Delphi Temple of Apollo
Fifteen years ago there was a radical geological discovery that would change our evaluation of an important facet of Ancient Greek culture. It was first published in the Geological Society Of America’s Journal. Here’s how they introduced the article’s premise:
“Scientists are revisiting the problem with results that would definitely please the ancients. In the August issue of GEOLOGY, J.Z. de Boer reports on a four-year interdisciplinary study that has successfully identified young faults at the Oracle site and has also pinpointed the emissions responsible for the Pythia’s (prophetess of Apollo) trance state—light hydrocarbon gases from bituminous limestone. De Boer and colleagues found ethane, methane, and ethylene in spring water near the Oracle.”
But although the public loved the idea, as time went by other scientists questioned the conclusion. Ethylene gas, at various concentrations, can indeed act as a narcotic and induce the trance-like states reported at Delphi, but there are other considerations.
As Erowid points out, “At the turn of the 20th century, writers covering the first major archeological excavation at Delphi dismissed the “pneuma” stories as fable. Findings from later geological and chemical analyses appeared to support the view that the Oracle may have inhaled naturally occurring ethylene (ethene) gas as part of the ceremony. The research1 compiled is compelling, and received favorable coverage in the scientific and popular press.2,3,4,5
Given that measuring actual ethylene levels present at the temple site over 2000 years ago is impossible, the explanation is likely to remain speculative.
Recent critics6,7 of the ethylene theory have pointed out further issues. Foster and Lehoux, 2007, “argue that both the empirical evidence and the argument mustered by the de Boer team for the ethylene-intoxication hypothesis are inadequate for two reasons. The first reason is scientific: the concentrations of ethylene identified by de Boer, Hale, et al. would have been insufficient to cause a trance-like state. The second reason is historical and philosophical: the evidence and argument presented to link the mantic behavior of the Priestess to ethylene intoxication is dubious. In the conclusion, we suggest that this tenuous argument was widely propagated because it appealed to essentially positivist inclinations and sentiments in the science-reading public. Its conclusions appealed to these inclinations so effectively that readers did not notice the weak evidence and problematic argument mustered to support the conclusion.” (Foster J, Lehoux D. 2007)”
Unfortunately, Erowid is unintentionally in error. The gas analytic methodologies utilized by de Boer’s team were not up to par and should be completely re-evaluated. The first inadequacy was their time weighted average results were statistically irrelevant. This was not, in my opinion, in any way a reflection of their professionalism. Detailed analysis over a prolonged period was not their objective.
Also, there is the issue of whether their results—abbreviated as they were—could in any way be indicative of the levels of ethylene emissions back during the time the Temple of Delphi was active. That would be impossible to say.
The issue of historical evidence is also therefore not relevant.
Therefore the entire issue is still open to further investigation.