Recently I indulged in a spot of navel-gazing in Greece.
I travelled to Delphi, one of antiquity’s most sacred locations, and there – ta-DAAAAH!!!! – I beheld the world’s belly button!
I kid you not. The clear inscription on the beehive-shaped carved monument declared it to be “THE NAVEL-STONE OF THE EARTH”.
Hardly a metre high, it seemed a little under-sized, given the global scale of its task. But for the ancient (and some modern) Greeks, this was the real thing.
For them, Delphi, with its temple of Apollo, was the undisputed centre of the earth, the home of the famous Delphic Oracle. The navel-stone stood next to Apollo’s statue in the temple’s inner sanctum, where the priestess sat on a bronze tripod over a natural fissure in the ground.
Apparently the priestess – called Pythia – got stoned on the vapours rising out of the earth, assisted by chewing laurel leaves. She then began to speak in strange tongues on behalf of Apollo, who in turn mediated the wisdom of Zeus. Temple priests then interpreted her utterances to the petitioners. My guide book suggested the divine revelations, filtered through these various stages, were often ambiguous and vague – much like today’s horoscopes.
Nevertheless, Greeks from all over – as well as mythical figures – sought the wisdom of the gods from the oracle. Few major decisions would be made by military generals, or civic leaders of the city-states or of the widely-flung Greek colonies, without consulting Delphi. Cadmus sought the oracle’s advice after his daughter Europa had been abducted and raped by Zeus. Laius consulted the oracle about his wife’s barrenness, initiating the tragedy in which his resulting offspring Oedipus unwittingly married his own mother.
Mythology tells us that Apollo, son of Zeus, founded the oracle to mediate to mankind his divine father’s wisdom and decisions. He chose this spot on the steep sides of the wooded and rocky mountains of Parnassus, overlooking the Corinthian Gulf, a good three-hour journey by road from Athens today. But to gain control over the earth’s navel, he had to kill a guardian dragon named Python, from which his priestess gained the title of Pythia.
Of all the Olympian gods, Apollo was most closely connected with oracles. He taught mankind the art of prophecy. He was the god of light and of the sun, and the overcomer of darkness. He was the revealer of men’s futures, the one who revealed hidden things, personal or political. Each winter Apollo was believed to retreat to a mythical land in the far north where the sun always shone, returning to Greece in the spring, bringing light and sun with him.
Apollo was also the deity who shaped the human destiny, the great physician and healer of humans and nature, bestowing fruitfulness on fauna and flora alike. He was the leader of the Muses and the patron of the arts, including music, dancing and poetry, inspiring mortals with creative imagination. Apollo embodied eternal youth, was the patron god of youth, and was present at the rites of adolescent initiation into manhood.
We can see obvious parallels here with the Son of God revealed throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. We could of course interpret Apollo simply as a counterfeit of the true Light of the World. C.S.Lewis however believed some Greek myths could be seen to contain pre-evangelistic elements pointing the way to Biblical truths.
Further up the hillside above the pillared ruins of Apollo’s temple today is one of best preserved ancient stadiums in the Greek world. Complete with spectator terraces and an oval track about 250 metres in length, this was the venue of the Pythian Games, celebrating Apollo’s mythical killing of the Python. Like the ancient Olympic Games held in honour of Zeus, these musical and athletic contests were held every four years from the sixth century BC, among all the Greek city-states.
The modern Olympic Games, to be held in Athens and other Greek venues August next year, were the reason for my visit to Greece. Since 1972, YWAM has been present at each of these global celebrations to bring a gospel witness to the gathering of the nations, many of which have been closed to traditional mission work. We are preparing to mobilise several thousand young people during the 2004 Games. Some will officially assist the Olympic Committee in hosting duties and other capacities, others will visit the four other Olympic sites and some of the thousands of Greek isles dotting the Aegean Sea.
These Games of course carry a special emotional appeal as they return us to the birthplace of both the ancient and the modern Olympics. They remind us of the profound influence Greek thinking has had on us all. For better or for worse, Greek thinking gave us democratic ideals, Platonic dualism, the language of the New Testament, and the humanism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. Greek influence has shaped modern education as well as the whole Orthodox Christian world. Not to mention our English language (“Say any word and I’ll tell you it’s Greek root…”)!
We in YWAM believe this is a significant moment to evaluate Greek influence on global culture and the spiritual realities of our world. How does it compare with the Hebrew/Biblical worldview? So we have called a Prayer Summit for YWAMers worldwide and friends of YWAM to seek the True God of Light and Revelation for his wisdom and understanding. And what more significant location than Delphi, the cultural and religious capital of Greece, where heads of state regularly visit, and Fortune 500 company executives attend spiritual retreats in the European Cultural Centre?
When in 2001 the YWAM Global Leadership Team first began looking towards this Olympic outreach, a deep and spontaneous spirit of prayer and intercession broke out, lasting for three hours! We realised we were touching something deep in God’s heart. We sensed we should not take lightly the influence of Greek thinking through the centuries.
The current YWAM president, Frank Naea, and his successor John Dawson, and others including Cindy Jacobs, will join us in the Delphi Prayer Summit, to be held in the same European Cultural Centre, starting on the evening of October 12, finishing with breakfast on the 15th, 2003. The Prayer Summit will immediately follow the annual YWAM International Youth Workers Gathering, also in Delphi, Oct 8-12. A registration form is available on line at www.sst.org/delphi/registration.html, along with information about accommodation in local hotels or at camping grounds.
Why not join us to explore how the dualistic Greek view of man has shaped and continues to shape church and society? And how this compares with a wholistic Hebrew and Biblical perspective?
For the Hebrews thought very differently from the Greeks about many things.
Including where the world’s belly button really was.
One translation of Ezekiel 5:5 gives that honour to Jerusalem!
Till next week,