August 20, 2020



The most beautifully placed classical site in all of Greece may be Delphi, the remote mountain sanctuary of Apollo. It lies in a natural amphitheater, with views that sweep a hundred miles across ever-receding valleys to the molten sapphire of the sea. In ancient times, pilgrims would travel from all over the Mediterranean to consult the famous Delphic oracle.

The priestesses of Apollo would breathe “magical gases,” which seeped from a crack in the earth, and gibber out prophecies that were believed to come directly from the god. The fame of these ecstatic ravings soon turned Delphi into a thriving miniature city, and the offerings of gold and treasure left for Apollo made it the richest sanctuary in Greece, prompting modern historians to dub it the “Fort Knox of antiquity.” As visitors climbed the steep steps below Mount Parnassus, they passed through a veritable Aladdin’s cave of golden statues, pearl-encrusted breastplates, silver idols, and bejeweled swords before arriving in front of a narrow cave, where the ritual was enacted.

Today, we can get an idea of the questions Greeks asked the oracle of Apollo from a surviving papyrus record. They are not so very different from those we might ask a fortune-teller today: Will I get the money? Am I to become a beggar? Am I to become a Senator? Am I to be divorced from my wife/husband? Have I been poisoned? Historians once assumed that the ecstasies of the priestesses were self-induced. But in 2001, geologists discovered varying amounts of ethylene gas seeping between the rocks at Delphi, which could easily induce incoherence and seizures—symptoms that the ancients would interpret as divinely induced states.

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