Garner's Greek Mythology

EP 46: Julian Jaynes & The Delphic Oracle

August 07, 2022 Patrick Garner Season 3 Episode 46
Garner's Greek Mythology
EP 46: Julian Jaynes & The Delphic Oracle
Show Notes Transcript

In 1976 an obscure psychologist from Princeton University published a book titled, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” It was a sensation, not in small part because Jaynes postulated that before modern consciousness occurred, the voices humans heard in their head were considered those of the gods. 

He pinpointed the date of this shift to around 1200 B.C.  After this date, humans became self-aware, yet the Delphic Oracle remained relevant because she continued to  flawlessly channel Apollo.

In this episode Garner reads from Jaynes’ famous book, focusing on the section about prophets and oracles.

If you love this podcast, you'll also enjoy Garner's audible novel about the gods, Homo Divinitas, now available on and And find us on Youtube as well!

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This is episode 46 of Garner's Greek mythology. We have listeners from all over the world, so welcome to everyone wherever you are. I'm your host mythologist Patrick Garner.

If you like what you hear, I invite you to buy my books at Amazon. They're about the Greek gods, but with captivating, updated tales in the contemporary world, you could also read about them in this podcast at

In 1976, an obscure instructor of psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey published a book which became a sensation. His name was Julian Jaynes. The book is "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind." That's one long and complicated title, so I'll repeat it. "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind."

OK, So what does this have to do with mythology and Greek gods? Much of Jaynes' theory is based on his study of Greek gods and archaic language. You see, Jaynes theorized that humans became conscious only after language evolved.

To cross check that opinion, he taught himself ancient Greek and began to reread the oldest of the Greek texts, including Homer's, "The Iliad " and "The Odyssey." He concluded that characters in the earlier of the two books, "The Iliad," exhibited almost no self consciousness.

In Homer's second book, "The Odyssey," characters spoke and thought as modern humans. Based on this analysis as well as on his study of other early civilizations, he came to a radical conclusion. That is, he determined that consciousness — we could also say self-awareness as we think of it today — began around 1600 to 1200 BC. Jaynes postulated that before modern consciousness occurred, the voices humans heard in their heads were what men considered the voices of gods. These gods, who included the Olympians we know so well, directed them to act and work as a society toward common goals.

Before this, freethinking or self direction simply did not exist. Then over a few centuries, more modern consciousness swept populations. This change, Jaynes asserts, was driven by writing and a more sophisticated use of language.

The vast majority of ancient populations changed, yet not all humans became equally self-conscious. Jane stipulates that this new consciousness prevented humans from hearing divine voices. Regardless, certain individuals retained the ancient archaic thought process. In other words, they were a throwback to earlier days. They could hear Gods, and James proposes that these rare individuals functioned as prophets and oracles.

These wise women and old seers heard voices that others could not, rather than mocking them as we might today, Greeks relied on them for advice about the future. In episode 10 of the series, I featured the Delphic Oracle, a woman known as the Pythia, who was Greece's most famous prophetess. If you haven't heard that episode or want to revisit it, give it a listen. I cover the history of Delphi, particularly Apollo's role in more detail there than I do here.

For this episode, just remember that the Pythia was an astonishing figure. She served as Apollo's voice of prophecy, and unsurprisingly she was never wrong. She was referred to as the Delphic Oracle because she lived in Delphi, which the Greeks considered to be the center of the world, what they called the omphalos.

But why was she considered astonishing? Because the Pythia had served in Delphi for as long as anyone could remember and because she was always right. Indeed, for a period exceeding 1,000 years, she's never recorded as making an an inaccurate prediction.

Generals, politicians, tyrants, and common men all relied on her counsel. They asked, "Who will win the battle. Where should we locate our next colony? Will my crops be robust this spring? Will I recover from this injury? And this famous question from a friend of Socrates —  Who is the wisest man in Athens?

The Pythia answered each and every inquiry without hesitation, and of course, her ability to respond instantly added to her fame. Again, Jaynes considered the Delphic Oracle to bridge the gap between preconscious humans and modern humans, and in his book the bicameral mind refers to the God and human sides of the brain.

Jaynes suggests that information began to be processed differently after a certain point in human development. He concludes that once society reached a sufficient size and complexity, humans were forced to access both sides of their brain to survive. This began for Greeks more than 3,000 years ago. A more robust language was required, one that included creativity, metaphors and inductive reasoning. In short, Jaynes says civilization itself separated us from the gods.

Now let's hear directly from him. These passages are from pages 321 to 326 of his book. James begins by stating,

"Greek oracles were the central method of making important decisions for over 1,000 years after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. This fact is usually obscured by the strident rationalism of modern historians. At the most famous oracle, that of Apollo at Delphi, there was a queer cone-like stone structure called the omphalos or naval. It stood at the reputed center of the earth.

"Here resided on certain days or in some centuries every day throughout the year, the supreme priestess, or sometimes two or three in rotation, selected so far as we know, on no particular basis, according to Plutarch  in the 1st century BC.

"She was the daughter of a poor farmer. She first bathed and drank from a sacred brook and then established contact with the god through his sacred tree, the Laurel, much as conscious, Assyrian kings are depicted being smeared by tree cones in the hands of genii.  She did this either by holding a Laurel branch or by inhaling and fumigating herself with burnt Laurel leaves, or perhaps by chewing the leaves.

"Again, the replies to questions were given at once without any reflection and uninterruptedly. The exact manner of her announcements is still debated, whether she was seated on a tripod, regarded as Apollo's ritual seat, or simply stood at the entrance to a cave. But there are archaic references to her from the 5th century on.

"All agree with the statement of Heraclitus that she spoke from her frenzied mouth and with various contortions of her body. She was entheos, plena deo.  Speaking through his priestess, but always in the first  person, answering king or freeman, Apollo commanded sites for new colonies as he did for present day Istanbul, decreed which nations were friends, which rulers best, which laws to enact, the causes of plagues or famines, the best trade routes, which of the proliferation of new cults or music or art, should be recognized as agreeable to Apollo — all decided by these girls with their frenzied mouths.

"This is truly astonishing. We have none of the Delphic Oracle so long from school texts that we coat it over with a shrugging usualness, which we should not.  How is it conceivable that simple rural girls could be trained to put themselves into a psychological state such that they could make decisions at once that ruled the world?

"The obdurate rationalist simply scuffs. Just as the mediums of our own times have always been exposed as frauds, so these so-called oracles were really performances manipulated by others in front of an illiterate peasantry for political and monetary ends. But such a realpolitik attitude is doctrinaire at best.

"Possibly there was some chicanery in the oracle's last days, perhaps some bribery of the prophetess, those subsidiary priests or priestesses who interpreted what the Oracle meant. But earlier, to sustain so massive a fraud for an entire millennium through the most brilliant intellectual civilization the world had yet known was impossible, just impossible.

"Nor can it gibe with the complete absence of criticism of the oracle until the Roman period. Nor with the politically wise and often cynical Plato, reverently calling Delphi the interpreter of religion to all mankind.

"Another kind of explanation, really a quasi-explanation, still busied about with in the popular and sometimes professional literature, is biochemical. The trances were real, it says, but caused by vapors of some sort arising from a casium beneath the floor of the cave. But the French excavations of 1903 and more recent ones have shown distinctly that no such casium existed. 

"Or else there might be a drug in the Laurel that could have produced such a an Apollonian effect. To test this, I have personally crushed Laurel leaves and smoked quantities of them in a pipe and felt somewhat sick, but no more inspired than usual. And have chewed them as well for about an hour and very distinctly felt more and more. Jaynesian less than Apollonian. The glee with which external explanations are sought out for such phenomenon simply indicates the resistance in some quarters to admitting that psychological phenomenon of this type exists at all. 

"The immensity of the cultural demand upon the entranced priestess cannot be overemphasized. The whole Greek world believed and had for almost a millennium. As many as 35,000 people a day from every part of the Mediterranean world might struggle by sea through the tiny port of Atea that snugs the receptive coast just below Delphi, and they too went through induction procedures, purifying themselves in the Castilian spring, making offerings to Apollo and other gods as they persisted up the sacred way.

"In the latter centuries of the oracle, more than 4,000 votive statues lined this 220 yard long climb up the side of Mount Parnassus to the temple of the Oracle. It was, I suggest, this confluence of huge social prescription and an expectancy closer to the definition than mere belief, which can account for the psychology of the oracle, for the at-once-ness of her answers.  It was something before which any skepticism would be impossible as it would be for us to doubt that the speech of a radio originates in a studio that we cannot see. 

"And it is something before which modern psychology must stand in awe. To this causative expectancy should be added something about the natural scene itself. Oracles begin in localities with a specific awesomeness, natural formations of mountain or gorge, of hallucinogenic wind, or waves or symbolic gleanings and vistas, which I suggest are more conducive to occasioning right hemisphere activity than the analytic planes of everyday life. 

"Perhaps we can say that the geography of the bicameral mind in the first millennium BC was shrinking down to the sites of awe and beauty where the voices of gods could still be heard. Certainly the vast cliffs of Delphi move into such a suggestion and fill it fully, a towering cauldron of blasted rock over which the sea winds howl and the salt mists cling as if dreaming nature were twisting herself awake at awkward angles, falling away into a blue surf of shimmering olive leaves and the Gray immortal sea. ..."

"Jaynes' book remains in print even a half a century later. His analysis of how language influenced consciousness plays into the endless academic debates about human awareness.  
"Pick up a copy if you really want to drill down into this fascinating topic. There's also a Julian Janes society that you can readily find on the web. 

"Join me for the next episode of Garner's Greek Mythology and visit It's all about your favorite Greek gods, this podcast and about my novels. The books are available on Amazon. Their theme is that the Greek gods never left. 

As I say in every episode, they are here, now. And I'm pleased to announce that these episodes are also available on YouTube. Find them under Garner's Greek Mythology. 

Thanks for listening. This is your host, Patrick Garner.