The Secret Dreams of a Pythia (2009)

(a solo from “Spinster’s Ball”)

In Ancient Greece, there existed oracles at Dodona , Trophonios, Claros, and Didyma, but the most renowned oracle was the one at Delphi . Petitioners would consult the oracle through a priest and the oracle, who was always a single older woman of blameless life, from the peasant class, was reputed to channel the voice of Apollo. Each woman chosen would take on the name Pythia, in reference to the legend of Apollo slaying the monstrous beast Python. It was believed when Apollo did so, Python’s body fell into the fissure over which the oracle sat, and the legendary fumes that she breathed were said to emanate from the decomposing body. Chewing laurel leaves, the Pythia gave ambiguous answers to petitioners on everything from important matters of public policy (war, founding of colonies, affairs of state) to everyday personal affairs (love, marriages, rivalries). For around 12 centuries, she was consulted by citizens, philosophers, and rulers. Much weight was given to her (theorized) trance-borne words.

Research has given us conflicting theories about this part of the equation: was the oracle really in an ecstatic trance when she doled out her prophecies? Until this past decade, scientists have refuted this, based on an 1892 excavation of the ruins by a team of French archeologists. The archeologists found no evidence of volcanism that would have produced intoxicating fumes; nor did they find a cleft or large fissure at the site. In 2002, after further excavation, 2 small intersecting faults were discovered, and a theory was put forth citing the petrochemical (non volcanic) ethylene as what the oracle was probably under the influence of. This theory was so popular, it was widely reported in the NY Times, Nature.com, Scientific American, and National Geographic. Most recently, in 2007, yet another study was done, systematically refuting the ethylene intoxication theory by citing that there were negligible concentrations of this highly flammable gas (reference the following: 0.3nM/L at the site, whereas a driver in urban traffic is reported to be exposed to 0.32nM/L ethylene concentrations).

Amidst all of this back-and-forth theorizing, we are really only certain of one thing. Intoxicated or sober, the Pythia was most definitely a renowned Performer.