Greece – Delphic Oracle

LONG have we loitered at Arachoba, to some purpose it may be hoped. The town represents the old in the new more adequately than anything we have yet seen ; it gives the feeling of old Hellenic life still blooming as in the days of its youth. The ardent pursuit with which the journey started, has to a degree been rewarded; shadowy images have been filled with flesh and blood; truly we may say that a deep satisfaction is the result of our stay. Hardly did we expect so much at the beginning; a great deal of what was previously a dream, is now a reality; but there remains one step more to be taken, in order to complete our journey.

The longing now arises to see the old, not in the new but in itself, so far as there are any remains of it which we may be able to restore in imagination. Off yonder round the slope lies Delphi with its ruins of an antique world ; quite different from Arachoba, we may suppose it to be, yet in a strong undertone of harmony with the modern town. There some image of antiquity, not in its germ as we saw here, but in its perfect development, may be hoped for, even amid its dust; such at least we are now going to seek for, as the finality and culmination of our journey.

Not again shall we hazard the lofty way over Parnassus on which we were so utterly foiled before; but we shall take the directest road, and then hereafter from Delphi we may venture into the high table-land where the Muses have their seats. With deep interest does the memory of that day now arise; just above me is the ridge along whose comb I wandered looking for a place of descent. I can behold now the lofty eaves of the mountain temple from below, and see myself there again, wandering along the edge. Utterly impossible is it to descend. A glance up at those cliffs causes a shudder to run through the awed body, they seem monsters which man cannot control; let no mortal dare explore their secret ways. Yonder is the spot where I undertook to come down; from below it plainly shows the seductive slant to a steep precipice; just at that point I came to the edge with rolling stones under my feet, when I turned and caught a bramble, which saved this Delphic journey from the eagles. Still those birds are hovering round the spot; let me exult that I am here below; today I shall not wander from the straight path.

Nature, one can here feel, has her uncontrollable aspect which inspires fear; many a demon seems to be lurking in her rayless caverns ready to rush out and swallow up the wanderer. Of old these mountains must have had terror in them, till they were tamed; that was indeed just the problem to tame them. The Greek grappled with Nature in her wildest forms and reduced her; such at least is the main burden of all his song: triumph over Nature. But I certainly do not triumph now, looking up at the summits ; too well do I recollect how Pallas Athena turned me back in the gorge. To-day I have no ambition to grapple with the mountain ; first I must see what Delphi has done, perchance she mastered this Nature and will furnish to others the weapons for its subjection.

But this road from Arachoba to Delphi, what shall the exalted mood say to it? A revelation it is, or the beginning of one; this is the famous Delphic vale which wrought upon the pilgrim as the initiatory passage to the great temple. The way descends gradually, winding in a wavy line around the side of the mountain over seams and ridges; one looks far below and wonders, then he looks up and adores. The vision is drawn out to an unusual breadth, you have to see beyond your common ken if you see at all. The eye seems pressing outwards as if seeking to lose itself in a happy harmony with this Nature; yet at the same time it turns inwards subtly beholding there too the image, the spiritual counterpart of this outer world.

Look down the slope afar, there behold the olive orchards a moving sea of green with many a ripple and wave, and even with grand oceanic swells over the ridges. At last the trees, silver-starred, reach their limit at the Pleistus, small meandering stream at the foot of the far-sloping mountain. In the distance a patch of sea, blue, with shimmering crest, steals at times into the vision suddenly, then hides again among the hills. Kirphis is just yonder with the sun resting upon its ridges, almost on a level with my path; between here and there lies the deep vale. Cannot one fly across and alight on the other side ? One cannot help thinking of flight on this spot, looking from mountain to mountain; it were so easy to sail over in the air and drop down on the opposite crest. The feet grow light and lift of themselves, till one looks down to see if they have not little wings like those around the ankles of the herald Mercury. A strange feeling as one goes to Delphi this morning a tendency to fly, which comes of light heels, and possibly of a lighter head.

As we pass along the road, ancient foundations come to view; here must have been some one of those temples which the old traveler saw, as he came from the East, at the entrance of Delphi.

Athena was here, Athena Pronaia, to receive sacrifice from the pilgrim before he approached the Delphic recess; shrines to the heroes who assisted the Delphians in their defence of the city against the barbarians, were somewhere here ; those heroic forms were once seen as divine prodigies appearing on horseback, and routing the foe with utter terror; thus the God protected the centre of Greek civilization. Note these huge boulders rolled down from the mountain above what do they mean? Are they the identical stones which the God hurled upon the Persians as they approached his fane? I believe that they are the same, being mentioned by the-Father of History; at least to the eye of faith they will answer the same purpose.

Moreover we are passing through the cemetery of ancient Delphi, on all sides along the road reposed her illustrious dead. The old pilgrim had to make his en-trance into Delphi through the monuments of her Great Men ; they were to live in his memory before he could behold the actual city, the mighty work of theirs which endures when they are gone. Some sepulchres are cut in the mountain wall high up yonder, quite inaccessible now; others are hewn below the surface of the earth; but most of them seem to have been stone coffins, which are lying scattered through the Olives. All are broken, a few have sculptured figures upon them, and many a fragment of finely chiselled limbs lies about the field. Just like Greece it is, just like Delphi; beautiful, but in ruins, a broken sarcophagus. I confess that I admire the custom which the ancients had of burying their dead along the highway at the entrance of the city ; thus we pass through the history of the place and all its previous years to the present moment, revealed in the monuments of its worthiest examples.

The sun was out when I started, shining in full splendor at Arachoba, the new Greek town; but often his face has been dimmed by thick-coming cloudlets hurrying past the eye toward the East. The heavens are full of them, flying in many battalions up the valley over-head and at my side; look at them, trailing across the sunlit skies and dropping into the low vale down to the tree tops. But in the West they have massed in dense columns, and are moving forward like black walls, creased with fire. Now it is raining at Krissa, the lines drop from the heavy clouds to the earth, they are coming up this way and will soon meet the approaching wayfarer; Darkness increases as I enter Delphi, the abode of the God of Light; when I turn an angle of the mountain, there lies the little village, called by the modern name of Castri, wrapped already in nebulous gray folds of falling showers. I hasten to that roof on my left, half hid in the limbs of old olive trees; it is the Metochi or cloister, now tenanted by a single monk who receives the stranger with generous hospitality.

To the rear of the building is a low-roofed porch looking contemplatively down to the Delphic vale and to–ward the sea. There one will sit and behold the rain; before him are all the wonders of Delphic scenery now danced over by light and shade fluctuating with the depth of the clouds. The mountain rests in the back-ground, lifting at times its nebulous cap and catching a few sunbeams on its head. But the storm comes along, and with one dash wipes off the radiance from the summits, or perchance it is the wind-cloud blowing it out like a candle. Then the mountain soon relumes, piercing the skies and bringing down the sun on its sides to glow more brightly than ever; but the illumination lasts but a moment only, with redoubled effort the black demon outspreads his wings, enveloping the whole landscape, and the new light is extinguished under triple folds of night. Such is now the Delphic contest between day and darkness, seen from the back porch of the low-roofed monastery.

The traveler sitting there will exclaim to himself: Thus has Delphi received me, in storms hinting of something beyond; I gaze through the darkened air into flashes of sunlight over the summits : that, assuredly, is Nature’s suggestion of hope. So the mind looks through present clouds into gleams of future clearness; so may I look through this Nature which is dark enough now, in-to that which sprang from it, which is clear Delphi resting in sunlight. This is indeed the Delphic mystery: to behold the oracular city of its own innate force springing out of the obscure earth upon this hill-side, and reposing in the light of the God.

Some such view we must at last get, if our visit is to mean anything; though we have to stay long and question this dim spot, it were better to wait patiently for the answer. We must hear the oracle, uncertain, ambiguous at first; but finally we shall understand it, for the God must reveal himself in order to be a deity. This problem then looms up in the Delphic foreground above all others, has been looming up during our entire journey: What is the meaning of the Delphic Oracle? Such is the question which, intensified by this darkened scenery to-day, haunts us at every step, troubles every thought, waylays every image, intrudes itself into every bit of landscape. The deep gorge, the vale, the very stones seem to propound to you with an enigmatic look : What is the meaning of the Delphic Oracle ?

You will first take a glance off into this Nature before you, with its immense variety, power and concentration; it must come foremost in the image, being the primitive setting of the Oracle, and suggesting it : for what is the whole country with its seams, chasms, valleys, but one vast oracular recess, out of whose mouth Earth, Mother Gaia, speaks and reveals her innermost secrets ? According to ancient legend Earth had the first oracle upon this spot; here is that oracle still, ready to deliver its response, and uttering the dark prophetic word of Nature. Moreover you will notice that the sun rests on these summits, and rambles through these dells with a peculiar rapture, chasing the shadows, fighting them with a sort of triumphant joy, conscious of victory like a God. Dark Prophecy belongs to the spot, but so does Light; once they were warring elements of Nature, still they are such on certain days, even to-day; but they were anciently made into a spiritual union. Prophecy and Light became one in Apollo, God of Wisdom. Such was the old Delphic Mythus wrought by the Poet and sung at the festival ; fragments of it, under several forms have come down to us.

But we must not think that Nature made the Delphic man ; he made it quite as much. He seized it, formed it into an utterance of what was deepest in him, and thus created an image of his spiritual being; for it is spirit that is in him and driving him to seek expression. Here was doubtless his earliest expression, the dark oracular earth whom he questions, wishing to know. It is the rude response of Nature ; but she has to be transformed into clear utterance, and he does the work, which thus becomes beautiful ; so Art leaps forth, new-born, trans-figured from these rocks. You can still imagine it springing up like a flower upon this hillside that old Delphic world with its culture and beauty breaking out of the bosom of the earth, Mother Gala’s bosom, and spreading its fair petals in the sunshine. But that is not all ; in the image of Delphi we can behold entire Greece unfolding into its glories; the whole soil of Hellas transmutes itself into a garden, whose typical flower is the Delphic one.

The visitor cannot help thinking that this was an ancient seat of instinctive wisdom which broadened out so as to include quite every Grecian land. The Hellenic race must have found its first elevated expression here. Wise men dwelt at Delphi and were in some very intimate relation with the entire Greek kinship. Not a provincial oracle by any means was the Delphic one, but it uttered prophetic words for the Greco-Asiatic, for the Greco-Italic stock ; from Lydia in the East, from Rome in the West, very remote relationships of the Hellenic peoples, its decrees were sought and respected. Deep and dark down into the very roots of the Aryan race does the Delphic influence extend, blossoming forth to the Sun on the slope of the mountain.

But chiefly as the center of the widely scattered Greek communities, as the profound tie which bound together remote colonies in Asia, Italy, Africa, must we regard this influence. In the Delphic Oracle the Greek race felt its oneness from the most distant rim of settlements; and the Oracle in turn planted itself upon this oneness, promoted the same, gave it expression. Harmony, the Oracle sought to bring into this mass of seething Greek energy; peace between people of Greek blood, was up-held by its holy responses; but chiefly it maintained Hellenic civilization against barbarism. All this came from a deep-seated feeling of unity in the Greek race, felt in its full intensity, and, as it were, bursting forth from the earth here at Delphi.

This was truly the divine attribute of the Oracle, the unifying power exerted upon these early Greeks restlessly centrifugal; it held them by the deepest and subtlest tie, the instinct of brotherhood. Hence it was holy, it healed the wounds, it made Greece whole; it, giving voice and authority to the common bond of kinship, stopped the murderous hands of kindred, or furnished otherwise relief to the troubled states. It was the point of union of the Hellenic world, thus it was worthy of worship. What is holy but that which binds many souls together ?

Was ist heilig ? Das ist’s was viele Seelen zusammen Bindet; band’ es auch nur leicht, wie die Binse den Kranz.

In the God and his responses the Greeks felt their common brotherhood; and the God too felt it, and gave it utterance. That utterance was the golden word of unity, harmony; such was the universal purport of the Oracle. So from Delphi secret threads went out over all Hellas whose aspirations and fears and calamities pulsed back to this spot as the heart of the whole people. The most sensitive part of the great Hellenic body is at Delphi, and receives the impressions from every member, which are then to be attuned to the one Hellenic soul. To keep each community in harmony with the rest, to have the whole before the eye, and to adjust the warring parts to the whole such was the function of Delphi.

The Oracle is, therefore, a voice, voice of the Greek God, telling what is best for Hellas. For has not this Greek people a voice as of one person, and a reason back of that voice? There is, indeed, one Hellenic soul in which every Greek participates; it is his greatest truth, the Universal ; upon this Universal the Oracle plants itself, having in its vision the All, not the part simply; no individual end as against the universal one can it favor without losing its divinity. Conceive the widely scattered limbs of Greece to be one body, give to this body a soul, endow the soul with a voice that voice is the Oracle uttering the truth of Hellas to Hellas.

Every Greek, therefore, had the Oracle within him, and at the same time without him ; his true selfhood is not merely his own self, but is universal, and reaches up to his God. But in what form is this Universal to be uttered? That is the supreme difficulty for a people not yet arrived at a self-conscious expression in thought. It must therefore assume impure forms, starting from Nature from exhalations, convulsions ecstasies, and rising into the dream, the vision, the oracle. An honest attempt, but inadequate ; often so inadequate that it seems mere jugglery. But never forget the truth in it : it is a sincere effort to express what is universal in the Greek soul ; but the expression is imperfect in form; therefore this form must be finally cast away. Hence, too, the Oracle is often ambiguous; it will be consulted about matters which do not lie within its province, and which it can have no feeling about; what response can it give ? Only an ambiguous one, which must be interpreted by the person who receives it; thus the Oracle says: Determine this matter for yourself, it is not my duty to decide for you. Ambiguity, therefore, throws back the decision upon the responsible man. Still there were many oracles whose purport was plain; these were the true voice of the God, not the shirking ambiguous utterance which is the seed of death in the Oracle.

The wise men of Delphi can hardly be called far-sighted statesmen consciously furthering the great plan of Hellenic unity. Still less are they to be considered as a band of cunning priests living from the deception of mankind. They performed a true function for their people; they saw in vision and uttered instinctively what should be done for the totality, since all Greece had her centre of emotion in the Oracle. It was a vision enraptured, prophetic it was the feeling of what is best for the entire Hellenic stock. Conscious ratiocination there was probably not much, it was the instinct-• ive sympathy with the whole, setting on fire the Imagination and breaking into rapturous utterance, at times very enigmatic, but at times clear sighted enough. Purified were these prophets often till their instincts reflected a true image of the innermost essence of Greek spirit, not as an operation of reason, but as the gift of immediate insight.

I am well aware that the common Understanding scouts this process, that modern science with its syllogism of experience seeks to explain a half and to throw away the other and better half. Inaccessible is the Oracle to mind solely working in the categories of Formal Logic or of Inductive Process, though there is a logic which recognizes it fully, and says that the oracular power must exist as a phase of human intelligence. A cunning priestcraft is the explanation commonly given, priestcraft based at times upon wise policy and fore-sight, at times upon selfish gain still always a form of priestcraft : such is the explanation of the Understanding. I do not believe it; the Oracle uttered truth, the prophets saw truth. Woe had it been to them, if they had uttered falsehood to their race.

Indeed any explanation, so called, of the oracular process is likely to be unsatisfactory. The thing when explained is no longer oracular; to be oracular it must remain inexplicable. Explanation seeks to identify the known and the unknown through some middle term; but the intuition of the Oracle has no middle term, it is immediate, it is the direct vision of the object without the mean of the reasoning process ; if the mean be found, then it is not the oracular process. But that which we can do and have already done, is to state the content, the purport of the Oracle ; this is the unity of all Greece, its Universal, seen and uttered instinctively.

Animism is now the favorite word of explanation ; the Oracle is traced to an original tendency in man to see ghosts. Turn about the statement rather; ghosts are called forth by the Oracle, not the Oracle by ghosts. That universal spirit of Hellas is first in the Greek man, and takes on many forms; among others, those of ghosts, visions, oracles. The true form, however, is the self-conscious, self-clear Reason, in which the universal spirit sees itself purely and comprehends itself. But so far Delphi never went, nor have we yet; therefore, let us snap the thing off with a sentence : Animism cannot explain the Oracle, the Oracle rather explains Animism, in one of its phases.

The Pythia’s wild ejaculations were put into form by the priests; it is manifest that these priests had the most important share in the utterance. They were seers, too, they saw what the totality of Hellas demanded; the merely natural effect of the earth’s exhalation upon the Pythia was a chaotic babble like that of Gaia her-self; but they reduced it to order, indeed they threw a Greek harmony into her wild and whirling words by an hexametral rhythm. Every oracle, therefore, went through the whole Delphic process; it began with the dark shapeless suggestion of Nature, and was elevated into the form and expression of spirit. Such was the true function of the priest; to bring the known out of the dim recess of the unknown, and to transform it into an utterance for man. In the same way the Greek every-where enters into Nature and transforms her; the priestly duty is in perfect consonance with all that is deepest in Greek spirit. Noble was the function of the God, in all ways divine; hence its authority rested in every Greek soul. Foreign wise men were also celebrated at Delphi, and their sayings were set up in the vestibule of the temple. Wisdom was here, instinctive, spontaneous ; the people of Delphi knew their own position and called their town the navel of the world.

Such was the early genuine Delphi ; but it did not remain thus. It had aided the unity of the Greeks in the wars against the Persians, and in such action was true to itself. But the time came when Hellas was split in twain, and the Oracle had to take sides with Greek against Greek. During the Peloponesian war it favored the Spartans against the Athenians; thus the Oracle was rent in the grand disruption of Hellas; the unity upon which it reposed and to which it owed its influence was destroyed. Delphi no longer felt for the whole of Greece but only for a part; it ceased to command the worship and the confidence of the Pan-Hellenic world. At that unhappy period it was no longer holy, it did not unite but rather dismembered. From this time Delphi declines.

Still it shows the inner scission of the Greek consciousness. Athens, the intelligent half, breaks loose from Delphi, and marches forward to a self-conscious utterance in philosophy; Sparta and the backward half of Greece remains Delphic and clings to the utterance in prophecy. Still a new utterance has arisen; our Socrates whom even Delphi pronounced the wisest of men, is really the new Delphic Oracle, and supplants the old one. The inner spiritual unity of Greece is lost, in true correspondence is the outer political unity, sunk now in strife and hate. But those early days when this hill-side was the organic center of the vast energetic Greek body, the heart to which and from which throbbed all the hopes of the Greek race, are the glory of Delphi, and form the period with which the sympathetic traveler still seeks to place himself in harmony.

But the rain has passed over, and the sun is rapidly driving the broken clouds out of the Delphic vale, which wears now a laugh of triumph. Let us leave the cloister; this brook at our side comes from the fount of Castalia, bubbling forth just at the mouth of yonder gorge.

Pass by the musical spring for the present, and enter the gorge; it is the identical one through which some time ago I undertook to reach Delphi, when Pallas held my arm. Follow the chasm as far as you can, till it grows dark and full of shadows ; something of awe you will feel at this remarkable work of Nature. No wonder that Gaia, Mother Earth, had her first rude oracle upon this spot, one will think in this very cleft per-chance. Something indeed she says here, vague, wild, chaotic; you share in some struggle of forces pent up and as yet undeveloped. An attempt at utterance one feels rather than hears a deep, speechless throb which dimly foretells the day of utterance. At times one is quaked by the rugged pulsation; it is Trophonius in his cave once more, but not destined to stay there. A shape in the rocks above stretches out like a mighty arm, then it assumes a monstrous half face; Atlas it seems to be now, with stooped shoulder, bearing the earth-ball of Gaia herself. Chiefly the deep rift, sliced down into the very heart of Gaia, as if to lay open her first secrets —that is the marvel ; the heart you will call it, rude, made of rock, with dim fantastic shapes bodied into it; still the heart throbs, and you feel its pulsations trembling through you.

Go up yet further; ancient steps have been hewn into the solid rock ; in old days one could ascend this wild rift and feel the might of its deity. The walls of the gorge are very close together. The place is darkened as it were for some awful presence. Notice again the cliff above, Nature is there making a huge, seamed, uncouth face, yet distinct as the stone itself; she is making many faces at you, the stone changes to capricious grim-aces. Now it is Pan, followed by his rude choir, chasing over the rock walls; it is the realm of wild disordered fancy; it is the world of caprice which the human soul must pass through, and then leave behind in the dim recess.

You will therefore not remain with Gaia, nor did Del-phi remain with her in the dark chasm, with her dark suggestions. Out of the dim cavity the Oracle too must come into the realm of Apollo, God of Light. Not without a struggle did the God obtain the prophetic spot; he had to slay the serpent Python, couched in this gorge and ready to devour too often the followers of the dark chaotic oracle of Mother Gaia. Such is the legend which hints the great Delphic transition; a far-off adumbration of ancient prehistoric struggle one can discern in the mythus; or, if you wish, it may be taken as an utterance of all struggle out of Nature to the Higher. For the God of Light must slay the serpent Python lying in the dark chasm and guarding the primitive oracles of Mother Gaia : all culture demands it; Delphi has given her own greatest change in the advent of Apollo, and the slaughter of the serpent, woven into a Delphic fable, which is born out into your soul upon this spot.

But as you pass out of the gorge into the light, here is Castalia, fount of the Muses. It is a new world; note how all has been transformed, how Nature at once leaps out of chaos into things of beauty. A basin with steps in it holds the fair-flowing water ; a temple rose over it in antiquity; statues stood in the niches above. The gorge was suddenly transformed : this is the grand Delphic transformation. Wash in the spring; it purified the ancient priestess that she might give a Delphic response; then it became in its own beauty a weighty utterance on this hillside, nay it became the inspiration and symbol of all beautiful utterance for all time; Castalia is still invoked as the source of the Muses, melodious givers of song.

And strange to say, the traveler feels the new influence, he cannot keep himself from becoming rhythmical; his body moves with a novel stride which be can-not account for, his feelings are attuned to an unaccustomed music, he has to march to an unknown irresistible harmony. A Delphic change is going on within a rhythmical attunement of soul ; life and nature are moving together in a Greek chorus. Behold the situation of the town resting in the mountains in the form of a theater overlooking the vale, overlooking the world. Yonder was the temple; its foundations still peer forth; it too repeats the same harmony as Castalia, the whole mountain side echoes the same harmony rising up from every ruin of the old city.

Here, then, we shall stay; clearly we have come to the great goal of our pilgrimage. These Delphic harmonies must be traced in their details, still more they must be felt often and be allowed to sink deep into the soul. This is not the work of one day, nor of one week; certainly there is no task in life which is to be done before this ; eternity itself would seem to be lost unless filled with these divine harmonies. The melodious secret must be sought and taken up into existence, if possible; we must know what that secret is, or find out that we cannot know it; such is our first Delphic duty. At least this rhythmical gait must walk itself into exhaustion, and this keen musical feeling must become blunt in its own excess of enjoyment, ere we shall be willing to quit the presence of the Oracle.

Such is the fragment of the first Delphic day, glorious enough ; but where can one find lodgment in this village, now so small and poor ? The monastery cannot be a con-genial abode for a Greek-minded person; though very hospitable, it hints of too much which is discordant with ancient Hellenic life. On my way from the Castalian spring, I meet a good old man, grey-haired Paraskevas, who tells me that he is in search of me, having heard of the arrival of a stranger. He offers me a share of his hut; he has blankets to spread on the floor to keep his guest warm, he will make the cot alongside of the fire-place, he can furnish a frugal meal of black bread, beans and wine, with some meat occasionally. A generous offer; never will the traveler forget aged Paraskevas, veteran of the Greek Revolution, now passing his sunset at Delphi. His abode lies in the sacred enclosure of the old temple; ruins peer forth from the soil on every hand; walls with inscriptions run before the very entrance of his door. A few steps from his threshold lies the drum of a column ; upon it one can sit down and overlook the Delphic vale. A bargain is struck for an indefinite time; I can easily foresee that my stay will not be short. Food and shelter thus come to me providentially the rest of the Delphic repast will be furnished by the Gods. It is a new feeling indeed, a mild, hopeful joy at this fresh intimacy with the antique world. I enter the hut with a slight stoop of the head, and lie down beside the hearth to rest for the night: to-morrow the days of Delphi will begin.