History : Mar-Apr 2019
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 1 FROM THE EDITOR Amy Briggs, Executive Editor History’s mysteries are often solved by teams working centuries apart. The oracle at Delphi, ancient Greece’s favorite place for seeking divine advice, confounded many scholars who sought the place where priestesses told the future. Classical accounts described the process: The Pythia (Apollo’s priestess) entered a cavern, inhaled sweet-smelling vapors (called pneuma) emanating from the depths, went into a trance, and then uttered the words of the gods. In the 1890s archaeologists drew on these accounts when they first excavated the site on Parnassós. Unable to find the Pythia’s sacred space and the intoxicating pneuma, they concluded that the vapors were just “urban legends” passed down by the ancients. These early excavations revealed important geologic insights that became apparent to scholars in the 1990s. Combining science with history, an archaeologist, a geologist, a chemist, and a toxicologist banded together and found that the pneuma were real: the product of geologic faults underneath Delphi causing gases, including sweet-smelling ethylene, to rise into the Pythia’s chamber and induce her trances. Putting all these pieces together renders a fuller picture of the past and also serves as a reminder of the debt owed to those teammates who came before.