When I considered how to write about the Pyramids of Giza for a previous volume in this series, I decided it made sense to approach them from a determinedly archaeological point of view, as the extraordinary physical objects which they were and are. Their sheer physicality, it seemed to me — the staggering size of them, standing there so incongruously in the desert — is at the heart of their enduring fascination. After all, the question most frequently raised about the pyramids is a fairly practical engineering one at bottom: how were they built?
But Delphi is different. While the town did eventually become an archaeological site in its own right, it remains even today at least as much an idea as a place. Many of the most compelling stories surrounding it — those stemming from Greek myth rather than history — never actually happened at all.
Like so many of our best stories, those involving Delphi often lead us to uncomfortable places. For example, the very notion of a woman able to predict the future leads us to ask unnerving questions about free will versus predestination, questions that can still disturb our sleep today just as much as they did that of the ancient Greeks. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously said that Greek history is “good to think with.” I would narrow his focus and note that the history of Delphi is particularly good to think with, even as I also expand it and note that the Greek myths, so many of which center around Delphi, are equally good for thinking.
Above all, I wanted these pages which you’ve just read to capture Delphi as the Greeks themselves knew it, fitting it into the overarching tale they told one another of their civilization’s past and present. I wanted to use it as a lens through which to view the evolution of a culture from a simple trust in the will of the gods to the uncertainties of a more self-reliant but also less ennobled, more political age, showing some of what was gained and lost along the way; one of the latter, of course, became belief in the oracle herself by the end of the journey. I won’t belabor the subject now, but I do fancy that all this ground of myth and history which we’ve covered together still has much to tell us about the lives of our individual fellow humans and of nations alike, and I hope I’ve managed to capture it all well enough to be in some small way good for you as well to think with. If I’ve presented the story of Delphi as an ultimately tragic one, that is an outcome which the ancient Greeks, the inventors of tragedy as a literary form, would have grasped immediately. Perhaps any history, like any biography, becomes a tragedy in the end. For entropy eventually brings down everything — individuals, nations, our planet, presumably even our universe. This too is something which the ancient Greeks recognized and thought much about.
While it should go without saying that this has not been a conventional history of Delphi, I want to emphasize that even the stories from my Age of Gods were real to the later ancient peoples of recorded history in a way that they no longer are to us. Belief in them persisted to some extent even in the more skeptical, secular period of Roman hegemony that followed Alexander the Great’s brief-lived empire; the stories of the Age of Gods might have been trumped up a bit, went the logic, might not have actually involved any gods at all, but they had at some level happened. Thus the highly respected Greek biographer Plutarch, writing shortly after the time of Christ, could describe the mythic hero Theseus, a famous contemporary of Heracles who didn’t make the cut in this book, as a person as indubitably real as Alexander the Great — all without any of his fellow scholars batting an eye.
We are no longer so generous with our belief today. At best, we will allow that complex, civilization-changing processes may have been made comprehensible to those who came later by their adaptation into personal narratives of gods and heroes. Fair enough — but I would also claim that these myths have a truthiness outside of flesh-and-blood reality. I was chasing after this version of Delphi, the one of the mythic imagination. Its mythic qualities can still be sensed in Herodotus’s extravagant history of the Persian Wars, and I fancy that a final stale breath of the Delphi that was but never was blows through even the more sober-minded Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War. All of which is to say that the ancient rubble which French archaeological teams first began to excavate in the late nineteenth century — the “real” Delphi as conventional history knows it — has not been my primary interest. Still, I would be remiss not to say something of what we know of it before I leave you.
We know that the slopes of Mount Parnassus have been inhabited by humans for a long time. Traces of Neolithic people, dating back perhaps as far as 4300 BC, have been discovered inside the fabled Corycian Cave. But the earliest traces of permanent settlement on the site of Delphi proper likely date from somewhere between 1400 and 1060 BC, making the town considerably less aged than the Greeks of the eras of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars assumed it to be.
Yet the evidence of habitation does not answer the trickier question of when Delphi became known as a locus of mystical power, much less when an oracle first began to prophesy there. The latter may not have happened until the ninth or even eighth century BC — well after the ancient Greeks and modern historians alike assume the Trojan War to have ended, bringing down the curtain on the Age of Gods. In this context, some have pointed to Delphi’s peculiar absence from the epics attributed to Homer, which are generally agreed to have first been written down in or around the eighth century BC, but which probably reflect a much older oral tradition. (Delphi does get one passing mention in The Odyssey as the text has come down to us, but this could easily have been a later insertion in honor of the town’s growing significance.)
But if the early “history” of Delphi that the ancient Greeks thought they knew was incorrect in point of fact, it may have hit upon some more essential truths. In his landmark book The Greek Myths, Robert Graves proposed that what we see as the “mature” version of Greek mythology was really a palimpsest of earlier beliefs and practices — layer upon layer of them, beginning with essentially animist cults of earth, sun, and moon (personified by the Greeks as Gaia, Helios, and Selene). Rather than being abandoned when more nuanced, particularized gods entered the Greek consciousness, they remained part of an ever more complex tapestry of belief. The epoch of the Titans can be seen as a sort of intermediate stage in this process, one that yielded at last to the Olympian gods in all their bickering, idiosyncratic individuality. Thus the Greek narrative of the creation of the world and the events that led to the reign of the Olympian gods — a condensed version of which you read in my very first chapter here — is really a reflection of the gradual evolution of Greek religious belief itself, from the primitive to the sophisticated.
The progress of Delphi down through time can be seen in much the same light. Recall how the town’s mythic origin story describes it as having first been sacred to Gaia, the Earth Mother, surely one of if not the very first god that the Greeks began to worship as they struggled to grow enough food to survive in a land of jagged mountain ranges and poor soil. Gaia was of course a female god, and her priesthood was probably made up exclusively of women. If, as the ancient myths explicitly tell us and as many historians now also believe, the historical Delphi as well began life as a shrine to Gaia rather than Apollo, its female oracles may have been a holdover from those earlier times.
So much for the historical Delphi’s beginning. What, then, of its ending? We are forced to take up the question here because I choose to end the main body of this book well before the historical end of Delphi. The fact is that it remained a well-known place for many centuries after the time of Alexander the Great. And yet, for all that Delphi may still have been a famous and very wealthy town, the end of my narrative does coincide with the end of its time of significant political respect and influence. The bizarre practice of the male rulers of a deeply patriarchal society asking advice from a woman, and then taking her advice thoroughly to heart, ended long before Delphi itself faded away. Simply put, Delphi mattered prior to the Peloponnesian War in a way that it didn’t thereafter. The story of the town after Alexander the Great is long, but I at least find it nowhere near as interesting as what came before. So, storyteller that I am, I opted to include only the good bits. Such is my excuse, at any rate, for disposing of the rest of Delphi’s story in the few short paragraphs that follow.
Like virtually all of the classical world, Greece fell under the gradual sway of the Romans after the Macedonian Empire faded into the past. It was largely spent as a major political and military force by this point, but its soft power was enormous in the new order. The Romans embraced Greek culture to an almost fetishistic extent, appropriating its gods, its art, its philosophy, even its language; any educated person was expected to be fluent in Greek as well as Latin, and almost as many literary works continued to appear in the former as the latter language. Delphi was part and parcel of all this. What Greece-worshiping Roman could resist such a locus of Greek myth and history?
Indeed, this was actually Delphi’s most opulent period of all. The town was famed for its riches and beauty during the most glorious years of Rome, even as nobody took its oracle all that seriously anymore. By the time of humanity’s first great age of tourism, which began shortly after the birth of Christ, it had become little more than an open-air museum.
It was during the first century after Christ that the town received its most famous single mortal resident: a philosopher and biographer named Plutarch, who served as a priest inside its temple of Apollo when he wasn’t writing. His masterwork Parallel Lives informs some of what I’ve written in the preceding chapters, as it must inevitably impact the work of anyone who engages seriously with Greek or Roman myth and history.
It was only after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early fourth century after Christ that Delphi fell into definitive, irreversible decline; its pagan tradition was hopelessly incompatible with the new monotheism. In Julian, his epistolary novel of the twilight of the pagan age, the twentieth-century author Gore Vidal paints a vivid picture of the Delphi of AD 360:
Oribasius found modern Delphi very sad indeed. The works of art which once decorated the numerous shrines are all gone. Constantine alone stole 2700 statues. There is no sight quite so forlorn as acres of empty pedestals. The town was deserted except for a few scattered Cynics, who offered to show Oribasius around. I’ve never visited Delphi myself, but one has always heard that the people who lived there were the most rapacious on earth, even worse than the tradesmen at Eleusis. I cannot say that I feel particularly sorry for them now. They had a thousand years of robbing visitors. It was unreasonable to think that this arrangement would last forever.
By this point, any lingering shred of faith in the oracle had been replaced by the overweening cynicism of Vidal’s correspondent, so typical of late-stage decadent cultures. The last recorded installment of the Pythian Games took place in AD 424; one imagines that it must have been a rather shabby affair. After that, Delphi simply disappears from the historical record, without so much as a whimper, much less a bang. Not until 1500 years later would its exact location be rediscovered.
So, having disposed of Delphi’s murky historical past and post-Alexandrian future in such short order, only one question is left for us to take up: just what was it about Delphi which convinced people from across Greece and well beyond that it was a place of such spiritual potency? Yes, the landscape there is extraordinary, but Greece is full of similarly awe-inspiring vistas. Why this one?
There are fewer ancient texts which describe the day-to-day practices of the oracle than one might expect, and most of those we do have date from Roman rather than earlier times. Nevertheless, they almost all allude to some mysterious, numinous vapor issuing from a deep rift in the earth. This was the primary means by which Apollo communicated with his oracle; his temple was literally built around this vaporous rift. The French team that first excavated Delphi looked with great eagerness for evidence of such a feature, but came up with nothing. Many therefore chose to explain the oracle’s prophetic trances in another way — one all too commonplace for the times, as articulated by the Danish scholar Frederick Poulsen in 1907: “The French excavations have not exposed any bottomless abyss from which strong and stupefying gases could be supposed to rise. One does well to reject the physical and hold fast to mental causes, hysterical affectations, which in every religion make women serviceable media.” Others, such as the eminent French archaeologist Pierre Amandry, imagined the oracle as a mere pawn of the patriarchy, parroting prophecies which were secretly dictated to her by male priests: “It will be admitted with difficulty that an illiterate woman, lacking the gifts of a Cassandra, chosen only for her moral virtues, could give the response instantaneously, formulated in prose, let alone in hexameters. One can scarcely believe that, for a political affair such as a treaty of alliance, the response was not dictated to the [oracle].” For Amandry and most of his colleagues, the idea of a woman speaking independently, using her own judgment to alter the course of nations, was simply inconceivable.
The debate continued for most of the twentieth century. Further excavations of the temple ruins, and in particular the small chamber which seemed to be the oracle’s fabled inner sanctum, turned up what looked suspiciously like the remnants of pipes and vents. Yet the rift in the earth, much less the gas that supposedly issued from it, remained stubbornly missing in action. Some proposed that priests might have burned hemp in some hidden chamber connected via the pipes to the inner sanctum. But such a mild, commonplace drug, inhaled so inevitably diffusely by such a convoluted means, seemed an absurdly shaky foundation on which to rest a thousand years of prophesying.
In the late 1990s, a Dutch geologist named Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and an American archaeologist named John R. Hale came together to solve the mystery to most of the scholarly community’s satisfaction. Greece is one of the most geologically unstable places in the world, being crisscrossed by multiple intersecting fault lines; these are the cause of the land’s many violent earthquakes, the same ones that the Greeks of old so frequently interpreted as signs from the gods. Given that Greece is a place of such constant flux, de Boer believed it to be far from inconceivable that a rift in the landscape of Delphi such as the one described in ancient texts might have come and then gone again long before the place was excavated by archaeologists. Inquiring with the people who lived in the region of Mount Parnassus — something which earlier investigators had never bothered to do — Hale learned that fissures, some with cool breezes blowing out of them from the depths, were fairly commonplace there. Meanwhile de Boer established definitively that not just Delphi but the temple of Apollo itself lay precisely at the junction of two faults, one running north-south, the other east-west. X marks the spot, as they say.
De Boer and Hale now had enough evidence to convince the Greek Ministry of Culture to allow them to test the chamber believed to be the oracle’s inner sanctum for gaseous residues. They found traces of ethane and methane — two compounds which they would not have expected to find there under ordinary circumstances, which did indeed seem to have bubbled up from the depths of the earth, but which are not notably intoxicating unless inhaled in extremely large amounts. Yet de Boer had an answer for that conundrum: he noted that the two gases that had been discovered could well have been joined by ethylene, a rarer, much more unstable compound than ethane or methane which does have a pronounced intoxicating or even psychedelic effect on those who inhale it. By its nature, ethylene is unlikely to stick around long enough to be sampled so many centuries later, but like ethane and methane it consists only of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and thus could easily have been formed from the same underground chemical soup. Further, Plutarch’s description of the oracle’s inner sanctum — the most detailed available to modern scholars — mentions a pleasantly sweet odor that perfectly matches that of ethylene. And finally, de Boer did find traces of ethylene at other fissures around Delphi when he began to test for it.
It thus seems that de Boer and Hale have come as close as we are ever likely to get to definitively answering the question of just how Delphi acquired its reputation as a mystical locus and place of prophecy. Their conclusion can tempt us into making all kinds of exciting if unprovable extrapolations. For example, de Boer has theorized that the oracle’s refusal to prophesy during the winter months might have been down to a lack of the intoxicating gas during that time; it would be harder for it to bubble up in sufficient quantities when the temperature was colder. Even more tempting is the idea that the later Delphi’s declining reputation as a center of prophecy may have been directly related to the landscape’s ever-shifting geology. Perhaps the gas gradually tailed off after the Peloponnesian War; perhaps the earthquake which struck the town in 373 BC sealed the rift at a stroke forevermore. Call it geology as destiny.
Convincing though the theories of de Boer and Hale are, there is also a certain melancholy inherent in them. Following them to their conclusion is ironically similar to the larger journey we’ve just undertaken, from a mythic Greece of magic and mystery to an historical Greece of petty political squabbles whose broad contours are dismayingly akin to the ones of today. Such is the bittersweet advance of knowledge, chipping relentlessly away at our sense of the ineffable.
So, let us be just a trifle self-indulgent here at the end and make it the Delphi of myth that we say goodbye to now: a place of immense beauty fraught with immense spiritual import, where the very winds blowing up from the valley below are the breath of the gods; where Zeus’s thunderbolts shake the sky at night; where the Earth Mother who lies at the beginning of all things is palpable in the trees and grass; where Dionysus’s ecstatic dance of the animal spirit beckons from the Corycian Cave above; where a woman literally breathes in answers to the mysteries of life, and thereby takes the fates of empires in her fragile hands. From this vantage, we can almost convince our science-addled minds that it really was Apollo who placed the gas below the earth that makes it possible for his oracle to speak. From here, we can feel close to something that is still beyond the reach of science. From here, we can touch past, present, and future. From here, at the center of the world.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)