South Coast Beacon
The Oracle of
Delphi's prophet may have been under the influence when she answered
the questions of society's famous and most important supplicants,
according to a study published by J.Z. de Boer, a Wesleyan University
archaeologist, in the journal Geology.
Plutarch and other ancient scholars always suspected that the prophet
was intoxicated, but more modern academics have rejected their theories
“The ancient scholars were very good observers of nature, and their
descriptions are very close to the truth,” said de Boer, who
hopes his research gives credence to other ancient theories that could
be beneficial in modern research. His research will be featured in
a documentary on the History Channel today.
The Oracle of Delphi was the center of the Greek world for hundreds of
years, and people came from all over for answers to society's most important
questions. A woman, the Pythia, sat in an underground chamber and responded
to these questions with poetic visions, which a high priest interpreted
for the visitors. Ancients said cracks in the earth released a sweet smelling
gas, responsible for the Pythia's prophecies, into the chamber, and blamed
overdoses of it on the death of one prophet.
The ancient theories were rejected after a French archaeological dig around
the turn of the century failed to find any evidence of gas or cracks in
the chamber. It wasn't until de Boer found massive faulting in the area
that he decided to investigate with an interdisciplinary team consisting
of a geologist, a geochemist, a medical doctor and an archaeologist.
De Boer's team analyzed water samples from the Oracle's springs and rock
samples from the Pythia's chamber in order to determine the presence of
natural gases that commonly surface in faulting areas. They theorized
that gas rose to the surface in springs and was trapped in travertine
limestone deposits from the water.
The research team found traces of ethane and methane, which have no known
hallucinatory effects on humans, in all their samples. Ethylene, which
has been used for anesthesia, was found in spring water nearby, but was
not found in rock samples in the prophet's chamber.
"Since there's ethane and methane (in the chamber's rock samples),
there had to have been ethylene," said de Boer. "They always
It is not surprising that there were no traces of ethylene in the chamber's
rock, said MIT geologist Kip Hodges. "Ethylene is a light and volatile
compound unlikely to stick around for long."
De Boer said his team was not allowed to take many samples because of
governmental restrictions, but said he expected he would have found ethylene
if he had continued sampling.
"Maybe the story has some credence, but I'm doubtful,” said
Dr. Edmond Eger, an anesthesiologist and ethylene researcher at the
University of California at San Francisco's medical center.
Ethylene is "a relatively impotent anesthetic," he said, and
needs to be delivered at concentrations between seven and 30 percent
to impair thinking and above 70 percent to cause the death of the Pythia.
He said that if ethylene was released into the chamber in the required
concentration, there would be so much methane, ethane, and ethylene
present that the Pythia would have trouble surviving because of oxygen
One more problem, said Eger, is the "issue of whether inebriation
translates to visions. And beyond that is the problem of flammability.
One of the reasons we stopped using ethylene was that it blew up. The
Oracle would have to have had a no-matches policy."