The Pythia, a role filled by different women from about 1400 B.C. to A.D. 381, was the medium through which the god Apollo spoke.
According to legend, Plutarch, a priest at the Temple of Apollo, attributed Pythia’s prophetic powers to vapors. Other accounts suggested the vapors may have come from a chasm in the ground.
Now, a four-year study of the area in the vicinity of the shrine is causing archaeologists and other authorities to revisit the notion that intoxicating fumes loosened the lips of the Pythia.
The study, reported in the August issue of Geology, reveals that two faults intersect directly below the Delphic temple. The study also found evidence of hallucinogenic gases rising from a nearby spring and preserved within the temple rock.
Greece sits at the confluence of three tectonic plates. The shifting of these plates continually stretches and uplifts the area, which is riddled with faults.
Several years ago, Greek researchers found a fault running east to west beneath the oracle’s temple. De Boer and his colleagues discovered a second fault, which runs north to south. “Those two faults do cross each other, and therefore interact with each other, below the site,” said De Boer.
Interactions of major faults make rock more permeable and create passages through which ground water and gases can travel and rise. From 70 to 100 million years ago, the limestone bedrock underlying the oracle’s site lay below sea level, enriched with hydrocarbon deposits.
About every 100 years a major earthquake rattles the faults. The faults are heated by adjacent rocks and the hydrocarbon deposits stored in them are vaporized. These gases mix with ground water and emerge around springs.
De Boer conducted an analysis of these hydrocarbon gases in spring water near the site of the Delphi temple. He found that one is ethylene, which has a sweet smell and produces a narcotic effect described as a floating or disembodied euphoria.
“Ethylene inhalation is a serious contender for explaining the trance and behavior of the Pythia,” said Diane Harris-Cline, a classics professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“Combined with social expectations, a woman in a confined space could be induced to spout off oracles,” she said.
According to traditional explanations, the Pythia derived her prophecies in a small, enclosed chamber in the basement of the temple. De Boer said that if the Pythia went to the chamber once a month, as tradition says, she could have been exposed to concentrations of the narcotic gas that were strong enough to induce a trance-like state.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Delphi is perhaps best known for the oracle at the sanctuary that was dedicated to Apollo during the classical period. According to Aeschylus in the prologue of the Eumenides, it had origins in prehistoric times and the worship of Gaia. In the last quarter of the 8th century BC there is a steady increase in artifacts found at the settlement site in Delphi, which was a new, post-Mycenaean settlement of the late 9th century. Pottery and bronze work as well as tripod dedications continue in a steady stream, in comparison to Olympia. Neither the range of objects nor the presence of prestigious dedications proves that Delphi was a focus of attention for a wide range of worshippers, but the large quantity of high value goods, found in no other mainland sanctuary, certainly encourages that view.
Apollo spoke through his oracle: the sibyl or priestess of the oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia; she had to be an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants of the area. She sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth. When Apollo slew Python, its body fell into this fissure, according to legend, and fumes arose from its decomposing body. Intoxicated by the vapors, the sibyl would fall into a trance, allowing Apollo to possess her spirit. In this state she prophesied. It has been postulated that a gas high in ethylene, known to produce violent trances, came out of this opening, though this theory remains debatable.2122 While in a trance the Pythia “raved” – probably a form of ecstatic speech – and her ravings were “translated” by the priests of the temple into elegant hexameters. People consulted the Delphic oracle on everything from important matters of public policy to personal affairs. The oracle could not be consulted during the winter months, for this was traditionally the time when Apollo would live among the Hyperboreans. Dionysus would inhabit the temple during his absence
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