The most powerful priestess in Ancient Greece used drugs to fuel her visions
Historical records now show the Oracle of Delphi ingested mysterious fumes before going into a trance-like state.
All that’s left of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece is a few piles of mountainous rock and a handful of orderly columns.
But for centuries the hulking limestone structure, emblazoned with the words “know thyself” and “nothing in excess,” stood at the center of Ancient Greek imagination. It was a mysterious place where the empire’s most powerful woman, the Oracle of Delphi, provided visions into the past and future—and there are a couple of contentious theories that say she might have had a little help from some drugs.
Though what remains of the temple dates back to the 4th century BC, the site of the temple was in use from the 8th century onwards. Little is known about its architecture but there is a consensus that the temple had a private room, an adyton (“inaccessible”), where the Oracle sat on a tripod stool before she was tasked with giving a prophecy.
One of the many origin stories of the Oracle of Delphi starts with the discovery of a fissure in the ground. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BC, explains how a goat herder noticed that one of his herd had fallen into a crack in the ground and begun to act strangely. The man stepped into the split himself only to hallucinate an unearthly presence giving him the power to see into the stretches of time behind and before him. When nearby villagers heard the story, they tasked a woman with sitting on a three-legged stool and watching the space to prevent people from disappearing into the chasm. Fumes, pneuma, are said to have fizzled up from the temple floor and provided her with the otherworldly power to speak to the gods.
She would emerge from the room in a state of frenzy, ready to commune with the gods in dactylic hexameter. According to the Ancient Greek-Roman biographer Plutarch, after relaying her visions she would be exhausted “like a runner after a race.”
Proof of the Oracle at Delphi
For years, explained the New York Times in 2002,
“Modern scholarship [had] dismissed as false the explanation that the ancient Greeks gave for the oracle’s inspiration, vapors rising from the temple’s floor. […] Experts concluded that the vapors were mythical, like much else about the site.”
But in the early 2000s, a team composed of a geologist, archaeologist, chemist, and toxicologist compiled nearly two decades of findings which showed “two hidden faults that cross exactly under the ruined temple [bringing] petrochemical fumes […] to the surface to help induce visions.” They claimed that the Oracle was inhaling ethylene, an invisible, relatively odorless chemical that is used to ripen fruit and has a history as an anesthetic. “In light doses,” writes the New York Times, “it produces feelings of aloof euphoria.”
Critics of the ethylene theory emerged soon after these findings were printed. Erowid cites a set of two journal articles by J. Foster and D. Lehoux that argue that the 2002 study was based on “weak evidence” and a “problematic argument” and that “the concentrations of ethylene [and benzene] identified by [the researchers] would have been insufficient to cause a trance-like state.”
Foster and Lehoux don’t offer any alternative theories, but in 2015 another article in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine claimed that it was really oleander smoke that was making the Oracle hallucinate. The theory presented suggests that there was an underground chamber where leaves were burned and that the smoke would pass through an opening in the floor. This is a suggestion that, unlike the “invisible” fissures proposed by the 2002 study, fits with archeological findings at the Temple of Apollo.
All of these theories add to roughly a century of bickering over the truth about the Temple of Apollo, and nearly two millennia of stories obsessing over the Oracle of Delphi. If only the Oracle were here now to look into the past and settle this once and for all.