My idea of science-based “magic that works” as a fundamental ingredient of ancient religions and especially as contributing to the origins of cults will, I hope, be useful in suggesting ideas and lines of inquiry for understanding the ancient world. In other words I think we need to reverse our scepticism and, instead of assuming all cults were a mixture of superstition, deception and psychological manipulation, look for ways in which material effects and even benefits could have been achieved.
The Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
I will illustrate this thought process by considering the example of the Oracle of Delphi. There the ritual the priestess carried out, before consulting the Oracle, involved her drinking from two separate, sacred springs. Now earthquakes are common in Greece and Delphi is a tectonically active site, (more so in the past than at present.) Is it possible that the priestess could originally taste something in the water, (from the release of gases underground, due to earth movements) that allowed her to effectively predict when an earthquake was imminent? Perhaps checking the two different springs would have given some clue as to the direction of the quake?
I am not sure how useful this information would have been in ancient times in terms of preparing for a quake and actually saving lives. However I am sure that even moderately accurate earthquake prediction, on the level of “somewhere to the west, within the next week or two, there will be an earthquake, or at least some noticeable earth tremors,’ would have greatly added to the prestige and credibility of the oracle. This idea is probably not fully testable because the tectonic activity has changed over the centuries and the sacred springs probably no longer carry the relevant dissolved gases.
There is some suggestion in the literature that the sacred springs were once more impressively sacred, producing hot or mineral-laden water. Certainly the cleft over which the priestess sat in her sacred tripod no longer produces fumes of any kind, although both ancient writings and geology suggest that it once did. However by consulting maps of the faultlines in the area, it might be possible to determine whether the idea of reading the alignment of earthquakes is at least credible or not.
Consulting the Oracle at Delphi
Archaeological investigations at Delphi have found remains very early cult activity, involving divination with dice in caves in the cliffs above Delphi. This suggests that there must have been a very early association of the area with ways of consulting the gods, who were clearly indicating their presence with a variety of mysterious phenomena related to tectonic activity. Once the earthquake-prediction method was discovered the cult activity would have focused more and more on the specific Delphi site and the fame and prestige of the oracle spread throughout Greece.
By the time the reliability of the earthquake prediction method faded due to changing tectonic conditions, which probably occurred in very ancient times, the Delphic Oracle must have developed other ways of providing accurate or at any rate credible predictions on a variety of topics, including its famous double-sided predictions for all eventualities. By then it would have been so woven into the culture and politics of ancient Greece that the loss of that particular bit of ‘magic that worked’ scarcely mattered.