Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Wisdom of Delphi

A great guide brings a sight to life. Instead of seeing a pile of rubble on a hillside, the caved-in faces of unknown people from more than two millenia ago on crumbling marble remains, the guide gives you the chance to see the temple in its former glory, to understand the story behind the statues and the all-too-human triumphs and tragedies that they represent.

In Athens, our tour group had the pleasure of a guided tour through the Acropolis and Ancient Agora, followed by a trip to the Archeological Museum this morning. We learned to tell archaic statues from severe, the severe from the classical, and the classical from the hellenistic. We imagined the processions that would wind their way up the Acropolis Hill every four years in honor of Athena's birthday, making their way through the massive gates and ending in front of the Parthenon, the grand temple to the virgin.

But my favorite experience so far has been this afternoon's trip through the museum and archeological site at Delphi. Leaving metropolitan Athens behind, we find ourselves surrounded by rocky, pine forested mountains, with towns clinging precariously to cliffsides. Our guide, Penny, was bursting with enthusiasm to show us the amazing artifacts in the Delphi Museum, and to remind us of those ancient stories - from the the Trojan War to Oedipus Rex - that, with the right perspective still have so much to teach us today. The famous Oracle at Delphi was, after all, a place where people went in search of answers, and when all was said and done, it seems the most important answers were the ones insribed above the temple: "Know thyself", and "Everything in Moderation".

"The answers were not vague," Penny told us. "They were open to interpretation."

One story, an unfamiliar one to me previously, sticks with me in particular. In the museum, archaic statues of two larger-than-life twins stood. "They are the happiest men," Penny told us. "Why do you think that would be? I'll tell you later!"

At the end of the tour, however, Michael and I realized we still had not heard the full story, so we questioned Penny on her own.

"As a parent, what do you most wish for your children?" she asked. Not being parents ourselves, we weren't sure what to answer. Penny told us the story of a rich king who came to the oracle, wondering whether he should engage in war with the Persians or not. The oracles response was, typically, up to interpretation. Unfortunately, the king made the wrong choice, started a war in which he lost all his riches and his kingdom - the things he had mistakenly believed brought him happiness - and found himself about to be burned to death by the Persian king.

Before this tragedy befell him, however, a very different event had taken place back home. In honor of their mother, the queen, a celebration was being held at the temple. Two oxen were supposed to draw the chariot seven miles to the temple, but the oxen were nowhere to be found. Wanting nothing more than to bring honor to their mother, the two twins of the famed statues took the place of the oxen and they themselves pulled the chariot to the festival. Upon their arrival they collapsed, exhausted but happy.

Their mother, pleased with her heroic sons, asked the gods to favor them for their deed. In the morning, the two young men were found dead, having peacefully passed on in their sleep.

"This," Penny continued. "Is as much as you can hope for: to die in peace, with no suffering, having done a great thing."

Finally, on the pyre about to be torched to death, the former king remembered his sons and the words of the oracle, and realized how mistaken he had been in his choices. On voicing his newfound realization to the Persian king, the Persian ruler ruler realized that here was a wise man indeed, and rather than killing him, offered him a position as his very own counselor.

So, in the end, he learned from his mistakes, and took responsibility for his errors. This, our guide told us, is what we can still learn from today. No matter what anyone may say, we are all responsible for our own actions, and within each of us is the ability to find our own happiness in the things that truly matter, and to make a wrong situation right.

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