February 4, 2002

Faults Suggest a High Calling for Delphi Priestesses

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer

They warned Oedipus to stay away from his mother, told Orestes to go ahead and kill his, caused Croesus to lose to the Persians, then helped Athens defeat them. So what's the story with the priestesses at Delphi? Did they really channel for Apollo, or were they just high on something?

Scientists don't know about Apollo, but evidence is growing that the priestesses, known as pythia, were ripped on hydrocarbon gases, especially ethylene, a sometime anesthetic which, taken in modest doses, can induce lively conversation of a somewhat incoherent nature.

This is because the Temple of Apollo at Delphi sits on crisscrossing geological faults, according to a team of scientists led by archaeologist John Hale of the University of Louisville and geologist Jelle Zeilinga de Boer of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

In re-embracing the ancients' view that intoxicants emanated from water bubbling from a rock fissure beneath the temple, Hale said, the team is challenging a century of research that held "that the priests and oracle were deceiving the public and inventing stories" to boost the shrine's importance.

Instead, it appears the ancients were right. "I thought that if there is an active fault, there were most likely gases coming up through fissures," Zeilinga de Boer said. And if that were true, traces would show up in the travertine that underpins the temple. Travertine is a type of limestone.

And so it proved. Reporting recently in the journal Geology, the team said that tests on the Delphi rock and the waters of a nearby spring showed the presence of methane and ethane, which can be intoxicating, as well as ethylene, widely used as an anesthetic in the first half of the 20th century.

"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.

Ethylene, Spiller explained, produces "stages" of anesthesia. Low doses induce "disembodied euphoria, with periods of excitation and amnesia," he said. But at higher doses, "you get delirium, hysteria and a combative, agitated state," he added. Further along comes unconsciousness and, if one is not careful, death.

All of this squares nicely with historical accounts. As a high priest at the temple in the 1st century A.D., the biographer Plutarch noted that the pythia delivered oracles from a tripod in a small below-ground chamber bathed in gases carried up by underground springs.

Most of the time, the priestess was conscious, clever and chatty, but on occasion she flipped out, and things got nasty. The bad trips, including a death reported by Plutarch, had led past Delphi administrators to swap out the young maidens they used to put in the seat for more levelheaded matrons.

Today the temple ruins, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus 100 miles northwest of Athens, are probably the most visited place in Greece after the Acropolis, but Hale said archaeological evidence suggests the ancient Greeks probably regarded Delphi as a holy place from its founding, about 1400 B.C.

The shrine's heyday began about 800 B.C., Hale said, when Greek colonists sought Apollo's blessing before they set sail for Italy, Sicily, Spain, the Black Sea and Africa. The oracle didn't go out of business until A.D. 393, when the Christian emperor Theodosius shut it down.

The oracle's warnings and advice figure prominently in Greek mythology. After the Trojan War, when Orestes asked whether he should seek vengeance on his mother for murdering his father, Agamemnon, the oracle gave him the green light.

Told by the oracle that he would murder his father and marry his mother, Oedipus did everything possible to avoid the inevitable, but failed.

In actual practice, however, the oracle's chief shortcoming was the ambiguity of her advice. Croesus, king of Lydia, went to war against Cyrus of Persia after the oracle told him that "a great nation would fall" if he crossed the Halys River. Unfortunately, the great nation turned out to be his own.

And in 480 B.C., after the Athenians rejected the oracle's opening prediction that the invading Persians would trash them, the priestess suggested they make use of "a wall of wood." The Athenians correctly interpreted this to mean ships, and subsequently defeated Xerxes at sea in the Battle of Salamis.

Delphi's original excavation was performed by French archaeologists, who at first found no gas emissions beneath the temple. An article published in English in 1904 suggested the fissure idea was "all a mistake," Hale said.

"This view defined the debate" for the next 90 years, and was reinforced by mid- century research suggesting that emissions of intoxicating gas were impossible without volcanic activity, Hale said.

"But this was archaeologists, mainly," said geologist Luigi Piccardi of Italy's National Research Council in Florence, whose own research in Greece reflects many of the U.S. team's conclusions. "The mechanics of active faulting are something only recently understood."

Geologists have known for years that much of Greece is in one of the world's most active seismological areas. Delphi sits in the middle of the east-west "Corinth Rift Zone," which slices the country in half.

In the mid-1990s, Zeilinga de Boer spotted an active east-west fault traveling beneath the Delphi temple and challenged Hale, a believer in the no-emissions theory, to rethink his views.

Together, the pair found a second fault running north and south beneath the temple, and discovered that the French had indeed found fissures in the bedrock but had only published their results in the 1920s, long after scientists had lost interest.

"The geology is very young, and you have things happening before your eyes," Zeilinga de Boer said. Deep in the earth, seismic forces grind the fault edges together, building tremendous heat that causes vaporized hydrocarbons to funnel upward, joining groundwater to bubble up in springs through fissures in the ground.

Spring water near the temple still has plenty of gases in it, Zeilinga de Boer said. The only reason gas doesn't permeate the temple today is because modern Delphi is channeling most of the groundwater into reservoirs: "The gas bubbles off before the water goes to the municipal system," he said.

high times at the Delphic Oracle?
"In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it"
John Archibald Wheeler.

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