TO HELL AND BACK
By ANDREW GOUGH
Baia is an ancient city near Naples, Italy, that has been rather unfairly ignored amidst the popularity of other nearby attractions, such as Pompeii and Cumae. Nevertheless, it would appear to be the hidden gem of the region. This is because Baia appears to hold an astonishing secret. Here, off the beaten tourist path, is an underground complex, discovered after decades of painstaking research, which appears to be the historical Hades of Greek mythology, the abode of the dead, which we know as ‘Hell’. It even boasts the celebrated River Styx.
Hades is the ‘mythical’ site where Odysseus, the legendary Greek king and hero of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, as well as Aeneas, the Trojan protagonist mentioned in both Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad, “descended into hell” to consult the spirits of the dead. Scholars have long assumed that a fantastical account such as that of Hades must have been fictional, but scholarly research over the last fifty years suggests that Hades may have been historical, and not mythological, after all. I was about to find out for myself whether this incredible assertion were true.
I absolutely devoured Robert Temple’s superb book, Netherworld, when it was first released in 2002. In the years that followed I spoke to the author, a friend, about his quest to visit the tunnel complex at Baia, which had been off limits to the public, including those in academia, since it was first re-discovered in the 1960s.
Understandably, Temple had been inspired by the extraordinary work of Dr Robert Paget, an Englishman, who had dedicated the later decades of his life to proving that Hades was real. Paget wrote about his impudent quest in his 1967 book, In the footsteps of Orpheus: The Discovery of the Ancient Greek Underworld, and Temple, after a twenty-year quest of his own, ultimately gained access to the site and validated Paget’s findings. That is, Temple confirmed that one of the greatest legends of Greek mythology was not a myth, but a physical, historical site. Now I had the privilege to follow in their footsteps, for I had been granted access to the exclusive, and entirely off limits, archaeological site.
What brought me to Baia in the first place was an opportunity to work with director, Bruce Burgess, on Forbidden History 2, a documentary series presented by English television and radio presenter, Jamie Theakston. I had participated as a ‘talking head’ in each episode of Series 1 and was excited to do the same in Series 2, in addition to presenting an onsite episode about ancient oracles of the dead, with Theakston, in Naples, Italy, and Delphi, Greece.
I flew to Naples from my home in Istanbul and exchanged hellos with Burgess and his talented team. Having worked together on several projects, we had all become good friends. Later, at dinner, Burgess shared the news: we had been granted access to the tunnel complex at Baia. This alone was extraordinary, as many have tried and failed to gain access to the protected site, which from a health and safety perspective was a bit dodgy. We would have to take some serious precautions.
Burgess shared that access to the site was granted due to the extraordinary efforts of his ‘fixer’, which was the name given to the chap tasked with all and sundry, including gaining access to one of the world’s most guarded sites. The guy was amazing and, with his unique blend of Portuguese charisma and cunning, I was sure he could charm his way into the Kaaba during the Hajj if he set his mind to it.
We were also blessed with outstanding cavers, whose presence was a condition of our gaining access to the site. They were exceptionally well versed on Baia’s history, and the possibility that this could have been Hades. I was in good hands and excited to descend into an abode that had been visited by so many legendary figures of the ancient world.
In ancient Greece there was no concept of heaven and hell, only the netherworld; there was but one passage in all the earth to this sacred domain and, apparently, this was it. I was excited, but then so was Paget as he prepared for the press conference where he would reveal what could have been – perhaps should have been – the most popular archaeological discovery since Howard Carter unveiled the tomb of Tutankhamun. As luck would have it, Paget announced his discovery on the same day that United States President, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. As a result of the international media frenzy surrounding Kennedy’s death, the fabled underground complex at Baia was forgotten once more. It seems that the luck of the Oracle had not rubbed off on Paget. I wondered if I would fare any better.
After receiving Burgess’s wrath for my inappropriate caving attire (I had worn a white, button-down shirt – Timberland, mind you – but white nevertheless), we prepared to descend into hell. I proceeded to the site, where Jamie, the fixer, the cameraman and myself were led by our trusted cavers into the abyss. I prayed that my ego would be the only thing bruised in the process.
We descended the opening passageway, or Great Antrum, as Paget called it, and travelled a short distance before being greeted by bats. Our adrenalin was running high. The bats only heightened the experience.
We pushed on, nearly 500 feet into the earth, and down to the River Styx. Here, the ancient ‘quester’ had been greeted by Charon, the Ferryman of legend, who provided passage to the ritual chamber across the candlelit waterway. My heart was pounding and I was finding it difficult to comprehend that I was truly on the banks of the River Styx.
At my insistence, we crawled on our hands and knees past the River Styx and into a small, man-made cavity, believed to have been the ritual chamber where the patron, having just presented the Ferryman with mistletoe to gain access to the boat and cross to this juncture, would make an offering to Persephone, Goddess of the Underworld. As we negotiated the cramped corridor, I spotted an offering of mistletoe – only just discernable – that Temple and his wife Olivia had left nearly fifteen years earlier. I knew they would be pleased and I wanted to take a picture, but our convoy of cavers crawled on.
Our descent was complete. I was enthralled by the experience and wished I could have spent more time exploring the various niches and recesses of the subterranean labyrinth of mystery. At the same time I was exploding with perspiration, as the temperature had increased dramatically at these depths and, of course, I was experiencing a bit of an adrenalin rush. My pieces to camera felt passionate and uninhibited, albeit spontaneous, and probably a bit over the top. I could not contain my excitement, but surely I would be forgiven. It’s not every day that one descends into hell with a camera in your face. Sadly, we quickly returned to the surface, the same way we had descended – single file, and with one eye on the lookout for bats.
The experience was breathtaking, both literally and figuratively, and yet I could not shake the feeling that this was not necessarily Hades, but rather part of the ancient thermal resort; the playground of the rich and famous that characterised the ancient site of Baia. That night we planned a visit to another grotto, a nearby site that would enable me to test my nagging uncertainty.
The Grotto of the Sybil (Grotto della Sibilla) is located on volcanic Lake Avernus, and it is here that the entrance to the underworld is said to have existed, according to Virgil’s Aeneid, and not a mile away in Baia. Paget had examined the Grotto of the Sybil, but had dismissed it as the possible location of Hades, despite the fact that the grotto leads towards Cumae, where a famous sanctuary of the Sybil is located. (Cumae was where the legendary Sibylline Books (libri sibyllini) were taken after an extended stay at the Apollonian oracle in Erythrae, near the modern resort town of Izmir. They had been relocated to Erythrae after having been written on Mount Ida, just to the north, in what is now Turkey.) No, Paget rejected the Grotto of the Sybil as a candidate for the historical Hades, despite the fact that its custodian at the time of his visit, Signor Alessandro, was convinced it was the true entrance to Hades.
We arrived at the Grotto of the Sybil in the late afternoon and commenced filming. Theakston and I, each 6 feet 5 inches tall, ducked as we walked up the wooded pathway to the entrance of the cave. It took little effort to generate the excitement necessary to describe the experience to camera. We processed down the seemingly never-ending passageway, torches in hand.
Make no mistake, the 800-metre-long cave has a well documented military purpose, having been commissioned in 37 BCE by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a Roman general intent on transforming the lake into a military port. This is undoubtedly a large part of what had troubled Paget about the site’s legitimacy as Hades. However, for reasons that have never been fully understood, Agrippa destroyed the oracle, blocked its tunnels and cut down the sacred grove of trees that surrounded its entrance.
Given that the Roman historian, Livy, reported that in 209 BCE military commander, Hannibal, had made a sacrifice at the Oracle of the Dead near Avernus, the claim that the Grotto of the Sibyl is the true Hades at first appears problematic, for records suggest that southern Italy had been chosen as the site for Hades from around the sixth century BCE.
However, what struck me was that, in addition to its location, which was precisely where the ancient writers who had visited Hades said it was – on the shores of Lake Avernus – the Grotto of the Sybil had properly proportioned rooms, suitable for ceremony, which were accessible only via a body of water that, in my estimation, constituted a far better River Styx – one with dimensions suitable for a ferryman to stand upright in a boat and row a patron across to the other side, unlike the River Styx at Baia, which was rather diminutive in comparison.
The chambers beyond the River Styx appeared, at least to my untrained eye, to be designed for the observance of rituals. Furthermore, they were entirely separate from the tunnel commissioned by Agrippa. Around the time of the First World War the family who owned the Grotto knocked a hole through the wall, so that the inner chambers could be reached without traversing the River Styx. Paget would have known this. So, why did he not rate the site? Could it be that, after years of searching for the historical Hades, he may have been put off by Signor Alessandro’s insistence that he had, in fact, already discovered it?
I was perplexed and not sure what to conclude. How could I reconcile the fact that the Oracle of the Dead at Baia seemingly lacked proportion, and was centred around an ancient summer resort, not a ritual centre, while the Grotto of the Sybil was not, apparently, of the appropriate era? What if neither site was the true Hades?
A possible solution is provided by Strabo, the Greek geographer, philosopher and historian from the early first century AD (64/63 BCE – circa AD 24), who quotes Ephorus, a Greek historian from the fourth century BCE:
The people prior to my time were wont to make Avernus the setting of the fabulous story of the Homeric Nekyia [descent to the underworld]; and, what is more, writers tell us that there actually was an oracle of the dead here and that Odysseus visited it.
[The Cimmerians] live in underground houses which they call argillai [clay pits], and it is through tunnels that they visit one another and also admit strangers to the oracle, which is situated far beneath the earth; and they live on what they get from mining, and from those who consult the oracle, and from the king of the country, who has appointed to them fixed allowances; and those who live about the oracle have an ancestral custom, that no one should see the sun, but should go outside the caverns only during the night; and it is for this reason that the poet [Homer] speaks of them as follows: ‘And never does the shining sun look upon them’; but later on the Cimmerians were destroyed by a certain king, because the response of the oracle did not turn out well for him; the oracle, however, still endures, although removed to another place. [Emphasis is mine.]
And so we learn that there were two Hades. One was ‘situated far beneath the earth’, like the complex at Baia, and was closed down by a king who received an unfavourable prophecy, and was subsequently ‘removed to another place’. Later, we know that Agrippa, who commissioned the tunnel in the Grotto of the Sybil, shut down an oracle (the apparently relocated Hades).
Although ancient sources tell us that Lake Avernus was the site of the descent to the underworld, might it be that the Grotto of the Sybil was, in fact, the second historical Hades, and that the memory of the Oracle of the Dead here, on the shores of Lake Avernus, eclipsed that of the earlier Hades complex in Baia? The supposition is intriguing and would offer an appropriate explanation to at least some of the anomalies.
Still, I suspect the quest for proof of the historical Hades will continue. At the end of the day, I considered myself fortunate to have travelled to hell and back, and honoured to have walked in the footsteps of so many famous patrons, not only Odysseus, but also Paget and Temple.