The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Message of Ancient Delphi

The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Messages of Ancient Delphi, by William J. BroadBy William J. Broad
The Penguin Press, Published by the Penguin Group, New York, 2006 Click to Buy this Book!

From the Prologue: “This book is about a voice from the remote past that has come back to question the metaphysical assumptions of our age, to urge us to look beyond the claims of science and reexamine our attitudes toward spirituality, mysticism, and the hidden powers of the mind… The Oracle is back today because a team of American scientists managed to uncover one of her greatest secrets and, in the process, to restore her reputation and voice. It turns out that she got high … Science may be our religion. But the dirty little secret, reflected in the wisdom of the Oracle, is that it is more a loose collection of insights and slogans than a universal explanation for what is real.” The prologue is clearly pointing to journalist William Broad’s realization of a dichotomy between the tenets of modern science that attribute the highest values and most meaningful experiences of the soul and spirit to physical causes only, and his awareness of the unseen spiritual foundations of all existence, an awareness that must have increased during the writing of The Oracle, especially through the research required for the earliest time periods of ancient Greece. The primary subject of the book, after it provides a clear history of the Delphic Oracle from 1000–800 BC (the author uses BCE and CE) to the time of Julian the Apostate, as well as accounts of the earliest archaeological excavations at Delphi, is a detailed biography of the geologist Jelle Zeilinga de Boer (b. mid–1930s) and his discovery of the evidence of the intoxicating hydrocarbon gases ethane, methane and ethylene that rose along the crossing faults beneath the temple, while in very minute quantities. Joining de Boer in the work of the discovery was John R. Hale, an archaeologist, Jeff Chanton, a chemist, and Henry Spiller, a medical toxicologist.

The book reflects its extensive research, with seven chapters, a Chronology, Notes, a Selected Bibliography, a Glossary, Acknowledgments and an Index. The first chapter, titled “Center of the Universe,” includes illustrations, diagrams and a map, and offers many intriguing facts, such as the meaning of the Greek word Pytho: “Python’s slaying [by Apollo], in addition to providing a dramatic narrative for Apollo’s new sanctuary, gave Delphi its other name — Pytho, from the Greek word for ‘to rot,’ a reference to the decay of the snake’s body. Pytho came to refer to the sacred region at the foot of Parnassus, while the name Delphi applied only to the sanctuary and, in time, the nearby town. The Oracle herself came to be known as the Pythia.” The Sun god, Apollo, like Saint George of later tradition, had to overcome the regional dragon, the beast of the earth, and also, to a certain degree, the beast’s power within the physical structure of the human being, in order to establish the divine impetus and direction for the coming Greco-Roman cultural age (in Anthroposophy, 747 BC to 1413 AD). As author William Broad conveys to the reader from his own insights, there was a deterioration of the original Grecian spiritual and cultural values over a long period of time, reflected in the waning integrity of the Oracles as witnessed by Plutarch (c. 50–120 AD), and perhaps making increasingly necessary the manipulative reliance on fumes and vapors, once merely an appropriate, innocuous, natural means for facilitating the reception of pneuma (breath of divine spirit), not dissimilar to the later role of incense in the Catholic mass. This deterioration, as all world cultures eventually demonstrate, is in keeping with the ceaseless evolution of consciousness as described in the anthroposophical literature. Gradually the Greeks began to emerge out of their mythological, magical, god-dictated spiritual proclivities, and were guided toward logic, reason and the observation of nature by such great teachers as Solon, Thales, Socrates, Aristotle, and many of their contemporaries. The Roman civilization concluded this process, although Rome eventually sank into a godless mire, despite the influences of religion. The true meaning of the omphalos (Greek for “navel”), pictured on page 29, is that it signified the center of a new world culture that would gradually advance the evolution of consciousness through the direction that Western civilization would take, a direction known to the early initiates and high priests and priestesses of Delphi through the inspirations of Apollo. “In contrast to the [much later] emphasis on private affairs, the questions that supplicants brought to Delphi in the early centuries of its recorded history tended to deal with the most serious matters of state: war and peace, law codes and land allotment, duty and leadership, crime and punishment, famine and colonization.”

In Chapter One, the discerning reader will find it necessary to make a distinction between the authentic illustrations of ancient Greece, such as that from a potter’s vase of 440 BC on page 35, and the romantic, sensuous realism of the 19th century illustrations and paintings that were created out of an entirely different consciousness and for this reason are historically inaccurate. From this point of view the potter’s vase painting would have been far better on the book cover. The Oracle of the potter’s vase also seems to be initiating the appropriate contemplative mood for deriving prophetic inspiration by gazing into what appears to be a shallow bowl of water, and no fumes or vapors are depicted as rising from the ground beneath the tripod.

By the time of Julian the Apostate (331–363 AD), the reality of Apollo, god of the Sun, was long lost from human consciousness. The individual human ego and the materialistic world view had come to the fore. From the end of the first chapter: “The last Roman [Julian, who reached out to question the last Oracle] learned nothing to comfort him, nothing to inspire, nothing to suggest that the gods foresaw a bright future. Instead, her reply began with a long silence.

Tell the king, the fair-wrought house has fallen. No shelter has Apollo, nor sacred laurel leaves. The fountains now are silent; the voice is stilled.

Chapter Three, titled “Inquisitive Man,” begins the biography of the geologist Jelle (YELL-a) Zeilinga de Boer. He grew up on the flank of a volcano, on the paradisiacal island of Java, Indonesia, but this idyllic existence ended with the Japanese invasion of 1942. Through separation from his family, endless work, beatings, starvation and serious wounds, the boy still managed to survive until after the war, when the remnants of his family reunited in Holland. In Utrecht he met a friend who had helped him in the Japanese concentration camp, and this same friend now introduced him to earth science. In common with other students who had grown up in Indonesia, Java’s lands of natural liveliness had also piqued the curiosity of de Boer about the earth, and through this lasting enthusiasm he eventually attended the university in Utrecht, graduating in 1963 with a doctorate in geophysics. He accepted a teaching position at Wesleyan in the United States, in Connecticut, continued the development of his research skills, and began to travel around the globe as a consultant for industries and governments. By 1974 he had been made a full professor at Wesleyan, and by 1977 he held an endowed chair. His interest in Greece began in 1988 while he was on a year’s sabbatical leave, and through reading the works of Plutarch he learned about the destructive earthquake at Delphi in 373 BC and the unusual phenomenon of the sanctuary’s vapors. “As fate would have it, his short stay [at Delphi] turned into repeated visits over the decades” as he learned about the east-west fault outside Delphi that appeared to run under the temple, and, from an old French photo, recognized signs of fissures in the interior of the temple that suggested a pathway through which intoxicating gases could have risen. By the year 2003, de Boer, together with research partners Hale, Chanton, and Spiller, had published the team’s findings of Delphi’s unusual geology and its potent gases and their intoxicating effects.

But neither William Broad nor Jelle de Boer can wholeheartedly accept any sort of limited scientific answer to the power of the Oracles as due solely to the effects of intoxicating gases. “In the privacy of his home,” writes Broad in the last chapter of the book, “de Boer would talk quietly of an invisible hand that guided him in the days and months after his escape from the Japanese prison camp, articulating an entirely unscientific view of providence. He said there was more to life than recognized by the scientific establishment, more to reality than textbooks would allow, more than ethylene behind the Oracle … De Boer, increasingly happy to question establishment views as he neared retirement, faulted how the scientific world tended to dismiss psychic claims as unworthy of study. He called it arrogant. The intensity and long history of the condescension, he said, had slowed research on the topic and led many people — especially scientists — to feel ashamed about the possibility of extrasensory perception even when their own experiences tended to lend it credence.”

And in the last sentence of the book’s brief Epilogue, author William Broad imagines the Oracle speaking to him: “Yes, she seemed to be saying. You have discovered one of my secrets. I have others.” — Review by Martha Keltz

Suggested studies:  The Evolution of Consciousness: As Revealed through Initiation Knowledge, 13 Lectures by Rudolf Steiner, 1923; and Mystery Centers, 14 Lectures by Rudolf Steiner, 1923.

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