The belly button of the earth

July 03, 2008

On our third day in Athens, we decide to make our way to Delphi, the magnificent site of the Delphic Oracle and the sanctuary of Apollo. So significant to the Greeks is Delphi that they refer to it as the omphalos (belly button) of the earth. It is the place on earth where man is closest to the Gods.

Delphi is a three-hour bus ride from Athens, but along the way we soak up the splendid countryside passing fields of cotton, and grape, almond and olive trees. We drive through the mountains that surround Athens, and enter lush terrain. The bus climbs and climbs. Suddenly we are inching our way through a charming little ski resort with streets that are surely half the width of the bus! Our driver miraculously negotiates the lanes and we are able to look down (if we dare) and see the deep valleys. The view is so breathtaking, I almost forget that it feels like the bus is teetering on the edge.

We reach Delphi on the side of Mount Parnassos and step onto this sacred ground. Immediately I can feel the history seeping out of the earth – or is it the relentless heat melting the soles of my shoes? Whatever it is, I know that I am so glad we made the trip up here. It is so beautiful and overwhelming. The expansive ruins – remnants of a temple, a stadium, a theatre, and a treasury house – seem to rise up naturally out of the mountainside like they were always meant to be here.

We are standing at the oracle, the site where pilgrams once flocked to seek the guidance of Apollo on critical matters. Questions were asked to the priestess who, after inhaling some “suspicious” fumes, was able to channel the spirit of Apollo. In her toxic stupor, she spoke in riddles and the priests of the temple would relay her answers to the pilgrims. The messages were always cryptic and vague like “know thyself,” leaving it up to the recipients to decide for themselves how they wanted to interpret the answers.

Delphi is also the site of the Phythian Games, which were held every four years in Apollo’s honour. Athletes would descend upon the theatre and stadium to compete for the victor’s laurel crown. The Phythian Games was the precursor to the Olympic Games.

A quick trip to the incredible Delphi museum and it’s lunch time. We stop in the town of Delphi where we are treated to some local fare before starting the long trek back to Athens. As it happens, today the Athenians have decided to protest the high cost of living and there is a rally near the core. And so we return to a city in chaos – well, more chaotic than usual. Just another day in Athens.