Stand with me at the “navel of the earth” in ancient Delphi, where the earliest Neolithic settlers worshipped an Earth Goddess
NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.
I do want to repeat an earlier disclaimer: I make no claim to be an historian. In these rambles, I’m simply drawing on my experiences and sampling numerous sources of history and mythology. My hope is that you will enjoy the journey.
There are so many tangled strands of history and mythology woven into the sanctuary of Delphi and its surroundings, it’s difficult to pick a strand to follow. Today, I’ll start with the earliest evidence of settlements and worship in the area. Archaeologists seem to agree that the hillsides around Delphi, and the slopes of Mount Parnassos, supported villages in the Neolithic Era from around 5000 BC, segueing into the Early Bronze Age of 2900-2000 BC. These cultures are thought to have worshipped a form of Gaea, or the Earth Mother. The site of the later Tholos of the goddess Athena was originally dedicated to this earth goddess, and the mounded hills across the steep Pleistos River valley seem to hold a female form. I can testify to a sense of calm strength and peacefulness in this place that has drawn pilgrims for thousands of years.
The original goddess worship included the power of the Pythia, a mythical giant serpent who dwelled in the earth. Serpents have been associated with healing and sacred powers in many cultures, including the Minoans who would influence the later Mycenaean culture here in the Delphi area. The mystical powers of the serpent are an important symbolic/mythic underlay in my Ariadne novels. In the second of the series underway, Ariadne returns to Delphi and Mt. Parnassos to renew her connection to these ancient earth forces. A modern reconstruction of a 26-foot bronze column formed of three intertwined serpents, near the Temple of Apollo, formerly held a giant commemorative tripod. (The original column was taken to Constantinople in 324 AD.)
Abundant ceramic fragments, bone and stone tools, and a few rare figurines, have been found around Delphi and in the Korykian Cave (Corycian, alternate spelling) on Mt. Parnassos. These have been dated as Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age, 4800-2000 BC.
Thousands of early Mycenaean (around 1500 BC) figurines found in the Korykian cave and Delphi hillsides reflect the continuing importance of goddess worship:
French archaeologists in 1969 also found in the same cave 24,000 astragaloi or knucklebones used for prophecy.
Which brings us to the famous Delphic Oracle. There is speculation that some form of prophecies were performed in these sacred precincts for thousands of years, usually associated with female priestesses who inhaled vapors from the deep regions of the earth to enter trance states and utter prophecies from the goddess. After the Mycenaean Age (when the Trojan War occurred), the relatively new god Apollo killed the resident Pythia serpent and took over control of the sanctuary and the oracle. It then became more regulated and officially honored by all the surrounding city-states. Its fame brought pilgrims from afar to consult the oracle about personal matters or affairs of state.
Historians of the Classic Greek period described a sweet aroma when entering near the hidden precinct of the oracle, but later historians began to scoff at the notion of the trance-inducing vapors. Now, geologists have recently confirmed that there are indeed natural fissures in the limestone rocks that funneled vapors from the underground springs abundant in the area. Apparently the spring that ran beneath the oracle’s cleft (and where the later Temple of Apollo was built) carried natural gases leached from the stones. Analysis of the gases confirmed that they could be anesthetic, or in lower doses could induce ecstatic, visionary states.
The priestesses reportedly sat on a tripod over the cleft in the earth, which originally was outside near the omphalos stone, the navel of the earth goddess. Below is a replica near the current site of the Temple of Apollo and the Treasury of the Athenians:
The Delphi Museum displays a later copy in marble of the supposed original omphalos, carved to represent the knotted net that covered the stone:
Some writers speculate that the earliest omphalos was actually at the site of the circular Tholos of Athena, an unusual design that may have summoned that female goddess energy:
Even during the Archaic Period (750-480 BC) and later Classical Period (480-336 BC), when rational Apollo held sway, the earlier goddesses and gods of more primal earth mysteries were still honored here. The Pythia and Dionysos (more in a later blog about his orgiastic rites in the Korykian Cave and the mountainside) held sway during the winter months at Delphi, when Apollo bowed to more ancient powers. This cavern still draws pilgrims to hold ceremonies and leave offerings in a niche in the mossy stone pillar (to the left below).
Interestingly, the Mycenaeans, despite their warlike ways that overran the Minoan culture after the disastrous volcanic eruption of Thira and the ensuing tsunami fatally weakened the Minoans, apparently still honored the power of the goddess and allowed their women a strong voice. The Minoan influence on their art, too, is revealed in frescoes from Tiryns near Delphi, like this scene of a wild boar hunt:
I’m not sure what’s going on with these guys– it’s probably a sacrificial boar for the oracle– but I hope the guy in the vat is enjoying himself:
Thor and I learned that the locals around Parnassos still hunt for wild boar using specially-trained hounds. We had ordered a wild boar stew at a restaurant in Delphi, and the owner came over to tell us about the hunters he knew who provided the meat from their hunts. Stay tuned for an action-packed scene in THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT, when Peter gets roped into joining the Corybantes (warrior women) in a wild boar hunt following the traditional method with hounds and spears….
Next week: More explorations of Delphi, past and present.
You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com