Broken by the god: Book V of Lucan’s Pharsalia describes a scene of oracular possession. Kings no longer consult the oracle for fear of the future, and for years Apollo’s “awful” shrine has been barred shut, his oracles silent.
Now, a Roman statesman named Appius has sought out a prophecy. The unfortunate priestess, wandering carefree near a spring in a remote grove, has been seized and is about to be forced to prophesy. She is terrified: “For if the god enters her chest, her punishment, or her reward, is an early death for having received him; for the human body is broken by the sting and surge of the frenzy, and the assault of the god shatters the fragile spirit.” The passage is heavy with horse-breaking terminology and sexual imagery.
When she still paused and hesitated, the priest shoved her into the temple.
Trembling at the oracular depths of the inner shrine, she lingered by the entrance—imitating the god, she offered feigned words from a heart unstirred. But no garbled, inarticulate cry proved that her mind was inspired by the divine frenzy. … Her words did not tumble forth with a roar; her voice was not great enough to fill the space of the vast cavern; the laurel wreath was not raised from her head by her hair standing on end; the doors of the temple were unmoved; the trees were still and quiet—all these betrayed her dread at trusting herself to Apollo.
[Appius knows that she is only pretending, and violently threatens her.]
Completely terrified, at last the virgin took refuge near the tripods. She drew near to the vast chasm and hesitated there—and for the first time, her heart received the divine power, which the spirit of the rock, not exhausted after so many centuries, poured into her. At last Apollo mastered the heart of a Delphian priestess; as fully as ever in the past, he forced his way into her body, driving out her former consciousness, ordering whatever was human inside her to yield her heart to his disposal.
Frantic she raves through the cave, her neck bearing the weight of possession; Apollo’s fillets and garlands are dislodged by her bristling hair, and she whirls through the empty spaces of the temple. She scatters the tripods standing in her path, boiling over with fierce flame—enduring your wrath, Phoebus.
But you do not use the whip and spur alone, plunging fire into her vital organs. She must accept the bit as well: she is not permitted to reveal as much as she knows. All time is gathered up together, all the centuries suffocate her agonized chest, the endless progression of events lies open, all the future struggles to the light: prophecy wrestles with voice, struggling to be spoken. The first day of the world, and its last, the measure of the ocean and the number of grains of sand—all of these are before her.
The frenzy persists, and the god, whom she has not shaken off, still controls her, since she has not told everything yet. She still rolls fierce eyes, her eyeballs wandering all over the sky—now her expression is terrified, now it is savage and twisted; her features are never quiet. A fiery flush stains her face and the ghastly color of her cheeks. Her paleness is not like the color of one who is afraid, but of one who inspires fear. Her exhausted heart finds no rest, but as the swollen sea moans hoarsely after a northern gale dies down, voiceless sighs still heave her breast.
While she was returning to the daylight from that sacred glow in which she had seen the future, the shadow of unconsciousness cut in. For Apollo poured Stygian Lethe in her inward parts, which snatched the secrets of the gods from her. Then Truth fled her chest, and knowledge of the future returned to the tripod of the god. She collapsed, and could scarcely recover.