Friday, May 6, 2011

Homage to the Oracle of Delphi

"Over a vast period--ages in which people came and went, empires rose and fell--the Oracle proved to be the most durable and compelling force in what was arguably the most important society that humans ever devised. She was the guide star of Greek civilization. We have no equilavent. . . . No voice, civil or religious, carried further. No authority was more sought after or more influencial. None. She quite literally had the power to depose kings."

So writes William J. Broad, award-winning New York Times science writer, in his fascinating book The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets. Broad pulls together the strands of ancient history, archeological quest, and modern scientific inquiry regarding this figure shrouded in so much mystery. (Actually, there were many Oracles, often matronly women, succeding each other. During Plutarch's stint as high priest of Delphi, there were two Oracles and one back up. Even Plutarch was not privy to the inner rites of these Oracles.)

The ancient Greeks laid the foundation of our scientific world. Pythagorus, Euclid, Aristotle, and scores more, established the basic principles of mathematics, geometry, physics, and philosophy. These great thinkers respected the Oracle of Delphi. Socrates even credits her with setting him on the course that made him one of the world's greatest philosophers.

As described by the ancients, the Delphic Oracle would sit on a tripod, breath in vapors, enter a state of exaltation, and then answer questions put to her, the answers coming directly from the god Apollo. Her answers were sometimes ambiguous, othe times quite specific. King Croesus once sent a courier to ask "What am I doing now." When the Oracle said he was cooking lamb and turtle stew, it seemed improbable. Yet she was spot on. On that day, at that time, the king was cooking that stew!

Broad's book chronicles the unearthing of the ruins at Delphi and the scientific search for the source of the fumes that enabled the Oracle to reach her elevated state. After years of research, John Hale, an American archeologist, and Jelle de Boer, a Dutch geologist, published their findings in 2001. The tripod sat directly over the intersection of two geological faults where a mixture of gases, including the ecstacy-inducing ethylene, wafted through tiny fussures.

The media was quick to mock the Oracle as getting high and rambling, but the question remains, how could she have been so accurate and commanded such respect for hundreds of years?

I like to think that the Oracle tapped into "the Field," much like Edgar Cayce did in his self-hypnotic trances, where she could step into a higher level of consciousness, the transcendental state where the past, present, and future all blend, where all knowledge is accessible.

The Oracle continued to have power into the Roman period. The Christians, however, labelled her a witch in league with demons, and after 1200 years and thousands of accurate prophecies, in 395 C.E., the shrine was closed by the Roman emporor. Subsequent earthquakes eventually shut off the fumes.

Nancy and I leave Crete tomorrow to journey to Delphi. Amidst the stunning scenery and awesome ruins, I will be paying my respect to that "sisterhood of mystics" as Broad calls them, who generation after generation, guided one of the world's greatest civilizations.


What's Missing in Minoan Art?

The Minoans didn't need Title IX to ensure equality in athletics. Their culture radiated female power and presence as shown in frescos from the palace walls of Knossos, Crete. Here are three bull dancers: the woman (always light-skinned in Minoan art and often bare-chested) on the left about to launch herself over the bull's horns, the man in mid-somersault over the bull's back, and the woman on the right, landing after her vault.

It has taken 4,000 years for the Western world to begin to catch up.

The Minoan civilization thrived on Crete from 3400 BCE to 1450 BCE, when Santorini's volcanic explosion and the subsequent earthquakes and tsunamis devastated the islands, leading to the collapse of the Minoan culture. What remains is the ghost town at Akrotiri, Santorini (only 3% excavated) and the ruins on Crete, the most famous being Knossos because of Sir Arthur Evans's partial reconstruction.
One of the remnants of this amazing culture, so unlike the patariarchal culture of the last four millenia, is the subject of their artwork. The frescos show dolphins cavorting in the sea, blue monkeys picking fruit, an octopus waving its tenacles, a young man stepping through a lilly field, tall papyrus plants bursting with color.

Even the pendants and seals show a remarkable gift for precision and beauty, with representations of bees and deer so finely crafted that I have to wonder if the artisans had magnifying glasses.

What is missing in Minoan art? Scenes of war, of the abduction and rape of women, of torture (on the cross or otherwise), of dour church patriarachs and saints devoid of joy.

The Minoans flourished centuries before the Trojan War, an epic event in the early days of patriarchal hegemony that became a touchstone for art of the Classical and Hellenestic periods. Later, with the rise of Christianity, art has focused for centuries on the passion of Christ and matyred saints. I remember a few years back leaving a museum in Florence feeling queasy because of all the horrific scenes of crucifixion and torture.

Nancy and I leave for Paris within a week. We will, of course, wander through museums during our five days there. But really, do I need to see one more rendering of Zeus taking a woman by force or of a bloody Christ suffering on the cross, or a martyr being beheaded, stoned, flayed, or set ablaze?

Give me the Minoan world of light and sensuality, where the joy of being alive in this glorious world pulses through each brush stroke.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Our Mediterranean Diet

Here on Crete, Nancy and I have been enjoying the "Mediterranean diet."

For example, yesterday for lunch we fixed the above plate and savored by the swimming pool: green salad, fava beans, olives, bread soaked in olive oil, and feta cheese.
Basically, the diet emphasizes plants: fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Moderate amounts of cheese and yogurt, fish, and poultry. A little red meat, mostly lamb. Olive oil is important, and we love the Cretan tradition of drizzling it on rusk, the whole grain hard-as-rock bread.

We have been carrying a tin of Cretan olive oil with us since our first weeks on Crete. The olive oil of this island is renowned for its "lightness." I don't know if that's true, but it certainly is delicious enough that when I return home I will look for Cretan olive oil at the market.

A glass or two of wine also is part of the Mediterranean diet, and here we have all sorts of delicious wines in even the smallest grocery store. On Santorini we tried some local bulk wine in a plastic bottle. Not great, but satisfying. Right now we're enjoying a bottle of dry red from the Boutari vineyards, one of the most prominent vineyards on Crete and Santorini.

The produce here is also reputed to be more flavorful than elsewhere because of the volcanic soil and climate. Nancy praises the eggplant. We have noticed that the egg yolks are the rich, almost orange color we see in the eggs from our Minnesota brother-in-law's free-range chickens.

I don't want to give the impression that we are dietary angels. We have enjoyed plenty of gyros-- spicy shaved pork with thin-sliced onions and tomatoes, tzatziki (yogurt-cucumber sauce), and a few French fries, all tightly rolled in grilled pita bread.

And the baklava! Crispy filo dough, chopped nuts, honey, and cloves wins out everytime over a piece of fresh fruit. Anyone in Athens who is looking for the best baklava, head for the Plaka and Benethe Bakery. Their version is made with pistachios and abundant cloves, a generous piece for only one euro 20 cents that we eat standing at one of the tiny tables on the pedestrian Adrianou St. and people-watch.

Socrates once said, "Moderation in all things, including moderation." That goes for the Mediterranean diet, too. Bring on the baklava!


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May Day Bacchanelia

Agreco, an organic farm a few kilometers south of Rethymnon, Crete, puts on a special tour and lunch every May Day. (It's a variation of their regular evening dinner.)

Located on a slope overlooking the Sea of Crete, the 40,000 square meter farm provides produce for select hotels in the area. This re-creation of a 17th century farm also operates as a sort of working museum with stations showing traditional Cretan methods of agricultural production.

At the olive press, a donkey (now retired) would move stone wheels that crush olives as the oil runs off through a drain hole. The tailings are dried and put down as floor covering, much as we use sawdust or gravel. We sampled two Agreco olive oils dipped in fresh crusty bread and in Cretan whole grain rusk, a hard crunchy bread that takes a strong set of molars to chew.

We saw spits of lamb roasting on open-air wood fires and bread baking in the outdoor wood-fired oven. All the aromas mingled with the smell of fresh herbs and blooming flowers--many had been picked and woven into wreaths to adorn the heads of the many French, German, and Russian girls -- and boys -- at Agreco that day.

The wine tasting station offered red and white farm-produced wine and next to it, a wood-burning still, where the fermented must from the wine press was boiled. The steam escaped though a tube that passed through an urn of cool water and emerged as 70% proof Cretan raki. Nancy and I tossed back three half-shots of the delicious tequilla-like liquor that the tradionally-dressed workers kept handing us.

"Yamas!" they'd exclaim as they clicked their glasses to ours. This traditional Greek toast is a contraction of “Stin ygeia mas” (Στην υγεία μας), which means “to our health!”

Happily we moved on up the hill to our open-air lunch overlooking vineyards and fields of artichokes and out to the sea.

Course after course of delicious Cretan appetizers, crusty bread, rice pilaf, lamb, chicken, roasted potatoes and eggplant, salad, more lamb, more potatoes, fruits, goat cheese, creamy yogurt, and desserts. Oh, and a pitcher of house wine.

And that's all I remember...except for a vague memory of Nancy and me holding hands and dancing Greek-style in a large circle . . . .


Note: For more info about the farm, go to

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Fire in a Greek Synagogue

The old synagogue in Chania, Crete, suffered two arson attacks in 2010.

Our guide Alexander smiled sadly. "The police caught the men who set the fires. Two British, two Americans, and a Greek."

"What was their motive?" Amy, a school counselor, asked.

"We don't know," the handsome young Greek said in almost unaccented English.

“What was done with them?" asked Amy’s partner Terry, a criminal justice teacher.

Alexander smiled sadly again. "They were released. There were no charges. We installed a security system, something we never wanted."

Amy, Terry, Becky, and I were visiting Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Crete, where Jews have lived for over 2400 years. The synagogue, originally a Venetian Catholic church, was given to the Jewish Community by the Ottomans when they took over Crete in the 16th century. It remained a place of worship until the Germans occupied the Greek island four centuries later.

On June 8, 1944, the Nazis obliterated the Jewish community on Crete by putting all Jewish families on a ship for the first leg of their journey to Auschwitz. A British submarine sank the ship, killing everyone on board, including many children. The synagogue was destroyed and remained virtually a ruin until the World Monuments Fund named it a most endangered site in 1996, and Nikos Stavroulakis completed the restoration in 1999.

Last January, this exquisite little restored synagogue was broken into and set on fire. Although there was damage, the Torahs were unharmed. Two weeks later, with the synagogue's interior cleaned and repainted, the arsonists struck again. This time the fires completely gutted both floors, destroying the main archive, and burning many of the library's 1000 sacred texts and reference books, valuable 16th century Ottoman textiles, and the synagogue's data base. In the Mikvah, the ritual bathing room, we spotted boxes of charred books. Again, the fires spared the Torahs.

As we four sat silently on the wooden benches, I recalled the monument Amy had discovered in the square beside Athens' cathedral a few days earlier. It depicts the archbishop who opposed persecution of Greek Jews during the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation. When arrested in 1943, Archbishop Damaskinos told the Nazis, "Members of the clergy of Greece may not be shot, they may only be hanged. I beg you to respect this tradition. . . ." His life spared, he lived another six years.

Anti-Semitism runs like poison through the centuries. It is inspiring to see people like the Archbishop and Jewish Greeks like Alexander and other members of Etz Hayyim Synagogue face down bigots and affirm their place in Crete, where a long Jewish history came very close to being obliterated.

Information about the Chania synogogue and the story of Crete's Jewish community can be found at If you want to contribute to the restoration of the synagogue, contact Alexander Phoundoulakis at