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A Wesleyan geology professor is on to something - like what really made the oracle speak, or dragons spew fire. Or where in the world Frodo fought the last battle in "Lord of the Rings."
The target audience for "The Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy cannot include 67-year-old earth science professors. Nevertheless there is one, at Wesleyan University in Middletown, who was very much looking forward to the opening.
"I love those kinds of movies," Jelle Zeilinga de Boer said earlier this month from his campus science tower office. "The final battle between good and evil, between Frodo and whoever it is, when they're fighting for the ring, that happens in a volcano."
De Boer is not a volcanologist, nor do hobbit figurines inhabit his work space. What he does have there relevant to J.R.R Tolkien's epic fantasy is the manuscript of a just-published book, "Volcanoes in Human History." It grew out of an undergraduate course he's taught for many years that shows why a volcanic eruption isn't simply something that, in his words, "goes bang and a lot of people are dead."
In class he has made the final chapters of Tolkien's trilogy a reading assignment, asking students to compare Mount Doom, where Frodo and the Gollum have their last fight, with what they've learned about real volcanoes. In fact, de Boer supposes there is a real Mount Doom and that he knows where it is.
"If you read [Tolkien's] description very carefully, you will see it deals with a volcano in Iceland...Hekla was most likely the volcano he used," de Boer said.
"The Lord of the Rings" did not make it into de Boer's book, but his chapter on Iceland's volcanoes cites other creations, including Richard Wagner's operas, that are based on ancient sagas similar to those from which Tolkien drew inspiration, and information. In some, Hekla, over the centuries Iceland's most active volcano, is said to be the entrance to hell.
De Boer devotes another chapter to the greatest eruption in recorded history, that of Tambora in April 1815 in what is now Indonesia. It killed as many as 70,000 people outright and spewed so much ash into the atmosphere that the Earth was shrouded for months. The following year as crops failed, there was famine and revolt in Europe. In Switzerland, in the abnormally dreary summer of 1816, Lord Byron composed his famous poem, "Darkness," (it begins: "I had a dream, which was not all a dream/The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars/Did wander darkling in the eternal space.") and Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein."
In New England, 1816 would go down in legend as "the year without a summer," but in fact there were killing frosts into July, and snow in Connecticut. De Boer quotes the diary entry of a North Branford man, "Great frost - we must learn to be humble," and asserts the miserable harvests of 1816 and 1817 speeded emigration to Connecticut's Western Reserve, now Ohio.
De Boer apologizes that his book's subtitle, "The Far-reaching Effects of Major Eruptions," is not as catchy as it might be, but he at least is satisfied with its accuracy. His thesis is that geologic events can have consequences - political, economic and cultural - that persist for centuries. He is already writing a sequel, "Earthquakes in Human History." It includes a chapter on the lost continent of Atlantis.
The cataclysms through which the Earth speaks may have occurred so long ago that the memory of them was kept alive only by oral stories so altered in the re-telling before they were set down in writing that what was a real event is transformed into myth and, in effect, removed from history. Atlantis, real? Mount Doom, real? The stories may not be true, but there may be truth in the stories.
De Boer is interested in the geologic truth of such stories. He happens to believe in dragons; that is, he thinks he knows how legends about dragons started. In the Near East even now there are places where gases flame from cracks in the Earth's crust. Next summer he plans to visit old temple sites in what is now Turkey where historical data about gases burning in the ground coincide with Byzantine legends about fire-breathing dragons. A doctoral student at Cambridge University in England is researching the dragon literature.
"So far we've traced it back to the fifth and sixth centuries, where they talk about people affected by dragons living in certain towns. Now we want to relate the location of those towns to the legends. ... It's possible it's all totally improbable. The question is, how did it originate?" de Boer said.
Similarly, but less surely, de Boer wonders whether myths about mountain spring waters flowing from the mouths of enormous snakes bear some relation to geologic fact. "If you think about the way water moves under a mountain, these long underground rivers are very much like snakes," he said. Then there are the icicle-like stalactites that hang from the roofs of caves. "It sure looks like a fang, or fangs. So there again, people may have had that association. Like I said, I don't know. ... Can you imagine going into a totally dark cave, crawling, carrying a torch and it goes out. That happened to me once. I got scared to hell, I tell you. You lose all sense of direction," he said.
Before he goes to Turkey in search of dragons, de Boer will stop at the ancient Temple at Delphi, in Greece. He will be accompanied by a University of Connecticut physicist, Cynthia Peterson, who will assist him in dating the rock fault lines that penetrate the temple site. For de Boer it will be a return visit. Last summer, after years of stop-and-go research, he and his collaborators, an archaeologist and a geo-chemist, finally saw published academic papers that described a geologic phenomenon with a "far-reaching effect" of extraordinary importance, given the place Greek culture holds in Western tradition.
By tracing fault lines and analyzing rock and water samples, de Boer confirmed what historical chroniclers as old as Plutarch believed: that for a thousand years before the birth of Christ, the oracles at Delphi issued their prophetic riddles, and spoke to their god Apollo, under the influence of narcotic gases. The most potent was likely ethylene, a molecularly primitive gas not identified by modern science until the 19th century. It was discovered by greenhouse carnation growers in Chicago and for a time was used by surgeons as an anesthetic. "The only problem with ethylene is it's highly explosive. If you don't handle it right, you can blast your surgeons into the sky," de Boer said.
De Boer found traces of ethylene and other gases in the water at Delphi and also trapped in ancient travertine rock. Travertine is the kind of porous rock that forms around hot springs and geysers, like Old Faithful. "It's like when you take a cup of tea and you put a lot of sugar in," he explained. "When the tea is hot, the sugar dissolves. When it cools, it falls down to the bottom."
Greek civilization may be ancient by Western standards, but Greece itself is "young" and unsettled by geologic standards. "Greece is coming up like a cork," de Boer said. Frequent earthquakes in the Delphi region opened deep fissures that became the pipelines that carried the gases, either as vapor or in water, to the surface. Subsequent earthquakes sealed the fissures, ending the oracle's reign and much later leading classical archaeologists to dismiss oracular stories as legend.
De Boer's discovery stands on its head what has been the conventional thinking about the oracle since French archaeologists working at Delphi declared they could find no trace of fissures, or any other means by which the oracles - they were all women chosen by priests - inhaled vapors. Most textbooks treat reports, such as Plutarch's, that the oracles entered drug-induced trances as pure invention, and by extension cast doubt on the oracle's historicity.
De Boer's archaeology collaborator, John Hale, who is director of liberal studies at the University of Louisville, said that when he was an undergraduate at Yale the presumed falseness of the stories about the vapors at Delphi was cited as the "classic case" of why ancient texts shouldn't be read too literally. The implication was that "if the Greeks could be wrong about this, they could be wrong about anything. It was like kicking aside a prop," Hale said.
"The Greeks had a very strong belief that the gods operated in all matters. It was considered very unlucky and ill-advised to go on any undertaking without propitiating the gods. She [the oracle] wasn't like a fortuneteller. ... She was someone who put you in tune with the master plans of the gods. ... She had so much power that modern scholars have been reluctant to believe that a random woman, perhaps illiterate, was given this power. They assumed it was a confidence game, that the priests [who interpreted the oracle's pronouncements] took money. There is nothing in the ancient sources to suggest this is true."
Among those the ancient sources say visited Delphi, some, like Alexander the Great, stand firmly in history, while others, like Croesus and Midas, both kings of Lydia where coins were first minted, and Oedipus, a king of Thebes who tried to escape the oracle's prophecy that he would murder his father and sleep with his mother, hover in myth.
"Legends get attached to these figures just like the cherry tree got attached to George Washington," Hale said.
Oedipus is thought to have lived eight centuries before Sophocles recorded his story in a tragic play (and many centuries before his name became synonymous with the modern concept of the subconscious), but Hale said, "Sophocles took an existing story. He didn't invent Oedipus any more than Shakespeare invented Macbeth and Macbeth was a real king of Scotland."
Hale said that Herodotus, who has been called the father of history (and whose writings were read so romantically in the movie, "The English Patient") wrote that King Croesus, in search of the most reliable guidance, dispatched messengers to Delphi and to competing oracles with the same question: What is the king doing right now? On the pre-arranged day when all the oracles would be asked the question, Croesus would be boiling a lamb and turtle in one pot. Apparently the Delphic oracle gave the answer he trusted most.
"It's a silly story, but it shows Herodotus' faith in the oracles," Hale said. "Herodotus never doubts they do speak for the gods. I think what he doubts is that they always speak for the gods."
Croesus, he said, later asked the oracle whether it was wise to wage war against the Persian king, Cyrus. She answered that if he attacked, a great kingdom would be destroyed. Croesus did attack, but it was his kingdom that was destroyed. "He didn't ask which kingdom?" Hale said. He added that the admonition, "Know thyself," was engraved at the entrance to the temple.
Hale, whose own interests include the western outposts of the Roman Empire, Viking ships and the Athenian navy, said he was as much a skeptic of stories about the vapors as anyone when he first met de Boer at a ruined Roman villa in Portugal.
"All I knew was the second-, third- and fourth-hand received wisdom," Hale said. "He said he had seen the fault lines [that suggested earlier archaeologists misjudged Delphi], which was news to me. He asked me if I'd know a fault if I saw one and I said I wouldn't."
De Boer is a hardy man who says spending so much time outdoors, in the field, may have been tonic. He was born in Dutch Indonesia in 1934 and was separated from both his parents during the Japanese occupation of World War II. He said that his father died at the prison camp at the River Kwai. After the war, he and his mother returned to Holland destitute. He earned his academic degrees there, then in 1963 arrived at Wesleyan to begin his career.
It has not been confined to tracking down legends. In Connecticut, which is "old" geologically, he's been interested in the seismic shifting that causes the Moodus noises, and also in the stability of the ground underneath the Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant. He's been to Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica to evaluate natural resources for those countries.
His interest in Delphi was piqued about 10 years ago when he was hired to evaluate potential nuclear plant sites in the region. "I found some beautiful exposures of faults there. You could take your finger and go like this," de Boer said, wetting a finger and drawing it over an imaginary outcropping of rock. "I found an east-west exposure and I tracked it...and found it went below the oracle site. Now the oracle site is nothing but ruins. The fault is covered by all this rock that fell there and by the people who lived there for 3,000 years."
Then he found traces of a fault line running north-south that looked like it might intersect with the east-west fault line under the Delphic temple. "I said to myself, `that's interesting. Where two fault lines intersect...you get the possibility of vapors and water to migrate up.' " Subsequently he met Hale and persuaded him to join in more focused exploration.
De Boer was disinclined to believe alternate theories about how the oracles may have entered their trances. "They say she was probably chewing laurel leaf. I don't know if you ever tasted laurel, but it's very bitter and you'd have to chew a hell of a lot of it to get high," de Boer said. Besides, he had boned up on his Plutarch.
Plutarch, whose accounts de Boer cites in academic articles, actually served as a priest at Delphi in the first century. He witnessed the Pythia, as the women who acted as oracles were called, drink spring water before descending into a sunken chamber for a prophetic session and reported that just before he arrived at Delphi, a Pythia had died after being sent into the chamber against her will. In the chamber, her voice had been harsher than normal, then she'd become hysterical and run from the chamber screaming.
Many years later Plutarch wrote an essay, "De defectu oraculoram" (On the obsolescence of oracles), in which he speculated that the oracles' powers waxed and waned because of natural forces acting on the vapors they breathed. "Excessive rains most likely extinguished [the vapors], and they probably are dispersed by thunderbolts, and especially, when the earth is shaken beneath by an earthquake and suffers subsidence and ruinous confusion in its depths, the exhalations shift their site or find completely blind outlets...," he wrote.
Elsewhere, Plutarch wrote that, "I think that the exhalation is not in the same state all the time, but that it has recurrent periods of weakness and strength...It is a fact that the room in which they seat those who would consult the god is filled, not frequently or with any regularity, but as it may chance from time to time, with a delightful fragrance coming on a current of air which bears it toward the worshippers."
Ethylene is a sweet-smelling gas. Recently, a physician who learned of de Boer's work was invited to write a paper for a medical journal in which he compares old accounts of the Pythia's variable reaction to the temple vapors - she might speak clearly or almost in tongues - with latter-day accounts of people exposed to anesthetic gases.
One of them was the American philosopher William James, who dosed himself with nitrous oxide and in his most famous work, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," wrote that his vision under the influence of the gas convinced him that: "Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different."
On one occasion at least, James took notes on his gaseous revelations. "Sober, drunk, unk, astonishment...Emotion-motion!!! Reconciliation of opposites; sober, drunk, all the same. Good and evil reconciled in a laugh! It escapes, it escapes! But - What escapes, WHAT escapes?" he wrote.
De Boer said that powerful people from all over the Mediterranean world journeyed to Delphi to have the privilege of consulting the oracle. She was not open to all comers and entered her chamber only on specified days during the nine months of the year that the god Apollo was believed to be in residence at Delphi. During the three winter months, his place was said to be taken by Dionysus.
"Delphi was a little bit like Mecca," de Boer said. "People stayed for some time; they didn't fly in and out. ... I always say it was like the FBI and the CIA and the Secret Service all rolled together. ... To go into the temple was no problem. To go into the sacred underground [area], that was only allowed for certain guests. ... The priests were in an outside room and most likely the guests were there as well. It's said [the oracle] could converse with these people, but not in a face-to-face situation. She would hear the questions and the priests would translate the answers."
De Boer said it is unknown how free the priests, who were highly educated and informed, may have been in interpreting the oracles' pronouncements, or more profoundly whether they believed they came directly from Apollo.
"My feeling is there is no answer to that," he said. "Certain people are more susceptible to these types of influences. Whether they speak to god or whether they think they're speaking to god, it's impossible to say. For that you need a psychologist. I just don't want to ignore it. In Delphi we have a natural explanation for it, in many other cases I'm sure we don't."
He said the geologic evidence that narcotic vapors enabled the oracle to hear, or believe she heard Apollo, should at least cause other scholars to pay more attention to ancient writers. "It may be they expressed themselves differently, but to simply say everything is mythology, I think is wrong. We should more carefully read them and fit them into the natural environment," he said.
De Boer said Delphi itself has taken on the commercial aspects of a tourist trap. He recalled that while exploring the Delphic fault lines on the hillside at the foot of Mount Parnassus, he would look down and see long lines of tourist buses. "They look like a huge caterpillar, or how do you call it, a centipede," de Boer said. But he also recalls the view looking out over the Gulf of Corinth from Delphi, once considered the navel of the Earth.
"All of my students say the same thing," he said. "You see the sun setting over the bay and you get a special feeling. Of course, only when one is susceptible to the beauty of nature do you get that feeling. I doubt a rock star would get it."