March 5, 2024

Cave Near Jerusalem Shows Signs of Use as “Portal to the Underworld” : ScienceAlert

A cave in the western hills of Jerusalem may have been the site of a divine prophecy when nobles from the Roman era tried to communicate with the dead.

Three skulls and more than 100 ceramic lamps were found pushed into the crevices of the cave, and two archaeologists in Israel speculate in a new paper that these were probably used to attract the spirits of the dead and their secrets – a practice known as necromancy.

The Te’omim cave has been studied since 1873, and experts have long suspected that the spring water flowing through the underground system was considered medicinal for those who used the cave between 4000 BCE and the fourth century CE.

It was in the 1970s, however, that archaeologists uncovered a series of secret passages leading to other rooms hidden within.

Long, narrow crevices abounded in these hidden areas, and embedded archaeological artefacts such as coins, pottery, metal weapons, and, most importantly, lamps and skulls.

The few human remains were not directly displayed. One skull and four late Roman lamps were found buried deep in a crevice that was very difficult to reach, for example.

Oil lamps and human skulls found in Te’omim Cave. (Harvard Theological Review2023)

Archaeologists had to use long poles with iron hooks to retrieve these items from their hiding places.

Because the lamps were buried so far into the rock, it is suspected that they were used to light the cave.

Instead, ancient writings from the time indicate that the movement of flames was considered a primary way to communicate with demons, spirits or gods.

Skulls were also commonly associated with witchcraft, and daggers, swords and axes were believed to protect believers from evil spirits.

“The Te’omim Cave in the hills of Jerusalem has all the cultural and physical elements necessary to serve as a potential portal to the underworld,” write Eitan Klein of the Israel Antiquities Authority at Ashkelon Academic College and Boaz Zissu of Bar-Ilan University.

Previous studies The cave has been theorized that this was once a sacred place of worship for an underworld deity, but it wasn’t until three human skulls were found that archaeologists began to suspect that magical ritual practices were taking place here as well.

Written sources from the time of ancient Rome and Greece indicate that witches in tombs or underground shrines usually practiced necromancy, and that skulls were a key element.

Weapons in the Underground Cave
An ax and two spearheads from the cave. (Harvard Theological Review2023)

On the Greek island of Lesbos, for example, the an ancient passage suggests that Orpheus’ skull was “into a pile”, where he “sung his prophecies in a clay chamber.”

Other Greek writings from the fourth and fifth centuries discuss spells to seal the mouths of skulls so that they could no longer speak.

Parallel discoveries in specifically Jewish history are not nearly as common; however, there is evidence that rabbis at this time knew that skulls were used for necromancy in the Greco-Roman world.

Jewish religious leaders considered the caves, in fact, to be the main places of idolatry. One famous text on Jewish oral traditions suggests that up to 80 women working in a cave south of Tel Aviv were once hanged for their underground magic.

“As far as we know, apart from the use of skulls for witchcraft and necromancy, rituals involving human skulls are hardly mentioned in classical sources,” the two archaeologists Note.

Therefore, the unusual combination of cave artefacts is very suggestive of ancient divination.

The study was published in the journal Harvard Theological Review.

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