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.

Somewhere between Apollo & Dionysus


Friedrich Nietzsche not only loved Greek art and culture per se but he was also, as we discussed the other day, always searching for timeless lessons from the Greeks to help us understand modernity and ourselves.

He found one such lesson in an apparent duality that ran through all of Greek art: the tension between two gods who were also two archetypes and half-brothers: Apollo and Dionysus.

Think of them as a Greek Yin and Yang.

Apollo, the god of the sun and wisdom, as well as poetry and music, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yang (ie, the bright, masculine sun).

Dionysus, the god of wine, intoxication, ecstasy, passion and instinct, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yin (ie, the dark, feminine moon).

Obviously, I am stretching that analogy, so don’t get too wound up about it. If you prefer, you can think of them in our contemporary pop-psychology terms of left brain (Apollo) and right brain (Dionysus).


So why should this duality be so interesting, for the Greeks or for us?

From Homer to John Wayne: The Apollonian

Nietzsche saw in these two archetypes two approaches to art, and indeed life.

Homer, for example, followed his Apollonian instinct in writing the Iliad and Odyssey in the 8th century BCE. How so? Because he glorified the war against Troy and the subsequent nostos (homecoming) of Odysseus. He made these stories beautiful, as Apollo was. He gave the Greeks and us role models.

He made the Greeks proud to be Greeks, proud to descend from whichever hero in the long catalogue of ships they traced their lineage to. He made them aware of their individuality, of the structures of society, of its fundamental order to which, after intervening episodes of wrath (see: Achilles), everything must return.

Julian Young in his biography of Nietzsche compares this to, for example, our Westerns (the ones with John Wayne more than those with Clint Eastwood). There, too, you see people dying, but they die in a stylized, Homeric way: The bullet hits and they tumble from their horses, looking good as they do so. They are our heroes, beyond the sordidness of reality.

Young gives another modern example: women’s magazines. Those are full of celebrities (our goddesses?) with their tales of disease, divorce, death and drugs. The subtext is ugly, and yet it is presented to us as glamour.

Nietzsche calls this being “superficial out of profundity.” Apollonian art does not censor facts (such as death) but perspectives. It involves a certain amount of self-deception, but it is uplifting. It deifies everything human, whether good or bad. And so it is, yes, religion.

From Sophocles to the rock concert: The Dionysian

By contrast, Aeschylus and Sophocles (but not Euripides, see below) followed their Dionysian instincts in the tragedies they created the fifth century BCE. This might have been expected: Those tragedies were, after all, performed once a year at the festival of Dionysus.

Dionysian art is about the abandonment of order, or ecstasy (ex-stasis = standing out of everyday consciousness). It transcends words or concepts. This is why it tends to involve visuals and music.

Music was in fact an important part of Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ tragedies (we just don’t know how it sounded, what a pity!). Apparently, the audience sang along with the chorus and became one with it.

The individuals there would have become hypnotized by the sound (rather as yogis feel a certain ‘vibe’ when chanting Om with others). In fact, they would have, as one says, lost themselves in the crowd. They would have stopped feeling separate and individual, Athenian or Greek. They would have had (Freud’s) oceanic feeling.

Credit: Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry

Young compares this to our rock concerts or raves, to our football and soccer stadiums. Dionysian art is a trance and a trip, usually good, sometimes bad.

It is, in contrast to some Apollonian art, apolitical and devoid of any message. The Athenians participating in Sophocles’ tragedies stopped caring about worldly affairs. They became almost apathetic.

This was the only way they could bear to see their heroes — those same Apollonian heroes — torn down and devastated, knowing that they themselves might meet the same fate, understanding that reality was sordid, that it was primal and dark, and that it demanded to be accepted in that way. And they found a beauty in that feeling, too. So it, too, was a form of religion.

From Socrates to Princess Diana: What Nietzsche decried

Nietzsche loved both the Apollonian and the Dionysian, understanding that, like yin and yang, neither can ever be denied.

What he did not like, however, might surprise you: Socrates.

Why? Because Socrates represented, to Nietzsche, the religion of reason — not Apollonian wisdom but cold, methodical logic. In that sense, Nietzsche believed that Socrates “killed” Attic tragedy and Homeric poetry, and the playwright who represented that trend (to Nietzsche) was Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragedians.

Our own age, Nietzsche might say, is “Socratic” in the sense of scientific and myth-less, neither Apollonian nor Dionysian. Because we can’t act out these two instincts, we instead cobble together what Young calls “myth fragments”. We don’t release urges, as the Greeks did, but instead look for thrills, for sex and drugs and trips. We sky- and scuba-dive, we get a new app.

We worship neither Dionysus or Apollo but idols like Princess Diana. How appropriate, since Diana was the Roman Artemis, sister of Apollo.

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The arrogance of Socrates: Apollo made me!

None wiser, says Apollo

None wiser, says Apollo

So we opened this thread on Socrates and his relevance to us today by showing the heroically positive, then nuanced that with some more ambiguous observations. We must now add (before we eventually get to the heroic again) a few more. First: he was arrogant.

Yes, an arrogant S.O.B. I mean, let’s take his personal “creation myth”, ie the story that he would later use at his trial (to which we will get) as his raison d’être.

There are two versions of this story, one from each of the only two students whose writings we rely on to know anything at all about Socrates.

Xenophon, the less famous of the two, says that Socrates told the Athenian jury that he had sent a student/apprentice to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, where the oracle opined that

no man was more free than I, or more just, or more prudent.

Ahem. Lest that sound a bit, you know, over-the-top, Socrates added that

Apollo did not compare me to a god [although he did] judge that I far excelled the rest of mankind.

So there, members of the jury. That’s why I have been going around humiliating and exposing you, disabusing you of your impression that you were free, undermining your self-confidence while tooting the horn of the Spartan enemy.

The more famous of the two students, Plato, wrote later and probably realized that it would be wise to tone this down a bit. Here Socrates ‘merely’ told the jury that the oracle told him that

there was no one wiser.

This is still rather cocky, but now with a twist. The twist is that Socrates is now on a divine mission. He must find out whether the oracle is right, whether anybody out there is wiser after all. So, you see, he had to make everybody look like a fool just to do justice to Apollo.

His ‘biographer’ I.F. Stone calls this one huge “ego-trip”, possibly the biggest in world history. It just so happens that I have a soft spot for huge egos, provided that they are intelligent and witty and not my editors. So on The Hannibal Blog, this is not an attack per se. It’s just, you know, ‘color’. We need to know who we’re dealing with.

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