The ancient prophecies made at Delphi may have been inspired by natural gas,according to U.S. geologists. Geological surveysof the site of the Greek Temple of Apollo, where Greeks and Romans tooktheir prophesies from a mysterious female prophet, reveal that the templeruins lie over two crossing faults that emit intoxicating gas.
The oracle at Delphi made the site a major religious center for 2,000 years.Greek and Roman rulers flocked there, seeking advice on private andpolitical affairs. The oracle was originally sacred to the Earth goddessGea; later, a temple was dedicated to the Greek god Apollo. The oracle wasfinally forbidden in 392 AD by the Christian emperor of Rome.
The Greek writer Plutarch, who, in the first century AD, served as a highpriest of the temple, left clear records of how the oracle worked. It wasspoken by a local woman – the Pythia – who entered a trance inside a smallchamber, called the adyton. These trances occasionally deepened intodelirium, even death.
In the adyton, Plutarch says, the Pythia inhaled vapors from a fissure orspring. He describes the fumes as sweet-smelling, like perfume. Despite hispriestly role, Plutarch was interested in the origin of the gases,speculating that they issued from the rocks below and might be affected bynearby earthquakes.
But when the temple was excavated in the nineteenth century, archaeologistsfound no fissure or vapor emissions, leading some to wonder whether thelegendary intoxicating fumes may have been inspired by other nearbygeological features.
Last year, geologist Luigi Piccardi in Florence, Italy, suggested that theidea for the mythical chasm might have been a rupture temporarily opened upby the massive earthquake in the Gulf of Corinth in 373 BC, which destroyedthe temple. Now Jelle de Boer of Wesleyan University in Connecticut and hisco-workers have discovered a previously unknown geological fault passingstraight through the Sanctuary and Temple of Apollo. The fault is punctuatedby active and dried-up springs. There was an ancient spring house in thesanctuary right on the fault line.
The new-found fault crosses the long-known Delphi fault, apparently rightbelow the temple. This crossing makes the bitumen-rich limestone there morepermeable to gases and groundwater.
Seismic activity on the faults could have heated up these deposits,releasing light hydrocarbon gases, the researchers speculate. Water from aspring northwest of the temple contains methane, they report – and, evenmore intriguingly, traces of ethylene.Ethylene, a sweet-smelling gas, stimulates the central nervous system andwas once used as an anaesthetic. Although fatal in large quantities, smalldoses produce a floating sensation and euphoria, which might be just what anoracle needs for her visions.
In July, archeologists researched another ancient Greek myth. While diggingin the foothills of Mount Pelion in central Greece, they uncovered aMycenean city and palace complex they believe may have provided inspirationfor one of the most enduring Greek fables – the adventures of Jason and hisArgonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece.
Archeologists say that the palace could be part of ancient Iolkos, wheremyth says King Pelias promised Jason his rightful kingdom if he could returnwith the fleece. The ruins fit the mythical description and historicalperiod of Iolkos: a Mycenean center near Mount Pelion that reached its gloryabout 1200 BC.
“Since we know the whole myth refers to a Mycenean King who lived in thisarea.it is natural that our thinking goes there,” says Vasso Adrimi, who hasdirected the excavation since it started in 1975. She points out that thereis no solid evidence linking the ruins with Jason “and we may never have it,” but there are tantalizing hints.
The myth tells of Jason leaving on his ship, the Argos, to search for theGolden Fleece around ancient Colchis, located on the Black Sea as modern-dayGeorgia. Greeks later set up trading centers in Colchis to trade for gold,precious metals and gems. “Maybe this myth of the Argonaut campaign.is amemory of these quests to bring back raw materials, to bring back metals,”says Adrimi.
“Unless you find a piece of paper, scrap or something which says, ‘Jasonlived here,’ we won’t know that for sure,” says Peter Ian Kuniholm ofCornell University. “But, at any rate, it helps flesh out the myth.”
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