Saturday, October 06, 2007

Pytheas of Massilia and the Lost City of Apollo - Part III - The Delphi Connection


Following on from his previous two articles which propose that Stonehenge and the nearby Bronze Age (please see amendment at article end) settlement at Vespasian's Camp, may have been the temple and city dedicated to Apollo and referred to by Pytheas of Massilia, comes this third part, in which Dennis Price suggests that the ancient traveller may have been reminded of a Delphic temple when he encountered Stonehenge. Here's part of the introduction...

If we can reasonably single out an individual building that Pytheas was aware of when he saw his famous temple, then we can be more certain still that the structure he described was Stonehenge and that the City of Apollo he mentioned twice was the giant Iron Age earthwork we now know as Vespasian’s Camp. I believe that the magnificent circular building reconstructed in the drawing above figured prominently in the thoughts of Pytheas when he encountered the temple of Apollo in Britain, but to understand why, we have to recreate another voyage undertaken by Pytheas at some point in the fourth century BC.

As we have seen, Pytheas came from Masillia, which is now known as Marseilles, on the Mediterranean coast of southern France, but it is believed that the town could trace its roots back to the eastern Mediterranean, at 600 BC...

...it is beyond doubt that settlers from Phocaea, the most northerly of the Ionian cities in Asia Minor, founded Massilia around 600 BC. By mere virtue of the fact that the Phocaeans successfully established a flourishing city at the opposite end of the Mediterranean in the seventh century BC, it is clear that they were outstanding mariners, while we also learn this from Herodotus, who wrote that the Phocaeans were the first of the ancient Greeks to embark on lengthy journeys by sea.


I'm quite surprised at the late date of 600 BC given here for the first long-distance Greek mariners, as I think there is evidence to suggest that people were regularly navigating the Aegean in the Neolithic, hinting at a much older seafaring tradition in that part of the world. Whilst navigating the short distances between various Aegean islands might be considered a relatively simple business, the skills of craft construction, navigation and seamanship required would probably have equipped Neolithic mariners with the necessary experience needed for longer voyages around the Mediterranean basin. Moreover, there is further evidence to suggest that people were navigating this ocean from at least the Upper Palaeolithic, as indicated by stone tools found on various islands.

Be that as it may, it is nevertheless clear that Pytheas grew up in a community to whom seafaring was familiar, and one that maintained links with the homeland in the eastern Mediterranean, as described here...

We also know that Massilia was home to a temple of Artemis, the sister of Apollo, while there is a suggestion that the Phocaeans once practised human sacrifice in honour of this goddess. The mother of Apollo and Artemis was Leto, who was said by some to have been born in Hyperborea, the land to which Apollo returned for three months every year, hence his title Apollo Hyperboreus.

That aside, as well as building a temple dedicated to Delphic Apollo, the Massiliotes maintained strong physical links with Delphi, because they kept their treasury there. The Treasury of Massilia at Delphi was built of marble at some point in the sixth century BC and we know that in 396 BC, the Romans deposited a golden bowl there to commemorate their victory over the Veii.

It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Pytheas visited Delphi, if only because he was an accomplished mariner and because the port from which he derived his name kept its treasury at Delphi. As there was a temple dedicated to Delphic Apollo at Massilia, it’s reasonable to assume that Pytheas would have wished to visit the far more important temple of Apollo at Delphi itself, but this is just the beginning.


Next we are given a consideration of the Oracle at Delphi, whose influence over the decision-making processes of individual and state apparatus of contemporary Greece was great indeed. The prophecies of the Oracle were relayed by a woman known as the Pythia, who in turn derived her title from at least one of two sources, as described by Wikipedia...

From a late myth that deviates from much older ones, when young, Apollo killed the chthonic serpent Python, named Pythia in older myths, but according to some later accounts his wife, Pythia, who lived beside the Castalian Spring, according to some because Python had attempted to rape Leto while she was pregnant with Apollo and Artemis. The bodies of the pair were draped around his Rod, which, with the wings created the caduceus symbolic of the god.

This spring flowed toward the temple but disappeared beneath, creating a cleft which emitted vapors that caused the Oracle at Delphi to give her prophecies. Apollo killed Python but had to be punished for it, since she was a child of Gaia. The shrine dedicated to Apollo was originally dedicated to Gaia and then, possibly to Poseidon. The name Pythia remained as the title of the Delphic Oracle. As punishment for this murder Apollo was sent to serve in menial tasks for eight years. A festival, the Septeria, was performed annually portraying the slaying of the serpent, the flight, the atonment and the return of the God. The Pythian Games took place every four years to commemorate his victory [1].

It is believed that Pytheas of Massillia could trace his own name back to these origins, but before we go on, here's some more background on Pythia and the Oracle of Delphi itself...

The priestess of the oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia. Apollo spoke through his oracle, who had to be an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants of the area. The sybyl or prophetess took the name Pythia and sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth. When Apollo slew Python, its body fell into this fissure, according to legend, and fumes arose from its decomposing body. Intoxicated by the vapors, the sibyl would fall into trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. In this state she prophesied. She spoke in riddles, which were interpreted by the priests of the temple, and people consulted her on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs.

H.W. Parke writes that the foundation of Delphi and its oracle took place before the times of recorded history and its origins are obscure, but dating to the worship of the Great Goddess, Gaia.[6]

The Oracle exerted considerable influence throughout the Greek world, and she was consulted before all major undertakings: wars, the founding of colonies, and so forth. She also was respected by the semi-Hellenic countries around the Greek world, such as Lydia, Caria, and even Egypt.


And this from another Wikipedia entry...

There are many stories of the origins of the Delphic Oracle. One late explanation, which is first related by the 1st century BC writer, Diodorus Siculus, tells of a goat herder called Kouretas, who noticed one day that one of his goats, who fell into a crack in the earth was behaving strangely. On entering the chasm, he found himself filled with a divine presence and could see outside of the present into the past and the future. Excited by his discovery he shared it with nearby villagers. Many started visiting the site, until one of them was killed by the experience. From then, only young girls were allowed to approach the chasm and then in conditions regulated by a guild of priests and priestesses.[7]

According to earlier myths, the office of the oracle was initially held by the goddesses ThemisPhoebe, and that the site was sacred first to Gaia. Subsequently it was held sacred to Poseidon, the "Earth-shaker" god of earthquakes, a later offspring of Gaia. During the Greek Dark Age, from the 11th to the 9th century BC, the arrival of a new god of prophecy, saw the temple being seized by Apollo who expelled the twin guardian serpents of Gaia. Later myths stated that Phoebe or Themis had "given" the site to Apollo, rationalizing its seizure by priests of the new god, but presumably, having to retain the priestesses of the original oracle because of the long tradition. Apparently Poseidon was mollified by the gift of a new site in Troizen. and

Diodorus also explained how initially, the Pythia was a young virgin, but one consultant notes,

Echecrates the Thessalian, having arrived at the shrine and beheld the virgin who uttered the oracle, became enamoured of her because of her beauty, carried her away and violated her; and the Delphians because of this deplorable occurrence passed a law that in the future a virgin could no longer prophesy, but that an elderly woman ... would declare the oracles and she would be dressed in the costume of a virgin as a sort of reminder of the prophetess of olden times.


The scholar Martin Litchfield West writes that the Pythia shows many traits of shamanistic practices, likely inherited or influenced from Central Asian practices, although there is no evidence of any Central Asian connection at this time.

He cites the Pythia sitting in a cauldron on a tripod, whilst making her prophecies, her being in an ecstatic trance state, like shamans, and her unintelligible utterings.


There has been much discussion of late as to whether the musings of the Oracle were due in some way to hallucinogenic vapours given off by the cleft in the Earth, as we see from this article at National Geographic...


...a four-year study of the area in the vicinity of the shrine is causing archaeologists and other authorities to revisit the notion that intoxicating fumes loosened the lips of the Pythia.

The study, reported in the August issue of Geology, reveals that two faults intersect directly below the Delphic temple. The study also found evidence of hallucinogenic gases rising from a nearby spring and preserved within the temple rock.

"Plutarch made the right observation," said Jelle De Boer, a geologist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and co-author of the study. "Indeed, there were gases that came through the fractures."

and...

De Boer conducted an analysis of these hydrocarbon gases in spring water near the site of the Delphi temple. He found that one is ethylene, which has a sweet smell and produces a narcotic effect described as a floating or disembodied euphoria.

"Ethylene inhalation is a serious contender for explaining the trance and behavior of the Pythia," said Diane Harris-Cline, a classics professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

"Combined with social expectations, a woman in a confined space could be induced to spout off oracles," she said.

According to traditional explanations, the Pythia derived her prophecies in a small, enclosed chamber in the basement of the temple. De Boer said that if the Pythia went to the chamber once a month, as tradition says, she could have been exposed to concentrations of the narcotic gas that were strong enough to induce a trance-like state.


Whether or not the Pythia was exposed to and influenced by these fumes is open to debate, but it should be noted that her prophecies were very eagerly sought and highly valued, which indicates that the information she was giving was good - otherwise her popularity would quickly have waned, as one prophecy after another turned out to be wrong.

But the fact that she must have been getting it right more often than not, consistently over long periods of time, would appear to discount the theory that this phenomenon was merely the result of a woman tripped out on happy gas '"spouting off" whatever came to her mind and mouth - but obviously there will be a great deal of scepticism within scientific circles that a specified human individual was capable of divining the future to what was then one of the most sophisticated cultures on Earth.

However it would appear that there were links to ancient shamanistic practice originating out of Central Asia inherent in the activities at Delphi, and again, although we might today refute the idea of a shaman being able to communicate with an abstract realm in order to pass on, amongst other things, advice to a resident human population living in this physical realm, the fact that shamanism has prevailed for many thousands of years is at least indicative of their having some degree of accuracy in their predictions and promptings.

But as we read on through the Wikipedia entry on Pythia, we are given more detail, telling us that this was not the work of one woman on her own, rather the result of several individuals being present in the Oracle - Wikipedia again...


The Pythia was probably selected, at the death of her predecessor, from amongst a guild of priestesses of the temple, and was required to be a woman of good character. Although some were married, upon assuming their role as the Pythia, the priestesses ceased all family responsibilities, and individual identity. In the heyday of the oracle, the Pythia may have been a woman chosen from a prominent family, well educated in geography, politics, history, philosophy, and the arts. In later periods, however, uneducated peasant women were chosen for the role, which may explain why the poetic pentameter or hexameter prophecies of the early period, later were made only in prose. The archaeologist John Hale reports:

...the Pythia was (on occasion) a noble [woman] of aristocratic family, sometimes a peasant, sometimes rich, sometimes poor, sometimes old, sometimes young, sometimes a very lettered and educated woman to whom somebody like the high priest and the philosopher Plutarch would dedicate essays, other times [one] who could not write her own name. So it seems to have been aptitude rather than any ascribed status that made these women eligible to be Pythias and speak for the God.[9]


This would certainly fit in well with the way in which some shamans are selected for service to the community- there is no societal hierarchy which dictates that an individual has birth rights to such a position, rather they are thought to be chosen from the 'other side', and that a shaman is summoned to do service, rather than the other way round, and moreover, they are obliged to take up the position whether they wish to do so or not - this is based, admittedly, on a half-remembered documentary about modern-day shamans in Siberia, but I'm assuming that the tradition of one or more individuals being selected solely on their perceived abilities is one that is probably as old as shamanism itself.

It's also very interesting that the women chosen as successive incarnations of the Pythia were relaying the messages might have done so in very different ways, depending on their former social background - hence the idea that an educated woman might have expressed the prophecies in words considered more sophisticated than those of a Pythia who had formerly worked in the fields, and who may well have been more or less illiterate - but of prime importance would have been the accuracy of their predictions, no matter what language or terms they were expressed.

Here's a brief note from Wikipedia on the subject...


It would appear that the supplicant to the oracle would undergo a four stage process, typical of shamanic journeys.

Step 1: The Journey to Delphi - Supplicants were motivated by some need to undertake the long and sometimes arduous journey to come to Delphi in order to consult the oracle. This journey was motivated by an awareness of the existence of the oracle, the growing motivation on the part of the individual or group to undertake the journey, and the gathering of information about the oracle as providing answers to important questions.

Step 2: The Preparation of the Supplicant - Supplicants were interviewed in preparation of their presentation to the Oracle, by the priests in attendance. The genuine cases were sorted and the supplicant had to go through rituals involving the framing of their questions, the presentation of gifts to the Oracle and a procession along the Sacred Way carrying laurel leaves to visit the temple, symbolic of the journey they had made.

Step 3: The Visit to the Oracle - The supplicant would then be led into the temple to visit the adyton, put his question to the Pythia, receive his answer and depart. The degree of preparation already undergone would mean that the supplicant was already in a highly aroused and meditative state, similar to the shamanic journey elaborated on in the article.

Step 4: The Return Home - Oracles were meant to give advice to shape future action, that was meant to be implemented by the supplicant, or by those that had sponsored the supplicant to visit the Oracle. The validity of the Oracular utterance was confirmed by the consequences of the application of the oracle to the lives of those people who sought Oracular guidance.

It would appear however, that during the time that Apollo was associated with the oracle, the Pythia would not be present and available for consultation the whole year round...

In the traditions associated with Apollo, the oracle gave prophecies only between spring and autumn. In the winter months, Apollo was said to have deserted his temple, his place being taken by his divine half-brother Dionysus, whose tomb was within the temple. It is not known whether the Oracle participated in the Dionysian rites of the Maenads or Thyades in the Korykion cave on Mount Parnassos, although Plutarch informs us that his friend Clea, was both a Priestess to Apollo and to the secret rites of Dionysus. The male priests seem to have had their own ceremonies to the dying and resurrecting God. Apollo was said to return at the beginning of Spring, on the 7th day of the month of Bysios, his birthday. This also would reiterate the absences of the great goddess in winter also, which would have been a part of the earliest traditions.

Once a month thereafter the oracle would undergo special rites, including fasting, to prepare Pythia for the event, on the seventh day of the month, sacred to Apollo. Washing in the Castalian Spring, she then received inspiration by drinking of the waters of the Kassotis from the naiad said to be living in the stream that ran beneath the adyton (a Greek word meaning "do not enter") of the temple where she sat.

Descending into her chamber, she mounted her tripod seat, holding laurel leaves and a cauldron of the Kassotis water into which she gazed. Nearby was the omphalos, the navel of Earth, flanked by the two golden eagles of Zeus, and the cleft from which emerged the sacred pneuma.

Consultants, carrying laurel branches sacred to Apollo approached the temple along the winding upward course of the Sacred Way, bringing a black ram for sacrifice in the forecourt of the temple, and a gift of money for the oracle. Petitioners drew lots to determine the order of admission, but big donations to Apollo could secure them a higher place in line. The ram was first showered with water and observed to ensure that it shivered from the hooves upward, an auspicious sign that the oracular reading could proceed. Upon sacrifice, the animal's organs, particularly its liver, were examined to ensure the signs were favourable.

Between 535 and 615 of the Oracles of Delphi are known to have survived since classical times, of which over half are said to be historically accurate (see the article Famous Oracular Statements from Delphi for some examples).

At times when the Pythia was not operating, consultants obtained information from the future in other ways at the site, through the casting of lots, using a simple questioning "Yes/No" device, or by seeking counsel from dreams...

...Plutarch said that the Pythia's life was shortened through the service of Apollo. The sessions were said to be exhausting. At the end of each period the Pythia would be like a runner after a race or a dancer after an ecstatic dance. It clearly had a physical effect on the health of the Pythia.


It's interesting to note that the voyage Pytheas of Massillia made to these islands, i.e. the North, closely matched Apollo's supposed boreal sojourn, and it might be worth considering whether than the voyage undertaken by Pytheas had a ritual component to it, in that he was tracing the footsteps of the god himself, engaged on an unknown quest. Perhaps it was to have a look at the lands that lay to the north, and report back his findings, though whether he would have been expected to locate the exact place where Apollo resided over the winter is a moot point.

Perhaps he was given a prophecy by the Pythia that far to the north, on an island located off mainland Europe, lay a temple and city that were also dedicated to Apollo, or his local equivalent, and it was his task to go there and establish contact, or maybe renew and strengthen cultural ties that existed prior to both himself and his adventures.

Maybe Stonehenge was known back then as having its own 'navel of the Earth' or 'omphalos', and Pytheas was directed there by the oracle, for reasons unknown.

There is as far as I know, nothing to suggest that there was an oracular component at Stonehenge, or at the nearby and putative city, currently residing under the alias of 'Vespasian's Camp', but given that Stonehenge, like Delphi, may have been in ritual use for a considerable amount of time, might suggest that people were visiting for other reasons than various solar and lunar events during the seasonal year, but again, this can only be speculation. If the current idea that Stonehenge was part of a larger complex incorporating Durrington Walls and Woodhenge, which could have served as a ritual landscape for the journey from this life to the next, is correct, then we might conclude that there was no need for extra 'attractions' such as an oracle to draw people towards Stonehenge and the surrounding megalithic constructions.

But if we also consider that shamanism in one or more of its many incarnations may well have been present in Bronze Age and Iron Age Britain, it might seem a fair bet that Stonehenge might be the type of location towards which shamans would feel compelled to visit or otherwise make their presence known. Time we headed back to Eternal Idol, from where we read the following...


... it seems unimaginable to me that Pytheas didn’t visit Delphi before sailing to Britain. His prowess as a mariner, his home city’s devotion to Delphic Apollo, the Massilian treasury at Delphi, the disposition of ancient states and private individuals to consult the Delphic Oracle, the sheer potency of the Delphic Oracle while Pytheas was alive, the links between his name, that of the ancient name of Delphi and the Pythian Games, the belief that Apollo left Delphi each year for Hyperborea in the north, just off the coast of Gaul, the belief that the omphalos stone at Delphi was the centre of the known world - all these things suggest to me that if anyone alive at the time had a good reason and the means to visit Delphi, then it was Pytheas, prior to embarking on his famous voyage.

The ritual of the songs to Apollo and the playing of the cithara at the Pythian Games is so similar to what took place at the temple in Britain that we might be tempted to suppose that Pytheas made the whole thing up, perhaps simply as a tribute to Apollo’s greatness. However, if that were the case, then it seems to me that Pytheas would have described a temple that was rectangular in shape, such as the one at Delphi, but he did not. He described one that was either spherical, vaulted or circular, while he also said that there was a city and the clear implication, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that this city was close by.

The priests continually played in this temple, which suggests that they came and went on a regular basis from some habitation that was nearby. Furthermore, the city was home to overseers or supervisors of the temple, as well as to kings, and we usually oversee or supervise something that’s in plain sight or readily accessible, as opposed to something that’s at the other end of the country. If the city and temple had been at any great remove from each other, then Pytheas would have written that the kings and/or priests had dominion over the temple or something similar, but he did not.


Dennis Price here makes the point that Pytheas could have merely been relating a fable from his travels, rather than reporting factually on what he had seen, and of course there is always that possibility, especially if his voyage had been undertaken as part of some sort of ritualised trek related to the northerly travels of Apollo himself, and he felt obliged to come back with the goods as it were - after all, back in the day, when the vast majority of people had no chance to undertake long-distance voyages of their own to check out for themselves the lay of the land and its attendant cities, temples and other features, it was probably quite easy for travellers to invent all sorts of fabulous peoples and places.

However, there still remains the distinct possibility that Pytheas could very well have made it to Stonehenge, and as I've mentioned before, it is only when archaeology can be conducted on a sufficient scale at Vespasian's Camp that we will being to see whether there really was a town or city located there, and whether it could be connected directly with nearby Stonehenge. Obviously it would be too much to hope for an inscription in Ancient Greek to be found there, detailing exactly what was going on at Stonehenge during these times - although, it might be thought odd that if there was extensive or regular contact between Ancient Britain and Greece, that the concept of writing appears not to have been adopted in the former, but who knows - maybe writing as we know it might only have been permitted to be inscribed on perishable materials such as bark or parchment, with the inscription of stones strictly deeply frowned upon.

For the final part of his essay, Dennis Price alerts us to a mysterious structure known as the Tholos, a building with an architectural design that bore at least a passing similarity to Stonehenge; he first of all refers us to this page, courtesy of Roy George, from whom we learn...

Archaeologically we know but little about the early beginnings of Delphi. Excavations have revealed the site was a Mycenaean village from 1500 to 1100 BCE, during which time the primary religious emphasis was on an oracular cult of the Earth Goddess. Around 1000 BCE the worship of Apollo became dominant when this new god was brought to the region by either Dorians from Crete or northern tribes from Thessaly. The oracular use of the site continued during Apollo's occupation and Delphi achieved Panhellenic fame as a major oracle shrine by the 7th century BCE.

Located roughly one-half mile from the main concentration of buildings at Delphi, Athena Pronaia was the gateway to Delphi. The site, having been occupied since the Neolithic Period (5000-3000 BCE) and later by the Mycenaeans, may actually predate Delphi as a sacred place. Originally dedicated to the worship of an Earth Goddess, the shrine was eventually occupied by Olympian deities, Athena in particular. Athena's shrine stood near the entrance to Apollo's; hence the epithet 'of the fore-shrine', which is confirmed by inscriptions. Athena Pronaia, 'Athena before the Temple', was also called, by a sort of pun, Athena Pronoia, 'Athena of forethought.'


(Pronoia was once defined to me, somewhat differently, by a friend, who surmised that 'pronoia' is in fact the opposite of 'paranoia', and afflicts people who cannot understand why their lives are so good and successful; eventually they come to the conclusion that there is a conspiracy undertaken by those around them, or indeed unknown others, who secretly make it their business to act for the benefit of the concerned individual, making sure that everything works out right, and that what seem like fortuitous events are in fact nothing more than the result of mysterious benefactors working away quietly in the background; whether anyone has ever sought therapy for alleviating this curious notion, along the lines of "For God's sake, doctor, I just want something to go wrong for once...", I haven't the faintest idea.)

But back to the Tholos itself, an unusual and possibly unique structure in Ancient Greece, although as we see, 'tholos' means a round stone chamber...


The next monument is the Tholos (a generic name signifying a round stone chamber), a Late Classical circular building, built ca. 380 BCE - 360 BCE, with 14.76m exterior diameter and 13.5m height. It was probably designed by Theodorus of Phocaea and partly restored in 1938.

Its marble came from Attica. The order is Doric on the outside, with twenty columns. The original number of Corinthian half-columns inside is unknown (some say 10), despite the evidence of early reconstructions.

The building is one of the architectural wonders of the world - an incredible feat of mathematics involving the precise calculation of ratios based on the golden number, represented by the blocks of the stylobate (the top step).

The algebraic complexity of the structure is matched in detail and perfection by its decoration. The moldings are delicate; and the carving, both in bas-relief and in the round, is masterly. There were two magnificent friezes (bad(ly) damaged but partially restored): an exterior one and another around the top of the cella wall, each with forty metopes. The exterior frieze is of a battle between Amazons and centaurs. In the museum we can see parts of the frieze and many more small sculptures and statues from this building.


So there is an obvious, if ostensibly superficial, visual similarity to Stonehenge, although of course, Stonehenge is not known to have supported a roof, unlike Woodhenge, which did...


We know that the Tholos was circular and vaulted, qualities or properties that would have been described in ancient Greek as “sphairoeides”, the same term that Pytheas applied to the temple of Apollo in Britain. Due to its beauty, dimensions and unusual shape, it would also have been “axiologos”, or remarkable, or worthy of mention, another way that Pytheas described the temple of Apollo in Britain.

Every now and again, I read lurid headlines announcing the discovery of a new “Stonehenge” in the Amazon, Russia or elsewhere, but while these structures are invariably fascinating, none of them possess or ever possessed the qualities that make Stonehenge so distinctive, namely uprights capped by lintels. The Tholos was partially reconstructed in 1938 and by a curious coincidence, the most notable feature of the site, and the one that makes it such a draw for visitors wishing to take photographs, is the fact that there are now standing uprights capped by lintels.


Not only that, but the round plan of the ruins, the stumps of former columns and a crescent shape at the centre of the building call to mind the ruins of Stonehenge, so even in the twilight of their former glory, these two structures appear similar in a number of striking ways.

And although there is no suggestion here that the two constructions had anything more in common than a visual similarity, who knows whether the supposedly close links between Bronze Age Britain and Greece allowed for the transmission of ideas concerned with ritual and concomitant architecture - it is noted that the original purpose of both sites has been lost deep in prehistory, and unless some or other enlightening find is made, it's likely that we will never know the real truth of these matters. A final word from Dennis Price...

Finally, for now, I’m extremely grateful to the archaeologist and photographer Adam Stanford of Aerial Cam for his permission to use the superb photograph of Stonehenge below. I’ve seen hundreds of photographs of Stonehenge, but I’ve yet to see one better than this, while it perfectly captures the essence of a “magnificent sacred precinct and notable temple of Apollo, circular in shape.”

Adam’s photograph, which came into being as a result of his expertise and no small amount of patience, is a striking illustration of Stonehenge as a future echo of the Tholos at Delphi, at least as far as Pytheas of Massilia was concerned. In a far-flung northern land on the outermost fringes of the known world, an island devoid of the carefully-sculpted masonry and architecture that he was accustomed to seeing in the Mediterranean in the fourth century BC, Pytheas must have experienced a strong sense of deja vu when he encountered Stonehenge, while the priests of Apollo singing their hymns and playing on the cithara can only have added to this sensation. Little wonder, then, that he described it as “worthy of mention” to his contemporaries.


My final thoughts are somewhat more speculative, in that I can't help wondering whether there may have been yet another connection between the two sites, namely the snake or serpent. It has been noted that the Pythia may have derived her title from the python, and that Pytheas of Massilia may also have received his name form the same source. However, as far as is generally supposed, there is no overt connection between serpents and Stonehenge, although if we pause briefly for speculative thought, there may be the odd clue here and there - and I'm writing this while partly bearing in mind that the recent discovery of the Dinedor Serpent, or Rotherwas Ribbon, may point in the direction of people venerating the serpent in 'Hengeworld' Britain at the same time Stonehenge was going through one of its early construction phases.

In his book 'Hengeworld', Mike Pitts makes reference to one Maud Cunnington, who was investigating the site of Avebury back in 1930, and who in turn was reminded by something noted by the 18th century antiquarian, William Stukeley...


"In his imagination the great Avebury stone circles and the two double rows or avenues were a monumental representation of a sacred serpent. Standing on the tail of the snake, he could see the head. Out on the downs west of Avebury, where Stukely had mapped his serpent's tail, Cunnington could make out a small distant triangular patch in the corner of Mill Field"

I'm not sure that there is a current school of thought which connects Avebury with snakes or serpents, but if we are to accept the idea of Mike Parker Pearson that Stonehenge and Durrington walls may have been connected by the River Avon, which he suggests may have been used to ferry the ashes of the dead from Woodhenge to Stonehenge - wood representing life which was perishable, and stone representing the permanence of death - its notable that the Avon at this point has a distinctly serpentine shape to it during this part of its course. We know that the constellation of Draco would have been as permanently visible in the night sky as it is today, but from here its very difficult to state with any degree of certainty that a serpentine entity was associated with the twists and turns that comprised this putative River of Death that may have been the Avon during the time of henge constructions.

When I first heard the idea that ashes may have been floated along the river between the two sites, I was initially sceptical, because looking at a map, I could see that there were many twists and bends along the way, hardly the type of configuration desirable for the swift dispatch of ashes from Woodhenge to Stonehenge - after all, it would hardly to to have the ashes of venerated or beloved ancestors getting caught up in the turns of the river - unless there was a symbolic reason for associating the river with a snake or serpent. However, trying to get that idea to fly, may be something akin to flying dragon kites in the sky - easy enough to construct, but very difficult to keep airborne, especially given the howling winds of derision that would undoubtedly spring forth, were such a suggestion to come from within academic realms.

On a related note, and in a private email communication, Dennis Price made the following observation...


"there’s also the nearby River Wiley and I gather it’s name derives from a connection with willows and also from its ophidian nature which seems to be synonymous with wily or cunning, something like the serpent in the Garden of Eden."

I was also surprised to learn that in ancient Greece there was no specific concept of religion as a standalone social construct, and indeed there was no one word that meant 'religion' s we would understand it - but more of that in an as yet distant essay.

All in all, another very good post as an addition to the two which preceded it, and who knows what further discoveries made at Stonehenge and Vespasian's Camp may yet tell us - for me it was very interesting to read up a little on the Oracle and the Tholus, of which I was previously unaware, and it remains to be seen whether any conclusive evidence will come to light that can further illuminate the shadows cast by ruined stone constructions, erected in an era that from here seems fabulously rich in symbolism and sophistication, and some might contend, we are all the poorer for its passing.

amendment: Oct. 8th - the author of the linked article, Dennis Price, has quite rightly pointed out that although I describe Vespasian's Camp as being Bronze Age, its origins can in fact be traced back to the Neolithic; although there are barrows dating from the Bronze Age there, it was in the later Iron Age that the entire site appears to have been extensively reconfigured, and in his opinion, it was during this era that a large population inhabited what he contends to have been the Lost City of Apollo.

see also: Discovery of the Lost City of Apollo at Stonehenge

Pytheas of Massilia and the Lost City of Apollo - Part 2

'Hengeworld' - Mike Pitts


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