(Investigator 103, 2005 July
Although "paranormal" is a relatively modern word, events of a
paranormal nature have been reported for thousands of years and have
been well documented by the ancients, oracles featuring prominently in
An oracle is a shrine of a god or hero at which enquiries may be
of them; the word also stands for the answer given at such a shrine.
Early civilized man built temples in which they worshipped, sacrificed
and sought advice from their gods. Their deities responded accordingly
with manifestations bordering on the miraculous and were held in awe by
Some of the earliest descriptions of these temples come to us through
Herodotus (484 - 425 BC), the Greek historian and traveller, the Roman
naturalist and author, Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), and in particular,
Hero of Alexandria (1st Century AD).
The famous labyrinth at Crocodilopolis, near lake Moeris in ancient
Egypt is described in great detail by Herodotus in 450 BC, and expanded
on by Pliny nearly 500 years later. The accounts refer to temple doors
which on opening would cause peals of thunder to echo throughout the
1500 upper chambers of the complex, and the combined blasts from
several doors opening and closing in sequence. Images appeared on the
walls, eerie voices of countless deities seemingly came from nowhere,
and statues that would pour wine from an endless supply in a vase held
in their hands when a fire was kindled on the altar, was a marvel to
behold, common to Egyptian, Greek and Roman temples.
The priests of Marduk used to place large quantities of food and drink
before the idol Bel in its special temple each night, and although the
door was locked, the offering would be gone by morning.
Apollo’s oracle at Delphi however, is probably the best known shrine in
antiquity, at which answers could be solicited by those consulting it
by one of several methods.
The commonest was for the enquirer to sleep within the temple and
receive an answer in a dream. The original priestesses were virgins of
noble birth, one of whom, the Pythia, was appointed as the medium to
transmit the wisdom of Apollo to the enquirer. Following a special
offering, the Pythia would seat herself on a tripod and go into a
trance. At this point the accounts vary, some say that the tripod was
set over a fissure in the ground which emitted intoxicating fumes known
as the "divine afflatus". Others maintain that narcotic stimulation and
self-hypnosis were the means by which she would orally convey her
revelations in intelligible words and otherwise.
Her utterings were then recorded and couched in hexametres by the
temple priests. This method provided ample opportunity and scope for
extensive editing and wholesale forgery, thus accounting for the good
advice frequently given by the oracle, and also the many cases where
vagueness or ambiguity left room for different interpretations.
French archaeologists who excavated Delphi late in the nineteenth
century found no fissure from which "mephitic gases" could have arisen,
but concluded that they may have been closed by earth tremors. Others
discounted the theory on the grounds of geological and architectural
impossibility; there was no cleft, and the local strata has never been
capable of producing any kind of gas.
The deities were regarded as infallible authorities and a source of
unquestioned wisdom or knowledge by the ancients, and in the age of a
complex hierarchy of gods, demons and heroes to whom the powers of
direction, interruption and control of all things were attributed, some
were quick to realise the potential of acting as their guardians and
mouthpiece. The otherwise mute idols and edifices were given voices —
courtesy of a new and powerful hierarchy — the priesthood.
In the temples and inner sancti they plotted, planned and practised
their crafts of trickery, magic and deceit, sometimes for good,
sometimes for their own evil ends. Their deceits ranged from simple
tricks to ingenious mechanical contraptions, which to the uninformed of
the day bordered on the miraculous.
The peals of thunder echoing throughout the labyrinth at Crocodilopolis
for example, attributed to the Egyptian gods, were created by an
automatic device consisting of a cord, a chain, a pulley, a lever, a
trumpet in which the mouthpiece had been replaced with a hollow half
ball, and a container of water. When the door was opened the
trumpet was lowered, the air forced into the hemisphere and through the
instrument causing a loud blast.
The images were projected onto walls using burnished metal disks, and
the eerie voices which could be ascribed to any one of the countless
deities were the product of echo chambers and whispering galleries.
Even a rolling floor to simulate an earthquake was not beyond the
ingenuity of these early magicians.
The statue from which wine would pour was, to the worshippers — a
miracle, to the initiated, the simple application of a physical law.
When the fire was lit on the altar the air in a hollow compartment
beneath heated and expanded, the pressure forcing wine from a reservoir
in the statue, up a pipe and into the bottom of the vase.
It remained for the custodians to ensure that the reservoir was kept
topped up for future use and to enable the "miracle" to be repeated.
Less mechanical but equally impressive, are the reports of sticks
turning into snakes, the duel between Aaron and Pharaoh’s sorcerers for
example. This trick depends on a species of snake called the Naja Haje,
or Egyptian cobra. By exerting pressure just below the snake’s head it
becomes temporarily paralysed and rigid like a stick, when the pressure
is released and the snake cast to the ground, it wriggles away.
While credit for inventiveness must be accorded the priests and shamens
of ancient times, the motivation behind their ingenuity is the same
today as it was then — personal gain and/or power through deception.
To my mind, today’s channelers, clairvoyants, psychics and others who
claim to possess extraordinary powers and to speak with the voice of
prophetic wisdom, are no different from the charlatans of old.
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Graves, R. 1955. The Greek Myths. Penguin.
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From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic’s Guide to the New Age