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The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  396 ratings  ·  73 reviews
A gripping modern-day detective story about the scientific quest for the answer to a riddle of ancient Greece

Like Walking the Bible, this fascinating book turns a modern eye on an enduring legend. The Oracle of Delphi was one of the most influential figures in ancient Greece. Human mistress of the god Apollo, she had the power to enter into ecstatic communion with him and
Paperback, 1st paperback edition, 320 pages
Published January 30th 2007 by Penguin Books (first published February 16th 2006)
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Average rating 3.90  · 
Rating details
 ·  396 ratings  ·  73 reviews

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Jan 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, mythology, 2009

This book is, for the most part, exactly what it says on the tin: a study of the science behind the Oracle of Delphi, specifically the huge inroads made by a team investigating in spurts over the last fifteen years. The Oracle explores how a century's worth of derision was overcome by methodical scientific discovery at the hands of a geologist and an archaeologist. In the end, they found support for the assertions of ancient Greek writers who insisted, time and again, that the Oracle
Jun 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
I first experienced Delphi in 1994. In the company of twelve students and my then wife, who was also my teaching partner. Having been a world history teacher for most of the previous twenty-two years, with a particular fascination for ancient Greece, my anticipation was decidedly high.
I will never forget walking up the Sacred Way into Apollo's precinct. It was a hot day in June. Every climbing step immersed me further in the wild beauty of the place. Every step revealed the why of the place. The
Margaret Sankey
Jan 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Popular narrative about the modern reconstruction of the process by which the Oracle at Delphi issues prophecies to the Ancient Mediterranean, starting with a recap of the important instances when the Pythia's messages caused the Greek cities to innovate, develop dyanamic governments or take on an enemy like the Persians in a successful way, then showing the destruction of the shrine under Christian emperors. 19th century French archaeologists were disappointed by their digs, and the importance ...more
Mar 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: historical
Enjoyed this book very much...
Stephen Marte
May 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book reads somewhat like a mystery novel rather than a history of the Delpic Oracle. For ages people have wondered whether or not the prophesies uttered by the priestesses at the oracle were divinely inspired or cleverly devised utterances designed to impact the politics of the day.

The author takes you through the history of the oracle, from the time of ancient Greece to more recent times when archaeologists began digging around the temple trying to determine whether or not their were any s
A really good book on the modern research into the Oracle of Delphi. Lays out an extremely strong case that yes, there actually were cracks in the earth below the Temple of Apollo in Delphi where vapors seeped (the pneuma) and influenced the Oracle in her rites.

The book is broken into something like three section which differ in style. The first covers the ancient accounts of the Oracle. Here Broad is just quickly delivering some background on the subject. This is maybe the least engaging part
Joseph Hirsch
Mar 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
The Oracle of Delphi was sought for advice and premonitions by a host of different peoples in the Mediterranean over the course of several centuries. They came to her cliffside temple to pose questions about everything from philosophy to potential wars among the great sea powers of the age. Most accounts described both the Oracle and those who sought her counsel as undergoing fits of ecstasy that sometimes left them writhing on the floor or babbling in tongues.

Centuries later her temple was foun
Kaci Parker
Aug 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
A great example of a writer giving life to a story that might otherwise have been obscured in more academic literature. The main plot can be hard to discern from the summaries, but Mr. Broad uses the scientific and archeological work of Jelle De Boer, J. R. Hale and others to overthrow the incorrect conclusion decades before that there was no truth to the ancient accounts of a crevice located within the Temple of Apollo that put forth a "pneuma", essentially a mystical odor that aided the Oracle ...more
I visited Delphi in the 1980s and was intrigued without feeling the need to research it, partly because I was young and busy and partly because its mysteries just seemed lost to the ages. But at some point I decided I did want to know more about the site and its oracle, and Broad's book seemed like a good starting point.

I learned things from this book and wanted to like it a lot, and I'm not sorry I read it, in that it piqued my interest in Delphi even further. But eventually I grew extremely im
Michael Poley
Jun 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Required reading before visiting Delphi

This is an interesting book. The first part covers the history of the Oracle at Delphi, doing a great job of presenting what it is that makes Delphi special. There were many shrines and temples in Ancient Greece where you could ask about the future, but Delphi was only for momentous questions. The second part of the book is an academic adventure story that follows a geologist and an archaeologist that refuted a French study that claimed that there weren't a
Jul 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
_The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Messages of Ancient Delphi_ by William J. Broad is a really great book.

It starts out with ancient history, when the Oracle at Delphi was one of the most famous figures in the world. Homer mentions her as already being famous in the eighth century before the common era. And she continued to prophesy until after 300 CE, a span of over 1200 years. She was the most famous prophet in Greece, and Greek cities, rulers and Greek colonies all around the Mediterra
Apr 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The story of the Delphic Oracle in ancient times, the modern discovery of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo and the confirmation of the role that gaseous fumes played in the Pythia's declarations and how the Oracle's history presents a challenge to Reductionism.

When I purchased it I was hoping for more about Delphi in ancient times but found fascinating the explanation of the modern 'detective' story of how the ancient accounts of a fissure in the ground and fumes therefrom being used by the Pyt
I certainly learned a lot here, about history, philosophy, religion, and science. I also learned perhaps more than I needed to about the detailed blow by blow of the scientific investigation of Delphi in the late 20th century. A different organization would have strengthened that part: perhaps thematic rather than a chronological they did this, then they did that, on and on. I struggled to pay attention at times. But I made it through and gained a lot from doing so.
Melissa Hamann
May 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was an awesome look at why the Oracle at Delphi actually were. It is well researched, and the facts are brilliantly combined with theorizing and respect to the way of like of the Ancient Greeks. A great introduction into historic geology and biology, as well as a fascinating reveal of one of history's greatest characters. ...more
Leda Frost
Jun 18, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dnf
DNF ch. 4/pg. 131

The information is good, scientific, and presented in a mostly-interesting way, but aside from the first chapter this has little to do with the Oracle herself and much, much more about the archeological discoveries (or lack thereof) and the people who accomplished those things (*cough* men *cough*), which is simply not what I was looking for in this book.
Apr 09, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book provides a short history of the delphi oracle, but is mainly concerned with the modern research into the area of the temple. It is a good read and I would recommend it. There are better books if you are mainly interested in the oracle though.
Christian Nikitas
Aug 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: own
I really enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about The Oracle of Delphi. This was well written, though, the last chapter was a little harder to get through. I highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in history, nonfiction and science.
Aug 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a history that evolves into scientific inquiry, and seeks to reveal the truth behind ancient mysticism.
Jul 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Mixing history with modern sciences this book is extremely readable, with just enough philosophy to convince you of its own importance in serious scholarship.

Also, geologists are bananas.
I did not realize there was so much debate over what was going on at Delphi. This book was an interesting exploration not only of the history of Delphi, but also of the evolution of the sciences and our ability (and need) to combine multiple disciplines to unravel the true stories of ancient sites. I would totally have volunteered to be the modern oracle and sit in the shed! #ForScience
Erik Graff
Nov 23, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Pythian Oracle fans
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: religion
I found this in a church resale shop in Sonoma, California a few days ago and read most of it flying back from San Francisco to Chicago, finishing it last night. Generally speaking, I'll pick up anything about ancient Greece with a thought to purchase. A couple of years ago I read an article in the newspaper about the discovery detailed in this book: a group of scientists were claiming to have discovered the source of the Delphic Pythia's rapture. This was intriguing, but the paper hardly scratc ...more
Jul 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars

I figured that before I started tackling my ever-growing “to-read” list, I should probably start with the books I already own, mostly in an effort to (slowly) create more space and lighten my load. This is one of the first I picked up in that effort.

I was surprised by how much I liked it. It has its flaws but overall it was an informative and fast-paced read. It’s got ancient history and modern science, as well as a mystery/adventure story of some scholars. That last item was the one I
Cypress Butane
Feb 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A very good story about an interesting topic. Worth reading through to the end.
Sep 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
A delicious intersection of history, archaeology, geology, medico-pharmacology, and religion. The author establishes the foundation by returning to the information from direct historical sources about the Oracle of Delphi, from the earliest accounts of the shrine to the last known prophecy.

These accounts of the legends of the phemeuna; the gasses which stirred the prophetic discourse, come the later descriptions of the archaeology efforts of more recent centuries. The findings from these came t
Gregg Sapp
Jan 27, 2013 rated it liked it
The institution of the oracle of Delphi, not entirely unlike latter day faith healers and psychic channelers, was invested in a certain degree of magic and mysticism to give it a degree of otherworldly credibility. To appreciate how the oracle worked requires at once a scientific detachement and methodological precision, but also an open and creative empathy that allows the investigator to imagine how it felt and what it meant to the ancient Greek believers.

What is the significance of the (re)di
Feb 12, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
A well written account of the search for a scientific basis for the power of the Delphic oracle. However, the book falters in its later chapters, as it attempts to drag scientific philosophy into the mix - that is, even though the mechanism of the oracle's prophecying is explained (ethelyene oxide), does this explain how she was able to be correct? The author says no, and then goes on to basically invoke Stephen J. Gould's philosophy of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, implying that science can't (an ...more
Kylin Larsson
Oct 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This book has almost everything I ever wanted to know about the Oracle of Delphi. This would have been perfect if a few more prophecies had been included.

I think people take it the knowledge of intoxicating fumes at Delphi for granted. This wasn't conclusively proven until 2003. Written by two-time recipient of the Pulitzer, Broad does a fine job of turning a scientific search for specifics of Delphi's oracular power into something of fast-paced read.

So here's the main thing that four scientists
Brian Bruns
Jan 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
An excellent book, well done indeed. For those who really enjoy archeology, this has it all, including a great amount of geology and Greek history. The former, geology, is paramount in solving the quest for actual locations and verifiable proof of legend. A great deal of this book involves the discipline, which I happen to enjoy, and the combination of multiple disciplines is rewarding on several levels. There is a great amount of history in this book, particularly combing through millennia of D ...more
Apr 23, 2007 rated it it was ok
Dry, dry, dry. This one made me feel like I was kind of overdoing it on the non-fiction. Basically, a couple hundred years' worth of archaeologists had found no sign of any sort of vapors at the ancient site of Delphi... until they were all proven wrong by a rogue geologist (I know!) and his upstart archeologist friend. Mostly interesting, until at the end when Broad starts getting into metaphysics... I don't think it's a coincidence that all of his best-sellers were co-written with another auth ...more
Jun 18, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: students of ancient culture
Recommended to Ed by: Pythia
This is one of those books that you were subconsciously waiting years for, and then when you see it it's like a dream fulfilled. Delphi is one of those places that continually appears throughout ancient Greek literature and history. This book touches on the literary and historical contexts of the Oracle, while going even further by bringing present-day exploration of the site, and the latest scientific findings, to bear on our understanding of its essence.
Recommended for academic libraries and l
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William J. Broad is a best-selling author and a senior writer at The New York Times. In more than thirty years as a science journalist, he has written hundreds of front-page articles and won every major journalistic award in print and film. His reporting shows unusual depth and breadth—everything from exploding stars and the secret life of marine mammals to the spread of nuclear arms and why the T ...more

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