Honoring Gaia Through Stories

DELPHYNE'S TALE: EARTH MEETS SKY by Nancy Vedder-Shults (to be published in Sophia: Journal of Women and Religion in Spring, 2002)

Long before Apollo there was Gaia, our Mother Earth. And long before the ancient temples were erected at Delphi, there was a simple cave guarded by a snake. This is the story of that snake, Delphyne, Gaia's serpent daughter. It is a story of sun and shadow, of appearances and disappearances, a story of life's sacred mysteries and earth's many blessings.

The first blessing, of course, was Gaia herself, she who birthed us smelling of breast milk and soil just ploughed. Since the beginning she has nurtured us from her black furrows. And when we die, she welcomes us once again into her rich earth. Life -- death -- rebirth. This is what Gaia brought her people, the unending blessings of darkness and light, the cycles of day and night, the seasons of the year, the mysteries of the earth.

These were celebrated in a cave at Delphi. Here the people marked the spot where Gaia gave birth to the world and everything upon it, declaring Delphi the womb of the universe. And here the people returned to listen to Delphyne, Gaia's oracle. For Gaia had fashioned her serpent daughter to protect her sacred mysteries and to prophesy for those who approached the Earth Mother with respect and reverence. Intoxicating vapors escaped from fissures inside the holy cave, hissing Delphyne's sibilant omens and announcing Gaia's will to those who journeyed here.

For the Earth Mother had created Delphyne in her own image. The serpent, like her mother's cycles of day and night, appeared and disappeared, sometimes slithering upon the sunny surface of the earth and sometimes burrowing into its darkest depths. When she became too large, she sloughed her worn-out skin, embracing the freedom of surrender and release. And once she had shed her outer layer, she renewed herself, manifesting the wisdom of Gaia's healing and rebirth. Life -- death -- rebirth. This was the mystery of the snake as it was of her mother.

But the people forgot these mysteries and began to fashion new gods for themselves, gods in their own image, dressed in human form. Zeus, Ares, Apollo, gods of the heavens, not of the earth, gods of the sun, not of the shade, gods who dwelt on the highest peaks, not everywhere as Mother Gaia before them. These heavenly beings were filled with arrogance and jealousy, the arrogance of immortality and the jealousy of dominance. Zeus declared himself supreme and thought to parcel out the heavens and the earth to the gods who ruled with him. To his son Apollo he gave the task of conquering Delphi. But who can vanquish the seat of life-death-and-rebirth? How can you attack the cycle of the seasons, the pattern of day and night? Where is the beginning of a circle?

Such questions did not daunt Apollo. He was a new god, a young god, a god of utmost hubris. Delphi would be his, he thought to himself. If anyone wanted an oracle from the gods, any of the gods, they would have to go through him; he would be their intermediary. He believed this would bring order to Gaia's chaotic omens. And in his mind he saw glistening marble temples with classical proportions, priests garbed in togas restraining the thronging pilgrims and a fence enclosing the holy spring. And in his imagination, he heard music played on flute and lyre, harmonious in form and structure. He envisioned himself taming the Muses and bringing them to Mt. Parnassus at Delphi. Such was Apollo's hubris, to think that he could domesticate the fount of creativity! So in his pride he fashioned himself a bow and went to Delphi as a conqueror.

When Delphyne saw him approach, bow and arrow in hand, the air rasped in her throat, a guttural sound that traveled the length of her spine and back, finally hissing through her lips.

"Such audacity," she thought to herself. "Such ignorance! He does not know who stands before him."

And when Apollo demanded her submission, Delphyne laughed out loud, a roar that echoed off the mountain peaks surrounding Delphi, carrying flames high into the sky.

"Gaia's daughter does not engage in combat," she said, looking him in the eye. "And Gaia's daughter knows no defeat. Aim well and true, young godling. Shoot your arrow into my very heart, but know that when you are done and see my carcass lying at your feet, I will be with you still."

For Delphyne knew that although she was mortal, she would be reborn, just we exhale in order to take in fresh air.

So Apollo took up the challenge and slapped the arrow against his bow, drew the cord and let fly, straight into the dragon's heart. And Delphyne collapsed in front of her cave, a mountain of flesh coiled in upon itself. Apollo left the carcass to decay where it had dropped, focussing the heat of the sun upon it. And from its rotten stench he renamed the dragon Python, the decomposed one. But he never noticed that among the worms that wound their way through the dragon's remains, was a tiny snake that slithered off into the sacred cave, Delphyne reborn.

After Delphyne's death and rebirth, the pilgrims came as they had before. Now to be sure, there were temples and pomp, priests in their regalia as the people waited in single file to speak with the woman Apollo had appointed as his priestess. But this young woman breathed in the sacred fumes from the earth and listened to the hiss of Delphyne as of yore. For you see without Gaia there is no life, there is no death, there is no rebirth. And without Delphyne there is no oracle. And though Apollo may march and strut, parading as the god of Delphi, his mother and the mother of us all continues her cycle of life -- death -- and rebirth. Stars blink in and out of existence. The snake renews itself and is reborn.

Delphyne, Gaia's child, come and live in me. Delphyne, Gaia's child, I'll be cave to Thee. Serpent of the shadow, The mystery you know, Delphyne, Gaia's child, in you I ebb and flow.