William J. Broad’s THE ORACLE is a fascinating look at the science behind the Delphic Oracle. Blending ancient history, recent modern history and the scientific disciplines of anthropology, geology and archeology, the author pieces together a fascinating account of what may have caused the Oracle at Delphi to be so well-regarded throughout the ancient world, that extra something that seemed to lie behind those Delphic prophecies. The priestess would sit on a metal tripod, her legs dangling, and that tripod was positioned over an X-like fault in the limestone bedrock through which seeped ethylene, a sweet-smelling gas that in small doses can cause a trance-like state, that quickly wears off with the entranced person remembering little afterwards.
In this scientific age, it is easy to feel that the explanation just given explains everything about what being a Delphic Oracle was like. It’s easy to think that she was equivalent to a glue-sniffer, or someone high on mescalen or some other substance.
But that would miss the point about what the women took themselves to be doing as they sat on that tripod. They had prepared carefully for the event (which took place once a month during the warmer part of the year). They had fasted. They had gone through various purification rituals. And as they sat on that tripod, in that darkened room, with a laurel held in one hand and a small bowl of water in the other, they expected that the god Apollo would reveal himself to them, and give sage advice to whoever might appear.
Strangely enough, it mostly seemed to work. It probably helped that the women chosen for the task were well-educated and intelligent, so that in their semi-inebriated state they were able to reply in classical hexameters. It was probably necessary to have the priests of Apollo hovering nearby should something go wrong. But what I am trying to say here is that it is unfair to dismiss these women as akin to glue-sniffers. People sniffing glue are not usually planning to meet the god Apollo and use his wise counsel for the benefit of society.
What is key here, is what people’s expectations are. Because, as I am fond of reminding my friends, we all possess an extraordinarily powerful machine in our heads. And expectations filter experience. Expectations can turn a tawdry quest for a high into something profound that still resonates thousands of years after the event. And William J. Broad is careful to spell out that point at the end of his wonderful book. Five stars.