The oracle of death
Today we would like to invite you on a virtual tour through the archaeological remains of Nekromanteion, the site of the oracle of death, where Odysseus is said to have made his nekyia as he called out for the dead to guide him through his future events, and where, according to Herodotus, the tyrant of Corinth, Periander, had representatives consulting his dead wife in the 6th century B.C.
Believed to be the door to Hades, the Greek Underworld (described as Hell by Dante), this complex was dedicated to Hades and Persephone. This Nekromanteion is located above the Acheron River, a short distance from its mouth at Phanari Bay in Epirus, 20km south of the modern city of Parga (from where I started with my little vespa). The Acheron River itself was described as the river of pain, being one of five rivers of the Underworld, the river of Hades himself (and source of the more famous Styx). It was at the Acheron River that Kharon stood with his ferry, awaiting the deceased to take them over the waters of death to the Underworld. During its earliest days of Greek activity (referring here to the Archaic Period, although there is reference to also an earlier Bronze Age activity in the geographic area), Nekromanteion and the Acheron River were associated primarily with ancestor cult and the evocation of their spirits; the nekeiya of the ancient Greeks, necromancy of the Renaissance magicians, channeling of today. Psychagogues used mirror gazing to invoke shadows of the deceased, channeling their knowledge of the future. As C.G. Jung (and of course John Dee) would pick up on later on, the Greeks believed that the souls of the dead did not have traditional consciousness, but possessed capabilities beyond those of the living, including the power to see the future. This was the function for which Odysseus once came under the guidance and instructions of the sorceress Circe. In the Underworld, Odysseus hoped to invoke the spirit of Teiresias, the great diviner, and to seek guidance on his (long) journey home to Ithaca. Underworld journeys like that of Odysseus are described by various ancient sources, incorporating various degrees of incantation rituals and magical ceremonies. The written sources all agree that journeys to the Underworld and all associated magical rituals had to take place in the darkness of the night, guided by the light of a fire pit, and that the spirits of Hades were to be given blood of sacrificed animals.
Now, worth considering is the fact that little has actually changed since the early days of ancient Greek cult tradition when considering all aspects of our current day society. Rituals including invocations, prayers, talismans and various degrees of sacrifice are still applied today throughout the world’s many cultural societies. These are not limited to one religion or one cultural tradition; no, they exist in a more or less obvious fashion in all our lives, ranging from those of us who refuse to walk under a ladder in belief that it will cause us bad luck (although based on a more practical and logic conclusion that it might be dangerous); those who pray to a higher power, regardless of the name that is placed on such an entity; those who curse an enemy; or those who turn to the world of animals and nature to find strength and revived energy… As an example of the continuation of ancient cult practice, please have a look at the wonderful and very inspirering work of Sannion on his web page and blog (http://thehouseofvines.wordpress.com/)! The list is long and the only difference now from then is that we have a tendency of separating religion from our regular, mundane life. As known to many of you, this is one of the fundamental pillars in the research of the Sirius Project, aiming to identify and comprehend the true significance of symbolism, not limited to the visual, physical symbolism, but also abstract symbolism, which is deeply embedded in our persona, in our sub-consciousness, our psyche and/or soul depending on what labels one would like to use and in accordance with what cultural perspectives. It is by now accident that C.G. Jung used the concept of nekyia as analytical means of reaching greater understanding of our psyche.
Returning to the physical site of Nekromanteion, it was (re-) discovered in the late 1950s by a Greek archaeologist called Sotirios Dakaris. At the time the site was known as the hill of St. John Prodromos, the 18th century monastery of John the Baptist (seen at the end of this blog), which is built on top of the ancient ruins. Immediately beneath the Christian complex lies a large central structure dating to the early Hellenistic Period consisting of thick walls of polygonal stone blocks. Excavating the area, Dakaris could identify this 4th century building as a temple consisting of a rectangular courtyard, a central hall with various side aisles. The central hall was, just like the subterranean chamber immediately below, cut into the rock. In accordance with the overall temple plan, the visitors, or pilgrims, entered the complex through a northern gate, walking along a corridor with three rooms, including a purification room, on its left side. This is where the beneficiaries would spend his preparation time, including purification, prayer, drinking and dining (narcotic) food, drinks and scented fumes that would enhance their senses, thus placing them in a trance-like state, increasing their overall experience. One of the northern rooms accepted more devoted visitors, providing them a place for fasting and meditation, again preparing the pilgrim for the meeting with the oracle. Once the visitor had accomplished the various stages of preparation, he would enter the eastern corridor with the guidance of a priest, there sacrificing a sheep, continuing into a meandering corridor decorated with three ironclad gates, symbolizing the gates of Hades, at which he would leave his sacrifice. His next stop was the main chamber, the central hall, where he was set out to meet the deceased souls and to seek their advice. The subterranean chamber is a chthonic tunnel-like room with vaulted ceiling as the photos will show. With him at all times was the priest who guided and supported him while continuously chanting invocations to call for the deceased. Once the main event was finalized the visitor had to go through a three day purification, which included complete silence in order not to reveal the mysteries of Hades.
Dakaris made an interesting find when excavating this area, as there appeared various instruments to hold and show a “false” appearance of a ghost, such as a crane with a figural representation on one side and a counterweight on the other. Among the other archaeological remains were a rich amount of votives, dating from the 7th century to 167 BC, the date when the Romans looted and destroyed the temple (and their presence in this area will be clarified in an upcoming blog post with a virtual tour through the ancient site of Nikopolis).
As always, thank you for joining us on our adventures in the ancient landscape, and all the great and glorious symbolism embedded within!
John and Maria