Tag Archives: greece

Diodorus Siculus FTW

snctryref
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.

delphivaporsThe 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

portrait_man_bce_050-025_2_mus_hamburg.428x0-is-pid7313Diodorus 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.

The Pythia on the Tripod-by-H.Leutemann

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.

In case you missed it, Child of the Flames is now available on Amazon Kindle.  Get your copy today!

Omophagia

maenadI’ve been thinking about this lately, so I figured I’d write some of it down.  Maybe you guys will find this as interesting as I do.  Maybe you’ll just think I’m morbid.

I want to talk about the Maenads.  Now, some of you are raising your fingers in the air, saying “Hey, I remember those from True Blood!”  Some of you might know more about them than that, and might be saying “Aha!  He’s talking about the crazed followers of Dionysus!”

True, and true.  More than that, though, I wanted to write down a few stray thoughts I’ve been having about their rituals, especially the culmination of their rituals.  Let’s go into more detail–bloody, gory detail.

So, Dionysian rituals were famous for being revels of complete abandon.  In fact, that was sort of the point.  There are lots of festivals dedicated to Dionysus, now, and they were varied.  Before someone decides to flay me for leaving out the City Dionysia, or dithyrambs, or the fact that they were the origins of Greek tragedy, I know–but we’re not talking about all of that today.  Though, I suppose my penchant for writing fiction has its origins in Dionysian ritual.

Give your thanks to Dionysus, you pitiful little mortals.

The Maenads were the crazed female followers of Dionysus, the priestesses of the god of the grapevine.  They were known by the animal skins they wore, the wreaths in their hair, the fact that they danced barefoot, handled snakes (they got there first, Pentecostals), and the thyrsus–a rod wreathed in vines, and topped in leaves or pinecones.

maenad

The Maenads went up into the hills to perform wild rituals by the moonlight.  In short, imagine a bunch of intoxicated, crazed women dancing until they’ve worked themselves–and everyone else–into a frenzy.  The whole point was to reach something called ecstasis, a religious fervor so great that it sent everyone into a state of abandon.  At the height of this fervor, an animal would be tossed into the center of the crowd.

There, it would be torn limb from limb by hand, and eaten raw by the frenzied mob.

This practice is called omophagia.  Now, the weird thing about this practice is that it’s not exclusive to the worship of Dionysus–or his Roman counterpart, Bacchus–it actually turns up in different places all over the planet.  In places where primitive tribes have been met with more advanced chroniclers, there have been rituals described that bear striking resemblance to those of the Maenads.   Dancing crowds, intoxication, abandon, and at the height of the rituals, no matter the details–omophagia.  In Divine Madness, there was a scene described in Africa where a ritual took place that bears such a startling resemblance to those of the Maenads that I had to read it twice.  One horror story even mentioned a woman who, at the height of her religious fervor, tossed her baby into the crowd, where it was subsequently torn apart and devoured.

Frightening.

Most people regard the practice as having arisen from Dionysus’s birth myth–that he was ripped apart, but born again.  But others believe that Dionysus was the representation of something older, something more ingrained into the human psyche.  Dionysian rituals represented a return to the primitive, a regression to something more brutal.  What strikes me as odd is how often the practice pops up in history, and throughout cultures who haven’t heard of one another.  Does it serve some purpose in society–perhaps an evolutionary release valve of our more brutal instincts, like an ancient version of the Purge?

K12.12Dionysos

I’ve become really intrigued with Dionysus.  His worship was so varied in scope, and so wild in its extremes.  On one hand, you’ve got the origin of Greek tragedy, and a god who relishes in the heights of human creativity.  On the other hand, frenzied mobs ripping apart animals with their bare hands and eating them raw–the depths of human depravity.

Another interesting aspect was how afraid the Romans were of the worship of Bacchus.  They outlawed his cult, and sought out those who practiced the rituals.  There are all sorts of wild stories about the worship of Dionysus/Bacchus.  Alexander’s mother was apparently a follower of Dionysus, and there’s even a story that the wife of Spartacus was a priestess of Bacchus, though I’m not sure of the second’s credibility.

So, yeah.  I just wanted to take some time to share these weird little thoughts with you.  I really don’t know why.

~D.W.