In ancient times, people believed in prophecy and lived their lives by what it told them. In Greece, one of the most renowned oracles was at Delphi, the temple of the god Apollo. Kings consulted her before making decisions that would affect their kingdoms; accuracy was her claim to fame. In the temple, the women who gave voice to Apollo would breathe in the mystic gases from the deep and proclaim what would happen in the future. As time went on, these predictions became more and more open to interpretation, perhaps to safeguard the accuracy rate. But over time, people came away from listening to the Oracle and the temple fell to ruin. Was it all a hoax? Did the priests who interpreted the Oracle's prophecies tell the kings what they wanted to hear? And did the Oracle really breathe gas in order to tell the future?
Over the years, archeologists have studied the remains of the temple and have decided that there was no way for the floor of the temple to emit gases that would cause such a thing, no matter what ancient writers proclaimed. William J. Broad’s The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets details a years-long love affair with the temple and an attempt to finally prove that there were gases that could send the Oracle into a "ecstatic communion" with Apollo. Even if the prophecy itself may not be "true," at least the process itself was real.
Broad begins with as much history as is known of Delphi and its oracle, going back to ancient sources to give as much information as we now have about it. He relates how the Oracle worked, how the women were chosen to be the conduit, and how it grew from one of many such oracles to the main consultant as the centuries went by. The Oracle's prophecy about war with the Persians cemented its place in Greek history, and it affected the philosophy of the world's greatest thinkers - Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. As I haven't studied much ancient Greek history, this was all fascinating to me. I had heard of the Oracle but had no idea of the influence she had. Broad's description is complete as well as interesting, setting the scene before going into what became of it.
He then moves on to the temple's rediscovery in the 19th century, the archeological contest to see which country would get the honor of excavating the temple site, and how popular the Oracle became in both mystic circles as well as popular culture. Plays were created about her, and people couldn't get enough. But the French, who had won the rights to dig at the temple site, discovered that there wasn't much to the temple and that, while they had discovered the adyton (the secret room where the Oracle sat), there was no way that any gases could have come from the ground to cause the women's seizures. Popular feeling waned, and doubters were everywhere. Broad tells this effectively enough that it actually made me feel bad, as if the Oracle were a character and this was the low point of her story before everything could be reconciled at the end.
The main point of the book, however, is the ongoing attempts by an archeologist and a geologist, John R. Hale and Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, to prove that the ancient writers could have been correct about their descriptions regarding the Oracle, and that gas could definitely have seeped into the adyton to cause her visions. Broad spends the rest of the book (about sixty percent of it) detailing the long, torturous investigations these two men performed to finally rehabilitate the Oracle. Broad gives personal histories of both men then goes step by step into how de Boer first realized that there must be a fault line running underneath the temple and that criss-crossing geological faults could easily have caused gas to be emitted. The investigation, while interesting most of the time, falters occasionally when Broad goes into too much technical detail. It's not a major concern, as most of the detail is necessary, but it does slow the book down at times.
One other minor issue with the book is that it definitely has an agenda: proving the doubters wrong. Broad almost figuratively struts when more and more evidence is produced by de Boer and Hale that demonstrates what would certainly be possible. Once he begins this section, the only lip-service he pays to the doubters' point of view is to illustrate how defensive they became safeguarding their pet theories from the mounting evidence to the contrary. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is important to know going in that this is the story of this particular search for the truth, not necessarily an objective search for the truth itself.
Broad ends The Oracle with a chapter about how this discovery illustrates the dichotomy between mysticism and science, attempting to reinforce that science may not be able to solve all the questions that mysticism might be able to. He does this by talking about the major players in the investigation and how their views about religion and science have evolved given what they've found. He leaves this as an open puzzle as de Boer criticizes modern science for dismissing the paranormal rather than trying to explain it, and this brings the book to an effective conclusion. I'm not sure how much I buy into mystic secrets and the paranormal, but it's an interesting thought on which to end a book about one of the greatest oracles of all time, a book that is good for anybody who has even a mild interest in ancient history and the scientific search to explain it.