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Posted on Saturday, October 28 - 2006

Apollo drew his bow and fired arrow after arrow into the deadly pythondragon guarding the sacred ground of Ge, the goddess of the earth. With his victory, Apollo gained the right to call the slopes of Delphi his earthly sanctuary. It is a beautiful myth. Out of it grew the story of the Oracle of Delphi, a soothsayer who inhaled the breath of Apollo. The Pythia, the priestess who sat on a tripod inhaling fumes from the bowels of the earth, went into trances and muttered incomprehensible phrases, helpfully interpreted by her priestly assistants. The Oracle at Delphi is one of several myths now being investigated by geologists to see whether such stories have any basis in fact. The relatively new science of ge-omythology could provide rational explanations for mythical events. But studying elements ofa myth may also lead to new insights or discoveries in geology - a science that took its name from that same goddess, Ge.

In the case of the Oracle at Delphi, the focus has been on the nature of the fumes that may have influenced the prophecies. For 10 centuries, successive Pythias issued their oracles to the thousands of pilgrims who made their way to Apollo's shrine at Delphi. The Pythias were real enough, although their prophecies were often ambiguous. But could their trance-like states have had a basis in geological reality? Could there really have been a gas released from under Apollo's shrine that induced transcendental states in someone sitting on a tripod above a fissure in the ground? An archaeological excavation early in the 20th century found no signs of a real chasm or fissure under the temple at Delphi, but studies over the past decade have revealed the presence of two geological faultsthat cross each other directly under the shrine. Luigi Piccardi, a geologist at the Institute for Geosciences in Florence, says recent investigations have revealed that there could indeed have been a gas-exhaling chasm at the oracle site. If this chasm existed, it has long since sealed itself, Piccardi says. "The oracle site is positioned directly across the surface trace of a seismic fault that could rupture during earthquakes, thus creating a fissure in the ground from which gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphate or methane could originate," he says.

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