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Fritz Graf
The Ohio State University
Il sest form sur les phnomnes qui provoquaient ou accompagnaient, Delphes, la
divination de la Pythie une espce dopinion courante, qui prsente dailleurs aussi les
caractres de ce genre dopinion: la tnacit et limprcision.
douard Will1

Details of how the Pythia communicated with her god and with her clients have
always been highly debated, and opinions have diverged widely over time.2 To
give a sample, I cite three voices spaced over almost a century:
1907: The Pythoness must carefully prepare herself by certain acts of
ritualistic significance. It seems that she chewed some leaves of the
sacred laurel, and then in the adyton drank water possessing a mantic influence from a fount which Pausanias calls Kassotis. . . . But all this
came to be considered merely as accessory, leading up to the great moment when the Pythoness ascended the tripod, and, filled with the divine
afflatus which at least the later ages believed to ascend from a fissure in
the ground, burst forth into wild utterances, which was probably some
kind of articulate speech, and which the Hosioi, the holy ones, who
with the prophet sat around the tripod, knew well how to interpret. . . .
What was essential to Delphic divination, then, was the frenzy of the Pythoness and the sounds which she uttered in this state which were interpreted by the Hosioi, and the prophet according to some conventional
code of their own.3
1951: At Delphi, and apparently at most of his oracles, Apollo relied, not
on visions like those of Theoclymenus, but on enthusiasm in its origi1

Will 161.
An overview in Nilsson 17274; fundamental is Amandry, with the immediate
protest of Flacelire 1950; more in Maurizio 1995.
Farnell 18889. He is candid enough to confess that (189 n. b) This theory of the
relations between the Hosioi and the Pythia rests on no direct authority, but on general


nal and literal sense. The Pythia became entheos, plena deo: the god entered into her and used her vocal organs as if they were his own, exactly
as the so-called control does in modern spirit-mediumship.4
2001: Wenn die Pythia Lorbeer kaut, so wird sie damit vom Gott erfllt,
hnlich wiefr uns allerdings wesentlich leichter nachvollziehbardie
Bachantinnen mit dem Wein den Gott Dionysus selbst aufnehmen.5

At a first glance, these citations could be read as a collection of mostly refuted

opinions. Although the idea of gaseous or mephitic emanations as a stimulant for
the Pythias mantic condition has usually reliable ancient sources, it was rejected
after the French excavations under the adyton of the temple in Delphi: there
simply was no visible fissure in the solid rock.6 Thus, some scholars did not want
to simply discard the ancient testimonies as fictions or to explain them as theories
only about how Delphic divination worked,7 and they had recourse to the idea of
priestly machinations, Priestertrug, an idea that was once a weapon in anticlerical debates and has never appealed to historians of religion.8 The analogy
with Dionysian frenzy, dear to nineteenth-century scholars, especially to Erwin
Rohde, and the discordia concors of Apollo and Dionysus made famous by
Nietzsche,9 was challenged and finally refuted by several scholars, starting from
the Austrian archaeologist F. Hauser to Joseph Fontenrose, Christopher Forbes
and Lisa Maurizio, the latter two without knowing of each others work.10 The

Dodds 1951: 73.

Rosenberger 54.
On na mis jour que la surface irrgulire du terrain naturel, sans aucune trace de
la fissure par o auraient pass les vapeurs qui, dit-on, inspiraient la prophtesse: thus a
member of the French team, mile Bourguet, in his short guide with its beautiful photographs by Frdric Boissonas, Delphes (Paris 1925) 22. On mile Bourguet (18671939),
lun des plus actifs participants de la grande fouille de Delphes, see the necrology by
Pierre de la Coste Messelire, RA 1939, 25759. See also Courby 66: Il ny a jamais eu
de fissure en cette partie, and, before the final publication of the French excavations,
Stoic theory according to Will 17375; explained by Amandry 22225.
Elaborately expressed by Holland, and Littleton; more discreetly Jean Bousquet,
BCH 6465 (194041) 228 (mise en scne).
Rohde 2.21 and elsewhere. The parallelism has ancient roots; see Ov. Pont. 2.5.67;
Verg. Aen. 6.77 says of the Sibyl bacchatur, on which Servius comments idem est enim
Apollo, qui Liber pater, qui Sol.
Hauser 3357, esp. 43 (summary in Amandry 9); Latte 918, esp. 12; Amandry 42
(lextase se manifest aussi bien sous la forme dune immobilit totale, dune insensibi5



little information about the actual mantic session that we possess repeats the
serenity and clear language of the Pythia, and the one session that ended with a
Pythia in frenzy was an accident that led to the poor womans death a few days
later.11 For the same reason, Dodds comparison of the Pythia with a nineteenthcentury spirit medium such as Madame Blavatsky is rather difficult to follow, as
again Forbes and Maurizio showed. Already Plutarch insisted on the Pythias active presence: Neither the sound nor the inflection nor the vocabulary nor the
metrics are the gods, but the womans; he grants only the inspiration (phantasa)
and kindles a light in her soul towards the future; such is her enthousiasms.12
Or, as Tom Callan put it: the Pythias thoughts are like any others except for
their source which must then be expressed by same means available to the mantis
for the expression of any other thoughts, i.e. in her own voice and her own language.13 And Plutarch is not the only author to insist on this. His contemporary,
Dio Chrysostom, pointed out that Apollo would speak neither Dorian nor Attic
nor any other human language, but that it were the mediums language one would
hear. His corollary, that the Pythia was not much more than a translator, needs
more emphasis than it received in the past: That is why oracles are often unclear
and deceive humans.14 Thus, the Pythia is neither frenzied and talking in glossolalia nor a passive medium for the gods epiphany, but a translator who is as
much traduttore as traditore, in the famous Italian saying. There might have been
yet another level of translation, when the Pythia did not speak in verse herself:
Strabo and Plutarch know about specialists (Plutarch only for earlier times) who
were versifying the Pythias words, should they be in prose.15 This second translation, if it really existed, is far from the elaborate transformation of the Pythias
utterances that took place according to many past scholars and that according to
them gave the male elite of the sanctuary the occasion to address diplomatic and
political issues. That is not to say that the parallelism of female medium and male
prophet which is certain in Didyma would not have some significance;16 but it is
lit physique, dun assoupissement que par des danses orgiastiques ou des mouvements
desordonns); Fontenrose 20412; Forbes 259261; Maurizio 1995 and 1998.
Accident: Plutarch, De def. or. 51.438B.
Plut. Pyth. or. 7.397CD.
Callan 130.
D. Chr. Or. 10.23.
Strab. 9.3.5 p. 419; Plut. De Pyth. or. 397BC: in the past men with gift for
prophecy were sitting close to the shrine and produced poetic versions.
See esp. Amandry 11823 (with a measured conclusion: Tenter de dterminer la
part respective du prophte et de la Pythie dans llaboration des rponses de loracle est
une entreprise actuellement vaine, 122), and Fontenrose 212, who again is too radical.



less simple than one thought. Anthropology knows at least one interesting parallel: among the Muslim Lauj of Sulawesi (Indonesia), possessed female media of
common social status (boliang) transmit the spirits voices that then are translated to the audience by healers (sando) who are almost exclusively men of
influence and authority.17 The arrangement is rationalized by the fact that the
spirits (and thus the media) speak in old Lauj which the audience claims not
to understand, an assertion contradicted by actual fact. The reason for the arrangement seems to be not linguistic but social, the enactment and legitimation of
standard female roles even in possession cults.18
The chewing of laurel, finally, has almost as often been rejected as
asserted. Parke and Wormell, in a level-headed chapter, came to no certain conclusion, and scholars more than once insisted that laurel is quite harmless.19
But the laurel-chewing Pythia is still with us. Even the self-test of Traugott K.
Oesterreich, the pioneering scholar of religious possession and trance, had no
great impact. He chewed fresh laurel-leaves, but without results of any interest.20 Ancient documentation is vague. There is no Greek or Roman text that
would clearly say that the Pythia was chewing laurel leafs. Some poetical texts,
starting with Lycophron, explain the frenzy of female seers such as Cassandra or
the Sibyl from eating laurel,21 and the anonymous commentator on Lycophron

Nourse 42542 (the citation on 426).

This contradicts the common assumption that possession is a compensatory
response to disempowerment, see e.g. Lewis, who is heavily used in a feminist reading of
Ogle 287311, esp. 300303 (somewhat rash); Kirby Flower Smith, The Elegies of
Albius Tibullus (New York 1913) 463 f. (perfectly harmless); Parke and Wormell 26.
The chewing appears even in the otherwise sound entry on Lorbeer in Der Neue Pauly,
vol. 7 (1999) col. 441. Even Holland and Littleton (n. 8 above) agreed on the harmless
nature of laurel, but thought that the Delphians, in addition to laurel, burned hemp
(Cannabis sativa) to help with the Pythias ecstasy.
Oesterreich 319 n. 3; see also Dodds 1951: 73. On Traugott Konstantin
Oesterreich (18801949), philosopher, psychologist, and pioneer of parapsychology, see
Matthias Wolfes in Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, vol. 18 (Nordhausen
2001) cols. 110110; a short account also in Anita Kohsen Gregorys introduction to the
reprint of Possession (Secaucus, N.J. 1966).
Cassandra: Lycophron 6 (daphnphgos); the Cumaean Sibyl: Tib. 2.5.63.
Transferred to the Roman vates, the inspired poet: at Ov. Pont. 2.5.6568 both Ovid and
his addressee Salanus, Germanicus teacher of rhetoric, are inspired (distat opus nostrum,
sed fontibus exit ab isdem: / artis et ingenuae cultor uterque sumus. / thyrsus abest a te
gustata et laurea nobis; / sed tamen ambobus debet inesse calor); Iuv. 7.1819 nectit
quicumque canoris / eloquium vocale modis laurumque momordit. The context of Soph.



asserts: Seers used to eat laurel beforehand. But the same scholion (that is
pieced together from different commentators) also offers a glimpse on a learned
debate between those who thought ancient seers chewed or ate laurel and those
who thought that eating laurel was simply a literary metaphor for wearing a
laurel wreath. No ancient commentator, it seems, had clear evidence for the use
of laurel in divination.22 The closest we come to Delphi is in a text of Lucian
where Zeus complains about the stressful life of the gods and describes Apollos
hectic life: He has to be in Delphi, and soon he rushes to Colophon, from there
he changes to Xanthos and sprints again back to Claros, then to Delos or Didyma.
Wherever the seer (promntis) orders him to appear when she has been drinking
from the sacred spring, chewing laurel and shaking the tripod, there he has to be
present on the spot.23 Tripod and spring might be Delphic, as might the female
seer (although Lucians term for her, promntis, is not Delphic); but the passage
feeds on poetical images, not historical facts about Apolline divination. Modern
pharmaceutical research, on the other hand, was unable to find any psychotropic
substance in Laurus nobilis L., Apollos laurel; oleander that looked similar and
could, therefore, be confused with it contains a heart stimulant and not a psychotropic substance.24 The ecstatic property of the laurel is a symbolic construct that
had no foundation in reality. Whereas Ovid juxtaposes laurel and thyrsus as
Apollos and Dionysus ecstatic plants, Pliny states that laurel undoes the intoxicating effects of wine.25


frg. 897 Radt ( , when you eat bay, bite your

lips with your teeth) is unclear, and talks about eating, not chewing laurel anyway. In its
source, Schol. Hes. Theog. 30, the title Kassandra is added secondarily, perhaps because
of Lycophron. Radt himself wonders whether the fragment comes from a comedy.
Schol. Lyc. 6. It begins with the general assertion that laurel-eating would point
to the ritual preparation of ancient seers and explains: the seers prophesied after having
eaten laurel in order that the god, rejoicing at the sight and smell, would reward them
with oracles. Then the text narrates the Daphne myth, and finally adds, flatly contradicting the earlier source, that seers did not really eat laurel but that this was a metaphorical way of saying that they were wearing a laurel wreath.
Lucian, Bis accusatus 1.
See Holland 214.
Plin. NH 17.239; cf. Martial 5.4; Ogle 301.



All thisthe absence of mephitic gases, the non-psychotropic qualities of laurel,

the lack of any signs of frenzy with the Pythiadoes not mean that the Pythia,
when prophesying, was in an ordinary state of mind, as most recently Lisa
Maurizio showed, against Fontenroses too rationalist conclusions.26 The Pythia
could quietly and lucidly answer the questions of her clients and nevertheless be
in that altered state of consciousness that her own culture associated with being
possessed. The expression of possession is as much culturally shaped as any
other mental or emotional expression of homo sapiens. Possession as a specific
state of mind might have biological and thus anthropologically universal reasons,
but it takes not the universal forms of expression that Oesterreich had assumed in
his classical work.27 The common and already ancient assumption that, with the
Pythia (or, for that matter, the Sibyl), possession by the god would result in uncontrolled frenzy and Dionysian ecstasy, as had been assumed by most modern
scholars, is contradicted by several texts, not the least by Plutarch, who knew
Delphic ritual extremely well.
What exactly was the possession the Pythia experienced? The Greeks,
as we know, used two different terms, ktochos and ntheos, to denote these
states of consciousness, and they were different not only in their etymology.
ktochos is both an active and a passive adjective. In its active sense, holding
down, it can designate a drug that prevents the fetus from being extruded, or the
god Hermes who binds the tongue of a victim; as a noun in the Graeco-Egyptian
Magical Papyri, it means binding spell.28 In its passive sense, it is a technical
term to denote a person who is controlled by a divinity.29 A person seized by the
nymphs, nympholeptos, such as Archedamos of Thera, would be a ktochos,
someone seized and controlled by a divine force who, however, has not lost his
regular appearance altogether.30 ntheos, having a thes inside, is possession in

Maurizio 1995; Fontenrose 20612. Amandry is somewhat more ambiguous: he

accepts that not every altered state of consciousness (extase) had to be frenzy (42 f.),
but later seems to reduce the Pythias enthousiasmos to nothing more than un tat de
grce resultant de laccomplissement des rites (234), which is uncomfortably close to
Fontenroses remark she felt the meaning and sanctity of her office (211).
On Oesterreich, see above n. 20. On the interaction between anthropologically
given and culturally determined factors, see Bourgignon 297313 (For analytical purposes, it is possible to separate psychobiological from sociocultural and personal elements in a given sequence of trance behaviors, 298).
Medicine: Aetius 16.23; magic: Hermes a defixio in IG III 86.2 (Athens, IVa); a
binding spell in PGM VII 454.
See LSJ s.v.
On Archedamos see Connor.



the sense that a superhuman (divine or demonic) personality has taken over the
body of a human and is using it instead of his own divine body. While the first
template of total control underlies such modern nightmares as Huxleys Brave
New World, the second template underlies Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
As to the Pythia, the new contemporary consensus would point to what I
just called the Control Template, and it has many ancient sources on its side,
not the least Plutarch or Dio. Already Aeschylus Delphic prophetess conforms to
it when she defines her occupation as I tell the future wherever the god leads
me.31 As a mode of divination, though, it has its drawbacks, as Plutarch and Dio
were well aware. The Pythia as a controlled medium possesses her own inertia.
Thus, her own material characteristics are liable to distort the message, to render
it opaque and difficult to read. Dio, with a sophists keen sense for language,
expresses this in terms of translation, while the Platonist Plutarch is more materialistic:32 Mantic inspiration, like erotic inspiration, uses the given material and
moves the recipient of its motion according to the individual nature of each. The
god, that is, has to move the Pythias soul that, being a human soul, is more inert
than his own, and the Pythias soul in turn has to move her vocal organs with
their own bodily inertia, before Apollos answer reaches the ears of the recipients
in a double mechanical distortion.
The Body Snatcher Template then, one would think, would be a better
way to conceptualize divination: the god who lacks a human form takes over a
human body to express himself among mortals. Vergils description of the Sibyl
seems to conform to this, although the description is a complex fictional account;
in bacchic frenzy, the Sibyl fights the god who wants to take her over.33 The template exists for the Pythia too, although we know it only through the words of
someone who rejects it. It is utterly simplistic and childish, says one of the
interlocutors in Plutarchs De defectu oraculorum, to believe that the god himself would slip into the bodies of the prophets (as in the case of the belly-talkers
who were formerly called Eyrykleis and are now called Pythones) and that he
would speak using their mouths and vocal chords as his instruments.34 The resistance to the template has theological reasons: the divine is too different and

Eumenides 33.
D. Chr. Or. 10.23; Plut. De def. orac. 23.406B; see for the entire discussion
Verg. Aen. 6.7779. Both the Sibyls resistance and the sexual metaphor that
might be seen in what Servius (on 6.79) sees as a riding image (excuti proprie de equis
dicimus) have been read as reflecting real possession; see Oesterreich 33235 and the
texts cited below, n. 53.
De def. orac. 9.414 DE.



too incompatible with the human world in order simply to slip into human
bodies.35 But even so the critic, the skeptical Bothus, un gomtre de tendances
picuriennes, in Flacelires words,36 has to agree that the template exists and
that Apollo is part of it, in Delphi as well as elsewhere. Why else would the religious healers attacked by Hippocrates ascribe a specific form of seizure as
coming from Apollo Nomios,37 and why would the belly-talkers (engastrimthoi, having speech in their bellies) be called Pythones, at least from early
imperial time onwards?38 Plutarchs use of the term is close to its first use in the
story of Pauls exorcism on a girl with a pythn as a spirit near Thessaloniki.39
In the imperial East, Pythones were highly popular as informal and noninstitutional sources of divination. The slave girl whom Paul healed was a considerable source of income for her owner who might have felt as bad about Pauls
meddling as the Ephesian silversmiths did. Philo of Alexandria combined augurs,
belly-talkers and interpreters of miracles into one group of religious specialists
and performers that were very popular in Alexandria,40 and a century later Clement of Alexandria talks about the belly-talkers that still are highly honored by
the crowd.41
Plutarch himself has yet another reading of the Pythias enthousiasms,
as he usually calls her state of consciousness. In the fundamental passage in De
Pythiae oraculis 21, he states that the god makes use of the Pythia so that he
may be heard by us. This can be read as following either of my two templates.
Plutarch then adds: What we call enthousiasms results from two simultaneous
movements in the soul [of the Pythia]: one movement is imparted by the god, the
other one stemming from the soul itself. These two movements, as Plutarch
makes clear with an example from physics, result in one overall movement that is
a turbulent and irregular whirl.42 In other words, the god does not fully control
the Pythias soul but introduces his own movement into a soul that has its own
inborn movement. The result of the two movements is not a neat new vector, but

A similar theological resistence already informed the Hippocratic doctor of De

morbo sacro.
Flacelire 1947: 24.
Hippocr. Morb. Sacr. 4. The other gods in his list are Cybele, Poseidon, Enodia,
Ares, and Hecate.
On the bellytalkers see Amandry 64 f.; Dodds 1973: 199. They are attested since
the fifth century, with a growing body of evidence in imperial times.
Acts 16.16.
Philo, De somn. 1.220.
Clem. Protr. 2.11.2.
De Pyth. or. 21.404EF; I follow the Loeb translation.



a spiral whose movements are unpredictable, such as happens when two objects
that are turning each in its own tornado combine their movements. Apollos
control is not exercised from outside, it becomes part of the Pythias inside but is
influenced by her own inertia. We deal, so to speak, with a sophisticated Platonic
transformation of the Body Snatcher template. The justification for calling this
enthousiasms in a literal sense, I assume, comes from the fact that the first
person singular in the Pythias oracles is always Apollo, quite unlike the Sibyl
who speaks in her own first person.
Plutarchs analysis has yet another consequence, besides attesting to the
prominence of the Body Snatcher template even in the theologically sensitive
Plutarch. It reintroduces what earlier scholars called frenzy into the discourse
about the Pythia, albeit in Plutarchs philosophical transformation: the gods
intervention creates, in the Pythias soul, a turbulent and irregular whirl, that is
it results in strong mental disturbances. In this passage, Plutarch does not tell us
how this is reflected in the Pythias behavior. There is no reason not to assume
that, as in his other descriptions, she stays outwardly serene and composed. But it
should give rise to rethink the topic of frenzy in Delphi once again, both as to
the ancient ways of encoding the mana of the Pythia, and as to the modern
insistence on it.

Once again, culture, not biology, determines the outward form that the worldwide psychological experience of possession takes. This form is always a cultural
elaboration of psycho-physiological human possibilities. The Greek elaboration
took several forms, from the quiet possession of the Pythia to the vehemence of
maenadism or Corybantic rites, or in the epileptic seizures described by the
Hippocratic doctor.43 As this example shows, culture also determines the borderline between illness and possession. Even the Platonist Philo can describe a
clinical experience of mental problems as if I were participating in Corybantic
rites with overpowering possession, forgetting everything, the place and the
people.44 But things again may look hazier than this. Accounts of Delphic
possession, at least, show not only quiet and control; some come very close to
bacchic loss of control.
The main instance is the account of how Delphis mantic properties were
found. The story is repeated in several sources with only minor variations, from

Hippocr. Morb. Sacr. 4, to be precise, does not use the language of possession: the
symptoms point to a god as the cause, whatever the underlying mechanism is.
Philo, De migratione 35.3.



Diodorus onwards.45 The central point is that is was a herd of goats that found the
oracle. The goat is the animal whose preliminary sacrifice informs the priests
whether the god would be accessible. The story explains (as Diodorus confirms,
if a confirmation were needed) why goats were used in this way. The goats were
grazing at the very spot where there was later the adyton of the sanctuary and
where, from a slim chasm in the ground, some subterranean gas (atms or
pnema) was rising. Goats that happened to breathe it started to prance around in
strange ways and to utter unusual sounds, a sort of goatish glossolalia. The goatherd became curious, inspected the place, got a whiff of the gas himself and
promptly began the same sort of outlandish behavior.46 Whereas Plutarch ascribes enthousiasms to him, Pausanias makes him utter fully-fledged Apolline
oracles. Whatever it was, the occurrence got known and attracted a crowd that, of
course, experienced all the same sort of mental dislocation. In order to contain
the uncanny force and at the same time to profit from it, the inhabitants founded
an oracle and attributed it to Gaia, goddess of whatever there is in the earth.
Thus, it was the frenzy and the glossolalia of the goats that started it all.
Even if we should read the enthusiasm of the goatherd on a low key, his behavior
impressed his fellow Delphians enough to found an oracle. Other cases of oracular frenzy in Apollos sanctuaries are less obvious. Neither Claros nor Didyma
give a clear picture, beyond the fact that the priest or priestess spoke under the
gods control. Tacitus expresses his surprise about why the Clarian priest, after
having drunk from the sacred spring, answered in well-crafted verses, although
he rarely had a formal literary training.47 The extant oracular texts are all hexametrical, with two exceptions: two texts from the later second century AD progress
from detached hexameters to excited anapaests and iambics. This seems to stage
the process of progressively more ecstatic prophecy, and it shows that at least one
writer of oracles could play with oracular frenzy at an Apolline oracle.48 In the
Argive sanctuary of Apollon Pythaeus, some nights the priestess drank from the
blood of a sacrificed sheep, and she becomes possessed (ktochos) from the
god49we lack information how this possession expressed itself. Literary texts
give only a bit more. Cassandra in Aeschylus Agamemnon loses her serenity

Diod. 16.26.14 (whatever his source was); Plut. De def. or. 42.433C; Paus.
ibid.; to utter Plut.
Tac. Ann. 2.54.3 tum in specus degressus, hausta fontis arcani aqua, ignarus
plerumque litterarum et carminum, edit responsa versibus compositis.
Oracle for Caesarea Trocetta, no. 8, and for Callipolis, no. 9, in Merkelbach and
Stauber; again Merkelbach 1997: 17383.
Paus. 2.24.1.



when seized by the god, but she breaks into what the chorus understand as
lament, not as ecstatic behavior. Her metrics are somewhat disputed, but the
many dochmiacs she uses certainly express mental disturbance.50 Vergils presentation of the Sibyls prophecy in Aeneid 6 combines spirit possession with
extravagant motoric behavior. The Sibyl suffers from Apollos presence and tries
magnum si pectore possit / excussisse deum (6.7879). The god has taken her
over, and it will not be easy to get rid of him again. The result is Dionysiac
frenzy (6.78 bacchatur vates) and a sort of rabies (6.80 os rabidum), not unlike
what the Hippocratic doctor of On the Sacred Disease describes as the result of
divine possession.51 The information the Sibyl imparts, however, is as lucid as
anything Vergil wrote (everything else would contradict genre conventions anyway), but the somewhat convoluted and staccato syntax in the first two verses
can be understood as to paint an altered state of mind. Other Sibyls seem as lucid
as this; otherwise the grave epigram of one could not insist on her quality as a
girl gifted with speech.52 As a literary creation who is alive only in her hexameters, the Sibyl does not show a uniform picture of her possession. Mana,
ascribed to her from Heraclitus onwards, is an ambiguous term.53
In Delphi, then, and perhaps in other Apolline oracles as well, there is a
tension between the ritual of the oracles and the stories told about them, between
practice and ideology. For practical reasons, any divinatory system tries to keep
the line of communication between the divine source of information and the human client as short as possible. Given the essential gap between god and human,
some distance is unavoidable, and it is the medium that bridges the distance, be it
a human medium such as the Pythia or a material one such as dice. The stories,
however, extrapolate from the ritual to the much larger distance between humans
and gods. Being possessed by a god means losing a vital and central part of ones
humanitylosing control, memory, and identity. Both moves are necessary for
the function of the oracle where two such incompatible worlds, god and humans,
come together, and they supplement each other. This explains why in the literary
and mythical discourse about Delphi, the bacchic mood became the dominant
metaphor for talking about the Pythias experience. The spread of Dionysiac
themes due to the radiance of Athenian tragedy, comedy and dithyramb, with the
Dionysiac technitai as agents, and the parallel spread of Dionysiac mysteries all

Aesch. Ag. 1072 ff.; Wests metrical analysis still retains iambics.
Hippocr. Morb. Sacr. 4.
Epigram in Paus. 10.12.6.
Heraclitus 22 B 92 DK; on the Delphic Sybil, Paus. 10.12.3. On the Sibyl and her
mania, see Stumfohl; Surez de la Torre; Crippa; and Grotanelli. On mania, Maurizio
1995: 7779.



over the ancient world must have reinforced this. Modern scholars in turn turned
into a monolithic theory what in reality had been complimentary moods, and they
did so, I suspect, less under the influence of Dionysiac images than under that of
the Christian way of reading possession, although the two need not contradict
each otherNietzsches mental breakdown in Turin, as reported by his friend
Franz Overbeck, combined the two.54 This Christian paradigm goes as far back as
the New Testament and the early Saints Lives. Possessed figures in the New
Testament such as the madman of Gadara can show violence, frenzy and lack of
restraint.55 Possessed figures in the early Saints Lives are usually rather more
colorful than the Gospels relatively restrained stories.56 And storytelling, its laws
and its aims should not be underrated when dealing with accounts of possession,
as already the differences between the Gospel versions of the Gadara episode

There is yet another ideological story pattern: the tales that the altered state of
consciousness of the medium was induced by a substance. If we leave aside
laurel as harmless, there are two sets of substances left, liquids and gas, among
which liquids are widespread while gas is extremely rare. There is a traditional
connection between oracles and springs. In Claros and Didyma, prophecy was
triggered by water,58 and Delphi had two sources, the Castalia and the Cassotis


Bernoulli 23234.
The description in Mark 5:211 somewhat more than the one in Luke 8:2638 or
the rather restrained story in Matthew 8:2834.
Jeromes seminal Life of Saint Hilarion is instructive. Chapter 10 describes an
extremely aggressive and violent young man: possessed by a very evil daemon
(affectus pessimo daemone), he breaks legs and necks of others or bites off their ears and
noses, and neither chains nor doors can restrain him. Chapter 12 narrates about a virgo
Dei who, possessed by an Egyptian love demon, becomes insane, throws her veil away,
shakes her hair, grinds her teeth and shouts the name of the young man (insanire virgo
et amictu capitis abiecto rotare crinem, stridere dentibus, inclamare nomen adulescentis;
the details recall the description of a maenad). Chapter 13 presents a German in imperial
service whom his demons makes howl at night and grind his teeth; in the saints presence,
he barely touches the ground with his feet, roars and speaks in Syrian.
Instructive is Brown 12325.
Claros: Plin. NH 2.232; Didyma: Iambl. Myst. 3.11. On both, see Parke 1985: 210



according to some late sources, Pythia drank from either.59 While neither the
Delphic nor the Didymean water was explicitly described as special, the Clarian
water had such power that it caused the early death of the prophet.60 Today
Claros is submerged by groundwater, but there is no reason why this should be
different water from the one that flowed in the sacred spring. It is as innocuous as
the Delphian or the Didymean water. In some other oracular shrines, blood replaced water as the stimulating drink, in Argos the blood of a goat, in Aegae in
Achaea bulls blood.61 We do not need to make experiments to realize that
neither is hallucinogenic in itself. Delphi is the only place where water is interchangeable with the gaseous exhalation (atms or pnema) from the famous
chasm, or rather where the exhalations were much more prominent than the water
as stimulating the Pythia. Ancient authors from Strabo, Diodorus, and Cicero
onwards were convinced of the chasms existence, and sometimes went to great
lengths in its description,62 and with the chasm went the pnema from the earth.
Its singularity when compared to the ubiquitous spring water deserves attention,
even though douard Will and Pierre Amandry would anchor it in Aristotelian
and Stoic physics.63 Why only in Delphi?
A possible answer has spectacularly resurfaced (in a literal sense) a few
years ago. There was, after all, a natural phenomenon, a fissure and even the possibility of mephitic gas.64 Geological researchthe very research for which
archaeologists have been asking for almost a century,65 but undertaken for different reasonsfound two fault lines in the Parnassus region, the Delphi fault
running east-west and the Kerna fault running northwest-southeast; they intersect under the sanctuary of Apollo. Fault lines can emit gas, and another fault
line, visible under the temple of Apollo in Hierapolis/Pamukkale, emits toxic
carbon dioxide that has been connected with Strabos Plutoneion in this Phrygian
city that could kill sparrows as well as bulls.66 Although no gases were found in

Delphi: Lucian, Herm. 70 (source); Paus. 10.24.7 (Cassotis); Euseb. Praep. ev.
5.28.9 (Castalia); see also Clem. Protr. 1.11.1, Greg. Naz. In Iulianum 2.32 and Delatte
325 (Castalia). Amandry 13539 has all the material.
Plin. NH 2.232.
Argos: Paus. 2.24.1; Aegae: Plin. NH 28.147 (virginity ordeal according to Paus.
It was large enough that Nero could throw bodies into it in order to stop the oracle:
Lucian, Nero 10; Cassius Dio 68.14.2; Sopater, Proleg. in Aristid. p. 710 Dindorf.
Will 17175; Amandry 22123.
de Boer et al.; Spiller et al.; Hale et al.
Oesterreich 319; Will 162.
Strabo 13.4.14 p. 630.



Delphi, water samples from springs in the region were found to contain traces of
methane, ethane and ethylene. Ethylene has a sweet odor and was used in small
doses as an anesthetic in nineteenth-century dentistry, but it can kill in higher
The geological analysis gives a material reason for the unique stories
about chasm and exhalation at Delphi, and not being geologist, I am willing to
suspend my scepticism. But I need to point out that things are more complex than
the geological reports suggest. The natural phenomenon of fault line and possible
gas is only one side; nature needs to be translated into culture. To take the simplest case: even if there were fissures in the rocks under the adyton that are not
just the work of water (as the French excavators suspected) but rather of seisism,
these fissures are by no means the chasm that Strabo describes, a hollow and
deep grotto with a rather small entrance,67 and that would be large enough to
swallow the bodies of Neros victims. This is cultural translation and narrative
elaboration. The same is true for other details. The fumes, if there were fumes, do
not contradict or refute the ancient pnema theories. The assumption of pnema
was, as Amandry pointed out, the most widespread physical theory in antiquity to
explain natural phenomena, that is again the Greek and Roman cultural translation not only of possible earth gas, but of the Delphic way of divination. The
sweet odor that ethylene is said to have, finally, would not undo the insight that
the good smell (euda) of the Delphic pnema, according to Plutarch, signals a
divine presence which is usually, in ancient narratives and presumably ancient
experience, accompanied by good smell.68
As to the effect of the gas on the Pythia, it seems too simplistic to assume
that it was the anaesthetic effect chemistry pointed out (or any other chemical effect of a petrochemical gas), and that by sheer luck the dosage was always low
enough not to harm her (with one possible exception), and always affected only
the Pythia and never the others present with her in the adyton. But the noble
men of Delphi69 or the foreigners and the servants of the sanctuary perceived
the sweet smell that escapes from the adyton as if from its source, according to
Plutarch.70 They were close enough to the Pythia to hear her voice and to smell
the pnema. Most probably they were separated from her through only a flight of


Strabo 9.3.5.
For good smell and epiphany, see the passages collected by Bmer on Ov. Fasti
5.376, and Richardson 252; for Delphi, Amandry 222 and Rescigno 469 f.
Eur. Ion 41416; Amandry 119.
Plut. De def. or. 50.437C.



steps that led down from their level to her tripod.71 Given that any event involving an altered state of consciousness (possession, trance, ecstasy, according to individual cultural definitions) is shaped by the intersection of psychobiological and sociocultural elements, there is no need to focus exclusively on the
psychobiological element and look for a psychotropic substance as a trigger, be it
for the gas or perhaps for the laurel.
Two better known cases in Greek religion help to understand what is at
stake. Altered states of consciousness (enthousiasms) in Greece are mainly
associated with maenadism.72 Maenadic ecstasy was triggered by a large bundle
of stimuli. Some were psychobiological, such as the use of alcohol or of specific
bodily movement that had a neurological effect, as is attested for the typical
rotation of the head. Others are clearly cultural: the costume of the maenads, their
specific music, perhaps the entire ritual setting outside a womans daily routine.
Another case is the Eleusinian Mysteries where the presence of Dionysiac imagery points to the experience of trance after the arrival in Eleusis.73 Explanation
focused on the kykeon, the ritual drink used to break the fast after the arrival in
Eleusis; but none of its ingredients has hallucinogenic properties, not even the

For the Pythia going down see Plut. Tim. 8; De def. or. 51; De Pyth. or. 22 and
28 (Courby 64 f.). For the presence of a group of people around the Pythia, including the
consultant, see Parke and Wormell 28 (there was some sort of inner building in which
the inquirers sat, . . . the Pythia was either in the same room or in an adjacent room from
which her voice at least would be heard) and Fontenrose 218, who is somewhat overconfident (it is clear that priests and Hosioi attended the Pythia when she sat upon the
tripod). The archaeological record seems to attest to two different spaces inside the cella
of the temple, a chapel towards its southwestern corner and, inside the chapel, a lower
level going down to the rock, i.e. the space where the consultants and the personnel were,
and the cave where the Pythia was (Courby 4769). Literature gives more. The key
passage is the description of the disastrous consultation in De def. or. 51.438BC: the
Pythia goes down; her voice indicates her problems, that is her voice at least can be
heard by the witnesses; finally, rushing towards the exit with a terrible and unseemly
shout she threw herself down, so that not only the ambassadors but also the prophet and
those of the Hosioi who were present took to flight; collecting their spirits, they come
back and carry her out. Depending on what one understands the exit to be (the flight of
stairs that led upwards, a door between the stair and the oikos, or a door to the oikos into
the cella), the two spaces are separated only by their different levels, or by some sort of
partition. I prefer the former: when the Pythia emerged at the top of the stairs, rushed
towards the exit but fell before having reached it, she started the stampede of everybody
The bibliography is vast; for the stimuli, see esp. Bremmer 26786, esp. 27582.
Graf 1974.



mint, as Karl Kernyi once suspected.74 The only possible biological trigger is
the result of a fast of three days and the ensuing procession of about eighteen
miles from Athens to Eleusis in the warmth of a Greek September day. This
might have generated enough endorphins to generate euphoria, as with longdistance runners. The rest was done by the culturally determined elements, the
kykeon, the surroundings, the experience of a crowd of presumably several
thousand initiates.
Eleusis with its high incidence of cultural triggers, and maenadism with
its equally high use of biophysiological ones are two possibilities for the combination of these elements in Greece. I would situate them on opposite sides of a
spectrum. In both cases, the individuals concerned were ordinary Greeks without
any personal predisposition for altered states of consciousness, which is to say,
without any inbuilt psychobiological trigger beyond what we all have built into
our physiology. The Pythia, on the other hand, must have been selected for
exactly this predisposition. Although we are rather ignorant as to the criteria of
selection, beyond her being female, a virgin, and of any social class, is seems a
legitimate assumption that such a disposition was part of the criteria.75 In her
case, then, we would expect even less outside stimuli that would not be culturally
determined. There is need neither for psychotropic gas nor for psychotropic
laurel leaves. The smell had no different function than the water drunk in Claros,
the blood ingested in Aegae and Argos, the laurel that some prophets, including
the Pythia, might have chewed, or the water which the Didymaean prophetess
touched with her bare feet.76 All these things were the culturally determined
triggers that prompted the mediums altered state of mind. Being highly susceptible persons (which is, as I am aware, a pure guess), they could easily train
themselves to snap into their special condition when drinking water down under
the Clarian temple or smelling that sweet smell of whatever it was when they had
seated themselves on the Delphic tripod, or even in the temporary absence of that


Kernyi 1967: 17780 (Appendix I: The Preparation and Effect of the Kykeon).
As was the case with the Tibetan Nechung, on which see Arnott.
For the latter, Iambl. De myst. 3.11.



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