The River Styx

At the Dividing of the Ways we had already reached a point 124.5 metres (408½ feet) from the Greek Temple at the surface. We had also undergone a shallow descent, just 3 metres (about 10 feet) in this distance to arrive at a point about 17.5 metres (57½ feet) above sea level. To reach The Styx, we have to continue on our way down 290.

Descent to the Styx – 290

We must now descend 290 to reach the underground water course that Doc Paget named The Styx, after the legendary river of the underworld. 290 is very slightly wider than the Great Antrum 270 was and here it is 66 centimetres (26 inches) wide.

Signs of steps are visible under the floor deposits
Signs of steps are visible under the floor deposits

The rate of descent is not uniform. The first 8 metres (26 feet) have a fall of one in two. This section is probably a ramp and step stairway – it certainly looks as if it would be that way under the crystalline deposits, although no investigation has been carried out. 

The next 33 metres (108 feet) about one in three, and the last 8 metres (26 feet) at the bottom are level.

The frequency of lamp niches increases and often appear opposite each other now, rather than staggered – spaced on alternates sides. There over 100 lamp niches in 290, far exceeding what would be necessary to guide a person down the passage. They must surely be for dramatic effect and ritual use.

The River Styx

Descent Into Hell- 2003

The descent to the Styx via 290, from Robert Temple’s 2003 documentary called “Descent into Hell”. The row of tiles in the roof at the start of 290 can be seen here, looked at from both directions. Lit with candles placed in the wall niches, the space, although still dark, has a dramatic quality to it.

A last Look Back…

It takes about 72 paces to walk down to the end of 290 from the Dividing of the Ways. Doc Paget mentioned an ‘S’ bend at the bottom of 290, effectively preventing premature sight of the River Styx. In practice one is unaware of this ‘S’ bend, it is a very gentle curve, no more, as the picture above shows.

Observe here, at the end of the tunnel, there is a double line of white material on the left wall and a small trace on the upper right wall. It seems there was once a doorway across here. There also appears to be either a painted surface or, more likely, a Roman tile, cemented to the wall on the left.

This is our first encounter with a large quantity of soil, seen here on the floor, that must have been deliberately introduced, for no apparent reason other than to block off access. The soil visible here has come from above and will be discussed in more detail when we take a look at its source. We do not know if any soil was here at all before Doc Paget and Keith Jones dislodged it from above.


Persephone was abducted by Hades in his chariot and taken to the underworld.

Persephone (also known as Kore) was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and Zeus. Persephone was abducted by Hades, who desired a wife. When Persephone was gathering flowers, she was entranced by a narcissus flower planted by Gaia (to lure her to the underworld as a favour to Hades), and when she picked it the earth suddenly opened up.

Hades, appearing in a golden chariot, seduced and carried Persephone into the underworld. When Demeter found out that Zeus had given Hades permission to abduct Persephone and take her as a wife, Demeter became enraged at Zeus and stopped growing harvests for the earth. To soothe her, Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld to return Persephone to her mother. However, she had eaten six pomegranate seeds in the underworld and was thus eternally tied to the underworld, since the pomegranate seed was sacred there.

Persephone could only leave the underworld when the earth was blooming, or any season except the winter. A Homeric Hymn describes the abduction of Persephone by Hades:

I sing now of the great Demeter
Of the beautiful hair,
And of her daughter Persephone
Of the lovely feet,
Whom Zeus let Hades tear away
From her mother’s harvests
And friends and flowers –
Especially the Narcissus,
Grown by Gaia to entice the girl
As a favour to Hades, the gloomy one.

This was the flower that
Left all amazed,
Whose hundred buds made
The sky itself smile.

When the maiden reached out
To pluck such beauty,
The earth opened up
And out burst Hades …
The son of Kronos,
Who took her by force
On his chariot of gold,
To the place where so many
Long not to go.

Persephone screamed,
She called to her father,
All-powerful and high, …

But Zeus had allowed this.
He sat in a temple
Hearing nothing at all,
Receiving the sacrifices of
Supplicating men.

Persephone is considered a fitting other half to Hades because of the meaning of her name which bears the Greek root for “killing”. The  -phone suffix means “putting to death”.

A glimpse of The Styx

A closer Glimpse of The Styx

The most common reaction to the first sight of the water here is one of disappointment. It doesn’t look like much and is not very grand or imposing. After all, we have travelled a long way, deep underground, to reach here – 170.2 metres (558.4 feet). It has taken us about 267 steps with just enough space for our arms and head. What an anti-climax. Yet as we found at the Dividing of the Ways, nothing is quite as it seems here either.

Inspection of the tunnel walls shows that the lamp niches and the cocciopesto cement rendering continue under the water. Therefore it is easy to see that the water level is today much higher than it was in the past. Lamp niches also mean people were there who used them. We can also observe lines along the wall where the water level has been much higher at various times in history. Doc Paget noted a sudden change in the 1960s.

The water is perfectly clear and drinkable. Although we are close to sea level here, the water is fresh. This is another curiosity. To avoid becoming stagnant, there must be a flow of water somehow. We don’t know where the water goes out, but we think we know where the water comes in. At the end of the short stretch of water we can see here, there is an almost sheer drop down and it is here that the water comes in, through two narrow slits 

Considering our options

1] We can agree with the experts that this small area of water was once hot enough to travel 170 metres up the tunnel with enough hot steam to serve the tiny baths at the surface, ignoring all the contrary evidence that might be awkward to this theory.

2] We can entertain the thought experiment that this might actually have once been a ritual site. If so, perhaps this really is the legendary Oracle of the Dead, said by many ancient authors to have had a real existence in this area.

At the River Styx

The green area represents the underground River Styx

“Here we were stopped as the tunnel opening on the north side of 290 about 1.5 metres (5 feet) from the step was filled with earth, and there seemed no means of further progress. At this point also there is a sudden rise of temperature to over 120º F (49º C) and a marked lack of oxygen in the air. Until we had cleared some of the passages of their fill of earth we could only remain at the water’s edge for a few minutes.

Doc Paget – The ‘Great Antrum’ at Baiae: A Preliminary Report’.

“…we found that coloured flashlight photographs which could be studied at home was an efficient method of procedure. In this manner we saw on one of the photographs a tile in the roof over the water.”

Doc Paget – The ‘Great Antrum’ at Baiae: A Preliminary Report’.

Comparing Water Levels

On the left is Doc Paget’s photograph of the water level in the early 1960s. The picture on the right was taken in 2014. A lamp niche is visible on the right hand side, just touching the water in Doc’s picture. In the more recent picture the niche is clear of the water, but the dark band above the water betrays where Doc’s level once was. The water has gone up and down many times throughout history.

Robert Temple crouches at the water's edgeA calcareous scum floats on the water, but underneath it the water is clear. There is no mould or decaying vegetable matter. It smells wholesome too. In fact the general smell within the tunnels is not unpleasant, perhaps like slightly damp earth.

The tunnel narrows vertically and horizontally for a distance of 7.3 metres (24 feet) at which point the tunnel disappears under the water and is just 90 centimetres (3 feet) wide.

Robert Temple crouches at the water’s edge.

Styx Water

It was said that the only thing that could survive the water of the River Styx was a horse’s hoof. The author of this website was happy to disprove this, thanks to Peter Knight, who thoughtfully bottled some up.

On a visit to England Peter, Commander Tory Failmezger, Tory’s wife Patricia and I each took a bottle and drank a toast to further research.

“There is a fount of potable water, but people refrain from its use, because they say it is the water of the River Styx.”

Ephorus, circa 360 BC.

Undergoing an ordeal

Form the sparse historical details we have of consulting oracles, it seems there was an ordeal that had to be faced or overcome in order to progress to the desired destination or outcome. What we see at the water here is possibly just that.

As divers found out in the 1960s and early 1970s, there is a sheer drop down at the end of the stretch of water we can see. The roof has sloped down to meet the water and now it drops. All this would not have been flooded when it was first carved out of stone.

Having dropped down at the end, the water course continues until it reaches a far landing. All of this water course is man-made. Presumably it was, at one time, possible to breathe above the water at this lower level. In the 1960s there remained about 18″ of space above the mud and silt.

According to the mythology, Charon rowed you across the Styx in a coracle, a little mud and straw boat. You paid him a coin and he rowed you. You were told that the water would kill you in contact, so you kept your arms and legs in tight. The scenario may have been enacted here – the situation makes it possible. You dropped down into the boat.

You are being told you are being rowed across a river. In the dark, probably under the influence of a powerful entheogen, you do not know if the space you are in is only a few feet wide or a million miles, all you know is to sit tight and do as you are told. It’s a Disney dark ride.

This picture is taken with an underwater camera, just before the drop at the end of the water course. At the top right, in the foreground, can be seen a submerged lamp niche.

Either side, along each wall, we can see a small ledge. Did this once support some kind of cover that has now disintegrated?

In the water, looking back at Peter Knight at the start of the water.

What we know from the eye-witness accounts of divers is that at the far landing a tunnel leads upwards. The tunnel is blocked with soil at its lower end and is impassable. 

We can see what is likely to be the tunnel’s top end and this will be explained when we explore The Sanctuary which sits above the water course. 

We have named this tunnel ‘Persephone’s Back Passage’ out of deference to Vergil’s character Aeneas, who takes the golden bough to Persephone along a route similar to this. The deliberate double entendre is out of respect for Doc Paget’s earthy sense of humour.

What Colonel David Lewis Discovered

In May 1965 Colonel David Lewis of the US army and his son Warren explored the underground river with scuba gear, in extremely hazardous, hot and cramped conditions.

Colonel David Lewis of the US army diving the River Styx in 1965
Colonel David Lewis of the US army, diving in 1965

Where the river tunnel disappears, it takes a sharp steep slope down, as does the floor of the submerged tunnel. It drops about 1.5 metres (5 feet). In this distance it travels about 2.1 metres (7 feet). At this point the river tunnel levels out again for at least 9.1 metres (30 feet).

When Colonel Lewis dived there was only about 45 centimetres (18 inches) headroom between the top of the tunnel and the deposits of mud and silt below. Presumably the tunnel is much deeper, but we don’t know how deep.

About 90 centimetres (3 feet) from the levelling out in the left (south) wall there is the first of two man-made arched openings, both 45 centimetres (18 inches) wide, which are feeding the river with very hot water. The second of these openings is 60 centimetres (2 feet) beyond the first.

In keeping with Greek mythology Doc Paget named the two openings Acheron and Phlegeton, after the rivers that fed the Styx.

How did the designers know to cut through here to find the source of a hot spring? How were these entries cut without instantly drowning the people doing the cutting?

In spite of the unbearably hot water, Colonel Lewis continued on to see that the river took a sharp bend to the right and began to rise steeply.

Colonel Lewis again dived the Styx on November 26th, 1965, taking care to disturb the mud less on this occasion. He was able to reach the back of the Styx and confirm that there are stairs leading up.

Because of the disturbance of soil from above finding its way down into the water course, we must presume that today there is even less headroom than when Col, Lewis dived.

What Robert E. Love, Jnr. Discovered

The Lupercalian dive

In addition to Colonel Lewis, Robert E. Love, Jnr. also dived the Styx on February 13th, 1966, the auspicious date of the Roman festival of Lupercalia, celebrated to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. Probably derived from the Ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia.

Robert was able to squeeze through one of the openings where the hot springs feed the Styx to find that both the openings lead into the same rough-hewn underground cavern.

The Styx cavern according to Robert Temple
The Styx cavern according to Robert Temple

Robert E. Love’s underground cavern may be the same one described to Robert Temple and which was shown in his documentary as a feature in the middle of the Styx itself. Further clarification is needed.

The Roman Closure

When we approached from 290 we saw what seems to be a partially battered-through wall, the remains of which are clearly still there today.


It takes little imagination to reconstruct an artist’s impression of how this once looked. The tunnel was, at some point, completely put out of action in Roman times.

The ‘Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus’ decree of 186 BC is a possible reason for the closure.


Another artist’s reconstruction, before the Roman closure, but of course at some point in history there would have been no visible water at all here, it is the prelude to a drop down below.

Looking back from the water. Doc Paget said that a Roman tile ‘fell out’ of the Chimney above, but the axe marks either side of the rectangular opening suggest a little persuasion was used. 

If Doc Paget and Keith Jones had not gained access through the Chimney, then no further progress could have been made.

“…we found that coloured flashlight photographs which could be studied at home was an efficient method of procedure. In this manner we saw on one of the photographs a tile in the roof over the water.”

Doc Paget – The ‘Great Antrum’ at Baiae: A Preliminary Report’.

The roof tile that Doc removed has been added back here. We might find the remains of the Roman tile hidden under all the rubble. The bright red areas are the parts of the remaining wall we can see in the original picture.

The wall here has been reconstructed, assuming the tunnel was originally human height at this point. An estimated seven courses of blockwork remain buried below the soil and débris.

“…we saw on one of the photographs a tile in the roof over the water. We pushed this to one side and Jones climbed through, to find himself at the bottom of a steeply sloping passage…”

Doc Paget – In the Footsteps of Orpheus

A view recreated to show how the passage may have originally looked.

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that in the original picture, light is streaming in from a passage to the side and this we shall explore in detail when we take a look at The Dogleg, The Rise and The Chimney on another page.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Gene Page

    I lived near by as a teenager in the mid 1970’s, and one day we dropped down into this tunnel and made our way down to what I remember was where the stairs descended down into water but around the corner and before that was a smaller passage that went up to an area that looked like it had caved in.
    While we were down there, (I was accompanied by another US teen), one of the archaeologists found us in the tunnel and walked us out telling saying it had been used as a place where sacrifices had been made to the Sun god.
    I am a cave diver now living in Florida and I have often thought of coming back to explore this area either with a ROV and/or scuba.

    1. VM

      people used to do sacrifices here? wow I’ve never heard of that, I’d love to learn more.

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