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 Underworld
as understood in GreekRoman mythology.
The next stage of inquiry would begin with a bath, a time of
meditation, and a second bath. Dressed in a white tunic, heshe
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 underground
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.

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