(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 their writings.

An oracle is a shrine of a god or hero at which enquiries may be made 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 the devotees.

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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From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic’s Guide to the New Age