Novel set in Surrey
Talking Location With Julie Anderson – Delphi
5th May 2021
#TalkingLocationWith… Julie Anderson, author of Oracle – Delphi
Delphi nestles in the slopes of Mount Parnassus, at over eight thousand feet one of the highest and largest mountains in Greece, which towers over the Gulf of Corinth. Its name means the mountain of the house of the god and the god is Apollo. Believed by ancient Greeks to be the centre of the world, Delphi and the area around it has been a place of habitation since Neolithic times. It was already old when the Hellenic Apollo arrived to wrestle with the Pytho, the snake of the Goddess Gaia, the Great Mother and to take over the sanctuary.
It’s a few hours drive north from Athens and its worth navigating through the traffic choked outskirts to the motorway and into the mountains around the Gulf of Corinth to sit outside as the sun sets, on the terrace of a taverna absorbing the stunning view. The mountain slope, covered in cypress and pine trees, falls away sharply and the resinous perfume of the pines blends with the scent of wild herbs upon which bees feast to make the marvellous Parnassus honey. As goat bells sound, the river valley, over sixteen hundred feet below, winds its way to the plain and the glint of sea on the horizon.
On the other side of a low ridge is the ancient Temple of Apollo, which is really a precinct of temples and buildings, including an amphitheatre, gymnasium and stadium, all set on the slopes around the massive Temple itself. The site has been a centre of worship since the Early Bronze Age (so about 3,000 BCE) and the Temple site is fabulous, very atmospheric, especially when there’s a mountain mist. It’s tucked into a fold of the mountain so that you don’t see it until you’re on top of it. It must have been a magnificent sight, marble reflecting the sunlight, as hundreds of pilgrims queued along the Sacred Way to ask their question of the Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, famous throughout the Mediterranean world.
Delphi is the setting for my novel Oracle, the second in the series featuring Cassandra Fortune, intrepid Whitehall detective. Cassie stays at the European Cultural Centre which lies just outside of Delphi town, on a mission to persuade an important Greek politician to visit the UK. It isn’t long before she is enmeshed in a mystery with its roots in the past, when a murdered body is discovered, placed like an offering to the gods in the temple complex. One day later a broken corpse is found at the foot of the cliffs from which blasphemers were once tossed to their deaths.
In ancient times, when Delphi was difficult to get to in winter, it was said that Apollo left to spend the winter months in the land of the Hyperboreans, the land beyond the north wind, which is sometimes identified with Britain. In Oracle, it is as a storm closes in and strange lights are seen on the mountain that the conference centre is cut off and powerless. Is there a killer stalking its corridors or are primal forces reaching out from the past? Like the cryptic Oracle of Delphi, Cassie must supply the answers before more die.
Good news for the ancient Delphians was that while Apollo was away his cousin and fellow god, Dionysus, ruled at the Temple. Dionysus was the god of the grape, of theatre, festivity and ecstasy, also known as Bacchus so there could be much reveling – there is a suitably Dionysian revel in the book – and today’s Delphians pride themselves on that tradition of hospitality.
The countryside around Delphi is great for walking, there are viewpoints and small walker’s lodges to aim for. Up the mountain behind Delphi you can walk to the ancient Corycian Cave where people have lived since Neolithic times or trek across to stand at the top of the Phaedriades, huge cliffs called the ‘shining ones’ which tower above the temple site. Visit the Temple, walk up the Sacred Way past the ruins of treasuries built to house the many treasures and gifts which rich patrons dedicated to the God. Cities sent presents, so did whole countries and even Pharoah of Egypt dedicated gold and precious gems. No one wanted to offend Apollo.
Visit the Castalian Spring at the foot of the Phaedriades, where the Pythia bathed in ritual purification before she entered the Temple and became the Oracle of the God. I like that this place was dedicated to Gaia the Great Mother before it passed to Apollo and that it was a woman, or women, who spoke with the God’s voice even after Apollo took over. I’m not sure I’d have fancied the ritual outdoor bathing in non-summer months though, it can be cold this high up.
Delphi has an excellent Museum close to the Temple site and in the evenings there are outdoor concerts or drama performances, either at the European Cultural Centre or in the temple site itself. I would love to see Euripides’ The Bacchae in the amphitheatre, in which Dionysus is a main character. Or Eumenides by Aeschylus, which opens in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and ends at a ‘trial’ in Athens, just like Oracle.
I have, as no doubt you can tell, visited Delphi in the past, but was prevented from returning in 2020 by the pandemic. If all goes well, I hope to go back in 2021.
Oracle (Claret press) is published on 5th May 2021. Catch Julie on Twitter
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