The vapors of Delphi

Pythia (oracle of Apollo)

When the ancient Greeks and Romans had a question of great import, they traveled to the navel (omphalos) of the world, which they believed to be at Delphi, on the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece (see map below).

They climbed up the Sacred Way, past about 3,000 statues and various temples and shrines, until they reached the Temple of Apollo. (This post is apropos of our discussion about Apollo the other day.)

Mount Parnassus was Apollo’s mountain — the mountain of wisdom and music, the place where Apollo had given Orpheus his lyre and taught him to play it, a place that other artistic places (such as Montparnasse in Paris) still try to evoke today.

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Because Apollo could see the future, he would have the answer to any question, here at his temple.

And he gave his answer through a woman, the Pythia (pictured above). She would sit above a chasm in the rock through which the god sent vapors (pneuma) that put the woman in a trance. Thus possessed, the Pythia would babble, and priests were at hand to transcribe her words into beautiful hexameter which they gave to the individual who had asked a question.

The answer was coherent syntactically but not necessarily substantively. You recall that both King Croesus and Socrates, for example, had received answers from the Pythia that were ambiguous at best (disastrously so, in Croesus’ case).

But nobody could dispute the power of the god, or rather of his vapors.

And that remains true even today. The vapors are real, it turns out. Mount Parnassus sits atop several very active faults. The earth below constantly rubs and often quakes, grinding the rock until it emits … vapors.

Which vapors? Methane and ethane, apparently. Even the spring water at the site contains ethylene.

In short, even the scientists who go there today, if they hang out there long enough, if they inhale and ingest, may enter the trance of the Pythia and receive the ambiguous wisdom of Apollo.

And so mythos and logos meet; and ‘Socrates’, Dionysus and Apollo become one.

40 thoughts on “The vapors of Delphi

  1. Let me get this straight… The wise and smart leaders trudged up a mountainside to get answers to important question from a woman high on methane fumes who then babbled some kind of gibberish that only the priests could interpret and translate into vague, ambiguous poems which supposedly provided the answers?

    Was this the model for modern political consultants?

    • You got it, Douglas.
      For the sake of completeness, we should add that these wise and smart leaders (case in point: Croesus) would often then use this procedure to decide whether or not to make war.

      (Pythia to Croesus: “if you invade, a great empire will fall.” Croesus to himself: ‘Hmm, surely she means THE OTHER empire. I guess I’ll do it.’)

  2. A very Dionysian (delivered in riddles, by a woman, accompanied by vapors, inducing a trance) message from Apollo.

    Meanwhile, in another time and another place: “None of woman born shall harm MacBeth.”

  3. It is interesting the extent to which one can view Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the interplay of “Dionysian”, “Socratic”, and “Apollonian” elements.

    – Claudius, Hamlet’s step-father, does most of the play’s drinking and is therefore its “Dionysian” element.

    – Horatio is the very portraiture of detachment — and to a lesser degree Reason — and is therefore its “Socratic” element.

    – And Hamlet, “The expectancy and rose of the fair state / The glass of fashion and the mould of form / The observed of all observers” is a good candidate for the “Apollonian” ideal of beauty and proportion.

    I found this description of Apollo in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

    “Apollo, byname PHOEBUS, in Greek religion, a deity of manifold function and meaning, the most widely revered and influential of all the Greek gods. Though his original nature is obscure, from the time of Homer onward he was the god of divine distance, who sent or threatened from afar; the god who made men aware of their own guilt and purified them of it; who presided over religious law and the constitutions of cities; who communicated to man through prophets and oracles his knowledge of the future and the will of his father, Zeus. Even the gods feared him, and only his father and his mother, Leto, could endure his presence. Distance, death, terror, and awe were summed up in his symbolic bow.”

    Hamlet inflicts pain from a distance — but by his wit, not arrows. He spends much of his time making others aware of their guilt. He ascertains his father’s will from his father’s ghost and communicates it to Horatio by words, and to others by his actions. Horatio is the only major character who feels comfortable around Hamlet, or manages to “endure his presence.” Hamlet likens his mother to Niobe, one of Apollo’s chief victims; and when the players arrive at Elsinore he demands that they immediately enact the death of Priam, the father of another of Apollo’s victims, Cassandra.

    Early in the play Hamlet says, “I am too much i’ the sun” and “If the sun breed …”. These self-referential uses of the homophone sun/son are later followed by a reference to Apollo by his other name, Phoebus (that is, the sun) in the first line that Hamlet writes for the play-within-a-play that he expects will “catch the conscience of the King”:

    “Full thirty times hath Phoebus’ cart gone round Neptune’s salt wash and Tellus’ [Earth’s] orbed ground.”

    Hamlet is thirty years old.

    Hamlet’s play ends suddenly when Claudius, deeply offended by what he sees onstage, bolts from the theater. Says Hamlet,

    “Why, let the stricken deer go weep.”

    Apollo, arrow loosed, bow still quivering, couldn’t have said it better.

  4. really, with a title like this no wise cracks?!

    what has:

    Nitrogen – 20% – 90%
    Hydrogen – 0% – 50%
    Carbon Dioxide – 10% – 30%
    Oxygen – 0% – 10%
    Methane – 0% – 10%

    and the ability to overcome a person?

    the vapors; “A polite 19th century term women used meaning either 1) Being emotionally overcome or 2) Having gas.”

  5. Jim –

    there is a video link to “the play within the play” somewhere on this blog. also, i think jenny must be consulted before “castings” 😉

    well done though!

  6. May I come on the field trip?

    You’ll remember long ago, several years if my aged recollection is correct, I was invited to Morocco with A, Phil, and Mr. C.


  7. The poor pythias paid a steep price for divine wisdom. If Plutarch is to be believed, the sybil was usually in a mild trance, remaining semi-conscious and speaking with an altered voice. Occasionally, however, one of the diviners would be struck by a powerful trance. The woman would flail wildly and produce terrible wailing and inarticulate moaning. An oracle thus afflicted always died within a few days and a new pythia would be selected. Even if they escaped such a fate, pythias had drastically shortened lives (and were shackled by imposed chastity). I think I prefer dream augury for my critical war decisions!

  8. 🙂 🙂 I don’t know how I missed that meaning of “vapors” all these years, @dafna. That could change what Mr Crotchety expects from the field trip.

    Amazing analysis, @Jim M. Quite convincing, except that my own imagination has permanently latched on to Hamlet-as-archetypal-ditherer (“to be or not to be” and all that). And dithering does not seem very Apollonian.

    Phoebus/Apollo: That conflation has always confused me. Their names are clearly used interchangeably sometimes, also with Helios. But then there are myths that seem to see them as distinct. Eg, Phoebus, if I recall correctly, is also the sOn of the sUn (ie, the son of Helios), and demands to hold the reins of Helios’ chariot one day to drive it across the sky. Phoebus can’t rein in the steeds and plunges to his death.

  9. By the way, you may have noticed that I got rid of “threaded conversations”. Is that a + or a -?

    The reason I did it was that some threads, when a few people really dug in to a specific point, carried on so long that the following comments, even though they came earlier in time, were pushed down and out of all relevance.

    This way, comments are displayed in chronological order, which makes more sense. The drawback is that one has to do the @NAME thing to identify whom one is responding to.

  10. @Hieronymo: Great color, as they say in my business.

    Do you happen to remember which of Plutarch’s Lives you read that in? I’m sure old Plutarch left us with quite a passage. I must have missed it.

  11. @Hieronymo: The question of “whether land or sea animals are cleverer” is clearly one that has kept all of us flummoxed.

    I’ve only ever read the Lives, so I’m impressed you also read Moralia. I’ve followed your link and will find time to browse a bit. Never too late to get deeper into Plutarch….

  12. @Andreas

    In eliminating the threaded comment feature you said:

    “…….comments are displayed in chronological order, which makes more sense……”

    What might make even more sense is to invert the order of comments, so that the earliest comment comes first (is at the top). I think WordPress offers this feature.

    If we go on the assumption that as more comments are added to any blog entry anywhere, the less intelligent they become, then a reader short of time could read merely the first two or three comments at the top, knowing they are the most intelligent, and therefore needn’t waste his precious time by reading further.

  13. @Andreas

    I’ve just realised that you already have the earliest comments at the top.

    So ignore my previous comment, or better, delete it.

  14. @Andreas

    As with all things, there are pros and cons to the linear approach to comments. In any case, it is good that you have a choice. My blog (Blogger) has no such option and is always in a linear form. I think that tends to limit comments because conversations become difficult. Consider: if there is a comment which intrigues you and leads you to reply and then you find 20 comments between you and the comment to which you wish to reply are you more or less likely to comment? Heck, you might even get distracted by other comments and fail to reply to the initial one which intrigued you.

    Still, I see similar things happen even in threaded comments so there may be no ideal method… yet.

  15. Andreas,

    My guess is that Hamlet dithers because in the end he’s no Apollo.

    In the first third of Hamlet the characters spend about half of their time giving each other advice that is not going to help them. They all are like Apollo in that they give out good advice, but ultimately they appear to be more like Cassandra, who was doomed by Apollo to give out good advice that never works. Cassandra’s powerlessness stemmed from Apollo giving her the power of prophecy, but then, after rejection by her, seeing to it that her advice would prove useless. The characters in Hamlet try many tactics to avoid their fates — Hamlet’s is delay; Polonius’s obsequiousness; Ophelia’s obedience; the King’s aggression; but nothing works. However much they appear to be advice-giving Apollos at the outset, by the end of the play they prove to be just so many Cassandras.

    Of course, if Hamlet were truly an Apollo the play would be over in five minutes.

    (I’m with Douglas on the Reply buttons.)

  16. @Jim M. — Your theory is elegant and fun. So, you got me thinking about the comedies (Midsummer and As You Like It, mainly) and the Apollonian/Dionysian divide between life at court and life in the forest. That send me back to Harold Bloom, and (can you believe this?) Bloom quotes a passage from Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy” presenting an opposing point of view about our (oh what a piece of work is) man Hamlet:

    “In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no — true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.”

    I notice that the passage begins “in this sense”, allowing for another sense in which Hamlet could be like Apollo.

  17. @Jim M. and @Jenny: Wow, I’ve never thought about Hamlet that way.

    This way (inaction not from dithering but from over-knowledge), Hamlet is more profound.

    Jim M., wasn’t Cassandra’s problem that she knew the truth but nobody believed her? She (sister of Hector and thus cousin of Aeneas, if I recall correctly) thus gave advice that could have been useful if she had been able to build a social consensus around it (“Let’s NOT bring in that wooden horse…”)

    Truth as social medium?

    @Phil, don’t these guys prove your hypothesis (comments get dumber the more there are in a thread) wrong? 😉

  18. I really hate to burst your bubbles, because Delphi is a great site worthy of interest for many reasons, but I have to say that the ethylene gas hypothesis is terrible science and bad archaeology. You can find a scientific rebuttal in the journal Clinical Toxicology:
    To me, the most convincing objection is that the concentrations of ethylene gas necessary to affect a human being would also be highly explosive, and of course the back space of a temple in ancient times could only be lit by an open flame. I actually use this as a case study in bad archaeology in my Greek archaeology course.
    I do find it of interest that the faults intersect beneath the temple. It is indeed possible that the Greeks were aware of gas escaping from the rock at this point and attributed to it divine power. But that doesn’t of course mean that the gas actually had any effect.

  19. @Richard: 🙂
    @Jenny: Harold Bloom? Name dropping again. And Hamlet’s action – that sounds like Arjuna’s gig when you put it that way.
    @Cheri: bring comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen, and a large ‘juice’ box (and fresh cartrdges for your gas mask.)

  20. Thanks, Dylan.

    I seem to be able to read only the Abstract of that paper you link to.

    We’d all like to be mice in your archaeology lecture, since you’ve clearly studied this for a long time.

    What are other examples of good/bad archaeology?

  21. @ Andreas

    “……@Phil, don’t these guys prove your hypothesis (comments get dumber the more there are in a thread) wrong…….?”


  22. Jenny,

    I think you’ve found another “Apollo” passage in Hamlet:

    What a piece of work is a man,
    how noble in reason,
    how infinite in faculties,
    in form and moving,
    how express and admirable in action,
    how like an angel in apprehension,
    how like a god!
    the beauty of the world;
    the paragon of animals.

    Isn’t this just a description of Apollo?

    And consider the passage that immediately precedes it.

    … indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

    Isn’t this last phrase:

    “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors”

    just Shakespeare’s take on Delphi (though it may also serve to describe
    the Globe’s balcony audience).

    Of course, by the end of the play the main characters are revealed not
    to be “noble in reason”; nor “express and admirable in action”; nor
    “like an angel in apprehension”, etc.

    They’re no “Apollos”, after all.

  23. @Jim:

    I’m glad that you quoted these passages. They tell the whole story, I think.

    Whatever they may or may not describe, however Hamlet may or may not conduct himself in a manner befitting Apollo, his words themselves, his poetical expression, is utterly, FANTASTICALLY Apollonian. And we perceive him through the “how” of his speech and not just the “what”.

    Apollo: stylized; beautiful; deifying man. How much more like a god can man be than in the utterance of Hamlet’s soliloquies?

    So, Nietzsche’s got something when he argues that Hamlet conducts himself like a Dionysian man, but the manner of Hamlet’s speech is another matter altogether.

    What a piece of work is Hamlet: in (in)action, how Dionysian; in expression how like Apollo.

    (@Mr. Crotchety: all my own thinking, sans name dropping)

  24. Jenny,

    Good point! Hamlet’s Apollonian  command of language.

    It’s interesting that Shakespeare writes:

     What a piece of work is A MAN.

    rather than:

     What a piece of work is MAN.

    He may do this because he tying together three passages where Hamlet is thinking about his father, A MAN …


    My father—methinks I see my father.


    Where, my lord?


    In my mind’s eye, Horatio.


    I saw him once, ’a was a goodly king.


    ’A was A MAN take him for all in all,
    I shall not look upon his like again.

    HAMLET (describing his father to his mother)

    A combination and a form indeed,
    Where every god did seem to set his seal
    To give the world assurance of A MAN.

    It is said that Shakespeare’s favorite role was that of Hamlet’s father’s ghost — if so, did he write the role for himself and how did he play it? Apollonian? For comic effect?

  25. @Jim — I had never noticed the article. You are right, and the connection to Hamlet’s father is really interesting. I will think about how that might be exploited in a stage production. (One never knows when one might be called upon to direct Hamlet at the Guthrie or the Public Theater.)

    On another (tired and tedious) level, I am sorry that you pointed this out to me. “What a piece of work is man” might refer to gender-inclusive mankind, but “What a piece of work is a man” doesn’t feel as malleable, does it? No more on that theme; it begins to sound (to put it in Spamalot terms) like “The Conversation That Goes Like This”.

    Shakespeare as Hamlet’s father’s ghost is another splashy idea for my directorial debut at the Guthrie. I will credit you on all counts.

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