Old things in Delphi

Greece is full of old things. Stick a shovel into the ground and chances are you’ll hit a stone phallus dedicated to the goddess Hernia. The ancient myths tell of how the god Meniscus mounted the sky-sent eagle Psychosis, which carried Meniscus high into lightning-laced clouds. From there, great and powerful Meniscus rained down his potent seed, and up from the sides of Mount Psoriasis sprang three divine sisters, Chlamydia, Nephritis and Diarrhea, handmaidens to mist-borne Hernia…

In Greece the past is everywhere, gumming things up. It’s one of the reasons the Acropolis Museum took so long to complete; same with the Athens subway. Just last May, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation cancelled a €4 million grant to build a cultural centre near Athens, after a mass grave from seventh-century B.C. was discovered at the site. This was the last straw. The project had begun in 2016, with superstar architect Renzo Piano at the helm.

Old and new. These ancient pots, at the bottom of an excavated area, stand beside a metro entrance in Athens.

At the end of a ramp beside the Greek Parliament building stands an important political figure.

At the Benaki Museum we saw an exhibition by the late English artist, John Craxton, who visited Greece early in his life and pretty much never left. He was irresistibly charming and a great companion. He painted and caroused with Lucian Freud, dined with Winston Churchill, befriended Leonard Cohen and was taken up by Patrick Leigh Fermor and other celebrities of the time. But he spent even more nights dancing and drinking with unknown fishermen, waiters and labourers. When he exhibited in England, in 1967, he was dismissed as an artist with “a handicap of happiness.” You can see that in his cats and taverna chair.

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The ancients regarded Delphi as the centre of the world, and placed a bellybutton (literally, omphalós) at this spot. Western civilization was in its adolescence, a smiling self-absorbed youth, so you can understand the narcissism of thinking you’re at the centre of it all.

When you visit Delphi, you can view the omphalós, as well as the temple of Apollo and other structures built by successive waves of civilization, all of them eager to consult the Oracle. When she entered the right state of divine possession, the Delphic priestess could predict the future. So emissaries from many lands arrived with precious gifts to woo and consult her on their plans for battle and other weighty matters of state. Sometimes the oracle was right. And sometimes, maddeningly, she just wasn’t in the mood. So they’d wait and wait and sometimes lose patience and leave.

The museum at Delphi houses many fine statues, which will be familiar, if you’ve ever flipped through a textbook on the ancient world on a rainy afternoon when there’s nothing else to do. But that pretty much exhausts my interest in old rocks and Doric columns and such.

Columns you’re welcome to admire at the site of ancient Delphi.

More columns, just as admirable. I believe the omphalós is somewhere nearby.

Manolí and his revíthia

I’m all for governments and academics digging up, delving into and protecting rocks until we know every damn thing about the ancient world. But do I have to buy a ticket?

I much prefer the living Delphi. That’s the town, a short walk up the road, that used to sit on the ruins but had to be moved so that French archaeologists, late in the nineteenth century, could dig and scrape to their heart’s content.

I much prefer Manolí, who brings me a chickpea (revíthia) salad, fresh bread and Greek coffee. The shops in Delphi sell ugly souvenirs, as they do everywhere in Greece. But the divinity of Greece is in its people, each of them interesting, interested and unfailingly polite. In Greek, any speech between strangers is formal — always with the vous — but richly laced with heartfelt courtesies and endearments accompanied by radiant smiles. What are rocks, after all, next to these beating hearts?

We’re sitting in a sidewalk taverna and an elderly Greek man with long grey hair, parted in the middle, is walking towards me. He wears a lilac shirt with a Betty Boop tie, above purple pants and yellow socks. In his hand, a chocolate ice cream, two scoops, on a waffle cone. Catching my eye, he winks.

Delphi has many fine balconies.

I like the signs here, too.

A view from Delphi, looking down to the Gulf of Corinth.

There are mysteries to be plumbed. Such as, where are the donkeys now? The mountain paths used to be choked with them. In the early hours of the morning, papou would load his donkey with a spade and pruners and baskets, with a small lunch of paximádi (hardtack), tomato, olives and cheese, maybe a hardboiled egg as well, everything tied up in a white cloth and placed in a plastic bowl. Then off he’d go to water and prune his olives and grapes. Dozing under a tree after his lunch, papou would allow the donkey to wander off, to munch on dry thistles and thorny scrub. And as the temperature rose and the crickets began their frenzied sawing, the donkey would commence his sorrowful braying song.

10 thoughts on “Old things in Delphi”

  1. I am more and more intrigued by Greece with every piece you post. .
    The Craxton painting is marvellous. I perfect illustration for your upcoming essay on chairs. Please do write that!
    As for columns,I do find them mesmerizing. Or maybe it’s just your wonderful photos.
    I’m really enjoying all your writing Spyro!

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  2. Your take on the ancient in Greece reminds me of what Rilke had to say about Rome in Letters to a Young Poet, translation A.S. Kline: … bear in mind that Rome (if as yet you know it not) seems overwhelmingly sad at first: due to the lifeless, gloomy, museum-like atmosphere it exhales; the numerous pasts that have been excavated and painstakingly maintained (upon which a tiny Present subsists); the endless overvaluing of all these decayed and disfigured things, presented by scholars and philologists and imitated by the customary travellers to Italy, things which are no more than chance remnants of another age, and a life that is not and should not be ours. At last, after weeks of daily resistance, one recovers oneself, though still somewhat confused, and says to oneself: ‘No, there is no more beauty here than elsewhere, and all these objects admired by the generations, restored and repaired by the hands of workmen, mean nothing, are nothing, and possess no heart and no value – yet there is much that is beautiful here, since there is much that is beautiful everywhere.

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      1. I recommend the new translation (2022) by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, both women far into late life and presumably brimming with relevant experience and wisdom. They bring a light, clean touch to their nonetheless profound considerations of his words.

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  3. I can picture your smile (or did you actually l.o.l.) for the ice cream man. I’m with you in the “rocks” and (problematically) Lenore and I are headed for that greatest of all rock piles: Angkor Wat. Of course it is more than partial foundations and random support pillars, but still . . . I imagine you’ll be paying closer attention to what’s left of the Sanibel causeway. Sorry. Great post.

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    1. Hey, Gerry. You are indeed headed for a massive rock pile, as we all are, metaphorically. I enjoyed Angkor Wat…till a point. It was actually more fun near the entrance, I recall, watching the monkeys rummage through the bags of inattentive tourists. Sanibel, well, what can anyone say about the destruction and what it’s done to all those lives. Thanks for reading and commenting. See you soon.

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  4. Your gods and goddesses reminded me of a wonderful book I read a long time age “ Gods behaving Badly” . The premise being that since the gods are immortal, they must still be hanging around somewhere. They no longer are powerful, however, since no one makes sacrifices to them or prays to them . How they survive in the modern world is both funny and awe Inspiring. I haven’t been to Greece for about ten years. I remember travelling on a bus through the Vale of Tempe and the local bus driver pointing out all the laurel bushes on the hillside where “ Daphne was turned into a laurel bus”. It struck me how old and new were enmeshed. Thanks for this piece.

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    1. Thanks, Isobel. I have heard of “Gods Behaving Badly” but never held it in my hands. Maybe it’s time I had a look. I like the premise. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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