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Mount Olympus

On the way to Meteora we passed below Mt. Olympus, home of the Greek Gods. Of course, it was cloudy that day so we couldn't see the summit, but we knew the gods were there, cavorting in the sun above the clouds. Apparently, there are no shrines or tourists sites on Mt. Olympus, at least we didn't stop. In an essay published on the PBS website, From Jesus to Christ, Marianne Bonz says, "Early Christian preachers such as the Apostle Paul brought the gospel about Jesus Christ to an empire already crammed full of deities. The citizens of the Roman Empire and, within certain limits, even its rulers were extremely tolerant of foreign gods. The oldest and most accepted group of foreign deities were the gods of ancient Greece." The Romans simply adopted the Greek pantheon and changed their names, e.g., Zeus became Jupiter and Aphrodite became Venus. Under the Romans, however, the gods were more utilitarian and expected to serve the state. In their pantheon, Mars (Gk. Ares), the god of war, was more important than Jupiter (Zeus) because he symbolized Roman conquests.

Zeus, in the Greek pantheon, was first among equals and ruled a contentious extended family of gods and goddesses, who followed their own rules and laws. "These gods were thought of as resembling people, except they were much bigger, more powerful, and usually more beautiful. Like mortals, they experienced emotions, such as love, hate, anger, and jealousy. But unlike mortals, their bodies always healed from the wounds of war or the ravages of disease, and they never aged." (Bonz) Two, perhaps three, that Paul encountered directly were Apollo and probably Aphrodite (Corinth) and Artemis (Ephesus).

Zeus, found in the sea off Sicily
These gods, like most ancient Greek deities, were nature gods. Again Bonz: "With the exception of a few gods and goddesses who ministered to the private needs of individuals, the role of the Olympian deities was to care for the various aspects of the natural world and of human society. For example, Demeter was the goddess of grain and the harvest, Poseidon ruled over the seas, Athena was the goddess of wisdom, etc." Bonz says that the young and dashing Alexander the Great, who conquered all of the territory from Greece to India, became associated, in the popular mind, with the youthful version of Dionysus--the god who also traveled from Greece to India spreading the fruits of cultivation and civilization.

On a clear day Paul could have seen Mt. Olympus from the sea as he sailed by on his way to Athens. He would have been aware, as we had not previously been, of the power of this complex religion. As we strained to catch a glimpse of the peak through the gloom, we thought whimsically about the adventures of these deities. Their grip on the hearts and minds of the people only came home as we toured Delphi.


Treasury of the Athenians, partially recon-
structed in the early 20th century and the
best preserved of the Delphi buildings, was
originally used to house offerings to Apollo

If Olympus was the "playground of the Gods," then the shrine at Delphi was the workshop of one--Apollo. Delphi is an impressive archeological site, located near the Gulf of Corinth on the route to central Greece at the foot of the twin peaks of Mt. Parnassos. The ruin of the Temple of Apollo dominates the site, and is surrounded by a theater, a stadium and numerous tributes and monuments contributed by city states and kings. (See image of Delphi in artist's reconstruction.) Unlike Athens or Corinth, Delphi was not a residential city; it was a religious and political (the two were really not to be separated) shrine.

From his temple Apollo dispensed his divine guidance through the Oracle to the many pilgrims seeking his wisdom in matters of war, worship, love, and business. The seekers (men only, no women allowed) paid a fee, sacrificed a sheep, goat or boar, went to a waiting room, and submitted their question on a leaden tablet to a priest. Then a priestess, a devout local village woman over 50 years of age called a Pithia, sat on a three legged stool over a hole in the temple floor and inhaled fumes from below until she went into a trance. A priest would interpret the sounds she made to the pilgrim in cryptic verse. The prophecies were frequently equivocal and always obscure, but they were also authoritative and sometimes determined the course of empire.

One seeker was King Croesus (560 - 546 BCE ) of Lydia [the territory that is today western Turkey] who asked if he should go to war against Cyrus the Great of Persia, who was quickly advancing to the West. He was told that if he crossed a river, he would destroy a great empire. In marching on Cyrus, his troops crossed the River Halys [in central Turkey] and he destroyed a great empire--his own. Later, as Persian soldiers sacked and pillaged the Lydian capital, Sardis, Cyrus said to Croesus, "My troops are plundering your city." "Not my city, but yours," replied Croesus.

How old is Delphi? In mythology, almost as old as time. The story is that Zeus released two eagles at the ends of the earth, one in the East and the other in the West. Where they collided and fell to the ground, Zeus marked as the center of the world with a sacred stone, "the navel of the earth." Originally the Oracle was dedicated to Mother Earth (Gaia) and guarded by her son, the serpent Python. Hera, one of Zeus's wives, in her jealousy sent the serpent in pursuit of Leto, another wife of Zeus, while she was pregnant with Apollo. Leto fled to the island of Delos and escaped. After he was born and while yet a child, Apollo came from Crete in the form of a dolphin (i.e., Delphi) and slew the serpent, took over the Oracle and the worship of the Delphinos Apollo was established. Apollo was a superstar among the gods and the Romans did not change his name. He was the son of Zeus, the lord of light, truth, intelligence, healing and the arts. As he was also the god of prophecy, Delphi was his most impressive shrine.

Historically, Delphi goes back to the Second Millennium BCE and reached its peak of fame and respect in the 6th Century BCE. It operated as an oracle for about 1,000 years, from the 700's BCE to 393 CE when the Christian Emperor Theodosius closed it as paganism diminished and the world was Christianized. By then it was mere shadow of its former glory. In 191 BCE, the Romans took control of Delphi and domesticated the Oracle. State predictions were banned and its role limited to dispensing personal advice on such topics as love and marriage, money and travel. To what extent was Delphi significant in Paul's time? Sulla, a Roman general, plundered it in 86 BCE and in Paul's day Nero pillaged it and carried off 500 statues. Thus Rome stole the treasures of a wealthy priesthood and shut down their world-wide network of spies, which had made Delphi, in the words of the ancient historian, Strabo, "of all the oracles in the world, . . . the most truthful."

The French School of Archeology began excavating Delphi in 1892 and celebrated a century of digging in 1992. They found no credible evidence of the place where the Pithia sat to breathe the vapors, but we found a stone on-site with a hole through it and three small holes for a stool. Surprise: our guide said it's a fake.

The museum at Delphi is replete with fascinating artefacts, including statues that give clear evidence of the cultural interaction between Greece and Egypt, the famous bronze Charioteer, and the "Navel Stone."

At the height of its influence, nations fought over who would control it and pilgrims came from all over the world to seek Apollo's wisdom and guidance. There is no shrine in either Judaism or Christianity today to compare with Delphi then, not even the Vatican. The closest comparable would be the Muslim Haj to Mecca. Call it superstition, call it what you like, but, Delphi, along with the Acropolis in Athens and the countless temple ruins all over the region, stands today as a monument to the power of classical Greek religion in Paul's world.

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