Apollo’s Ethylene

Peter Green

  • Delphi: A History of the Centre of the Ancient World by Michael Scott
    Princeton, 422 pp, £19.95, February 2014, ISBN 978 0 691 15081 9

Delphi offers one of the most extraordinary, paradoxical and, for many rationalists, embarrassing success stories from ancient Hellas. It was the centre, the omphalos, or navel, of the civilised world and, as tradition had it, enjoyed the special protection of Apollo. It hosted – along with Olympia, Nemea and the Isthmus – one of Greece’s four major athletic festivals. Diplomats found it, like modern Switzerland, a useful place to exchange political information and conduct secret negotiations. Its wealthy religious dedications and treasuries, made by leaders from all over the Mediterranean world, from Cyprus to Marseille, brought celebrities, consultants and visitors by the thousand. Yet what, for almost a millennium, guaranteed Delphi’s status – formed its raison d’être was its unique oracular function, delivered by a priestess, the Pythia, who in a very literal sense behaved as the Vox Dei, uttering what purported to be the words of Apollo.

Among the hundreds of oracles that flourished throughout the Greek world, Delphi carried by far the greatest prestige over the longest period, and was also remarkably free from accusations of fraudulence. There is only one confirmed case in Delphi’s history of the Pythia being bribed, by the Spartan king Kleomenes, and that isolated incident caused a scandal: as late as the second century CE the travel-writer Pausanias could still maintain that ‘as regards the corruption of the oracle, we know of no one whatsoever, except for Kleomenes, who even attempted it.’ Not even the Christians charged Delphi with fraud: they claimed that it was the Vox Diaboli, and worked hard to put it out of business.

For obvious reasons, once popular claims that the gods are deceivers, or that the ‘voices’ are those of false gods or demons, are heard less often these days. On the other hand, the idea of the Delphic Oracle as a clever political scam, run by cynical realists as a financially profitable business, is very much flourishing. The fashionable term for this operation – which Michael Scott in his new study mentions approvingly more than once – is ‘management consultancy’. In other words, the religious element has been, as far as possible, leached out of the concept. Since we in Europe and the United States have been educated to regard Olympian polytheism as amusing nonsense, this process was virtually inevitable. We have got into the habit of treating the Greeks as pioneer logicians par excellence, busily rationalising mythos into logos at every turn, and so we tend to assume (despite the salutary lessons of E.R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational) that our kind of scepticism about such things as oracles must have been generally shared by them too, especially by Athenians. Such an assumption is about as securely based as those evil demons progressive thinking has so blithely trashed.

As Hugh Bowden reminds us in Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle (2005), democratic Athens was neither individualistic, liberal, nor secularist; it had several similarities to modern fundamentalist societies. The will of the gods was paramount, and largely determined through divination: the few who challenged such views risked serious civic displeasure, and usually camouflaged their opinions (not unlike some oracular pronouncements) in a kind of open-minded ambiguity. As Xenophon has Socrates point out, there was always a percentage of human or natural events that lay beyond the current reach of rational intelligence: plague, drought or the outcome of a war. Such things were seen as falling within the province of the gods, and dealt with by divine action. Since the gods, like fate, were considered highly unpredictable and, worse, given to mean-spirited treatment of mortals, they had to be placated, most often with lavish sacrifices.

Thus any person or institution that could claim some special insight into the way the divine universe operated, or how its gods would behave, or how they wanted humans to act, was in serious demand. Despite the much trumpeted developments of Ionian science and philosophy, the findings of which anyway affected only a small minority all over the Greek world, literally hundreds of local oracles emerged, as well as self-styled experts (chrêsmologoi) in interpreting the ambiguities, obscurities and riddles of what purported to be divine messages. As Heraclitus, cited by Plutarch, remarked: ‘The lord whose shrine is at Delphi neither states nor conceals, but signs (sêmainei)’ – i.e. hints – and that only to those he favours. Convincing evidence of divine authenticity was crucial for success, not least since from the very beginning, inevitably, divination was a business that attracted large numbers of conmen. Forging oracles, or inserting ex post facto fulfilled prophecies into genuine collections, was a popular and, if undetected, highly profitable sport.

That many cases of fraud were reported – enough to become a standing joke in Aristophanic comedy – meant extra prestige for the few shrines that maintained a reputation for incorruptible honesty and genuine divinatory power. Of these, Delphi was by far the most notable: Aristophanes, who crucified the chrêsmologoi, never had a bad word for the Delphic oracle. The wealthy sixth-century Lydian monarch Croesus, after careful inquiries, was ready to invest gold by the hundredweight for guaranteed access to divine intentions: he believed he would be getting something human intelligence was unable to supply.

In writing the history of Delphi Michael Scott needs to explain just how what he regards as a management consultancy so consistently, and for so long, confirmed the religious faith of its clients. He quotes, approvingly, the question posed by Simon Price in 1985, and echoed by many scholars since: ‘Why was it that the sane, rational Greeks wanted to hear the rantings of an old woman up in the hills?’ Scott’s explanation is essentially in line with current sociological thinking. His opening chapter – the only one specifically devoted to the actual business of what the Pythia did, and how she did it – sets out most of the known, or hypothesised, evidence. The Pythia was a Delphian, but not in any way remarkable. Once chosen, she ‘served Apollo for life and committed herself to strenuous exercise and chastity’, which at once places her in the company of similar tranced respondents, ancient or modern, in other countries. She was available one day a month only, for nine months of the year; for the three winter months Apollo was deemed absent, among the Hyperboreans. She gave her responses seated on a high tripod in the inner sanctum (adyton) of Apollo’s shrine. Though the evidence varies, Plutarch, who was himself a Delphic priest for thirty years; Strabo, the Augustan geographer; and Pausanias between them supply further credible details. The Pythia was in some sense inspired, or possessed, by a pneuma (‘breath’, ‘vapour’) of a delightful fragrance, the odour of which occasionally reached those in the waiting room beyond the adyton. She also drank from the Kassotis spring, which ran under the temple. She did not, as was often claimed, rant or rave, though a forced session, under improper conditions, could have a bad physical effect on her. Diodorus Siculus, the first-century BCE historian, adds that the pneuma rose from beneath her, from a vent or chasm, and that it was the odd behaviour of goats near the vent that first alerted locals to its existence.

This evidence suggests that the Pythia gave her responses while in a trancelike state induced by the mysterious pneuma: a procedure well known from other societies, but, surprisingly, in ancient Greece associated only with the Delphic oracle. Early excavators had high hopes of confirming the ancient testimony; but when they found no discernible chasm or vent below the shrine of Apollo, a sceptical reaction set in, fuelled by disappointment, and largely persisted until very recently, when geological exploration by Jelle de Boer and John Hale revealed two major faultlines under the shrine, together with the presence of ethylene gas.

Not only was the bituminous limestone sufficiently fissured to allow the gas to rise to the surface through the Kassotis spring water (which the Pythia drank) but, as Scott reports, ethylene ‘had been used as an anaesthesia in the 1920s, thanks to its ability to produce a pleasant, disembodied, trancelike state’. It also (something he does not mention) has a peculiarly sweet odour, corresponding to the fragrance described by Plutarch, and is lighter than air, so that (as de Boer convincingly argues) it could be piped through a small vent in the floor and into the funnel-shaped axial hole in the small stone omphalos found in the adyton in 1913. Stoppered to allow the gas to accumulate (a possible reason consultation was limited to one day a month), the omphalos would be opened during a mantic session. The Pythia’s position on top of a high tripod, and thus near the ceiling, would let her get the best of the escaping gas. Its fragrance, detectable in the atmosphere in concentrations as low as 700 parts per million, would occasionally percolate through to consultants waiting outside.

It would be reasonable to deduce from the geological evidence that the ancient descriptions of Delphic procedure were substantially accurate, and that the establishment of an oracular shrine on the site where it remained for a millennium may well have been directly linked to the presence there of mildly trance-inducing emissions, which would be regarded as a divine gift, proof of Apollo’s presence, and carefully fostered on that basis. There was, as Scott admits, ‘a belief in a connection between the divine and the human world through the Pythia’. Pneuma was the reason the oracle was where it was, and nowhere else, clinging to a mountainside in the back of beyond; it was the miraculous Apolline blessing that demonstrated the god’s concern for his worshippers. Yet that concern could never be taken for granted. The rare days of consultation suggest that pneuma was far from plentiful. In a highly seismic area its presence could never be taken for granted. Could Apollo’s absence during the winter (as Hale has suggested to me) have been on account of pneuma ceasing to accumulate in the colder months owing to the build-up of groundwater? Ironically enough, it may in the summer sometimes have been responsible, being highly flammable, for the surprising number of unexplained fires in the sanctuary and its surroundings.

Scott is properly suspicious of early poetic accounts of the shrine’s origins (e.g. in the tragedians and in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes): they ‘all seem to have been oriented towards explaining, justifying and mirroring its later, central position in the Greek world’ in strictly mythical terms, which suggests they had no real knowledge of what happened, any more than they did in the matter of Homer. But both Aeschylus and Euripides suggest that an earlier shrine in Delphi belonged, appropriately enough, to Gaia (Earth), and it’s confirmed by the archaeological record, which Scott, again rightly, says is what we should rely on, though he perhaps doesn’t draw all the conclusions he could from it. When it comes to explaining Delphi’s success, he likes the sociological theory, which sees the advantage of the oracle to the Greeks in the way it helped a community to deliberate and make up its own mind; he also repeats the popular notion of Delphi as an international information centre, but has to admit that before the oracle became famous ‘there was precious little more information going to Delphi than elsewhere.’ He is certainly correct in his claim (nowadays generally admitted) that the consultants went to Delphi for advice rather than to receive prophecies, the latter term misleadingly coloured in a Greek context by our familiarity with its authoritarian Biblical sense. But his argument that the ambiguity inherent in the form of Delphic questions and responses ‘gave Delphi a Teflon coating, a resistance to failure’ is dubious. Oracular ambiguity was by no means restricted to Delphi, and elsewhere the Teflon effect was far less noticeable. Finally, Scott decides that it ‘was the cumulative impact and continued opportunities provided by [the] combined package of oracle, management, festivals, games and dedications that ensured Delphi was propelled to such prominence in the ancient world’, which is close to saying that what guaranteed Delphi’s unique success was its unique success.

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But Scott’s true interest in Delphi, city no less than shrine, is as an evolving social, political and material entity, and the overall study he offers on these terms is of absorbing interest. I doubt whether there’s a single archaeological report or relevant inscription, however obscure, that has escaped his notice, and no other scholar known to me keeps one so constantly conscious of the realities – the seismic shifts, the limestone and travertine rockfalls, the absence of flat ground – that leave him with the nagging question: ‘What motivated the continuation of settlement in this otherwise rather difficult physical habitat clinging to the mountainside?’ In the late Bronze Age it was a remote, poverty-stricken and unremarkable village. So it was again in the long centuries between the outlawing of paganism by Theodosius and the first serious excavations in 1892, as Gell’s sketch in 1805 and early photographs of Kastri (Delphi’s modern name), both printed by Scott, make embarrassingly clear: the houses are little more than hovels, and there’s hardly a classical ruin in sight. Time has either buried or destroyed them all. Centre of the world, despite some stunning scenery, it is not. During the ancient site’s slow rediscovery, Scott says, ‘the physical reality of Delphi has struggled to meet the expectations of its reputation.’

That reputation came into being, suddenly and without obvious cause, during the eighth century BCE, at roughly the same time as the emergence of Homer. Levelled terraces are built. Cult objects including tripods (some from Crete) and monumental votive offerings appear in ever increasing quantities. The political evolution of the city-state (polis), combined with widespread colonising ventures, brings, as the surviving record shows, a rush of oracular consultations, in Scott’s words, ‘on issues as diverse as constitutional reform, war, land allotment, oaths, purification and the avoidance of famine’. It seems clear there was no permanent temple at Delphi until the beginning of the sixth century BCE, which leaves open the question of just how the oracle was consulted during this early period. And anyway, why should it have been Delphi, right from the beginning, that got so far ahead of the pack? Yet not later than 590 the oracle’s popularity was already stimulating attacks on rich visitors arriving by sea from the envious settlers of Krisa, down in the plain. An interstate religious council (Amphictiony) backed Delphi in a lengthy, and finally successful, campaign – the so-called First Sacred War – against this nuisance. Krisa was destroyed and its territory declared non-cultivatable sacred land. The Amphictiony from now on played a large, though not always definable, part in the running of the Delphic community. It was responsible for the establishment, soon after victory, of the Pythian Games, which came to rival those of Olympia; and it seems very probable that it was also behind the creation, at last, of a formal perimeter wall and a temple for Apollo. It was now, at some point in the decade after 560, that King Croesus of Lydia made his extravagant gifts, including a gold lion, to Delphic Apollo.

But what marked the true emergence of Delphi into the bright light of history was a catastrophe. In 548 the shrine once again caught fire: by spontaneous combustion, Herodotus suggests. The conflagration was so intense that it melted Croesus’s gold lion. The Amphictiony took charge of the rebuilding programme, which was vastly ambitious, cost three hundred talents, and took more than forty years to complete. It’s this Delphi, with its temples, monuments and treasuries, its munificent gifts, its political ambiguities, and its advisory prestige, that occupies Scott for most of his survey. Its extensive building activities get particular attention; his final chapters give the fullest and most vivid general account of Delphi’s slow excavation over the past century that I’ve seen (topped off with an invaluable guide to the Delphi museum). Most of this is familiar territory: the oracle’s ambivalent attitude to Persia during Xerxes’ invasion, the fourth-century fall-off of public political consultations, the crippling earthquakes, the occasional battles (including occupation) over its control, Delphi’s imperial resurgence under Rome as a classy tourist attraction, the final flickering out of the sacred flame. Scott’s narrative never falters: every building gets its due (though I’d gladly have swapped one of the jazzy-coloured, and confusing, reconstructions for a good, plain up-to-date ground plan, and the historical context sometimes gets alarmingly slapdash treatment). It becomes too easy, in this very readable account, to forget what the architectural glory and polytheistic bondieuserie rested on: the firm belief that Delphic pneuma carried the inspirational word of Apollo himself. The Christians who treated such utterances as those of evil demons knew very well what they were up against.