Oracle of Apollon at Delphi.
After the Acropolis of Athens, Delphi is the most popular archaeological site in Greece. Located 190 km from Athens is listed in just about every tourist itinerary and is by far the most popular day trip out of Athens.
Many people don't even know why they are going there. Its just something they are supposed to do when they go to Greece. But for those people who have done their homework Delphi has a special meaning more than just another collection of ruins in a country that is full of them.
The oracle of Delphi was a spiritual experience whereby the spirit of Apollo was asked for advise on critical matters relating to people's lives or affairs of the state. Questions were asked to Pythia or the priestess who'' channeled'' the spirit of the God. As the reputation of the oracle at Delphi grew, the sanctuary began to develop into an international center as the Greek city - states brought offerings and it was governed by aristocrats. It became the center of a 12 member federation called Amphictyonia which was a sort League of Nations which unified the small city - states.
Archaeologists are good at recovering things left behind by the past, such as buildings, incense altars, tools and relief carvings. What they are not so good at recovering are the ideas, feelings and emotions of sentient ancient beings. It's one thing to examine a temple's holy of holies, it's another thing to understand what went on there and what people experienced. Sometimes, however, there's an exception to the rule. Numerous classical authors report that natural phenomena played an essential part in one of their most sacred religious rituals: the oracle at Delphi. According to the geographer Strabo (c. 64 B.C. - 25 A.D.), for example, "the seat of the oracle is a cavern hollowed down in the depths...from which arises pneuma [breath, vapor, gas] that inspires a divine state of possession".
Over the past five years, a team of researchers - a geologist, an archaeologist, a chemist and a toxicologist - has put that claim to the test, making it much more likely that we will actually understand what happened at Delphi. When ancient Greeks and Romans had to make decisions, they consulted the gods by drawing lots, casting dice, interpreting dreams and analyzing such signs as sneezes, thunderbolts and flying birds. But for matters of the utmost importance, they sought to hear the words of the gods in the mouths of oracles. Paradoxically, in male dominated classical Greece the most influential voice, the Delphic oracle, belonged to a woman. The oracular temple was perched on the south slope of Mount Parnassus, surrounded by high cliffs, about 75 miles west of Athens.
Getting to Delphi required either a long trek across the mountains or a sea voyage to the north shore of the Gulf of Corinth. However difficult the journey, thousands of visitors sought guidance from the holy woman, called the *Pythia, who spoke on behalf of the gods.
*Pythias were virgins who dedicated their lives to prophesying on behalf of the god Apollo. The first Pythia is said to have been the goddess Themis. According to sources, the Pythia was inspired by mysterious vapors, though these accounts have been largely ignored by modern researchers.
Now, however, a team of archaeologists and geologists have proved that the Temple of Apollo sat directly above fault lines that likely released intoxicating carbon based gases into the adytum. Was this the oracle's secret? The Pythia dealt less in visions of the future than in right choices: where to locate a new colony, when to attack an enemy, how to lift a curse, whom to choose as leader, what offering to make to which god.
No kingdom, city or private person could afford to make critical decisions without consulting the Pythia. Thanks to her prestige, Delphi became the richest and most famous Hellenic sanctuary. The Greeks called it the omphalos, or "navel of the world". How could a mere mortal command such respect? The answer lies in the belief that Apollo - the god revelation and inspiration - used the Pythia as his mouthpiece, taking possession of her during oracular sessions. The Pythia would fall into a trance, and delivered in a voice very unlike her normal tones. Most scholars believe the Delphic oracle was established around the eighth century B.C. when founders of new colonies would consult the Pythia before setting out for the western Mediterranean, North Africa, Asia Minor or the Black Sea. The origins of the oracle are recounted in a story about a goatherd named Koretas, who pastured his flock on the slope of Mount Parnassus. Koretas noticed that when the goats grazed near a certain fissure in the mountainside, they began to bleat strangely. Approaching the fissure, he was filled with a prophetic spirit. Eventually, a woman - the first Pythia - was appointed to sit on a tripod over the cleft and give prophecies, Before she could mount the tripod, however, a goat had to be sacrificed to ensure that the day was propitious. The priests and temple attendants determined the order of the queue, giving priority to state embassies and then working their way down through military commanders, athletes, poets and, last of all, mere heads of families concerned about a child or an investment. The supplicants filed past bronze statues, war monuments and treasure houses dedicated in the past by grateful visitors. It would have been late in the day by the time the ordinary men at the rear reached the terrace of the temple and viewed the famous inscriptions, "Know Thyself " and "Nothing in Excess". From here the way led up a ramp to a great colonnade of Doric columns, and then through a double door into the temple itself. Inside burned a constant pinewood fire tended by women of Delphi. The final approach to the oracle led downward into a sunken space below the level of the level of the temple floor, where the visitor would be confronted by a gold statue of Apollo and the * omphalos stone that marked the sacred spot. *
The egg - shaped stone at left, the
very stone described by the Greek writer Pausanias, who
visited Delphi in the second century A.D. represents the
omphalos or "navel of the world". According to Greek
legend, Delphi was fixed as the center of the world when
Zeus released two eagles, one from the west and the other
from the east, which met in the sky above Delphi.
The Pythia sat in accessed inner sanctum called the adytum, a Greek word meaning "not to be entered". Standing outside the adytum, visitors would ask their questions and await the response. Unlike itinerant prophets and omen - interpreters, the Pythia derived her power from the place - she could only prophecy while seated in the adytum within the temple of Apollo. According to the Strabo, the pneuma arose from a small opening (chasm gas) in the adytum: "Over the mouth [of the opening] a high tripod is set. Mounting this, the Pythia inhales the pneuma and then speaks prophecies in verse or in the prose. The latter are versified by poets on duty in the temple". Strabo was not the only ancient source to describe the adyton and the intoxicating gas. The 2nd century A.D. traveler Pausanias told of a spring in the temple's adytum that made the Pythia prophetic. Also who served as a priest of Apollo at Delphi, described an exhalation of vapor on the adytum that sent the Pythia into a trance. Despite these testimonies, no serious scholar over the last 50 years has accepted the idea that the Pythia's trance was caused by a gaseous emission. Modern investigations began to excavate the sanctuary at Delphi. They first moved the modern village of Kastri, household by household, from above the ancient sanctuary to the town of Delphi, west of the sanctuary. The French archaeologists uncovered the boundary wall of the ancient sanctuary, an entry gate, and the lower stretches of the Sacred Way. By1983 they had reached the terrace of the Temple of Apollo - where they found that scarcely a stone remained in place above the floor. The columns had toppled and the sanctuary had been carried off or destroyed. In the lower chamber, where the the oracle once spoke, no trace of the ancient structure remained. Even the archaeologists attempts to reach bedrock were frustrated as water filled the excavated areas. While the French team was excavating the temple, a young English scholar named A.P. Oppe published a report based on his visit to the site. Oppe proposed that the ancient sources had confused the fissure with a nearby gorge, and that the vapor was simply a fiction that had been passed from source to source.
The first step toward a modern reassessment of the evidence was made in the 1980s by geologist Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, the senior member of our project in Delphi. De Boer was conducting surveys, under the auspices of the U.N. and the Greek government, to identify active fault lines. One area he studied was the south slope of Mount Parnassus, where he noted an exposed fault both east and west of the sanctuary of Apollo - though it could not be seen at the site of the temple, where it was covered by ancient construction that the fault did indeed run under the temple, but he gave the matter no more thought. It was not until the summer of 1995 that De Boer encountered an archaeologist, co-author John Hale of the university of Louisville, who assured him, first, that he could not possibly have seen any such feature at Delphi and second (after De Boer described the fault in detail), that this might be a discovery of major importance. We decided to continue investigations at Delphi, eventually adding a chemist (Jeff Chanton of Florida State University and the U.S. Geological Survey Magnetic Laboratory) and a toxicologist (Henry Spiller of the Kentucky Poison Center) to the team. In 1996, with the support of Rozina Kolonia, the director of the Delphi Museum, we conducted a survey of the site and found that the sections of exposed fault on either side of the sanctuary were indeed part of the same fault - an active fault extending about 13 miles east- west along the southern flank of Mount Parnassus. We named this fault the Delphi fault. In subsequent seasons we identified a second fault, extending approximately southeast -northwest. This fault could be traced along a line of springs running through the center of sanctuary. The highest spring above the temple, is called the Kerna Spring, its water is currently channeled westward to modern Delphi. Further sown the slope, though still above the temple, a mass of travertine (a kind of limestone) deposited by calcite - rich waters indicates another spring. There is also an elaborate channel for a spring built into the southern foundation wall of the temple itself. Although the spring is dry today, the early 20th c. French archaeologists found it difficult to reach bedrock within the sanctuary because their holes kept filling up with water. Dawn the slope below the temple, yet another spring emerges from a cleft in the bedrock near the Treasury of the Athenians. We have named this southeast northwest fault the Kerna Fault, after its highest spring. What the ancient authors described as a fissure (chasm gas) in the rock over which the Pythiasat was probably a small fracture extending up from the intersection of these two faults. Greek geologists had already identified the limestone under the temple as bituminous (oil bearing), with a petrochemical content as high as 20 percent. These petrochemicals appeared to be a possible source of gases. But how exactly could they be released from the rock into the atmosphere? The Delphi Fault is linked to one of the Greece's most geologically active features: the great rift, that today is filled by the waters of the Gulf of Corinth. This is a recent feature, geologically speaking, having formed roughly two million years ago. The rift continues to widen: as it does, motion occurs along faults and earthquakes are triggered. As slippage occurs along the fault lines, adjacent rock masses are heated, vaporizing the lighter petrochemicals in the limestone and expelling gases upward along the face of the faults. Once faulting has opened such a pathway, gases continue to rise, although the volume would slowly decrees over time. We believe that this is exactly what happened at Delphi: The rock masses deep in the earth were heated, and they intermittently produced gases that rose up along the intersection produced gases that rose up along the intersection of the two fault lines, eventually entering the adyton of the temple through one more fissures over the which the Pythia sat.
We decided to test the spring water at Delphi, along with samples of the travertine rock that the ancient springs had deposited in the retaining walls and slopes around the temple. If significant quantities of gases had been emitted with the spring water, traces of these gases might be found in the travertine deposits. The very presence of travertine rock, formed from dissolved calcites in warm spring water, is evidence that the springs along the Kerna Fault had their origin at deep levels. The water and travertine from the sanctuary of Apollo, which were analyzed by Jeff Chanton, revealed traces of the light hydrocarbon gases found in Isthmus of Corinth and on Zakynthos. Could this explain the Pythia's state of intoxication in ancient times?
The ancient sources describe two distinct types of prophetic trance experienced by the Pythia. First, and more normally, she would lapse into benign semi- consciousness, during which she remained seated on the tripod, responding to questions, through in a strangely altered voice. According to Plutarch, once the Pythia recovers from this trance, she was in a composed and relaxed state, like a runner after a race. A second kind of trance involved a frenzied delirium characterized by wild movements of the limbs, harsh groaning and inarticulate cries.
When the Pythia experienced this delirium, Plutarch reports, she died after only a few days and, a new Pythia took her place. According to toxicologist Henry Spiller, both of these symptoms are associated with the inhalation of hydrocarbon gases. Spiller studies the effects of such inhalants on young people, known as "hoofers", who breathe in fumes from gas, glue, paint thinner and other substances because of their intoxicating properties.
Perhaps the Pythia too was high on of these hydrocarbon gases. It may even be possible to identify the kind of gas. Plutarch who, was a priest of Apollo at the Delphic sanctuary, noted that the intoxicating pneuma had a sweet smell, like expensive perfume. Of the hydrocarbon gases, only ethylene has a sweet smell. So ethylene was probably a component in the gaseous emission inhaled by the Pythia. Delphi