The Oracle of Delphi was the most important shrine in ancient Greece and was considered the center of the world. It was a crucial pilgrimage for those seeking guidance from Apollo's mouthpiece, the Pythia, who gave cryptic answers to such matters as timing for planting crops, preparing for war, or resolving a moral dilemma.
The temple's high priest, Plutarch (c.46-c.120), explained that the Pythia's trance state was induced by gaseous emissions and that the Oracle's power began to wane because the source of the emissions was running out. Other ancient authorities also attributed the Oracle's "power" to geological features—a fissure in the bedrock, a gaseous vapor, and a spring. When French archaeologists failed to find such features a century ago, they dismissed the notion of intoxicating vapors as the "source" of the revelations. The modern misconception that vapors and gases can only be produced by volcanic activity has also discouraged scientists from probing the geological forces behind the Oracle.
But these days, scientists are revisiting the problem with results that would definitely please the ancients. In the August issue of GEOLOGY, J.Z. de Boer reports on a four-year interdisciplinary study that has successfully identified young faults at the Oracle site and has also pinpointed the emissions responsible for the Pythia's trance state—light hydrocarbon gases from bituminous limestone. De Boer and colleagues found ethane, methane, and ethylene in spring water near the Oracle. The euphoric effects of ethylene, which had been used as anesthesia in the last century, jibe very well with Plutarch's description of the gas the Pythia inhaled. Henry Spiller, a medical doctor who recently joined the research group, provided details on the narcotic effects of ethylene that completed the team's theory. Spiller works in the Poison Center at Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.
De Boer, an Earth sciences professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, became interested in Delphi ten years ago when he worked with a group of American geologists for the Greek government on the seismicity and tectonic setting of the Corinth Rift zone.
"At that time I took a good look at previous and newly exposed segments of the Delphi fault and discovered another fault intersecting it," de Boer explained. "Following the fault traces brought me to their covered intersection below the Sanctuary."
But years later it took a "dare" between two friends to really get this research project going.
"About five years ago, I found myself in Portugal on a small terrace near an archaeological site, enjoying the wine, and talking with John Hale about my work in Greece and the faults near Delphi," de Boer said. "He told me that the majority of archaeologists did not believe in the ancient descriptions of fissure and rising fumes that influenced the Pythia. I challenged him to come with me to Greece and he accepted."
That's how Hale, an archaeologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, became one of the co-authors of this work. And the rest is history…
Materials provided by Geological Society Of America. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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