Living TRAVEL - GREECE - 1965, 75

Cape Sounion area (Attica), south of Athens, with the Temple of Poseidon;
, Macedonia, Rhodes, Thessaloniki

The temple ruins can just be seen on the headland!

Temple of Poseidon


The Tholos* - site of the Oracle and the "Centre of the Earth"

Temple of Apollo


View from the road to Meteora of cliffs
on the top of which monks built monasteries dating from the10th century.**

One of the few remaining monasteries (Monastery of the Holy Trinity) can just be seen on top of the peak
second from left - and below left. Below right = Convent of Roussanou

Monastery of St Stevens



Countryside in Macedonia

Other Greece

Theatre at the Asception

The Lion Hunt mosaic at Pella

Countryside near Sparta

Rhodes Harbour


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One hundred miles northwest of Athens, soaring high above the Gulf of Corinth, stands the holy mountain called Parnassus. Nestled amidst the pine forested slopes and rocky crags of the sacred peak are the beautiful and exceptionally well-preserved ruins of Delphi. A city of wondrous artistic achievements and grand athletic spectacles during the flowering of Greek culture in the first millennium BC, Delphi is best know however as the supreme oracle site of the ancient Mediterranean world.

According to the earliest legends the site was originally a sacred place of the earth goddess Gaia (also called Ge) and was guarded by her daughter, the serpent Python. Later legends state that the site was the center of the world as determined by the god Zeus. Two eagles had been released by Zeus from opposite ends of the earth and following great flights across the skies they finally met at Delphi. A still later legend relates that Apollo, the son of Zeus, came from his home atop Mt. Olympus to Mt. Parnassus to slay the great serpent Python. Fleeing from the peak Python sought safety in the sanctuary of the Earth Mother at Delphi. Apollo relentlessly pursued Python, however, and violently claimed the site. Later repenting of his crime, Apollo purified himself and, returning to Delphi, persuaded Pan (the goat-god of wild places and evocative music) to reveal to him the art of prophecy. Upon the site of his battle, Apollo erected his own oracular temple and, at the exact place where he had 'speared' the serpent, an omphalos stone was set in the ground.

  This omphalos stone (meaning 'center of the earth' to the ancient Greeks) later became the center of the inner sanctum of the shrine of the Delphic oracle. The site was originally called Pytho, after the guardian serpent. It was renamed Delphi after the dolphin (delphis in Greek) whose form Apollo took in order to bring Cretan sailors to Delphi so that they might become priests in his new temple. Regarding the omphalos, one legend tells that the original stone, now lost, was a large meteorite fallen from the sky in deepest antiquity. The omphalos stone currently on display in the Delphi museum, while very old and indeed from Delphi, is thus not the original sacred stone. It is interesting to inspect this exhibited stone however, for its conical form and sculptural designs derive from the old pillar and tree worship of the prehistoric goddess cults.

Archaeologically (as contrasted to the mythological discussion above) we know but little about the early beginnings of Delphi. Excavations have revealed the site was a Mycenean village from 1500 to 1100 BC, during which time the primary religious emphasis was on an oracular cult of the Earth Goddess. Around 1000 BC the worship of Apollo became dominant when this new god was brought to the region by either Dorians from Crete or northern tribes from Thessaly. The oracular use of the site continued during Apollo's occupation and, through the endeavors of politically astute priests, Delphi achieved Panhellenic fame as a major oracle shrine by the 7th century BC.

Women, who were considered more sensitive than men to the oracular powers of the site, would first bathe in the waters of the nearby sacred Castalian spring (said to have been created when the winged-horse Pegasus struck the ground with his hoof, and to be haunted by the three Muses). Next they would drink from the sacred Kassotis spring and then, sitting in meditation near the omphalos stone, would enter into a visionary trance state. Many archaic accounts of Delphi relate that the oracular priestesses, known as Pythia, sat upon a chair situated over a fissure in the earth from which emanated trance-inducing vapors. Plutarch, a Greek philosopher who served as a priest at Delphi, and Strabo, an ancient geographer had each told of geologic fumes that inspired divine frenzies, with Plutarch noting that the gases had a sweet smell.

Until recently this matter was considered to be a fabrication from post-Delphic times. French archaeologists began excavating the ruins in 1892, digging down to the temple's foundations, but no evidence of a fissure or fumes was found. By 1904, a visiting English scholar, A. P. Oppé, declared that ancient beliefs in temple fumes were the result of myth, mistake or fraud. The Oxford Classical Dictionary in 1948 voiced the prevailing view: "Excavation has rendered improbable the postclassical theory of a chasm with mephitic vapours."

During the late 1990’s however, a geologist, an archaeologist, a chemist and a toxicologist teamed up to produce a wealth of evidence suggesting that the ancient legends had in fact been accurate. The region's underlying rocks turn out to be composed of oily limestone fractured by two hidden faults that cross exactly under the ruined temple, creating a path by which petrochemical fumes (methane, ethane and ethylene) could rise to the surface to help induce visions. In particular, the scientists found that the women communing with the oracle probably came under the influence of ethylene - a sweet-smelling but psychoactively potent gas once used as an anesthetic. In light doses, ethylene produces feelings of disembodied euphoria and visionary insight.

Questions regarding the future would be asked of these women. The answers, interpreted by male priests and then spoken in verse, proved so accurate that the Delphic oracle came to exercise enormous political and social influence in the Greek empire for nearly a thousand years. For a variety of reasons the Delphic oracle was in decline by the 1st century AD and the last recorded oracle was in 362 AD. The arrival of the new god of Christianity signaled the death knoll of the ancient Greek oracle shrines and Delphi was abandoned to the elements.

Peering through the veils of legend and myth we may discern at Delphi the story of an ancient goddess site being later taken over by a people whose primary deity was a male god. The 'spearing' of the serpent may be interpreted as the marking of the energy beam point (a small area of concentrated energy at a power place) with a spear of stone and also the symbol of the masculine usurpation of a feminine deity shrine. The omphalos stone, and the earlier marker stone it replaced, were used to gather, concentrate, and emanate the energies of the power place for the benefit of the local people. From earliest times the particular energy of the site, as well as the chemical vapors rising from deep within the earth, had been recognized to induce prophetic visions in people and as a consequence a quasi-religious cult had developed over time.

 The photograph shows remains of the Tholos temple at the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, with sacred Mt. Parnassus in the background. Located roughly one-half mile from the main concentration of buildings at Delphi, Athena Pronaia was the gateway to Delphi. The site, having been occupied since the Neolithic Period (5000-3000 BC) and later by the Myceneans, may actually predate Delphi as a sacred place. Originally dedicated to the worship of an Earth Goddess, the shrine was eventually occupied by Olympian deities, Athena in particular. A guardian of wisdom and spiritual consciousness, Athena continued the ancient veneration of the feminine principle and brought devotion to the Earth Mother into the Classical Age of Greece. The Tholos temple, built in the early 4th century BC, has an unusual circular shape. This shape, and the leaf-adorned capitals of its Corinthian columns are a representation of the sacred forest groves of the old Earth Goddess religion. Writing in The Earth, The Temple, and The Gods, Vincent Skully comments that "The omphalos, or navel, which was supposed to mark the center of the world, was kept in the sanctuary of Apollo's temple itself (in the center of nearby Delphi), but the Tholos of Athena's sanctuary more clearly seems to evoke the navel of the earth than does any other building there."

 Further adding to the mystery of Delphi are the studies of ancient mysteries researchers, Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller. Following their exploration and mapping of alignments of sacred sites along the so-called St. Michael and Mary lines in southern England (chronicled in their book The Sun and the Serpent), Broadhurst and Miller spent ten years studying another alignment that passes through the temple of Delphi. Beginning at Skellig Michael in Ireland, the remarkable alignment stretches 2500 miles, passing through numerous ancient holy sites in Cornwall, France, Italy, Greece and Israel. Readers interested in learning more about this alignment of sacred sites and its fascinating relationship to the oracular temple of Delphi will enjoy The Dance of the Dragon by Broadhurst and Miller.




In the northwest corner of Thessaly, the wide bed of the Pinios River emerges from the mighty canyons of the Eastern Pindus Mountains that plummet abruptly onto the Thassalian plain. Here, in the shadow of the mountains and just beyond the town of Kalambaka, massive gray colored pinnacles rise towards the sky. It is a strange but breathtaking landscape that has been sculpted by wind and water over thousands of years. These smooth, vertical rocks have become a favorite destination for rock climbers who are, perhaps, the only ones today who can truly appreciate the feat of the 9th century hermits who first climbed them to settle in the caves and fissures of the rocks. On Sundays, they clambered down from their cells to celebrate mass in Doupiani and as their numbers increased, the Theotokos of Doupiani was established as the first semi-organized community during the 11th century.

By the 14th century, the Byzantine Empire was already on the wane and the monastic communities of the Athos peninsula were increasingly besieged by Turkish pirates. After an encounter with brigands, three monks, Gregory, Moses and Athanasius, left the Monastery of Iviron on the western coast of the peninsula to search for a new home. They had heard of ‘miracles’ taking place in the land of the great rock forest and on arriving there, settled on top of the rock called Stylos or the Pillar where they built a hesychasterion or wooden hut. Later, Athanasius assembled a small community and constructed a few cells and a chapel in a cave on the nearby Platys Lithos or the Broad Rock. The Serbian Emperor, Symeon Uros provided them with an endowment that allowed them to build the Church of the Transfiguration around 1356 and to expand the monastery with more cells and cloisters. His son, John Uros, retired here as the Monk Ioasaph about 1373 adding to the already sizable endowment enjoyed by the Grand Meteoron, also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration. Ioasaph assumed authority upon the death of Athanasius in 1383 and he further expanded the monastery and the Church.

 Meaning ‘suspended in air’ the name Meteora soon came to encompass the entire rock community of 24 monasteries. There were no steps and the main access to the monasteries was by means of a net that was hitched over a hook and hoisted up by rope and a hand cranked windlass to winch towers overhanging the chasm. Monks descended in the nets or on retractable wooden ladders up to 40m long to the fertile valleys below to grow grapes, corn and potatoes. Each community developed its own resources and by the end of the 14th century, the Grand Meteoron emerged as the dominant community. Its wealth included landed estates, flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle.

After Ioasaph died in 1422, Meteora gradually plunged into a period of disorder and decline. Unscrupulous men expropriated the income of the monasteries, Vlach squatters settled in Holy Trinity and Kallistratos and a squint eyed monk named Theodore lived with two women dressed as monks in the Monastery of the Pantocrator. The rock community enjoyed a brief revival of monasticism in the 16th Century under the reign of Suileman the Magnificent who relaxed earlier prohibitions on the building and restoration of Christian churches but lapsed once again into decline. By the 18th century, Meteora had become a refuge center for Greeks escaping the increasingly harsh administration and taxation of the Ottoman overlords as well as a hideout of the klephts, rebel warriors who harassed the Turks and participated in the fight for independence in the 19th century. The German and Italian occupation during World War II saw further looting and destruction of the monasteries. Today, only six monasteries survive as museums. They are sparsely occupied by a few monks and nuns but they offer a rare glimpse of Orthodox monastic life.