the Oracle & the Ethylene


The Oracle at Delphi was one of the most influential persons of the ancient world. Her prophecies, proclaimed from a vapor induced trance state, would guide the actions of the rich and the poor alike. Today the most likely culprit for this frenzy was the organic compound Ethylene, the same gas that ripens fruits & vegetables.

The Oracle

The Oracle at Delphi operated from around 800 BC to around 400 BC. The oracle was actually more than one woman, but was only one woman at a time. She was the chief priestess at the temple of Apollo in the Greek city of Delphi. The oracle at Delphi’s more specific title was that of Pythia after the Greek word for “to rot” named for the smell of the enormous rotting python that Apollo supposedly slayed on the site where the temple was later built.

Nine times a year the Pythia would descend into the lower level of the temple and enter a chamber called the Adyton. The Adyton was generally off-limits, which is also why adyton means “inaccessible / forbidden” in Greek, but was open to the Pythia and her supplicants seeking wisdom during times of prophecy. She would sit atop a tripod, over a fissure in the ground releasing sweet perfume like vapors, and serve as the shamanistic mouthpiece for Apollo. People seeking guidance would draw lots to determine line order but for larger sacrifices (i.e. paying more money) you moved towards the front of the line.

You had the opportunity to ask the Pythia one question, she would give an answer, and then you left. Unless more gold was offered up, there was no follow up question – which would have been useful as the Pythia’s answers are legendary for their cryptic and carefully phrased dual nature. Many answers could be interpreted in very different ways, leading some to their downfall. In 550 BC while considering an attack on the Persian empire the king of Lydia, Croesus, consulted the Oracle. She told him that “If you attack you will destroy a great kingdom.” He took this as the go-ahead to attack. Unfortunately the kingdom she was referring to was his own. He suffered a massive defeat and Persia conquered his lands.


One of the most important components of the Oracle at Delphi’s process is that she entered into a shamanistic like trance induced by the vapors from the crack in the floor of the adyton. Other temples to Apollo around the ancient world also chose to position their adytons over some form of  bubbling water or crack in the ground releasing gases. Interestingly Delphi sits at the cross-section of two tectonic fault lines. In 373 BC a massive earthquake hit the area and it has been theorized that the release of fumes into the adyton may have ended around then as the plates shifted, directing the gases elsewhere. So what were the fumes?

The best theory, from study of the rock and soil, has been that ethylene was the source of the Pythia’s shamanistic haze. Ethylene is an invisible, flammable, sweet smelling hydrocarbon (meaning it composed entirely of Hydrogen & Carbon). Exposure to ethylene starts with a slight sense of euphoria & dizziness but increases to confusion, combativeness, and the flailing of limbs. Much later it was used as an anesthetic in the 20th century until it was replaced, partially because of it’s smell and it’s explosive nature.

Ethylene is also produced by many ripening fruits & vegetables (such as apples, bananas, avocados, mangoes, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, etc). If you want to slow the ripening process you should separate your vegetables and keep them in open air. Keeping fruits and vegetables close to themselves speeds up the ripening process and shorten their shelf lives. In fact, many fruits and vegetables are harvested before they are ripe so they will withstand the stress of transportation. They are then gassed with ethylene to artificially restart the ripening process when they are ready to be sold.

So for hundreds of years the Oracle at Delphi was being exposed to the same gas that ripens fruits and vegetables, and later anesthetized patients in hospitals, sending her into a drug-induced stupor from which she spoke for Apollo and changed the course of history,