In keeping with my current fascination with Greek mythology (perhaps because I’m currently taking a really good class on the subject) we’re going to talk today about the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. For those of you who don’t know her–and I’m using the term ‘her‘ to refer to a position and not an actual person–the Delphic Oracle was a very important figure in the ancient world. Even kings and conquerors visited the Oracle–the Pythia–and heeded the prophecies which she handed out.
One such story is the story of Croesus, the King of Lydia. Croesus was one of the richest people known in ancient history, and was apparently wealthy enough to warrant his own epithet in common language–someone would be said to have been as rich as Croesus. Croesus wondered whether he should go to war with Cyrus the Great, who was unifying lands that would soon become what we know as the Achaemenid Empire–or the Persian Empire. Cyrus deserves ten posts dedicated completely to him on his own, but he’s not the subject of today’s little rant. Croesus, before making such an important decision, visited the Pythia to ask for her prophecy. The Pythia responded with something like “If you go to war, you will destroy a great kingdom.” Croesus gathered his forces, went to war with Cyrus the Great, and was subsequently crushed. The Pythia had given him a truthful answer–it was his own kingdom, though, that he destroyed. Other famous visitors to the Pythia included Lycurgus, Solon, Philip II of Macedon, Cicero, and the Emperor Nero.
How did one petition the Oracle to receive a prophecy from Apollo? Let’s see if I can simplify it.
First, the applicant had to purchase a sacred cake at a fixed cost, and leave it on the altar outside. From there, the applicant moved inside and sacrificed a goat, or maybe a lamb, carefully guided through the process by the priests. Once the sacrifice was made, the petitioner was allowed into a room where they could hear the Pythia speak, but not see her. The Pythia would have the question posed to her by the priests, who would interpret her ramblings from the state of enthousiasmos (“divine enthusiasm”) and translate them into the form of an epic poem, which would be presented to the petitioner.
The Pythia, on the other hand, had her own preparations to make. She either bathed in, or drank from, one of two
“sacred springs” at Delphi in order to purify herself. She chewed, or maybe burnt, Laurel leaves–the sacred tree of Apollo–to prepare herself to receive the god. She then went into an enclosed space, and climbed onto a tripod which sat over a chasm, breathing in “sacred” vapors that would send her into the trance-like state. Plutarch described the vapors as being “sweet,” and even described an instance where the Pythia died as a result of too much divine inhalation.
The thing is, there weren’t any springs found at Delphi that ran through the temple, nor was any chasm discovered at the site. Scholars long believed the tales to be fanciful, perhaps to try and explain the trance-like state into which the Pythia would put herself. Reading some of the papers, the words scoffing at the idea of “sacred vapors” practically get up off the page and sneer at you. The quickness with which ancient sources, like Plutarch, were dismissed is wild to read. One such account by a man named Diodorus Siculus–a Greek historian who visited the site at Delphi and wrote about it–were completely shat upon by the establishment.
A summary of what Diodorus Siculus had to say about the Pythia at Delphi:
“In Diodorus’s narrative, it was this chasm, and the powerful vapor that emerged from it, that led to the initial discovery and installation of an oracle at Delphi. He recounts the story of how a goatherd noticed that
his goats, approaching a particular hole on the mountainside, started to shriek and leap around. Goatherds began to do the same when they approached, and also began to prophesize. The news of the spot spread and
many people started leaping into the hole, so “to eliminate the danger, the locals appointed one woman as prophetess for all. They built her an apparatus [the tripod] on which she could be safe during her trances.”
~From Oracle, Princeton University Press
Diodorus Siculus came along, talked to the locals and said “look everybody, this girl is basically just getting high.” Scholars have long discounted his story as fanciful, saying that he probably had trouble imagining that the spirit of the god of Apollo could enter the Pythia, because Greeks had strange notions of the spirit–a lot of mental back-flipping to explain away his account.
The funny thing is, in the year 2000 a group of scientists published a *study in Geology magazine about the site at Delphi. As it turns out, Delphi sits at the center of two fault lines, and has been a hotbed for seismic activity since ancient times. There were recorded earthquakes there in the past. The scientists were able to not only identify the faults with modern technology, but determined that a spring probably flowed through the Temple of Apollo at one time, and that a chasm probably did run through the Temple of Apollo. Furthermore, though scientific methods, they determined that the rocks beneath the Temple of Apollo at Delphi produce a gas called ehtylene. Ethylene was used as an early anesthetic, and can produce feelings of detachment and euphoria. In higher doses, it can cause mania and death.
The kicker? Ehtylene has a sweet smell. It was also found in natural springs near the site.
Just imagine this one staggering fact–the fate of kingdoms, of empires, was partly decided by the ravings of an old woman who was sitting in an enclosed room huffing gas for most of the day. This is why I love history.
It took just over two thousand years, but in the end, Diodorus Siculus was vindicated. Turns out his story makes a lot of sense, and is further backed up by the writings of Plutarch on the matter. So raise a glass in the man’s honor sometime, he deserves a libation or two.
*The link goes to Nature magazine, but it’s a story about the same study.
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