Jules Verne, the 19th century pioneer of science fiction, fascinated me with his Journey to the Center of the Earth, which involved an expedition deep into the earth’s core. On Thursday, participants in the Campbell University Divinity School and Nurturing Faith Experiences “Bible Lands Study Tour” journeyed to a place that’s not mentioned in the Bible, but claimed to be the center of the earth.
The Greek god Zeus dispatched two eagles to find the geographical center of the earth, according to the ancient myth, and they met at Delphi, which became known as the “navel of the earth.” The spot is not marked with an X, but with a bullet-shaped stone called the omphylos – which answers the question, if you’ve ever wondered, that the navel of the earth is an outie.
The excavation of Delphi began in the 19th century and was a major undertaking, for an entire village was built on top of it, and the residents had no idea that the heart of Greek’s religious traditions lay beneath the soil. After persuading the villagers to move their town a few hundred yards away, excavators began to uncover a religious complex that began as early as the 14th century BCE, reached its zenith between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, and was shut down in 390 by the emperor Theodosius. Afterward, at least two Christian churches were built in the area.
Legend holds that Apollos came to Delphi and defeated the giant godlike Python, burying the monster and taking up residence there. Apollo was a multifaceted deity, the god of God of music, poetry, and art. As a god of the sun, light, and knowledge, he was the patron of oracles, and in his spare time he had some dealings with medicine, plague, and archery.
Delphi consisted of a “sacred way” that began beside a small agora where pilgrims could buy sacrificial gifts, and then zigzagged up a steep slope on the side of Mount Parnassos that was lined by massive sculptures and treasure houses built and filled by important cities from hundreds of miles around. Most of the treasures were looted in antiquity, but a few votive offerings and some of the building materials survived, many of which are displayed in a museum built below the sacred complex.
The heart of Delphi was the Temple of Apollo, where persons with a burning question — whether common folk or kings — could offer a sacrifice on the altar, after which a priest would relay the question to the oracle, a priestess called the Pythia who dwelt in an inner chamber of the temple. The Pythia would generally answer in some unintelligible babble, because she was perpetually high from fumes that leaked from the ground at that point. The priests, who were both knowledgable and shrewd, would then “interpret” the Pythia’s answer and deliver it to the petitioner. Typically the answers were ambiguous, leaving the questioner to interpret the answer in his own way.
For example, during the mid-sixth century, as Cyrus’ Persian Empire was expanding, Croessus, the famously rich king of Lydia, traveled to the oracle to ask if he should go to war against the Persians to stop their advance. The oracle answered along these lines: “If Croessus goes to war, a great empire will be destroyed.” Finding the oracle favorable, Croessus gathered allies and went to war against the Persians, who soundly defeated his forces at the Halys River in 547-546 BCE. The oracle would have been correct in either instance: in this case, it was his own empire that Croessus managed to destroy.
Delphi was also home to several temples dedicated to Apollo’s twin sister Athena, who was associated with both wisdom and war — notably, victory in war. The most notable of her temples, a circular structure called the Tholos, is located further down the slope.
Religion was not the only game at Delphi. Beginning sometime in the sixth century BCE, Delphi hosted the Pythian Games, one of the forerunners of the Olympic Games. After the Olympics began, the Pythian Games were held every four years, two years before and two years after the Olympics. A theater was built just above the Temple of Apollo, and an impressive stadium was constructed even higher up the mountain.
I don’t know if any of the Campbell students asked the oracle if marriage could be in his or her future, but if so, the answer was not ambiguous. After we traveled south to Athens and the sun was setting over the mountains, two of our finest became engaged.
And that was a nice way to end the day.