Delphi and Cascadia
I wrote this piece for my forthcoming book – it’s slightly different here than in the printed format, but wanted to share it with you all anyway. As a sort of follow-up to Deepening Reconstructionism Locally, this is an example of how I connect and combine an ancient place-specific tradition with the sacred land on which I now live.
I have been dreaming of Delphi for a very long time, well before I ever travelled there in the flesh. Whether I dreamed it because I was meant to do this [oracular] work, or I do this work because I dreamed it, I will never know for sure, but the two are clearly connected. I may have wished, in waking life, to walk among the temples of Greece, but these dreams were not merely wish-fulfillment, they were bringing me – in a real, powerful sense – to a place of power that reaches beyond the physical world. Even after seeing Delphi, twice, in person, the dreams take me to a different version of that holy spot, populated with all the gods and spirits and even specific geographical features, but not really resembling the place as it stands today.
As my interest in oracular trance developed, so did my particular interest in Delphi and the history of its oracle. I also began to meet some of the other entities involved: the Korykian Nymphs, who live in a vast cave on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos; Trophonios, who had a unique oracle in an underground pit in the nearby town of Lebadeia; and the Pythiai, the spirits of the dead prophetesses who once sat on the tripod. (I already knew Dionysos, obviously, but I did delve further into His connections to Delphi and Parnassos).
The Korykian Nymphs were perhaps the first and strongest Delphic relationship I built, outside of Apollon of course – Their cave was one of the earliest features of my Delphi dreams, and remains the most frequent. In myth, They are the bee maidens who taught Hermes the art of divination. Their cave is called Sarantavli (“forty rooms”) in modern Greek, and the main cavern (the only one easily accessible) is magnificently large, with the ceiling reaching 36 feet high. Bees still swarm around the entrance. And, I notice, people are still leaving offerings inside (archaeologists have found tens of thousands of offerings from ancient times in the cave, mostly humble figurines and sheep knucklebones, which were used for divination).
I spent a night there in 2003 and it still haunts me to this day. Or rather, I spent a few hours inside during the day and through dusk, and was summarily kicked out after performing my ritual and offerings, by nymphs who seemed to prefer their space to themselves. The rest of the night was spent just outside the mouth of the cave, watching the candles burn down in the darkness behind me, and listening to the clinking of goat bells in the valley below. But just being there was one of the most memorable spiritual experiences of my life.
Caves, of course, have been a significant location for mystical and magical rites since the dawn of humanity, and the ancient Greeks recognized this as much as anyone. In every cave I’ve ever been in, I immediately understood why for thousands of years, humans have sought them out as places of ritual, incubation, oracles and trance. Eerie and unnerving, deep within the earth, darker and more silent than any other place, caves entice and terrify. The spirits there are very old, primal and powerful. The Korykian Nymphs are no exception to this.
Trophonios, too, is associated with a cave of sorts, albeit perhaps man-made (the sources are unclear), and more of an enclosed, underground chasm than the vast stone caverns of Sarantavli. Trophonios first showed up for me via omens during an Apollon festival, and I then began to research His oracle further. He is connected to Delphi in myth (having built the first temple), by geography (His subterranean home is not far away), and because He too presides over a famous ancient oracle, but I feel it is more than that. As I’ve repeated my annual descent to Trophonios, I’ve come to see it as an essential part of the larger Delphic cosmology, so to speak – part of the web of spiritual interconnections that form the foundation for the oracle itself. I have also descended into His pit in dreams, viscerally sucked into the muddy earth.
Not coincidentally, I think, the Pythiai (plural of Pythia) are also chthonic – not only symbolically, due to being dead spirits, but more literally, in that They prophesied originally from an underground room (the adyton, or innermost sanctum) beneath the temple of Apollon. I first encountered one of the Pythiai during an oracular session; amazingly, it had never occurred to me previously that I should be honoring Them as part of my work. After some initial glitches (I learned quickly that the dead tend to be conservative in Their preferences, and are less interested in offerings that were not familiar to Them in life), I established a cultus for Them not unlike ancestor worship. I even came to occasionally rely on Them as intermediaries during the oracles. And in my dreams, I visited the Delphic adyton and a more primitive oracular cave.
At the same time that these relationships were being strengthened, and my connection to Delphi deepened, I also began to engage with my local environment more intensely than ever before. I took most of my big rituals and festivals outside, placing them in locations where I felt a sense of power or active spirits (mostly semi-wild or at least wooded areas of the city, within a few miles of my home). I studied the natural history of Cascadia (my preferred term for the Pacific Northwest, encompassing Oregon, Washington, and parts of western Canada), and more specifically the flora, fauna and geology of the region I live in, as well as the cultural history of the whole area, including the Native American traditions that originated here.
And slowly, organically, something interesting developed. I began to notice that I too was living in a holy landscape – perhaps not as powerful as Delphi, which is unique, but nonetheless alive with spirits, and augmented in some small way by my rituals and offerings. Just along the creek that flows a few blocks away from my home, I had left food for the dead on the last day of Anthesteria on the marshy banks, I had buried the effigy of Yarilo in the adjacent ash wood, I had crawled through water pipes seeking Trophonios, and performed countless other rituals, many annually. It occurred to me that this creek functioned much like the Castalia spring at Delphi for me – the holy water source closest to my adyton. So one year I hiked to its source high up on the butte, and collected its headwaters to use as khernips for the oracles. And that’s when things shifted for me.
Instead of wistfully longing for Delphi or recalling my dream journeys there, I began to see my practice as rooted here, where I live, albeit still connected to the Delphic tradition – both symbolically, and by the actual presence of the gods and daimones involved. (Most of whom aren’t, obviously, nearly as tied to these places as They are – or were – to Their favored spots in Greece, but They do appear to attend the festivals we hold for Them, and at least in that way have established a connection here.)
The two buttes that lie north and south of me became, each in their own way, an echo of Mt. Parnassos – for I performed the Parnassian fire festival for Dionysos on one butte each year, and honored Pan and the oreads there too [Pan also inhabits the Korykian Cave, and the Korykian Nymphs could be said to be oreads, in that They are on a mountainside], while the other boasts the headwaters of the creek that provides my sacred purifying water and runs through the tunnels that comprise my modern Trophonion. (Even this duality has a mirror in the ancient site of Delphi, which was enclosed by a pair of peaks called the Phaedriades or “shining ones.”)
Meanwhile, my adyton – the small room in my home that I set aside primarily for oracular practice – became a microcosm of this worldview, with shrines for all the Delphic divinities sharing space with those for local spirits. The Pythiai are, appropriately, solely enshrined here as opposed to being worshipped in the landscape, since Their power derives from the oracle itself. While not technically underground, it still has the symbolic feel of a cave – closed off to outside light, heat, and distractions, a world of its own focused entirely on the holy powers.
In this way, I have united the two strands of my oracular practice – my inspiration and spiritual home of Delphi, and my physical location and more immanent relationships here in Cascadia – and in so doing created a more authentic and meaningful context for my Work. When I enter the adyton and take up the high seat on the seventh of each month, I am doing so firmly grounded in the here and now, but simultaneously more deeply connected to my source tradition. This integration is not just intellectual, but embodied in the physical elements of ritual. It reflects not only the beliefs and practices of those who came before me (including those prophetesses who I can only ever hope to emulate, having lost the foundation that supported Them), but my own personal religious life, my actions and relationships. This is where my dreams have led me.