A cave in the Jerusalem Hills may once have served as a local oracle where people communed with the dead in the hopes of learning about the future. Known as the Te’omim Cave, the creepy crevice is littered with human skulls and other items associated with necromancy, and is described by researchers as a possible “portal to the underworld”.
Analyzing the discoveries made at the cave, the authors of a new study suggest that Te’omim might have hosted “secret rites involving necromancy and communication with the dead, mainly by witches.”
“These rites were usually conducted within tombs or burial caves, but sometimes they took place in a nekyomanteion (or nekromanteion) – an 'oracle of the dead',” explain the researchers. “These shrines were generally located in caves or next to water sources that were believed to be possible portals to the underworld.”
Intriguingly, early archaeological descriptions of Te’omim from the 19th century reveal that locals still attributed healing powers to the spring water that flowed in the cave. More recently, researchers have uncovered Roman-era items stashed in nooks and crannies within the cave, many of which may have been used to communicate with the dead.
“Some crevices contained groups of oil lamps mixed with weapons and pottery vessels from earlier periods or placed with human skulls,” write the study authors.
While it’s difficult to interpret the function of these ancient objects, the researchers explain that “human skulls were used throughout the Roman Empire, including in Palestine and the vicinity, in necromancy ceremonies and communication with the dead.” Likewise, they say that oil lamps regularly featured in such rites, as participants sought to divine the future based on the shapes created by the flames.
Furthermore, the study authors highlight numerous historical sources which allude to the belief that spirits were frightened of metal, particularly bronze and iron. They therefore suggest that the presence of swords and other weapons may have served to “protect the believer from evil spirits and to ensure that offerings to the specific spirit being conjured up were not seized by other spirits.”
“In light of all this, we can propose with due caution that necromancy ceremonies took place in the Te’omim Cave in the Late Roman period, and that the cave may have served as a local oracle (nekyomanteion) for this purpose,” conclude the researchers,
The study has been published in the journal Harvard Theological Review.