethered the mule. If the Delphic oracle is dumb the Delphic cuckoos are still vocal, and one of them called thirty-two times without stopping. I could only think of a German cuckoo clock on the strike, not to be arrested until it is run down. If it were not treason to cherish a common Gothic superstition at Delphi, the oracular cuckoo meant that I had thirty-two years more to live.

We climbed the steep ascent to the grotto. The entrance is small and low, but immediately beyond the threshold it widens into a great cavern two hundred and fifty or three hundred feet long, two hundred feet wide, and thirty or forty feet high. The water still oozed from the roof as in the days of Pausanias. We lighted our torches and entered deeper into the gloom. Taking off shoes and stockings we climbed up wet and muddy rocks so steep and smooth that with difficulty one could get a footing, passed into a chamber about a hundred feet long and followed the grotto clear to the end. Picturesque stalactites hung from the roofs and sides. Pan and the nymphs to whom this grotto was dedicated had gone, but Echo lingered there and had not taken cold in this dampness. The resonance was magnificent. We were in a temple not made with hands and older than any buried under the village below.

Pausanias says it is a feat for an able-bodied man to- climb Parnassus from this point. I tried to persuade my guide to climb with me, but he was inexorable, and no doubt wisely so, for we were not prepared for an ascent through snow and ice.

Descending in the afternoon, I made my way up through the gorge of the Phaedriades or Shining Cliffs to the source of the Castalian spring, which Pausanias said was good to drink and which I found as refreshing as he. Every pilgrim in ancient times was expected to purify himself at this spring. Below, women were vigorously washing clothes in the poetic waters as if cleanliness were next to godliness. A flock of sheep was quietly resting under the shade of great plane-trees which, it is pleasant to think, may be successors of those planted by Agamemnon.

It is nature that built this shrine at Delphi, and, however much we may regret the buried temples looted by Nero and others, the scenery must always have been the awe-inspiring element in this great sanctuary. Lofty Parnassus, the towering cliffs, the deep gorge, the flowing spring, the broad wooded valley below through which the river makes its way to the gulf, tell the traveller why the Delphic oracle was here.

Pausanias devotes not a little space to a description of the invasion by the Gauls, 279 B. C., and their repulse by the Greeks. It is a curious coincidence that more than twenty-one centuries later the Gauls should invade Delphi again with the deliberate purpose of removing the whole town and uncovering with reverent hands the temples which their remote and barbaric forefathers sought to destroy. With a large force of men with picks and shovels, and small cars running on rails to carry the debris to a long distance, these enterprising Gauls were industriously unearthing the Delphi of the past, and had already laid bare the terrace of the temple of Apollo. One of their most remarkable and significant discoveries was yet to be made. Pausanias speaks of the hymns sung in honor of Apollo and of the contests that grew out of them. Such songs, like the voice of the priestess, have long since died away on the air, and who could have supposed that the echoes of this music would come back to our ears? I scarce imagined that beneath the ground I trod were stones whose mute music after twenty centuries of silence would burst into song. A few months after my visit the French School discovered two stones containing a hymn to Apollo, with the Greek musical notation attached. It is a hymn of praise to the god, to the slayer of the hostile dragon, for beating back the Gauls. That the name of the Gauls should have been inscribed on this very stone which their modern successors unearthed completes the remarkable coincidence. To the triumph of uncovering the stones was added the triumph of the directors and associates of the French School in deciphering them. It was fitting that these sons of Gaul should first render at Athens a hymn which was sung by the pilgrims of the Attic metropolis as they passed thick-wooded Helicon and came to the waters of Castalia’s plenteous spring under the twin peaks.

I have since had the privilege of bringing out with a chorus this hymn in the ” Athens of America.” It has been harmonized in Paris and in Athens, but I prefer to print it without modern alloy, that the reader may get as close as possible to the original. As the invasion of the Gauls took place in 279 B. C. it is supposed that this hymn was composed soon after. Rendered with a chorus of male and female voices, with flutes and harp, observing carefully the 5/8 rhythm, one may form, in spite of the breaks in the stone, — indicated in the copy by the rests, — some idea of the form and spirit of the oldest known piece of music in the world.

Like certain music as extremely modern as this is extremely ancient, it must be not only heard but absorbed. In two public renderings I have found that singers would at first persistently count six-eight instead of five-eight time, and that the tonality, especially on the last page, seemed difficult and arbitrary; but after sufficient rehearsal the best musicians sung it with satisfaction and admiration. The addition of simple harmonies on the harp or piano helps the general effect. The key of F minor of the music that follows is not derived from the original stone, but from a modern transcription. Some fragmentary words in the original have been omitted.

I made my pilgrimage to the Delphic shrine and the grotto of Pan; they were not wholly dumb for me. I determined to balance my religious accounts by visiting a Christian shrine, famed for beauty of site and structure, —the monastery of St. Luke, about nine hours by mule from Delphi. Rising at five o’clock on Sunday, May 28, I asked my host for his bill. For two nights’ lodging and four meals Kyrios Paraskevas charged me ten drachmas, at that time equal to $1.40, to which I added two drachmas for his attentive wife.

On this trip from Delphi to St. Luke’s I found the best agogiat that I had seen in Greece. The agogiat is the man or boy who acts as guide, groom, and general factotum. The Grecian mule, wearing a halter instead of a bit and having a loose girth, is saved some of the miseries of his American contemporary. The rider has little power over him when he wishes to choose his own road, but as a general thing he is so intelligent that it is best to defer to him in such matters. When there is any appeal from his decision the agogiat acts as umpire. He walks by the mule’s side, urges him with whip or voice, and as the animal seldom goes out of a walk he has no difficulty in keeping up with him. The saddle is a peculiar wooden structure, like an inverted pig-trough, with Gothic projections useful for half hitches in lashing burdens. There is nothing, whether it be a load of timber, water casks, brush-wood, or crockery, that a good agogiat cannot pack on the animal’s back and fasten in a style akin to the “diamond hitch” of our northwestern muleteer.

My agogiat on this trip bore the distinguished name of the “All holy Luke” (Panagiotes Loukas Kapellou), and seemed to me to be worthy of the title. He was a strong, heavy-built man, a little over fifty years of age, cosmopolitan in dress. Though he did not wear the fustanella skirt, he trod the soil in Greek shoes and leggings. His long blue and white peasant blouse coming to the knees was but-toned down the middle and corded round the waist. His large head, with a frank, open, full-bearded face, was crowned with a straw hat. Without exception he had the best looking mule that I saw in Greece, —a strong, round, sleek animal, well fed and well bred. The saddle was actually provided with stirrups, and instead of the usual narrow strap which cuts and irritates the animal the breeching band was as broad as my hand.

Leaving Delphi we rode through a large olive grove belonging to Panagiotes; the trees seemed as wellkept as the mule. The nightingales were singing joyfully. Clear, eager streams crossed our paths, some of them thriftily diverted into the olive groves for irrigation. Leaving the groves the path ascended long steep hills, from the highest of which after a ride of two hours we had a fine view of Arachova on the left. I was glad about nine o’clock of a slice of the brown bread which Panagiotes carried in his wallet. About noon we reached Distomo, a little village near the site of the ancient Ambrysus, and stopped at the inn for an hour’s rest. While the keeper cooked a piece of lamb for our lunch I sat down in a room filled with men and boys. Taking a Greek book from my pocket I got some of the boys to read patriotic selections, including the national hymn. Considering that I found these boys in a little mountain village they read remarkably well. The road from Distomo offered easier grades, and we reached St. Luke’s about three o’clock.

The situation of the monastery is simply exquisite. It is built on a mountain slope overlooking a fertile valley. Green barley fields contrast with dark under-brush, and here and there a grove of olives; beyond are sloping foot-hills and grander mountains. The birds were singing blithely, the sun was radiant, and the whole landscape, a beautiful combination of curve and color, seemed vivified by the germinating warmth of a May day. St. Luke’s long held the titles of “The queen of the monasteries and the glory of Hellas.” It is dedicated not to the good physician whose name is affixed to one of the Gospels, but to a later Greek saint who distinguished himself by his piety a thousand years ago and around whose tomb the monastery was built. It contains two churches. The larger one has suffered much from pillage, earthquake and decay, but some of the better mosaics are still well preserved. There are forty-five monks in the monastery and thirty laborers. From their olive groves and vineyards they derive a good income. I was interested in the church, in the ground, in the hegoumenos, or prior, in the beautiful scenery, but most of all in Basileios.

Basil, as we called him for short, was a boy of thirteen. He was dressed in a monk’s gown, but his ecclesiastical hat was not so high as that of his elders; it will grow with the boy. He was a monk in the opening bud; but the bloom of the boy was more exquisite than that of the monk. His eyes were a soft brown, even more expressive than his tongue. Through them you could read his guileless mind. He spoke Greek not with Athenian purity, but with a soft, winning accent. At first he spoke only in a whisper, as if the sanctity of the place would be broken if he talked louder. But after he knew me better he spoke with more ardor, and sometimes faster than I could follow. He went about bare-footed, and I envied him his freedom from shoe-leather. As I had come too late for service I confessed my wanderings to my brave little acolyte and said the Lord’s Prayer to him in Greek.

Basil is an important element in the refectory. The monastery is not conducted on the communal plan. The hegoumenos lives by himself and takes his meals with another monk in a separate dining-room. Basil does the cooking. The meat for our dinner was cut into little pieces and spitted on an iron rod with a crank on one end. The monk basted the meat as the boy turned it patiently on the spit. I had a room to myself and plenty of books, but I found it more interesting in the cool of the evening to sit in front of the fire and watch the revolutions of the spit, looking now and then into my little monk’s deep eyes and trying to win his smile by some attempted pleasantry. Basil reminded me of the lame boy I saw at Gastouri radiant with sunshine.

Such faces I should like to look upon in some cloudy day in my life, to rekindle my hope from a shining heart.

About eight o’clock we sat down to dinner, consisting of meat and vegetables, bread and wine. We were four at the table, the hegoumenos, the other priest, Panagiotes and myself. The priests crossed themselves and said. The hegoumenos piled my plate high; as for the rest they took little on their plates, but each with his fork hooked a piece from the general dish. There was a suggestion of New Testament communism and the paschal meal when they took pieces of bread on their forks and dipped them into the central platter.

In the evening I had a talk with the hegoumenos and with Panagiotes sitting on the veranda in the moonlight and looking into the moonlit valley below. We talked about the Greek Church and about the monasteries.

“To become a member of the Greek Church” said the hegoumenos, ” you must accept the faith of the church according to the Gospel.”

“What do you think of the old philosophers, Socrates and Plato and the rest of them?” I asked. “Did they go to punishment or to heaven?”

“I don’t know,” he answered. He did not seem to have any sharp belief on questions of eschatology, but Panagiotes promptly suggested : ” I believe a man who has lived a good life here will have a good life there, and a man who has been bad here will be bad there.” I could not discover any anxiety as to the fate of the heathen, and the prior seemed more disturbed at the proposition in Athens to raise from the monasteries a fund from which to pay the priests. The Greek Church is not a missionary church.

It was just four o’clock the next morning when I heard a voice whisper in my ear. It was Basil. I dislike alarm clocks and did not wind him up to go off at that hour, but he seemed to take the responsibility of my religious education, and in his small still voice said that there were services in the chapel, and that it was the festival of the Holy Trinity. It was rain, not the service, that interfered with an early start, but the rain fell as gently as if it were a part of the ritual, and far more musically than the voices that intoned it. By half-past seven the shower had passed, the sun came out bright, and a fresh breeze blew over the hills. I said goodby to the monks and to Basil and started back to Delphi with my guide and his mule. Sometimes I walked for an hour and let Panagiotes ride, and often going up the hill we both walked and gave the mule a rest. My respect for this sturdy Greek increased the more I knew him. He could speak no language but his own, but he could read and write that, for I made excuses for testing him in both ways. He was remarkably intelligent. He knew the drift of Greek politics and the Scylla and Charybdis of Greek finance. ” You ought to have gone to Parliament,” I said. “No,” he answered,” I have not the education;” but it was perfectly clear that he had the brains. He is not without honor in his own town ; he has represented the modern Delphi in the nomarchy and been president of the council. As we rode through the village of Distomo I asked him what it meant that so many men were lying round doing nothing. He reminded me that it was the feast of the Trinity and immediately repeated a passage from the creed. I am convinced that the Greeks have too many holidays and that the church calendar might profitably be reduced about one half.

We rode for a long time on our way back to Delphi in full view of Parnassus. The grandeur of the mountain is indescribable. The sun shone on its snow-covered peaks; soft white clouds gathered round its breast; then, as if. trying how to drape it best, they swept up the steep and wound a fleecy turban round its brow. Only a few minutes did this coquetry last ; soon the ” eternal sunshine settled on its head.” Equally striking was the view from the highest point of our trail of the Corinthian Gulf with the mountains of the Peloponnesus in the background, while the valley as we rode towards Delphi spread its varied charm. These were the same views that greeted the eyes of the pilgrims to the sacred shrine as they came so many centuries ago chanting their hymns to Apollo. Mountain and valley, gulf and grove, sky and atmosphere were all Greek, but not more so than my good Panagiotes. He belonged to the landscape; and in his stalwart frame, active mind, and thrifty hand some of the best spirit of the old Greek race was preserved.