Prophecy is one of the most ancient of all the human art forms, yet probably one of the most misunderstood. Today it is largely relegated to astrology columns in newspapers, or maybe the occasional tarot card reading, and certainly peripheral to most peoples’ daily lives. Throughout the ancient world, however, it was mainstream, the grease that oiled the cogs of state and gave succour to many a great statesman. Indeed, the oracles could be considered as the ancient equivalent to Google, the place where everyone went to find knowledge, to exchange ideas and to generally hook up with other like-minded people. But what powered the sites themselves? What enabled one site to be used as an oracle when another could not?
Though oracular prophecy predates the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was their temples and myths that preserved the ancient oracular sites, and some of the mystery surrounding them. Apollo was the Greek god of prophecy and the most famous oracles were presided over by him. But this hadn’t always been the case. In archaic times, the oracles were dedicated to Earth goddesses, and presided over by priestesses who had access to the voice of the Earth, usually operating out of groves or simple sanctuaries. The myths tell us that before Apollo could take them over, he had to subdue the serpent Python, which he pursued to Mount Parnassus, then into the shrine at Delphi itself, ‘where he dispatched it beside the sacred chasm.’ As Graves suggests, this mythic takeover of Delphi probably records the historic invasion of the Northern Hellenes of pre-Hellenic cultures. As part of the takeover process, they killed the sacred oracular serpent that was kept in the sanctuary of the Earth goddess.
Snakes are one of the most primal symbols of Earth energies. They live close to the ground, sense vibrations, and move in a sinuous wave akin to the way in which energy moves. Though the Earth energies are not visible, anyone looking at the waves on the sea could easy make the link between waves, and the way they embody form and movement, long before modern science mapped them. They can also survive beneath the ground for long periods, only to emerge in unpredictable and terrible ways, like the restless forces from within the Earth. Indeed though Apollo is said to have killed the Python, he retained the services of the oracular priestess who were themselves called ‘Pythia’ and it is highly likely that snakes were kept in the sacred tholos at Delphi well into Hellenistic times.
The Python that Apollo subdued was also known as a Dragon, and it was this Dragon that was said to have chased Apollo’s mother Leto around the Earth as she tried to give birth to him. This was clearly no ordinary snake, but one of mythic proportions, and I couldn’t help wondering if this was a metaphor for the seismic energies of the Earth itself, which Apollo must subdue if he was to use them. This was an issue I had been pondering for a while, and the opportunity to find out more presented itself on a recent trip to western Turkey.
Hierapolis is not a name that is familiar to most people, but everyone has heard of Pamukkale. Though remote, more than 140 km from Izmir, over two million people visit this site every year and enjoy the thrills of dipping in the blue mineral waters that cascade over the calcareous deposit known as travertine. But not many people are aware that there was also an ancient oracle at this site, known throughout the ancient world as the Gateway to Hell. As I was to discover, this is no coincidence, for the same geological features that gives rise to the amazing mineralogy and healing waters of Pamukkale also powered this mysterious and most primal of oracles.
Turkey has frequent earthquakes because the Anatolian plate on which it sits is squeezed between the mighty African and Eurasian plates that are moving in opposite directions. Pamukkale is not situated on a plate boundary, but near a meeting point of four Graben, areas of multiple faulting and rifting caused by these plate movements. At Pamukkale, the crust has thinned as a result of the tortuous stretching of the Anatolian plate so much that it has fractured, resulting in a network of faults and fissures. Hot water from the mantle percolates through the crust, bringing with it the minerals dissolved from the local limestones, and deposits these on the surface in the form of the milky white travertine that visitors come from far and wide to see. In addition, a cocktail of noxious gases are discharged as the hot mineral rich fluids reach the surface and today, close by to the translucent blue pools in which these visitors dip, taps are visible that vent discharging gases such as carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide, make the place safe to visit.
In ancient times, this ancient chasm in the land, as well as its noxious gases and beautiful minerals, would have been sacred to our ancestors and a cult site was located since time immemorial dedicated to Cybele, the ancient Anatolian mother goddess and her priests, the castrated Galli, would have officiated. With the arrival of the Hellenes and then the Romans, this mysterious site where Earth processes could be seen and smelt became associated with an entrance to the Underworld, but still considered sacred as the name Hierapolis (or sacred city) implies. A temple dedicated to Pluto and his consort Kore, the equivalent of Persephone and Hades in Greek myth, was built over the sacred chasm and appropriately named the Plutonium. Guarding the entrance to the Underworld was Cerberus the three headed dog and a snake, still retaining its status as a prime Earth energy symbol. A nearby temple of Apollo took over the oracular function in the form of Apollo Lairbenus, whose mother Leto was equated with the ancient earth goddess Cybele.
Accounts from Strabo of how priests would go into an underground chamber with a deep cleft in the rock, through which flowed a fast running stream, and come out to utter prophecy suggest that they used the noxious gases as a sort of trance inducer. It is possible also that small animals were used to indicate levels of the gases, much as canaries were later used underground to warn miners. 
The chasm at Hierapolis is reminiscent of the description of the sacred chasm at Delphi in the myth of Apollo and Python, and indeed Mount Parnassus is located in a seismically active part of Greece. Modern research has shown that the site was built over a volcano related fissure that discharged gases through the springs percolating through the rocks, either in the form of ethylene or methane. The Pythia would have sat on a tripod over this chasm and uttered her prophecy in an altered state of consciousness, literally induced by the Earth energies. Interestingly this was exactly how John Collier depicted her in his iconic painting of 1891.
The connection between seismic activity and oracular sites was beginning to look far from coincidental. It was apparent that ancient people noticed the connection between springs, gases and earthquakes and deemed the chasms associated with them to be highly sacred, as well as mysterious. They placed sanctuaries and later temples on these gateways to the Underworld, where the voice of the Earth itself could be heard, and it was the dragon or serpent that came to symbolise this seismic activity.
I knew there were two more famous oracles on the Turkish Aegean coast, at Didyma and Claros, and it was there I journeyed next to further investigate the link between dragon energies and oracles.
 ‘The Greek Myths’ by Robert Graves, Penguin 1992
 ‘Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: from Troy to Bodrum,’ by Paola Pugsley, 2018