The Delphic Oracle

Collier oracle The Priestess of Delphi by Hon. John Collier

There is endless fantasy writing on this subject. Writers have been outdoing each other for over two thousand years. Here are some unromanticized views.

H. W. Parke in his A History of the Delphic Oracle says the responses given by the oracles show that they were not in any way intoxicated or in a mediumistic trance.
The historian Plutarch, who was a priest of Apollo at Delphi, says the god did not possess the priestess. She remained herself. But she was trained to receive the “breath” of the god. That word “breath” ( pneuma or afflatus) has given rise to endless interpretations. One translation could be simply “inspiration”.

As to the vapors that rose from the crack in the floor (or fault in the earth’s crust), no ancient writer mentioned them.
Parke says this:
“Geologically it is quite impossible at Delphi where the limestone and schist could not have emitted a gas with any intoxicating properties.”

Plutarch in his Moralia does say this: “not often nor regularly, but occasionally and fortuitously, the room in which they seat the god’s consultants is filled with a fragrance and breeze (pneumatos) as if the adyton were sending forth the essences of the sweetest and most expensive perfumes.” This kind of affirmation is hard to substantiate; and in any case, the “fragrance” is a far cry from ethylene gas.

“Another misconception,” says Eloise Hart in an article quoted in Wikipedia, “is that the Pythia’s messages were ambiguous and incoherent….[What ambiguity there was] may have been put there…by the poets who at one time attended the sessions and wrote the responses in hexameter.” The poets are the ones, says Joseph Fontenrose, not the oracles, who “added the metaphors, riddles, and pompous phrasing.”
Plutarch says the prophetesses were moved each in accordance with her natural faculties, so some utterances were wise and some not so; some pretty, some awkward.

Were the priestesses pretty girls like the one in Collier’s painting or mature women? A Wikipedia entry ( Delphi) states that the oracles were in fact oldish women whose purity had been proven by their lives: “Apollo spoke through his oracle, who had to be an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants of the area.” Eloise Hart says that “later” the priestesses were even married women.


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3 Responses to The Delphic Oracle

  1. erikatakacs says:

    Looks like in Collier’s time the theory was there about vapors. I wouldn’t entirely write that theory off, Swallows. Why? Because in Transylvania’s mountains natural carbon dioxide gas is used to this day for healing various conditions, illnesses. These places are called “mofetta”, they’re small cabins built over areas the gas is concentrated. It has no smell and it’s transparent, it can be deadly if you inhale it in for too much, so there’s usually a time limit you can spend in it. What I find interesting, for healthy people it’s a STIMULANT. The liquid form of the gas is sparkling mineral water, “wine water”, as locals call it, and it is also used successfully for different illnesses. Both are the result of late vulcanic activity.Some have been there for hundreds of years, some disappear over time.
    So who knows? Did they do an in-depth research on this?

    Ok, erika, there might have been vapors–what do I know? Pakistanigirl says “according to science” the oracles sniffed ethylene gas and indeed went into a trance; and that there is a fault in the earth’s crust–mirabile dictu–that runs right through the adyton–or used to before an earthquake sealed it just before Theodosius closed down the shrine. Who am I to say it isn’t so? Pakistaniapostategirl didn’t give her source and me, I took one from Wikipedia which I’d never read. This whole thing serves me right.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Basically, this blog is not about the occult. Months ago I wrote a post on the Herakleion in Cadiz, where men like Hannibal and Caesar had gone to consult the oracle. I tried to imagine the place and I read about the sanctuary at Delphi. I thought it would be fun to write up Caesar’s famous visit to the Herakleion: it seemed to be such an odd thing for him to go there and to respect what an oracle told him. I had enough information about his dream and about his character from Suetonius and Plutarch—it was only a question of putting those together with the facts I could gather about the shrine.

    Anyone trying to learn about the Delphic oracle has to wade through much romantic mush and undocumented statements. I didn’t have the patience to wade very long. A little Delphic Oracle went a long way with me. I put together the above post with the “facts” I thought I could believe.

  3. Madame Monet says:

    There is a book that talks in detail about how the Oracle at Delphi worked. It’s only one of the things talked about in this book, but I highly recommend this book. Here’s the text of a review I wrote on this book some time ago:

    “Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones,” by Raymond Moody, Jr.

    Amazon Link:

    I bought this book sight unseen, on the strength of one of Raymond Moody’s previous books that I had read and loved, many years ago, Life After Life. I was hoping for more of the same, and was quite surprised to find that this book is not at all about reincarnation, but about mirror-gazing. This was not something I was initially interested in, but having liked his previous book so much, and having paid for this book, I decided to persevere. I’m glad I did. It was a very worthwhile read.

    Being new to this subject, I knew absolutely nothing about it before. More than half of the book is devoted to the HISTORY of mirror gazing in various cultures, throughout time. I didn’t even know that there had been a history. One of the most fascinating parts was reading all about the ancient Greek oracles, and how they had worked. I had heard of the Oracles, but previously just imagined they had some kind of fortune-teller. Actually, it was quite complicated. People consulting the Oracles had to undergo a month of preparation, in near total darkness. Then there was a huge, underground metal mirror that they were taken to consult, in which they then had visions. Moody and his wife visited the remains of one of the Oracles, and he describes his trip there, and how he was able to find all the various parts of the oracle chambers.

    Moody describes how mirror gazing was a well-accepted diversion during the Middle Ages, and before, in almost every culture, and how it went out with the rise of science, especially after 1900. Even the American Indians had a form of mirror gazing which they practiced. Different cultures had different ways of gazing to try to conjure spirits, including looking into water, looking at shiny silver cups or mugs, and gazing into crystal balls (mentioned only briefly).

    The most fascinating historical information was a description of how the Xhosa (pronounded Khosa) people of South Africa, in 1856, after fighting many unsuccessful battles with the British, gazed into the river, and saw the spiritis of six dead ancestors. These ancestors convinced the whole tribe that if they would sacrifice all of their cattle to the ancestors, that the ancestors would come back to life, and lead them to a victory over the British. I asked someone I know from South Africa if they had ever heard of this, and they had not, but they suggested to me that I check on the internet. I did, and found MANY references to The Great Cattle Killing of 1856-1857, in which because of the visions seen in the river, they killed ALL of their cattle, AND did not plant their crops. Apparently, the British even tried to stop them. However, they didn’t listen, and the subsequent year, 20,000 Xhosa starved to death.

    After acquainting the reader with the complete history of mirror gazing, Moody tries to research the practice scientifically. He builds a chamber in which to mirror gaze, following the same methods he has researched from historical cultures. He chooses a number of people, who fit certain criteria-such as being professional, well-balanced, no belief in metaphysics, and lastly, having a relative or friend who has died that they would like to see again, if it were possible. He then has them follow a preparation procedure similar to what the ancients did-although he devised his chamber and preparation from a melange of historical research, synthesizing his own ritual to experiment with. Before he started, he was expecting a very low success ratio, if any success at all. To his surprise, about 50 percent of the subjects reported communication. A number of interesting case histories are included in the book.

    Lastly, he gives the reader good directions, and suggestions, as to how they can pursue mirror gazing, if they are interested in trying it on their own.

    I would not recommend this book to the average reader. However, if you are interested in mirror-gazing, or a person of a very open scientific mind, this book will interest you. I think Moody has done a careful, scientific study, and presented his findings.

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine
    Thanks, Madame Monet. I had never heard of mirror-gazing. I have felt spooky a couple of times looking into very old mirrors, ones I know people long dead have used. In a Madrid museum there is the mirror the poet Larra looked into while he pointed the gun and shot himself. I have seen old mirrors in farmhouses here that were used throughout the lives of several generations. Young people studied themselves, admired themselves in them, then they became middle-aged, and afterwards grew old—and the mirror told them. Then another child came along, and so on. The mirror was a sort of friend (or enemy!) to each of them. Also, there’s something so intimate about a mirror—you show it a you no one else sees. It is your own trusty corner.
    There weren’t any big mirrors in ancient times. I think no one could see himself whole except in blurry water.
    Anyway, I don’t think I’m the reader for this book. I’m not basically into the occult and superstition.

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