Know thyself

Posted by Darrel Bristow-Bovey on 20 August 2018

We humans have always wanted answers. Our guest columnist goes in search of an ancient one.

Mount Parnassus. Photo by Erik Drost.

‘Have you thought of a question?’ I asked.

The woman looked at me quizzically.

‘For the oracle,’ I said. ‘You have to ask the oracle something.’

We were walking up the hill to Delphi and we were strangers, but when you’re walking up a steep hill in Greek summer heat beside another person and both of you are moving as slowly as it is possible for human beings to move, after a while it becomes rude to ignore each other.

‘If I tell you,’ she said, ‘it won’t come true.’

I was about to explain that it’s a question, not a wish, but what did I know? When a question is important enough to you, is it any different to a wish? Besides, I needed to save my breath for the last part of the hill.

Delphi is as beautiful now as it was two-and-a-half thousand years ago, when the priestess of Apollo sat cross-legged on a bronze tripod to receive the kings and wise men who came from all corners of the ancient world to ask important questions and receive ambiguous replies. The temple’s foundations are still there, and several pale stone pillars, and below the temple is still the lovely green valley of Phocis and the blue Gulf of Corinth, and above are the grey walls of Mount Parnassus where the nine Muses once lived.

For the ancients, Delphi was the centre of the world, the belly button of the universe. All the answers to all the questions were there: you only needed to interpret them correctly.

When rich King Croesus was pondering whether to attack the Persians, he came to Delphi and asked whether it was a good idea.

‘If you go to war,’ said the god Apollo though his oracle, ‘you will destroy the mighty kingdom.’

With our modern eyes we can already see the structure of the joke, but Croesus couldn’t, and it was only when the Persians were burning his capital at Sardis that he realised which mighty kingdom he had destroyed.

I had a question, too, but I didn’t know exactly how to phrase it. I’d been travelling for months and I’d left behind a good life at home and someone who loved me and who I loved, but I wasn’t sure what ‘home’ meant any more. I wasn’t sure who I was any more. I wasn’t sure what I should do next.

I stood at the ruins of the temple and squinted against the sun and tried to formulate the question in my head, and then I sat on a giant square of hot grey stone and waited for an answer.

I sat and waited, and I waited some more, and the yellow heat of the day came to its peak and started to recede and blue shadows came slowly down the mountain and found me. A hawk drifted out from the mountain behind and turned in the empty air over the valley.

As the afternoon turned to evening, one of the Delphi guides came and leaned against the stone beside me. He had just finished with a busload of Japanese tourists who had listened to him and nodded and hadn’t asked him any questions. He had seen me there all day. Maybe he’d seen lots of people like me.

We sat in silence for a while. He smoked a cigarette. When it was finished, he stood and stretched and then turned to me.

‘The god Apollo doesn’t come here any more,’ he said.

‘No,’ I agreed.

‘It’s alright,’ he said. ‘Everyone always knows the answer to their questions already.’

He patted my shoulder and winked and walked down the hill.

‘Did you ask your question?’ asked the woman when I passed her later in the village.

‘I think so,’ I said.

‘Did you get an answer?’

‘I think so,’ I said.


This guide first appeared with the 2018 September issue of Getaway magazine.

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The September issue is out and features 13 fresh ways to explore our national park; a Port Elizabeth guide that uncovers artistic undercurrents; a photo safari in the Delta that will get you thrillingly close to elephants; an exploration of Sri Lanka’s tea plantations by train and much more!


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