Mists of the past
For centuries devout Greeks tramped up the side of Mount Parnassus, loo miles northwest of Athens, to consult the most renowned soothsayer of the ancient world, the Oracle at Delphi. Here, at a spectacular site perched on a steep slope, the gods revealed the future. Their medium, as the historian Plutarch tells us, was a young woman who sat in a chair over a fissure in the rocks, inhaling sweet-smelling fumes emitted from the ground that put her into a euphoric trance. Under this influence she would speak in tongues; priests would later interpret her remarks. The savvy initiates in charge of the rites, eager to please clients, were practiced in ambiguity. When Croesus of Lydia asked his fate if he invaded Persia, he was told, “If Croesus crosses the Halys [River], a great empire will be destroyed.”
No doubt the priests exhaled when Croesus was trounced … destroying his own empire. Accounts of inhaling fumes that engender trances may sound like mumbo-jumbo (or reefer madness) to modern ears. Yet when geologists from two U.S. universities explored the sacred site in the 1990s, they supported Plutarch. In the August 2001 issue of Geology, Jelle Z. de Boer and his team noted that two tectonic fault lines lie beneath the site, from which ethylene gas may have issued in bygone days—and sweet-smelting ethylene is known to produce euphoric hallucinations. For once, modern science helped confirm ancient legends, rather than shatter them.