Saturday, June 03, 2006

There's a reason for that ritual

I'm reading "Celtic Sacred Landscapes" by Nigel Pennick. Pennick is a great author for the modern Pagan. He's a scholar. He knows his sources. But where other scholars see a bunch of superstitious beastmen or wannabe Christians when they look at the fragmentary and inconclusive historical record, Pennick sees thoughtful, religious people. It's a nice change.

In chapter 1 he makes a statement about sacred landscape and the rituals that emerge from them in human consciousness: "[Rituals] ensure harmonious conformity of the visible world with the invisible."

This got me thinking about the Oracle of Delphi. Some of you may know that recent studies seem to indicate she was huffin' ethylene, a sweet smelling narcotic vapor, similar to what has been used at times in the last century for anesthesia.

At Delphi, the Pythia would go through some ritual steps before sitting over the sacred vent. This included things like fasting for a certain period of time. But at least once in recorded history, the Pythia was forced at sword point to give oracles immediately without ritual preparation. In the story, the Pythia goes into violent convulsions, freaks out, and sends the soldiers running in fear before she dies. (May she rest in the arms of the gods.) To modern scholars, this whole incident looks like ethylene overdose.

What is striking to me is how the ancient rituals of fasting and the practices around how the Pythia did her job, how far she was from the vent, how long she stayed, what time of day she inhaled, all seem to guard against ethylene overdose. This is certainly a case of ritual ensuring a harmonious conformity between the visible and the invisible.

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