Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The woman with the python spirit

I was reflecting yesterday on the ancient Pythia, the oracular priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and Didyma, so named for Python, the large serpent killed by Apollo. During certain times of the year, after an elaborate preparation ritual, the pythia would descend into a small chamber at the base of the temple and position herself on a tripod over the sacred pneuma, a rising gas that many geologists and scientists believe actually contained ethylene, a known hallucinogen. In a trance, the pythia would issue oracular responses supposedly inspired by the god Apollo. The responses were known for being quite ambiguous and vague.

There is an obscure event recorded in Ch. 16 of the book of Acts regarding a woman possessed by what the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates as a spirit of divination, and the New American Bible (NAB) translates as an oracular spirit. However, the Nova Vulgata best translates the term directly from the Greek as spiritum pythonem (accusative case), or "python spirit".

The RSV records the event this way:
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination [python spirit] and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, "I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers.
Perhaps because the woman claimed to divine the future, she was likened to the pythia of the Temple of Apollo who was also possessed by a python spirit (of sorts). Or perhaps there is an unstated connection to the pythia. Nonetheless, whatever possessed her left her in great haste after Paul's rebuke. Interesting...

The pythian priestesses at the Temples of Apollo at Delphi and Didyma have had enormous influence on the history of the world. Recorded visits to the oracles are numerous, even visits involving issues of great concern to the Christian world. The 4th century Christian apologist Lactantius records one such event in Ch. 10 and 11 of his work De Mortibus Persecutorum (On the Deaths of the Persecutors). In it, he all but blames the Oracle of Apollo at Didyma near Miletus (not Delphi) for convincing the Roman Emperor Diocletian to put what is now known as the Great Persecution of Christians into its fullest force in 303AD:
Diocletian, as being of a timorous disposition, was a searcher into futurity, and during his abode in the East he began to slay victims [animal sacrifices], that from their livers he might obtain a prognostic of events; and while he sacrificed, some attendants of his, who were Christians, stood by, and they put the immortal sign on their foreheads [the sign of the cross]. At this the demons were chased away, and the holy rites interrupted. The soothsayers trembled, unable to investigate the wonted marks on the entrails of the victims. They frequently repeated the sacrifices, as if the former had been unpropitious; but the victims, slain from time to time, afforded no tokens for divination. At length Tages, the chief of the soothsayers, either from guess or from his own observation, said, "There are profane persons here, who obstruct the rites." Then Diocletian, in furious passion, ordered not only all who were assisting at the holy ceremonies, but also all who resided within the palace, to sacrifice, and, in case of their refusal, to be scourged. And further, by letters to the commanding officers, he enjoined that all soldiers should be forced to the like impiety, under pain of being dismissed the service. Thus far his rage proceeded; but at that season he did nothing more against the law and religion of God. After an interval of some time he went to winter in Bithynia; and presently Galerius Caesar came thither, inflamed with furious resentment, and purposing to excite the inconsiderate old man to carry on that persecution which he had begun against the Christians...

So, during the whole winter, Diocletian and Galerius held councils together, at which no one else assisted; and it was the universal opinion that their conferences respected the most momentous affairs of the empire. The old man long opposed the fury of Galerius, and showed how pernicious it would be to raise disturbances throughout the world and to shed so much blood; that the Christians were wont with eagerness to meet death; and that it would be enough for him to exclude persons of that religion from the court and the army. Yet he could not restrain the madness of that obstinate man. He resolved, therefore, to take the opinion of his friends... Yet not even then could the emperor be prevailed upon to yield his assent. He determined above all to consult his gods; and to that end he dispatched a soothsayer to inquire of Apollo at Miletus [at Didyma], whose answer was such as might be expected from an enemy of the divine religion. So Diocletian was drawn over from his purpose.
It is also said that the Oracle of Apollo at Didyma specifically pointed out that the Christians were preventing the oracles from correctly divining the future. Thus under Diocletian the persecution of Christians escalated. Much good it did, as less than 10 years later, the world saw an end to the official persecution of Christians and the complete legalization of Christianity in the empire under the Emperor Constantine. Deo gratias!


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