We have all fallen in love with our local tour guide in Delphi, Greece. Her name is Penny Kolomvotsou; she has curly brown hair and is wearing a beige leather jacket and jeans. Her phone is ringing incessantly and she keeps rejecting the calls and apologizing to us.
“Boyfriend?” I ask. “Go ahead and answer it.”
“I have a husband and two children,” Penny says with a laugh. “I don’t have to pick up my phone.”
But the caller is persistent. Penny finally answers. “It’s Sabrina,” she says, referring to our Insight travel director Sabrina Tsimonidis. “She’s asking where the handbrake is.”
Sabrina drives a manual; Penny drives an automatic. Sabrina is going to pick up some bottles of wine for a picnic in Thermopylae by the statue of King Leonidas of Sparta; Penny is orienting us at the Delphi Museum before we were to go up to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, located on Mt. Parnassos, home to the most famous of sacred sites, the Oracle of Delphi.
Sabrina tells us later that not too long ago she was in her living room with the History Channel on her TV when she heard a familiar voice. She looked up and it was Penny, who has been interviewed for several documentaries to talk about Delphi and why it was the center of not just Ancient Greece but the whole known universe.
The Oracle of Delphi, Penny explains, refers to the whole complex— the series of terraces in the foothills of Mount Parnassos — and not just the priestess. From the museum we go up the archeological site at Delphi. This site was said to be determined by Zeus himself who wanted to find the center of the Earth or Gaia. Penny says that Zeus sent two eagles flying from opposite directions — one coming from the east and one from the west — and the point where the met was over Delphi, where the “navel” of Gaia was found.
The temple here is dedicated to Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto, and it is also here where the Pythian Games were held, the precursor to the Ancient Olympics. The games did not have just athletes competing but also musicians, and the victors were presented with laurel crowns because Apollo believed they were sacred.
We climb to the top of the Oracle of Delphi, up to the stadium. It is so quiet here, surrounded by mountains, and it is nearly empty except for us. Below us, what remains of the Temple of Apollo, where vapors once came out of the cracks in the mountain, which might partly explain the hallucinations of the Pythia, whose answers to questions of people’s future was anything but simple.
The Oracle of Delphi was, if you will, a great equalizer. The kings sent their trusted people here to ask what they should do to win wars, to protect their thrones, the outcome of battles. The important stuff to important people, in short. But archeologists also found tablets on which ordinary folk wrote their petitions and questions: Is my wife cheating? Will harvest be plentiful? Is this baby mine? The important stuff to ordinary people, as well.
Penny tells us that the site was once occupied by a village until they were relocated and archeologists began a systematic excavation. They had discovered the Roman ruins before and what was under these? The Greek ruins. What a magnificent sight it must have been, you think, as you approach the mountains — 5,000 statues surrounding the Temple of Apollo and 500 bronze statues that were looted by the Romans. “The Oracle at Delphi was not just looted by the Romans and Persians, but also by bad neighbors — by the locals, by neighboring city states,” says Penny. But thankfully, some people had the foresight to bury some of the treasures — forgotten for thousands of years.
“Archeologists always make decisions on which layer to keep and which layer to damage,” says Penny. “When they first came to Delphi and didn’t have the big equipment, they made the wise decision to leave it as it is. In 1939, archeologists had to go back to fix broken stones, which gave them the opportunity to dig and this is what they found accidentally — gold-and-ivory statues of Apollo, his sister Artemis and their mother Leto.”
The ivory part of the statues is now black from the vapors, but the gold (reconstructed as it is — as most of the treasures they excavated) is as awe-inspiring as it must have been then — glittering in a temple dedicated to a beloved god.
It is only in Delphi that we understand what all this means to modern life, how mythology and Greek drama were and are relevant. Penny doesn’t quote Homer or Socrates or Plato. She quotes Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, whom I began reading at university in the early ‘90s, specifically his 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ.
“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free,” were Kazantzakis’s most famous words, now immortalized on his tomb as well.
Even when the Pythia at Delphi — presumably high from the vapors and ready to tell fortunes — told the kings and soldiers they would die horrible deaths in battle, they still picked up their armors and swords and went to war.
Penny points out something else. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was where Apollo was worshipped the most (the center of the ancient world, remember?) And yet he shared Delphi with another god — a lesser god no less — Dionysus (or Bacchus in the Roman version). Apollo was the god of music, poetry, catharsis, logic. How is it, in his biggest temple, he shares it with Dionysus, god of wine and merriment?
Penny says that in front of the temple of Apollo, the Ancient Greeks had inscribed two things: “Know thyself” and “Nothing to the extremes.”
“When Achilles was going to war, his mother asked him, ‘What are you going to do? If you go to war, you will die. Stay at home and become a normal person with a family.’ He said, ‘No, my decision is to become mortal and I am going.’ Remember Hector? When he was holding his baby and his wife tells him, ‘There are other brave soldiers who will go out and fight. Stay with us.’ But with his baby, he stood up and said, ‘I’m going because it is my duty.’”
Penny loves telling these stories. And in a few months she will be tour-guiding a group of philosophers from Germany. “They are discussing the European crisis, but not just economics, also principles and values.”
She makes a face and laughs. Thirty philosophers.