How this Ancient Greek Oracle Saw the Future

May 15, 2019

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.

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.

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