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The Way to Delphi

Henry David Mauser

The pathway to the future is tiresome and treacherous. It snakes among sharp cliffs of wind-carved stone and climbs over lofty ridges of swaying grasses dotted with spindly pines, which stretch towards the open sky as if seeking to escape the meager sustenance of the mountainside’s stubborn clay. The path circles the slopes, twisting here to the right and there to the left, in all of its circuitous windings implying no clear direction except upwards – for upwards is the temple where the future speaks and her priests interpret; upwards is Delphi and her Oracle. And so the way to Delphi abandons the scape of humanity and mortality and reaches heavenward to solicit the realm of the divine. 

On a summer day when the world was younger, a traveler stood upon this way, gazing up the peak he must ascend to entreat the Oracle. He thought it appropriate that the sun should be shining, un-obscured by clouds, baking the earth with the heat of high noon, for as Apollo poured forth his radiance upon the physical world, so today would he enlighten the future, making it as visible and unmistakable as the scenery around him. His worn sandals and his ankles and calves were covered in dust, pasted with the residue of a long journey on foot, such that he looked as if he were slowly decaying into the same substance as the road on which he walked. And though one half of the man strongly suggested that he had wallowed through a dust-storm, the other half gave the impression that he had jumped headlong into some lake at the base of the mountains, for his head and torso were dripping from heat and exertion. Neither these things, nor the difficulty of the trail ahead, he now considered, however, for his attention was held captive by the Oracle, and how he would present his request. 

As he remained contemplating his trail and what lay at its end, he heard a voice call out to his right. An old laborer, bald and wrinkly-skinned, as if dried out from the sun, who had been previously engaged in pruning a grove of olive trees on a gentle slope besides the path, had set down his sheers, and, turning towards the traveler called out: 

“To the Oracle?” and, without waiting for a reply, this being not so much a question (for no foreigner at this time of year would willfully travel to Delphi if not for the Oracle) as it was a natural means of getting on to his real question, shouted: “What will you ask it?”

Startled from his meditations and wondering that a stranger would have the impertinence to ask his business without so much as first asking his name (his name was Kompos), he hardly inclined towards responding. But as the pruner approached, curiosity beaming on his weathered face and sparkling in his squinting eyes, he grudgingly decided to humor the man’s abrupt query. 

“Not a year ago,” he recounted, his eyes absently wandering around the ground, “a son was born to me, a great joy to my house until the beginning of the dark omens which have overshadowed his new life.On the night of his birth, a storm, as if waiting for that occasion, struck with such a fury of wind and thunder that I thought the gods were tearing the earth apart, but the infant himself made little noise and was calm; later, a vulture was seen devouring the carcass of an eagle upon the roof of the very room in which the child slept. Other similar portents have troubled us, and yet the interpretations of the augurs are confused and conflicting, for some foretell imminent glory, and others impending doom. So to the Oracle have I come to divine the meaning of such signs and discover what my part in these things would be.” 

No bard or actor could have desired a better audience than this one laborer (or idler, as it happened), for he liberally exercised his face in varying reactions of delight, horror, or rapt interest as his narrator’s story made appropriate; Kompos almost wondered whether his many wrinkles were from such vigorous applications of expression, rather than age or sun. Upon the tale’s conclusion, the old man, after furtively glancing down the road and on either side of it, crept close to Kompos and whispered with a dramatic gravity lessened only by the ridiculous grin overwhelming his face:

 “And what if the baby is cursed?” 

Kompos glared balefully at the man and started up the trail without answering. The very question that had been plaguing him ever since the omens began: what if! As he began his ascent, he heard the words floating through the sultry air: 

“I would get rid of it, if I were you!”


Kompos edged around a narrow turn in the path and, looking ahead, beheld the solemn pillars of the Temple of Apollo and the clustered buildings of Delphi surrounding that life source of the civilization. As he climbed higher and higher, closer to the Oracle and the future, he felt as if a doom were slowly descending upon him and that he was ascending to meet it, like a noose that is lowered as a criminal climbs the scaffold. Yet with heavy steps, and a heavier heart, he continued, for Fate would not be swayed, and it was better to know the future, evil though it might be, and to prepare for it than to continue in ignorance and fall unawares into misfortune. Indeed, with each weary footfall, he was overwhelmed by the sense of inevitability and impotency, for the hands of Fate held all things and shaped them at will, independent of any mortal considerations. Even these thoughts regarding Fate, he mused, were ordained by Fate…

At length the sloped pathway he was climbing gave way to a small plateau, carpeted with sparse grass and shaded from the sun by the cliff-side which jutted out as a ledge far above. This being the first suitable site for rest and refreshment that he had seen on his climb, he threw down his small back upon the turf and sprawled out in the shade, pleased to relax his aching muscles. He closed his eyes and breathed, appreciating the silence of this little mountain sanctuary, broken only by wind and birdsong. And footsteps. For barely had Kompos begun to bask in this momentary tranquility that it was interrupted by the tell-tale padding of leather on rock. He sat up, startled to find himself looking at a man evidently startled to be looking at him, both supposing themselves to be alone upon the trail. This new arrival was rather tall and thin, with long, nervous fingers that he kept wringing and clenching.

“Oh, I…” he began upon seeing Kompos in the shade of the plateau, glancing around uncertainly as if expecting to find a proper form of address and introduction in the earth or the sky.“You are on your way to the Pythia, then?” 

A nod. A distinct disinclination to retell his purpose for said expedition.

“You would not be bothered if I…” he petered out, and gestured to the floor of the plateau. 

An affirmative wave given, he sat on the ground with his elbows on his knees and his hands drooping between them, his fingers still working nervously. Kompos glanced over at this traveler, it occurring to him that this man had been coming down the trail, and had undoubtedly just visited the Oracle, or the Pythia, as he called it. The desire gripped him to ask this man what he had inquired of the Oracle, and what her response had been. Understanding, however, that his neighbor might be unwilling or reluctant to reveal such information, as he himself was, he probed tentatively: 

“You have just had the fortune of visiting the Oracle, I guess?

“Fortune?” he violently exclaimed, clasping his head between his hands, “only misfortune could rightly describe the prophecy of the Pythian priestess which I received! I am a merchant by trade, and Pellas by name, if you should wonder. I had planned a voyage to Crete at the end of the season, and the profits of this endeavor, were it to be successful, would have been immense; if it failed, however, I would be ruined. Never have I sent so many ships at once to Crete, but I could not wait until later in the season when the sea grows hostile. I came to consult the Pythia with regards to the success of this voyage. I was shown the future, and it held only woe! The message her priests conveyed to me warned that no profit would come from Crete or any voyage I undertook before the coming of the spring. Ah, but I fear the losses I shall incur merely by cutting off all trade until then!” 

Kompos had not expected this torrent of words to come rushing out of the man, but his simple question was like the small disturbance that begins an avalanche.

“You must regret even coming to the Oracle in the first place,” Kompos, said, attempting to break the awkward silence that had ensued. 

“Oh! Not at all, not at all,” murmured Pellas, who was still distracted with wringing his hands and staring at the ground. “For though the blows of Fate may be hard to bear, it is better to know of them beforehand. See! If  the Pythia had not prophesied the inefficacy of my intended voyage to Crete, all would have been lost! But now I shall not go to Crete, nor anywhere until the spring, and avoid that certain ruin.”

“Ah, I see.”

And although Kompos assented, his mind was in turmoil. He bid the man farewell and fair fortune, and resumed his trek towards the Oracle, his thoughts speeding far faster than his feet. For the man, Pellas, had spoken of learning the future, and then taking action in accordance with that newly acquired knowledge. Indeed, what man would not? What man, in learning that no benefit would come of a voyage to Crete, would then take his ships there? But can man alter Fate? Can he take a single step, voice a single word, stir a single fragment of dust that accords not with that inexorable will? No. This Kompos knew. Men could try to run from their fate, but in reality, they would only be running into it. This man’s intended course of action, however, with regards to his trade, was a result of, and only of, his having learned the future. Did these actions subvert the plan of Fate? They did not. Not only were his enterprises fated to be unsuccessful, but Pallas was fated to take certain actions upon learning that they would not prosper, just as he was fated to travel to the Oracle and obtain the knowledge of the future that had led to his subsequent actions. Perhaps, Kompos thought, perhaps his future is guaranteed only because he knows it. 

How long such ruminations flooded his mind he did not know, but he suddenly realized that the trail had begun to level – it led towards a stone stairway built into the green hillside, leading to the great plateau upon which was Delphi and the Temple of Apollo. He drew in his breath and his heart beat faster and faster. The journey had been long, and here was its end. There was the Oracle, and the few lines of verse which would seal his future. 

Pausing, he noticed a boy playing to the side of the path, which no longer ran alongside the edge of steep cliffs, but wound up an easy slope. He had a leather sling and was evidently attempting to hunt one of the many songbirds which inhabited the area’s low shrubs and tall grasses. The birds obviously did not think him a threat, for their cheery warbling was as full-throated as before. Presently the youth was creeping around a large boulder, sling armed and in hand, eyeing a thrush that was perched upon the tall stalk of some wildflower. But as he looked towards the boy he startled, and involuntarily jumped backwards on the path, for there on the boulder behind which the young hunter hid was the skeleton of a human, bleached by the sun and sprawled grotesquely atop the rock! 

“Boy!” he called out “what – what is that?” 

The thrush flew away, and the boy addressed thus sighed and glared at him who had disrupted his sport. 

“That would be some old bones, master,” he replied petulantly, angrily hurling his stone after the thrush though it was now far out of range. 

His curiosity not dissuaded by the boy’s impertinence, he asked further:

“How did they come to be on that stone?”

The boy, since his hunting had been spoiled, decided that storytelling was not too poor a substitute and launched into his tale:

“A long time ago there was this man, and he’s afraid of death, see; he’s afraid it will sneak up on him unawares. So he says to himself: ‘There’s that Oracle that will tell your future, so I’ll just go and ask it when I will die so I can be ready for it when I do. Well, he travels up here to Delphi and he says to the Oracle: “Oracle, when will I die?” Now, most times you go to the Oracle, you get some lines of poetry as your answer, all elegant and like, but this time the answer she gives him is just one word: ‘today’. They say that when he heard that he ran out of the city and as he’s coming by weeping and wailing and wondering how it is he’s going to be killed he sees a bunch of hemlock growing around this here boulder and he says to himself: “I will kill myself now, so death doesn’t take me by surprise.” And he sits up on this rock and chews the hemlock and dies. And there’s your old bones.”

As he finished, the thrush re-alighted on its perch and again took up its happy trill, and the boy rushed away from Kompos to resume stalking his evasive nemesis. Kompos merely stared at the skeleton on the rock. This man had killed himself, seeking to pre-empt the death he knew was inevitable, but in doing so he had fulfilled the prophecy of the Oracle! She had predicted his death, and this, no doubt, was the very death she had predicted. He had killed himself not in spite of what the Oracle had said, but because of it. That single, deadly word, ‘today’, had been the cause of his death. The knowledge of the future could not change the future, but it would inevitably lead to it. The Fates had decreed this man’s demise, and so too had they decreed that he would come to the Oracle and learn his future and kill himself because of it. 

Had he himself, then, been decreed by Fate to visit the Oracle? When he began his journey, he considered it, subconsciously at least, to be an act independent of Fate. He saw it like the man Pellas he had met, who sought to learn his fate in order to change his fate. He was looking into the book of Fate so that he might discern its plot and revise it, however slightly. But he now knew that every revision to the plot was part of the plot all along. The Fates had orchestrated every event and object in the temporal and physical universe to lead to one inevitable conclusion, and even actions taken in defiance of Fate were inevitable – both following from the inevitable and leading to the inevitable. If today he learned that his child was cursed, and maligned or abandoned him because of it, this would only serve to embitter the child against his father. In seeking to prevent Fate, he would make his son the very thing he feared he might become. 

And yet he had arrived at the very threshold of Delphi – he could see the Temple where the Oracle was. Fate had decreed that he come to Delphi. Knowledge of his future now was tragically irresistible. He reluctantly approached the stone stairs, but then stopped, furrowing his brows. Could he simply turn around and walk back the way he came? He slowly, anxiously pivoted and took several shaking steps away from Delphi, thoroughly expecting to feel the invisible hand of Fate dragging him forcefully back, propelling him up the steps and into the Temple, and manually working his jaws and tongue to choke out a question to the Oracle’s priests. But no such hand compelled him. He stopped and laughed aloud. For the first time, he felt Fate was in his hands. He could walk all the way home, and, having made that choice, it would be clear to him that that action was happily inevitable. He was never meant to come to Delphi! He could not set foot on that first stone stair if he wanted to. 

At this thought, however, he froze, and, turning around once again and scurrying up the path, he set his foot upon the first stair and scratched his head confusedly. Then he shook himself vigorously and sprinted back down the path, happy with his apparent fate and not wanting to start wondering if he could put his foot on the second step as well. 

As he descended, he gazed out over the endless mountains painted with the fires of the setting sun; he breathed in the limitless air and opened his ears to a night choir of birds and insects. The sky seemed to stretch farther and to reach higher than before, and the glowing horizon, broken by the peaks of hilltops, was wider than he had ever known it. He ran and laughed and was happy, for he was as a prisoner released from his chains; he was free, and he had a son, and the future was in his hands. 


Above time and beyond space, the three beings who govern both sit spinning, and measuring, and snipping, weaving the threads of life into a vast tapestry of mortality. As they work, they hum, and the history of the world is written in their tune. Atropos does the cutting – here she makes a long thread, there a short thread, but now she pauses as she is about to define another life, her shears already hovering above it, and glares at her sisters Clotho and Lachesis. 

“It has a knot in it,” she growls. 

And so it does. 

Clotho stares at the knot thoughtfully and then cackles:

“Use it anyway.” 

Lachesis snickers; Atropos shrugs and snips away the knotted thread – a long one – and behold, another life is added to the tapestry! The Fates continue their work, never tiring, and laugh between themselves about this new thread, thoroughly amused at the knot that would imply quite a confusing day for some poor mortal.