Greece: Delphi, the centre of the Ancient Greek World

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By Jen

According to Greek mythology, Zeus set two eagles in flight from either side of the universe, and the point where their paths met was the centre of the world. They met at Delphi.

It’s an outstanding archaeological site in breathtaking scenery. There are signs of life from more than 3000 years ago and it was at it’s hey day about five or six hundred years BC, give or take a few hundred years. That’s really really old.

The main ruins were found in 1893, after the existing “new” town agreed to relocate following an earthquake, and excavations began. It’s now a UNESCO protected site, as is the view from it, which means that no man made structures except for the road can be seen or built within view of the ruins. That makes for a stunning and unspoilt view looking across the Phocis valley, near Mount Parnassus.

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The story goes that Delphi was originally a place of worship to Gaia, Mother Earth. A young Apollo killed Pytha, the giant snake guarding the oracle of Ge. He was sent away in exile as a punishment but on his return he established himself at Delphi.

Apollo was the God of music, light and truth. His main job of the day was to drive his 4 horses across the sky pulling the sun behind him.

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This is the Temple of Apollo – it would have been 6 pillars wide by 15 long. In front of it is a black and white marble alter. After paying a fee, maybe buying a wee souvenir of their trip, washing their hands in the fountain, the would-be visitor would sacrifice a goat or some other small beastie before arriving at the Temple. Here’s the sacrificial alter.

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The purpose of the visit was to consult the Oracle for advice. She’s the one portrayed in films as the middle aged woman all trance like with swirly fumes around her, muttering words of wisdom to the priests who would interpret it for the visitor. It’s believed there was a fault line below the temple, and noxious fumes may have risen up through cracks in the floor – which is why the Oracle was in a bit of a trance. I can only imagine it must have been like visiting a mum after a couple of gin and tonics.

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The Oracle of the day was a woman in her 40s chosen from the neighbouring village. Katie was very concerned to know what happened if she was sick and needed a day off – we haven’t found the answer yet. But if the noxious fumes did exist, that’s a pretty valid question.

What is clear from her visitors is that the Oracle was EXTREMELY influential – if you wanted to start a war or add a bit to your empire, you’d check it out with the Oracle first. But you could also call by Delphi for less major personal stuff.

She said things like “Love of money and nothing else will ruin Sparta”. Generally a wise lady, fumes or no fumes.

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Another reason to visit Delphi was to see the Phythea games – one of the four main games which included the Olympus games. Lots of statues of famous athletes/people (like Socrates here) lined the Sacred Way to the temple. Some are still in the museum.

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The games stadium was 172 metres long (where the measurement ‘stade’ comes from, and those stone seats to the left were added by the Romans who had quite a soft spot for Delphi after they invade it).

The seats in the centre with a back were the comfy ones for the judges and along the back row for the rich spectators. Nike and Adidas would have been less prominent as sponsors because many of the races were run naked. You dressed up a bit more for the last race of the games – ie you wore a helmet and greaves (greaves are shin pads, made usually of metal and padded inside to protect the tibia which is very close to the surface of the skin, and if damaged meant you were rendered fairly useless in battle).

I’d like to see a return to those days. Absolutely solely in the athlete’s interest to maintain a fast, streamline silhouette in a race.

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The theatre itself hosted dramatic and musical performance famous throughout Ancient Greece – 5000 spectators could watch at a time. It’s quite a spectacular backdrop, and it’s lovely to stop and sit for a while imagining what it would have been like in ancient times.

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Entry to the ruins plus museum is 9€ per adult (there’s a single ticket too, but it’s worth seeing both). Children up to 18 are free. We’d recommend visiting the ruins first. Lots of the ruins are labelled to say that the original frieze or statue etc is in the museum, so it puts everything in context.

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Just across the road, and free to visit, is a round pillared building – it’s thought to have been some sort of temple but it’s use is not sure.

I wasn’t really up to speed with all this Greek mythology stuff before, but seeing these amazing places has inspired us to look it up. Delphi is a fabulous place to take children – many of the people there when we visited were on school trips.

Where we stayed overnight

We visited in April, low season, and most of the campsites at the other side of Delphi are closed till May. It’s very easy, however, to use the wide, secluded lay-bys which line the road en route.

Where to eat

Neil, Katie and I ate in a lovely Greek restaurant called To Tooukani in Arahova. Delicious food (especially the warm feta cheese toasted with sesame seeds and covered in honey). The owner is super friendly and the atmosphere lovely. His English is excellent – although he asked me to look over his menu translation into English just to check it out. My only tiny suggestion was to use the full name “cockerel” in the poultry dish. Here’s the phone number (it’s on the Main Street) – tel 22670.29248

[Serendipity decreed that Adam and Matt would find their school chums on a school trip at a hotel along the road – they had a blast]

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