About 70 kms south of the port of Igoumenitsa, set above the Fanari marsh and the former Acherousia Lake, is the ancient site of Ephyra and the Nekromanteion. It’s no coincidence that the name gave rise to such words as necromancy as it comes from the ancient Greek meaning divination from a dead body. The Nekromanteion was a place where pilgrims came to communicate with the souls of those they had lost.
Homer wrote about the site in his ‘Odyssey’, describing it as,
Hades’ Kingdom of Decay, where the River of Flaming Fire and the River of Lamentation (which is a branch of the Styx) unite around a pinnacle of rock to pour their thundering streams into Acheron. This is the spot to seek out the souls of the dead and departed.
The geography certainly fits and the vaulted underground chamber seems the perfect spot to commune with the dead. It’s a spooky place, lined with porous volcanic rock that dampens any echo. However, there is a dispute between the findings of the first Greek archaeologist and a later German one who believes the site to be nothing more than a fortified farmhouse.
When I visit the Archaeological Museum in Ioannina, where they have finds from the site on display and information about their uses, it seems that the scholars there agree with the German opinion, though I’d like to think that both could be correct.
Inland from the Nekromanteion, I arrive in the town of Glyki and follow signs to the source of the Acheron which lead me along a narrow road beside a fast flowing, spearmint blue river. The last section must be completed on foot along a narrow, muddy and slippery path. The gorge is quite narrow when I reach the end of the path but on the far side I can make out a small cave where a source emerges to join the main flow. I’m sure it’s quite a popular place in the summer, but I’m lucky enough to have it all to myself.
Next to the Via Egnatia motorway, which crosses northern Greece, is another well-preserved ancient site. Homer also wrote about Dodona and the Oracle of Zeus, while Herodotus describes its origins as the site where a dove from Egyptian Thebes settled in an oak tree and ordered that it be made a place of worship. The oracle apparently spoke through the leaves of the tree.
Though the original oak was destroyed by Christian zealots in the 4th century AD, a keen archaeologist planted another at the remains of the Sanctuary of Zeus, allowing the legend to live on. Excavations also uncovered a huge theatre built in the 3rd century BC and one of the largest on the Greek mainland at the time.
Dodona became quite a wealthy place as pilgrims from all over Greece came to consult the oracle. Their questions were written on lead tablets, some of which are displayed in the Museum in Ioannina. Questions relate to paternity, ‘Am I her children’s father?’ and theft, ‘Has Piestos stolen the wool from the mattress?’ I wonder what sort of questions people would ask today.