The Oracle at Delphi: mystic prophet or geological faultline?

reconstruction of Delphi

The settlement at Delphi - the temple of Apollo is top right, with the theatre behind it

The ancient Greeks believed they could consult the oracle at Delphi to know their fate.  Apollo the god of the oracle spoke through his priestess, also known as a Pythia, who sat on a stool over a fissure in the earth from which rose hypnotic vapours that put her in a trance.  When people came to Delphi they had to present their questions to the priests of the oracle, who passed it on to the Pythia.  her answer would be so obscure or ambiguous that the priests would have to interpret it.  That way the people got the benefit of Apollo’s wisdom, believing that he knew everything, even about the future.  There were many heads of state who would not go to war or take other decisive steps until they had consulted the oracle at Delphi.  The priests of Apollo functioned more or less as diplomats and advisors, becoming experts with intimate knowledge of the country and it’s people.  Over the entrance to the temple at Delphi was a famous inscription ‘know thyself’ .  It reminded men that man must never believe himself to be more than mortal, and could not escape the destiny the gods had set for him.

The worship of Apollo as the god of light, harmony, and order was established between the 11th and 9th centuries. Slowly over the next five centuries the sanctuary grew in size and importance. During the 8th c. B.C. Delphi became internationally known for the Oracular powers of a Pythia–the priestess who sat on a tripod, inhaled ethylene gasses, and muttered incomprehensible words that foretold the future.  Documents provided by the Greek historian Plutarch (AD 46-120) describe the Pythia inhaling vapours from a fissure called Adyton. Shortly after she would go into a trance, which enabled her to contact Apollo, the god to whom the oracle was dedicated. Occasionally these trances deepened into delirium and even death, but more normally the woman would utter extremely cryptic and freely-interpretable rhymed answers, which were sometimes conflicting.

The town of Delphi still remains today, the ruins of the temple of Apollo, the theatre, stadia and Castallian Spring still visible to the above right of the modern buildings:

The ancient people of the Mediterranean had such faith in a Pythia’s view of the future that no major decision was made without consulting the Oracle of Delphi first. Greek and foreign dignitaries, heads of state, and common folk made the pilgrimage to the Delphi sanctuary, and paid great sums for a Pythia’s oracles. Since the sanctuary only served the public a few days over nine months out of the year, great sums were paid by the more affluent ones in order to bypass the long line of pilgrims.

Upon arriving at Delphi, the supplicants registered and paid a fee; when their appointments neared, they purified themselves at the Castalian Spring, where the bathing trough is still visible. They then proceeded along the Sacred Way, a zigzag flagstone walk up the hill. The Sacred Way was lined with statues and offerings, most of which have long disappeared, although a few surviving examples can be seen in the Delphi Museum. Also along the way were a series of treasuries, small shrines sponsored by various Greek cities as thank-offerings for important victories. The best preserved of these is the Athenian treasury, built in 490 BC to celebrate the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon. Because of its balance, harmony, and purity of line, it is regarded as the finest example of ancient Doric style.The Sacred Way ended outside the temple. There the pilgrims would sacrifice a sheep or goat, whose entrails were examined by the priests for omens. Then the pilgrims entered one by one to ask the Pythia their question. A carved domed rock, the omphalos, or naval of the earth, was kept at the place of prophecy. In an ancient flood story about the human race, the omphalos was the first thing to emerge from the waters as they receded. In another account, Zeus sent two ravens out from the ends of the earth to find its center, and their beaks touched at the omphalos. The stone is presently kept in a museum.  The centerpiece of Delphi was the temple of Apollo, built with donations from every Greek city-state and from abroad. The base of the temple still stands, with half a dozen of the original columns. On the outside of the base are over 700 inscriptions, most announcing the emancipation of slaves, which was considered a special act of piety to be performed at Delphi. At the far end of the temple is the altar, originally decorated with memorials, ex-votos, statues, and offerings.
Plutarch served as a priest at Delphi, and in his histories he has left many details about the inner workings of the sanctuary. A Pythia entered the inner chamber of the temple (“Adyton”), sat on a tripod and inhaled the light hydrocarbon gasses that escaped from a chasm on the porous earth. After falling into a trance, she muttered words incomprehensible to mere mortals. The priests of the sanctuary then interpreted her oracles in a common language and delivered them to those who had requested them. Even so, the oracles were always open to interpretation and often signified dual and opposing meanings.

Above a Pythia sits on a tripod on the left, and a priest stands ready to interpret on the right.

“You will go you will return not in the battle you will perish” was an example of this duality of meaning. The above sentence can be interpreted two different ways depending where the comma can be placed. If a comma is placed after the word “not” the message is discouraging for him who is about to depart for war. If on the other hand the comma is placed before the word “not”, then the warrior is to return alive.

Such was the importance of the Oracle at Delphi that the ancients believed it to be the center (“Omphalos”) of the world. The oracle advised the great Persian Kings of the time, and when the Persians were poised to sack Athens, Themistokles turned the advice of the Oracle to a winning strategy that led to the Greeks’ victory in the naval battle of Salamina. The Oracle had simply advised that “wooden walls” would aid to victory, and Themistokles interpreted walls to mean the wooden ships of the Athenian fleet.  For an example that you may have already come across, the power of an oracle is shown in the film 300, in which the Spartan King, Leonidas is informed that he must not go to war to defend Sparta against the threat of the Persian army.

To commemorate the triumph of Apollo over Python the sanctuary organised the Pythian Games every four years which were athletic events much like the Olympics. In the 20th century Angelos Sikelianos organized a modern version of the Delphic games.  The sanctuary of Delphi fell into Roman hands in 191 B.C, and was stripped of its treasures by General Sylla in 86 B.C. in order to finance his siege of Athens, and three years later Delphi was razed by the Thracian Maedi who -legend has it- extinguished the sacred fire which had been burning uninterrupted for centuries.

In an attempt to connect the above legend to reality, French archaeologists visited Delphi at the turn of last century to look for evidence corroborating Plutarch’s account. But they returned empty-handed because they interpreted the legend literally and focused their research on looking for a cave or a hole in the ground.  Instead the local geology holds the key, as a more recent investigation by a Connecticut-based team of scientists has shown. The intellectual leap was made by Jelle Zeiling De Boer, a geologist from Wesleyan University. He connected the legendary vapours with ancient earthquakes triggered by two fault lines that intersect deep beneath the oracle.  De Boer realised that the vapours inhaled by Pythia were likely to correspond to volatile hydrocarbons escaping from gas pockets in the bituminous sediments, and the release of the gases was provoked by fault movements.

So, in simple words, a temple built on a geological fault line which provided a constant source of gas to enable priestesses to go into trance.  A wonderfully clever and imposing building project which, at least in terms of legend, lasted until the modern-day.  It’s possible that the gods told the priests where to site the temple in the first place, of course.  Just because there’s a scientific explanation as to why the site was effective doesn’t mean that the gods weren’t involved in it somewhere down the line.  Decide for yourself.


2 thoughts on “The Oracle at Delphi: mystic prophet or geological faultline?

  1. My money is on the diplomatic priests. A past experience of the utterings of a patient recovering from the noxious vapers of anaesthesia when told she had a lovely baby, she said “Oh no, I wanted a bunny rabbit”
    Weird gasses from fault lines in the Earth would probably have produced the same effect..
    Blessings everybody.

  2. All over the world manipulation of the mind has made prophets and seers witchdoctors ect accurately predict anything in many cultures it is given as an initiation to 12yr old children to see the path they will take in life I believethat with any mind altering phyicadelic – natural forces/natural science works together with our bodies quantam physics opening our minds to the universes magics and paths allowing a spirit to see with true vision

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