Oracles of the Dead elsewhere
Five sites are thought to have been Oracle of the Dead sites. The site in the Phlegraean Fields of Campania, Italy, is the subject of this website, traditionally said to be at the side of Lake Avernus, but this has never been identified and is probably anecdotal. This is discussed in more detail on its own web page.
The various sites identified as Oracles of the Dead differ widely in their presentation. From cellar crypt to cave to stone structure over a fissure where ‘mephitic’ toxic gases escape. The gases themselves are said to provide intoxication which may well have induced changes in consciousness of the Sybil presiding over events.
What the sites have in common attached to them today are predictably enough the Greek mythical legends of Persephone’s abduction to the underworld by its God, Hades (the Unseen). Hades was later also called Plouto, in Latin Pluto, (The Wealthy One) and for this reason sites are sometimes referred to as Ploutonions. The tale of Orpheus rescuing his wife Euridyce from the underworld is another ready source of myth and legend.
Events in Homer’s Odyssey and the labours of Hercules, where he is to capture the guardian dog of the Underworld, Cerberus, also provides mythical material. The labours of Hercules are comparatively late, attributed by the Greeks to an epic poem, now lost, written by Peisander in about 600 BC.
None of the four sites identified on this page are very similar and the location of one is now lost. The tunnel system at Baia, should it prove to be the lost Oracle of the Dead said to be in the region, far exceeds the grandeur of them all.
Acheron in Thesprotia
A place in Thesprotia known as Cheimerion, where the Rivers Cocytos, Acheron and Pyriphlegethon flow into Lake Acheron had been believed to be the entrance to the netherworld since Homer’s day. A gloomy place where Odysseus performed his invocation of the dead. Following Odysseus, other mortals were credited with similar exploits: Theseus was said to have descended through the Acherusian plain to Hades, and Lucian’s Menippus also passed it on his way back from the netherworld.
Homer makes no mention of an established oracle of any kind. In a dream-like episode, Odysseus is told about the cave by the witch Circe, who instructs him in the rites to be performed to invoke spirits of the dead into a shallow trench and make them speak. A nekuomanteion or ‘Oracle of the Dead’ on the Acheron river was already operational by the 6th century BC, when it was consulted by Periander, Tyrant of Corinth.
In Herodotus’s account, Periander sent a delegation to ‘Thesprotia on the Acheron river’ to propitiate his dead wife and her spirit then appeared before the envoys and spoke to them. Herodotus gave no further details. Pausanias was the first to assume that Odysseus actually visited the oracle of the dead in Thesprotia.
Sotirios Dakaris excavated a construction with exceptionally thick walls during 1958-64 and 1976-77, which surrounded a building consisting of a central hall with a row of smaller rooms and meandering passages. Below the large hall was a cellar. The 4th century BC building was probably destroyed after the battle of Pydna in 168 BC.
Several rooms contained vessels of foodstuffs, including broad beans and lupin seeds. Traces of sulphur were also found. Excavation of the central hall yielded wheels, a bronze cauldron and other metal objects, including catapults and ratchets, fancifully interpreted by Dakaris as parts of machinery used by the priests to produce ghostly apparitions, illuminated by the burning sulphur.
Terracotta figurines of Persephone and Cerberus, fine decorated ware, together with large quantities of jugs and storage vessels and agricultural tools were unearthed in other rooms. In the vicinity of the building, several 6th century BC terracotta figurines of Persephone were discovered.
Dakaris identified the complex as the famous Acherusian nekuomanteion and reconstructed a colourful imaginary account of the proceedings undertaken there. No detailed scientific report of the excavations of the nekuomanteion has ever been published, but in spite of this, Dakaris’s interpretation of the complex at Ephyra is largely accepted, although concern is growing among academics about its authenticity.
The abundant finds of military equipment and everyday wares question the identification of the building as an oracle centre but rather suggest a Hellenic fortified farm with heavily protected cellar. Too many artefacts discovered in the building, especially parts of seven catapults, don’t seem in context, while other artefacts, such as graffiti and votive offerings, which one would expect at a long-established cult site are lacking. The quantities of foodstuffs stored in the building are unparalleled at any other Greek oracle site.
Further archaeological investigation might shed more light.
Taenarum, Southern Peloponnese
The promontory of Taenarum on the Mani peninsula, at the extremity of the Peloponnese, hosts a sanctuary.
Strabo described the sanctuary as a sacred grove with a nearby cave while the geographer Pausanias wrote of a cave-like temple with a statue to Poseidon at its entrance.
Some also say that the Byzantine chapel of Agioi Asomatoi is built on the remains of the Oracle of the Dead, using its ancient materials while others say the nearby Cave of Hades or Gate to Hades was the actual oracle entrance.
Over the last two centuries, the site has been studied by several researchers. The cave is about 15 metre deep and 10-12 metre wide, most of it exposed to the open air. At its mouth there are cuttings in the bedrock intended to hold inscriptions. Immediately adjacent to the cave are remains of a rectangular construction, which apparently created the impression of a temple. Above this complex there was a small temple to Poseidon.
The cult at Taenarum included divination. Those gazing into a spring at Taenarum once were said to see harbours and ships there. A myth recounts that Poseidon, who had owned Delphi jointly with Gaia, received Taenarum from Apollo in exchange for his share in Pytho. This barter implies compatible values and functions of the two sanctuaries.
Plutarch recounts the foundation of the ‘sending-place of ghosts’ (psychopompeion) at Taenarum by a Cretan named Tettix, ‘Cricket’. In Greek lore, the cricket is earth-born, bloodless as a ghost, wise and dear to Apollo and the Muses, therefore Cricket was an ideal instigator of a ghost-oracle.
There are no indications about the exact method of divination used at Taenarum.
A curious story which exists, however, about a man who killed Archilochus in battle, a famous 7th century BC poet. This provides both a ‘terminus ante quem’ for the foundation of the oracle and a rare insight into the way that the oracles worked.
The poet was killed in honest combat by Calondas, nicknamed Corax – ‘Crow’. Calondas visited Delphi as an enquirer and the Pythia sent him away as polluted. Apollo had not forgiven the destroyer of the talented poet. When Calondas cursed his fate and the fact that he had not chosen to be killed rather than kill, the god had pity on him, and advised him to go to Taenarum, where Tettix was buried and placate Archilochus’s soul with libations. Calondas did as he was told, and received the god’s forgiveness. Thus the Oracle of the Dead at Taenarum was active from the 7th century BC until at least the late 1st century AD, when Plutarch referred to it. It was located in the cave on the seashore, which was regarded as a gate to Hades.
“Some of the Greek poets have written that at this place Herakles brought up the hound of Hades, yet no road leads underground through the cave nor is it credible that the gods should have an underground house where they collected the souls of the dead.”
“In the bend of the seaboard one comes, first, to a headland that projects into the sea, Taenarum, with its temple of Poseidon situated in a grove; and secondly, near by, to the cavern through which, according to the myth-writers, Cerberus was brought up from Hades by Herakles.”
The Ploutonion here was described by several ancient writers, including Strabo, Cassius Dio and Damascius. It is a small cave, just large enough for one person to enter, through a fenced entrance, beyond which stairs go down and from which emerges suffocating carbon dioxide gas caused by underground geological activity.
Behind the 3 square metres (32 sq ft) roofed chamber is a deep cleft in the rock, through which fast-flowing hot water passes, releasing a sharp-smelling gas.
During the early years of the town, the castrated priests of Cybele known as the Galli descended into the Ploutonion, crawled over the floor to pockets of oxygen or held their breath. Carbon dioxide is heavier than air and so tends to settle in hollows. They then came up to show that they were immune to the gas. People believed a miracle had happened and that therefore the priests were infused with superior powers and had divine protection.
An enclosed area of 2,000 square metres (22,000 sq ft) stood in front of the entrance. It was covered by a thick layer of suffocating gas, killing everyone who dared to enter this area. The priests sold birds and other animals to the visitors, so that they could try out how deadly this enclosed area was. Visitors could (for a fee) ask questions of the oracle. The entrance to the Ploutonion was finally closed off during Christian times.
“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.”
The site was rediscovered in 1965 by Italian archaeologists, who published various reports in the following years.
In 2013, it was further explored by Italian archaeologists led by Francesco D’Andria, a professor of archaeology at the University of Salento, who announced the discovery of a Ploutonion or Gate to Hell in the Phrygian city of Hierapolis, now known as the city of Pamukkale, in southwestern Turkey.
As part of a restoration project, a replica of the marble statue of Hades and Cerberus has been restored to its original place. The statue is known to have been there in ancient times.
In addition to the cave, D’Andria’s team also found the remains of a temple, a pool and a series of steps placed above the cave.
In ancient times the cave was said to be filled with mephitic vapours and a site where animals were sacrificed. Being so toxic, this cave could not have been used for a ritual human descent of any kind, although it may have satisfied a local need for an underworld and its associated rites in this locality.
Though the exact age of the site is currently unknown, the nearby city of Hierapolis was founded around the year 190 BC by the King of Pergamon, Eumenes II.
When in 560 BC the Megarians founded their new colony in the land of Maryandini, they found a large cave and immediately connected it with the myth of Hercules’s (Heracles’s) descent into the netherworld and his return with the three-headed dog Cerberus.
To complete the story of the gate to Hades, the cave was named Acherusian and a river nearby was called Acheron in imitation of the place where Odysseus’s famous consultation of the dead took place.
The oracle at Heracleia was still active in the fourth century AD.
The large cave, with its pool of crystal-clear water and man-made niches with statues and vases, was described in the third century AD by Quintus Smyrnaeus. In his account, the owners of the cavern were the Nymphs and Pan – said to be the tenants of most caves in Greece. The description here is appropriate and allowed a confident identification of the site as the Acherusian cave. The cave was entered by a long and narrow passage about a metre wide. The main chamber was about 45 metres wide and 20 metres deep. Most of the floor was flooded by a pool. The niches in the walls would probably have contained statues and other offerings.
The only account of a consultation at the Acherusian cave is left by Plutarch.
“Pausanias, Regent of Sparta, demanded that Cleonike, a maiden of noble birth from Byzantium, be sent to him. Entering Pausanias’s bedroom, the girl overturned a lamp. The regent, abruptly awakened, thought that he was being attacked by his enemies and stabbed the girl to death. Later, haunted by Cleonike’s ghost, he came to the nekuomanteion at Heracleia and tried to appease her wrath. She appeared before him, and promised that he would be delivered when in Sparta, apparently meaning that death awaited him there.”
The historical accuracy of Plutarch’s story is of secondary importance: it was possibly a popular tale reflecting the despotism of Pausanias the Regent.
The geographer Pausanias retells the same episode, the only difference being that the necromantic séance takes place in Phigalia. Both authors send the haunted Regent to Oracles of the Dead somewhere.
The technique of necromancy used at Heracleia is unknown. We don’t know what ceremonies preceded the appearance of the ghost, whether it appeared in a dream – which would imply that the nekuomanteion was based on incubation, or in a vision – which would mean that the enquirers were supposed to enter some kind of trance.
Heracleia has now been swallowed up by the modern city of Ereğli.