The Descent into Hell
It should be emphasized that the main purpose of the Baian Oracle of the Dead was to allow a man the privilege of going through the entrance to Hell, of consulting there the dead spirit of a friend or relation, and of returning alive to the surface. The enquirer might wish merely to see again a lost loved one, or, more commonly, he might wish to pose some particular question or set of questions to the spirit in order to obtain its advice. Since Homer describes Odysseus as consulting the spirit of the seer Teiresias, apparently at Baia, the antiquity of the place must be considerable. It seems to have been in use for hundreds of years.
Consultation was so immensely expensive that the ordinary person could probably never have afforded it. But those rich and powerful enough to consult the Oracle certainly got their money’s worth. The Sibyl of Cuma and her priests and assistants who arranged the event with their Baian colleagues got first share of the largesse. In the Aeneid, Aeneas has to provide seven bullocks and seven ewes for the Cumaean Sibyl. Since only small portions of these sacrifices were actually made as offerings to the deities, these beasts would provide enough meat, fat, offal, hides, and even wool to make life comfortable for the religious officials of Cuma for a considerable period. In addition, the beasts would have been purchased by the visiting enquirer from the very same officials, thus filling the priests’ pockets with ready money at the same time. Vast quantities of the best olive oil also had to be purchased to pour over the carcasses as they roasted, and we can be sure that many jars were left over for the priests’ use afterwards. It was also necessary to purchase an expensive bronze tripod, yet more olive oil, wine, and barley cakes as offerings to the Sibyl herself. Naturally the more eager the enquirer, the more lavish he would be in what he gave her.
The enquirer would be directed or led to Baia, where another set of officials conducted the actual consultation of the Oracle of the Dead. Additional sums of money were probably charged as consulting fees. The officials were meanwhile running up considerable expenses on their own part. They were filling more than 500 lamps with oil and wicks and preparing large numbers of torches, costumes, and assorted props. But these background activities were not known to the enquirer. He himself would most likely be in great awe and apprehension of his forthcoming ordeal, and entirely preoccupied with what had brought him to the Oracle in the first place--most likely a dilemma he hoped the Oracle would resolve.
Having been brought to the temple precincts outside the entrance to the Baian tunnel complex (these outer precincts being now mostly gone), the enquirer was detached from his friends and associates and led alone into a room that Paget and Jones have named the “Painted Room.” Virgil refers to it as being “before the vestibule itself and in the first jaws of hell.” He describes the paintings and the enquirer’s (Aeneas’s) jumpiness, “disconcerted with sudden fear,” pointing his sword at the painted images. On the walls were horrifying paintings that portrayed various diseases, old age, fear, war, poverty, sleep, “joy of sinning,” hunger, strife, insanity, and “the counselor of evil.” The enquirer would have plenty of time to dwell on these sobering and graphic pictures, for he seems to have stayed alone in the Painted Room for three whole days with no other amusement. He would come to know every detail of the gruesome visages before him in his isolated room, and how marked would be their effects on his narrowed attention! Three days of isolation in these surroundings were a necessary part of putting the enquirer into the right frame of mind. We can imagine him jumping at the slightest noise and expecting almost anything to happen.
We must remember that the ancient peoples had little or no exposure to powerful and horrifying visual images. Today we see so many images of all kinds on television, in newspapers, magazines, and films that our senses are to some extent deadened and jaded by overexposure to horror. But this was not the case with the ancients. They would have been far more susceptible to the suggestiveness of the Painted Room. By the third day ghostly hallucinations would almost certainly have begun to assail the enquirer.
In recent years, an experimental study of such sensory deprivation was undertaken for a four-day period. “Several [subjects] became fearful that something terrible might happen to them or that they might be affected adversely. . . . Others reported later that they had been unable at times to distinguish wakefulness from sleep, feeling that the room was closing in on them or that their bodies were different from normal.” Feelings of fear built up, no accurate perception of time remained, and their thinking became confused.
But just as interesting as the effects during the confinement were those just after release: “On release, after ninety-six hours in the dark and quiet, ordinary visual objects were seen as exceptionally rich in detail and saturated in hue, with more sounds apparently crowding in on them . . . these effects lasted for no more than a few hours.” We shall see that it was at just about this point of maximum suggestibility and grossly heightened perception of color and sound that our enquirer “descended into Hell.” Before these effects could abate, and when he was in a debilitated state of maximum confusion, unable to summon any inner resources or pull himself together, he was rushed down into the Baian tunnels for his experience of the Underworld. By the time he could come to himself once again, the descent into “Hell” would be over.