Nekromanteio or Nekyomanteio is a little known archaeological
site in Greece and it is located in the province of Epirus. I visited Nekromanteio
when I was a child and the location and mythology of the place stuck with
me for life. I always wanted to return, and I finally made the journey
in the summer of 2000 with my sister Vivi.
Nekromanteio at the river Acheron is another oracle like the well known oracles of Delphi and Dodona and it has its own unique character and story to tell. It was built at the gates of Hades thus providing easy access to anyone who dared to venture at the edge that keeps the living and the departed apart. Nekromanteio is the Oracle of the Dead and in ancient times it acted as the point of departure for those who wished to communicate with a dead ancestor or family member--usually for consultation and advice on living matters.
Pilgrims arrived in ancient times from all corners of the earth seeking advice and answers from the dead. They resided on the grounds of the Nekromanteio for an extended period of time and were fostered by sorcerers that prepared them for the awe inspiring experience of glimpsing at the afterlife. The ruins on the ground outline an elaborate complex that included the living quarters of the priests and the guests, storage facilities, rooms for ritual activities, and the main sanctuary where the meeting of the living with the dead took place.
Those who made a commitment to undergo a meeting with the spirits of the non living were putting themselves in great danger and thus they had to undergo elaborate rituals in order to be prepared physically and spiritually for such encounters. For the duration of their visit their diet and actions were strictly controlled by the priests in a way that their perception of reality slowly was altered with each passing day. The pilgrims diet consisted of foods which along with isolation and meditation induced a state of hallucination for the person who was about to encounter the dead. Once the purification of the soul and body was complete, the pilgrim in a state of altered reality offered sacrifice to the gods, and walked down a long corridor and through the three doors of the dark labyrinth that leads to the central room where the spirits of the dead spoke to the living.
Modern scholars that have examined the arecaeological evidence and accounts of ancient writers have suggested that the whole operation was something of a scam. The priests would spend enough time with the pilgrims to learn about their lives and secrets, and the encounter with the dead souls was nothing else than an encounter with the image of the dead (probably a priest) that was suspended from the ceiling with the aid of an elaborate machine. Many parts of the existence of such machine have been found on the site. The visitor of course in his/her religious ecstasy had all the incentive to believe the illusion and to leave the Necromanteio convinced that an encounter with the dead had taken place.
Necromanteio is a small archaeological site, easily navigated in one or two hours. I wandered through the rooms and storage areas before entering the long corridor where in ancient times so many must have walked trembling in anticipation of an encounter with the dead. Of the three arched gates in the labyrinth two survive in good condition and the labyrinth with its massive walls is still an imposing structure. Imagining the path of the ancients, I walked through the third door into the main hall where the hallucinating pilgrims believed in the encounter with the underworld inhabitants.
Through a small hole on the floor of the main hall I descended a steep metal staircase down into the dark crypt that was the palace of Persephony and Hades. The passage even today appears ominous--like the descend to the underworld should feel-- and the room is stunning in the contradiction of its irregular rocky floor and the perfectly masoned stone arches that soar overhead. The crypt was probably carved out of the live rock in the same place where an ancient cave may have started the cult.
Above this, the passage to the underworld of a pagan cult, in later times a Christian church was built that crowns the ancient stones. It stands as a silent witness to the long history of the land that manifests itself on strata of symbolic monuments to conflicting ideologies.
Nekromanteio is not as well known as the other oracles of Greece, but well worth a visit for its charm and the fascinating cult that made it all possible. I enjoyed my walk through the ruins as I tried to imagine the gamut of feelings that an ancient believer must have experienced on his/her way to meet the dead with shaking knees and a spinning head.
I didn't fear, nor believed, but driving away I smiled and secretly adored the fact that I had just descended and escaped from the dwelling of Hades himself; a feat reserved for the bravest of men: Orpheus who went for love, Hercules who went for the three-headed dog, and Odysseus who went for the future to be told.