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temple ruins at Delphi in Greece

I set this story in ancient Greece, say 300 BCE, when the world of ideas and human consciousness was in the process of radical change.

The boy walks the dusty path, up past the bright oleanders. Grey-green olive trees climb the steep hillside and eagles circle the snowy peak of Parnassus. Far below, the river is a silver snake. Beside him walks Meno the tutor who is telling him how Apollo came to the sanctuary of the goddess.

‘The bright god didn’t pause to pay homage,’ the tutor says. ‘He strode immediately right into the sanctuary, pushing aside the priestesses. The guardian serpent rose up out of the waters to confront the intruder. It gave a great cry—and even the Nereids playing by the sea edge heard that cry, and in fright fled into the deep. The serpent’s tail slashed this way and that, making the water seethe and foam. But Apollo brought the burning power of the sun with him. He dried up the waters and the serpent choked and died, and its body shrivelled in the fierce heat. Then Apollo made himself Lord of that sacred place.’  

The boy gasps. He is both thrilled and appalled at the horror. ‘What of the priestesses, the oracles? What happened to them?’

The tutor grunts, ‘Huh; they wailed and carried on about sacrilege. But they could only ever utter half-truths, which men interpreted however they would. And those stupid blind creatures are still at it, sitting in the steaming darkness mumbling away. Apollo may be Lord but he still has to put up with them. The old goddess insisted on that, and Apollo let her have her way so he could get on with it.’

The boy wonders what his father would think. After all, he comes each year to join the long line of pilgrims awaiting their oracular words. The boy has been taught to respect the oracles.  He looks sideways at the thin wrinkled man plodding up the hill, grumbling to himself. He says nothing but wonders why they are coming to Delphi if this is what old Meno thinks. The boy hopes the local spirits won't do them harm.

The two reach the temple complex. It is crowded. Visitors roam about, or they kneel in front of the many shrines with their offerings. The boy is intrigued by the variety of dress, the strange languages he overhears. He stops to look at each of the white marble temples with their brightly painted carvings. Most of all, he stares in awe at the darkly veiled women who stride through the place, heads held high and followed by thin young girls with intense serious faces. He sees how the crowds immediately make way for them.

Meno takes no notice of any of this. He leads the boy to a quiet place overlooking a steep chasm and there he sits and opens the parcel of dried fruit, bread and olives. The boy joins him and eats hungrily in silence for a while. Then he asks his question.

‘Meno, why do you dislike the oracles? No one else seems to. And what did you mean when you said Apollo had to get on with it?’ Meno is not an Athenian citizen. Nevertheless, he is renowned for his wisdom. It is said that he was trained in the Pythagorean school and in the mystery schools of Egypt and the boy’s father was fortunate to be able to acquire him as tutor.

‘They used to throw the men they disapproved of over this cliff,’ Meno snaps.

The boy looks down over the rocky precipice and into the space beyond. The land stretches out far below, and on until it meets the hazy sky. The air is filled with vibrating light. He sees tiny ant people winding their way up the incline. He feels quite giddy.

Meno continues, but his tone has changed and is more reasonable now. ‘The oracles’ time is past. When I was a boy, just like you, my teachers showed me the new way. There is a new time, a new age now dawning in which the human mind will shine like the sun.’ He turns to the boy and asks, ‘Do the gods speak to you? Do you close your eyes and wait for their message?’

‘No...’ The lad hopes he hasn’t shown himself to be too stupid.

‘Then how do you know things?’

This is something he hasn’t considered before. ‘I think ... I guess ... I think I ask myself why, or what, or how ... something like that.’ 

‘Ah. You want to form your own ideas about things around and beyond you. And how do you know what you should do in any situation?’

‘Well, my father has told me ... although sometimes...’ The boy is tentative; he feels he is on dangerous ground.


‘Sometimes I know I am right, in here.’ The boy points to his heart.

‘Of course! That’s because at that moment thought and feeling unite. You are of the new. That’s what Apollo brings. He is the god of light, and he works with his goddess sisters.’

‘To get on with it?’

‘Exactly. You want light to come into your consciousness. You do not want to sit in darkness and wait in darkness for an answer that may or may not come. You young ones are fortunate. What I had to struggle for long years to achieve is now becoming natural to you.’

The boy hasn’t realised his way is new. But indeed, it is natural.

‘The oracles are already dead. I do not hate them; I do not want discourse with the dead that is all, not yet. Look up. See the eagles. I brought you here to see them, not the rest. They are the sign. It is said they are the only creatures that can gaze into the sun. They belong to the sun. They are Apollo’s birds. As they fly higher and higher, so must our thoughts learn to fly.’

The two powerful birds are so high they appear as small as insects. They circle, air under their wings, black against blue. The boy senses a space within him, clear and free. He breathes in the boundless sky.

‘Can’t I do this now?’

‘By Apollo, no. You are at the starting point. You and your peers will merely set something in motion. It could take a thousand, two, even three thousand years, for human consciousness to develop fully with mind and heart as one. But only if you work now. And there is much to do.’

Aha, the boy says to himself, that’s his game. He wants me to study harder. Despite this he feels an unexpected excitement. To be part of the new is exciting. And he does like making up his own mind about things. He imagines boys not having to obey their fathers, especially when what they demand is wrong. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, you would have to be certain about right and wrong, not just believe it or follow opinions but know, really know. What kind of person would this be? The boy answers his own question: one who is open-minded yet never gullible, who seeks understanding based on evidence, keen observation and a mind that can reason clearly. He includes being empathetic and respectful of others. He thinks Meno has been too dismissive of the oracles. Yet haven’t they also been his teachers by making him think about why he is different? All life is our teacher.  

The boy realises that he might have the makings of a philosopher. Yes, he will study hard and keep his eyes open and ponder things deeply and one day he might soar like an eagle into previously unreachable heights.

Helen Martineau




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