George Seferis - Delphi


Translated by C. Capri-Karka.
From «The Charioteer», An Annual Review of Modern Greek Culture, No 35, 1993-1994

In the beginning was the wrath of the earth. Later, Apollo came and killed the chthonic serpent, Python. It was left to rot. It is said that this is where the first name of Delphi, Πυθώ [Pitho], came from pith- (the root is πυθ = I rot). In such a fertilizer the power of the god of harmony, of light and of divination took root and grew. The myth may mean that the dark forces are the yeast of light; that the more intense they are, the deeper the light becomes when it dominates them. One would think that if the landscape of Delphi vibrates with such an inner radiance, it is because there is no corner of our land that has been kneaded so much by chthonic powers and absolute light.

Descending toward Parnassus from the direction of the Stadium, one sees the wide-open wound that divides, as if by a blow of Hephaestus' axe, the two Phaedriades («shining rocks») from top to bottom in Kastalia and, even lower, to the depths of the ravine of Pleistos. One feels the awe of a wounded life that struggles in order to breathe, as long as it still can, in the light and rejoices that it is dawn and the sun is rising.

Or, again, as night falls, when the weary cicadas become silent, a whisper can remind one of the stammering voices of the prophetess Cassandra. It may be the only authentic sound that resembles the unknown to us -I mean «unprocessed» - «clamour» of Pythia:

Woe, woe, woe! O Apollo, O Apollo! (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1072)

Cassandra had the gift of prophecy, as they say; but God wanted nobody to believe her; as we ourselves do not believe her

As one comes from Athens to Delphi, after Thebes and Livadia, where the road meets the road to Daulis, there is the crossroads of Megas, the «bandit-killer», as he was called in the popular novels of the last century. In the years of Pythia, this crossroads was called Σχιστή Ὁδός [split road]. It was a very significant crossroads for the emotional complexes of the people of those days; maybe, in another way, for us too. There begins the story of Oedipus, who answered the Sphinx; of the blind Oedipus, the ultimate suppliant. Pythia had given her oracle to his father: «Laius, you ask me for a son; I will give him to you; but it is your fate that from his hands you will lose the light of day.» Laius was going to Delphi; Oedipus was returning. They met at this crossroads under the heavy mass of Parnassus. Neither of the two knew whom he was facing. They argued. Oedipus killed his father.

We are living in a technological age, as we say. Pythia has vanished; and out of the myth of Oedipus science has drawn symbols and terms that occupy us perhaps more than the Oracle of Delphi occupied the ancients. Today this tale may still give many people a pleasant evening at the theatre, if it happens, by chance, that a-good actor is performing: But if we do not: have that Oedipus, we have the Oedipus complex and its consequences. Is it better this way? Maybe. The problem is not so much which things have come to an end but with what we-who are living, like everything in life, amidst decay and change - replace those things we consider finished.

I am thinking of those big waves from the depths of time that shift the meaning of words. For example, the meaning of the word oracle: Where has it gone today? The word became an archaeological object. Agreed. But its meaning? Could it possibly have taken on, imperceptibly, a particular scientific or mathematical form? Who knows. However, what one feels is that in the depths of today's thought something must have remained of the old, abolished expressions. Otherwise how could we feel such a vibration here?

One can also go to Delphi from the direction of the sea, from Itia. It used to be called Kirra, and there Apollo, transformed into a dolphin, brought the Minoan ship. Thus Pytho was named Delphi, if we believe the Homeric hymn:

and in as much as at the first on the hazy sea
I sprang upon the swift ship in the form of a dolphin,
pray to me as Apollo Delphinius; also the altar itself
shall be called Delphinius and overlooking for ever.
(To Apollo, 493 ff.)

It is nice to start from the seashore and enter among the olive trees under the silver leaves of the plain of Criseos, enumerating, as you pass by, the wrinkles on the dense gathering of trunks; and if by any chance this shadow weighs heavily upon you and you raise your eyes, you suddenly see, in the perpetually moving blue, the twin peaks of Parnassus; further down you see the extension of the western Phaedriad and even lower down the acropolis of Crisa. Around there the chariot races that were praised by Pindar took place. There is this rhythm that breathes, along with two or three other stark voices, over Delphi:

.... neither by ships nor by land canst thou find
the wondrous road to the trysting-place of the Hyperboreans
(Pindar, Pythian Odes, X, 29 ff.)

It is said that Apollo used to go to the Hyperboreans for three months every year. Who were the Hyperboreans? They have sunk into myth. At their table -Pindar continues- Perseus sat one day. He saw them sacrifice excellent hecatombs of asses to the god; Apollo was laughing as he looked at the erect shamelessness of the beasts that were offered to him. The Muse is always with them; neither sickness nor age touches this sacred race; they do not need to work hard; they do not have fights. They have escaped the avenger Nemesis.

Up there in Delphi, after you pass the village and reach the temple, you have the feeling that you have entered a place separate from the rest of the world. It is an amphitheatre nestling on the first steps of Parnassus. From the East and the North it is closed by the Phaedriades: Hyambeia, which descends like the prow of a big ship and cuts the ravine; the northern Rodini, which almost touches the Stadium. From the western side, the rocky wall of Saint Elias and further down the mountains of Locrida, Giona, where you see the sun set. If you turn your eyes to the South, you have in front of you the robust lines of Cirphis and at its foot the ravine of Pleistos.

Pleistos is dry in the summer; you see its dry bed shine in the sun but a river of olive trees is streaming, you would say, flooding the whole plain of Amphissa, all the way down to the sea, where the seafarer sees them for the first time. Close by, the shiny stones of the ruins of Marmaria, where the three columns of Tholos jut out. I almost forgot Castalia. However, its water has a fragrance of thyme.

The temple of Apollo is reckoned to be approximately two hundred meters in depth and one hundred thirty in width, not including the Stadium. The space is not very large and it is natural that the monuments, as they were crowded here, had to develop vertically in order to grow taller than the others: think of the Sphinx of Naxos, the column with the dancers, the snakes of Plataia. One tries to imagine all these, as they were when they breathed intact. They must have looked, from a distance, like cypresses, shiny, multicoloured, around the temple of Pythia. One just tries. What comes to mind is the dawn that Ion saw; as far as the natural landscape is concerned, this dawn is, I think, conventional but it reflects; I feel, the brilliant splendour of the temple as one imagines it to have been in those years:

Lo, yonder the Sun-god is turning to earthward his splendour-blazing
Chariot of light;
And the stars from the firmament flee from the fiery arrows chasing,
To the sacred night:
And the crests of Parnassus untrodden are flaming and flushed as with yearning
Of welcome to far-flashing wheels with the glory of daylight returning
To mortal sight.
To the roof-ridge of Phoebus the fume of the incense of Araby burning
As a bird taketh flight.
On the tripod most holy is seated the Delphian Maiden
Chanting to children of Hellas the wild cries, laden with doom, from the lips of Apollo that ring.
(Euripides, Ion, 82 ff.)

One is still trying. The imagination grows tired. The retrospectives and the reconstructions, no matter how useful, become most inhuman. What else do we have from this «instantaneous present?» In the end, the imagination prefers that the river of time should have passed and filled this limited space. Today, looking down from above, let us say from the theatre, you have the impression that you have before you a downward sloping bottom where everything is levelled - these marble fragments and carved stones and the rocks which rolled in older times from Parnassus and on which Sibylla once sat; the bottom of a calm, shallow sea where the pebbles shine, where everyone discerns as much as he can, depending on his nature: a polygonal wall so much alive that one's hand spontaneously repeats the movements of the craftsman who carved and fitted the stones; a bending of the thumb and the index finger to raise a dress with the same grace that one saw the other day in a Greek village; a life-like thigh, as the knee of a woman descending from the chariot bends; the head of a Sphinx with the eyes neither open nor closed; a smile that one would call archaic -but this is not enough- of a Hercules or a Theseus. Such fragments from a life that was once whole, stirring pieces, very close to us, ours for a moment and then enigmatic and inaccessible like the lines of a stone licked smooth by the waves or of a seashell at the bottom of the sea.

Yet, the Phaedriades shine, as does the dry rock of Parnassus, and higher up in the air two eagles with outstretched, immobile wings move slowly in the azure sky like the eagles that Zeus once set free so that they would show him the centre of the world. Perhaps these things come as a big relief.

At noon, in the museum, I looked again at the Charioteer. He did not live long in the eyes of the ancients, so we are told. An earthquake buried the statue one hundred years after it was erected - this perpetual dialogue, in Delphi, between the wrath of the earth and sacred serenity. I stayed near him for a long time. As in older times, as always, this motionless movement stops your breath; you do not know; you are lost. Then you try to hold on to the details; the almond-shaped eyes with the sharp, transparent look, the strong jaw, the shadows around the lips, the ankle or the toenails; the robe which is and is not a column. You look at its seams, the crisscrossed ribbons that hold it together; the reigns in his right hand that stay there, tangled, while the horses have sunk into the chasm of time. °Then the analysis bothers you; you have the impression that you are listening to a language not spoken any more. What do these details, which are not artistry, mean? How do they disappear like that within the whole? What was behind this living presence? A different idea, different loves, a different devotion. We have worked like ants and like bees on these relics. How close have we come to the soul that created them? I mean this grace at its peak, this power, this modesty and the things that these bodies symbolize. This vital breath that makes the inanimate copper transcend the rules of logic and slip into another time, as it stands there in the cold hall of the museum.

I chose to walk up to the Corycian Cave from the ancient path; it is too rough for today's habits; the animals slip. The rhythm of the mule's bell and of the horseshoes on the rocks is something from another time; this iamb.

It is dawn; from above the Stadium looks as if a child built it in the sand; then what scares you is the big gaping wound of the Phaedriades. On the ridge of Cirphis you see the rosy shades of the houses in a village. It is Desfina; behind it, down at the seashore, with more golden shades, is Galaxidi. We get off the horses at Kroki, where a fountain is running and a flock of goats with twisted horns and black fur, shining in the light, are drinking water. In the old days these places were pastures -Dionysus Αιγοβόλος (goat-thrower). Then we walk under the fir trees; their cones -people call them «rubala»-like the candles of a Christmas tree, shed tears of resin, which makes them look silvery. At the foot of the hill of Sarandavlio, as the cave is called today, we left the mules. Pausanias is right. «Climbing up to the Corycian Cave is easier for the pedestrian than for the mule or the horse,» he tells us (X, XXXII, 2). But even for the pedestrian the path is very rough. As we climb up, I ask my mule driver if there are still fairies in the cave, as I heard down in the village. He laughs; he does not feel that fairies are appropriate for a modern man. «Fairies in our times!» he says: Yet, his denial seems to me less sincere when he adds: «I myself never saw them;» and after some silence he continues: «A foreigner told me that here, in this cave, Apollo had forty beautiful weavers, gathered from the surrounding villages, who wove for him all the time.» It seems more probable to me that he heard the story from his mother rather than a foreigner. A fellow villager of his told me the other day, down in Castalia: «And these plane trees down here are the ones that Agamemnon himself planted.» «Agamemnon?» I said in surprise. He looked at me as if I was ignorant. «Of course Agamemnon,» he said, «what did you think?»

Through Delphi passes a large crowd of tourists. «Delphi has become an endless hotel,» a native told me. As in Plutarch's time, I thought. I had remembered his dialogue about Pythia.'s oracles. In those times too, the temple had becorne a tourist place with organized guides showing the sites to the crowds. The difference is that in Plutarch's times, the people who visited Delphi still had, as a common tradition, a faith that was on the decline, as in Jerusalem in our times: Today the common faith has been lost, and the people who come each have different personal myths. They read or they listen to a guide; to this information each person adds his own. Among these various crowds, the people of Parnassus continue to live obstinately with the traditional myths, which their collective subconscious nurtures

I wanted to climb to the Corycian Cave because I thought that this visit to the place of Apollo had to be completed with a feeling of Dionysus, whom Pythia supported so strongly - of the dead and alive god, the infant god; that emotional force which willed that the instincts of man not be spurned. In the plateau around the cave, the Thyiades and Maenades held their periodic nocturnal orgies-whatever that ecstatic outburst of women possessed by the god means for us today. I was thinking of that frustrated king, Pentheus (Euripides, Bacchae). I was afraid of the example of his tragedy; I said: better the frenzy of the Thyiades in the high solitudes of Parnassus than its substitutes in the contemporary boundless anthills that are our big capitals. I was thinking of our collective madness.

To the right, as you enter the cave, the stone is still preserved with the half-effaced sign to the god Pan and the Nymphs. Then you have the feeling that you have descended into a large womb. The ground is damp and slippery; stalagmites and stalactites can be discerned in the dim light; it feels cold after the heat and the panting of the climb. Only after you proceed further and turn around, do you see the rays of the sun like a blessing as they enter, parallel, through the mouth of the cave striking its walls with a rosy and green iridescence. You rejoice at being born again in the warmth of the sun, certainly not poorer; you know that there is still something behind these things.

At one time, Plutarch tells us, people from a foreign land came to Delphi to consult the oracle. The preliminary test with the goat, which would show if the day were auspicious, was performed so that Pythia would deliver her oracle. But the animal did not shiver when sprayed with cold water; the sign was not good. Yet, the foreigners must have been important and, in order to please them, the priests exceeded the proper limits, until the animal, wet all over, showed signs of shivering. Then Pythia came down to the altar of the temple «unwilling and reluctant.» As soon as she gave the first answers, Plutarch continues, the ferocity of her voice showed that an angry and mean spirit possessed her. She looked like a wind-swept ship («δίκην νεώς ἐπειγομένης»). Finally, in a complete frenzy, with dreadful screams, she sprang towards the exit. «The prophet Nikandros, the priests, and the foreigners fled in terror. Later they returned and carried away the still frantic Pythia. She died a few days later.

This incident, they say, should be considered authentic -it happened in Plutarch's time and the prophet Nikandros who witnessed it was his friend; it shows us that Pythia was still functioning in the first century. It also makes us return to the eternal question that all of us who have thought about the very significant role -religious, political, private- that the oracle played in ancient Greek life have asked ourselves: were all these oracles and prophesies fabrications and frauds of sly priests or was there possibly real sincerity underlying those things, something that goes beyond our common sense.

Plutarch's narration should make us think that it was not very probable that the breakdown of a woman leading up to her death could be mere acting. Of course there were priests who interpreted Pythia's words -how articulate nobody knows-and delivered them, arranged in hexameters, trimeters or prose, to the faithful; no doubt they were opportunists, shifty, cautious, masters of ambiguity. But as in our times, it is one thing to look at such matters of the soul from the point of view of God and another from that of his servants.

It has been said that the phenomenon of Pythia must be included in the phenomena of that which we call today spiritualism. Perhaps. In that case though, the least one could remark is that Pythia resembles a contemporary medium as much as the Charioteer does a contemporary statue of mediocre art; let us say of Jacob Epstein. This is the difference. By this I mean that in the sanctuary of Apollo there has remained a mystery that goes beyond us, just as in the art of the Charioteer. I don't know. What one can consider more clearly is that if the oracle did indeed stimulate Socrates' thinking as Plato teaches us in the Apology, its contribution to the development of human thought would have been so great that it would have been worth founding for this reason alone.

Plutarch's narration approximately coincides with the event that brings to an end the world of the idols. Then the Oracle of Apollo slowly dries up, sparkling faintly, and, tired, finally disappears. Sometimes it whispers sentences that remind us of Sibylla's «I want to die,» quoted by Petronius. Three hundred years or so have been spent among the wrinkles and the formal gestures of the clergy, who merely repeat and do not create. The only concern that seems to preoccupy them is the fear -that the old habit of offering gifts to Apollo might come to an end. This until the ultimate answer of the Oracle to the tragic Julian:

Tell the king the ornately designed temple has collapsed. Phoebus no longer has a home, nor a mantic laurel, nor a talking spring. The babbling water has run dry.

Yet, although the Oracle seems to write the last page of its history by itself and to descend into the grave of its own volition, the theoreticians of the new religion found it worthwhile to devote a lot of thought and ink to fighting it. The strange thing is that they do not set out to prove that such prophecies are the work of charlatans. They recognize the prophetic power of Delphi, but for them these things are the work of Satan and of the forces of darkness; and Apollo is a metamorphosized devil.

Here in Phocis, in the monastery of Saint Luke, a mosaic of Pantocrator, over the lintel of the west door, bears the inscription:

«I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness.» Nature abhors a vacuum.

In the morning, at Marmaria, I went again to see the rocks that rolled down from Parnassus and destroyed the temple of Athena, as mentioned by Herodotus. In the beginning of our century, another storm again detached three large rocks and completed the destruction. The rocks are there among the trampled works of men, still showing, motionless now, their initial force. I remembered Angelos Sikelianos as he was listening to the onset of such a wind. «Not a sound is heard anywhere; and suddenly a horrendous roar, a strong and unbelievable roar breaks out as if from every direction. It is the great wind of Parnassus which starts up unexpectedly from the peaks toward the open spaces, with such force that you think it will shatter even the rocks to dust.» The poet of Delphi -if any of our contemporaries can be called the man of Delphi- was writing in his house, high up near the Stadium, where I met him for the first time. His house is now in ruins; an ugly bust of him outside the door underlines the futility of glory.

As I was returning to the place where the round pool of the Gymnasium baths remains dry, five or six girls, very young, with legs naked up to above the knee, as if obeying a decision or an order, walked down very seriously, linked arms and danced two or three rounds, singing in a Hyperborean language I did not know. Hyperborean girls, I suppose: the dances of the Hyperborean virgins of Pindar. Then, looking very serious and still panting, they approached a guide who started lecturing in English: «The gymnasium was not only for the training of athletes; philosophers taught the young, poets recited their poems; astronomers explained from this spot the movements of the stars in the sky...» In the evening, at about eleven o'clock, a friend showed me in the starry sky an artificial satellite which was moving from west to east with a discernible motion; it had the intensity of a star of second, or perhaps third rank.

Like everything human and like the life of the stars, Apollo's Pythia had her beginning and also had her end in the wrath of the earth. «Phoebus has no home any more.» Now again it seems as if we have completed a cycle; we are again facing the wrath-of the physical forces that we have set free and do not know whether we will be able to control them; one might say that we have in front of us a Python, that we need an Apollo, whatever these names mean. I don't know. What we know now is that the duration of this earth, as well as of this corner inside the loins of Parnassus is relative. It may end tomorrow or after some million years; that when we say eternity, we do not have in mind something measured in years, but we do something like Pythia, who, when falling into a trance, saw the whole of space and the whole of time past and future as one thing; or, to remember my friend E. M. Forster, we must call things eternal, in order to be able to struggle up to our last moment and to enjoy life. This sacred temple would probably whisper something like that to us.

If, however, we wish to look at things in a more simple and more direct manner, we could sit down on a stone at the time when the sun has passed the mountainous wall of Saint Elias and goes to set behind Giona. The light now comes parallel and strikes the Phaedriades showing them like Clashing Rocks; stopped, half-open. They are grey and light blue with the shades of an old mirror, with wounds of rust and blood. Down in Marmaria, three columns of the Tholos can be discerned; a smile of that earthly grace. Further down, the olive trees keep changing colour in the unbelievable flexibility of the light, from golden green to silver green; the mountain masses also keep changing, always becoming lighter: from golden to violet, from violet to the colour of crushed black grapes. Only the ridge of Cirphis still shines in a saffron-coloured light and stays alive for a while before everything turns to light blue and then darkens. You look again at the stair-like temple that is disappearing in the shadows, this seashore with the big broken pebbles. You want to get away from it all. You want to get away from this change -of things and feelings- that makes you dizzy. You turn again toward the Phaedriades that you looked at and looked at again throughout the day, and especially at high noon, when they shine, dry, when the old mirrors have found all their power again. The thought is holding on to them, as long as it still can, to the dry stone that refines you. No matter how much you resist, you cannot but have a feeling of sanctity about it. At least this: let us be true to ourselves.

Delphi - Amorgos, August 1961