A Goddess Pilgrimage: Initiation at Delphi - Part 1

I came to Greece to go on a two-week goddess pilgrimage to Crete, with a few days added on either end to explore mainland Greece and Santorini. The journey truly began for me that moment when I crossed into liminal time and space at the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi.

Liminality, from the Latin word līmen, meaning "threshold," has been defined as "the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete." (Wikipedia). Websters defines it as "of or relating to a sensory threshold."

My friend, Diane Marshall, and I had arrived in Athens the day before we went to Delphi, just as a general strike of workers was called and all public transportation, tourist destinations, and museums were shut down. We wandered around Athens that first day, somewhat jet-lagged, but excited to take in this sprawling world capital city. "Just stay away from the parliamentary buildings," we were told, "and you'll be fine." And where we roamed, through the famous plaka, the old, historical "Neighborhood of the Gods" at the foot of the Acropolis, there were no signs of protests or unrest. In fact, it was a little quieter than usual due to the strike and people staying home from work, which made it easier to acclimate to our surroundings.

We took in the agora, the ruins of the old Roman marketplace, which once had homes and shops lining the Sacred Way that led to the Acropolis, where magnificent buildings, including the Parthenon and Temple to Athena, once stood as a fortress overlooking the city. We could not go up to the Acropolis on this day, so we walked and walked and enjoyed eating the healthy and delicious Mediterranean cuisine at the open-air cafes, or tavernas, grounding ourselves as much as possible on our first day in a country neither of us had been to before.

On our second day, we were happy to leave the energy of the city and head to the mountains, to Delphi, a couple of hours from Athens. I was excited to see Delphi as I was fascinated by what I knew of the oracles at Delphi, priestesses who prophesied for people who made the pilgrimage there to seek their counsel. Since we were on a tour with only a couple of hours to spend at Delphi, we were taken to the more recently erected Sanctuary of Apollo (6th c. BCE) built on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

In ancient times when the goddess reigned and the Mycenaeans, an early agrarian, peace-loving people who worshiped Her, inhabited the area (1500 to 1100 BCE), the first prophetess, Herophile, sat on top of a rock, known as the Sibyl Rock, and prophesied next to the omphalos, or navel of the earth mother, Gaia. Leaders and people from near and far came to hear the gifted oracle's prophesies, which included the foretelling of the Trojan War. But then about 1000 BCE, the Dorians overtook the Mycenaean villages that included a sacred spring and cave with vapors emanating from deep below that were said to have trance-inducing properties. These invaders brought their god, Apollo, with them and instated him there.

The story goes that Apollo had to fight and kill the giant python, the offspring of Gaia, that guarded the sacred Castalian Spring so that he could establish his own temple and oracle. This would presage the end of the worship of the Great Mother earth goddess, and the beginning of a patriarchal culture represented by the Hellenic gods and goddesses, some of whom were preempted and reconstructed from the attributes ascribed to the ancient mother. But these new gods and goddesses behaved much more like humans, acting out qualities of both light and shadow, such as love, generosity, wisdom as well as jealousy, narcissism, and vengefulness.

Symbolically, the male god killing the snake, a primordial symbol of the goddess, made a fitting myth for the beginning of the cult of Apollo, also establishing his might and power over the region. Apollo is said to have arrived riding on the backs of dolphins which became his priests in the temple. Some myths say he made the sailors who brought him his priests. These priests became intermediaries to the new oracle, a priestess known as the Pythia, a woman chosen for her deep, intuitive abilities. She sat upon a tall tripod in an underground chamber inside the temple, chewing on laurel leaves, and breathing in the hallucinogenic and noxious fumes that emanated from the underground fissures as she prophesied. (The priestess had to be replaced every so often as this was a dangerous and often deadly calling, owing to the poisonous fumes. One can't help but consider that enclosing her in a chamber is what made this job fatal, whereas before the patriarchy took over, she was on a rock in the open air where she would not be in danger.)

While it was interesting to contemplate this story and see these temples, I felt called to go down to Athena's temple across the road and down into a ravine below Apollo's temple. On the way, I passed the Castalian spring, the same water source that has flowed down from the mountains since ancient times. In the past, those who came to the oracle for guidance, would anoint and purify themselves at the spring. I stopped and drank from the spring and used it as holy water, touching it to my pulse points, third eye, and heart. I walked down the road towards the temple of the goddess I had blogged about last month, thinking about her qualities as protector and patroness of Athens, where I had just been. I thought about her earlier origins, where she was not seen as a warrior goddess, but as a patroness of arts and crafts, particularly weaving. She, too, had been co-opted by the patriarchy.

As I started down the path leading to her temple, I noticed that a tourist group was boarding their bus, leaving the place empty. I was delighted to be going down to her temple by myself so that I could perform a ritual. I pulled from my medicine bag a beautiful, blue, double-lobed celestite stone that a friend and sister from my Goddess temple e-course had gifted me. I had brought it as my talisman for the trip. Its properties help you feel harmonious and peaceful under times of stress, and as I knew traveling in a foreign country can bring its own kind of stress, I wanted to have it as a calming touchstone. It was also said to open one to new experiences and connection with the divine.

As I approached the remaining foundation stones of Athena's temple, I felt the stone grow warm in my hands and decided to set it down and charge it in the bright sunlight that beat down on the dark stones. I circled the temple wondering if I should leave the stone as an offering to Athena. I was torn since I wanted it for my protection and yet, it was a beautiful offering to this goddess who I felt was initiating me into this world of ancient and modern Greece.

I stood on the temple stones where many hundreds of years ago, priestesses had walked. I imagined what it must have been like when there were temple walls, altars, and sacred rites going on here. I held the celestite in one hand and asked Athena for protection on my travels, openness to new experiences and people, and to the mystery that I knew was unfolding. Then it seemed as if the gem leaped from my hand. I heard it hit the hard floor and I saw half of it roll away and fall into a crevice in the middle of the temple. The other half of the gem lay at my feet. I picked it up and held it in wonderment. Athena had answered my question with such an obvious solution. She would take one half and I would take the other with me, and so we would be joined in divine sisterhood.

I slowly walked out of this sacred sanctuary changed, enlivened, moved. I had crossed the threshold into a feeling I would carry with me over the next 3 weeks in Greece and even back home with me. It has taken a month for me to start feeling back on the ground of my country, home, family and work. Now I am in the process of integration, of deep rest and the need for more sleep, for any crossing into liminal time and space changes you, maybe even shatters you, in some way. This kind of dismembering is good and necessary for transformation. I would say there is no going back: you are changed on some level by crossing such a threshold, through ritual that brings about a shift in consciousness, by experiencing life in a different culture, setting, and even time. For my journey felt like one that embraced many lifetimes. I had a sense that I was able to move thought the past, to have glimpses of what life was like hundreds of years ago -- a remembering -- and at the same time be present to what was happening in this lifetime in a rather fluid, dreamy way. This was the initiation of my pilgrimage that in many ways, I am still on, and will always be on.

Stay tuned for future installments: Part 2, The Mother-Daughter Story, where I recount my healing journey to Eleusis, the place where the Eleusinian mysteries and the story of Demeter and Persephone played out for thousands of years; followed by Part 3, Goddess Boot Camp, the 2-week, life-changing odyssey on the island of Crete with 20 sister pilgrims; and Part 4, Santorini Magic.


Don't Mess With Athena

As I will be in Athens in just a little over one month where I will begin a goddess pilgrimage, I have been exploring the stories of Athena, patron of the city. She almost didn't get that job as she and Poseidon were both in contention for that honor. When the people voted, it was split down the middle because the women voted for the goddess while the men voted for the god; however there was one more woman than there were men, and she cast the deciding vote. It is also said that the Olympian gods gave it to Athena because she planted the first olive tree on the Acropolis. Apparently the men of the newly named city of Athens were so angry that She won that they decreed that women of the city would give up their citizenship, no longer be able to vote, and their children would no longer go by their mother's last name as had been the tradition, but would take their father's instead.

This, my friends, was the beginning of the patriarchy, when the stories got changed. It would almost seem that Athena was made a token female deity (disguised as a man) so that the men in power could strip women of their rights. However she may have been used, she was thereafter cast in the role of masculine warrior goddess who, the patriarchal story went, was born from the head of Zeus, top Olympian dog and her father. They now proclaimed her a virgin goddess, devoid of sexuality, and in her newly cast androgyny made her "all for the father," aligning her with the patriarchy against the rights of women and the motherline.

Before I go on to talk about the earlier origins of Athena -- an entirely different story, which always interests me more -- the heady times when women ruled more peacefully before men took over -- it may be worth pondering for a moment the similarities between what happened then and what is going on now, right here in River City, that is the United States of America. Does it not seem as if we are in danger of slipping back to a more rigid patriarchal structure what with the conservative Republicans (Paul Ryan and Troy Akin to name two) trying to take away hard-fought women's rights on abortion, equal pay, and reproductive freedom, as well as the rights of LGBTs to enjoy the same constitutional freedom as everyone else? We may need Athena's warrior prowess and ability to protect us now more than ever.

But getting back to her pre-patriarchal beginnings... Athena is also known as Pallas Athena, which appears to refer to her role as a warrior who went into battle to fight the good fight when necessary. She was a prudent warrior and strategist, being the goddess of wisdom, so as an archetypal figure for women, she is the one who does not shrink from bullies and who will not only go into battle herself, but will do everything she can to help others win, especially when the odds are stacked against them. She may have gotten the name Pallas Athena from killing her father, a giant named Pallas, who tried to rape her. She then took his skin, tanned it, and made it into her aegis or shield and appropriated his wings for her own feet. We'll talk about how the image of Medusa's head ended up on her aegis in a moment.

But one other interesting story of note is that Athena is often depicted with a large snake either coiled around her or at her feet. The snake is an ancient symbol of the goddess, often thought to symbolize the transformational aspects of birth, death and rebirth that is at the heart of all goddess mythology, and indeed the story of woman. The snake was an animal that could travel underground and above ground, in both worlds, and could shed its skin, the ultimate transformation from the old into the new. But on a very practical level, snakes in those days were helpful creatures who were often kept near the stores of grain almost like watch dogs to kill and eat the vermin that threatened the food supply. It is also said that the snake may have been Athena's child with Hephaestus, the lame smith god (and cuckolded husband of Aphrodite) who also tried to rape Athena, but failed. However, his ejaculate fell to the ground and instead impregnated Gaia, the earth mother goddess, and from her a serpent boy named Erichthonius, was born, whom Athena, in a sense, adopted, and who seems to have followed her around like a little puppy dog.

As to the snake-headed goddess, Medusa, whom Athena wears on her breast and shield, some say that Medusa is Athena's sister and helped her ward off evil and intimidate her enemies with her monstrous gaze. Some legends say Medusa was once a stunningly beautiful Amazon warrior with luxurious, thick, black hair. However, she made the mistake of defiling Athena's temple by making love to Athena's rival, Poseidon, there. Athena had her servant kill Medusa by cutting off her head and her hair was turned into snakes. And the more familiar myth has Perseus cutting off the head of Medusa with the help of Athena, who was angry at her for messing around in her temple (although her anger about this seems positively patriarchal).

Another story suggests that the priestesses in the temples of old wore helmets and masks adorned with snakes, the symbol of transformation, and that it was not Medusa's head on her shield but a representation of the priestess who was the mortal emissary of the goddess. Some say that Medusa is but the shadow side of Athena and the two are one and the same. The message is: Don't mess with Athena. You might be turned to stone.

However, before Athena became the warrior goddess of the Athens city-state, her primary role in the matriarchal culture appears to have been much more benign. She was a goddess of the home, family, and community at large, as well as patron of handicrafts, particularly weaving. In the patriarchal worldview this protector of the family tribe was given big cajones and put in charge of the political state and given the same status as Ares, god of war. At her heart, though, we may see Athena as a fierce protector of women, children and family, whose wise counsel is to be sought in times of conflict, as one who will stand up to abusers and tyrants.

She is often seen as holding a sword, which I like to think of as the sword of truth, which must be held high whenever we are confronted by foes who would take away our power. As long as we stand in the truth, demand nothing less than our right to equality, and don't give away our power, we will prevail. Hear that, Romney, Ryan, Akin, and all other preservers of the patriarchy? We've got Athena, goddess of wisdom, truth and justice, at our side. We're ready to fight the good fight.