Being on holiday means being in unfamiliar rooms and staring at unknown pictures on the wall. I had seen the Talbot collection print of a leaping dolphin before, but never attended to the inscription underneath. “Delphinus Delphis” got me wondering why the common dolphin would be named after a Greek site associated with the famous oracle of Delphi? My question led to the Homeric legend in which a dolphin leapt onto the deck of Homer’s ship, transformed into the god Apollo, and instructed the winds to blow the ship to safety in the harbour below Delphi.
Apollo the son of Zeus is thus the link between Delphi and dolphins. The Delphic shrine is dedicated to the worship of Apollo with the role of the oracle being central to Apollonian worship. One of the human priestesses was appointed to channel messages from the gods. Archaeologists have discovered that the shrine was close to an underground gas vent which emitted small doses of intoxicating ethylene, probably enhancing the oracle’s prophetic abilities!
The shrine gave us the word “music” too, as Apollo was also god of the nine muses and thereby a master musician.
Humans have long been fascinated with these divine encounters which connect our lives to something bigger and offer direction for our uncertain futures.
Seemingly Christmas has nothing to do with Delphi, the oracle, or Greek gods or does it? It is a Middle Eastern story about a god who showed up disguised not as a dolphin but as a little baby. Similar to Apollo this incarnation also had a divine message.
The Gospels record how when Jesus of Nazareth was born, oracular angels appeared in the night skies around Bethlehem and sang to shepherds, “Peace on earth, and goodwill to all people.” The place where Jesus was supposed to have been born is commonly known as the grotto and more formally as the Church of the Nativity. Before the shrine was built in 327 by command of Helena the mother Emperor Constantine, it had been a shrine to another Greek god Adonis, the son of Myrrha who had tricked her father into having sex with her and was punished by being turned into a myrrh tree.
Ironically myrrh was a gift given to the infant Jesus by the three star following kings. Adonis (from the semitic word Adonai meaning Lord) was a most beautiful man and Apollo fell in love with him and they became lovers.
As I mused on the leaping dolphin, Delphic oracles and contemplated Christmas I realised nothing remains sacred for too long. Gassed oracles in Delphi, and incestuous homosexual gods are reminders of just how human we really are.
There is much that is sacred within us. But we are dark and sensual too. Over time we trade our gods for novelty and immediate pleasure. Angels, wise men and birthing virgins are replaced by jolly red Santa’s with container laden sleighs.
Wherever and however you worship this Christmas I trust you will be blessed.