How Did the Oracle at Delphi Really Prophesize?

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By Esther Inglis-Arkell, iO9

The Oracle was likely high on methane or ethylene. Credit: Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis

The Oracle at Delphi is referenced throughout Greek myths and

history. Supposedly she was rendered psychic by Apollo. Realistically, she

was off her skull on gas that seeped out of the fissures of the temple

in which she lived. Here is the scientific explanation for what caused

this woman to utter her confused prophecies.

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Even during the

Oracle at Delphi's time, it was widely known that the Oracle's visions

had a practical cause. Gas seeped out of the cracks in the cave where

she sat, causing her to talk nonsense. This nonsense would then be

interpreted by priests around her. Some of the predictions were

surprisingly accurate, according to legend. Croesus, the richest man of

his time, performed a kind of scientific test on oracles, when he had

messengers go out to all of them and ask what he would be doing on a

certain date. Delphi got the only correct answer — cooking a tortoise in

a pot. (Bold choice. I wouldn't think of the richest guy in the world

doing his own cooking.)

Modern archaeologists weren't convinced –

not about the tortoise and not about the gas. They inspected the

geology of the area for volcanic activity that might vent gas, and found

nothing, not even in the distant past. Later, however, they took

another look and found two fault lines converging just under the temple

of Delphi. Perhaps the mystic "vapors" that the Oracle breathed in had

seeped through these. In interdisciplinary team found that dissolving

limestone along those lines gave off gas and spiked the local water.

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The

main components found in the water were ethane, methane and ethylene.

Most think that it's ethylene that is the key component. Ethylene was

one of the early painkillers used during medical procedures. It packed

more of a punch than nitrous oxide. It smells a bit like flowers, and

renders the sniffer euphoric, but extremely out-of-it. It's not

especially bad for people (although various compounds of ethylene can be

very harmful), and its main danger is that of suffocation. It displaces

air and makes people too high to notice. The combination of extreme

anesthesia, euphoria and lack of oxygen can make a person say all

kinds of things.

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Other scientists argue that ethylene wasn't the

chemical that made the Oracle talk, though. Methane, which decidedly

doesn't smell like flowers, can also cause hallucinations if inhaled in

high enough doses. The methane theory isn't without its faults. Methane

can kill people a lot faster than ethylene, particularly if it's being

burned, or otherwise decomposing, to produce carbon dioxide. A

by-product of the conversion is carbon monoxide, which attaches itself

to red blood cells more readily than oxygen does. Too much can smother a

person, but not before they often experiences confusion and

hallucinations. Carbon monoxide is a regular by-product of burning

fuels, though, and so there's no reason why the ancient Greeks, who

surely had mastered fire, would consider the gas and its effects so

special.

It would be considered irresponsible, even by the most

hardcore archaeologists, to dose a grad student with spiked water, or

shut them up in a cave, to either be poisoned or suffocated. So there's

no way we'll be sure whether the Oracle of Delphi was high or was

suffocating or was faking it. All we can be sure of is she craved

tortoise meat.

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via JAMA, CDC, The Naked Scientists, and National Geographic

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