Recent discoveries suggest
that the Pythian priestess
was "inspired" by snorting
natural gas fumes.
The Oracle of Methane
by D. Trull
The probings of modern science generally serve to dismantle the mystique behind ancient mysteries, recklessly spoiling everything with tedious explanations of what really happened. But on rare occasions, the real story isn't so boring, and it actually makes the legend even weirder than before.
Such a discovery has now blessed us, and it involves the ancient world's precursor to the Psychic Friends Network, the Greek Oracle of Delphi. Famed for predicting that Oedipus was doomed for some severe parental problems, the oracle could never have foreseen its own fate: that one day in the far future, learned scholars would prove its mystical powers to be linked to cow flatulence.
Sounds like a load of bull? Then let us be like unto the prophet Teiresias, so that the blind may see the truth! (And maybe smell it, too.)
The Oracle of Delphi was housed in the temple of Apollo, constructed at Mt. Parnassus in the 6th century B.C., about a hundred miles from Athens. A female medium known as the Pythian priestess, or Pythia, served as the vessel who delivered the oracle's prophecies granted from the gods. Pythia prepared herself for prognosticating in a cave that she used as her private chamber, where she worked herself into a bizarre delirium of inspiration by such means as drinking blood and chewing laurel leaves. Then she would sit atop a three-legged platform and spew forth frenzied, semi-coherent pronouncements not unlike Jimmy Swaggart, as priests transliterated her spiel into hexameter verse prophecies.
Many Greek accounts indicate that Pythia breathed in "divine vapors" from her tripod perch, inhaling unidentified gases that flowed through cracks in the limestone on which the temple was built. Scientists have long denied that such vapors could have naturally occurred. A French excavation team 20 years ago uncovered no evidence of a cave or volcanic activity in the area of Mt. Parnassus, and it was concluded that the oracle's mystical vapors were purely a fabrication.
But now, geologists are having second thoughts about the truth behind Delphic inspiration. Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, a geologist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, has determined that the oracle was built atop a major fault zone, at the intersection of fractures running in different directions. At such a fault zone, subterranean gases can escape to the surface, even if the area is not volcanic.
Dr. de Boer explains that a variety of vapors could well have wafted into the Oracle of Delphi during periods of geological activity. Among the gases would have been ethylene, which is an anesthetic, and ethane and methane, which can cause mild narcotic effects if inhaled.
So in effect, Pythia truly was inspired by gases she respired, issuing her psychic babblings while high on methane fumes. Now, isn't that a much more interesting explanation than plain old mystical cosmic forces? Anything that confirms the true celestial significance of intestinal gas is A-OK in my book. You can imagine my excitement when I read of how Pythia became "filled with divine afflatus" at the outset of each oracle session, but disappointingly, "afflatus" doesn't mean what it sounds like.
This moment of glory presents a perfect opportunity to clear the air regarding methane, that most maligned of gaseous compounds. Good ol' CH4 is often blamed with putting the smarts into farts, when in fact it's odorless; that pungent aroma actually derives from proteins and fats in the digestive process. Methane may properly be credited with the delightful blue flames to be wrought from a rumbling colon, a Bic lighter, and a Beavis-level ingenuity. That is a virtue not to be dismissed lightly. Oh yeah, methane's also used for natural gas home heating and stuff.
And while it's true that bovine methane output is increasing the atmospheric levels at the rate of one percent per year, precipitating global warming, maybe the Oracle of Delphi revelation brings a silver lining to this deadly cloud: if everybody on the planet starts breathing enough methane, we might collectively become psychic enough to foresee our environmental collapse before it's too late.
Sources: Electronic Telegraph; Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, 1991; The Straight Dope, Cecil Adams, 1984
(c) Copyright 1997 ParaScope, Inc.