Climbing into the Centre of the World (the Kastalian Spring)

I’d read that the flowers in and around Delphi, the village and the ancient site, are marvellous, and that a good place to get away from the hordes of visitors is the Kastalian spring. (Some accounts don’t mention the crowds, they are evidently written by members of the horde community who take them for granted; those which do are written by elitists like me who believe that we are entitled to solitude among the ruins.)
I discovered that the spring is at the foot of a narrow ravine, a great gash in the cliffs, and read that it’s the place where two eagles, sent out by Zeus from the opposite ends of the earth, met, and so is the centre of the world. Athletes would bathe there before competing and become clean and pure. But when I got there the  centre of the earth was closed. (like Stonehenge, see  at a full stop in the Gasterntal_No 17)
I’m tempted again to try some topographical detail, although I know it often grows cumbersome and obscure. The sort of writing that 19th century novelists laboured at successfully but that you want to skip, feeling that cinema and photography with all their rich, easy rewards have made it redundant But the temptation survives.
The site of Delphi is spectacular. (It’s always called ‘the site’, or ‘the ancient site’, which is a disappointing term. But Aristotelis, in whose house in Delphi I airbnb’d, was happy with the word.) It’s on the southern slopes of Mount Parnassos, which is a group of mountains rather than a single one, with cliffs above and a deep bowl of a valley below, full of olive trees and scrub. A road runs parallel to the slope from the village in the west, which was moved there when they excavated the site in the 19th century, past the main site with the Temple of Apollo and the theatre and the treasuries and the archaeological museum, past the athletic stadium which I think has been closed for years, to the tholos, the circular temple of Athena, in the east, with the Kastalian spring in the middle, the middle not just of the ancient site of Delphi but of the whole world.
I didn’t mind the hordes too much. Obviously I wasn’t part of them, being on my own. I got there quite early which helped. And I was welcomed with a smile at the ticket office, and told that entry was free, all the ancient sites in Greece had free entry that day. And I found that since each group or coach load moves fairly swiftly – they’ve got a lot to get through – I could pause and let them pass, then enjoy a few quiet minutes before the next one. I saw a big American with a Grateful Dead T shirt. ‘The Grateful Dead!’ I said. Hesaid, ‘long, strange trip!’ Yes indeed. (Sometimes the light’s all shining on me / Other times I can barely see / Lately it occurs to me / What a long,strange trip it’s been.) But I had in my mind that the spring was a peaceful place apart, and was dismayed to be forbidden by a fence, especially after my earlier smiling welcome. The sign warned of the danger of falling rocks, but since there are hundreds of miles of open mountain roads in Greece where rocks of all sizes regularly tumble down that didn’t seem to warrant keeping everybody out, so I climbed in, which wasn’t too difficult. (It was easier than at the Giant’s Causeway, where the path that follows the contours half way up the cliffs is barricaded just beyond the most famous basalt features, again because of falling rocks and landslides. see Deviations_No 8.)
Running along the base of the cliff, tree and rock shaded, is a water-course cut into the sandstone. It’s damp but the water no longer flows out and into the ancient rectangular pool. Flowers now grow in the channel, enjoying the moisture but anxious for more sun. In the steep rock at the foot of the ravine steps were cut, but it would be difficult to climb up very far into the mountain. Sudden solitude, and no signs or interpretation boards talking to you. No temple ruins, just the stone channel to mark the spot, the centre of the earth still plainly geological. And some niches cut into the stone above which once held statues. I enjoyed climbing out again, being watched by a group of tourists who peered curiously in. But afterwards I wanted more interpretation, and I found it unexpectedly.
A few weeks later I went to Northern Ireland with two of my sisters for Aunty Eva’s funeral in Bushmills, a dear aunt and the last of my mother’s family, and on the way back to the airport we went to the Seamus Heaney museum in Bellaghy, they call it the Seamus Heaney Home Place. (‘Home’ is another perjured word. The Swiss mountain which is the ‘home’ of the Audi Quattro. Windsor, home of the Royal Wedding. Weddings have ‘venues’ don’t they? you have a wedding somewhere and afterwards you set up home, don’t you? Home can’t be a place where something happens once, can it? BBC radio 3, the home of the proms. ) Anyway, I saw a book in the bookshop there that I hadn’t seen before, ‘Electric Light’, published in 2001. And I flicked through it and came across:

Castalian Spring

Thunderface. Not Zeus’s ire, but hers
Refusing entry, and mine mounting from it.
This one thing I had vowed: to drink the waters
Of the Castalian Spring, to arrogate
That much to myself and be the poet
Under the god Apollo’s giddy cliff –
But the inner water sanctum was roped off
When we arrived. Well then, to hell with that,
And to hell with all who’d stop me, thunderface!
So up the steps then, into the sandstone grottoes,
The seeps and dreeps, the shallow pools, the mosses,
Come from beyond, and come far, with this useless
Anger draining away, on terraces
Where I bowed and mouthed in sweetness and defiance.

below: the ravine and the channel

Then, at the entrance to the Tholos, I met my own Thunderface. Emboldened, not so much by my own successful trespass, but that of a woman coming up a narrow path from the temple and stepping with a delinquent smile over a rope designed to block the path, I did the same and made my way down the road less travelled, among trees, but was spotted by a fierce attendant who shouted out one of the few greek phrases I understand, ‘where are you going!’ or probably a better translation would be, ‘what do you think you’re doing!’ I should say that at Delphi and other sites security is generally light, and areas where they don’t want people treading are fenced off minimally, by knee high ropes – not at all like the six foot fence at the spring. So they actually rely on the good sense and cooperation of the hordes. I felt a flush of shame. Exposed, the deviant becomes conformist in a flash.

Like they do on the mountains, most people stick to the paths. The trespasser instinct is dying out. Most of the visitors that day to the Sanctuary of Athena were north european teenagers, dutifully following the broad path and their phones. Their phones are home and sanctuary. But can be used for safe trespass.

I don’t know if Seamus actually climbed in. Maybe in those days – not so long ago: it was while he on that trip to Greece that he was awarded the Nobel Prize and they couldn’t find him for a while to tell him. Obviously he wasn’t on his phone the whole time – maybe in those days there was just one of those low ropes. Judging by all the cars and driving in his poetry I don’t think he was a great walker, certainly not a climber. And I don’t know if Thunderface saw him disobey.

I’ve a photo somewhere of another climbing-in. There was some confusion about getting into the gardens of the Coin Street housing coop where we – Putting Down Roots, the St Mungo’s gardening project – were to do some work. And Andrew climbed in over a high gate to unbolt it from the inside. He was delighted.

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