The modern truth behind the ancient power of the Oracle at Delphi.
“Sanity, itself, thus hinges on man’s ability to predict his immediate, personal future on the basis of information fed him by the environment.” –Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
Statistician, market researcher, trend analyst, political wonk. These modern occupations were all summed up in one ancient role – the Oracle. For over 1,000 years a woman called the Pythia at Delphi, Greece influenced the Western world with a wisp of vapor and a whisper of mystery – and not without merit.
The many oracles of the ancient world have long been considered myths or just clever ruses to separate superstitious people from their money. But in recent years, archaeologists and geologists have discovered features at Delphi that may explain the unique behavior of the Pythia, the Delphic Oracle’s top ranking, and its dominance over an entire culture.
Map of the fault lines beneath the Delphi site.
The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, it turns out, stands on two converging fault lines where water from the sacred Castalian spring may have mixed with natural substances in the layers of limestone beneath, producing anesthetic gases like ethylene in ancient times. Exposing herself to the vapors, the Pythia would experience a semi-conscious, trance-like state where she was given to alarming convulsions and nonsensical babbling.
The strain and danger of the job prompted the sisterhood of the Pythia to implement painstaking rituals of fasting and preparation before performing their duty only on the seventh day of the month.
This leisurely schedule had two valuable benefits for the institution of the Oracle: 1) it limited the supply and increased the value/demand/price of prophecies; and 2) it gave the priests time to gather intelligence from the visiting supplicants while they waited at Delphi for the ceremonial day. It’s been suggested that the Delphic priests’ extensive knowledge of politics, finance, society and current events was the true source of the “interpreted” oracles.
Achilles consulting Pythia – Sheila Terry/Science Photo Library
Whatever its source, the Oracle at Delphi was universally accepted as the fount of wisdom for Greek-influenced culture around the known world. Everyone from commoners to kings sought prophecies from the lips of the Pythia, her golden age bookmarked by centuries of service from 1400BCE well into the Roman era.
After a steady loss of influence – possibly due to the closing of the vapor-producing fault – several barbarian invasions, and looting by occupying states, the oracle was at last silenced in the 4th Century CE by Roman emperor Theodosius I, who had it demolished and left to ruins. The site was covered by successive landslides from Mount Parnassus then built over by a small village until it was rediscovered by French archaeologists in the late-1800’s.
While the Pythia no longer speaks from the Temple of Apollo, the amazing grandeur of the Delphi site still speaks of a time when magic and mystery ruled the world and the future – from the decisions of kings to the concerns of the common people.
Now, here’s the cheese on this Brain Burger.
3 non-scientific non-facts about the Oracle at Delphi:
- John Lennon wrote “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” about the Pythia.
- Site of Greek-a-palooza -436 BCE. T-shirts are still available.
- The Oracle charged a Quarter-Dracma via a coin slot in the Temple of Apollo’s door.
Chris Everheart is author of the YA thriller