The Oracle at Delphi

Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien

Untitled, © by Ed Emshwiller

Untitled, © by DeMiguel

The Oracle at Delphiong a staple of fantasy stories, the Quest is not restricted to that genre alone. Depending upon how strict you are with the definition, even a mainstream fiction search for self-discovery could be considered a quest. One aspect common to all quests is the trigger, the event that starts the character on his or her journey. In many myths and legends this occurs when an authority figure assigns the quest to a hero, and often times this figure is a prophet. This essay discusses a model for one such prophet, the Oracle at Delphi. In particular, it describes a new theory about where she obtain her prophetic power, which could be adapted for prophets appearing in speculative fiction.

As anyone who has even just a passing familiarity with Greek mythology and history would know, the Oracle at Delphi was a very powerful influence. Interestingly, considering that ancient Greece was notoriously misogynistic, the oracle was always a woman, a priestess called the Pythia. Equally interesting was that she did not inherit her office through the influence of her family, such as her husband, father, or brother, but through her own ability. And just as interesting was that she could be anyone, young or old, rich or poor, educated or illiterate; the only restriction was that she had to be from Delphi.

This makes sense from a mythological point of view, because the Pythia's oracular powers came from Apollo, who possessed her or channeled his mind through her. As such, the god could choose anyone he wanted, regardless of wealth or family or social standing.

However, the ancient writers did ascribe a more mundane source for the Pythia's prophetic inspiration. According to such writers as Pliny, Diodorus, Plato, Aeschylus, Cicero, Strabo, Pausanias, and Plutarch, the source was purely geological: a vapor (pneuma) rose from a spring that fed through a chasm into the adyton where the Pythia sat, and as she breathed the vapors she experienced prophetic visions. The vapor was real; many recorded eyewitness accounts indicate that participants could smell a sweet perfume when in the presence of the Pythia. Plutarch makes it clear the vapor rose from the water of the spring as it flowed through a crack in the earth in the floor of the adyton. He also makes it clear, however, that the vapor was only a trigger. He emphasized that it was the preconditioning and purification (which included sexual abstinence and fasting) that made the Pythia responsive to the vapor's influence. Witnesses could smell the gas, but experienced no visions.

Plutarch reports that the Pythia would sit on a tripod over the chasm and breathe in the vapors. When the prophetic inspiration seized her, he describes her as being in a mild trance, able to sit upright and to spend a considerable amount of time performing her duties. She could hear questions and give intelligible answers. He reported that she spoke in an altered voice and tended to chant her answers, often engaging in wordplay and puns. Afterwards, he describes how she was like a runner after a race or a dancer after an ecstatic dance.

He may have also recorded a less benign incident. An embassy of important dignitaries were visiting the temple and asked to see a prophetic session. The Pythia at first refused, stating that the day was inauspicious and that she was not properly prepared. However, the temple authorities forced her to relent. As soon as she had seated herself upon the tripod, she was seized by a powerful and malevolent spirit, whereupon she groaned and shrieked, then went into violent convulsions, eventually throwing herself onto the ground. Her behavior so frightened the priests and dignitaries that they fled, but they later returned to retrieve her. She died a few days afterward.

by John CollierDespite this evidence, archaeologists rejected the vapor explanation when, a century ago, excavations of the temple at Delphi revealed no evidence of a wide chasm or spring, and detected no gases rising out of the ground. The seminal paper was written by a young English classicist, Adolphe Paul Oppé, who made three claims: no chasm or oracular vapor ever existed; no natural gas could create prophetic visions; and the recorded incident of a Pythia undergoing a violent and ultimately deadly reaction was inconsistent with the more customary reports. He concluded by explaining away all the ancient testimony as the reports of gullible travelers fooled by wily local guides who, he believed, invented the details of a chasm and a vapor. He also debunked eyewitness testimony of smelling a vapor as incense or real perfume. The death knell came in 1950 when the French archaeologist Pierre Amandry claimed that only a volcanic area could produce the kind of gas described by the classical sources, and since Delphi was not a volcanic region, that seemed to close the case for good. They could not provide an alternative explanation for the trance-state of the Pythia, but for them the debunking of the classical explanation was sufficient to "prove" that some alternative had to be the real answer.

Then, in the eighties, the United Nations conducted a survey of all active faults in Greece. One of the members of the survey team was a geologist named Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, and he saw evidence of a fault line in Delphi that ran under the ruined temple. Later, while de Boer was in Portugal, he met John R. Hale, an archaeologist, when he consulted with him on possible evidence for earthquake damage to a Roman villa. As they socialized one evening, de Boer described his observations at Delphi. Hale, who learned the debunking story while a student, disputed de Boer's conclusions, but the geologist eventually convinced the archaeologist otherwise by his description of the fault, his knowledge of the classical sources, and especially his description of how faults can bring gases to the surface. Intrigued, Hale convinced de Boer to collaborate with him on a further exploration of the site.

Over several expeditions they discovered that two faults, the Delphi and Kerna faults, run under the temple complex. What's more, the two faults cross one another, and they intersect right below where the adyton was probably located. (The actual oracle chamber had been destroyed by the moving faults, but there is strong structural evidence that indicates where it was most likely located.) They also found evidence for underground passages and chambers, and drains for spring water. Further investigation of other archaeological temple sites seemed to reveal a pattern of prophetic sites being linked with geologically active areas, and especially the release of gases, so it no longer seemed farfetched that the Pythia could have been effected by vapors as the classical sources claimed. Additionally, they discovered travertine formations at the site. Travertine is a form of calcite created when water flows through limestone and dissolves calcium carbonate, which is later redeposited. Further investigation revealed that deep beneath the Delphi region lies a bituminous limestone deposit that has a petrochemical content as high as 20%.

© by Martin DulolpAs a result, de Boer reasoned that friction created by the movement of the faults heated the limestone and vaporized the petrochemicals. These gases followed the spring waters running along the fault lines to the surface, especially at points where the faults intersected. Over time, calcite deposits would block off the channels, thereby reducing or cutting off the gas flow, only to be reopened when the faults shifted. This reasoning is actually supported by archaeological evidence, because a few years after Oppé's article the archaeologists excavating the site finally hit the bedrock under the adyton. Penetrating a layer of brown clay, they found rock that was fissured. They thought that water had done it; part of the reason it took them so long to reach bedrock was because their digging holes kept filling with groundwater, but now it seems more likely that faulting is the cause of the fractures. Hale and de Boer also speculate that the visible chasm reported by the classical sources most likely was a gaping fissure in the floor of the adyton that opened into the clay layer over the fissured bedrock.

At this point, de Boer and Hale decided to try to identify the gases that composed the vapor reported in the classical sources. De Boer knew that fissures through bituminous limestone often released light hydrocarbon gases such as methane and ethane. They collected samples of travertine from the site and asked Jeffrey P. Chanton, a chemist, to analyze them; he discovered the presence of methane and ethane. Chanton then returned to Delphi and took water samples; again he found methane and ethane, but also ethylene. Ethylene has a sweet odor, and seemed the most likely candidate for the sweet-smelling vapor in the adyton.

They then consulted Henry A. Spiller, a toxicologist, to find out what effect, if any, these light hydrocarbon gases would have on people. Spiller studied "buffers", teenagers who get high on sniffing glue and paint thinner, both of which contain light hydrocarbons. Intoxicated buffers display many of the same behaviors reported for the Pythia. Spiller was also familiar with the work of Isabella Herb, an anesthesiologist, who performed pioneering research into ethylene narcosis. She discovered that mixtures of air containing less than 20% ethylene could produce a trance state in © by Genzomanher test subjects. In most cases, the effect was benign: the subject remained conscious, was able to sit up and answer questions, and experienced euphoria, out-of-body feelings, and a post-event amnesia once taken off the gas. But in a few cases she observed more violent reactions, including the uttering of wild incoherent cries and convulsions. Spiller realized that had a subject vomited during one of those episodes and had aspirated some of that vomit into his lungs, he would have developed pneumonia and died. As such, he concluded that ethylene could account for all the observed facts about the nature of the gas and the various behaviors it caused in the Pythias, including the one reported death.

It would be possible for writers to use this idea in their works. It could allow for cultic oracles as diverse as a shaman using a cave that opened onto an active fault from which ethylene and other gases emerged, along with sleep deprivation, fasting, and physical trauma from self-flagellation, to create an altered state of consciousness to receive oracular visions from his patron deity, to a temple built over an intersecting fault in which a Pythia-like priestess retires to an oracular chamber to dispense divine wisdom to penitents who come seeking her advice.

Sources / Further Reading

"Questioning the Delphic Oracle" by John R. Hale, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, Jeffrey P. Chanton, and Henry A. Spiller, Scientific American, Vol. 289, No. 2, August 2003, pp. 66-73

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