Fumed-Out Pythiai and Altered States of Consciousness


The Oracle of Apollo in Delphi is often pointed to as the example of divination in the ancient world. Consisting of a large temple complex, persons from all over the Mediterranean would travel to Delphi to hear the God’s pronouncements on a variety of matters. As Peter Green observes, “what emerged from these operations was not so much predictions, in what we might call the Nostradamus sense, but rather a device, based on what was regarded as the will of the gods, channeled through their interpreters” (28).

Apollo’s words were transmitted, as many of you know, through a temple priestess, known as a Pythia. This woman spoke for the god, acting as the medium through which his messages were delivered. She is often depicted in art as sitting on a tripod, holding a branch of laurel, and staring into a bowl. Her responses to questions were often vague, allowing the prophecy of the God to be interpreted in many different ways (Johnston 51-52).

But how did the Pythia talk to Apollo? Or rather, how did Apollo talk through the Pythia? One famous hypothesis is that the temple at Delphi sat above a gaseous chasm which emitted mind-altering chemicals. In other words, the Pythia was high as a kite.

Sarah Iles Johnston sums up this hypothesis in this way:

“During the final years of the twentieth century, a geologist named J.Z. de Boer, surveying active fault lines in Greece…discovered one running under the site of the Oracle. De Boer teamed up with an archaeologist, John Hale, to investigate the significance of this fault line further; together they found a second fault line that intersected with the first one directly under the aduton, the small room at the back of the temple where the Pythia sat on her tripods. They then consulted a chemist, Jeffrey Chanton, who showed that trace amounts of three gases—ethylene, ethane (a product of decomposing ethylene) and methane—rose up through fissures in the bedrock and through the waters in springs that were in or near the sanctuary. Henry Spiller, a toxicologist with expertise in hallucinatory gases, joined the group and noted that small doses of ethylene produce and altered state of consciousness, during which people feel euphoria and have out-of-body experiences, but remain lucid enough to answer questions” (Johnston 48-49).

On the surface, this method seems very similar to modern methods of entheogenic drug use. The priestess, overcome by fumes, physically puts herself into an altered state, whereby her consciousness become more receptive to, well, whatever it becomes more receptive to!

This view that the Pythia generated her prophecies via chemical alteration has been called into contention, however. Scholars have question how she could coherently speak in such a state and have even suggested that the fumes may not have been as strong as this theory leads one to believe.

Johnston steers a middle course and suggests that the fumes, which have a distinctly sweet smell, do put one in an altered state—but not of the same sort. Rather, it psychologically preps the Pythia to enter into a state of mind conducive to prophecy. In other words, the gas in the temple, acts more like incense, creating an atmosphere which signals the priestess that it’s time to commune with Apollo.

Much of the argument for this view also stems from the nature of the Pythia’s prophecies. Scholars argue that, in order to give a coherent pronouncement, she would have to remain somewhat clearheaded. To wit, L. Maurizio observes that the nature of prophecy in Greek culture (or at least in the models offered by Greek philosophy) necessitates coherent speech, for the ability to articulate clearly is a sign of contact with the gods (79)!

Most scholars agree that an altered state of some kind was necessary to invoke the possession of the Pythia by Apollo. According to Green, “The Pythia was said to enter into an ecstatic or trance-like state, during which she became the vehicle of the God’s utterances. In some way, her function was linked to a mysterious inspirational vapour, or πνεῦμα [pneuma]. However that might be explained, the condition was accepted as what it was purported to be: divine possession” (31).

But Green argues strongly against the idea that the gas was only mildly inspirational. He cites the effect produced by the ethylene gas (similar to nitrous oxide), as being consonant with depictions of the Pythia in ancient literature: the above mentioned state of mild hallucination accompanied by lucid speech (Green 40-41).

In contrast to Iles Johnston, Green suggests that attempts to explain the influence of the vapours psychologically, rather than physiologically, reflects our modern views of such practices and thus should be called into question. The ancients, after all, did not think the same way we did, or hold the same values. Instead, we should use the Delphi case as a way to understand how ancients viewed communication with the Gods at Delphi—as a form of possession (Green 41-42). Thus, we should be looking, not to explain away such experiences, but rather to find the means to explain them.

What do we make of this? Was Delphi lousy with fumed-out priestesses? Well, the evidence seems to point to yes. But this is a fuzzy “yes” with a lot of follow-up questions about the nature of the emissions at Delphi. That the vapors affected the Pythia’s consciousness does not seem up for debate as much as questions about the extent and nature of its influence. We know that the temple of Apollo at Delphi sat on a geological fault-line which allowed subterranean gasses to permeate the temple. And while we know the sorts of effects these gasses could have on a person, we don’t know with any certainty the degree to which they affected the Pythia. What we do know is that the Pythia’s pronouncements certainly held sway with the oracle’s seekers, and perhaps for now that is enough.

Green, Peter. “Possession and Pneuma: The Essential Nature of the Delphic Oracle,” Arion, Third Series, Vol. 17, No. 2 (FALL 2009), pp. 27-47.
Iles Johnston, Sarah. Ancient Greek Divination. Wiley-Blackwell. 2008.
Maurizio, L. “Anthropology and Spirit Possession: A Reconsideration of the Pythia’s Role at Delphi,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 115 (1995), pp. 69-86.

Photo by Dale Kav.


4 thoughts on “Fumed-Out Pythiai and Altered States of Consciousness
  1. I have been hearing about the fumes of Delphi all my life, since reading about that hypothesis in some kid’s book.

    But what about all the other oracles? It seems that some scholars figure that if they have “solved” the issue of the Pythia at Delphi, then that explains it all. But as you know, that was not the only temple in the ancient Mediterranean world where people went for oracular wisdom.

    1. Well, this is a good observation, and I think it bears mentioning that there were many different kinds of oracles all over the Greco-Roman World. (Egyptian procession oracles strike me as a totally opposite method.) We should not think that there is a “one-size-fits-all” oracle for the ancient world!

      This is what I think is important about Delphi and the fumes: How much it corroborates the ancient literature about Delphi. The physical evidence certainly matches up with ancient accounts of there being a chasm at Delphi which emitted a sacred gas which led to prophecy.

      That said, as a historian, I am not interested in whether or not the priestess had a “valid” experience of spirit possession or what makes one experience “more valid” than another. That is not for me to say. Rather, I am interested in the sort of activities which defined the religious sphere in antiquity. The question for me then is not “Was she high and does this negate/validate the religious experience?” but rather, “What sort of environment was involved in this specific religious experience?” In this case, it looks like fumes played a role.

      But…as a side-bar on your “many oracles” observation: We also get an account of a similar use of vapours at Didyma. Moreover, the prophet at Claros drank water from a sacred cave. So for these sorts of stationary oracles, there is a pattern of inducement via some outside agent. We’ve just been able to track down Delphi much more clearly.

    2. I was thinking in particular of Siwa Oasis in Libya. Alexander the Great made a lengthy trip to visit the oracle there. Fumes? But I take your point as a scholar, avoiding the true/false dichotomy and asking more nuanced questions.

    3. Offhand, I am not familiar with the example of the Siwa Oasis, so I can’t make any *ahem* pronouncement on that one! But yes, many types of oracles, not all of which require fumes. Cheers!

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