Afterwards I spoke with Agnes who served us coffee . She owned the bar called the Taverna Necromanteion (‘Taverna Death Oracle’) which we had found at the corner of the cross-roads of the village at the bottom of the hill.
Or rather was spoken to, as Agnes mostly talked rather than listened. “I’ve lived here more than thirty years”, she said speaking her English in a mysterious and not unattractive half-Greek and half-Glasgow Scottish accent. Her bar was modern and quite prosperous looking, the tourist buses stopped regularly, and several of the passengers, most of whom were old and many also overweight and infirm and unable to manage the walk up the hill, preferred to stop there sitting on the black sofas to talk with Agnes, or rather to hear her talk to them, and drink coffee and white spirit. While once a flaxen headed and wild beauty, Agnes now looked an aged and unhappy soul, judged by the lines and dark shadows around her sad eyes. Despite the evidence of prosperity in her bar she explained to us that business was bad. “The taxes are terrible”, she said rolling her ‘r’s, and that she longed to sell up and leave this damp, green and foul plain on which she had lived for the last 30 years. Not that she wanted to return to Glasgow. “I last went there for a week seven years ago”, she said. “It was terrible, expensive, and I couldn’t afford to live there”.
Geographically, we were now in the region of North Greece once called Epirus, and we were staying across the plain at a hotel located close to the banks of the fast running Acheron where it emerges from a steep sided gorge. It had been raining for several days now, the river waters had turned brown, and we had survived on a diet of beans and lupins, or some such well cooked food, and also delicious grilled meats that the local people put before us, before coming that morning to the village whose name is now Ephyra, and approaching the hillock in the middle of plain transected by four rivers (1.).
And close to the bay where, as some say (2.), Odysseus landed after he had parted from Circe (‘dread Goddess with a human voice’) on his quest to visit the Land of the Dead by way of one of the several entrances to the Underworld.
We walked to the summit of the hill where there is a church dedicated to St John the baptist, which is now suspended over a series extensive and massive walls, gateway, labyrinthan entrance, alcoves, chambers and rooms underneath that has been dug out in recent years, and is called the Acheron Necromanteion.
We found the church above closed and under repair, and I gathered several fir cones from beneath the surrounding trees on the hillside before entering the gateway to the place below. I did this because I dimly remembered that fir cones were once used to light the way of such places, and could also perhaps be left behind as offerings, or as payment as the custom goes for these crossings over.
So I gave one of these fir cones to each of my friends who wanted them. I observed that about half did, and half did not wish to receive them, and I also subsequently noticed that after we had visited below and a conversation had broken out among us as we stood on the top of the walls above as to what we had seen, our opinions were equally divided; those who had not taken a fir cone with them saying that we had seen and heard nothing, and those that had taken one with them saying that they had seen and heard something, and about the possibility of ghosts that come to drink the fresh blood of offerings that are made to them.
Although I had taken a fir cone to enter and indeed had left it below in the deepest chamber, I found myself reluctant to join in to this conversation. When asked at the end as to my opinion as to the meaning and value of a ‘Death Oracle’ , I found myself almost unable to speak as if there was a stricture at my throat.
“The dead appear to tell us that our task is to engage in our lives”, I managed to say finally.
Then on the way out of the labyrinthan entrance (3.), when I was alone with one of my friends, I held her hand as she wept for some minutes over the death of a relative who she told me was being buried that day, and somewhere far off, but not so far as we agreed together at that moment in the “split of time” as she had described it herself to us in the conversation earlier.
The next day it was still cold and it continued to rain heavily, there having also been a storm and lightning during the previous night. It was Sunday and I felt empty and strangely exhausted.
(1.) ‘the four rivers’
The Acheron (river of woe), The Cocytus (river of lamentation), The Phlegethon (river of fire), The Styx (river of unbreakable oath by which the gods swear), and The Lethe (river of forgetfulness)
(2.) The Odyssey Book 11, Vv 2-50 :
‘…When we had set the tackle in order fore and aft, we sat down, and let the wind and the helmsman keep her course. All day long with straining sail she glided over the sea, till the sun set and all the waves grew dark.
So she came to the deep flowing Ocean that surrounds the earth, and the city and country of the Cimmerians, wrapped in cloud and mist. The bright sun never shines down on them with his rays neither by climbing the starry heavens nor turning back again towards earth, but instead dreadful Night looms over a wretched people. There we beached our ship, and landed the sheep, and made our way along the Ocean stream, till we came to the place Circe described.
Perimedes and Eurylochus restrained the sacrificial victims while I drew my sharp sword from its sheath, and with it dug a pit two foot square, then poured a libation all around to the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, thirdly of water, sprinkled with white barley meal. Then I prayed devoutly to the powerless ghosts of the departed, swearing that when I reached Ithaca I would sacrifice a barren heifer in my palace, the best of the herd, and would heap the altar with rich spoils, and offer a ram, apart, to Teiresias, the finest jet-black ram in the flock. When, with prayers and vows, I had invoked the hosts of the dead, I led the sheep to the pit and cut their throats, so the dark blood flowed.
Then the ghosts of the dead swarmed out of Erebus – brides, and young men yet unwed, old men worn out with toil, girls once vibrant and still new to grief, and ranks of warriors slain in battle, showing their wounds from bronze-tipped spears, their armour stained with blood. Round the pit from every side the crowd thronged, with strange cries, and I turned pale with fear. Then I called to my comrades, and told them to flay and burn the sheep killed by the pitiless bronze, with prayers to the divinities, to mighty Hades and dread Persephone. I myself, drawing my sharp sword from its sheath, sat there preventing the powerless ghosts from drawing near to the blood, till I might question Teiresias.