Prophecy or Chemistry? The Mystery of the Oracle of Delphi

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo, Delphi, Greece

In a dark, subterranean alcove of a majestic temple in Apollo’s holy city, an olive-skinned woman with long, graying hair gazes up at the ceiling. Though her youth has clearly faded, she is dressed in the colorful costume of a maiden. Sitting on a three-legged stool, she is surrounded by a small group of robed men, gazing intently upon her like eager children.

The pungent aroma of burnt laurel leaves fills the air — rendering each observer a bit light-headed. No one speaks, at first, for fear of disturbing the solemnity of the ceremony. Finally, when the time is judged to be most auspicious, one of the men recites a prayer to Apollo, and entreats the god of wisdom to answer a simple, but vital, query.

The woman’s face suddenly turns pale. Her lips begin to contort, as if possessed. With blank expression she mutters a series of strange, barely intelligible phrases with otherworldly tones. In monotonous cadence, her bizarre admonitions strain out one by one — like wet sand dripping slowly through a sieve.

If she were on a crowded Athenian street or marketplace, surely she would have been mistaken for mad. Like the legendary misunderstood prophetess Cassandra, her utterances would have gone untranslated, her garbled warnings unheeded, until it was too late for action. But here, in the Temple of Apollo in the city of Delphi, her every sound and movement is duly recorded. Priests transform her frenzied phraseology into metered verse, paving over the rough expressions with a carefully applied coating of meaning. Properly recast, in form chosen for ready interpretation, empires might rise or fall on these very words.

It is supremely ironic that in ancient Greece, the birthplace of science and the cradle of logic, the mysterious power of prophecy held sway for hundreds of years. In the time known as the Archaic period, from the 8th to the 6th centuries BC, the preponderance of wars that were fought, agreements that were made, and political decisions that were rendered were initiated and guided in consultation with supernatural forces. The ears of kings, priests, warriors and traders alike were attune to those said to speak for the gods.

Unquestionably, the divine conduit held highest in esteem was the oracle of Delphi. In ancient Greek legend, Delphi was the center of the universe. Zeus, the king of the gods, once saw fit to release two eagles, one from the East and the other from the West. When the two met in Delphi, he placed a stone there, marking it as the world’s navel. An extraordinary place with an exalted history, Delphi was the holiest of holy cities, the focus of godly truth and wisdom.

Greek mythology speaks of colossal battles fought over this powerful site. Originally, Delphi was known as “Pytho.” It belonged to Gaea, goddess of the Earth, and was guarded by her child, Python, a serpent. One day, Apollo, a young and virile god who possessed supreme knowledge of the future, saw fit to slay Python. Drawing his blade, he lay claim to Gaea’s cherished sanctuary.

After committing his murder, Apollo left the city, and disguised himself as a dolphin. He leapt aboard a Cretan ship, captured its crew, and forced them to take him back to Delphi. Together they conquered the city, naming it after the Greek word for dolphin. Henceforth, Delphi became the main shrine of Apollo, and the spiritual center of Greece.

In the Greek mindset, a drink from the Delphic font of foreknowledge was seen as the elixir for great political and military power. Great leaders from throughout the classical world sent emissaries to Apollo’s sacred city. Testing the Delphic waters with sundry queries ranging from the trivial to the monumental, they hoped to quaff a taste of cosmic truth. Fortified with insight into the future, the leaders felt well prepared for whatever projects they wished to undertake — peaceful affairs or warlike incursions.

In Greek tradition, at least once each generation a woman known as the Pythia was chosen to serve as the conduit of Apollo’s powers. Though in the early years of this tradition youth were selected to fill this post, later, to reduce the possibility of corruption, only middle-aged women were picked. Typically, the Pythia was a simple, respectable country-bred woman, who elected to leave her family and take up a monastic existence.

One feature that marked each of the Pythian priestesses was her “enthusiasm.” “Enthusiasm,” from the Greek enthousiasmos, in its original sense, means “possessed by a god.” Her private hopes and yearnings considered unimportant — even antithetical to her role — fundamentally the Pythia was deemed merely a vessel through which Apollo might pour his precious future knowledge.

The sense in which Apollo dispelled his wisdom was widely understood to have sexual connotations. The Greeks believed that Apollo disseminated his foreknowledge only to woman that he possessed. Once a woman became a Pythia, she offered herself freely to Apollo as a “lover,” and agreed to eschew all other intimate relationships, even with her husband. If she abused the privilege of being Apollo’s conduit — by denying him his due and offering herself to others — then she would almost certainly earn his wrath.

For those familiar with the tale of Cassandra, its dire message served, no doubt, as a warning to those who contemplated disobedience to their god. According to legend, Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, took advantage of Apollo’s loving generosity, forsook him by not reciprocating, and consequently suffered his wrath. In the epic of Agamemnon, which tells the story of the Trojan War, the playwright Aeschylus relates her sorrowful chronicle.

As the play describes, Apollo fell in love with the beautiful young Cassandra. To woo her, he bestowed upon her the supreme gift of magnificent prophetic powers. When she betrayed him by not becoming his lover, he became enraged, afflicting her with the curse that no one would ever heed her warnings. Thus, though she would know the horrors of the future, she would be powerless to change them.

Shortly thereafter, Cassandra was struck with a terrible premonition. Greek armies, led by the great soldier Agamemnon, were planning to invade her beloved city of Troy. She screamed out her warning cries, but was merely ridiculed. Soon it was too late, the invaders stealthfully entered and occupied her kingdom.

When victory was complete, Agamemnon took Cassandra as his prize. He told her that he was going to take her back to his homeland. She warned him that if they went to Greece they both would be murdered. Again, her admonitions were ignored and they set sail anyway.

Once they landed in Greece, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife soon found out about her husband’s young and attractive new mistress. In a fit of jealousy, the enraged queen had them both slain. Apollo’s revenge was complete; Cassandra had been forced to live her final years in anticipation of unavoidable doom.

In contrast to Cassandra, the women who prophesized from the Delphic temple of Apollo, were well respected. Their warnings, if understood, were taken extremely seriously. There was little chance that they’d be ignored. Often they received precious gifts from those eager for their advice.

For example, when Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia (from whom the expression “rich as Croesus” arose), was deciding whether or not to go to war with Persia, he paved his way for a speedy and meaningful answer from the oracle with magnificent presents. She gladly received the favors, and promptly advised him that if he embarked upon his campaign an empire would fall. He launched his war, but unfortunately, it turned out that she meant his empire! Lydia fell, not Persia.

Not all priestesses of Delphi were well-treated and content. As the great Greco-Roman biographer Plutarch relates, though most Pythia were reasonably comfortable with their duties, in at least one case, a priestess was forced to fulfill her pledge unwillingly while in a state of profound depression.

From the outset, Plutarch reports, this unhappy Pythia “spoke in a hoarse voice, as if distressed, and appeared to be filled with `a dumb and evil spirit.’ Finally, she rushed screaming toward the door and fell to the ground, whereupon all those present, and even the [Delphic priests], fled in terror. When they came back to pick her up, they found her senses restored, but she died within a few days.”[i]

Plutarch’s knowledge of the workings of the Delphic temple — including his familiarity with the case of the depressed Pythia — stems from his experience as a priest. His involvement took place during an era (the 1st century AD) when the sanctuary — and Greek civilization in general — had long been in a state of decline. His writings provide remarkable insight into the way Delphi functioned as a center for prophecy — in good times, as well as bad.

Plutarch reports that the typical ceremony at Delphi took place one day each month (except during the three winter months, when the center, located high on Mt. Parnassus, was often covered with snow). During this sacred “day of Apollo,” pilgrims bringing vital queries were admitted to the temple. Slogans designed to sharpen the thoughts and purify the heart of each inquirer would greet him as he entered. “Know yourself” and “be temperate,” inscribed upon the temple walls, were intended to salute him with Apollo’s essential message of humility.

Before the inquirer was allowed to present his question, the Pythia and priests would prepare themselves. The Pythia would bathe in the sacred spring of Castalia, drink from its holy waters, chew laurel leaves (Apollo’s sacred tree was the laurel) and consume a ritual cake. She would then descend into her divine chamber, and sit on a three-legged stool, known as a tripod. The priests would also immerse themselves in Castalian waters, and sacrifice a goat on the temple’s altar. Finally, the pilgrim would bathe as well, and be brought into the Pythia’s chamber.

Plutarch reports that the seated Pythia would breathe in vapors from cracks in the Earth beneath her seat. She would soon act dazed and withdrawn as if she was in a trance. The worshiper would offer his query, the priests would present it to her, and she would respond haphazardly in a strange, deep voice seeming to emanate from her belly. The priests would translate her answer into hexameter (Greek verse) form, and relay it back to him.

Many scholars of the Roman and early Christian eras, attempting to debunk the oracle’s mystique, suggested that the Pythia’s frenzied responses were directly induced either by her inhaling the smoke or chewing the laurel leaves. They pictured her as a sort of madwoman in a perpetual stupor, engaged by the priests as their hapless proxy. The priests, these scholars implied, would usually disregard the Pythia’s ramblings and fashion their versed answers in a manner they felt would best suit their own needs.

Some historians, ancient and modern, have even suggested that bribery played a role in the oracle’s decisions. In their view, the free acceptance of gifts by priests during the ceremony could have subtly or even overtly affected their translation of the Pythia’s words into verse. The scholar Demosthenes surmised that during the reign of Philip of Macedonia, the Pythia herself was paid to be under his control — “phillipized,” he put it. Nevertheless, many other thinkers have extolled the wisdom and impartiality of the Pythia’s decisions. If she or the priests were bribable, then why didn’t Croesus, of unsurpassed wealth, get his way? Most likely, as in any profession, different priestesses possessed varying degrees of honesty, sensibility and insight.

If the Pythia was chosen for her plain, simple background, why then did she act so strangely while she was delivering her predictions? In modern times, historians have attempted to settle the question of whether or not the Pythia’s behavior was drug-induced. Laurel leaves have been tested for their hallucinogenic properties; apparently they have none discernable. The floor of the ruins of the temple has been searched for cracks and fissures. None have been found, leading scholars to conclude that perhaps there were no fumes.

In the absence of evidence of a pharmaceutical agent, many have suggested that the Pythia’s rantings were hypnotically induced instead. According to this popular view, while she was caught up in the ceremony, psychological factors, rather than chemical agents, brought her into her mesmerized state. Thus her strange speech patterns more closely resembled the less-than-coherent tones of someone talking right before they fell asleep, rather than the utter gibberish of someone thoroughly stoned.

In 1997, Wesleyan University geologist Jelle de Boer delivered a talk at a meeting of the Geological Society in London that seemed to resurrect the intoxication theory. He presented strong evidence that the ground beneath the base of the temple of Apollo could well have been the site of seismic activity in ancient times.

Roadwork in the region of the temple ruins had exposed the substratum and made it possible for de Boer to investigate nearby areas previously unexplored. He found active geological faults to the east and west of the site, and smaller cracks to the north and south. Quite possibly, he concluded, unseen fissures existed under the temple as well, opening and closing whenever the earth shifted.

At the London conference, de Boer pointed out a mechanism by which the Pythia may have been exposed to noxious gases. During the height of Greek civilization, earthquakes may have cracked open the temple floor, producing the openings that Plutarch described. Through these fissures, chemical fumes, such as ethylene, methane and hydrogen sulfide vapors — generated by the decay of hydrocarbons in the limestone strata beneath the site — may have seeped in. The reason contemporary scientists have not detected these cracks, De Boer speculated, is that more recent seismic activity has sealed them up.

De Boer’s collaborator, John Hale of the University of Louisville, believes that the gases helped the Pythia to enter into her contemplative state. “The exhalations had the effect of putting the woman into the right spirit to make these prophecies, whether or not they actually produced intoxication,” he says.

Whether she was conscious or hypnotized, fully cognizant or out of her mind, completely impartial or highly political, a proud spokeswoman for high ideals or a puppet manipulated by the priests, the Pythia’s effect upon the classical Greek psyche cannot be overestimated. She was the siphon through which Greek civilization drank in the power of Apollo, invigorating and fortifying itself again and again. For the years in which Greece was at its height, the Pythia personified its image as the chosen nation of the gods, and embodied its claim to be the hub of the cosmos. In essence, the wise madwoman (or mad wisewoman) who sat upon the tripod was Delphi, and the cryptic, labyrinthine city that sat upon Mount Parnassus was Greece.

Adopted from The Pursuit of Destiny, by Paul Halpern

Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of sixteen popular science books, including Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect.

Physicist and science writer. Author of Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect

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