August 26: In ancient Greece, like a magnet, the shrine at Mount Parnassus, in Delphi, attracted people from all over Europe. They were drawn by the prophetic powers of the Pythia, or priestess of Apollo, who was famous as the Oracle of Delphi. It was said she could foretell everything, from the result of wars to new twists in day-to-day family problems. But, from where did the Oracle get her prophetic powers?

Legend says that high priest of the shrine, Plutarch, thought that the Pythia got her prophetic powers by inhaling some special gases, which would lead her to a state of trance. Now a four-year study by geologists in areas near the shrine has found evidence of hallucinogenic gases rising from a nearby spring and preserved within the temple rock. (Hallucinogenic gases contain hallucinogen, a substance that induces hallucinations or visions and imaginary perceptions.) The scientists have smelt truth in the high priest’s claim at last! The study has been reported in the August issue of Geology.

Gaseous twist to the Delphic legend
Gaseous twist to the Delphic legend []

Jelle De Boer, a geologist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, who was one of the main researchers, analysed the spring-water gases and found one of them to be ethylene. This gas has a sweet smell and can produce an intoxicating effect on the person inhaling it.

According to traditional records, the Pythia derived her prophecies in a small, enclosed chamber in the basement of the temple. De Boer says that if the high priestess went to the chamber once a month, as tradition says, she could have been exposed to levels of ethylene that were strong enough to induce a trance-like state.

Do you still smell a mystery in the legend of the Delphic Oracle?