A parable of divine guidance
The mountains were cypress-green and breathtakingly beautiful. Spiros was standing in one of the most impressive parts of Greece. On a brilliant spring morning he was at the foot of Mount Parnassus, a few miles from Corinth. In spite of the beauty, all he could think about was the problem of the boat which had become stuck on the sands of his mind for some weeks now.
Should he buy it, or shouldn’t he? If he didn’t decide soon, it would be too late. He had the money. Some had been left by his father; the rest had been painfully saved over the past ten years. But now, at the moment of decision, he seemed paralysed, unable to jump. It was such an important decision, such a lot of money, and he urgently needed a message from the gods. His wife had sent him to Delphi because her sister had been helped. Rumour and family superstition or experience had combined to help Spiros half believe that the Delphic Oracle would make the divine will known.
And behind all this Spiros was driven by factors that were working at a less conscious level. Of course, he missed his father dreadfully, and at night, or alone in the harbour, suppressed questions surfaced. Was there life beyond the grave? Would he be good enough to please the gods? Would he ever see his father again? Were the gods really in control? Did the gods really exist?
Perhaps the visit to the temple of Apollo would count for something. It might even provide a few answers.
Spiros felt his shyness acutely as he approached the temple. He tried to look serious and avoided eye contact with the others as he stood uneasily in the queue and waited for his turn to come. Perhaps he should have listened to his wife after all and worn the other clothes. The place seemed so strange and the glum faces of the other enquirers depressed him even more. He comforted himself with the fact that the embarrassment of leaving now and of pushing past the others to get out would be greater than the threat of staying. The ease of home was now as far away as the boat of his dreams.
Spiros knew that they would want his money (religious people usually did), but even so, the price that he had to pay for the sacrificial lamb still came as rather a shock. As he handed over the precious coins with poise and feigned devotion, he allowed himself to chuckle inwardly as he remembered the joke about the sinking ship. As it was going down in one of the storms off Crete, a desperate sailor had screamed out: “Somebody do something religious. We are about to die!” And at that point another sailor picked up a plate and started taking a collection. Spiros now felt the bitterness of the boat more keenly than ever.
As the lamb was routinely disembowelled, Spiros noticed the priest’s indifference to the blood and the gore. The religious man had seen it all before many, many times. Spiros wasn’t normally squeamish, but this spectacle offended his sensibilities and made him want to vomit. He wouldn’t be coming back in a hurry to such an horrific scene.
After briefly inspecting the carcass, the priest assured him that the omens were good. But Spiros had no intention of hanging around to ask questions, and nobody seemed willing to tell him more. After all, the man had spoken, so who was Spiros to challenge the initiated?
A man in strange clothes and a hard face took more money and then put Spiros’ request on to a lead tablet. Again, there was more ceremony that Spiros didn’t understand before he was eventually ushered into the inner temple and mystery. At last! The route to possible understanding had been long, embarrassing, and costly (not least for the dead lamb).
A few yards in front of him a priestess in ritual garments was sitting on a stool near a chasm in the rock. She ignored his presence, and this apparent aloofness made Spiros feel both angry and afraid. Was she mad? It certainly looked as if she was out of control. He remembered that his sister-in-law has said something about a woman fainting. The fumes from the chasm were obviously important to the ceremony. The priestess inhaled them eagerly and mumbled incomprehensibly. So this was it, thought Spiros, the heart of the religious experience.
He strained forward to catch her words. It was no good. He would never remember what she was saying and it made no clear sense anyway. Religious mumbo-jumbo? A foreign language? How was he to know?
Spiros could feel his contempt rising, although he was afraid to show his anger in the apparent presence of Apollo. How could he make sense of all this? As he looked around seeking scraps of information, and an escape, he noticed a scribe writing frantically. Perhaps the scribe knew the language. A few more scribbles and contortions of the face (obviously reflecting inspiration) and then the man looked at Spiros (or rather through him) and spoke: “One of the signs of the growing of truth is the clouds in the heavens. Look to the winds for the direction of life and the shifting of treasure.”
Years later a learned friend of his would tell Spiros that he had been taken in by the subconscious effects of the poetry. At the time, Spiros had just been thrilled to hear something in his own language, even if it did sound rather vague and archaic. For more money it was copied out again for him and Spiros left with his answer. At least somebody had communicated what Apollo wanted. Spiros felt that his need had been met.
It was obvious to Spiros that Apollo was telling him to buy the boat. He would make a fortune by using the wind to fill its sails.
Three-and-a-half years later, as he started a life sentence for debt, Spiros began to wonder if he had misunderstood what Apollo had said. The religious man (who, incidentally, had bought the boat that had belonged to the prisoner at a knock-down price) was convinced that Spiros had got into debt, not because Apollo was wrong, but because Spiros must have been a bad man. At least now Spiros would have more time to contemplate both what happened at Delphi, and his decision.