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The Mysterious E at Delphi
By David Arthur Walters
Last edited: Thursday, March 15, 2012
Posted: Tuesday, December 05, 2006

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Take five and consider the E





Leto's all-glorious son goes to rocky Pytho, playing upon his hollow lyre, clad in divine, perfumed garments; and at the touch of the golden key his lyre sings sweet. Hesiod




The Mysterious E and The Egg at Delphi


Zeus sent two golden eagles, one from the East, the other from the West. Their meeting located the center of the world at a place we call Delphi. Their juncture was commemorated with a stone egg, an ‘omphalos.’ Upon the world-egg is inscribed four letters, the last three of which spell the original name of the great Earth goddess, Gaea.


Gaea's shrine was right there, below snowy Parnassus, long before Apollo slew Python, the dragoness guarding it, and seized the real estate for his cult; a murder and grand larceny for which he served eight years at hard labor to purge his blood-guilt. Poets sometimes called Delphi, "pytho", or "I rot", for there hot Helios caused the she-dragon's flesh to rot. If we are to believe Hesiod, she deserved her demise, for "Whosoever met the dragoness, the day of doom would sweep him away."


The dragoness’s sidekick was Hera's spite-child, the monstrous Typhoeus, whose successors, in the form of typhoons, still wreak havoc about the globe. A form of Typhoeus also plagues modern human society in the form of television and the World Wide Web: "Out of his shoulders came a hundred fearsome snake-heads with black tongues flickering," reported Hesiod in his Theogony, “and the eyes in his strange heads flashed fire under the brows; and there were voices in his fearsome heads, giving out every kind of indescribable sound." Today his myriad writhing legs, as we can see, are plugged into electric sockets.


Hera conceived this monster alone, without the help of intercourse with her unfaithful husband, because she was jealous of Athena, who was conceived and born without her aid from the head of Zeus.


Another, less popular, history of the possession of the temple's site states that Gaea conveyed part of the estate to her daughter, Themis, goddess of prophecy and law, long before Apollo got hold of it, proving that a male was not required for its lawful administration. Themis, in turn, turned over her share to Apollo. Gaea had also shared the property with Poseidon; he gave his share to Apollo in exchange for an island. Thus did Apollo gain full title to the realty.


The first letter of the four letters on the stone half-globe marking the property is a crude 'E', standing on its three legs as if it were a tripede preparing to walk—the right leg is bent forward. The E also looks like a temple with its roof overlapping on each end.


The meaning of the E has been a mystery since ancient times. Experts do not agree, wherefore we may speculate at our leisure on the meaning of E. The Greek name for the letter E is EI, a diphthong denoting the number five. The term is also the word for 'IF', as well as the word for the second person singular of the verb, 'to be', or, 'thou art.'  E also stands for 'temple' in one of the Semitic languages. The Semites were of course in communication with the Greeks; EL was the name of their Sun-god or Sky-god, whose house was 'high' or in 'heaven.'  Common sense may lead us to believe that the four letters mean "Thou art Gaea", or "The Temple of Gaea" or "The Egg-House of the Goddess."


We may take a numerological approach to E. Besides the E on the omphalos, there was an E inscribed somewhere on the temple itself, next to maxims such as Know Thyself, Nothing Too Much, A Pledge Causes Trouble. There may have been four other maxims, including Falsify the Coin, and E, if we count E as a maxim, and another two, unknown, for a total of seven maxims—our lucky number, seven, was Apollo's prime number. The Seven Wise Men were said to be authors of the seven maxims. That jibes with Apollo's number seven, but not with E as the fifth letter of the alphabet. Mind you then that two of the Seven Wise Men were believed to be imposters—at least five of the seven wandering wise men allegedly impeached two of their number for plagiary while on the road. Let’s take that road back to Delphi and consider the politics circumambulating the sacred E.


The Political Religion


Delphi became the vatican (prophetic) city and catholic (universal) center of the ancient Greek religion administered by the cult of Apollo, which enjoyed the imbibing of mead, fermented honey deemed an aid to the reasoning power. Dionysus horned in on the mead drinkers early on; many were those who came under the influence of his wine, which inflamed the passions. Apollo was loyal to Zeus: he did not try to replace him, but served as his administrator.


Delphi, besides being the location of Apollo’s primary residence, was replete with treasury buildings or national banks, a theatre and other structures. Its political protector was the Amphictyony, a league of Greek nation-states—an ancient Greek precursor of the modern League of Nations. Members of the league were not supposed to destroy each other’s cities or cut off their water supplies in time of war or peace, and they agreed to make war on anyone who violated the rules. Naturally, the Amphictyony was subject to the usual bickering, back-stabbing, double-dealing and double-crossing characteristic of political leagues.


Religion worships absolute power while Politics distributes it. The religious institution at Delphi was subservient to the political factions that combined against foreigners, and occasionally warred against each other for control of the temple and its accumulated treasure. The cult’s main concerns were the ritual purification of homicides of their blood-guilt, immigration law, and drafting constitutions of foreign colonies.


Its priests or monks, who, along with the Pythias or nuns, belonged to an order of Cretan religious, had considerable influence. Knowledge is power; they possessed the power of information brought to the international center: they were often consulted by foreigners.

Myth relates that the original priests were Cretan merchants sailing a black ship upon which Apollo leapt in the form of a dolphin, took control of the helm and sailed it to Crisa below the glades of Parnassus; he identified himself as the son of god, and instructed them to administer his new temple, its altar to be called Delphinius (dolphin); the merchants worried they would not make a living in the middle of nowhere; Apollo Delphinius called them fools and said that, if they kept his temple with righteousness in their hearts, they would never want for wealth no matter how much they consumed. Thereafter the priests interpreted the Pythia's hysterical ejaculations from her tripod and rendered her prophecies as poesy. The findings usually favored the faction most likely to win; yet the prophecies were conveniently ambiguous in the event something went wrong that might cast doubt on the temple, or simply to avoid suspicion of treason when the favored party was an enemy to the Greeks. Although politically oriented, the temple never had the sort of political power that the Roman Catholic Church obtained by coincidence - or, if you will, by the will of its god.


We know that the Delphic institution existed at least a thousand years before our Common Era. The religion of the dead and the cult of immortality associated with Dionysus was introduced in the eighth or ninth century B.C.E. The fifth-century B.C.E. temple at Delphi was destroyed and rebuilt in the fourth century. The rebuilt temple suffered partial destruction about 84 B.C.E. It was damaged again in Nero's time, and eventually fell into disrepair. Apparently the Romans gilded the letters of the maxims when they restored them, presumably because the Seven (or Five) Wise Men had provided the original maxims writ in gold on tablets. Plutarch, who is almost our sole source of information about the mysterious E, speculated on its meaning in his little book, The E at Delphi, wherein he mentioned that it was "the golden E of Empress Livia." Augustus Caesar's wife may have been saddened that the temple had become so run-down by her day, and had the E on the temple itself gilded or re-gilded.




The illustrious letter E at Delphi presented a mystery to visiting speculators in ancient times. They were not inclined to believe that its appearance was an accident. At least Plutarch thought not in The E at Delphi:


"For the likelihood is that it was not by chance nor, as it were, by lot that this was the only letter that came to occupy first place with the god and attained the rank of a sacred offering and something worth seeing; but it is likely that those who, in the beginning, sought after knowledge of the god either discovered some peculiar and unusual potency in it or else used it as a token with reference to some other of the matters of the highest concern, and thus adopted it."


Love does not abhor a secret, and religion loves mystery. Sometimes it is convenient to desist from efforts to solve the riddles of life, and, after a leap to faith, to refer to god's mysteries when questioned about the embarrassing contradictions between words and deeds. But metaphysicians seldom tire of playing the game of riddles; nor do they mind the proverbial futility of their philosophy, for, as one of the greatest philosophers pointed out, seemingly vain and useless endeavors give useful ones more meaning and sometimes result in practical theories of substantial benefit to humankind.


Plutarch attended a philosophical workshop held at Delphi on the meaning of E and other Delphian things. He recounted that the philosopher Ammonius (Plutarch’s teacher Ammonius of Athens, a first century expert on Aristotle) said that Apollo was no less a philosopher than a god, as is evident from his titles: Inquirer, Clear, Disclosing, Knowing, Conversationalist.


"Since," quoth Ammonius, "inquiry is the beginning of philosophy, and wonder and uncertainty the beginning of inquiry, it seems only natural that the greater part of what concerns the god should be concealed in riddles, and should call for some account of the wherefore and the explanation of the cause. For example, in case of the undying fire, that pine is the only wood burned here. while laurel is used for offering incense; that two Fates have statues here, whereas three is everywhere the customary number; that no woman is allowed to approach the prophetic shrine; the matter of the tripod; and the other questions of this nature, when they are suggested to persons who are not altogether without mind and reason, act as a lure and an invitation to investigate, to read, and to talk about them."


And indeed the investigations of Delphi continue to this very day, with ample doubt in mind, not only as to the meaning of E, but, for instance, as to the role that women played at Delphi. If only we could ask a pythia or sibyl for the meaning of the E. Of course we would still have to interpret her rant.


Woman’s Crucial Role


The fair sex played the leading and perhaps only role at the prehistoric site long before Apollo arrived on the scene to slay Mother Earth's dragoness, the Python. After the far-shooting god's Cretan priests or "holy ones" took over the administration of the sacred precinct, they could not do without the enthusiasm of women for long, wherefore a virtuous woman called the pythia or pythoness was recruited to eat the bay leaves or laurel; drink of the sacred spring; sit on the tripod; inhale the gas seeping from the crevices; and serve as Apollo's medium. The priests in turn would interpret her utterings for the benefit of inquirers.


A pythia was probably a trained nun of the Cretan order whose performance on the tripod was sincere play-acting. Or she might have been a free-born Delphian woman of the lower classes, relatively ignorant and superstitious, with a hysterical temperament possibly aggravated by the subterranean dream-gas seeping up through the crevices. In any case she was pure enough to receive and to convey Apollo's seminal data unadulterated. Young virgins were tried at first, but certain disturbances led to the employment of matrons over fifty, who, to maintain the appearance of propriety during the purification process, wore the attire of young maidens.


In any case, the immediate organ of divine inspiration, the balloon of divine inflatus, was always female. Furthermore, ancient sources besides Plutarch have stated that women on the whole were in fact allowed entrance the inner shrine, and that the sacred fire was attended by elderly married women. Students of the cult now believe that women were never excluded from the whole temple, and that they enjoyed the same consultative privileges as men.


Among the women about the sacred grounds of "rocky Pytho" were the sibyls, old women who sang pessimistic prophecies—their pioneering practice influenced the Jews, then the Christians. In fact the very first sibyl is believed to have set up shop by a rock just south of Pythian Apollo's temple. Pausanias wrote in his travel guide of a later sibyl who sang her prophecies by that rock, 'Sibyl Rock' or the 'Rock of Herophile.' Pausanias said that this Sibyl Herophile, in her 'Hymn to Apollo', called herself Artemis as well as Herophile; she claimed to be Apollo's sister as well as his daughter, and said her mother was a nymph of Mount Ida and her father a man.


"I was born between man and goddess, slaughterer of sea monsters and immortal nymph, mountain-begotten by a mother of Ida, and my country is sacred to my mothers, red-earthed Marpessos, the river Aidoneus."


A sibyl at Delphi foretold the troubles to be caused by Helen, reputedly the most beautiful woman in the world. Some authors believe 'the monstrous regiment of women' are at the root of war and revolution; for instance, Thomas Jefferson thuoght Marie Antoinette caused the French Revolution. Arnold Toynbee collected a list of notable femme fatales for his history. Women have of course produced more good than evil. Their mysterious motivating power over men is undeniable. Given the brutes women were given to tame, they occasionally resorted to occult methods instead of direct confrontation, say 'womb-like convulsions' and mantic or manic shrieking, to produce their tangible and intangible goods. 'Rational' men in several regions eventually subdued and monopolized the 'irrational' arts, saving the priest and killing the sorceress as per patriarchal holy scripture.


Suffice it to say that woman played the crucial spiritual role at Delphi. Even in politics, she had far greater influence than supposed by modern historians who want her tied to the bedpost. Since she laid the egg or 'Navel' found at Delphi, upon which was inscribed the mysterious E, we may consult her on the meaning of E amongst other things.


Take Five


Perhaps the meaning of the Greek E was no mystery to those who actually spoke the prosaic language at the time. As we have pointed out, the fifth letter of the alphabet signified the number five, and it also stood for 'if' and for 'thou art.' Yet its gilded presence, standing by the maxims inscribed somewhere on the temple at Delphi, provided the metaphysicians with occasion to climb above the merely mundane meanings of E into the transcendental spiritual sphere enlightened by Apollo, who himself was upwardly mobile, having once been a herculean cave man, but became a shepherd, and then emigrated over pastures to the city where he took his seat as the brilliant minister or Sun of Zeus—he still resided in the suburbs, however, in his sacred cave.


We have found a curious old coin depicting the ancient temple at Delphi. The mysterious E appears on the coin in the same form we use for our own capital 'E'. It is suspended in mid-air, between three columns on its left and three columns on its right. Perhaps this E is the key to the temple and its universe of divine intercourse. Hesiod said Pythian Apollo struck a "golden key" there on his lyre; then, as swift as thought, he sped from Earth to Olympus, to the house of Zeus, where the immortal gods were assembled to think only of the lyre and song. Upon his arrival he accompanied the sweet voices of the Muses - they hymned the infinite gifts of the undying gods and sang of the miseries mere mortals suffer at their deathless hands.


It is interesting to coincidentally note that the fifth semi-tone of the chromatic scale starting from C is E, and that E is the fifth tone in the relative minor scale, A minor. An argument has been made that the key of E Major is the musical key to the universe. Other keys have their advocates. More interesting is the fact that the most important concordant musical interval after unison and octave is the fifth, found by Pythagoras when he moved the bridge on a single string to the proportion 3:2. His tuning system was based solely on fifths. He believed that the entire universe was inherent in numbers, and heard in planetary motion the music of the spheres. Since we mentioned the ratio 3:2, we recall that five is the sum of the first even and the first odd numbers, two and three. The two of course is female and the three is male, so we have a marriage in five. Furthermore, multiples of five give us a product divisible by five or ten. The wise men of Greece counted by the great 'pempad' or by 'fives.' Ten is the perfect number; would anyone with ten fingers want one less or one more digit, or one less or one more hand? Wherefore five produces nothing but itself or perfection.


That is not the only reason five is excellent and the number ten is perfect around the world, but let us move on, for we do not have time to get our numbers straight here. After all, every number up to perfect ten has its occult qualities about which we could converse almost ad infinitum.


While at the temple of Delphi, which was blessed by one of Nero's visits, Plutarch recalled a remark he heard made by Ammonius several years prior—during a lively discussion of the meaning of the mysterious E: "It is not worthwhile to argue too precisely over these matters with the young, except to say that every one of the numbers will provide not a little for them that wish to sing its praises."


Eustrophus the Athenian, who found all principles human and divine reposed in the theory of numbers, said, "E is not unlike the other letters either in power or in form or as a spoken word." He claimed that E was held in high honor because of the custom of counting in fives.






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