Johns Hopkins University Press
  • The Oracle at Delphi:Unknowability at the Heart of the Ancient Greek World

history has been famously described as just one damn thing after another—an endless list of events. Yet, of course, to define history as such would be to sell it very short indeed. The canvas of our human past is vast, varied, and complex, existing in an infinite number of simultaneous events, a similar number of perceptions and interpretations of those events, and a wide range of reactions and decisions emerging from them. In response to such a vast canvas of inquiry, historians have prioritized: not all unknowns, it turns out, are created equal. The study of history has thus coalesced traditionally around two types of unknown. Not "known and unknown" unknowns, but rather, "unknowns we would like to know," and "unknowns we don't currently think it important to know."

These two categories of unknown have dealt with unknowability in very different ways. In relation to the first category—unknowns we would like to know—I would argue that historical study has traditionally left little room for unknowability. This is essentially because the process of writing history allows for the creation of authoritative visions of the past in many ways independent of the degree to which the past is known or unknown, and independent of the degree to which that vision is provable in any scientific sense. [End Page 51]

On any given topic, the historian consults evidence surviving from a range of different types of primary sources and tries to form a picture of what happened, how those events were understood, and their consequences. To do so crucially involves the active judgment of the historian in weighing up a range of sources: some will be closer to the topic in question, either geographically or temporally; others will perhaps be given greater weight as more authoritative based on who produced them or due to the source material through which they have survived. Rarely are all those decisions clear-cut—and thus, often each historian, exercising their judgment on what sources they choose to listen to and prioritize, will create a different picture of the past based on the same set of sources.

There is, however, almost never sufficient primary evidence to fill the gap of the unknown completely. The historian then turns to creating an argument, a vision, for how they think we should fill in the gaps, perhaps by comparing the topic in question to a similar period, event, or idea elsewhere in time and space. Most often, they do this in conjunction with the visions produced by previous scholars working in the field (the "secondary scholarship")—offering arguments as to why they agree with some and not with others, expanding or reworking aspects of previous visions, to produce what they feel to be the most compelling version of events.

These versions of events, these visions of the past, cannot be subjected to any kind of scientific process of proof because they are based on arguments, suppositions, and ideas about a topic that is only known about through a patchwork of often uncertain sources. Instead, historians' visions for how we should understand the past acquire their authority through a process of debate, judgment, and acceptance by the general historical community based on what is considered most reasonable and convincing. Visions may be discarded as less convincing than previous attempts to fill the gap, or they may be accepted, replacing those previous visions of the topic. Or they might find their place alongside a number of visions for how we should understand that topic, each of which is favored by different collections [End Page 52] of historians for a variety of different reasons. And so the process goes on—without any necessary end. A historian's vision for an aspect of the unknown in our past only stands for as long as it is not successfully challenged. As the saying goes, "only the future is certain, the past just keeps on changing."

As such, we need to acknowledge that in writing the story of the past, and in accepting particular visions of it, historians are not only creating, challenging, and agreeing with visions that are themselves melting pots of facts, opinions, judgments, arguments, and assertions; but they are also doing so, like it or not, subject to their own likes and dislikes, prejudices and preferences, just as the historical community itself is subject to wider disciplinary and societal pressures, fads, perceptions, and views, all of which weighs in on what vision of the past comes out in the wash as the most accepted or authoritative. While we have made great strides in recent decades toward clearer articulation within arguments to distinguish between facts, opinion, and argument, and while, more widely, historians strive to be more objective and aware of the wider biases and influences acting on them, it is, I would argue, impossible within history to be completely objective.

The knock-on impact for historical enquiry is twofold. I think there is very rarely an unknown that historians would be willing to classify as fully known (job done, no more to be said here) since there is always an acknowledgement that a topic could be better known and understood (and that the accepted vision for it remains ultimately unprovable). Historians have also traditionally, within the category of "unknowns they would like to know," rejected the existence of a concept of unknowability. A vision of any particular aspect of the past that interests us has always been created through a process of weighing up the surviving sources and supplementing the framework they offer with argument and discussion to produce a more or less whole vision, which potentially goes on to find authority and acceptance within the wider scholarly community. [End Page 53]

In contrast, the second category of historical unknown, the "unknowns we don't currently think it important to know," functions rather differently. Historians have here been much more willing to accept a concept of unknowability. This category is composed most obviously of the periods, people, groups, ideas, movements, and places that historians have chosen not to investigate because they have not considered that topic to be of interest, importance, or relevance. Indeed, scholars have often justified that disinterest via a claim to its unknowability: "there's no point investigating this or that because there is no surviving evidence," and such. In addition, the (circular) claim has often then been made that because there is little to no surviving evidence, this must have been a topic of little importance at the time—and thus not necessary for us to study or know about.

Examples here might be the histories of minority and non-elite groups, of particular races, of women and slaves. In relation to my field, the historical study of the ancient world, for example, the study of the role, position, rights, and ideas of women in antiquity has only come onto the mainstream scholarly agenda in the last 60 years, thanks to changing attitudes and opportunities in our modern society. As such, this category of the unknown, once not of interest and thus often claimed to be unknowable, has moved to become part of the "unknowns we would like to know about" and subsequently been studied in the format outlined above—with the result that we have "realized" it is not as unknowable as we previously had claimed.

The movement of topics from the second category of historical unknown to the first (and indeed sometimes vice versa: we in the field of antiquity are less interested in studying and knowing about warfare than we were in the past, for example) clearly tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the past. What we choose to study and not to study, to label as an unknown we would like to know versus one we are not interested in investigating, is an implicit statement of the values of the period and society undertaking the historical investigation, just as much as the particular visions of the past we coalesce around are as convincing and authoritative at any one [End Page 54] point in time. In short, the unknown in history is often a mirror for ourselves: it forces us to reflect on the roles we play in constructing the narratives of our past.

To exemplify this outline of unknowability in history, I offer perhaps one of the richest and most intriguing examples of responses to the unknown that I know of from the ancient world.


In place of a single ancient source telling us how the Delphic oracle operated, we have a patchwork of sources from the seventh century BCE through to the fourth century CE that treat different aspects of the consultation process; give different origin stories for how the oracle at Delphi came into being; describe differently the architectural space within the Temple of the god Apollo at Delphi where the consultation took place; describe differently how a consultant approached and asked their question of the oracle, how the response was given to them, and, perhaps most importantly, how the oracular priestess—the Pythia—was "inspired" to give her response. In addition, we have not a single response of the oracle surviving directly to us. In comparison to other oracular sanctuaries within the ancient Greek world—like, for example, the sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona in northern Greece, where the questions and answers were inscribed on lead tablets buried within the sanctuary that have since been excavated—both the questions put to the oracle at Delphi and the responses given are relayed to us through a wide-ranging number of ancient texts that were written decades, if not centuries, after the consultations took place (Scott 2014, 9–30; Parke and Wormell 1956).

Yet in comparison to this uncertainty and unknowability swirling about the oracle of Delphi, one thing is absolutely certain: this was an institution that commanded huge respect across the ancient Mediterranean world for roughly 1,000 years, with individuals, cities, leagues, kings, and even Roman emperors coming to Delphi to consult the oracle. Nor was Delphi simply a place in which to communicate with the gods about the unknowns in the future. It gradually [End Page 55] acquired a reputation as a center for philosophical discussion and discovery (it was associated with the Seven Sages from the time of Plato onward, and the famous phrase gnothi seauton, "know thyself," was said to be inscribed above the entrance to the temple of Apollo). In the third century BCE, we find "the wise words of Delphi" inscribed on a monument in the settlement of Ai Khanoum in modern-day Afghanistan. And by the early centuries CE, Delphi had become not simply a place of tourism to the marvelous monuments it contained, but also a meeting place for people traveling from the four corners of the ancient Mediterranean world, driven by stories circulating from the first century CE onward by ancient writers like Strabo that positioned Delphi as the physical center of the ancient world.

In short, Delphi was one of the critical institutions of the ancient Mediterranean world, with an unparalleled reputation as a place for helping consultants not only to access knowledge about the future but also to understand the fundamental truths and meaning of life itself, situated (as it came to be understood) at the very center of the world. Delphi has therefore always fallen within the category of an unknown we would like to know about. And yet, at its heart—unusually, compared to other oracular sanctuaries within the ancient Mediterranean world—is the figure of a woman, who, on the face of it, albeit inspired by the gods, seems to have had huge influence over decisions made by individuals, kings, communities, and empires. As such, while until fairly recently women in antiquity fell into the second category of historical unknown (one scholars were not interested in knowing about), this woman in particular did not.


Scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean world has thus long been obsessed with the study of Delphi, particularly the issue of how the Pythian priestess at the center of it all gave her responses to consultants. In the run-up to the late nineteenth century, the most well-known and accepted explanation of how the oracle at Delphi worked related to stories told in the (chronologically) later, Roman-era sources. Ancient writers like Strabo (Geography 9.419) and Diodorus [End Page 56] Siculus (Library of History 16.26) wrote of a chasm in the ground from which emerged vapors that caused frenzy and that, once breathed in, caused the Pythian priestess, who was said to sit on a tripod above the chasm, to prophesize (Oppé 1904, 216–19). This image of the priestess—breathing in mysterious vapors coming from the ground, falling into a frenzy or trance, and then responding to a consultant's question as if possessed or inspired by the god Apollo—became popular far and wide outside academia, and inspired John Collier's 1891 painting of the priestess surrounded by fumes (see figure 1), despite the absence of earlier sources (dating back to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo in the seventh century BCE) mentioning a similar process of inspiration for the priestess.

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What conspired to make the Delphic oracle—and this particular representation of how she came to prophesize—such a popular and well-known subject of study by the late nineteenth century?

Interest in ancient Greece generally had developed at a great pace since the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s. Greece, freed from the Ottoman Empire, was once again accessible to Western Europe in a way it had not been since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. With this came a rebirth of interest in, and desire to have a direct connection to, ancient Greece. Western European nations fell over themselves not only to link themselves to the political and cultural values of ancient Greece, but also to have a hand in the archaeological discovery of its remains. The first archaeological site in Greece, the Acropolis of Athens, was declared in 1833, with other Western European nations competing to win the rights to excavate and publish the remains of other key sites (e.g., the Germans won the right to excavate the site of Olympia in 1875).

Yet while this can explain the huge popular and scholarly interest in ancient Greece and such an important institution as Delphi in its story, it does not explain why the chronologically later sources relating to the frenzied possession of the Pythian priestess by vapors emerging from the ground were given such prominence in the explanation for how the oracle operated. On the one hand, such sources were given prominence because they were reported within texts from the Roman era of Delphi's existence. The Roman take on ancient Greece—across vast swathes of its history and culture—has been shown to be particularly attractive to Western scholarship because of the much longer close connection between the Roman world and the West. Whereas the West only rediscovered its love for Greece in the early nineteenth century, its admiration for (and connection with) Rome goes much further back (e.g., the debates of the founders of the American Constitution, in which they chose to copy aspects of the Roman Constitution—capitol, senate, and such—and buy into Roman characterizations of the unseemly nature of ancient Athenian democracy). [End Page 58]

In addition, echoes of the fumes-possession story were understood to be found in Plutarch, a writer of the first century CE (and thus also of the Roman era) who served as a priest of Apollo at Delphi. His physical (and spiritual) proximity to the consultation process and his reputation as a scholar and philosopher of the ancient Greek world lent credence to this picture of how the Pythian priestess was inspired. At the same time, such an image of consultation was also acceptable, no doubt, because it placed the powerful female oracular priestess in the position of being a conduit between the divine and the human worlds: a mouthpiece for the gods rather than a powerful figure in her own right.

On the other hand, however, there was also another reason such an image of a fumes-inspired oracle at Delphi was so popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. In Victorian Britain at this time, there was a huge rise of interest in the occult: Queen Victoria, for instance, was known to have attended a séance. By the 1880s, the academic community, too, had become fascinated with trying to study and explain elements of the supernatural. In 1882, academics, including Lewis Carroll and Alfred Lord Tennyson, founded the Society for Psychical Research. Its first journal volume called for a detailed examination of "the ancient oracles, especially at Delphi" in order to gather evidence of the long-enduring existence of the supernatural (Lach-Szybma 1885, 284). At the same time, Frederick Myers, who introduced the British public to the works of Freud, published an essay on the oracles of ancient Greece, expressing hope that the science behind these activities would be understood (Myers 1911, 41). As such, Victorian Britain was obsessed with pushing the boundaries of knowledge in its own world, with discovering what had hitherto been thought unknowable, and that obsession in turn led some to focus even more carefully on Delphi and to prioritize a very particular version of how that oracle operated in antiquity.

All that was left now was to "prove" the fumes-inspiration story by archaeological excavation. The site of Delphi had been lost since the late seventh century CE, its ruins later subsumed underneath [End Page 59] a modern village, whose inhabitants had little idea of the hallowed ground they lived on. Visitation to the area increased from the sixteenth century, but no major investigations could take place due to the community living on top of the site. By the 1890s, as different European nations, as well as America, vied to win the right to excavate key ancient Greek sites, Delphi remained the final elusive prize. A 10-year diplomatic war between France, Germany, and the United States for permission to excavate Delphi was finally won by the French, and the "big dig," as it was known—which also included the buying out of the villagers and the building of new homes for them elsewhere—was carried out over the next decade, into the early 1900s.

Interest in what the excavators would find was at a fever pitch because of public and academic interest in ancient Greece, in Delphi, and in the oracle as an ancient example of the occult. Nor was such interest in the oracle confined to Britain. In 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded. In May 1891, the same year excavations at Delphi began, a burlesque opera entitled "Apollo: or the Oracle at Delphi" opened in New York at the Casino—the first American theater built specifically for musicals. It was a smash hit (New York Times 1891, 8). Each archaeological season's discoveries over the following decade became world news. But, above all, everyone was waiting to see what the excavators would find inside the temple itself.

The result, however, was a resounding disappointment. Despite extensive excavations of the temple and its substrata, no clear chasm in the floor of the temple was found. In 1904, Adolph Oppé pointed out the fact that the chasm-vapors theory was only supported by a small percentage of the surviving literary sources (suddenly this was a "problem" in a way that it had not been up to this point); he also recorded the first official verdict on the finds from the excavation as "with regard to the mephitic chasm one can only say that with the best will in the world the French excavators have failed to find a trace of it" (233). [End Page 60]

How the scholarly world reacted to this discrepancy between the "accepted" (or rather, "acceptable") story from the ancient sources and the archaeological realities of the site itself underlines the powerful role we have in shaping and reshaping our past.

Some refused to accept the findings. The Reverend T. Dempsey, writing in 1918, insisted on the need to dismiss the idea that the oracle was "a mere sham, a conscious fraud trading on the credulity of a superstitious age" (61). Instead, he argued, perhaps earthquakes over the centuries had covered up the chasm at the temple: just because archaeology did not find it does not mean it was not there in antiquity.

Other scholars, while agreeing that the chasm and vapors theory needed to be abandoned altogether, sought alternative forms of physical "inspiration" for the frenzy of the Pythian priestess. In 1933, Leicester Holland argued that a smokestack placed underneath the Pythia had somehow created a drug-laden smoke, sending the Pythian into her frenzy (and that the Pythia and other temple authorities collaborated to create this). Alternatively, a German scholar, Professor Oesterreich, took practical archaeology to new heights by chewing vast quantities of laurel (alluded to in other fragmentary sources about the Pythian priestess) to see if this induced any kind of inspirational effect. Disappointed, he declared himself "no more inspired than usual" (Dodds 1951, 73).

For others, however, the failure to find a chasm and vapors required a repurposing away from finding a physical cause for the Pythian priestess's inspiration and instead towards the search for a psychological one, in order to keep the Delphic oracle as an example of the occult in antiquity. In the 1940s, E. R. Dodds, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford and president of the Society for Psychical Research, argued that the oracle was a potential example of a different kind of occult: of psychic power and telepathy in antiquity (1946). For Dodds, belief that psychic powers had existed in antiquity was a prerequisite for the belief that they existed in the modern world. [End Page 61]

Such a shift, however, toward a search for psychological causes of the Pythia's inspiration simultaneously chimed with the ongoing need in much scholarship to brand the female priestess at the center of the system as little more than a conduit for divine or male human interaction. Frederick Poulsen, writing in 1920, argued that "one does well to reject the physical and hold fast to mental causes, hysterical affection, which in every religion make women serviceable media" (40).

By 1950, however, the new generation of French scholars who now ran the excavations at Delphi responded with their own take on the problem: a priestess, inspired by whatever physical or psychological means, could never come up with responses as clear, articulate, and sensible as those preserved in the ancient sources that encouraged people to keep coming back to the sanctuary over the centuries. As such, the only explanation was that the Pythian priestess was a front for a collection of clever priests at Delphi who devised the responses, entirely without divine inspiration (Amandry 1950). In short, Delphi was a cunning con, a trick. The Pythia was a fraud, a front, a mouthpiece.

This quickly became the accepted line: a combination of clever (male) priests feeding responses to a willing and malleable (female) priestess. As Parke and Wormell, who produced one of the most authoritative catalogues of Delphic responses, put it, "probably the majority of these women … were simple tools … the signs of emotional instability and a tendency to abnormal behaviour may have been a recommendation… if due allowance is made for the circumstances, modern psychology will find no special difficulty in accounting for the operations of the Pythia" (1956, 38).

Over the course of the 50–60 years since the initial excavation of Delphi, we have seen a general preference for Roman-era sources and a heightened interest in the occult, coupled with a desire for linkage with ancient Greece, place a very particular vision of how the oracle at Delphi functioned front and center in the popular and academic imaginations. The corresponding lack of archaeological confirmation [End Page 62] of the preferred explanation of the oracular process led to three branches of explanation: there must have been another kind of physical stimulant to inspiration; the inspiration was entirely psychological; or, the inspiration was incidental to the cold calculated responses of a (male) team behind the (female) Pythia. All three placed an emphasis on a characterization of the Pythia as little more than a pawn in the process.

Behind this shift from vapor-led divine inspiration as an example of the ancient occult toward a misogynistic charade defrauding antiquity, there was another, greater force at work: the need to imagine (and indeed to shape) ancient Greece as a "rational," "sophisticated" ancestor of the modern world. Scholarship, focused more widely on Greek philosophical thought, culture, and politics, sought to craft the ancient Greeks, in their new position as the privileged ancestors of Western culture, as the ultimate exempla of rational beings—and thus as an example of a sophisticated rather than primitive ancient society. And the very definition of rationality and sophistication that was proposed and imposed on ancient Greece—derived from the Socratic search for truth and fact through the continual questioning of assumptions until one reached base principles—left little room for the occult and tales of the supernatural.

The Delphic oracle—as a central institution with huge philosophical and cultural weight in the ancient world, at whose heart supposedly sat an example of irrational supernatural inspiration—was ultimately caught in a tug-of-war between these two camps of scholarship seeking to recast antiquity in different, particular molds. The oracle at Delphi could not be the beating heart of a rational, sophisticated society and a mechanism of physical or psychic inspiration at the same time (especially with a woman at its heart). The only way Delphi could remain a key institution of a rational sophisticated ancient Greece—as that rationality had been defined—was for explainers of the oracle to drop comparisons to the occult and to argue instead that it was a clever con operated by men. [End Page 63]

It is no accident that E. R. Dodds, just five years after he argued for the equal existence of psychic and telepathic powers in antiquity and modernity, published his most famous book, Greeks and the Irrational (1951). It was nothing less than a call to arms against the now overwhelmingly popular idea that ancient Greek society had seen the "triumph of rationalism" and as a result was a sophisticated society from which we, as sophisticated, rational moderns, could claim ancestry. Dodds's book focused exclusively on what he had to term the "irrational" and "primitive" aspects of the ancient Greek world (reacting against the recent focus on its "rational" and "sophisticated" aspects) in order to emphasize how strong and important these impulses were within ancient Greek society. Nowhere, for Dodds, could these "irrational" and "primitive" aspects of ancient Greece be more clearly seen than in the world of Greek religious belief and action and, as part of that, in the process of consulting oracles, including at Delphi. His work to reclaim ancient Greece as a place of the "irrational" and the "primitive" was compounded by anthropological work through the middle half of the twentieth century that sought to elucidate ancient Greek oracular practices by comparing them to observable oracular practices still ongoing in some African societies (Evans-Pritchard 1937; Whitaker 1965). Such comparisons—frequently focused on studies of shamanistic practices of "spirit possession" or "irrational" practices of reading signs from the behavior of animals—often concluded that there was nothing terribly "irrational" about these processes of divination: they offered a relatively sensible way of resolving community difficulty and indecision. But they also, by comparing ancient Greek oracles to divination in African tribes, inevitably offered an image of an ancient Greece more akin to cultures thought very different to (and indeed in many ways inferior to, more "primitive" than) the Western developed world.

How you "saw" the process of consulting the oracle thus influenced how you defined ancient Greece—as a "primitive" or "sophisticated," "irrational" or "rational" culture—with inevitable consequences for how you saw the relationship between ancient Greece [End Page 64] and the modern world. The unknown at the heart of the process of consulting the oracle at Delphi had become a litmus test for scholars' entire conception of ancient Greek culture (as a place of muthos [myth] or logos [reason]), their attitudes to knowledge and rationality, as well as the relationship between antiquity and the present.

Despite the best efforts of Dodds and a number of anthropologists, the French vision of the oracle consultation process as a con trick operated by male priests did not dramatically shift until the 1990s. Several factors contributed toward making this decade and the first decade of the twenty-first century another key turning point in our response to the unknown at the heart of the oracle of Delphi.

The first factor was the slow dissolution of the differentiation between muthos and logos, between the categories of rational and irrational that had been imposed on ancient Greece in the nineteenth century, particularly in relation to Greek religion. Offered instead was a vision of religious practice that was seamlessly interwoven into all aspects of Greek life (e.g., Burkert 1985). In relation to oracles in particular, their ubiquitous presence (in all forms, from simple rolling of the dice through to elaborate sanctuaries such as Delphi) throughout the Greek world was re-emphasized as part of a picture in which the ancient Greeks felt themselves to be in constant contact with the divine world as an entirely normal part of everyday life (cf. Johnston and Struck 2005). This "constant hum" (Eidinow 2007, 27) between divine and human worlds as a natural part of life provided an important backdrop against which to consider how participants came to Delphi to engage with the oracle.

At the same time, approaches to our understanding of how oracular consultation at Delphi might have functioned were also shifting, moving us away from the stark opposing positions of either cunning manipulation or shamanistic spirit possession toward a system in which multiple aspects of the consultation process—and a wider raft of activities ongoing at Delphi—played their role in creating an overall powerful, meaningful, and otherworldly experience. First was a shift in focus away from simply what happened to the [End Page 65] Pythian priestess toward what the experience was for consultants. Given the "constant hum" of divine human communication, consultants were predisposed to believe in a system of oracular consultation, particularly within a world that offered no major alternative to the world view in which the gods were involved in every aspect of human life. At the same time, the nature of questions asked of the oracle was also re-emphasized as giving the oracle a "teflon-coating" of resistance to ever being proved wrong: questions had to be asked in terms of "would it be better and more profitable for me to do X or Y" (cf. Parker 1985). In framing questions in such a way, it became impossible to prove that the oracle had ever offered the "wrong" advice because it was impossible to know the outcome of the alternative option (which could have been even worse than the course suggested).

Equally, scholarship re-emphasized the specific nature of the responses coming from the Delphic oracle. This was no system of Victorian soothsaying or "Mystic Meg" fortune-telling. The oracle, in all the literary recordings of her responses, rarely gave straightforward answers. Instead, answers usually involved some kind of ambiguity or riddle. They prompted further reflection and debate either by an individual consultant or by the community that had posed the question. As such, scholarship began to recharacterize the oracle at Delphi not simply as offering images of the future, but as one step in a longer decisionmaking process; an institution that individuals or communities turned to when at a loss for how to proceed, providing new—divinely inspired—material for consideration and debate, leading to a fresh individual or community decision. Far from being a fortuneteller, the oracle at Delphi is better understood as a sense-making mechanism. As such, a fragmentary ancient description by Heraclitus of the role played by the oracle at Delphi came to be seen as having new crucial importance: "the oracle neither reveals nor conceals, but merely indicates" (Plutarch Moralia 404D). Or, as some have remarked to me on hearing of this image of the Delphic oracle, the experience was akin to working with management consultants, who have a reputation for helping businesspeople make decisions (and charging high fees), often [End Page 66] by reframing information and ideas half-known already to the client in order to help that client make their own decision about how to proceed.

Coupled with this reimagining of what the oracle at Delphi offered was a shifting understanding of how Delphi functioned within the wider landscape. On the one hand, this was due to attention being paid to things that happened at Delphi apart from the oracle. Delphi was also home to major musical and athletic competitions on par with the ancient Olympics, as well as to a wealth of monumental dedications resplendent in gold, silver, ivory, and marble offered by powerful individuals and states from across the Mediterranean world. Explaining Delphi's success and attraction, it was felt, could not be achieved only through discussion of its oracle; it was the complete package of activities that allowed Delphi not only to rise to such fame but also to maintain its high-profile position across such a long time span (Morgan 1990; Scott 2010). In turn, the fame, power, and importance earned by Delphi through these other activities also needed to be factored in to our understanding of the ongoing appeal and pull of its oracle. Delphi was more than its oracle, and equally, whatever happened at Delphi was part of the reason that Delphic oracular consultations and responses continued to have such weight and prestige.

Thus, scholars had a new conception of an institution with authority stemming from multiple activities and "teflon-coated" against being proved incorrect, to which people were coming well disposed to receive the wisdom of the gods and which was providing "indications" to prompt discussion and eventual individual or community-owned decisions rather than offering direct revelations of the future. Scholars also returned to the question of how precisely the Pythian priestess may have acted or enacted her role in this engagement.

Here, too, through to the 1990s, there had been a closing of the gap between the "irrational" picture of a psychic or telepathic oracular priestess and the "rational" picture of cunning manipulation by male priests. Not only did comparisons with spirit possession in other modern societies no longer necessarily "devalue" ancient Greece as [End Page 67] a "primitive" rather than "sophisticated" ancestor for the West, but also scholarship had awoken more generally to the falsity of such a direct ancestral relationship (and indeed more widely to the problematic and relatively modern invention of the concept of "Western" civilization) and become more comfortable with a story of both similarity and difference, connection and distance between ancient and modern worlds (cf. Price 1985; Maurizio 1995). Toppled, too, in the second half of the twentieth century, was the need to devalue the role of a woman at the heart of this process. During this period, the role, position, and worldview of women within the ancient Greek world had been increasingly re-evaluated as part of a renaissance in scholarship of the ancient world (as women had become a category of unknown that scholarship took interest in). The result was a greater realization of, and comfort with, the sometimes powerful role of women within ancient Greek society.

At the same time, scholars also emphasized how images of a consultation in which consultants and the consulted really believed in the divine communication they were embarked upon did not rule out equally elements in which that process of divine communication was tweaked and manipulated by human hands. Neither the "cunning con trick" nor the "spirit possession" model needed to exist in isolation from one another. As Peter Green put it, "genuine belief is perfectly compatible with subconscious psychological or other manipulation" (2009, 46).

Into this repositioning of both approaches to the oracle at Delphi and more widely toward Greek religion, ancient Greece, and the role of women in ancient society, as well as to ancient Greece's relationship to the modern world, in the early 2000s came fresh geological evidence linking back to the original understanding of the oracle as having been inspired by vapors emerging from the floor of the temple. A team composed of both historians and geologists, led by John Hale and Jelle de Boer, re-examined the geology of Delphi to prove that two fault lines did indeed cross directly underneath the temple of Apollo. Moreover, they proved that the nature of the [End Page 68] bedrock at Delphi, bituminous limestone, would allow for gases, released due to the movement of these crossing fault lines, to rise to the surface. They further proved the existence of such gases—in particular ethylene—in the surface water at Delphi and in the travertine rock formations on the surface. Ethylene was used between the 1920s and 1970s as an anesthetic, but has since fallen out of use due to its volatile nature. In a number of scientific papers released in the early 2000s (e.g., de Boer, Hale, Chanton 2001; Hale et al. 2003), the team put forward their findings that it was scientifically possible for gases powerful enough to have induced some kind of euphoria or hallucination in the Pythian priestess to have accumulated within an internal constricted space like the inside of the Temple of Apollo.

The reaction to the work of de Boer, Hale, and colleagues has fallen into two major camps. The first, principally to be found among scholars of the ancient Greek world and particularly of Delphi, has seen this not as a call to reignite nineteenth-century beliefs in a system of consultation fueled principally by vapors sending the priestess on a high (not least because this would entail repositioning her as little more than a conduit). Instead, scholars have sought to incorporate this new possibility as another aspect to be factored in to the complex ways in which we now understand the Pythian priestess to have functioned and been consulted, and her responses to hold weight and worth. It is an interesting part of a package that combined the high expectations of consultants with a system of consultation designed to resist being found to be wrong and to offer guidance rather than answers, focused on priestesses who may, via gases or otherwise, have believed themselves to be possessed by a divine force, orchestrated more widely by a changing body of religious personnel who may, at different times, had more or less of a hand in shaping the process and the responses. All this is recounted for us within a myriad of literary sources with their own biases and literary objectives spread across nearly 1,000 years, and set within a sanctuary that had multiple reasons to demand authority and respect from across the Mediterranean world. [End Page 69]

The second, wider reaction, however, to the work of de Boer and Hale and company has, in contrast, been to reignite the debate over the known and unknown, particularly within the scientific community, very much akin to that which we saw in the Victorian era (cf. Broad 2006, 6). In relation to Delphi, "the science sheds a very strong but narrow light that can leave many intriguing questions and possibilities lurking in the shadows" (242). It challenges "some of the most basic tenets of our day, suggesting that we have deluded ourselves into thinking we know more than we really do" (1). Delphi thus—again—poses crucial questions about the possibilities of supernatural forces, telepathic power, and the ability to gather knowledge beyond the known senses, just as it did for scholars in the nineteenth century.

In addition, more broadly, the recent discoveries about the Delphic oracle, combined with the "problem" of understanding how this institution functioned that has been the focus of now more than 200 years of scholarship, has been seen to pose a question for the nature and limits of human knowledge itself. Is the pursuit of science, or indeed history, or any kind of scholarly inquiry, a (sometimes slow!) progress toward the eventual explanation of everything, or do we need to recognize that there will always be some areas beyond the reach of human understanding? In short, the oracle at Delphi is no longer answering questions; the institution is posing them. Or rather, as we should perhaps now appreciate, Delphi is doing what it always has done: throwing the question back at us, with some indications, for us to make our own decision.


The discipline of history has, I have argued, when confronted with such a vast sea of the unknown and potential avenues of investigation, traditionally eschewed a categorization of knowledge into unknowable versus not yet known and instead cast its study in terms of "unknown we are interested in knowing" and "unknowns we are not." Topics in this second category have, in turn, often had their position justified through reference to their unknowability. The movement [End Page 70] of topics from one category to another has acted as a clear mirror to the interests, values, and priorities of each age of historical investigation, as have the particular changing visions of how to understand the unknowns we are interested in knowing about that have found acceptance and authority within the historical community at one or another point in time. Unknowability is therefore a crucial tool for highlighting the role we play in shaping our past.

Perhaps the most complex example of this in relation to the ancient world is the oracle at Delphi. As an institution of huge fame and importance in antiquity, it always came in the category of "unknowns we would like to know about" and has served as an emblem for how we see ancient Greek culture more widely. Yet the absence of clear sources for how the consultation happened, coupled with the presence of a woman as the priestess at the center of the process, has ensured that historical study of the unknown at the heart of Delphi has been particularly revealing of the complex ways in which we position ourselves in relation to our pasts.

In response to the unknown at the heart of Delphi, the oracular process has moved from vapor-induced frenzy, to con trick extraordinaire, to complex medley of carefully choreographed expectation and psychological influence set within the context of a sanctuary whose authority and importance came from a wide range of activities and within a wider Greek world in which religion was interwoven with every aspect of society. The position and role of the female priestess have moved from inspired conduit, to easily manipulated and influenced pawn, to respected and powerful element of the constant divine-human hum that defined the Greek world—with perhaps just a hint of hallucinogenic vapor in the air.

Inspiring these recharacterizations of the oracular process at Delphi and its priestess has been much more than simply academic debate over how to interpret the surviving sources and fill in the gaps. Crucial to the pictures we have created of Delphi has been the ongoing desire to find historical precedent for particular fascinations of the modern world and the need to ensure that our vision of ancient [End Page 71] Greece reflects our current values, interests, and priorities. This has been such a fraught and changing journey for ancient Greece, and for Delphi as one of its major emblems, more so than in the study of many other ancient cultures, because of the close relationship the West has sought to construct with ancient Greece since the nineteenth century. As such, what happened at Delphi, and more widely in Greece, mattered because it had direct implications for our own perceptions of ourselves and our world.

And yet, while we have become more comfortable with loosening the ties between us and ancient Greece as our ancestor, the power of Delphi in particular to continue to confront us with a vision of ourselves and our state of knowledge and self-understanding seems undimmed. The most recent physical discoveries at Delphi have offered a (re)new(ed) challenge not only to historians seeking to understand Delphi's past but also to a wide range of scholars of science—as well as of philosophy, psychology, and religion—to confront what they thought they knew about the limits of human knowledge, understanding, and the unknown. That central philosophical maxim once enshrined at Delphi in the past—gnothi seauton, "know thyself"—seems to sum up Delphi's unique inquisitorial role in our human story then, now, and always.

Michael Scott

michael scott is a professor of classics and ancient history at University of Warwick. His research has focused on Greek religion, particularly the oracle and sanctuary of Delphi. The author of several books on the ancient Mediterranean world and ancient global history, he has written and presented a range of documentaries for National Geographic, History Channel, ITV, and BBC.


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