A large cave near Beit Shemesh may have once been seen as a portal to the underworld and used for ritual magic some 1,700 years ago, according to an article published this week in the Harvard Theological Review.
British explorers first mapped the Teomim Cave, a large karst cave in the Jerusalem hills, in 1873. But it wasn’t until the past decade, when archaeologists and cave experts started exploring more of the cave’s inner chambers, that they discovered a number of curious items, like pieces of three human skulls, 120 oil lamps, ancient pottery and weapons from the Bronze Age dating some 2,000 years before the oil lamps, carefully arranged together and hidden deep in the rocks’ crevices.
Necromancy refers to the practice of communicating with the dead, and ancient texts from this time mention using human skulls as part of the rituals. Experts who studied the Teomim Cave and the objects hidden in the depths believe that this may have been a spot where necromancy was practiced during the Late Roman period, around 300 CE.
“This whole area underwent a radical transformation following the crash of the Bar Kokhba Revolt,” explained Professor Boaz Zissu, an archaeologist at Bar Ilan University who has been studying the cave since 2009. Zissu is the main author of the study, along with Dr. Eitan Klein of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“Previously, this was a Jewish area, then following the vacuum created in this region, Roman pagan elements entered, and these might be new rituals performed by new Roman pagan settlers.”
A cave with healing properties
British explorers spelunked their way through the karst cave that locals called “Mŭghâret Umm et Tûeimîn” or “the cave of the mother of twins,” on October 17, 1873, as part of their “Survey of Western Palestine,” noting that locals attributed healing properties to the spring water that flowed in the cave. “The Mother of the Twins” refers to local lore of a woman who struggled with infertility, then gave birth to twins after drinking water from the cave’s natural spring.
Other adventurers ventured into the depths in the 1920s and 1970s, but there was no extensive survey carried out until 2009, when the cave was reexamined and surveyed by a combined team of researchers from the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archeology at Bar-Ilan University, the Israel Cave Research Center, Hebrew University, the Israeli Antiquities Authority, and the Nature and Parks Authority, led by Zissu and Prof. Amos Frumkin.
When Zissu and other explorers entered some of the inner chambers of the cave, they found hoards of silver and gold coins, which had been left by refugees fleeing the Bar Kokhba revolt, and constituted some of the largest discoveries of coin hoards by academics. They published their findings about the coin hoards a number of years ago.
As the teams pressed deeper into the cave, they made more strange discoveries, including oil lamps wedged into crevices in the rock, which they fished out using a long metal hook.
“At some point, we understood the logic of the ancient people and where they put the lamps, and we started to fish for the oil lamps. They were just waiting there to be collected,” said Zissu. “The people who hid these oil lamps also added some other artifacts that are much earlier, such as weapons from the Bronze Age, axe heads and spear heads.”
It was clear from the way the objects were found that they had been carefully placed, likely some 1,700 years ago, based on the dating of the oil lamps. About 120 well-preserved oil lamps dating to the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods (late second to fourth centuries CE) were collected from cavities and crevices in the cave.
Shrines or oracles to the dead were sometimes called nekyomanteion (or nekromanteion). They were generally located in caves that had a number of specific characteristics, including a natural water sources inside the cave, and a deep shaft.
Believers thought that this shaft led to the underworld, and the dead could use it to rise to the surface and communicate. According to some sources, there was a local oracle of the dead near almost every city in the Greco-Roman world.
Teomim Caves has a spring inside the cave, which was at one point collected into a pool hewn from the rock, a naturally occurring 21-meter (69-foot) shaft, and a cultural history that attributes powers of healing and fertility to the cave.
“The archaeological record from the Roman Empire of human skulls deposited in possible portals to the underworld—caves, shafts, and water sources—is not extensive,” the authors note. However, they state, “the Te’omim Cave in the Jerusalem hills has all the cultic and physical elements necessary to serve as a possible portal to the underworld.”
Uncovering magic in archaeology
It was clear from the early days of the exploration that the cave had some kind of religious or magical significance, Zissu said. “We regarded it as as part of a shrine or connected to some kind of ritual to to harness the underworld,” he said. Perhaps it was related to the story of Persephone, queen of the Underworld in Greek and Roman mythology, who is often worshiped in caves.
One of the challenges of identifying and understanding magical practices in archaeology is that often, the magic was practiced in secret and not recorded. People practiced these rituals on the fringes of society, sometimes at great risk if those practices were outlawed.
“In some periods the custom was declared illegal. In any case, the authorities took a negative view of it,” said Klein, of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
There are a few textual references to necromancy, including in Jewish texts, such as the story of Saul having the prophet Samuel conjured up at Ein Dor (1 Samuel 28:7–24). The act was not viewed favorably, and necromancy was punishable by death.
Cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia dating to the first millennium BCE contain cultic texts describing various rituals for consulting with spirits using human skulls. In Homer’s Odyssey, the witch Circe uses necromancy to help Odysseus consult with the prophet Teiresias. In the Roman period, necromancy became intertwined with the idea of human sacrifice, leading to laws against witchcraft and divination. Although necromancy was marginalized, it was still practiced, including by emperors Nero and Hadrian, the authors state.
There’s also evidence that ancient Jews practiced necromancy, including a skull the collector Shlomo Moussaieff purchased on the antiquities market inscribed with a Jewish oath written in Aramaic, likely an incantation against a demon. Rabbis in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud condemn the use of “conjur[ing] up the dead by means of soothsaying and one who consults a skull” (Sanhedrin 65b).
The widespread presence of oil lamps is likely part of the practice of lychnomancy or lampadomancy, the use of oil lamps for divination, according to the article. Magicians or prophets would watch and interpret shapes created by the flame, which was believed to be a spirit, god, or demon.
Zissu said one of the things that was so strange about excavating the archaeological discoveries from the cave was that there was so little digging. Instead, it was more like fishing the finds out of cracks in the rocks. The digging happened later, during the research phase, as the archaeologists sifted through research about ancient rituals and religions.
“Only later we became aware of other possibilities, that these could be the remains of necromancy rituals,” said Zissu. “We put our finds together with archaeological data from other digs and made this suggestion.”
The discovery of the skulls was a major shift in thinking toward necromancy, and later they discovered texts that mentioned the use of metal weapons during ceremonies to ward off demons.
Still, Zissu said, they’ll never know for sure. “It’s just an idea, it’s a suggestion,” he said. “We don’t have final proof that this is the situation.”
Don’t try this at home
Parts of Teomim Cave are open to the public, and the cool cave is a welcome respite for summer hikers. The areas of the cave where Zissu and others have made the discoveries require advanced spelunking techniques, including ropes to navigate the deep shafts, and are not open to the public due to the possibility of serious injury or death.
Zissu stressed the importance for visitors to respect posted signs and areas that are fenced off to safely experience the cave.
The cave is open to the public from the Passover holiday in April to the Sukkot holiday in the fall, to protect hibernating bats in the winter.
Zissu has explored a number of other caves in the area, including researching a Byzantine monastery and crazy tales of medieval blood revenge at the nearby Shimshon cave. But, he said, despite his proximity to a purported portal to the underworld, he hasn’t felt any strong sense that the team was dealing closely with the world of the dead.
“I’m an archaeologist. I’m dealing with data, facts, and artifacts,” he said. “I personally haven’t any special feelings, I’m just trying to do my best to record the data and make sure my team returns safely home.”
Are you relying on The Times of Israel for accurate and timely coverage right now? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel