Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

06 June 2007

On Divine Delusion, or Revisiting the Pythia

A major benefit to creating your own hours is you get to read when the moment suits. I've just begun The Oracle by William J. Broad, which at heart seeks to understand why the Oracle's influence in ancient Greece was so significant she transcended centuries and, perhaps more surprisingly, the onslaught of rationalism, winning the deference of Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch and Socrates.

The Oracle, otherwise known as the Pythia, was a critical voice in Greek society. Her word was sought for matters of state, coming war, governmental development and everyday questions of love, marriage, sex and legal adoption.

The final word of the Oracle can be traced back to an early democratic government and even the military success of Sparta: It was she who discouraged the Spartans from pursuing love of luxury, so they moved in the opposite direction, foregoing the precious metals in favour of iron as currency, and developing that Spartan endurance for which they later became famous.

Contrary to depictions of the Pythia as young, comely and scantily-clad, early in the Oracle tradition it was decided the position be held by a seasoned woman in her 40s or 50s, who, far from virginal, had already put matters of flesh and family behind her.

This decision was made to protect her virtue, but an older woman's experience probably also contributed to her soundness of judgment, despite the state of intoxication she had to achieve for divination.

I'm only halfway through the book, so the question of why her word was so powerful hasn't yet been answered. But according to experts of the time, a major source of the Oracle's power was a mysterious sweet-smelling pneuma that rose out of a chasm at her feet (just beneath her tripod). This mist caused a kind of divine delirium, into which she had to succumb before ultimately taking her post.

The myth of the Apollonian pneuma and the chasm below the tripod were dismissed in the late 1800s by French archaeologists, which were the first to excavate the site after Delphi, long luster-lost, had been home to a small Christian village for centuries. (Christianity became the vogue religion shortly after the Pax Romana, which was blamed, among other things, for indirectly silencing the Oracle.)

In the late 1990s, however, the pneuma - and the chasm under the Oracle's feet - were validated by archaeologist Hale of Yale and geologist De Boer of Wesleyan.

The mysterious pneuma was ethylene, which stimulates the central nervous system. In the Pythia's time it rose by nature out of two seismic faults, one spanning N-S and the other spanning E-W, crossing beneath the temple site. It was the perfect condition for psychedelic euphoria - better still, ethylene emits a sweet smell, and its effects virtually vanish minutes after contact with the gas has ended.

Ethylene gas visited the site of the Pythia each year for the warmest nine months (she rested the rest of the year), long enough for the intoxicated priestess to develop a good thousand years or so of influence - then it vanished, also quite naturally, around the time of the Pax Romana, silencing her voice in deference to the notion of the One God.

Under the right conditions it's normal for gas to rise out of the earth, especially in places where violent tectonic impacts are still young, as in Greece. Ethylene in particular was a tough gas to pin to the site as it doesn't quite survive once it's gone - it vanishes into the air or sets the stage for other gases over time. Methane and ethane are two gases whose presence is easiest to marry to the site.

That's as far as I've gotten. And I've probably slaughtered all the research. In any case, this book is neat. And if nothing else, it's just another example of how far drugs can get you in life. Ask a surrealist (hallucinogens were pretty modish).

I, for one, am a huge fan of the transcendent effects of black coffee coupled with the complete absence of sleep in the Circadian rhythm. It's a lifestyle, baby.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And I am a huge fan of the transcendent effects of the complete absence of sleep.