Geology findings help explain ancient oracle

Monday, July 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The ancient oracle of Delphi, in Greece, worked like a telephone psychic: In need of advice, someone could call on her and get a rambling prophecy. But at least now the oracle has some science on her side.

She reportedly gained visions by inhaling fumes, which rose from a chasm beneath her temple. But no one had ever found the cleft or the mysterious gases. Now scientists have discovered two geologic faults, intersecting directly beneath the ancient Delphi temple, that could have created such a chasm during an earthquake.

Moreover, geologists have measured hallucinogenic fumes rising from a nearby spring, and narcotic gases preserved within the temple rock.

"Everything fits with the ancient writers being correct," said Jelle de Boer, a geophysicist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "It shows you again that many legends have some truth in them."

Dr. de Boer worked with historian John Hale of the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Their preliminary report on the intersecting faults and the gases appeared earlier this year in a special publication of the Geological Society of London. They plan to submit more detailed findings to another scientific journal soon.

At the same time, an Italian geologist has also suggested that the mythologic chasm might have been a relic of an ancient earthquake. Luigi Piccardi, of the national research agency in Florence, published his conclusions in this month's issue of Geology.

The studies are part of a growing trend toward using science to unravel legends of the past.

"There are bits of information, in mythology and ancient history and archaeology, that are actually informative," said Amos Nur, a geophysicist at Stanford University who studies how earthquakes have affected history.

Plenty of mythology surrounds the Delphi oracle. She held sway over the Greek religious world for nearly two millennia, from at least 1400 B.C. to A.D. 381. Traditionally, she sat on a tripod over the cleft, waving laurel branches while gripped by the spirit of prophecy. Different women held the position of oracle, but all were believed to be the divine mouthpiece for Ge, the earth mother, and later for the sun god Apollo.

The ruins of the Apollo temple, which has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, still stand outside the modern village of Delphi, at the foot of famed Mount Parnassus.

A local herdsman reportedly discovered the magical vapors millennia ago. His goats acted strangely as they grazed near a particular fissure; coming closer, he breathed in the fumes and entered a prophetic state. A good place for a temple, the locals decided.

"You have to have something very unusual there to make that the Fort Knox of the Greeks," said Dr. de Boer.

Geologists aren't surprised by Delphi's unusual qualities. It lies on the north side of the Gulf of Corinth, an area riddled with faults and often wracked by powerful earthquakes. Two giant plates of Earth's crust converge on the Mediterranean, cracking and straining the ground around Corinth.

Between the two plates, "Greece is coming up more or less like a cork," said Dr. de Boer.

So he wasn't surprised to find two faults fracturing Delphi. Several years ago, he established the behavior of the fault running east to west beneath the oracle's temple. More recently, his group discovered that a second fault runs north to south.

And where the faults cross, a chasm could have formed. French archaeologists excavated the temple earlier this century and found no sign of a chasm, but they didn't dig all the way down to bedrock, Dr. de Boer said.

If they had, they might have discovered evidence of recurring earthquakes, each of which could release a new burst of gases from the depths. For instance, the earthquake that destroyed the Delphi temple in 373 B.C. might have represented one the most powerful breaks along the east-west fault, Dr. Piccardi proposes in his paper.

Meanwhile, Dr. de Boer's team has chiseled samples of travertine, a calcium-rich rock deposited by springs, from a temple wall. The travertine held tiny bubbles of ancient methane and ethane gas – both of which would have come from the depths and can have slight narcotic effects.

Even more compelling, Dr. de Boer said, a nearby spring still releases small amounts of ethylene, a sweet-smelling gas once used as an anesthetic. Higher doses can act as a mild narcotic, inducing a dreamlike state without causing fainting – just what the oracle may have experienced, he said.

Dr. de Boer now hopes to identify the carved stones used to channel fumes directly to the oracle.

Science can never determine exactly how the oracle made her prophecies, Dr. de Boer acknowledged. But it can show that the ingredients to back up the legend really exist.

Such studies, said Stanford's Dr. Nur, create a tangible link between modern science and ancient history.

"It connects us with our past and our mythology," he noted. "It's sort of the ultimate detective work."