Short Story: The Pythia

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It wasn’t supposed to be a beauty contest.  If it was, Nicola would not have won.  Her bigger bones had sharper angles; her beauty didn’t quite fit into her body.  Being an odd, perceptive woman she attracted people’s attention but not the love of a man.  Which was one of the reasons the priests chose her.  Her father’s connections were another.  And the position was open as a third.  And by coincidence, Apollo was unlucky in love.

Being one of The Pythia engaged Nicola’s thoughts and replaced her need for a man’s love even if most of the priests that surrounded her had no interest in her.  Within six months of Niolca starting her training Anna, the most experienced Priestess, contracted pneumonia, could no longer attend the temple and was buried soon after. The other priestess got knocked up by one of the visiting supplicants who she met bathing in the Castalian spring.  With her two ushers unavailable Nicola had become the Oracle of Delphi.

Though Nicola knew she lacked sufficient training and practice she felt her belief in herself could make up the difference until she had more experience.  Her belief however was not important to the priests of the Temple of Apollo.  They felt she hadn’t observed and absorbed the wiles of Anna.  Anna was an excellent actress; she could feign possession by the spirits and struggle to find the human lexicon when translating the message from Apollo   She tailored her private performances to each supplicant so they would go away with a prophecy that was promising yet mysterious.  If the prophecy didn’t lead to their desired result then the supplicant could be accused of lacking faith in the Pythia and follow through on the prophecy.   

Now Nicola would be in charge of an apprentice.  She didn’t want her assistant to know more than her so she asked her father to tell the priests to interview her brother-in-law’s sister as the next Pythia in training.  Dimitra was a young woman of status but not of any specific intelligence that could be developed for the role of the Pythia.  Plus Nicola felt, in those warm afternoon breezes, she looked better than Dimitra in the colourful, flowing robes of steel blue and ruby red.

Before being tarnished by greed, being chosen as the Pythia was an honour. It was one of the few official positions where a woman’s instinct in the society was valued.  Now the priests would appear beside the supplicants and provide context to the cryptic message from the Oracle.  Nicola grasped that she was to play the role of a possessed priestess or she would be replaced.  

She coached Dimitra on how to respond to the requests of the supplicants.  Both women faked possession by the attendance of the essence of Apollo. Most of the time the priests had no idea what their message was; they simply knew what the supplicants were looking for and would convert the gibberish into witty riddles and enigmatic poems that could be taken either way.

The more tenuous the connections between the woman, her instinct and the planet, the more accessories were used during the ceremony.  The clouds of incense that filled the temple gave Dimitra a headache so she couldn’t think straight.  She would become dizzy  causing her to wobble on her stool which only helped to further the myth of her possession by Apollo.

Nicola and Dimitra preferred to knock their clients off their game so their methods couldn’t be questioned.  Relaxing them with an excess of food and libation and possibly female distraction they were less demanding for details about naval victory or political alliances as they were now feeling more satisfied in the moment.  For those who came with questions of lesser importance, like family disputes they would simply embroil them in greater family drama using guilt and blame.  In such cases there was no connection with Apollo, nor consultation of any respectable god energy.

The elders had called a Symvoulio, a local Council meeting, to express their increasing concern about the direction of the gymnasium for the children, Apollo’s sanctuary and the descent of the Pythia towards drachma and away from caduceus. Jonas, one of the local elders, showed up with a handful of arrows and a scowl.  The myths, rumours and convenient lies that manipulated the role of The Pythia for social and economic means was atrocious. The priests were scared.   

The elders told the priests to choose, as the next Pythia, a woman who didn’t abandon the female instinct.  A woman who knew her decisions would impact generations of Pelasgians and many rotations of the planet.  A woman who loved the beautiful story of the gods as a way to make the higher realms of life energy tangible yet still sacred.  

Lydia had travelled with her dad’s cousin Jonas on one of his business trips; was engaged to Tobias who was working his family’s olive orchard.  She saw that not only did Dimitra and Nicola not have the desire to deepen in the understanding of higher connection but lacked the capacity to engage the discipline of the role of an oracle.  Lydia knew not to attempt to clarify for these flousies that Apollo was not the source of the vision of the future – that it was a local planetary energy that permeated the rock of Delphi, resonating in the minerals and the water reaching hundreds of metres down.

Sprouting at the shore of the Gulf of Corinth there was a gnarly vine of human survival ascending from fishing off the coast to olive groves on the mountain side levelling out to ranching sheep as Mount Parnassus plateaus to where the spring hosted the Oracle.  

Provoked by a sense of purpose Lydia’s gait lightened as she climbed the mountain path to the temple.  Lydia sensed that she had become a nexus of powers that expressed themselves through a human life.  Challenging; confusing and possibly crazy making while being inspiring and intriguing. It was on her walk up the mountain to the temple with her head covered by a white sheer headscarf and a turquoise skirt she could feel the force settle on her head like a sparrow on an olive branch.   It was weird the first time it happened.  When Lydia asked, Dimitra had no idea about any sensation of attendance of higher forces.

The day before she is to provide prophecy Lydia feels the power of the office of Oracle settle in her body.  She eats a small bowl of vegetable broth and drinks water with lemon the rest of the day.   As dusk would succumb to evening she would sit in her small room looking out her window above the neighbour’s roof and into the sky.  When she lay down to sleep she felt received by a benevolent force that rejuvenated her.  She was learning this was the attendance of what was called the power of Apollo.

In the temple, Lydia had placed a piece of amethyst crystal in a tiny accidental niche in the wall in the rear porch where the air stayed cool. It was a gift from cousin Jonas and  not something Lydia could afford to replace.   In the morning Lydia trained herself to inhale and exhale along the lines of her connection to the amethyst in the temple. She would breathe in the immense sky then, in her mind; walk to the temple picking up the wafts of myrrh before arriving, feeling her fingertips running over the dimpled limestone columns.

On these vision walks in her mind, she was discovering that the Pythia’s role was more of a healer than a diviner.  It was the healing guidance she offered that made people think she knew the future.  She knew that if you had issues with uric acid then juniper berries would help flush it out.  She knew that the incense could be used for much more than just bathing the supplicants in dramatic clouds of smoke; it had the capacity to elevate the atmosphere into a higher realm of awareness.  

Lydia was not popular because she didn’t require the service of the priests to translate her prophecies because she did not spout trance induced Gibberish.  Using her powers of observation plus her instinct Lydia promoted clarity and well being by applying two of the three Delphic maxims: Know thyself paired with nothing in excess.  Her straightforward manner angered the priests because it lacked mystique; it had a way of clearing mental fog with belief in oneself. The priests banked on that fog and people relinquishing their belief to the translation abilities of the priests.

Whereas the Priestess Pythia was portrayed as a beacon of serenity behind the scenes there was a lot of infighting.  Lydia argued with the other two because they insisted they had to wait 7 days after the new moon before they could offer prophecy.  Lydia explained that the point was to be clean, both the Pythia and the supplicant.  That is why she had designed a 3-day retreat for the supplicants as opposed to the bacchanalia of Dimitra and Nicola.  The retreat was only to include fresh fish from the gulf and water from the spring.  Likewise it was the woman who would, once cleansed by the moon, be ready to receive, grasp and deliver the message of the gods. 

The priests knew that Lydia was very well prepared for the role of Pythia.  Much more so than the current two that were neither experienced or perceptive.  Lydia’s sincerity jeopardised their business model.   The Castalian spring was well known and had many visitors even before the reputation of the Pythia grew.  There were important visitors from afar bringing gifts and wealth. The priests didn’t want their status or their economy to be diverted.  With international fame the energy of the place was more about the buzz of commerce than the connection with Gaia.  

Lydia wanted the opposite to happen – she wanted a thriving community based around listening to the Oracle – even if it wasn’t her because she knew there could be somebody much better than her at connecting with the air of Apollo.  Someone who is fresh as the vapour from the spring yet as wise as emanation of the rocks. 

Tobias agreed to help her decorate the temple in a manner that would be pleasing to the attendance of Oracle energies.  He was happy to support Lydia but also wanted to get on with their life as a family.  They had a sincere love that their parents remarked on but the family growth was stalled.  First it was because Tobias went to war but that was 4 years ago now.  When he returned home he discovered Lydia had left on a trip with her dad’s cousin Jonas to Italy. This was quite unusual for a woman at the time but not unexpected of Lydia.

It was the sound of how he inhaled that said it was over.  Which was no surprise.  But it wasn’t fair.  Lydia knew that she could be The Pythia and a wife and a mother.  She knows it.   It was heartbreaking.  Like this moment now with Tobias.  She loved him and she knew he loved her but she couldn’t let go of the Pythia. It was more her than she was herself if that made any sense.  Lydia said it was her duty to her lineage, her land, to be The Pythia. 

Lydia’s father could not understand why Lydia didn’t marry Tobias when he was ready to make a life with her.  Lydia’s mother who knows how to deal with her dad and chose her moments when his point of view needed adjusting.  This was one of those times.  She stood up and he sat down.  No words were spoken.  He was glad because he had no idea what to do next. 

Within a year Tobias would be a happy husband and a satisfied father.  He would make his father so proud by marching off to fight for the Spartan Alliance in the battle of Marathon.  He would make his wife distraught by not coming back. 

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