Spring has sprung and with it the promise of new beginnings! As with all things new hopefulness and trepidation sometimes walk hand in hand. During times of transition the one thing we seek is surety. We want to know that we will prosper, maintain good health, all our dreams will come true and on and on. We make resolutions, pray, offer good intentions to the gods or goddesses, read our horoscopes, plot out ways to avoid unpleasantness, etc., etc. The ancient world was no different and on a recent trip to Greece I fulfilled a life long dream to visit the Oracle of Delphi.
The Oracle of Delphi is a mystical place, a real place, a place visited with great expectations and a place still revered today by Greeks and non-Greeks alike. In the ancient world it was a place where individuals went for answers. I like this! In our current world situation fraught with uncertainty and anxiety a few answers or guidance would be wonderful. In fact most of the participants on this journey joked about what they would ask the oracle when they arrived. However, in the ancient world as well as contemporary society, experience verifies that even with that advice, how to proceed with such information is, well, tricky as evidenced by the oft told tale of one man’s experience with the oracle. We heard this tale more than once on our journeys throughout Greece and I never got tired of the telling or the way each storyteller embellished the tale. So…..
It is said that in ancient Greece, a certain man was expecting the birth of his first child. He gave many fine gifts to the oracle as he asked his burning question, “will it be a girl or a boy?” He wanted a boy. The oracle answered him, “A girl not boy.” He was ecstatic! His wife would give birth to a boy! His son! I know what you are thinking……. A girl not, boy hmmm….or a girl, not boy….you see the problem, but there are no commas in the Greek language something I learned while studying Greek (no question marks either!). Yes, his wife gave birth to a girl. “What the heck!,” he said to the temple authorities, “I paid good money for an outcome you gave in favor of my desires!” “Yes said the oracle and we gave you the answer.” Satisfaction from the Oracle’s prophecies was not guaranteed and no refunds given in the ancient world and I for one would not mess with the gods, at least not intentionally! Sometimes you have to go with the flow!
Our guide on this journey also told us that the oracle was consulted by many famous leaders and rulers who wished to know the outcome of anticipated wars or political situations. Alexander the Great, for example consulted the Oracle. Alexander was tutored by Socrates and apparently had a deep respect for philosophy and spiritual things and was known to have consulted many seers during his lifetime. Ironically, Alexander’s father learned that Alexander would be a great ruler vis a vis the Oracle, so it was no surprise that he would want to know his fate as a ruler. Don’t do what Alexander did. When he visited the oracle he was told to come back at a later time. This infuriated Alexander who grabbed the Oracle by the hair and dragged her out of the temple to give him his answer, to which she replied, “You are invincible.” Satisfied with this answer Alexander left to continue his quest for supremacy. Maybe he should have waited. While he did conquer much of his world, I do not think he was counting on an early death or the chaos that ensued in its aftermath. Our guide told us that the temple was closed during the winter in ancient times. Maybe Pythia needed a break, or as some have suggested, maybe the vapors rising from the crack in the earth did not operate as well in winter. At any rate….the rest is history.
Gazing upon the Temple of Apollo it was easy to imagine the ancient Greeks making their ascent to the temple to consult Pythia on her tripod perch. Between the gasses rising from the fissures in the ground and herbs that were ingested to achieve an altered state, Pythia was open to the psychic vibes of the universe. Payment was made before the advice was given so that there was no chance of an unhappy petitioner asking for their gifts back if they didn’t like the answer they received. Again, don’t mess with the gods.
As artists, makers, we want to feel certainty about our art and what we create. We start out in one direction with a piece certain of its meaning and end up somewhere else. When we are finished with a work, we are not alway sure it is finished..could I, should I, would I, add, take away or start all over. Clay artists often fashion a kiln god out of clay to insure the success of pieces to be fired. I am not ashamed to say that I certainly do! On rare occasions (although it has only happened to me once or twice in almost thirty years) work explodes. Several alternatives present themselves in this case, 1) throw it away, 2) an opportunity for an installation, 3) mosaics anyone? In the end we have to follow our heart and sometimes that means saying good enough or letting go. Maybe it’s a good thing to leave out the comma….to go Greek…and leave some things up to chance, because in the end as much as we try to exercise control much is left to the gods, fate, circumstances, whatever you want to call it and very often the outcome is better than we imagined.
As with all ancient architectural sites, artistic treasures are housed in adjacent museums because of the unforgiving effects of nature on these wonders. I am grateful for the experience. It was marvelous to walk in the steps of ancient and contemporary Greeks alike. As a maker I am always looking to the the handmade, I include writing and music in this pursuit of the beautiful. I have only one photo of a ceramic vessel from the archeological Museum of Delphi and it is magnificent. I have hundreds more from the rest of our journey which hopefully I will get around to writing about and sharing later. Having been deeply influenced by Greco-Roman ceramics I was in clay heaven and you will be too if you decide to visit. (….or if you have visited, then you know what I mean?) . One last story about the Oracle…..It’s worth it because it’s funny and another great lesson from the ancients. The Oracle supposedly declared Socrates the wisest man in all of Greece! His reply-priceless, “If I am it is because I know how little I know.” Well I paraphrased it, but you get the meaning.
What did I ask the Oracle you might wonder? I didn’t. I thanked the Oracle for the great opportunity of visiting this special place. The funny thing is that wherever we visited on the mainland or the islands, we were always asked by the locals if we had a chance to visit Delphi. The reply of an enthusiastic yes was always met with big smiles and shining eyes of knowing. The love of all things mystic is alive and well in the contemporary Greek world.
As always…..Happy creating! And forget about the comma, or pay attention if it’s there! Ya hara! Γειά Χαπά! Wishing you health, blessings, joy, all that is good!