views updated Jun 27 2018


Baia, a town in ancient Italy northwest of Naples, was the site of a famous oracle of the dead, accounts of which appear in Virgil's Aenead and in the writings of Strabo (63 B.C.E.-24 C.E.). It was located close to another oracle famous for its prophecies located at Cuma. Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.) resided close by and noted that Aenead had once visited the site where he contacted the spirit or shade of his father.

The oracle site was an elaborate underground structure carved out of the ground rock. The inquirer would pay heavily for the privilege of seeking contact with someone who had died, and would become involved in a complex process. The ordeal would begin with a three-day waiting period in a room decorated with various images of the afterlife. The person would then be led before an altar where a ewe would be sacrificed and its entrails used for divination (a practice termed extispicy ), the purpose being the discernment of whether the continuance of the process would bring success. Once success appeared assured, the inquirer would be led deeper into the underground complex that was made to recreate the Under-world as understood in Greek/Roman mythology.

The next stage of inquiry would begin with a bath, a time of meditation, and a second bath. Dressed in a white tunic, he/she would then be led into a recreation of the Underworld, beginning with a descent by ladder into a round chamber and then into the long descending passageway to the heart of the temple structure. The inquirer would eventually arrive at an under-ground body of water (the River Styx), and be rowed across by someone representing the ferryman Charon. On the other side was Cerberus, the three-headed Hound of Hell. The passageway then took the inquirer to the Inner Sanctuary where a branch of mistletoe was offered to Persephone, the goddess married to the God of the Underworld. Once inside the inner sanctum, contact with the dead would be made, though the exact process is not known. The inquirer would then be led back to the surface.

During the reign of Augustus in the first century B.C.E. , the Roman admiral Marcus Agrippa, for reasons not altogether clear, destroyed the oracle. He cut the sacred grove of trees that surrounded the entrance to the oracle and blocked the tunnels and entrances in a successful attempt to prevent any future activity at the underground site. Lost to memory, it was rediscovered in the twentieth century by two amateur archeologists, Robert F. Paget and Keith W. Jones.

There has been some conjecture that various accounts of the visit to the underworld described in ancient literature, such as Ulysses' visit recounted in Homer's Odyssey, may be accounts of visits to Baia. If that were the case, Baia would be the actual source of the description of the Underworld in the ancient literature rather than a recreation of the Underworld drawn from popular belief.


Paget, Robert F. In the Footsteps of Orpheus: The Discovery of the Ancient Greek Underworld. London: Robet Hale, 1967.

Temple, Robert K. G. Conversations with Eternity: Ancient Man's Attempt to Know the Future. London: Rider, 1984.

Virgil. Virgil: The Pastoral Poems. Translated by E. V. Reiu. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1967.