The Nekromanteion is a dark and disturbing place, set on a windy hillside, surrounded by a landscape unchanged across centuries. If you understand basic Greek, you’ll recognise the word ‘nekro‘, meaning dead (also the root of ‘necrosis‘, dying tissue – remember the wisdom of Mr Portokalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: all words come from Greek). In the ancient world, the Nekromanteion was an oracle of the dead, a gateway to the underworld where supplicants could commune and converse with the departed.
Last summer I visited Parga, a resort in Epirus, north western Greece. With enough charm to delight any traveller, for me the region held two very important additional attractions. One was the famous Bridge of Arta, the sinister legend of which is recounted by Hermes in The Gifts of Poseidon. The second was the Nekromanteion.
The ancient Greeks believed in the ability of spirits to foretell the future and in the wisdom of oracles, so it’s surprising so few were devoted to the dead. Of those few, the Epirus Nekromanteion was by far the most important, and is said to have been visited by Odysseus himself. It was sited at the confluence of three rivers, the Acheron, the Pyriphlegethon and the Cocytus, whose names translate as ‘Joyless’, ‘Flaming with Fire’ and ‘Lament’. All three were supposed to flow through Hades itself, though having dipped a toe in the Acheron, I can confirm the water is bitterly, icy cold even in high summer, and certainly not warmed by hell-fire.
These days, our methods of attempting communication with loved ones who have passed over tend to be very simple – a meeting with a psychic or medium, maybe dabbling with a ouija board. The rituals surrounding the Nekromanteion, by contrast, were lengthy and complex, perhaps reflecting a much deeper belief in the possibility of contact and the huge importance of the afterlife in a world where life was short.
Seekers arrived at the oracle from all over Greece and underwent preparatory rituals for a period of days, in a programme of sensory deprivation. Kept in near silence, they were fed funeral meals of pork, beans and rye bread, and lupin seeds to induce mild cyanosis – a deathly blue tinge in the lips and fingertips. When the priests deemed them ready, the seekers were dosed with hallucinogenics and a blood sacrifice was made. They were then slowly led through the twists and turns of a labyrinth of stone tunnels, halting along the way at three iron gates – the Gates of Hades.
The oracle itself is an underground chamber of ingenious construction. With walls over 3m thick, its arches diffuse sound waves, so the chamber itself is disturbingly, oppressively silent. Guided down into the darkness, the seekers would have expected the ghosts of Hades to rise through fissures in the floor, but their anticipation of meeting the spirits they sought was most likely met using mechanical means – archaeologists have found the remains of chains and pulleys which were probably used to propel ‘manifestations’ around the chamber.
These days, the walls of the oracle’s labyrinth are in ruins, and the most obvious building on the site is a church dedicated to St John – an attempted re-use of this morbidly sacred site which Hermes would no doubt find inappropriate.
Which brings me to my belief that the Nekromanteion and its surroundings – the very Gates of Hades – is a location perfect for a Hermes mystery. I’ve been working on an idea for a disappearance as mysterious as the oracle itself, and who better to pay a visit to the silent chamber than the man in white shoes? So if you’re waiting for the next book, the wait won’t be too long, and the chances are the story will begin here, in the cold, dark vault of the Nekromanteion…
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.
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