History provides surprising perspectives that can be revelatory, even transformative, if we distil timeless validity from temporal manifestation. The history of Delphi is particularly fertile in this respect. It forces unfamiliar thought and offers a kind of mental gymnastics that engages unused muscles of the mind.
With this in mind let us explore Delphi as a centre of healing. Greece had healing centres dedicated to the god Asclepius in Epidaurus, Pergamum, on the island Kos, in Athens, and in many other places.
The Asclepian cure involved two steps. The first was catharsis; the ritual bathing and purging that prepared the patient. The second was called incubation. Applicants spent one night in the temple where a god or even Asclepius himself would appear to them in a dream. They were either treated in the dream or given advice on how to remedy their affliction
In Delphi however, healing followed a different path. Here it had a dimension of meaning we have entirely lost: In many cases the cure was rarely a cure for the individual alone. It was salutary for the community, a potent stimulant for the body social.
I link the motto inscribed over the temple of Apollo, Know Thyself, to Heal thyself, and this heal thyself to the healing of others. Medicine was societal and politic; remedies were restorative for whole communities.
Herodotus’ account of the founding of Kyrene is one of many tales that deals with healing in and through community:
Grinus, ruler of the island kingdom of Thera, came to Delphi to consult the oracle on some matter. The Pythia, however, instead of answering Grinus’ questions, replied with a totally unrelated advice: Found a city in Libya.
The king, taken aback by the Pythia’s reply, retorted that he was too old and infirm for such a precarious undertaking, and that they might be better achieved by some of his young attendants, pointing to Battus in particular.
When the delegation returned to Thera they disregarded the god’s advice. No one even knew where Libya was (in the seventh century BC geography was a very local and limited affair) and few had the stomach to sail into the unknown.
A long drought descended on the island. The oracle was consulted again, and the same advice was issued. Forced by increasing calamities the Therans found a sailor from Crete who had once been driven by adversary winds to the Island of Platea close to the Libyan coast. Led by him, a small and unwilling crew of Therans set sail and established a settlement on Platea, just off the Libyan coast. In time more ships were sent under the command of Battus.
The settlement did not thrive. Battus went to Delphi to inquire why, after following the god’s command, help was not forthcoming. Apollo spoke:
Knowest thou Libya, whose shore
Your feet have never touched
Better than I?
Your knowledge surprises me.
Battus realised that they had settled close to, but not in Libya itself: they had not heeded Apollo’s command and thus not secured his support. Battus quickly returned, left the island behind and settled his men on the mainland. This time the settlement thrived and eventually grew into the powerful city of Kyrene.
The other version of the same story focuses on Battus, leader of the expedition, and future King of Kyrene.
According to Herodotus, Battus was born to a noble Theran and his servant concubine. Though a youth of great promise, he was afflicted by a severe speech impediment. To cure his affliction he made a pilgrimage to Delphi. The Pythia addressed him thus:
Battus, you ask Apollo for a cure.
The God however sends you to Libya,
a country rich in sheep.
Found a colony!
Battus who had scanty private means and little political power saw no way to fulfil the god’s command. Disappointed he returned to Thera only to encounter one misfortune after another.
At the same time the island suffered from a prolonged drought. The Therans asked Delphi for help and were advised to dispatch a vessel with colonists under Battus’s command to Libya. The stuttering youth became a leader and eventually a king of the new colony.
Together the stories make a whole. The tale of Battus shows how taking up his task in the community healed his affliction. The tale told by the Therans illustrates how the destiny of island community depended on Battus, the one individual capable of bringing about colonial expansion. Delphi artfully orchestrated the needs of both to bring about healing. Battus was remedial for Thera, Thera salutary for Battus. The trade colony helped Battus to become king and island community to move beyond complacency and isolation.
Herodotus never tells us if Battus eventually rid himself of his stuttering. However, Pindar, in a poem made for Kyrenean festivities, speaks of
That Man (Battus) from whom even roaring lions fled
When he raised his voice from across the sea.’
This passage allures to the transformation, a healing, be it literal or metaphoric, which had made the stutterer into a king whose voice was heard and heeded.
A Kyrenian folktale tells the similar tale:
Battus when walking by himself on the outskirts of Kyrene, was confronted by a lion. In his terror the king cried out violently. The beast fled and Battus never stuttered again.
Though this may be more story than history, it alludes to the greater medicine making that Delphi was capable of. The historic account of Herodotus, the poetic treatment of Pindar and the Kyrenian folktale all orbit around the same meaning: the meaning from which Delphi manifested by means of Pythia and priest.
Healing through Future
Healing through community, however, is only one aspect of these tales: another concerns the causes of illness and stagnation. Today we heal by either addressing the symptom or by eliminating the cause. Both have their place. Dealing with symptoms is sufficient in a case of broken bones. If a seasoned smoker has lung problems curing the symptoms alone will not suffice. The cause needs to be eliminated to provide permanent relief.
All this makes sense and was of course part of the Delphic process also. But there is an element in the medicine making at Delphic that exceeds our notion of cause and effect, illness and health. An element, that rightly understood, can shed new light on what medicine could be, and that in turn, can help us understand the oracular tradition.
The medicine made in Delphi also addresses a cause. The cause however is not in the past. The lung problem of the smoker comes from years of smoking. This cannot be said about the drought in Thera or the speech impediments of Battus. Here the cause is in the future.
The causes here were capacities not applied, opportunities not taken, and destinies not lived. The oracular remedies were tailored to unfold potentials. Note that there is nothing general about the advice. Advice was applicable to one person and is not suitable for another, and the directions given to one community would have been definitely out of place in the next. The advice to establish a trade colony in Libya pertained to the Therans and to them alone. Only Battus had the capacities needed for the task. Healing here was the unfolding of destiny, the realisation of potential. The remedy was highly specific as it cured the drought. But it is also broadly beneficial as it linked isolated islanders with the world, invigorated economy and increased commerce.
We can understand such advice by studying contemporary means of divination. For oracles have all but died out. They have changed in appearance, but not in appeal. Even today we cannot do without them. The moment we start planning our future we turn Pythia by default. There is always a Delphi, and if not in ourselves then in our friends, mentors, counsellors, psychologists. We seek advice and often find it through the right book at the right time, by way of workshops and in the ritual of retreats.
Today, as of yore, we consult the future in times of crisis. Or, to be more precise, when a crisis is beyond our ken and solutions are out of sight. This happens when there is no precedent, when what we know is not enough, when the dimension of a problem exceeds our ability to deal with it.
The feeling of stagnation offers a typical scenario: the unease with the status quo, the sense of being stuck and dissatisfied, mildly or severely depressed. Some of these states, of course, have a cause in the past. But others do not. We have such feelings not because something has happened to us, but because nothing is happening. We suffer because everything has remained the same. We feel stuck with who we are and flat because we have not risen to any occasion.
If we examine such feelings further we may find that their intensity is proportional to the distance between who we are and who we could be. It may well be that many forms of depression have their origin in this distance, caused by unrealised futures and not by traumatic pasts (sometimes, of course, by both). Then we must consult our interior Delphi, or find it in a conversation with a friend, a meeting with a life coach, a workshop. The solution here is in the future. A job that challenges us to unfold our full potential, a capacity that engages more of ourselves, a task that takes us further, an art that is waiting to teach us more about ourselves, insights that rekindle our interest in life, or a change of place that changes everything.
Such futures are not found by searching the past. The task is to spin new threads and not untie old knots. Like the citizens of Thera, and Battus himself, we have to find what we, and only we, can do. And like them we have to be ready for change, open to unfamiliar advice and unheard of ideas to blow new wind into our doldrums. We must be open to opportunities that heal us from the harm of not being who we are meant to be.