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.