Simanaitis Says

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THE GREEK Oracle of Delphi was vaguely known to me. Like so many other things, I knew I could learn more if I wanted with a quick Googling. But how much more illuminating an item in the July 3, 2014 issue of the London Review of Books.


“Apollo’s Ethylene” is the headline for Peter Green’s review of Delphi: A History of the Centre of the Ancient World, by Michael Scott. Ethylene caught my interest, whereas the book’s title might have received nothing more than my passing glance.


Delphi: A History of the Centre of the Ancient World, by Michael Scott, Princeton, 2014. The book is listed at and

But why Apollo’s Ethylene?

First, the Google stuff: Delphi is an archeological site, and a modern town, in the central portion of the Greek mainland, about 115 miles northwest of Athens.


The Pythia, the Delphic Oracle, was the priestess at the Temple of Apollo, with a new one selected upon the death of her predecessor.

Early accounts of the Delphic Oracle are in an Homeric Hymn dating from about 580-570 BC. At some point after 560 BC, King Croesus (he of “richer than …”) made extravagant gifts to the shrine, a gold lion among them.


The Priestess of Delphi (1891), by John Collier.

It is believed that, for one day each month and only nine months of each year, the Delphic Oracle would honor those seeking her guidance. She’d sit upon a high tripod in the inner sanctum of Apollo’s shrine, her responses inspired by pneuma (Greek: breath, vapor) rising from below.

Michael Scott expands on all this with analyses of ancient tales as well as current archeological research. Foremost among the latter are the findings of Jelle de Boer and John Hale, who identified “two major fault lines under the shrine, together with the presence of ethylene gas.”

What’s more, Scott reports that ethylene “had been used as an anaesthesia in the 1920s, thanks to its ability to produce a pleasant, disembodied, trance-like state.” LRB author Green adds, “It also has a peculiarly sweet odour, corresponding to the fragrance described by Plutarch, and is lighter than air, so that (as Boer convincingly argues) it could be piped through a small vent in the floor…”

Green also conjectures that the vent could be plugged so the gas would accumulate, thus explaining why consultations were limited to one day per month. Also, a decrease in gas production during the winter would explain Delphi’s annual three-month shutdown.

Last, the Oracle’s seating on a high tripod would put her closer to the ceiling, thus giving her a most efficacious hit.


Columns of the Temple of Apollo, Delphi. Image by Patar knight.

People sought the Oracle of Delphi for advice, not prophecy. Ancient Greeks recognized it as the word of Apollo; later Christian sources called it Vox Diaboli, the voice of the devil.


The Theater of Delphi today. Image by Challisrussia.

I like Scott’s term best: He calls the operation a “management consultancy.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014 

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