National Geographic : 1956 Jan
Athens to Istanbul these alone have life; the rest have nought but ill." We lunched at Levadhia on the site of the famed Oracle of Trophonius. Our table stood beside the storied spring from which flowed the Water of Forgetfulness. He who came to consult the oracle drank first from these waters of Lethe, which wiped the past from his memory. Then he drank from a second spring, that of Mnemosyne-the Water of Memory-thus assuring himself of remember ing all that he saw and heard when he con sulted the oracle. A grumpy waiter took our order and dis appeared in the direction of the kitchen. Loud crashes of crockery and angry shouts issued from the building, but nothing else. Much later, just as we had decided our waiter had drunk from the wrong fountain, he reappeared with the news that the cook had had a fight with the manager, and no meals would be served that day. "Why didn't you come tell us sooner?" I demanded. "I was watching the fight," was the very reasonable answer. We lunched upon bread and cheese. We came into Delphi that evening over the ancient pilgrim way down the valley from Arakhova. Clouds boiled over towering Parnass6s, lightning flashed, and gusts of wind swept the silver leaves of olive groves in the valley below. Rain poured down on the home of Greece's most famous oracle, Page 48 - Eight-foot Maidens of the Erechtheum Tirelessly Balance Tons of Marble Just north of the Parthenon stands the Erech theum, an Ionic temple built four centuries before Christ to honor Athena and her foster son, the half god Erechtheus. On this sacred spot of the Acropolis, says legend, Athena and Poseidon fought for control of the capital of Attica, and a cleft in the rock marks the spot where Poseidon hurled his trident. In later years the Erechtheum became a church. A 15th-century Turkish governor used the shrine for his harem. The Porch of the Maidens is supported by six strapping figures known as the Caryatides. In the early 19th century Lord Elgin, a wealthy Englishman, procured many of the finest sculptures from the Acropolis for the British Museum. His col lection, known as the Elgin Marbles, includes one of the Caryatides from the Erechtheum. The missing maiden was replaced by a cast stone figure (third from right), whose face reflects her fewer years. These Greek school children hear a lecture on the glories of their national past. © National Geographic Society and we took shelter near by in a little hotel. Next morning was crystal clear, and as we walked through the ruins once sacred to Apollo it was easy to understand why the Greeks believed the god spoke here. To a people whose ancestors worshiped nature, this site of superb beauty, nestled below sheer stone cliffs, with gushing springs, olive-covered valleys, and magnificent vistas, must have seemed a fitting dwelling place for a sacred being (pages 54, 55). Thunder over Delphi The drifting mists and sudden mountain thunderstorms, when a single lightning flash sets the rocky glens rumbling for a full minute, doubtless had an overpowering effect on a people who saw significance in the sim plest natural phenomenon. Even as we stood in the ruined amphitheater two great eagles, sacred birds of Zeus, soared overhead. Consulting the Delphic Oracle in classic days required a strict ritual. You were puri fied in Castalia spring, which still sends forth its crystal flow not far from the ruins of the temple. Then you sacrificed an animal to Apollo and waited your turn to enter the hallowed precinct. "Any man who observed the ritual could ask his question," said George, "but women had to employ a man as a go-between." The query was put to a Pythia, a priestess of Apollo. There were three priestesses on duty, at first young girls, later old and unedu cated women, usually very ugly. To prepare herself for the questions, the Pythia would chew laurel, or bay, leaves; then she fre quently went into convulsions and raved violently. The priest on duty wrote down what she said and put the answer into verse. Oracle Predicted a Debacle For centuries few Greeks embarked on any major enterprise without consulting a priestess of Apollo. Some answers were amaz ingly accurate. More frequently the verse had a double meaning. The case of King Croesus, who asked the oracle about the wis dom of attacking Persia, is perhaps the most famous. "If you cross the River Halys," was the answer, "you will destroy a great empire." Croesus took this as an augury of success and crossed the River Halys, now the Kizil. He did destroy a great empire-but it was his own!