For over 1,000 years, the Oracle at Delphi was the most powerful person in the ancient world. Visitors from all walks of life traveled many miles to seek her prophecies on politics, economics, and religion amongst other things. Was the Oracle nothing more than an ancient sham that managed to fool some of history’s finest minds? Or maybe, just maybe, was there something real behind her mysterious prophecies?
What was the Oracle at Delphi?
The true history of the Oracle at Delphi is buried under layers of myth. Supposedly, the Temple at which the Oracle resided was created by the earth-goddess Gaia and subsequently handed over to Themis and then Phoebe. Poseidon later occupied the space, followed by Apollo. Peeling back the mythology, we have reason to believe that the Delphic Oracle was firmly established on Mount Parnassus sometime around 800 BC.
At the height of its fame, three separate Pythias, or priestesses, took turns serving as the Oracle. They made prophecies from inside a small underground chamber located within the Temple of Apollo. The exact process for consulting the Oracle is unknown. However, we do know that it was available to anyone, be it king or ordinary citizen (although it’s believed that wealthy individuals paid great sums to cut the line).
Prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi?
The Oracle answered questions while sitting on a three-legged stool within the interior chamber. Surviving accounts indicate that she would enter a trance-like state, complete with occasional writhing and foaming at the mouth. Then, she would reveal her prophecies, often in a strange voice. Some historians believe that she spoke gibberish which was then translated into statements by the priests who managed the Temple. Others think that she spoke normally and that the priests merely recorded her words. Regardless, many of the Oracle’s prophecies seemed to come true, albeit with some interpretation. Two of the many famous prophecies from the Oracle at Delphi include:
- 403 BC: “Also the dragon (serpent), earthborn, in craftiness coming behind thee.” – This warning was given to the Spartan General, Lysander. Eight years later, he was killed from behind by Neachorus, who carried a shield adorned with a serpent.
- 67 AD: “Your presence here outrages the god you seek. Go back, matricide! The number 73 marks the hour of your downfall!” This was related to Emperor Nero, who had killed his mother eight years earlier. Within a year, his reign ended after a revolt led by Galba…who was 73 years old at the time.
The Strange Vapor of the Oracle at Delphi?
So, where did this prophetic power come from? Some clues can be found in ancient texts. According to Plutarch, a one-time priest at the Temple of Apollo, the Oracle’s chamber was often filled with a sweet-smelling vapor.
For the room where those do wait who come for answers from the oracle is sometimes — though not often and at certain stated times, but as it were by chance — filled with such a fragrant odor and scent, that no perfumes in the world can exceed it, and this arises, as it were, out of a spring, from the sanctuary of the temple.” ~ Plutarch, Moralia, Volume 4
However, the initial excavation of the site in 1892 did not reveal a stream or anything else capable of producing vapor. And for many decades, historians believed that Plutarch was simply incorrect. That all changed in 1996 when archaeologist John Hale launched a ground-breaking expedition to investigate the Oracle at Delphi. With the help of a geologist, forensic chemist, and a toxicologist, he re-examined the landscape and arrived at some startling conclusions.
It turns out that the ancient city of Delphi was built on top of limestone, twenty percent of which was bituminous. Two subterranean faults intersected directly beneath the Temple. Hale’s team proposed that these faults, which lie in one of the most geologically active places on earth, shifted periodically in the past. The resulting friction heated petrochemicals within the limestone. They vaporized and then rose to the air through small fissures in the rock. This vapor seeped into the Oracle’s small chamber, causing general intoxication.
The team also discovered a natural spring uphill from the Temple. It contained ethylene, which is a sweet-smelling gas. At low levels, it can induce a trance-like state. At higher levels, it can cause convulsions or even unconsciousness. In other words, gases emitted from the ground could’ve caused the Oracle to experience an altered state, which to the ancients, might’ve seemed like a divine connection with Apollo.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
The work done by John Hale and his team of experts is nothing short of astounding. From where I stand, they appear to have solved many of the mysteries associated with the Oracle. Incidentally, I wish we saw more of this sort of multidisciplinary approach to archaeology. I can’t help but think that it would provide a far richer understanding of excavation sites.
As with all things, the Oracle at Delphi eventually declined in importance. Some attribute this to a lack of earthquakes over a significant period of time, which caused the vapor to cease. Regardless, for several centuries the women who donned the Oracle mantle wielded an immense amount of power. Their vapor-fueled prophecies guided the actions of the mighty and the meek alike. One can easily make the case that the Oracles at Delphi were some of the most influential people of their era, if not of all time.