Delphic oracle – stoned teenagers advise governments and generals

Posted by jerry on August 18th, 2004 — Posted in History, Journal, Writing

Plutarch, when not writing his Lives in the first century AD was sometime manager of a nice little earner called the Delphic Oracle. I heard a fascinating piece on the radio this morning about what was special about the oracle. It seems that there was indeed a culture among the priestesses that involved learning to compose a kind of free-form poetry – perhaps an ancient Greek form of rap. What is particularly interesting is that at Delphi the oracle temple was built on an active fault line (not surprising really, as much of Greece is in a very seismically active area).

But active faults generate enormous heat in localised areas, and this can release vapourised hydrocarbons, which bubbled up through the spring water. in this case the gas turned out to be a mix of methane, ethane and the real trump card – ethylene – an effective anaesthetic (by depriving the brain of oxygen) which also in low doses apparently causes mild euphoria, hallucinations, excitation and amnesia. Of course if you over did it death would be a rather unfortunate side effect. In low doses it made people babble in not overly coherent ways – and given that the priestesses were usually young women, the image of stoned teenage girls influencing world events while off their faces on antifreeze is perhaps an uncomfortable way to view this sacred site.

As Washington Post writer Guy Gugliotta points out, there were suspicions, even in ancient times that this was exactly what was going on. Plutarch described how the priestess would deliver oracles from a tripod in a small below-ground chamber bathed in gases carried up by underground springs.

No doubt the vapours would have added mystique to the process, and the recipient listening to the words would probably also get a little light headed, contributing to the sense that something sacred was in the air.

And all this has been confirmed by geologists a couple of years ago, who identified that the oracle temple site was located right over criss-crossing active faults. And the gases have been deposited over the centuries, trapped in the limestone travertine that lay under the temple.

Ethylene is used today for rapid ripening of fruit and as an anaesthetic until recent times. “It was a great gas,” said toxicologist Henry Spiller, director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center in Louisville and another member of the Delphi team. “It produces a very rapid onset of effects, and leaves the heart alone.” Unfortunately, “it is also explosive [and] dangerous for the surgeon,” Spiller added, which is why modern medicine eventually abandoned it.

A fascinating insight into an amazing cultural and historical phenomenon!


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