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The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi
by William J. Broad
Penguin Press 
Reviewed by David Arnson, 2/18/2010

Most people with a smattering of ancient Greek history knowledge will have heard of the Oracle of Delphi, the legendary tradition of priestesses who channeled messages of divine information and inspiration at the Temple of Apollo. Kings and commoners both would travel long distances to receive guidance and advice from the Oracle, who sat in a chamber atop a tall tripod stool. The stool itself, as described by historians of the time, was situated across a crack in the floor which emanated a pneuma, referring to an air, gas or wind that had sacred divinatory properties. The Oracle at Delphi was a phenomenon lasting for roughly six (!) centuries, and her proclamations often profoundly influenced decisions of world leaders of the time.

Author William Broad’s book is not only a very informative account of the Oracle’s place in history, but a lively recounting of the most recent research into possible evidence of the pneuma’s identity. Turn-of-the-20th-century research by a French archaeology team had unearthed the actual location and structures of the sacred temple and its chambers, but no trace of any fissures that a gas would have emanated from. For most of the 20th century, common wisdom held that there was no trace of any psychotropic gases, and that the Oracle was probably just a figurehead for interpretations by the temple priests.

In the 1990s, a geologist (one Jelle de Boer) and an archaeologist (one John Hale), working from different universities, serendipitously dovetailed their individual research on the oracular phenomenon. After several years of studying the site in Greece, they concluded that the French had overlooked essential evidence, and, revealing that a gas-emitting fissure could well have been part of the temple, they declared that the aforementioned pneuma was in fact ethylene gas.

Articles subsequently published in Clinical Toxicology and Classical World have soundly criticized Hale and de Boer’s findings, and point out that the ethylene theory is not supported by conclusive data. However, descriptions of forgotten and arcane topography maps, sea caves, and sulfurous cliffside vents make for some very intriguing reading.

Prior to reading this book, I had only the most passing interest in this subject, but the book is written in such a style that it moves along almost like a thriller or suspense novel. Erowid readers will no doubt appreciate the section on the researchers (including an anti-drug official) finally testing out the effects of the ethylene gas!

I would recommend this book to anybody with an interest in any of these many aforementioned subjects. This is truly an instance of a potential black-and-white (as in “dry”!) subject material being presented in a full-color style. Definitely a potential for a Discovery Channel special here!

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