I had no idea there was any scientific basis for believing in the existence of a Delphi oracle until I picked up a review copy of William Broad's real life thrilled THE ORACLE. In highly serviceable prose, Broad does two things at once: he sketches in a history of Greece both ancient and modern, and also he brings up up to date on recent scholarship and archaelogical findings concerning this holy (?) site.
It is said that when Apollo visited the inner chambers of Delphi that visitors nearby would sense the lingering aromas of his distinctive, unearthly perfume! It is this sort of memorable detail that makes Broad's writing so delightful. It almost had me believing in gods, a feeling I haven't had since I was small watching Harry Hamlin and Lawrence Olivier duke it out in Harryhausen's CLASH OF THE TITANS. I eat this stuff up, but as I say, this book makes the stone carved figures of Mount Olympus come alive in a very real way. They might almost be flesh and blood.
Broad also excels at explaining how politics have obscured and occluded the progress of scientific analysis at least since the romantic age of Byron and Shelley. When the West became involved in Grecian affairs, it was almost always with the idea of empire in mind, thus for example the Elgin Marbles being carted off to London like so many trophies of war. But on the other hand some serious scholars with admittedly sketchy and unrpoven theories about the rise and fall of the Oracle were on the brink of a major discovery, if only they could surmount the bureaucracy of the stubborn French controllers of research.
Jelle De Boer (I know, what a name!) emerges as the hero of the tale, with his intuitive notions that the Apollonian messages might have emerged from beyond the "adyton" through a gas which perhaps altered consciousness. Little by little he got people to believe in him. Basically they said, "Give the kid a chance," and voila! His hypothesis involved a study of the shifting planes which broke up the landmass of Eurasia, and the creation of the Gulf of Corinth. Another young man helped him process his ideas, translating his sometimes awkwatd Dutch into colloquial English. If you liked THE DA VINCI CODE this is the real life equivalent, a book of derring do and a pair of scientific heroes like Indiana Jones who are incomparably larger than life. You may not have heard of "ethylene" before this book but once you pick up THE ORACLE, you will feel as though one of the secrets of life itself has been made a gift to you. Look over your shoulder, Apollo may be whispering your name.
on March 13, 2006
This book has it all: ancient history, archaeology, science, mystery, intrigue and adventure. As is implied by the title, the book's focus is on the Oracle of Delphi, as seen from both ancient and modern perspectives. The main theme centers on whether the ancient Oracle was exposed to hallucinogenic gases while providing prophetic council, or whether all this was, perhaps, just an act. The author does a wonderful job in weaving the history of the Oracle, its excavation of about a century ago, recent investigations and the lives of the individual scientists forming part of the multidisciplinary team performing the work. Written in a most engaging style, this book is difficult to put down. On the odd side, two sections of the book stand out as being rather different from the rest of it; these are (part of) the prologue and the entire last chapter. These contain discussions on such topics as metaphysical philosophy and the uses and misuses of reductionism in science - topics which, although possibly related to the apparent clairvoyance of the Oracle, contrast sharply with the meticulous fact gathering and the careful well-grounded science presented in the main body of the book. This can be a plus or a minus, depending on your point of view. Either way, this book is a clear winner that is likely to be of interest to just about everyone.
on April 18, 2006
When I heard about this book, the topic -- an exploration of whether the Oracle of Delphi got high from gases bubbling up from underground faults -- immediately intrigued me. And since it was written by William Broad, a top New York Times science writer, I knew it would be well done. But I did not fully expect such a fascinating tale -- and such beautiful writing. There was just enough history of the oracle to make clear her huge role in Greek history (on a word from one of a series of female oracles, spanning centuries, wars were fought, or not fought) and thus make clear why we should care -- but not too much history. There was just enough science -- but not too much to scare off the layman. And the two-decade detective story -- in which a determined geologist and an archeologist follow clues about the source of the oracle's behavior, and perhaps her powers -- is told with a lively, compelling sense of drama. (Who ever thought a book on geology could be a page-turner?) And for the third act, Mr. Broad took the substantial risk of having it seem, to the casual reader, that the whole pursuit was meaningless in the end -- but then weathered that risk with a fascinating and thought-provoking take on the role, and limits, of science.
on March 27, 2006
What a great book! In 300 pages, requiring thoughtful reading, William Broad covers a great deal of data in the following fields: the history of Greek civilization, religion and philosophy; plate tectonics and volcanism; psychic phenomena;archeology;inhaled gases as intoxicants;rivalries between branches of the sciences and disputes among the philosophers of science. I have a casual interest in all the above, so the volume was fascinating for me. All I really knew about the famous Oracle of Delphi was that it was a place where female psychics gave advice. I did not know that the Oracle was in existence for 12 centuries, including the first three after the birth of Christ. I did not know how it came into existence, and why it disappeared, or how it worked, or the kinds of advice dispensed. Neither did I know who rediscovered the shrine and when, and how those archaeologists failed to confirm an essential historical claim for the Oracle, and were proven to be in error about that a century later. If any of these trains of thought entice you to take this journey, go get this book.
on February 27, 2012
William J. Broad's THE ORACLE is a fascinating look at the science behind the Delphic Oracle. Blending ancient history, recent modern history and the scientific disciplines of anthropology, geology and archeology, the author pieces together a fascinating account of what may have caused the Oracle at Delphi to be so well-regarded throughout the ancient world, that extra something that seemed to lie behind those Delphic prophecies. The priestess would sit on a metal tripod, her legs dangling, and that tripod was positioned over an X-like fault in the limestone bedrock through which seeped ethylene, a sweet-smelling gas that in small doses can cause a trance-like state, that quickly wears off with the entranced person remembering little afterwards.
In this scientific age, it is easy to feel that the explanation just given explains everything about what being a Delphic Oracle was like. It's easy to think that she was equivalent to a glue-sniffer, or someone high on mescalen or some other substance.
But that would miss the point about what the women took themselves to be doing as they sat on that tripod. They had prepared carefully for the event (which took place once a month during the warmer part of the year). They had fasted. They had gone through various purification rituals. And as they sat on that tripod, in that darkened room, with a laurel held in one hand and a small bowl of water in the other, they expected that the god Apollo would reveal himself to them, and give sage advice to whoever might appear.
Strangely enough, it mostly seemed to work. It probably helped that the women chosen for the task were well-educated and intelligent, so that in their semi-inebriated state they were able to reply in classical hexameters. It was probably necessary to have the priests of Apollo hovering nearby should something go wrong. But what I am trying to say here is that it is unfair to dismiss these women as akin to glue-sniffers. People sniffing glue are not usually planning to meet the god Apollo and use his wise counsel for the benefit of society.
What is key here, is what people's expectations are. Because, as I am fond of reminding my friends, we all possess an extraordinarily powerful machine in our heads. And expectations filter experience. Expectations can turn a tawdry quest for a high into something profound that still resonates thousands of years after the event. And William J. Broad is careful to spell out that point at the end of his wonderful book. Five stars.
on May 27, 2006
William Broad has written an absolutely delightful book that will fascinate anyone with any interest in the Ancient Greeks. There are many tools (a timeline and a glossary) for people who don't know much about the subject, but there's also a great deal of excellent material for folks who have been studying this subject for years.
What Broad proves is that the ancient accounts of the shrine at Delphi need to taken seriously...not because Apollo really resided there, but because an important natural phenomenon gave a select group of women the opportunity to teach ethics, guide kings, and even free some slaves.
I was able to visit Delphi a decade ago and I can assure you that the guide painted a truly depressing picture about the most important shrine in all of Greece. The old account was that crazy old women were compelled to utter gibberish and then a group of male priests would say whatever they felt like. This was something the Greeks took seriously?
The book is well-written and filled with details that make for an engaging narrative.
on March 10, 2015
Unbelievable source ! Great reading too! William Broad has an astonishing bit of history here. Far exceeds my expectations with depth and color as well as scholarship in abundance. The Pythoness literally changed history, saving Sparta from decadence and Athens from defeat.We tend to ignore the impact of divination in the real world , this book will change that perception forever.
A wondrful book!
on December 26, 2014
William J. Broad’s visionary account of the Oracle of Delphi challenged and reset the wrongful preprograming of the human species into a patriarchal society when entering into the realm of Earth.
Our planet; Mother Earth, living organism, and yes, Gaia/goddess was born with her own free will and original plan to ensure her own spiritual growth and ascension. Her original plan, in essence, was intended to embellish the matriarch. Her ladies in waiting if you wish, were the seers, sibyls, and oracles, who were to keep her original plan moving forward as her voice. It was the sweet breath of Mother Earth herself, not Apollo that was guiding the Oracles of Delphi.
It was man that intervened as the stronger of the sex’s and began their systematic overthrow of women’s reign. The Oracle of Delphi was not immune to this slowly spreading disease over Mother Earth. The Oracles, having begun as the true voice of Gaia had to endure twelve centuries of survivorship by appeasing the will of the priests. It was male desire to disassociate himself from nature and gain his stance as Supreme Being; that caused the silenced voices of Delphi.
William J. Broad takes us on a journey of self-discovery hinting to the truth to our forbidden and hidden history. It is much more than science; it is the belief that all things are possible. Life does not need to be explained down to the tiniest molecule. There is always something greater. I could not explain these things as eloquently as Broad, since I am a right-brained visionary, and look beyond science.
The rich history of this story from beginning to end kept me turning the pages. I devoured all of it. I learned much and had no idea the many things that were inspired by the need to scientifically explain the prophetic administrations of the Pythia. That in itself was worth the read.
I have always been fascinated by the Pythia since the very first time I saw Colliers painting of the Oracle of Delphi. This book came to me as part of a succession of synchronicities. I knew the answer to the riddle of the Oracle as soon as I heard that familiar crack of the spine as I opened this book. The world indeed cannot be explained by science alone. Denice Garrou, author of Dragonhorse and the Seeker of the Forgotten Knowledge
on April 13, 2006
Pulitzer prize-winner William Broad knows a good story when he finds one. In The Oracle he knits together new geologic and anthropological evidence to create a dramatic tale: the discovery of new evidence of an ancient account of the oracle at Delphi. For over a hundred years so-called "objective" science dismissed the ancient tales of fumes arising from vents in the inner sanctum of the Temple of Apollo. But then a team of curious experts in earthquakes and archaeological evidence proved that the ancients were telling the truth, and, if anything, the Oracle at Delphi was all about the truth. This book will spawn renewed interest in the sacred site at Delphi.
on May 19, 2014
I looked for books about the Oracle after watching a History Channel documentary about the scientific search for a fault and evidence of intoxicating gasses beneath the temple of Apollo (I show it to my philosophy students).
I expected this book to tell the same story in detail, which it does, but it also provides interesting historical context, and has a well-written chapter that considers relevant epistemological issues (philosophical issues about knowledge, how it is gained, what counts as legitimate knowledge, etc.).
I gave it four stars because I wished it were longer, and just provided more of the same kinds of content.