CHEMISTRY COMES TO THE DELPHIC ORACLE. This article by William J. Broad from the New York Times (March 19, 2002) reported on the research that seems to have explained the vapors at Delphi. Broad summarized what had been the state of research in the last part of the twentieth century: “Modern scholarship long ago dismissed as false the explanation that the ancient Greeks gave for the oracle’s inspiration, vapors rising from the temple’s floor. They found no underlying fissure or possible source of intoxicants.”
Broad describes how Dr. Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, a geologist, and Dr. John R. Hale, an archaeologist, found faults near the site. Earlier archaeologists had looked for a chasm and had apparently overlooked the importance of small cracks. Further, De Boer and Hale discovered that the rocks near the Delhi site were bituminous limestone containing up to 20 percent blackish oils—petrochemicals. Analysis showed methane, ethane, and—significantly—ethylene. Ethylene was used for general anesthetia from the 1930’s to the 1970’s.
The presence of ethylene supports the idea that the oracle was influenced by naturally arising vapors, so that rather than being a scam, it was an attempt, as with flights of birds, to interpret natural phenomena as messages from the gods.