Necromanteion – The Ancient Temple of the Dead
The Necromanteion was an ancient temple dedicated to the god of the Underworld, Hades, and his consort, the goddess Persephone. According to ancient Greek beliefs, while the bodies of the dead decayed in the earth, their souls would be released, and travelled to the Underworld via fissures in the earth. The spirits of the dead were said to possess abilities that the living did not have, including the power to foretell the future. Temples were therefore erected in places thought to be entrances to the Underworld to practice necromancy (communication with the dead) in order to receive prophecies.
Hades taking Persephone into the Underworld. ( Wikipedia)
Whilst other temples, such as the Temple of Poseidon at Tanaeron, as well as the temples at Hermione (Argolis), Cumae (Italy) and Herakleia (Pontos) were known to have practiced necromancy, it was the Necromanteion in Epirus that was the most famous of them all. The Necromanteion (“Oracle of the Dead”) was said to be located at the meeting point of three of the five rivers in the realm of Hades – Acheron (Joyless), Pyriphlegethon (Flaming with Fire) and Cocytus (Wailing). This site is believed to have been discovered by Greek archaeologist Sotirios Dakaris in Epirus in the 1960s.
The ruins in Epirus believed to be the Necromanteion. Credit: Dan Diffendale / flickr
The Necromanteion was mentioned by a number of ancient authors. In Homer’s Odyssey, for instance, the hero Odysseus enters the Underworld via the Necromanteion to seek out the spirit of the blind seer, Tiresias, in order to find the way to return to his home, Ithaca. The Necromanteion is also mentioned in Herodotus’ Histories. Herodotus gives an account of Periander, the Corinthian tyrant. According to this story, the tyrant wished to communicate with the spirit of his recently deceased wife, Melissa, so as to find out the place where she hid a certain amount of money. When Periander’s representatives consult her, the spirit of Melissa refuses to reveal the location of the hidden money, as she was cold in the Underworld, as a result of not having clothes burnt for her when she died. To prove her identity, she mentions something that only Periander knows of, i.e. ‘he put his loaves in a cold oven’. This cryptic message actually meant that the tyrant had sexual intercourse with the corpse of his wife, something that Periander alone would have, presumably, known. When Periander heard this, he immediately stripped the clothing off the local women and burnt them (the clothing) as an offering to Melissa.
Communicating with the dead, however, was not limited to the famous characters in the writings of the ancient Greek authors. Regular citizens were also about to visit the Necromanteion to seek counsel with the dead. They would first enter a dark chamber before performing certain elaborate rituals intended for their own protection and to gain the ability to communicate with the deceased. After this, a priest would lead them into a deeper chamber, where a ritual animal sacrifice would be performed, before passing through three gates which symbolised their entry into the Underworld. The celebrants would now be able to speak to the spirits of the Underworld.
Inside one of the underground chambers at Epirus. Credit: Dan Diffendale / flickr
Historical accounts make references to the necromancers seeing ‘ghosts’ or ‘shades’. Skeptics argue that these were simply hallucinations caused by ritual food or drink with psychotropic properties. Archaeology also provides a clue as to the way the ‘spirits’ appeared. Mechanical contrivances found by archaeologists inside the underground chambers suggest that these were used to make the ‘ghosts’ look like they were flying around in the chamber.
In 167 BCE, the Necromanteion was looted and damaged by the Romans. It was only in the 18 th century that the site was reused, when a monastery dedicated to St. John the Baptist was built on the site. An archaeological expedition in the 1960s concluded that this was the site of the Necromanteion. However, a recent study has challenged this claim, instead suggesting that the ruins may have been the base of an agricultural tower, and the underground chambers were storage areas for grain or water.
Featured image: Artist’s depiction of a ritual inside the Necromanteion. From Marc Jailloux ("Orion": The Oracles, 2011)
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