Ancient Oracles

Kathimerini has a nice feature, mostly on Delphi, but a couple of others:

Are Greece’s inhabitants heading for better or worse times? Will the family be able to take a holiday this year? Such questions seem to trouble everyone’s minds during this current period of economic and social unrest. Thousands of years ago, the ancient Greeks were also plagued by uncertainty and frequently wondered what they should do. For consolation and enlightenment they turned to augurs (omen readers) and priests or priestesses who interpreted the will of the all-knowing gods.

Unlike fortunetellers today, however, ancient soothsayers dealt less with making specific predictions about the future than offering assurances that particular decisions were correct or incorrect or that the gods looked favorably or unfavorably upon particular actions. Ancient augury took many forms, including the reading of flights of birds and the examination of sacrificial animals’ livers or other internal organs. Sometimes right and wrong, or favor and disfavor, were determined through the casting of lots — like the rolling of dice today. Colored pebbles or animal bones (including pigs’ “knucklebones”) were commonly used in these divinations.

More formal, highly ritualized prophetic practices also took place in or beside certain ancient Greek temples. Among the gods associated with oracles and prophesies were Apollo and Zeus, whose sanctuaries at Delphi and Dodona were well-known in Greek lands and elsewhere in the Mediterranean world for their priests’ and priestesses’ strange abilities to convey divine pronouncements.

The archaeological site of Delphi today is one of the most frequently visited, widely recognized sites in Greece. In this respect, little has changed since antiquity. Delphi, beginning in the 8th century BC, was considered an important center, the naval of the ancient world. The authority and guidance of this oracular sanctuary of Pythian Apollo was respected by Greeks and foreigners alike wishing to send out colonies, establish new cults, settle political disputes, sanction military campaigns, clarify ethical and judicial principles or simply resolve ordinary concerns arising from the daily uncertainties of the human experience. Unlike rites practiced in other Greek sanctuaries that remained closely guarded secrets, such as those of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the rituals and divine utterances of Apollo’s oracle at Delphi were subjects recorded and commented upon by numerous ancient writers through the centuries, including Pliny the Elder, Diodorus Siculus, Plato, Aeschylus, Cicero, Strabo and Plutarch. The exact workings of the oracle were never fully understood but authors generally agree on the existence of a chasm, over which sat the Pythian priestess inhaling vapors or sipping spring water that aided in her transmission of Apollo’s often ambiguous judgments.

Plutarch, a Boeotian native who gained fame in late 1st century AD Rome for his essays and biographies, provides a firsthand account of the oracle at Delphi. As a senior priest who long served in the sanctuary, Plutarch recorded detailed observations of the Pythian priestess’s trance-like, occasionally erratic behavior during sacred rituals. Plutarch’s fascinating account nevertheless offered only tantalizing clues into the true nature of the oracle’s operation – until a multidisciplinary team of specialists in the late 20th century uncovered tangible proof that affirmed the historical text’s remarkable accuracy.

Plutarch observed a sweet, perfume-like odor emanating from the Apollo temple’s inner sanctum (adyton), which he attributed to vapors and springwater issuing from beneath the building’s foundations. These emissions were not strong in his day but sufficient to place the priestess (perhaps preconditioned through fasting) in a mild trance-like state. She listened to visitors’ questions, chanted her responses in a strangely altered voice and afterward was visibly fatigued. Plutarch relates that, on one occasion, the priestess exhibited a dramatic, adverse reaction to conditions within the adyton, lapsing into hysteria, shrieks and convulsions before ultimately collapsing and eventually dying.

Archaeologists began to unearth Delphi’s ruins in the late 19th century but found no trace of a crevice in the ground that might have emitted vapors. Sources of springwater near the temple of Apollo also defied detection. For nearly a century, specialists believed the ancient texts were wrong. Then, in the 1980s and 90s, new geological findings at Delphi began to unravel the mystery. Archaeologist John Hale assembled a multidisciplinary team, including a geologist, a chemist and a toxicologist, that re-examined Delphi’s landscape and pieced together a fascinating explanation.

Delphi rests on bituminous limestone, with two subterranean faults that meet directly beneath the Apollo temple. Periodic shifting of these faults in antiquity probably created friction and heat that released petrochemicals in the limestone in the form of vapor. Geological coring also revealed a natural spring uphill from the temple, previously attested by Pausanias in the 2nd century AD. Analysis of the water led to the discovery of ethylene, a sweet-smelling gas, which in ancient times must have been a component not only of the local spring but also of the rising vapors. Anesthesiologists previously experimented with ethylene in the mid-20th century, during which they discovered a trance-like state could be induced. Larger doses caused unconsciousness. Occasionally, test patients became incoherent and convulsive. Ethylene gas, then, seems to be the secret behind the Pythian priestess’s behavior. Over the last decade, the scientific findings of Hale and his collaborators have revolutionized the understanding of Apollo’s oracle at Delphi and reaffirmed the credibility of ancient observers.

Also highly respected in ancient times, and reputed by historical sources to have been older than Delphi, was Zeus’ oracular sanctuary at Dodona, set among magnificent mountains southwest of Ioannina. Homer’s characters Achilles and Odysseus refer to Dodona (see below) and archaeologists have indeed traced the site’s foundation back to the Mycenaean era in the 2nd millennium BC. Like Apollo’s cult at Delphi, however, Zeus seems to have inherited a shrine previously sacred to Gaia, the Earth Mother goddess.
The reading of signs and answering of pilgrims’ questions followed distinctive rituals at Dodona, where Zeus and Dione (formerly Gaia) were worshipped in the open air around a sacred oak tree. The remains of a stone altar and many bronze and iron tripods attest to the tradition that Zeus’ priests, the Selli, interpreted his will from the reverberating sounds of metal cauldrons arranged in a continuous circle around the base of the oak.

Omens also were read from the rustling of the oak’s leaves and the flights of doves that inhabited its branches. From the first half of the 4th century BC Zeus’ shrine became monumentalized in stone. A small temple was constructed beside the oak tree and a wall surrounded the complex pierced by an ornamental gateway. The oracles at Delphi and Dodona continued to operate until the 4th century AD, when the rising popularity of Christianity finally led to the Apollo sanctuary’s closure and the felling and uprooting of Zeus’ sacred oak at Dodona.

Homer’s accounts
From “The Iliad” (16, 231 ff.):
Achilles prays to Dodonaean Zeus while his friend Patroclus, dressed in Achilles’ armor, sets off to fight Hector.
“Then [Achilles] made prayer, standing in the midst of the court, and poured forth the wine, looking up to heaven… ‘Zeus, thou king, Dodonaean, Pelasgian, thou that dwellest afar, ruling over wintry Dodona, and about thee dwell the Selli, thine interpreters, men with unwashen feet that couch on the ground… My comrade am I sending forth… to war: with him do thou send forth glory, O Zeus, whose voice is borne afar, and make bold the heart in his breast… [and] let him come back to the swift ships with all his arms and his comrades…’”

From “The Odyssey” (19, 296 ff.):
Odysseus, in the guise of a wandering beggar, speaks to his unknowing wife Penelope, reassuring her that Odysseus is in the area and will soon return.
“But Odysseus, he said, had gone to Dodona to hear the will of Zeus from the high-crested oak of the god, even how he might return to his dear native land after so long an absence, whether openly or in secret. ‘Thus, as I tell thee, he is safe, and will presently come; he is very near, and not long will he now be far from his friends and his native land.’”

For some of our previous coverage of John Hale’s work and the ‘gas’ theory:

… and some skepticism of the theory (an abstract at the end of this):

There is also an episode of In Our Time:

Circumundique July 27-31

Around the Classical blogosphere the past little while:

Some AIA Reviews

Excerpted from the latest AIA e-Update:

At Empire’s Edge: Project Paphlagonia. Regional Survey in North-Central Turkey
Edited by Roger Matthews and Claudia Glatz
Reviewed by James Newhard

Scholars, Travels, Archives: Greek History and Culture Through the British School at Athens. Proceedings of a Conference Held at the National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens, 6-7 October 2006
Edited by Michael Llewellyn Smith, Paschalis M. Kitromilides, and Eleni Calligas
Reviewed by John Griffiths Pedley

Archaeology in Situ: Sites, Archaeology, and Communities in Greece
Edited by Anna Stroulia and Susan Buck Sutton
Reviewed by James Whitley

The Chora of Croton 1: The Neolithic Settlement at Capo Alfiere
By Jon Morter
Reviewed by Dante G. Bartoli

Archaic State Interaction: The Eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze Age
Edited by William A. Parkinson and Michael L. Galaty
Reviewed by Cynthia W. Shelmerdine

Minoan Kato Zakro: A Pastoral Economy
By Judith Reid
Reviewed by Kostas Sbonias

Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel. Vol. 6, Oxford, the Ashmolean Museum
By Helen Hughes-Brock
Reviewed by Olga Krzyszkowska

The Sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Syme Viannou. Vol. 4, Animal Images of Clay
By Polymnia Muhly
Reviewed by Anna Lucia D’Agata

Prima delle colonie: Organizzazione territoriale e produzioni ceramiche specializzate in Basilicata e Calabria settentrionale ionica nella prima età del ferro. Atti delle Giornate di Studio, Matera, 20–21 novembre 2007
Edited by Marco Bettelli, Cecilia de Faveri, and Massimo Osanna
Reviewed by Edward Herring

Leontinoi: Archeologia di una colonia greca
By Massimo Frasca
Reviewed by Franco De Angelis

Pheidias: The Sculptures & Ancient Sources
By Claire Cullen Davison
Reviewed by Andrew Stewart

Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. Greece 11. Athens 1: Museum of Cycladic Art
By Kleopatra Kathariou
Reviewed by David W.J. Gill

Apollonia Pontica 2007
By Roald Docter, Kristina Panayotova, Jan de Boer, Lieve Donnellan, Winfred van de Put, and Babette Bechtold
Reviewed by Elias K. Petropoulos

I complessi archeologici di Trestina e di Fabbrecce nel Museo Archeologico di Firenze
Edited by Fulvia Lo Schiavo and Antonella Romualdi
Reviewed by Jean MacIntosh Turfa

Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy: A Contextual Approach to Religious Aspects of Rural Society After the Roman Conquest
By Tesse Stek
Reviewed by Elizabeth Colantoni

The Horace’s Villa Project, 1997-2003: Report on New Fieldwork and Research
Edited by Bernard Frischer, Jane Crawford, and Monica de Simone
Reviewed by Jeremy Rossiter

Urbem adornare: Die Stadt Rom und ihre Gestaltumwandlung unter Augustus
By Lothar Haselberger
Reviewed by John Bert Lott

Vesuviana: Archeologie a confronto. Atti del convegno internazionale (Bologna, 14-16 gennaio 2008)
Edited by Antonella Coralini
Reviewed by Catalin Pavel

Framing Public Life: The Portico in Roman Gaul
By James F.D. Frakes
Reviewed by James C. Anderson, Jr.

… and they have a Museum review too:

Perceptions of the New Acropolis Museum
Reviewed by Miriam Caskey

Pantheon Sundial *Redux*

This one just started to make the rounds last night while I was drifting off … here’s the salient bit from the Telegraph (tip o’ the pileus to Terrence Lockyer for being first off the mark with this one … my spiders must still be sleeping):


Giulio Magli, a historian of ancient architecture from Milan Polytechnic, Italy, and Robert Hannah, a classics scholar from the University of Otago in New Zealand, have discovered that at precisely midday during the March equinox, a circular shaft of light shines through the oculus and illuminates the Pantheon’s imposing entrance.

They have been working on the theory since 2009 but recently brought together all their latest research in a paper published in a scholarly journal, Numen.

The precise calculations made in the positioning and construction of the Pantheon mean that the size and shape of the beam perfectly matches, down to the last inch, a semicircular stone arch above the doorway.

A similar effect is seen on April 21, which the Romans celebrated as the founding date of their city, when at midday the sun beam strikes a metal grille above the doorway, flooding the colonnaded courtyard outside with light.

The dramatic displays would have been seen by the Romans as elevating an emperor into the realm of the gods – a cosmological affirmation of his divine power as he entered the building, which was used as an audience hall as well as a place of worship.

He was in effect being “invited” by the sun to enter the Pantheon, which as its name suggests was dedicated to the most important deities of the Roman world.

“The emperor would have been illuminated as if by film studio lights,” said Professor Magli. “The Romans believed the relationship between the emperor and the heavens was at its closest during the equinoxes.

It would have been a glorification of the power of the emperor, and of Rome itself.” The sun had a special significance for the Romans, as it did for the ancient Egyptians. The god Apollo was associated with the sun, and the emperor Nero was depicted as the Greek sun god Helios in a giant statue called the Colossus, which gave its name to the Colosseum.

One of antiquity’s most remarkable examples of engineering, the Pantheon’s fine state of preservation is thanks to the fact that it was converted into a church in the seventh century, when it was presented to the Pope by the Byzantine Emperor Phocas.

It retains its original bronze doors and marble columns, some of which were quarried in the Egyptian desert and transported by the ship down the Nile and across the Mediterranean to Rome at huge expense.

The building now contains the tombs of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy, and the Renaissance artist Raphael.

As some of us were mentioning last night on Twitter, this really isn’t anything new. A similar report came out a couple of years ago, which we pondered for a bit: Pantheon Sundial?.  On the theory itself, one should definitely read a post by Alun Salt: Light In The Pantheon And Ancient Astronomy. Judith Weingarten also weighed in on the theory: Time Gazing at the Pantheon in Rome. I’m not sure if there’s a new study out (other than the one in New Scientist mentioned in our previous post), but this is one of those things where surely computer modelling could prove useful? Whatever the case, it’s becoming pretty clear that Hadrian may have had a predeliction for aligning his structures according to the sun (cf., e.g., Hadrianic Alignment)