“As mortals we should behave as mortals.” – Euripides, Greek playwright
Among the many surprises and conveniences about modern life, learning while staring history from a safe distance is one of them. Mortality is a mordant gift. It is man’s most excellent opportunity to learn and grow. We can experience history even in the abstract as a fresh air moving from east to west. It can ignite some currents, strong persuasive motifs and primitive outbursts in us. It can strike us with a brooded sense of hypnotism and a sense of clinging to the familiar and heavily trodden. It can spell us forgettable cholera of dark-ultimate darkened pasts, and a curse that even the slow and scurried wheels of millennia can’t extinguish. It can also be silently operatic as if the movements of the conductor’s baton determine the hymnal direction of the focus we want to highlight. As svelte Selene, our Greek guide emphasized, “we pause here for history and bring not what the oracle will say but what we create, engage with and own as our future.”
In response, we stood at the ground of the Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi, not to celebrate the past but to fill the grass-laden space that lies before the deep ravines, the impressive mountain range of the Parnassus and then the sleepy town of Delphi. We stood with awe at a place considered as one of the pan-Hellenic sanctuaries among Olympian deities.
As we climbed halfway before the slope of the mountain, I sat at a high vantage point in the natural sanctuary with the most glorious view of the mountains and valley, the panoramic view of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at the center. Before me was the famed ruins of the temple of the god Apollo, this is where the god of light, knowledge, and harmony was believed to have resided for nine months of the year (the other three months Dionysius reigns here). This is nestled on the slope of Mt. Parnassus in the southern mainland Greece. The twin cliffs of the Phaedriadhes make it a place of dramatic landscape and open up a splendid view of the mountain peak behind it. Going up there in the Sanctuary of Delphi took us more than an hour through a winding and perilous road from a town of Itea in the Gulf of Corinth.
The temple dates back to four centuries before the Christian Era. This is the legendary home of the Oracle of Delphi, considered to be the navel of the earth (omphalos) according to the ancient Greeks. Greeks believed that this is the meeting point of the two eagles released by the supreme god Zeus to determine the center of the world. In the past emperors, kings and generals came here to the Oracle of Delphi to ask the best course for wars, political matters, invasions and love to the god Apollo through the priestess called Pythias.
Embracing the air of the site is to sit and to contemplate about history, the internecine wars of gods and goddesses, human’s folly and the ancient Greek’s achievements in the battles of Marathon and the Peloponnesian wars. Delphi formed part of those pasts. That was the nearest approximation for me to be almost at the peaks of Mt. Olympus where Zeus and his legions live. That was my immersion into where many epics and Hellenic literature derive its origins and genealogies.
While moving around the sanctuary, there were three essential inscriptions carved into the wall of the ruined temple written in Greek. One is “gnōthi seautón” which means “know thyself”. The second was “mēdén ágan” which means “nothing in excess”. Finally, the third “engýa pára d’atē” means “make a pledge and mischief is nigh”.
I was dismissive at first about these Greek inscriptions. In our age of self-help remedies and instantaneous reflections, knowing oneself, living in moderation and making a commitment for what is right, aren’t new and revelatory panacea. After quite some time and being exposed to the sweltering heat of the Peloponnese sun, I began experiencing a eureka moment. This place with a long history of a series of Phytthias (Greek priestesses), religious wars and dramas, revisionisms of myths and narratives, tilting of a balance of powers of deities and humans, I then surmised, that these ruins speak a volume of insights. These are principles that stood the oracles and will continue to be strong foundations of society.
There I concretized it for myself that I am history. I am part of the process of history-making. I am both a country, its unique people, its arbitrary boundaries, its way of life and rhythms and aspirations. I am both of the earth, an entity of the human race and an entity in a living ecosystem. I am both alone and many in the parade of generations and migrations. I have fears and dreams. My beliefs and experiences are unique and a product of my environment. I am both a father and a son. I am both a stranger and an insider in the world of exclusions and inclusions. Yes, I am a moving piece in the wild demonstration of a power play, yet I also have choices. Yes, I matter, and my actions do matter. I need others, and others need me. I have a single voice, and I can make this voice heard in the agora of ideas and not of arms. These voices are both powerful, sometimes imperfect and struggling, but they have a life of their own.
I have a stake in the evolving thread of history, and these three phrases and ancient calls are still relevant guiding principles. Knowing myself entails knowing and living out my freedoms, the freedom to contribute and being free to make a positive impact in my circle of influence. Plutarch who is associated with Delphi, in his one philosophy, calls for inner change. His favorite mantra is “what we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Delphi which hosted the old quadrilinneal Pythian games being held there in the surprisingly well-maintained gymnasium embraced this call. Hero athletes were admired on this virtue on how they prepared, played and stood magnanimous in victory or defeat. Success for the many hero athletes entailed a long and arduous process of knowing oneself.
Nothing in excess is a reminder in the present culture of materialism and excessive consumerism. In the mass media, it is affirming and standing up against fake news and the vicious cycle of individualism and relative truths. The surrounding sanctuary is both an indictment and a reminder for this. Being a pan-Hellenic site where no city-states in the past owned the sacred place, the treasury temples of the different city-states from Athens to Sparta competed for the most elaborate and richest temple as their house of offerings to the god Apollo. At the same time, the present ruins are a clear picture of the transitory nature of power and wealth.
Making a definite and firm commitment to stand for values and principles that are constant and unchanging in the sweeping tides competing interests, is a human ideal. As Herodotus wrote in Histories, “greet deeds are usually wrought at great risks.” I continued to process this as we went to our base, the Archeological Museum of Delphi where the precious treasures from the Mycenaean to the early Byzantine periods are displayed. My thoughts were somewhere else even as I gazed at the massive Sphinx of Naxos, the caryatid from the Siphnian Treasury, the beautiful Antinous of Parian marble and the museum’s highlight, the Charioteer of Delphi dated 475 BC.
Selene, as she said goodbye to the group concluded, “may the principles that are imbued, maybe muted in those ruins be your building blocks in our communal building of an unvanquished destiny of the human race.” She solemnly bowed as if Plutarch reincarnated for a brief moment in that specific page in the historical tome.