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But Did She Inhale? Volume 59 Number 2, March/April 2006
by Jason Urbanus
The Oracle

For nearly 1,500 years, the Oracle of Delphi was one the most powerful and mysterious forces in the world. Her divine guidance was revered throughout the Mediterranean. Empires flourished or crumbled in response to her prophecies. In William J. Broad's fascinating The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi (Penguin Press, $25.95), the New York Times science journalist profiles a team of scientists--an archaeologist, geologist, geochemist, and toxicologist--as they reveal her greatest secret: She was high.

The ancient sources say the Oracle was a priestess known as the Pythia who once a month visited the sacred room, or adyton, at the back of the Temple of Apollo, where she breathed in a sacred pneuma from a crack in the floor and entered a frenzied prophetic state induced by the god. But the first modern excavations of Delphi, by a French team at the turn of the twentieth century, found the adyton (the innermost sanctuary) but no chasm or cave to omit the toxic gases that could have explained her divine intoxication.

It was this issue that Jelle de Boer, a geologist from Wesleyan University, and John Hale, an archaeologist from the University of Louisville, reexamined. Broad focuses on the scholars' relationship, ambitions, and genuine fascination with the Oracle. Over the past 10 years, the two, aided by modern technology, uncovered the truth behind the seer. Contrary to the French findings, they established the presence of two geological faults that intersect beneath the sanctuary at Delphi. In antiquity, movement along these faults vaporized petrochemicals in the rock, causing gases to rise into the adyton. The culprit behind the Pythia's ecstatic episodes was ethylene, a gas often used in the twentieth century as an anesthetic.

At its core, this book is about establishing the truth in the historical record. In the final chapter, the author invites his readers to join a philosophical debate over the metaphysical beliefs of any age. Will ours be called into question one day too?

Boer and Hale sought to prove the Oracle wasn't a fraud, but in the process they also proved she wasn't divine. It's almost sad to see the most respected and mysterious religious figure in the ancient world reduced to merely a woman under the influence.

Jason Urbanus, Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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