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Donkey Summer fable – Zena Gevisser Oct. 1968




The magic air of the gods can make one hungry and on the way back to Athens we stopped at a small village to enjoy a baby lamb roasted on a slow spit. Excepting that the head had been previously removed (out of courtesy to me) the lamb was served split down the middle, lunch for two and washed down by a couple of glasses of Retina wine, we ate the lot! What did the Oracle say “Nothing in Excess”? Of course that can also mean Nothing (or) In Excess that is the story of Greece and the Greeks. Go buy yourself a taste of their “Donkey Summer”.

Pics Story Copyright Zena Gevisser. Nov. ’68.

Why “Donkey” summer? The Greeks have a word for everything. Picture that slow plodding much maligned donkey far in the rear, not expected and suddenly he’s there delivering the goods. When the European summer is over, almost gone and forgotten, September slips into October and November and still in Greece the sun is shedding warm rays insisting, like the donkey, that the end of summer can bring the best.

By courtesy of Aristotle Socrates Onassis, 119 South Africans and myself winged our way from Johannesburg to Greece in time to enjoy a few days of “donkey-summer”. The warm November days had nothing to envy of July and August. Blue skies competed with the beauty of the even bluer sea and as my countrymen toured Athens and the ancient sites of the Acropolis and Parthenon, within an hour or our plane touching down, I was on my way to Delphi.

Delphi-that pre-Christian holy citadel of man and home of the young god, Apollo.

To those uninitiated in Greek history and mythology the Oracle of Delphi may have no significance, however, there are few who are not familiar with the wise proverb emanating from pre-historic times; ‘Know Thyself’ ‘Waste Not Time’ ‘Nothing in Excess’. How and when the Oracle was founded is not know, one of the many legends is of a young shepherdess pasturing her goats who had gone into a cave from which vapours were pouring. She was almost overcome by the fumes and suddenly as if inspired by some divine power she uttered the first prophecy, which in time came true. At one time the Oracle was said to be owned by the god, Neptune but, it was Apollo’s arrival that heralded its riches.

Apollo was short of officials for his sacrificial temple at Delphi and one day meditating his problem he saw a fine ship. He quickly turned himself into a dolphin, swam out to the ship and towed it into the Gulf of Corinth, where, with the help of Zephyr (the west wind) he bought it into harbour.

Apollo transformed himself into a handsome young man and informing the men that they would never see their wives and families again he suggested that they join him and learn the ways of the immortals.

My mind was full of all these legends as my companion and I sped along the wide modern roads that lead from Athens to the southern slopes of MountParnassus. Suddenly to the North and East rising almost perpendicularly were the Phaedriade cliffs. I held my breath as the Cadillac in which I was traveling turned hairpin bend after hairpin bend. (I thanked heavens I was not in a bus, but, would have preferred the smallest Fiat!) Passing through the town of Arachova, perched like an eagle’s eyrie, nothing had prepared me for the wild beauty and austere grandeur of the Sanctuary itself.

To greet me were the eagles, Zeus (Jupiter) eagles. Circling as in the past when Zeus set two eagles to fly round the earth, one to the East and one to the West to discover the centre. They met, and to all intents and remained at Delphi.

Befitting the home of the gods, the air was champagne quality. I climbed slowly and reverently towards the remains of the Temple of Apollo and the site of the Oracle. In my mind’s eye I could see the vapours rising from the now extinct cavity. The prophecies of Apollo were pronounced through the mouth of the priestess, who in the beginning was a young virgin. However, young virgins ran out of favour after rumours of an orgie with a young Egyptian and a woman over fifty was found to be more suitable!

There is no question of the Oracle of Delphi’s political, philosophical and religious significance to the then world. Great leaders and statesmen consulted and were influenced by the “phophecies” [sic]. Bringing gifts, they first had to bathe in the Castilian Springs below the temple site, before presenting their problem. Here is another name from the wealth of legend and myth.

Castalia was a beautiful young girl from Delphi with whom Apollo fell madly in love. She, being a virgin and knowing he was a god, frantically ran from him and climbed the sheer rock of the Pheadriade Cliffs. Seeing she could not escape him, she threw herself off the cliff and fell dead near the spring which was then named after her.

Standing where the waters flowed I looked up at the menacing Pheadriade rocks and suddenly remembered the friend of my childhood, Aesop and his fables.

For Aesop’s fate was that of many believed to be sacrilegious and he was thrown off the cliffs down to the ground where I was now standing.

Many believe Delphi to be the precursors of such institutions as the United Nations Organizations and certainly some of the prophesies were just as ambiguous as the present day pronouncement: for instance when a king asked about a certain battle he wished to fight, came the answer, “If you cross water a kingdom will be lost”. The king thinking this meant his success attacked another country – he was then defeated, but the Oracle of Delphi had not been wrong! Or how about when asked if a child about to be born would be a boy or a girl, the priestess chewed her laurel leaves, went into a frenzy from the vapours and pronounced “Boy No Girl”, which if it were a boy had meant Boy-No Girl and if it had been a girl meant Boy No-Girl!

Thus were the early priests of the Temple of Apollo surely amongst the world’s greatest psychologists.

Little remains intact of the Sanctuary, but, in spite of the sacking of hundreds of statutes and works of art, by the Romans the museum is full of exciting archaeological finds, in particular the Charioteer, which is the finest bronze antiquity seen by modern man.

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