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.
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.
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 building27 metres (89 feet) in front of the Greek Temple.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 mould and cast 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.
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.
… 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 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.