Thursday, 27 August 2015

e at delphi or the power is yours

According to legend, the location of panhellenic oracle at Delphi—sacred specifically Apollo but also the whole panoply of the gods—was fixed when Zeus dispatched two eagles in opposite directions to find the geographic centre of the Earth (the navel, ομφος of Gaia, Mother Earth—the name Delphi too is a near homonym for the Greek word for womb). Having circumnavigated the globe, the eagles collided above the slopes of Mount Parnassus and so by this unfortunate augury it was decided. The midair crash makes me think about the silly exchange between the uncatchable Teumessian Fox and the magical hound Laelaps who was destined to capture anything it chased—paradoxical nonsense that Zeus put to a stop by turning both beasts into stone, and setting them among the stars—Canæ Major and Minor. The sanctuary played host to sibilant soothsayers for centuries and attracted the patronage of the rich and powerful, whom for a donation, could entreat the Pythia for a suggested donation amount—all tributes and treasure artefacts of the wealthy trying to outdo one another.
Such gifts were left in hopes of currying favour with the gods and to gain some purchase on their prophesy—one which promised to be duplicitous and if the question was not framed careful, they risked an ironic demise. Not every donation was precious in the traditional or artistic sense, however, and probably the most enigmatic token was a simple letter E carved into a wall of a temple. No one really knows its meaning but Plutarch—a contemporary and friend of the high priestess, a retainer of the oracle—speculates in a rather in depth dialogue about what it could signify. Called E at Delphi (which always made me think of some diner, Eat at Delphi’s), Plutarch’s work underscores the singular nature of this inscription, which appears alongside two other famous dictums—Know Thy Self and Everything in Moderation. The intent already unknown and a bit of a mystery for visitors to guess about, Plutarch’s characters debate suggestions that the E could be the Greek numeral five—maybe a station of the tour and ritual, the verb form Thou Art, declined as an exclamation, or a hale and hearty greeting (pronounced like “aye”) from the god himself.
Despite the elite nature of the site—certainly not open to all seekers and the opening hours were rather restrictive, requiring a Delphic sponsor, a citizen of the settlement that grew up around the oracle, and sessions were only held on the seventh day of the month, Apollo’s day, and during long Greek summer—the nine months out of the year when snowbird Apollo dwelt in Greece before retiring to live among the Hyperborei (maybe the Britons) and Dionysus wintered in Greece—the panhellenic nature of the spot that opposed local patriotism and cults that was otherwise politically pervasive for the Greek people was really novel and Delphi and its traditions functioned in a sense like a central bank, a repository of wealth that was universally recognised. Those walls no longer stand, but other relics from that treasury have survived, scattered, like the bronze serpent column now in the hippodrome of Istanbul, brought from Delphi (in probably a bad choice of war trophies, in a karmic sense) to commemorate an ancient victory of the Greeks over the Persians. Perhaps, though, the E is enduring as well, abiding in a mystery that is as cryptic as the advice of the Sibyl.