Apr 182012
My coworker and I are so excited to be in Delphi, Greece!

My coworker and I are so excited to be in Delphi, Greece!

What actually happened during the hundreds of years between 720 B.C.E. and 395 A.D. when ancient Greeks consulted the Oracle of Delphi? Who was this magical woman named Pythia whose advice changed history?

In our teacher group walking tour of Delphi, we learned shocking facts to explain the history of the Oracle.

1. Ethylene gas in the nose. The Oracle of Delphi was actually several different women from the village below. They were normal gals who took turns climbing the mountain to don the Oracle outfit and breathe some holy smoke from a tripod vase before answering questions of visitors.

But here’s the thing: modern Geologists recently realized that there are fissures in the Earth at Delphi that emit Ethylene gas, so when the ladies inhaled the output, they became drugged!!! Hence their speaking in tongues when asked a question. Drugged Oracles! (Don’t believe me? Read this New York Times article!).

How beautiful is the site of the legendary Oracle of Delphi?!

How beautiful is the site of the legendary Oracle of Delphi?!

2. Spies of Delphi. When the Oracle replied to questions, she did so in ecstatic, magical gibberish, and thus had to be “translated” by a male priest.

Now, our guide explained that these priests were actually like a giant network of spies, in that they had eyes and ears all around the land; they knew what was going on in the world, and hence could give solid advice. While the drugged Oracle screeched on, the priest could write whatever he wanted. Generally, what they wanted was to give wise advice that would maintain the peace (and thus keep Delphi safe), so the information from espionage was key in creating this.

Our guide, Mara, shows what Delphi looked like at its height.

Our guide, Mara, shows what Delphi looked like at its height.

3. Subterfuge by animals. Sometimes an important person would come to Delphi to ask a question, but the spies needed more time to gather information for a sufficient answer, so they would use a trick to buy more time.

Here’s how: People coming to ask the Oracle questions were expected to bring animals to sacrifice. A priest would sprinkle water on the animal, and if it shook its woolly head upon receiving the droplets, the visitor could proceed to the Oracle. If, however, the animal didn’t react, the pilgrim had to turn around and come back to try again later. How did the priests buy time for certain people, while allowing others to pass? They dripped cold water when they wanted the animal to react, and warm water when they didn’t!

One of the most famous sculptures at Delphi, now in the museum.

One of the most famous sculptures at Delphi, now in the museum.

4. Ambiguity in answers. Students of Greek myth and legend know that the advice of the Oracle was usually cryptic. Any Horoscope writer knows this is smart, because if things go wrong for you from a prediction, it’s your fault for misinterpreting the advice, not the Oracle’s!

Here’s a legendary example from 560 B.C.E.: “If you cross the river, a great empire will fall,” the Oracle told Croesus, King of Lydia. Being hubristic, the king assumed the doomed empire would be the Persians’, and crossed the water. He lost, and it was his own empire that fell! But you can’t blame the Oracle for a misinterpreted clue. 🙂

5. Overall great advice. Whatever the Oracle said, visitors to Delphi would still leave with extra wisdom if they read the writing on the walls. According to our guide, on the walls of Delphi’s structures were etched the following life lessons:

The team that found Delphi's ruins. Can you imagine?!

The team that found Delphi's ruins. Can you imagine?!

Know thyself

• Everything in moderation

• Harmony in difference

Visitors who took the time to mull over these lessons would think twice about doing something rash like going to war.

6. Slaves to freedom. In ancient Greece, nearly anyone could become a slave with a little bad luck. According to our guide, even Plato was briefly enslaved after a shipwreck, and his kids had to buy back his freedom. What does this have to do with Delphi? On the stone walls of the Temple of Apollo on Delphi’s mountain, freed slaves of antiquity carved their names. “That way,” said our guide, “it was literally written in stone that they were freed, and no one could say they weren’t!” This shows a powerful element of ancient Greek democracy: because everyone was expected to adhere to written laws, it obligated the government to provide education and literacy for its citizens!

One of the belly button sculptures, also symbolizing Zeus.

One of the belly-button sculptures, also symbolizing Zeus.

7. Delphi as the navel. The legend is that Zeus sent two birds around the world in opposite directions, and the place where they met was the center of everything: Delphi… hence, it is known as the “belly-button of the world.” Small domed rock statues around the mountain symbolize this.

8. Buried treasure. After the Oracle stopped being used, a town was built on top of the site in Delphi, and it wasn’t until 1893 that archaeologists even realized the massive piece of history under the houses! After an earthquake forced the townspeople to move, time was ripe for excavation.

How lucky we are that this remarkable site was found, and that its secrets are slowly being revealed! Can you IMAGINE being that first person who dug down and found the first relic?!

How magical to touch the site of the Oracle of Delphi!

How magical to touch the site of the Oracle of Delphi!

A huge shout-out to Greece for doing such a lovely and respectful job of preserving the magic of the ancient site of Delphi. Well done!

Want to read more about our teacher curriculum tour of Greece? Click here!


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  60 Responses to “Scandalous Facts Behind the Oracle of Delphi in Greece”

  1. visited the site in 1969. Geologists were worried about quakes. Locals could be hired to visit other fissures. ‘Sweet smelling gases and smoke was everywhere’ scary!

  2. Thanks for bringing Delphi alive and making it exciting for kids! You get high-schoolers perfectly. I just discovered this site after showing the History Channel documentary for the first time (in accordance with the Common Core, I’m adding more non-fiction to the English 9 Honors curriculum). Your link to the NY Times article gave me three easy-to-access sites for their paper on the scientific findings about the presence of fault lines and ethylene gas.

    Now that I’ve finished my doctorate, I want to do more travel, possibly educational tours, and Greece is definitely on my itinerary. Congratulations on the wedding and the baby. Keep up the great blogging! That’s what I call teaching!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Steve! It made my day. I was SO curious why there were so many people on this article today (I can see a live map of viewers through Google Analytics) and you’ve solved the mystery! I’m honored to be part of your students’ reading. Thanks for connecting!

  3. I will be traveling there with GEEO this summer.I can’t wait!

  4. I’m glad I stumbled across your site. I was just Googling for some quotes by Socrates to support some vengeful stuff that had my head in the wrong place. Considering feelings aren’t made in stone are they malleable, temporal and unique to the moment experienced? Reading about the distant land in the distant past helped take my mind off the here and now and chill out.

    And you’re very beautiful.

    Feel free to squeegee me from your thread.

  5. Just a heads up for all you lovers of Greek myth and history … there’s some fantastic free online university classes that you would enjoy. Check out a class call “Know Thyself” starting next week and “The Ancient Greeks” starting March 13th. You can find them at http://www.coursera.org.

  6. i really love greece and what you wrote tought me more about the oracle than my history teacher

  7. Hello everyone!
    Such an interesting discussion. I, however, must be the dissenting voice. After years of extensive research as a classicist, I have attempted to answer the question: Was the oracle of Delphi simply a drug-crazed teenager manipulated by politically savvy priests (as many, including the History Channel maintain) or young women visionaries who were able through prophecies to alter the course of western civilization? In my young adult novel, Night of Pan, I attempt to offer an answer about this very question. Studying Herodotus, I found four prophecies pertaining to the Persian invasion from the north. We all know the story of the Spartan 300 who died at Thermopylae trying to stop the invasion by King Xerxes. Herodotus maintained there were over a million invading Persians, though modern scholars say it was probably more like 450,000. Any way you look at it, it was a massive army opposing the Greeks: an extensive empire that comprised not only Persia, but Egypt, The Levant, India … a huge empire against some fledgling democratic states who only unified to defy the invasion. But back to the Pythia: Her first oracle (simplified) was “Trust the winds.” The next day several hundred Persian ships (part of the invasion) floundered in a strong meltemi wind off the coast of Artemesium. The Persian ships (penteconters) were much more cumbersome than the lithe Greek triremes.

    The Pythia’s last oracle was the most amazing. The Persian army had already broken through at Thermopylae and was heading straight toward Delphi to claim its power and wealth. The people of Delphi went to the Pythia to ask whether they should hide the women and children and the treasures. The Pythia answered: “Trust Apollo, he will protect his own.” What I find truly amazing and telling about the Greek culture is the fact that they believed her and obeyed her. With the entire Persian army less than a day’s march away, they did not hide at all! As the army, led by the indomitable elite force that called themselves “The Immortals” marched through the pass leading into Delphi, there was a serious thunderstorm and massive earthquake. Huge boulders fell in the roadway before King Xerxes in his golden chariot. The army fled never to try to invade Delphi again.Politically-savvy priests could not have foretold any of this. Perhaps a young girl, her mind somewhat liberated by ethylene fumes seeping from the belly-button of the earth, could foretell the future. When one studies the Oracle Parmenides or even modern physicists who talk about the inter-connectedness of all life (check out fractals and the holographic universe) one must wonder at the mysteries of our world we do not thoroughly understand. I don’t claim to fully understand it all, but I do believe it is not simply manipulative priests with their spies.

    In her third Persian oracle, given to the Athenian citizens, the Pythia says:
    “But a wall made of wood does farsighted Zeus to Tritogenes grant
    Alone and unravaged, to help you and your children.
    Do not await peacefully the horse and the foot,
    The army gigantic that comes from the mainland;
    Withdraw, turn your backs, through someday you still will meet face to face.
    O Salamis Divine, the children of women you will yet destroy
    While Demeter is scattered or while she is gathered.”
    – paragraphs 140 and 141, Book Seven, from The Landmark Herodotus with translation by Andrea L. Purvis
    Simply put: General Themistocles of Athens convinced the Council that the “wooden walls” were their wooden ships. They evacuated Athens, took the women and children to safety in Troezen and resoundingly defeated the Persians at Salamis, thereby ending the second Persian invasion. The priests certainly knew about the “army gigantic” but could not have known a year in advance that the Persian navy would be defeated at Salamis … far from Athens.

    If you’re still reading … sorry to be so lengthy, but I’ve given this subject a lot of thought! Gail

  8. This was amazing!!! I have taken Latin in all my years at Latin Academy an I LOVE THE CLASSICS. Now I am taking Myth Tradition with the legendary Dr. P. Delphi is sacred to Apollo and after translating the Aeneid by Vergil, book 5 Aeneas sees the Sibyl at Delphi. Greece is overflowing with culture, history and tradition! I wish to visit it someday.

  9. I still can’t believe that people were tricked by the priest. It becomes logical to believe a person that has a reputation to be wise. I wouldn’t trust someone with my fate. I probably wouldn’t want to know my fate, but to live life smoothly.

  10. I find it really interesting that parts of Greece are symbolized as parts of the body. Like the belly button!

  11. That noxis gas came from sulfur which lets the gas out but if you smell too much of it it can easly kill you .

    info from “History Chanel”

  12. This is such a well done and comprehensive post. Thanks for your diligence in vetting such an awesome story from Greek history. I never knew about the priest network, although it makes sense that they would want to give true information, so they could keep their posts. I wonder if the Oracle’s themselves were ever upset at the proposition that they were providing information (while drugged), that the priests then turned into whatever they wanted. I’m certain that I would think that could cause tension. Thanks again for a great history lesson!

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and to craft this great reply! You bring up great questions. What must those women have been thinking and feeling??? That would be a great prompt for a creating writing or creative acting exercise!

  13. I can not believe that it is called the belly button. I wish that I could have gone to Greece with you. It looks like a lot of fun.

  14. It’s a bit disturbing to know that the oracles weren’t really that, dependable, you could say. It’s actually really sad that the Romans depended so heavily on the oracles and all they were being told were mountains of lies. Also, wouldn’t the Romans who visit the oracle and not have their future as predicted come true question why? I know I would. That’s some really shady stuff right there.

  15. That is sad that the Oracle was fake. So did the priest make the predictions and the Oracle was for show.

  16. wow very interesting place there so when i get chance then want to go there.

  17. I wonder what type of drug that comes out of the surface.

    • Click through to the New York Times article I linked from this article to find more scientific details.

  18. Wouldn’t the drugged Oracle of Delphi act weird? Like, really high?

  19. So they got drugged before they gave advice. Can you imagine the side effects to getting drugged too many times!

  20. That’s so cool! I wonder if there’s like an underground door, that actually had a room where there was an oracle who told the fate of others. If there was, then I would have a 100% belief in fate.

  21. At first, I looked at the picture of the belly-button sculpture that represents Zeus. Then, I wondered why Zeus symbolizes a belly button. I was like, “Zeus is not the God of Belly Buttons!”

  22. This is very interesting, so the priests were the ones who were actualy giving people advice?…….

  23. I never knew that the Oracles were different women who were drugged! I thought that the predictions that they made were true and that it was one women who was blessed by the god Apollo who is the god of oracles.

  24. So, is there a part in the world that symbolies it’s eyes, or heart? 😀 The pictures are awesome!

  25. They seriously drug the people who do the oracles? Wouldn’t that kill the person who he/she is doing the oracle for? Since I know all drugs can have effects like that to humans. If I were to be in Ancient Rome and know this I would have never gone for the oracle!

  26. So basically they drugged the Oracle of Delphi. That must be risky since they believed that the Oracle was Apollo’s. What is this little “act” offended Lord Apollo?

  27. So being an Oracle would be a drug attic’s dream. Being payed to be drugged. :O Who payed them I wonder? Did you have to pay to see an Oracle?

    • Since we were with a tour package, we didn’t pay entrance, and we didn’t see any official Oracle, either, as they were in ancient times!

  28. I love how they would use tricks to buy more time.

  29. It is pretty disturbing how the oracles were actually drugged. One other disturbing thing is that there are stones symbolizing the “belly-button of the world”.

  30. It is sad that The Oracle was a fake. A lot of people believed in it!

  31. That’s crazy ! I would like to go visit Greece. Especially to touch , “The Belly Button of the World.” It seems like it was a nice trip.

  32. Greece is so beautiful! Just like any other countries, Greece has so much history!

  33. The oracles were drugged! :O Also, from the what the priets did, the whole oracle thing seem like a hoax to get people to worship a god and get more offerings. 🙁

    • Our tour guide did explain it had an element of hoax to it, but it’s not just a mean hoax. Some of the advice was really good, and helped stop wars and protect people!

  34. The pictures that you have posted are really cool! The surroundings in back of you are really pretty as well! You must of had a really good time while you were in Greece!

  35. Awesome! Thats a huge belly button symbolizing Zeus.

    • To clarify, the rock symbolizes the belly button of the world, OR it symbolizes the stone that Zeus’s mother replaced baby Zeus with so his dad, Cronus, would eat the stone instead of Zeus! Zeus is not the belly button god. 🙂

  36. Wow, that’s crazy. That is so weird, how they refer the belly button to Zeus. It would be so cool to go own our own digging adventure and see if we can find new artifacts. By the way how is the temperature like in Greece? (:

  37. So basically, it was the preist who made the prediction and the actual Oracle was just for show. And how big was the mountain that the girls climbed to “don the Oracle outfit and breathe some holy smoke”?

    • Exactly! The mountain is medium-sized. We climbed it, ourselves, so it is impressive but manageable.

  38. Really interesting post! Crazy to know that the Oracles were actually drugged before imparting their “wisdom!”

  39. Great Stuff L! I really enjoyed reading about The Oracle.

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