THE TRAV­ELLER

We hu­mans have al­ways wanted an­swers. Our guest colum­nist goes in search of an an­cient one

Getaway (South Africa) - - NEWS -

Dar­rel Bris­tow-Bovey con­sults the Or­a­cle at Del­phi in Greece

‘Have you thought of a ques­tion?’ I asked.

The woman looked at me quizzi­cally.

‘For the or­a­cle,’ I said. ‘You have to ask the or­a­cle some­thing.’

We were walk­ing up the hill to Del­phi and we were strangers, but when you’re walk­ing up a steep hill in Greek sum­mer heat be­side an­other per­son and both of you are mov­ing as slowly as it is pos­si­ble for hu­man be­ings to move, af­ter a while it be­comes rude to ig­nore each other. ‘If I tell you,’ she said, ‘it won’t come true.’

I was about to ex­plain that it’s a ques­tion, not a wish, but what did I know? When a ques­tion is im­por­tant enough to you, is it any dif­fer­ent to a wish? Be­sides, I needed to save my breath for the last part of the hill.

Del­phi is as beau­ti­ful now as it was two-and-a-half thousand years ago, when the priest­ess of Apollo sat cross-legged on a bronze tri­pod to re­ceive the kings and wise men who came from all cor­ners of the an­cient world to ask im­por­tant ques­tions and re­ceive am­bigu­ous replies. The tem­ple’s foun­da­tions are still there, and sev­eral pale stone pil­lars, and be­low the tem­ple is still the lovely green val­ley of Pho­cis and the blue Gulf of Corinth, and above are the grey walls of Mount Par­nas­sus where the nine Muses once lived.

For the an­cients, Del­phi was the cen­tre of the world, the belly but­ton of the uni­verse. All the an­swers to all the ques­tions were there: you only needed to in­ter­pret them cor­rectly.

When rich King Croe­sus was pon­der­ing whether to at­tack the Per­sians, he came to Del­phi and asked whether it was a good idea.

‘If you go to war,’ said the god Apollo though his or­a­cle, ‘you will de­stroy the mighty king­dom.’

With our mod­ern eyes we can al­ready see the struc­ture of the joke, but Croe­sus couldn’t, and it was only when the Per­sians were burn­ing his cap­i­tal at Sardis that he re­alised which mighty king­dom he had de­stroyed.

I had a ques­tion, too, but I didn’t know ex­actly how to phrase it. I’d been trav­el­ling for months and I’d left be­hind a good life at home and some­one who loved me and who I loved, but I wasn’t sure what ‘home’ meant any more. I wasn’t sure who I was any more. I wasn’t sure what I should do next.

I stood at the ru­ins of the tem­ple and squinted against the sun and tried to for­mu­late the ques­tion in my head, and then I sat on a gi­ant square of hot grey stone and waited for an an­swer.

I sat and waited, and I waited some more, and the yel­low heat of the day came to its peak and started to re­cede and blue shad­ows came slowly down the moun­tain and found me. A hawk drifted out from the moun­tain be­hind and turned in the empty air over the val­ley.

As the af­ter­noon turned to evening, one of the Del­phi guides came and leaned against the stone be­side me. He had just fin­ished with a bus­load of Ja­panese tourists who had lis­tened to him and nod­ded and hadn’t asked him any ques­tions. He had seen me there all day. Maybe he’d seen lots of peo­ple like me.

We sat in si­lence for a while. He smoked a cig­a­rette. When it was fin­ished, he stood and stretched and then turned to me.

‘The god Apollo doesn’t come here any more,’ he said.

‘No,’ I agreed.

‘It’s al­right,’ he said. ‘Ev­ery­one al­ways knows the an­swer to their ques­tions al­ready.’

He pat­ted my shoul­der and winked and walked down the hill.

‘Did you ask your ques­tion?’ asked the woman when I passed her later in the vil­lage.

‘I think so,’ I said.

‘Did you get an an­swer?’

‘I think so,’ I said.

Dar­rel Bris­tow-Bovey

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