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It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

The so-called pythoness of Delphi was, for many centuries, the world’s most renowned oracle. Generals and statesmen and ordinary folks traveled to Greece to gain her counsel — or, rather, the counsel of the god Apollo, who spoke through her. She guided the course of conquests and commerce, marriage and monarchy. She presided at the Temple of Apollo, which was adorned by two famous inscriptions: “Know Thyself” and “Nothing Too Much” — sound enough advice, echoed often by the saints.

St. Athanasius tells us that, upon the coming of Jesus Christ, the oracle at Delphi fell permanently silent. Indeed, the Pythia does seem to have clammed up around the beginning of the Common Era. The pagans, however, gave the credit to the Emperor Hadrian, who put a plug in the place after 117 A.D. The oracle had assisted him in his accession to the purple. He wanted to make sure no one followed too closely in his soothseeking footsteps.

The prophetess may have fallen silent, but perhaps it was from a longish case of laryngitis, because we know that at least one late emperor consulted her, and with calamitous effect. In 303 A.D., Diocletian asked her why the utterances had declined, and she replied that it was the fault of the Christians. Historians say this was one of the precipitating causes of Diocletian’s ruthless persecution. Much later in the fourth century, the emperor Julian (“the Apostate”) restored the shrine and its oracle as part of his program of re-paganizing the Roman world. But, by then, the old oracle just sounded tired: “Tell the King,” she said, “that the curiously built temple has fallen to the ground, that bright Apollo no longer has a roof over his head, or prophetic laurel, or babbling spring. Yes, even the murmuring water has dried up.” The Christian Emperor Theodosius shut the place down for good in the 393.

Now scientific research adds insult to injury. Researchers now claim that the oracle got her enlightenment from inhaling gases that seeped upward from the bowels of the earth. Methane, ethylene, and carbon dioxide are contenders.

It’s kind of sad to think that Rome’s final, brutal persecution of the Church resulted from the same process that produced the lyrics of Donovan, Pink Floyd, and Yes. But, whatever.

If only the Pythia could speak to us today, what might she say?

“Dude, did you ever think about your hand? I mean, really think about your hand?”

Maybe the stoners were on to something. Knowing thyself might as well begin with, like, really knowing thy hand. But, even then, one shouldn’t let one’s self-contemplation get out of hand. Nothing too much, after all.

6 thoughts on “It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

  1. I’ve always been fascinated with the connnection with Acts 16:16-18, the woman with the “python spirit” near Philippi, who followed Paul, provoking a rebuke.

  2. Lrr: People of Earth… woah, that hippie’s starting to kick in… we’ve all learned a valuable lesson today… dude, my hands are huge. They can touch anything but themselves… (touches his hands together). Oh, wait.

    Oh Futurama, is there anything your quotes don’t work for?

  3. Deuteronomy prohibits communication with a “python spirit,” though the terms are usually translated into English as a prohibition of “divination” or somesuch. If memory serves, I think the Witch of Endor was also in touch with a python spirit. The Vulgate employed the word “pythonissa,” I believe.

  4. “It’s kind of sad to think that Rome’s final, brutal persecution of the Church resulted from the same process that produced the lyrics of Donovan, Pink Floyd, and Yes. But, whatever.”

    I’ve believed for a long time that psychadelic drugs can put one in touch with demons, which were what pagans worshipped.

    Interesting post.

  5. Thanks for the laugh this morning Mike!

  6. They’ve been talking about this for years (at least 15 of them!), and they’re pretty well-settled on the gas idea, but have yet to figure out the precise gas. The area is seismically active, and there’s no leakage now, but they’ve detected deposits in the spring nearby (which occasionally stops flowing for long periods between seismic activity, too). Maybe it’ll start up again. The short careers of the Pythia girls, who only did it for one year at a time, with some actually having died from too much exposure, and some of the other symptoms (convulsions, etc), the incoherent speech, and so on, and not least of all the ancient Greeks themselves telling us that it was gases from a chasm in the earth that the girls breathed, are all a part of this discovery. But remember, the way it worked was that the Pythia would mumble something or other and the priests would then compose the response in nice hexameter for the waiting questioner. Tracking the declining quality of the hexameter also bothered the ancients. And other oracles went silent, too, not just Delphi, which some (like the jealous priests at Delphi? a bitter “Apollo”? a mischievous teenaged Pythia?) relate to the growth of Christianity among the populace and diverting the attentions (and donations!) to Christ and the Church. Plutarch writes on both themes: The Oracles at Delphi No Longer Given in Verse, and The Obsolescence of Oracles are in his Moralia (volume 306 of the Loeb Classical Library). It’s great stuff.

    I do believe that something had been formerly going on at the various oracles and temples, some kind of spiritual activity or influence, but that by a later age the almighty denarius had overcome any scruples the locals once had about faking it in the lean periods.

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