Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Salon: Parallel Lives by Plutarch

Plutarch was a Romanised Greek, and lived twenty miles from the temple of Apollo in Delphi (picture below) during the first century. He was educated in the Academy in Athens, initiated into the Mysteries of the god Apollo and he became a priest, responsible for the interpretation of prophecies of the priestesses. There is a Wikipedia article on the Pythia of the Apollo Shrine at Delphi which makes fascinating reading. At Delphi three tectonically active faults intercept. Movement along these cause the bituminous-rich limestones to grate together and become hot. The bitumin is then broken down to produce volatile hydrocarbons such as ethene. When this gas is concentrated in an enclosed place (e.g. the shrine beneath the temple at Delphi) it can cause hallucinations and trances, and at concentrations above 20% a kind of hysteria and fit.

The remains of Apollo's Temple, Delphi. October 2010.

One story behind the establishment of the shrine is that a goat fell down a fissure and had to be rescued by his herder. The herder and his goat climbed out in a daze - both had been intoxicated by a gas. This attracted other people to the fissure and eventually a shrine was built, and priestesses appointed. The priestesses (which could either be learned or ignorant) were local women who showed a shamanic tendency to go into trances and make predictions, and eventually a hierarchy of priestesses, priests and other helpers lived at the centre.

Ownership of the shrine was important, as the predictions that the priestesses made were regarded with great reverence. Athens, and other city states in Greece fought each other for possession of Delphi because with it went the right to skip the queue and have their prophecy revealed to them first.

The last section of the Sacred Way, Delphi. October 2010.

The supplicants would travel along a Sacred Way (the last section is shown above) to the temple, pay to have their fortune read, and a goat would be sacrificed. Before being killed, the goat would be sprayed with cold water, and if it shivered from the hoof up this would be deemed a good sign. Other good signs involved the state of the goat's liver. By this time the supplicants were in a psychologically vulnerable state. The Sacred Way was a long one, and they had frequently fasted and maybe gone without sleep (common ways of inducing a shamanic trance). By the time they heard the priestesses' (via the priests') utterances I expect they would be ready to believe anything. They then went back to their home states to report back to whoever had sent them.

The importance of Delphi survived until Hadrian's time, but then it died away - perhaps because by then there had been few earthquakes in the region, and so the levels of gas had also become reduced.

Plutarch's role of priest at Delphi clearly did not take a huge amount of time. When he wasn't at duty at the shrine he was entertaining visitors in his country estate or writing books like The Parallel Lives (which I downloaded on my Kindle). In this he took two great men - one Greek and one Roman - and compared their lives. He was not always accurate, but his accounts are entertaining because of the detail. I have just finished reading his account of Pericles, who was the man responsible for many of the Greek classic buildings around Athens (e.g. the Acropolis as below).

The Acropolis, Athens. October 2010.

This is common knowledge, but Plutarch adds an extra detail which immediately fixes the man in my mind and makes him more interesting still. Pericles, apparently, had a large, out-of-proportion head, and this is why he is always shown in a helmet to disguise the malformation. So I look up images of Pericles on the internet, and find that yes, in each one Pericles is the one with the hat.


Blogger Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Fascinating the pictures, too.

Thanks for sharing....


Sun Feb 20, 06:17:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Laurel-Rain.

Sun Feb 20, 06:33:00 pm  

Post a Comment

Comments are subject to moderation.

<< Home