“Go tell the king that the well-crafted court has fallen to pieces, Phoebus dwells here no more, there is no more oracular laurel, no talking spring, and the Voice of the Water has been silenced…” The Final Oracle from Delphi (Giannimelou)
In Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, we read of Oedipus sending his brother-in-law/uncle, Creon, to Delphi to seek an answer from the Oracle. Creon’s return with the oracular message spells the end of Oedipus’s reign. But what exactly is this oracle? How did it function? And why Delphi? Why would the ancients travel so far, rather than having an oracle in their own home town?
In thinking of oracles, we may have some vague idea of a temple where one would go to pray for wisdom. The Bible uses the word as a synonym for a prophecy. Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s golden tablets had been referred to as an oracle. And, of course there is the most disturbing image of Jim and his ‘hairball oracle’ in Huckleberry Finn.
TheFreeDictionary.com defines an oracle as “a shrine consecrated to the worship and consultation of a prophetic deity, as that of Apollo at Delphi.” Other ideas expressed are those of a person through whom a deity speaks or responds. This response may also be referred to as an oracle.
Delphi, located about 75 miles northwest of Athens on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, was once considered the omphalos, or navel, of the Earth. Legend has it that Zeus sent two eagles flying – one to the east and one to the west. Where they met was the center of the earth and a large circular stone known as the omphalos was erected to mark this.
Settled by the Mycenaeans, the temple was originally a shrine to the earth goddess Gaea, beginning around 1500 b.c.e. It served this function for around 500 years until it became a temple of Apollo, God of Prophecy.
Phillip Ball relates that Plutarch, a 1st century C.E. high priest of the temple recorded the secret workings of the temple. The oracle was given by women known as the Pythia. The Pythia would enter a small chamber within the temple and inhale sweet-smelling vapors that issued from a fissure or spring. Plutarch suspected that these fumes were somehow geologically related and may have intensified during periods of seismic activity (Ball).
On the website Morgana’s Observatory we get a slightly clearer image:
“On the morning of a day when the Oracle was scheduled to prophesy, a goat would be sacrificed at an altar just outside of the great Temple of Apollo, and its entrails would be examined. If results were favorable, the Oracle would operate that day. [The Pythia] would then complete the prescribed rituals: purification in the Castalian waters, dressing in full ceremonial robes, sometimes chewing a few laurel leaves, seating herself on the tripod and inhaling the foul-smelling vapors.
Before the pilgrim entered the Temple and descended into the smoky enclosure of the Oracle, he had to make an offering. His question was written and given to one of the Oracle's assistants. Then, the pilgrim waited in a corner until an answer was recorded and delivered to him. The entire experience was surrounded by ritual and spirituality” (Morgana).
The Sybil or Pythia was somewhere between human and goddess. Some thought she was kin to Apollo, perhaps a daughter or sister. It was believed by earlier inhabitants that the Sybil received her powers from Gaia (wikipedia).
The final Delphic oracle was delivered to the Emperor Julian in the 4th century C.E. The oracle’s mission on earth – that of messenger of Apollo – was through. With Christianity flourishing in the Mediterranean, the final oracle sounded the death-knell for the old religions. As Apollo had supplanted Gaia, so Christ now replaced Apollo – the victors declaring the wickedness of those who had gone before.
In recent times scientists have returned to Delphi to discover a possible source of inspiration for the oracular abilities. While scientists long believed that some sort of geologic fumes were responsible for the sibyls’ trance states, early excavations of the site revealed nothing. A 2001 National Geographic News report indicates that geologists have indeed “found evidence of hallucinogenic gases rising from a nearby spring and preserved within the temple rock” (Roach). Plutarch’s suspicions were confirmed. It seems the highly permeable rock layers surrounding Delphi sit on an intersection of two major fault lines. Hydrocarbon, heated by surrounding rocks becomes a vapor which mixes with springs and escapes to the surface. Analysis shows that one of the gases present in the hydrocarbon vapors is ethylene, “which has a sweet smell and produces a narcotic effect described as a floating or disembodied euphoria” (Roach). This discovery helps to explain the fact that the oracle’s messages often verged on the incomprehensible.
And so, the god of science – perhaps the spirit of Hagia Sophia – overcomes the gods of old. Although this god removes the wonder and spectacle of the old religions, it also shows us that what was once declared unclean is in fact purely natural. But it all leaves one wondering, what god is waiting in the wings to supplant this new god?
Ball, Phillip. “Oracle's secret fault found: Ancient prophesies made at Delphi may have been inspired by natural gas.” 17 July 2001. Nature.com. 2 July 2005. <http://www.nature.com/nsu/010719/010719-10.html> or
Giannimelou, Evi. “Ancient Greece: Ancient Oracles.” 1988. Georama Magazine.
2 July 2005. <http://www.georama.gr/eng/history/06.html>
2 July 2005. <http://www.georama.gr/eng/history/06.html>
Morgana. “The Oracle at Delphi.” 1997-2005. Morgana’s Observatory. 2 July 2005.
Roach, John. “Delphic Oracle's Lips May Have Been Loosened by Gas Vapors” 14 August 2001. National Geographic News. 2 July 2005.
Unnamed author. “Delphic Sibyl” 20 June 2005. Wikipedia.com. 2 July 2005.