The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 20: A Pilgrimage to Ancient Delphi

Follow with me in the footsteps of countless pilgrims to the sacred site of Delphi, spiritual center of the ancient Greek world and home of the famous oracle.

NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.

The final destination of my return trip to Greece was the culmination of many years’ longing to spend time among the haunting ruins of temples that have drawn devotees for thousands of years. I wanted quiet moments to experience the awe-inspiring setting at the foot of Mount Parnassos, perched beneath the sheer cliffs of the Phaedriades (the “Shining Ones”) and above the sheer drop to the valley of the Pleistos River flowing to the Gulf of Corinth. So much of early and Classic Greek history and myth circles around this place of power! I needed to absorb its presence, to fill a void in my lifelong fascination with Greek culture, but also as necessary research for my novel-in-progress, which has key scenes in and around Delphi.

In my early backpacking trip around Greece, Delphi was the planned, eagerly-anticipated endpoint of my travels, but unfortunately the trip there was aborted when my travel partner at the time injured his back, and we had to cut short the trip. I carried that unfulfilled longing for Delphi for decades until the fates aligned, and Thor and I were able to make the journey. He shared my excitement as I finally set foot on the Sacred Way to enter the sanctuary.

Below, as seen from the Temple of Apollo, the ancient Way follows the present roadway curving to the left around the cliff:

Today I’ll share a few highlights of this complex site and surrounding countryside. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll explore some of the history and mythology, coupled with the temple restorations, museum holdings of statues and more, and a foray to the Korykian Cave high in the mountainside, where the devotees of Dionysos and Gaea held ecstatic ceremonies.

The lower site, below the main sanctuary, has yielded the oldest signs of settlement and Earth Goddess worship in the Neolithic Era from around 5000-3000 BC. It is now the site of the Classic era temple and circular Tholos of Athena. It’s speculated that the two mounded hills on the opposite side of the steep Pleistos River valley fostered the early dedication of the site to an earth-mother goddess.

After out first tour of the site, Thor and I drove up into the high alpine valley beneath Mt. Parnassos, then hiked to the Korykian Cave. The Corybantes, women warriors in my near-future Ariadne novels, live in similar caverns in these limestone hillsides, and follow ancient Dionysian rituals.

I couldn’t get enough of the haunting loveliness of the partially-reconstructed Tholos honoring the goddesses. And that piercingly clear blue Greek sky!

Looking in the other direction, the upper sanctuary with most of the monuments is nestled beneath the twin cliffs of the Phaedriades.

In the site museum crouches the huge Naxian Sphinx, the mythical creature who posed the famous riddle to Oedipus: “What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at evening?” Oedipus correctly answered, “Man,” and was allowed to pass without being killed.

Today, the site is guarded by this fierce feline:

After Apollo had taken over the site in the Archaic era, the Sacred Way led past various monuments and treasuries of different city-states toward the pilgrimage goal, the Temple of Apollo that housed the famous oracle of Delphi. Inside, priestesses supposedly inhaled vapors from a cleft into subterranean realms, then uttered prophecies or advice that the priests would interpret for the supplicants. Some of the latest temple from around 330 BC has been reconstructed (several earlier temples were destroyed by earthquakes or invaders). In the foreground is a modern interpretation of an ancient column of three intertwined serpents, which figures as symbolic in my Ariadne novels.

This kylix, or large drinking cup, shows Apollo with his lyre and emblematic raven. Apollo, the god of light and reason, took over the site from the chthonic (subterranean) older powers, but during the winter months Dionysos still ruled here, his followers inspired by ecstatic, primal rites that balanced the two forces within humans.

Along the winding, climbing pathway of the Sacred Way, many nation-states erected treasuries to hold offerings and spoils of war. Below is the reconstructed Athenian treasury.

The famous bronze Charioteer was found on the site. He is larger than life and beautifully detailed.

A marble basin depicts what appears to be a lion hunt, or else a battle involving a lion.

The museum displays a bronze Mycenaean helmet like a couple of the men above are wearing:

Above the temple of Apollo is the elegant theater with its marble benches.

As sunset neared on our last evening there, clouds rolled in over the valley of olive fields flowing to the Gulf of Corinth.

But of course, we hadn’t missed the chance to drive through the valley in search of a beach and a cooling swim.

At Delphi, Thor and I were also celebrating our ten-year anniversary, and spontaneously renewed our vows as we stood before a replica of the omphalos stone located here at the navel of the world. A bystander urged us to memorialize the occasion with this photo. Chairete! Rejoice!


You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at

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