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Discovery of the Underworld
The most terrifying and dangerous of all ancient rituals for foretelling the future was undertaken by means of the descent into Hell. This took place at the Oracle of the Dead at Baia, in southern Italy. It was not just a poetical or mythological allegory: it actually happened, and the description of how it occurred is one of the most bizarre stories of ancient history, and one which has been known by archaeologists only since 1962.
It was in May 2001 that I finally managed to gain access to this amazing place, after twenty years of trying. It was one of the strangest experiences I have ever had. The entrance is all but invisible, and you have to descend on a ladder. Then, with great trepidation, you step into another world entirely.
Entering the Oracle of the Dead is like a scene from a film where the camera plunges down the bloodstream towards a pulsating heart. The only element missing is the sound effect of the 'thump thump thump'. In fact, as you move down the entrance tunnel you are struck by its eerie silence. It pierces directly into the heart of the earth for a great distance that seems endless. The tunnel goes on and on in a narrow needle-corridor, and my shoulders rubbed on both sides most of the time. You not only have to stoop slightly, you have to twist like a liquorice stick as well.
But what is this place? Why does it go onwards so relentlessly? Why are these tunnels so narrow and so carefully and elegantly arched at the top? And there - what is that dark cloud moving up ahead? As we get closer I see it is a cloud of insects which had been clinging to the wall, but are now in angry mood, disoriented by our lights. What is that creature? It looks like a cockroach on stilts. There's another one . . . and another! There's one on my arm. They're everywhere - clumps of thousands upon thousands of giant mosquitoes, hurtling into my eyes, mesmerized by the miner's light on my hard hat.
The smell is otherworldly, unlike anything I have ever experienced before. It smells like dead soil, earth which has died. I am wearing a dust mask now, but later, when I have to remove it, I will get a horrible choking sensation, as if mud is being stuffed down my throat. I walk into another cloud of the giant mosquitoes. Why don't they bite? The Italian workmen tell me that these creatures are presently in a state they call morbido. I don't know whether that means they have just been born or are dying, are too young to have learned how to bite, or are too exhausted to continue, but they are the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen, and tens of thousands of them move in endless swarms all the way along the tunnel until we reach the Styx. They hang like tiny bats in clusters from the roof and walls, and then, as we go deeper and further into the tunnels they fade away, too far from the entrance for their comfort.
It is a great relief that, despite the stern warnings from the Italian authorities, the sulphurous fumes and the poison gas do not exist after all. We put our gas mask adapters away and just use the dust filters. It was a phantom scare, a case of hysterical imagination. The discoverer Robert Paget never encountered poison gas either. I am convinced that it has never existed, that it is all part of the paranoid fear of the powers of Hell and a superstition of the Church: if Satan lives surrounded by fumes of sulphur, then the ancient Greek Underworld must be the same - a case of reverse-reasoning.
The tunnel goes on and on; we have gone hundreds of feet. But now it is coming to a point where it bends to the right, going down and out of sight. Our endless journey now becomes a descent as well.
No one has been here in the thirty years since Paget died. In fact, there is no one alive who has ever entered this gloomy underground Oracle. This amazing place is now coming alive for a new generation as we pierce the earth and descend towards - what? The artificial River Styx, the underground river along which enquirers at this eerie oracle were rowed by a man dressed as Charon the Underworld ferryman, to disembark at the far side and ascend to the séance, which was staged there for enquirers who wished to speak to the spirits of the dead.
And there it is. The river is choked with mud and the water level has risen, preventing a boat from passing along it. It would have to be dredged and cleared if it was to function again as the Styx. But we call it the Styx. The water is crystal clear, except for a calcareous mineral scum which floats on the top. It is just like the scum I saw floating on the water in the channels surrounding the sarcophagus in the 'Chamber of Osiris' beneath the Chephren Causeway on the Giza Plateau in Egypt just a few months earlier. But the Giza Plateau is limestone, and this Oracle is cut out of tufa stone. Maybe the limestone in the water comes from the rubble and sludge thrown into the River by the Romans, and later by Robert Paget, as I shall describe. I half expect to see a ghostly albino fish swimming through the water, but it does not contain any life. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.