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Under the influence
By Nathan Welton
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 until now.

“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 rise together."

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 deprivation.

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."