Puff, Puff, Past: The Oracle of Delphi Inhaled Deeply

How this ancient Greek witch saw the future with a little help.
Puff, Puff, Past: The Oracle of Delphi Inhaled Deeply
Michelangelo/ Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever been so high that time ceased to flow? That both past and future overlapped and the present became magical? Suddenly, you possessed insight into reality, the universe, or parallel dimensions.

There may be some historical precedent for this high mindedness.

For nearly 1200 years, the ancient Greeks turned to a series of pagan witches named the Oracle of Delphi who huffed fumes to speak with the gods. They turned to her to ask the important questions about life and to have their fortunes told. Often depicted as an old woman squatting above a crevice in a dark cave, she inhaled sweet smelling fumes coming from the earth’s unknown interior and predicted the rise and fall of empires.

John Collier/ Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Greeks invented or refined western conceptions of philosophy, logic, history, and mathematics but were also a deeply spiritual and mythical people. They often saw life and fate as the actions and whims of the gods and told stories (called myths) about them. Perhaps this was just a way to show that there was something more to life than what meets the eye, but they acted accordingly and offered sacrifices, prayed, and asked the gods for what they wanted. One of the ways that the ancient Greeks communed with these gods was through an oracle. This was a person (usually a woman) who could divine what the gods wanted so that people could better obey them.

The Oracle of Delphi (about 800 BCE – 400 CE) was the most famous of these fortune tellers. Considered the mouthpiece of Apollo (the god of light and truth), she was sought out by philosophers and kings alike to ask questions. She was called the “Pythoness,” because there was allegedly a giant snake carcass rotting deep inside the cave where she prophesied. This python was said to give off sickly-sweet smelling fumes that the Oracle would inhale in order to see the future.

Everyone from emperors to impoverished students would come to ask the gods questions. But, like everything in the ancient world, there were rituals that had to be observed. First, the oracle of Delphi never prophesied in winter and would only answer questions on the seventh day of the month. To prepare herself to hear the god, she would undergo purification rites including bathing naked in a nearby spring. People were also required to sacrifice goats and donate money before they were allowed to see her.

Imagine this: wearing a simple white dress and purple veil, the oracle crouched on a golden tripod of spiraling snakes above a crevice in the rock and inhaled vapors that drifted up. A goat was then sacrificed and the supplicant asked their question. Inhaling deeply from the holy vapors, the oracle’s voice changed, her eyes rolling back in her head, and she would enter ecstasy. The priests who attended her would then write down her stoned ravings as poetry. Perhaps dealers everywhere would sell more product if they too offered horoscopes on the side.

Eugène Delacroix / Wikimedia Commons

The fumes she inhaled were called “pneuma” which is Greek for ‘breath’ or ‘wind,’ and they came from a fissure in the cave called the chasm. Modern scientists have returned to the ruins and studied the geology of the area and theorized that these fumes were naturally occuring ethylene, a sweet smelling petrochemical gas that can produce a feeling of euphoria.

A naturally occurring hydrocarbon, ethylene is a colorless flammable gas that has a sweet and musky odor. Until the 1970s, ethylene was experimentally used as an anesthesia and is known to create a feeling of disembodied ecstasy, altered mental state, and pleasant sensation. It wears off quickly but can be dangerous or lethal in excess.

This divine madness and drug-fueled ecstasy occurs in many religions and cultures across the world. While nirvana in Buddhism and ecstasy in Catholicism are not necessarily drug related, many people have claimed divine madness and divine truth are accessible through substances. Perhaps the oracle of Delphi was just a proto-Aldous Huxley dropping mescaline or that huffing ethylene creates the illumination Horace admires when he writes about vino divino (divine wine).

Keep in mind, wanting the wisdom of the gods comes at a price. Once, when the rich king of Lydia, Croesus (where we get the expression “Rich as Croesus”), asked the oracle what would happen if he attacked the mighty Persian Empire, the Pythia predicted that “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” Taking this to be favorable, Croesus invaded Persia only to find his own kingdom destroyed.

The knowledge of gods, like drug-fuelled ecstasy itself, is not clear or logical. When asked who the wisest person in the world was, the oracle answered that the famous philosopher Socrates was the only person who understood that he “knew nothing”. During Socrates’ trial and subsequent execution, he cited the oracle in his self-defense and the “sacred madness” the gods gave her in ecstasy.

The Oracle of Delphi was not the only fortune-telling witch in the ancient world. There were ten of these sibyls across the Mediterranean. Famously depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, they show paganism’s impact and influence on Christianity and western culture. Wherever you look in western religion and society you see the influence of these ancient witches.

Artist Unknown/ Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous lessons taught by the oracle was to “Know Thyself”. This idea defines philosophy and that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” A concept that every stoner can identify with when gazing into the abyss of one’s palm or when exhaling the smoke rings in one’s mind.

The oracle was an institution in ancient Greek society that also allowed for the creative and illogical side of life. A role that drugs and alcohol often play in modern life. When life seems too mundane, boring, and serious, we find that a whole dimension of our existence is forgotten and we must express ourselves through through art, poetry, prayer, and introspection. Drugs act as a catalyst for these expressions.

User: Skyring/ Wikimedia Commons

The ruins at Delphi tell another story. Overlooking beautiful vistas of Mount Parnassus rot the sun bleached stones of ancient temples, houses, theaters, and treasuries. This real, physical reminder shows us that actual people participated in this cult and documented the oracle’s visions. For example, Plutarch—a Roman historian known for his biographies on Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar—was once a high priest in the oracle’s temple. Writing later in life about the importance of drugs to hear the gods:

The prophetic pneuma (inhaled fumes) is most divine and holy… It creates in souls an unusual temperament, the strangeness of which is hard to describe. It is likely that by warmth and diffusion it opens up certain passages through which impressions of the future are transmitted, just as wine, when its fumes rise to the head, revealing many unusual movements and also words stored away and unperceived. (Plutarch’s Moralia 432 E)

The ancient Greeks understood that life is sometimes mysterious and unpredictable. As a culture that consumed drugs and alcohol, they understood that illogical actions like huffing fumes that float out of dank caves help us gaze into the chasms of ourselves.

Drugs create room for the poetic, the mythical, primal, and inexplicable part of human life that needs expression so that we can blur the straight lines of our everyday lives. In addition to the relatively sober Oracle of Delphi, worship of the god Dionysus was notoriously riotous with bacchanalian parties that cult members believed opened the doors of reality and freed people from the boring bonds of everyday life.

Modern people, too, take drugs so that we may better see the gods pulling the levers behind the dappled curtain of reality and so that we may better understand our own mystery, or to watch cartoons and eat candy or whatever.

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