Science and the Divine

“Priestess of Delphi,” an 1891 painting by John Collier. A woman in a brown dress, with her face partially shadowed by a red fabric hair covering, sits on a tall stool over a crack in the earth below her, from which visible fumes are rising. She holds a shallow bowl in her right hand and a laurel branch in her left.

Once upon a time in ancient Greece in the town of Delphi on the slopes of Parnassus, there stood a temple. This was a temple to the god Apollo. The ancient Greeks believed in many gods who had many different responsibilities. Apollo was the god of the sun, of music and dance, of healing and disease, and many, many more.

The temple of Apollo at Delphi was a very important temple because of the high priestess Pythia who served as an oracle or prophet. Greek leaders would travel from all over for the Oracle’s wisdom. The Oracle of Delphi was one of the most prestigious oracles among the Greeks, and she was among the most powerful women in the classical world.

Pythia would breathe in sweet-smelling vapors coming from a crack in the rock in the temple. These vapors would send her into a state of passion. She would channel the god Apollo and babble out what she received while another priest would translate that babble to prophecies. It was a miracle—a direct connection and relationship with the gods.

Usually when we hear the phrase, “once upon a time,” we’re ready to hear a story of make believe. This is not one of those times. This story of the Oracle is real. The temple on the slopes of Parnassus is real. Pythia and the priest were real. Even the vapors were real. Really!

In 2000, geologists continued to think about the oracle and those sweet-smelling vapors that came from the rock of the temple. They wondered where those vapors may have originated. The rocks of the temple lay on the ground of the earth—could they be coming from there?

After more investigation and research, scientists discovered a previously unknown geological fault passing straight through Delphi on the slopes of Parnassus and through the Sanctuary and Temple of Apollo. This means that two tectonic plates of the Earth’s surface met far underground beneath the temple. And sometimes the movement of those plates could have heated up gases deep underground and lifted them up right into the temple into the nostrils of Pythia. Geologists believe these gases from the earth caused Pythia’s fits of passion and her prophecies.

So it was science. Right? That’s an easy way to end the story. It was just science, those silly Greeks. But that’s not the end of the story. The scientific answer does not mean the Greeks were foolish to believe they had a relationship with Apollo. The scientific reasoning does not erase the relationship they had with their gods. When we walk in nature on a sunny day, appreciate the muscles in our body as we dance to music, or watch a loved one heal from an illness, we are witnessing science in the same way the ancient Greeks might have shown their devotion to Apollo and the Oracle. Through these actions, we can connect with the holy and the scientific. Believing in science and feeling connected to the divine can absolutely happen at the same time, and often, they do.