The Pythia, Oracle at Delphi, was (scholars report)
the most powerful woman of the Ancient World,
sought out by royalty and commoner alike to answer their questions
and predict their fates, prognostications she offered them
in dactylic hexameter as elegant and epic as any Homer wrote
though (others footnote) every fortune the Oracle uttered was claimed
to come out as hysterical raving in need of translation by her priestly keepers—
acolytes of Apollo and collectors of the payment each pilgrim brought
in tribute to the God and to his Voice—
the truth lying, as it always does, somewhere between
frenzied gibberish and enigmatic prophecy,
between priestess and priests
between woman and man.
Each priestess elevated to Pythia was (sources indicate) selected first
from among the as-yet-still-virginal, pure
and malleable as any young girl made figurehead for a community
of men and their God of Reason
though (reading further) later Oracles were old women
dressed up in maidens’ clothing,
a disguise deemed necessary after the rape of one sacred virgin
left her mouth too defiled to entrust with holy wisdom,
a logic that presumes violence as man’s true nature and desire
and matrons as dried husks gone beyond the reach of either—
or (a cynic might think) as actors better practiced
at concealing deepest wounds.
Crouching on her three-legged dais with its perforated seat,
the Oracle received supplicants while breathing in fumes
emanating from the ground beneath her: marsh gases (some say)
or hallucinogenic herbs (according to others) burning like incense,
or (ancients believed) vapors released by the rotting corpse of Python—
mighty godsnake sacred to Mother Earth, phallic and fecund thus entwined—
whom the Sun Lord slaughtered that he might build his temple
on the old religion’s tomb.
But reasons exist beyond smoke (I say) that bring forth a woman’s madness.
The Pythia (I can see her now), pulling her virgin’s veil close to conceal the hairs
that prickle from an age-softened chin. She squats on her tripod with thick thighs
like she squatted to birth sons and daughters decades before
and fingers herself in jaded boredom, sniffing the air for charred entrails of sacrifices
that danced as goats just that morning.
When kings are brought before her, she eyes their bowing and scraping
as askance as ever she looked at any god, absent or present,
sucks in a long wet breath over oleander leaves tucked
in her lower lip like a chaw of Skoal’s,
composes verses in her mind
releases them to the wind.
Alice’s myth/fairy tale project continues!
[Image: John Collier (1891). Priestess of Delphi.]