The Oracle of the Dead at Baia

Could this place be the Oracle of the Dead?

A full description of Greek beliefs and a history of their settlements in Italy would fill a very large book. But to propose any argument for the site at Baia to be the historic site of the Oracle of the Dead, we need at least to look a little at the background of the area, who lived there and their beliefs. So without giving citations, let us look briefly at some relevant information which can be verified elsewhere.

A brief historical timeline

  • Early origins - Historically, the origins of the Greek myths surrounding notions of the Underworld are lost in the mists of time. The nurturing earth mother female principle of the Goddess Hera reigned. From the ground all life springs and to the ground it returns in death.

    Various fertility rites in commemoration of these beliefs developed and are generally referred to as Chthonic.
    Chthonic – kθɒnɪk – comes from the Greek word χθόνιος – chthonios which means "in, under, or beneath the earth", from χθών – chthōn "earth"; pertaining to the Earth; earthy; subterranean.

    Apart from its literal translation, its historical or interpretive definition extends to cover the deities or spirits of the underworld, especially in relation to Greek religion. Chthonic rites are equally a celebration of life that springs from under the ground.
  • 754 BC - The very early Greek settlement of Cuma is about 4 kilometers from Baia. Cuma was traditionally founded at this date (Pithecusa – modern Ischia – had been occupied by Greeks some time earlier).
  • 700-600 BC - The Greeks began to localise places where an actual descent to the underworld might be made - navels in the ground. Suggesting in the seventh century BC the Ionian Sea and in the sixth century BC Southern Italy.

    Tales of Odysseus and Aeneas were localised on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy between Capri and Ostia in the latter half of the sixth century.
  • Circa 600 - According to Strabo, citing Ephorus, Lake Avernus was the site of the descent to the underworld, where the oracle of the dead existed. This was destroyed by a King of Cumae and afterwards restored elsewhere (see side column).
  • Circa 550 BC - Orphic mystery cults appear. In the second half of the sixth century BC, Greece underwent a religious rift. A new concept of humans having souls became widespread and there was a reaction against the Olympian and heroic mythology and values which had rewritten the ancient stories – in some places not too convincingly.

    Chthonic cults, preserved among the people in the countryside, were revived and given fresh meaning.

    The movement was popular with the ordinary people but hostile to the aristocratic land-owners among whom heroic values were maintained. The movement affected the whole of the Greek empire.
  • Circa 530 BC – Pythagoras settles in Croton, Magna Graecia (on the Ionian coast of Southern Italy) and starts a religious sect. He and his followers composed poems embodying the doctrines of the transmigration of the immortal soul, its imprisonment in the body, and its purification and release. These poems seem to have passed under the name of Orpheus.

    According to Herodotus, Pythagoras introduced Egyptian Dionysus-worship to Greece; Pythagorean and Orphic thus seem to be equated. Pythagoras is recorded as a worshipper of Apollo, but his house after his death is said to have been consecrated as a temple of Demeter, which points to a chthonic mystery cult.
  • 500 BC - The probable date of the construction of the Oracle of the Sybil at Cuma dates from circa 500 BC and the construction method of the Greek blocks of the Temple on the terrace at Baia would suggest a date of 600-500 BC. The Greek temple is clearly an older ruin of some kind, encased in later Roman masonry.

    Doc Paget suggested the Greek temple was built after the tunnels at Baia, due to the evidence he saw from rock-falls and masonry now within the hill.

    Even if the Greek Temple is later than the tunnel system, it might perhaps be dated to 550-475 BC, which would accord with Cuma's period of greatest prosperity and influence.
  • Circa 450 BC - Cuma had certainly become the centre of an Orphic cult, as a cemetery has been found dated to this time that was reserved specifically for Orphic initiates, some of whom have been found buried with gold plates inscribed with Orphic text.

    The texts are similar to those found elsewhere and include unusual phrases such as 'I have fallen into milk', so we can be sure that these were not confined to local use by the inhabitants of Cuma and were part of a widespread movement, not only in southern Italy but also Crete and Thessaly.
  • 400 BC – Funerary vases, painted with scenes from the Underworld, in which Orpheus regularly appears as a central figure, become widespread.

Roman times

  • Circa 550 BC – The ancient monarchy of Rome was overthrown and a government was formed by two elected Consuls, advised by a Senate. During the next two centuries the Roman state expanded to include the entire Italian peninsula. By 218 BC the Romans had reached Spain and beyond.
  • 176 BC – The earliest mention of the area during the Roman period is by Livy. Consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, suffering from partial paralysis, took the cure at Aqua Cumanae.
  • 27 BC – From the time of Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor onwards, Baia became especially popular as a summer spa resort, with many grand villas and much licentious behaviour.

    Continued or revived use of the tunnels at Baia is evidenced by a Roman extension of the entrance tunnel to a Roman building 27 metres (89 feet) in front of the Greek Temple.

The Cimmerians

The earliest mention of Cimmerians in western sources is in The Odyssey of Homer (11.14), inhabitants of a country forever deprived of sunshine in perpetual mist, at the entrance to the kingdom of Hades, toward which Odysseus sails to obtain an oracle from the soul of the seer Teiresias.

Baia shrouded in mist

Above: aerial view of the site at Baia today, shrouded in mist.

The western Greeks very early on placed the wanderings of Odysseus in the seas around Sicily and Italy.

Strabo quotes Ephorus

"The people prior to my time were wont to make Avernus the setting of the fabulous story of the Homeric Nekyia (descent to the underworld); and, what is more, writers tell us that there actually was an oracle of the dead here and that Odysseus visited it."

"The Cimmerians live in underground houses which they call argillai, 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 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."

Ephorus lived in the 4th century BC and Strabo circa 64/63 BC to circa AD 24.

Kyme and its association with the Underworld

The Greek settlement at Kyme (present day Cuma and Roman Cumae), one of the earliest in Italy, is just 3.75 kilometres (2.33 miles) from the tunnels at Baia and is certainly older than the site at Ephyra. The area had long had a reputation for being the location of places and events described in Homer's Odyssey.

A compelling piece of evidence that the area was associated with the underworld is this silver coin, minted at Kyme, which seems to bear witness to the reputation of the underworld in this locality.

The silver stater from Kyme

Silver stater from Kyme

Only seven examples of this coin were known to coin expert Dr Keith Rutter of Edinburgh University. It shows the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the underworld, mounted on a mussel shell, the symbol of Kyme (Cuma) because of the mussel beds that still exist today in Lake Fusaro. It is tempting to imagine that the lady might be Persephone, Queen of the Underworld and a central figure in the Orphic mysteries, whose rites may have been enacted in the tunnels.

This coin example is in the hands of a Swiss collector. See also N. K. Rutter: Campanian Coinages 475–380 B.C.

The Bakkhoi

The second piece of evidence at Kyme, associated with the Underworld and its mysteries, is a necropolis apparently reserved solely for Dionysian or Orphic initiates. An inscription, circa 450 BC, was found stating, 'None but Bakkhoi may be buried here'.

Plato's dialogue Phaedo, whose theme is that the soul is immortal, mentions the Bakkhoi thus: "And I conceive that the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated in a riddle long ago that he who passes without initiation and without ritual induction into the house of Hades will live in a slough, but that he who arrives there after purification and induction will then dwell with the gods. For many, as they say in the mysteries, are the 'bearers of the thyrsos', but few are the bakkhoi meaning, as I interpret the words, the true philosophers."

As Doc Paget rightly pointed out, in many ways Orpheus preceded Jesus Christ in his revolutionary outlook and teaching.

A seal stone from the Early Christian Byzantine Collection at the Berlin Bode Museum vanished during WWII, where it had been on display since 1904. Tantalisingly this showed a crucified man and the inscription Orpheos Bakkikos.

Orpheus BakkikosThe Orpheos Bakkikos seal and cast.

The seal had been embraced as one of the earliest representations of the crucifixion of Christ, yet the inscription is Orphic. It remains controversial for obvious reasons and as a result its authenticity questioned. A balanced yet detailed assessment of the evidence can be found here.


Orpheus is perhaps best known because of Offenbach's mid-19th century comic opera "Orpheus in the Underworld", famous for the can-can.

Orpheus is first mentioned in the sixth century BC by the poet Ibykus. Pindar (circa 500 BC) called him the "father of songs". He is noted for perfecting lyre playing.

Apollonius of Rhodes wrote circa 300 BC that Orpheus went to Egypt, where he furthered his education and became the greatest man among the Greeks, for his knowledge of the Gods, and for his poems and songs.

Orpheus dared to descend into Hades where his enchanting song convinced Persephone to help him bring his wife Eurydice back.

Doc Paget's conclusions

Doc Paget published two summaries of his investigations into the tunnel system and the reasons why he felt that these tunnels could be a considered as a candidate for the Oracle of the Dead, said to be near Lake Avernus.

In the Footsteps of Orpheus:

  • 1. Its situation, surrounded by the Cimmerian tunnels and argillae as described by Homer in the Odyssey.
  • 2. The provision of the lamp niches, where there are none in all the other tunnels or argillae. The distribution of the lamp niches with 120 in the 408 feet of the entrance tunnel, 270, then no fewer than 400 set only a yard apart, in the inner 480 feet of galleries. This was not accidental, but is clear evidence that greater illumination and possibly more smoke effects, were desired in the inner recesses of the Oracle.
  • 3. The clear evidence of technical design, and the fine workmanship in the cutting of the tunnels, the shape and dimensions being maintained very accurately.
  • 4. The Inner Sanctuary corresponds with the reference by Ephorus and its similarity to the Etruscan house temples of the same date.
  • 5. The suppression by Agrippa. The Inner Sanctuary was completely filled with earth. The stair up from the far landing was also filled to the level of the Sanctuary floor, a vertical rise of 20 feet. The Rise was similarly blocked, the length being 40 feet with the dog-leg. The bed of the water, also has been filled with rubble to a depth of at least 4 feet. The entire length of the North 120 was completely filled, throughout its 180 feet length. Three 20 foot long blocks were erected in South 120.
  • 6. This was a tremendous operation. The 270 entrance tunnel is only 21 inches wide and there is no room for persons to pass anywhere except at the Dividing of the Ways. All this filling material was carried in from the surface in baskets. Calculation shows that some 700 cubic yards of earth were required for the work. The basket would hold about 40-50 pounds. No fewer than 30,000 man journeys were involved in the transport of all this material. The figures speak for themselves. They imply that Agrippa attached paramount importance to the operation. Why did he not just block the entrance to 270 under the temple? It seems certain that there was some psychological reason for doing the job the way he did.
  • 6. The Oracle must have been a centre of pilgrimage. This requires a town to give the necessary supporting services, lodging, provision of food and sacrificial animals, with all the other incidentals of such activity. Nowhere in the vicinity of Avernus, except at Baiae is there such a town.
  • 7. The 270 Entrance tunnel commences at the north-west corner of the temple. This was the quadrant of the ancient Cosmos, traditionally sacred to the Fates and the Deities of the Nether Regions. The significance is found in the famous bronze Liver found in an Etruscan tomb at Piacenza, which is an exposition of the Rules for Divination, as practised about the fourth century B.C.
  • 8. The smoke control systems at the Dividing of the Ways and at the west end of the 120 is sound engineering practice. The whole idea of utilising convection as the key to the ventilation of a single entry tunnel complex, and the differential slopes that were used to ensure correct evacuation of the smoke and foul air in the desired direction, is evidence of preconceived design, for a purpose other than the mere clarifying of the passages from smoke. It was desired to send the streams of smoke in certain directions. Thus the line of tiles in the beginning of the roof of 290 is explained. The large volume of hot air travelling out along the roof of the North 120 and into the roof of 290, would not only ensure that the incoming cold air could maintain a breathable atmosphere in the lower part of the passages, but also go down the 290 stair quite freely to complete the ventilation circuit. Even today when only the 290 passage is in operation the ventilation is sufficient to allow short periods of work round the Inner Sanctuary. When the 120 doors were in use the system would be quite efficient.
  • 9. The water is clearly also a part of the design. But how it was located and reached by the constructors, either by (a) the 290 stair, or (b) the 120s and the stairs down from the Sanctuary is an intriguing problem. There is no apparent outlet to the surface for the water, whereby its presence could be inferred. Its constant level and freshness' indicate some kind of flow, but we have been unable to find any solution to these problems. Whichever way it was reached, there are trigonometrical problems of some delicacy to be solved, and solved before work was started. The water was a part of the design, as may be deduced from the steps at the bottom of 290, the orientation of the water to pass directly under the Inner Sanctuary, namely 300 degrees.
  • 10. The orientation of the cliff face towards the midsummer sunrise at North 60 degrees East, and that of the Inner Sanctuary towards the corresponding sunset, may have significance.

The 'Great Antrum' at Baiae: A Preliminary Report:

  • 1. The elaborate design and good workmanship denote design as a unit and not a gradual expansion.
  • 2. The 500 lamp niches indicate use for ceremonial (purposes). One lamp every 20 metres (65 feet) would have been sufficient for walking.
  • 3. The orientation of the surface buildings and the Inner Sanctuary towards Midsummer Heliacal sunrise and sunset denote interconnection.
  • 4. Tunnels outside the Sacred Area have no lamp niches.
  • 5. The incidence of the Antrum under the Greek Temple.
  • 6. The presence of a Tholos among the surface buildings.
  • 7. The elaborate efforts made to fill the Inner Sanctuary, North 120, the blocks in South 120, the fill in the Rise and in the stair from the north 'doors' to the water. A calculation shows that some 200 cubic metres of fill were required, all brought in from the surface in baskets along 270, where there is not room for two persons to pass. The operation represents 15,000 man-journeys.
  • 8. The Great Antrum, the surface buildings and the chambers behind the cliff-face are clearly one unit.
  • 9. The mention by Strabo quoting Ephorus, of an Oracle of the Dead 'near Avernus' (V.4.5.).

Whatever the purpose of these tunnels, there is no other tunnel system like this anywhere else and the underground water course is probably the earliest example we have of a hydraulic work such as this.

Dr R. F. Paget

Dr Paget, who liked to be known among his friends as simply 'Doc'.

… but isn't the Oracle of the Dead in Greece?

The Necromanteion of Ephyra is believed to be the only Oracle of the Dead that existed in Greece. It belonged to the Thesprotians, an early Greek tribe who settled there in about 2,000 B.C.

A site at Ephyra was discovered in 1958 and excavated in two phases: 1958-64 and 1976-77. It was identified as the Necromanteion by archaeologist Sotirios Dakaris.

Based on its geographical location and its similarities to descriptions found in Herodotus and Homer, it is open to question whether this site really was the Oracle of the Dead. Its situation on a hill commanding the immediate neighbourhood does not fit and the ruins have been dated to no earlier than the later 4th century BC.

It is now generally accepted that the site at Ephyra was a fortified farmhouse, similar to others that have been found. Its single underground chamber offers a poor substitute for the tunnel complex at Baia.

The Necromanteion of Ephyra is probably just a stronghold under a fortified farmhouse.

Greek Orphic vase

Orpheus and his lyre.

The Plutonium at Hieropolis in Turkey

In March 2013 a team led by Francesco D'Andria, Professor of Classic Archaeology at the University of Salento, announced the discovery of a Plutonium or Gate to Hell in the Phrygian city of Hierapolis, now known as the city of Pamukkale, in southwestern Turkey.

In addition to the cave, amid the ruins, D'Andria's team also found the remains of a temple, a pool and a series of steps placed above the cave.

"This space is full of a vapour so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death. I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell"
Greek philosopher, geographer and historian Strabo, who lived between about 64 BC and 24 AD.

In ancient times the cave was said to be filled with mephitic vapours. It was a site where animals were sacrificed.

According to D'Andria "People could watch the sacred rites from these steps, but they could not get to the area near the opening. Only the priests could stand in front of the portal."

Being so noxious, this cave could not be used for a ritual human descent of any kind, although it may have satisfied a local need for an Underworld and its associated rites.

Hierapolis was only founded around 190 BC by Eumenes II, king of Pergamum. So was built centuries later than the construction at Baia.

Turkish Plutonium

A reconstruction of the surface building at Hieropolis by Francesco D'Andria.

Francesco D'Andria