Prophecy and the Oracle of Delphi

Many ancient Greeks considered Delphi to be the capital of the world. The story goes that a huge serpent – Python – was slain by the god Apollo. The serpent’s body fell into a fissure, and as it decomposed great fumes arose through the rocks. Upon inhaling these vapours, a person went into an ecstatic trance, a state in which it was believed that the person was possessed by Apollo and could speak the god’s words of guidance to seekers.

By the 7th century BC the temple was in full swing and it came to be the house of a single person – a woman – the Oracle of Delphi. Her task was to serve as a link between the gods and the world, and her utterances were greatly sought after. At certain times of the year, the Oracle would take questions from pilgrims. After a purification ritual – which included fasting, drinking holy water, and bathing in sacred waters – the Oracle would take up her place on a tripod seat, with laurel reeds in one hand and a dish of spring water in the other. She would be positioned directly above the vapours and as she breathed them in she entered the divine realm from which she uttered the words of Apollo to enquirers.

Visitors were screened by the priests – not everyone got through – and then the priests would instruct the seeker how to phrase their question. Of course, the seekers were also encouraged to make a financial contribution to the temple to support its noble work.

Accounts vary as to precisely how the seekers received their answers from the Oracle. In some cases it is reported that the Oracle gave answers directly, but in other accounts the Oracle uttered incomprehensible words – glossolalia – which were then translated or interpreted by the priests. The answers given by the Oracle were frequently rather cryptic, worded in such a way that no matter what happened the Oracle could be said to have correctly predicted it. For example, when Croesus, the King of Lydia, asked if he should attack Persia he received this answer: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” He interpreted this as a good omen and attacked the Persians. Sadly, the great empire that was destroyed was his own, but either way the Oracle would’ve been right.

The Oracle was viewed as infallible, and her fame and reputation grew and spread far and wide. Soon even foreign dignitaries would come, often paying huge amounts of money to skip the queues of Regular Jasons and gain a fast track to the Oracle. This enabled Delphi to grow bigger and bigger, and it was soon a powerful and wealthy city-state.

Despite the huge time gap separating them, there are many similarities between Delphi and modern prophetic practices. First of all, the reputation of the Oracle became firmly established in the minds of people. This is key to any prophetic ministry. The supernatural nature of Delphi was established not only by planting it within the wider Greek mythology, but through the telling of stories far and wide of the Oracle’s powers. Also, the use of a shine filled with vapours and the behaviour of the Oracle would provide visitors with clear evidence that Apollo was at work, much the same as we see from modern charismatic prophets who themselves go into trances, shake, and even roll around the floor under the “power of the Holy Spirit,” behaviour which anthropologists tell us serves to enhance the religious authority of the prophet. Whilst modern prophets don’t use vapours and springs of water, they do make frequent use of lighting and music to make sure the correct atmosphere is established in which they can produce mystical experiences in the minds of onlookers. Crucially, the use of vague (and thus infallible) prophecies is a very common practice, not only amongst modern prophets, but also astrologers and fortune tellers. Lastly, as always, there’s the small matter of financial contributions. The advice of the gods is rarely free, and the exchange of money – sometimes quite significant sums – adds to the impression that this ministry is a highly valuable thing.

Such features combine to create a very convincing show, as typically the true explanation for the phenomena is not obviously apparent to the casual observer or those caught up in the experience. My comments concerning modern prophecies and tongues-speech are easily found on this website. But what about Delphi? How did they operate? What’s the explanation for what went on there? Were the trances real? Where did the vapours come from? Surely not from the body of serpent?!

Archaeologists have investigated the site of Delphi on numerous occasions and discovered a few peculiar features. The area where the Oracle sat was several meters lower than the rest of the floor. Further, in the 1980’s a group of investigators discovered that the rocks under the temple were oily bituminous limestone and were fractured by two faults that cross underneath the temple. They theorised that methane, ethylene and ethane gas rose through the faults directly into this sunken area of the temple where the Oracle sat. Given the low room with its limited ventilation, the gases would be amplified and induce trances experienced by the Oracle. Significantly, ethylene gas has a sweet smell and Plutarch – who served as a priest – reported that a sweet smell would arise when the Oracle fell into her trance. This gas, in small doses, can indeed cause trance-like or frenzied states of consciousness, as well as changes in the voice of the subject.

This may not be the whole story behind Delphi. Some commentators reckon that in many cases the trances were simply faked by oracles and priests who understood too well the power and influence of their pronouncements and simply manipulated this power for their own ends. Power-crazy, money-grabbing, tongue-speaking priests and prophets misleading the faithful. Some things never change in prophetic ministry.

Stephen J. Graham

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