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Monday, December 01, 2014

Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

Artist's conception of Ancient Delphi, in watercolor.  If you look at this painting, first note the enclosing wall, which is an archeological fact and sets the dimensions of the shrine.  The area closest to the viewer, at the bottom of the enclosed shrine area, are "treasuries" built by various supplicants- mostly greek city-states from the Western Greco-Roman area.  In the top right corner, you see the older part of the shrine, with the temple on the way up the path to the sacred cave.  The area inside the wall in the top right hand corner are statues and other works of art dedicated to the shrine.  There is also a "stoa" tucked away on the right hand side.  The main building in the middle is the enclosed Shrine is the Temple of Apollo.
Top down view of the Delphic shrine with labeled buildings, mirroring the painting of Delphi above.  The actual original cave is off the map, to the top right side (i.e. up a mountain.)

Book Review
Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World
by Michael Scott
Princeton University Press, published March 10th, 2014

    I think all things being equal I'd rather blog about subjects in World History. World History is interesting, and it simply doesn't attract the kind of readers who are an embarrassment to humanity.  World History subjects are also popular with the Audience.  There are 8 tagged World History posts with greater than one thousand page views, and an additional 26 posts with more than 100 page views, meaning that over a third of the tagged World History posts (34/103.) Almost every single post has more than 50 page views, meaning that the average for the category is something like 125 views per tagged post.  Since my average readership for a new post is 20-40, this makes these posts 6 to 3 times more popular than non World History tagged posts.

  As a new release, Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World, was a priority, but I was also genuinely interested in the subject matter, being a fan of "single subject" Greco/Roman/Ancient World history books. These are the kind of subjects where one title can stay current for a half century, so I read Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World with the idea that I would never, ever have to read another book about an ancient Greek shrine.

  The main trend in books about the archeology of ancient Greece and the larger Mediterranean world is an increase in going deeper and looking farther afield for new material.   The bias of interest towards the "classic" period has corresponded to a surfeit of knowledge about that time and a deficit both before and after.  Delphi, in it's hey day, a period which started well before the dawn of classical Greek civilization and ended after the Christian era, was forgotten by the inhabitants by 1400 AD, when the first classical scholar arrived seeking the Delphi he had read about in Greek and Latin texts. After that, it was basically another 400 years before anyone came back, and archeological excavation has preceded fitfully through the 20th century.

  This means that "what we know" is a combination of classic text largely from hundreds of years AFTER the periods described therein, and archeology. I'm mentioning this because many of the customer reviews on libel Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World as either being too simple or not simple enough. Neither assessment is correct, Delphi is simply a work of synthesis with up to date sourcing from available material.  Thus, it reflects the strengths and weaknesses of that material.

 This book is resolutely anti-hocum-pocum, so that we get enough discussion of the proto-ritual, a virgin Sybil sitting in some kind of tripod type arrangement over a vent in a mountain cave where gas issues forth and inspires prophecy.  Later, this ritual would be mimicked but within the later constructed temple of Apollo.  The original cave mountain prophesying was supplanted by the later shrine shown above.

  The later history of Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World is likely to be interesting to readers only to the degree that they are interested by the "late classical period" prior to the fall of the Western Empire.   Under Roman rule, Delphi maintained some relevance in the way that Old World religious sites are appealing to New World followers, but innovation had long since ended.

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