The Canadian heavy metal band Gatekeeper‘s release of their first LP East of Sun via Cruz del Sur last year catapulted the band into the spotlight as the new wave of traditional heavy metal gains ever more steam. But as today’s festivities turn our minds back to Canada’s unification into a single Dominion in 1867, so we turn the clock back to 2013 when Gatekeeper released their debut EP Prophecy and Judgement, and its title track, an 8-minute epyllion steeped in the classical tradition.
The song (and accompanying album artwork) dwells on the origin and operations of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, a city built high in the mountains of central Greece that drew Greeks and non-Greeks from all over to consult the gods’ cryptic wisdom. The site features the stone, marking the center of the world, that fell from heaven after Zeus forced his crooked father Cronus to vomit it up, the very stone Rhea had substituted in place of the infant Zeus so that her son could one day take revenge. Zeus’ own son Apollo, patron of poetry, healing, reason, and prophecy, sought a site where in return for his worship he could combine his various functions for the benefit of the human race, to alleviate humanity’s sufferings through hexameter verses whose interpretation lead us to better know ourselves. Also a god of archery, Apollo used his marksmanship to conquer the site from the Python, a giant serpent, and after this rotting monster his prophetic priestess was named the Pythia.
The mythic origins established, the office of this prophetess operated throughout ancient Greek history, possibly drawing inspiration from hallucinogenic, subterranean gasses emanating from a chasm in the earth beneath her throne. These forced her into fits of glossolalia, which priests interpreted in poetic verse. Often Greek cities sent embassies to Delphi to inquire as to where best to establish a colony elsewhere in the Mediterranean. As a Panhellenic shrine, Delphi became a hub of valuable information that the oracle exploited. But aside from these more mundane functions, the oracle is best known for telling Oedipus’ parents, and himself, of what became the self-fulfilled incestuous prophecy. The oracle also told the Athenians that only a “wooden wall” would save their city from Xerxes’ Persian onslaught, which Themistocles shrewdly took as instructions to construct a navy.
After evoking the history of Apollo’s prognostic palace of Parnassus, Gatekeeper quote two lesser known sets of oracular verses recorded by Greek antiquity. The first was uttered in 594 BCE to Solon, the poet and politician who laid the groundwork for what later became the first democracy. But Solon’s objectives here were of a military nature, namely the capture of the nearby island of Salamis. The oracle told Solon to make sacrifices to the legendary heroes who were born and buried there, most famous of whom was Ajax, the mightiest Greek warrior at Troy after Achilles. Having made the sacrifice, Solon led a successful conquest of the island, and his reputation for this helped not little in persuading his countrymen to create a more equitable government in Athens.
The second oracle quoted comes from 401 BCE, when Sparta was at the height of its power after its victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War. It warned the Spartans that their time atop the wheel of fortune would not last, and that their empire’s downfall would come during the reign of a “lame king.” That Spartan monarch turned out to be Agesilaus, who despite his disability tirelessly attempted to project Spartan power further afield. Yet these efforts overreached, and nemesis eventually paid back this hubris. First, the Persians struck back and wrested control of the sea from Sparta. Then Sparta’s provocation of the Greek city of Thebes awoke a hornet’s nest in the form of Epimanondas and his Sacred Band. Less than a half-century after Delphi’s prescient warning, Sparta’s dominion over the rest of Greece had been completely dismantled. Through these two prophecies, Gatekeeper illustrate the power and wisdom of Delphic Apollo: victory belongs to the pious, defeat to the arrogant. “Know thyself” means knowing the proper limits of human ambition in a world ruled by forces far beyond human control. Such is the judgement entailed in prophecy.
The Centre of Terra, Serpentine guard
Eternal fire, a sybil hath burned
Zenith of Pillars, columned abode
Threshold primordial, oracular score
Climbing step to the temple, stone precipice
seeking the wisdom, for Hellenic war
Fell depths in catacombes
chasm finds maddened throes
slayer of pythons’ whim
Prophecy! And Judgement
Spelling Doom and great war
Against Perisian hordes
Locked in Trust, Apollo’s word
Purified by Castalian waters
Precinct of Gods
Dragon’s Corpse, under strength of Hyperion
‘First, sacrifice to the warriors
who once had their home in this land
“Laid in the tombs of the heroes
with their faces turned to the sunset
‘Sure thy feet proud Sparta, take care
A lame king’s reign sees thou trip, beware
Troubles unlooked shall vex thy shore
And rolling time, his tide of carnage pour”