An Oracle of the Dead – at Baia?
… but isn’t the Oracle of the Dead at Lake Avernus? The connection of Lake Avernus to an Oracle of the Dead first appears in a fragment by Sophocles, later to be mentioned by Strabo, Diodorus, Servius, Maximus of Tyre and others.
Lake Avernus, with its black waters and surrounding volcanic activity, provided a fitting backdrop for Odysseus’s summoning up of spirits of the dead to the surface. Dio Cassius also records a myth locating Calypso’s cave here at the lake, where Odysseus was kept for seven years.
Odysseus’s and Heracles’s wanderings became associated with this region of ltaly shortly after the Greeks colonised the area. Odysseus’s example inspired Naevius and later Vergil, many centuries later, to choose Lake Avernus as the entrance for Aeneas’s descent to consult the Oracle of the Dead. Naevius tells us in his play ‘Carmen belli penici’ written between 235 and 204 BC that the Sybil presiding over this oracle is the Cimmerian sybil called Carmentis, as distinct from the sybil of Cuma. Naevius also mentions Carmenta in his books on the Punic war. Piso mentions her too, in his annals.
Tradition places the oracle in a cave near the lake. The earliest writing is in Ephorus’s fourth century BC description of Italy cited by Strabo, but now missing.
“They live in underground houses which they cali argillai (clay-pits), and it is through tunnels that they visit one another, and also admit strangers to the oracle, which is situated far beneath the earth; and they live on what they get from mining, and from those who consult the oracle, and from the king of the country, who has appointed to them fixed allowances; and those who live about the oracle have an ancestral custom, that no one should see the sun, but should go outside the caverns (chasmata) only during the night; and it is for this reason that the poet (Homer) speaks of them as follows: ‘And never does the shining sun look upon them’; but later on the Cimmerians were destroyed by a certain king, because the response of the oracle did not turn out well for him; the oracle, however, still endures, although removed to another place.”
Strabo, quoting Ephorus
In the early 1st century Pseudo-Scymnus also quotes Ephorus, calling it the ‘Cerberian underground oracle’, placing Hercules’s (Heracles’s) twelfth labour in the Phlegraean Fields, where Hercules was to capture the three-headed hound of hell, Cerberus (Kerberos).
Perhaps Cerberian and Cimmerian became confused, through word of mouth. By Strabo’s time the notion of the Cimmerians, semi-nomads from South Russia whose homeland was the Black Sea, were recognised as a myth. Homer may have meant Cheimerians or Cerberians, rather than Cimmerians or perhaps the original name was corrupted in later copies of the Odyssey.
Diodorus, in the first century BC, and Maximus of Tyre in the second century AD, referred to the oracle as having disappeared long before their times.
Pliny mentions ‘Avernus near which formerly was the Cimmerian town’. Cicero quoted an ancient poet when referring to the evocation of the dead at Avernus, while making a clear distinction between rites known from the mythological tradition and actual cultic practice, which is not connected with this lake.
The most famous description of the oracular cave supposedly at Avernus is Vergil’s, when the Sibyl of Cumae brings Aeneas there to descend to the netherworld:
‘A deep cave there was, yawning wide and vast, shingly, and sheltered by dark lake and woodland gloom, over which no flying creatures could safely wing their way; such a vapour from those black jaws poured into the over-arching heaven.’
The site at Avernus remains a mystery. There is no account of an actual consultation at this oracle. In 214, Hannibal pretended that he wished to offer sacrifices at Lake Avernus, but we know nothing more than this.
Cicero, whose villa was located close to Lake Avernus, discusses the evocation of ghosts and quotes an old poet as evidence of this practice in his ‘Tusculan Conversations’, but records no local oracular traditions in his day.
The prophetic centre was operated, according to two different sources of Strabo, either by priests holding the place on lease or by the Cimmerians, whose contract was with an unspecified king.
The method of consultation is also obscure. The ceremony pictured by Maximus of Tyre in the late 2nd century AD echoes Odysseus’s 11th song of the Odyssey and is of no value as a source of actual rites at Avernus. Vergil’s reference to the ‘Gates of Sleep’ through which shades or dreams pass implies that the necromantic séance was based on incubation, but poetic fiction can hardly serve as a reliable source.