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Caleb Strange
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I don't know if anybody has read the book 'Conversations with eternity' by Robert K.G. Temple, but its full of the most wonderfully bizarre things and historical information.

For instance, oracles of the Classical period used homing pigeons so they could get the latest news quicker than anybody else. 'I sense so and so has won the battle' they'd say, and when a breathless messenger arrived on horseback three days later, this prophecy would be found to be true. Maybe that's part of what they mean by the 'language of the birds'?

Poisons were very advanced then, better than we have today. You could have a poison to kill in a month; another in three months. So when the oracle gave you a glass of wine, and then said you would be dead in three months, then...

But the best bit of the book is Baia. Now in Classical times, the most terrifying and dangerous conversation with eternity was undertaken by means of a descent into hell. And this actually happened! The stories of Orpheus and Eurydice, Odysseus and Teiresias, Aeneas et al, were based on an actual physical location. (OK, the stories might have preceded the geography, but read on).

Two archaeologists, respected amateurs, Paget and Jones looked for the Oracle of the dead, said by ancient tradition to be near Crater Avernus in the Baia region, southern Italy. After two years of risking snakes and sulphurous gasses, they found it. A complex of artificial tunnels hundreds of yards long, and ceremonial buildings. And the following picture emerged.

Consultation with the dead didn't come cheap (7 bullocks and ewes given to the Cuma sibyl, bought at great mark-up, many jars of olive oil, and so on). After initial consultaion at the sibyls cave, at Cuma, the enquirer was lead to the temple at Baia, to the painted room. Vergil says 'Before the vestibule itself, and in the first jaws of Hell'. The paintings 'disconcerted with sudden fear'. In this room of horrific images, the enquirer was left for three days. Starved, and deprived of sleep, in solitary confinement, this is brainwashing, and it took effect. Modern studies of brain washing show that after 3-4 days, fear is up, there is a loss of time perception, thinking is confused, and, interestingly, on release from confinement, the sense are very heightened for a few hours.

Every morning, a black ewe was sacrificed in this painted room, and the entrails read. Not only did this add to the visceral horror of the place, but it increased the tension. If the entrails were not favourable, the descent would be called off. So this was a perfect out for the temple, if the brain washing didn't take. It also made enquirers even more compliant.

If, on the third day, the entrails were favourable, after a pre-dawn sacrifice, the enquirer would bathe in the 'waters of forgetfulness', in a nearby room. Then after a morning of prayers, bathe in the 'waters of memory'. Both these waters were drugged, and if skin absorbtion and fume breathing didn't get you, then drinking did. The application of this dose was very skilled. Subjects needed to be mildly hallucinating, but not so out of it, that they wouldn't remember what was about to happen.

At sunset on the third day, the enquirer had to sacrifice a black lamb to the 'Mother of the Fates, Dread Night, and Her Sister the Earth'. The subjects hair was dressed in white ribbons, the body in a white tunic. Around the waist a belt and bronze sword, and in the hand, a 'golden' branch of mistletoe. The scarlet robed Sibyl of Cuma, the guide, led the enquirer down through a 21 inch wide, 8 feet deep 'bottleneck' via a ladder into a round chamber. A thoulos, or symbolic cervix. Then down a long passageway, into the tunnel complex.

Priests appear, from hidden entrances, in black, with slits for eyes, carrying black cypress branches. They go before the Sibyl chanting. Another ewe is brought behind the party, which, because of the narrowing of the passageway, the enquirer cannnot see. And down they go, the tunnel lit by flickering lamps, filled with oily smoke. The priests chanting, and behind, the animal screaming.

At the end of this 200 yard long tunnel, they reach the 'dividing of the ways'. A hidden switch in the passage way, which leads to a short tunnel 150ft long, 6ft high, with a 40 ft drop, filled with a hundred lamps. Overpoweringly bright and hot. As the enquirer struggled down this tunnel, behind him the passage way was switched at the dividing of the ways, causing a sudden rush of air, and smoke and flames to spit at the enquirer.

From here, to some steps, and another tunnel 25ft long, and wide enough to allow the priests to form a crepuscular guard of honour. And from here the landing stage of the Styx. This 'river' was a wide, subterranean stretch of water fed by two hot springs. Charon the ferryman waited in his coracle to row the enquirer across. On disembarking, a terrifying dog, Cerberus, snapped at the subject. And drugged to the nines, and mad with fear, with the awful barking in that enclosed space, the enquirer no doubt saw three heads.

From here, up some steps, into an anteroom, where the enquirer leaves his bough of mistletoe, offered to Persephone, and holy water is sprinkled on the brow. And then, the enquirer, who really thinks he is about to meet the terrifying queen of the underworld, in Hell itself, is taken into the Inner Sanctum, the house of Persephone.

The Sibyl warns him to draw his sword, in case any shades approach, and yet another animal is sacrificed. Then the shades appear in the gloom. Actors, and also phantasmagoria, shadows on smoke. Finally, it is worth it. The dear departed is seen, then met, albeit in very poor light. And the departd whispers, in a strange voice, intimate secrets, and highly personal knowledge. But then, as family and friends, and the enquirer himself, have been 'pumped' for a good few days, this is not too surprising. The enquirer is drugged up, and mortally afraid too, and throw in some cold reading... Anyway, all too soon, or not soon enough, depending on your view point, the departed is crowded out by other spirits, and priests usher the enquirer, and the Sibyl, up yet another passageway.

From here, and through to the dividing of the ways, where the enquirer, if he is sufficiently 'with it' enough, wonders how he's suddenly back on the path he started on, when he has returned by a different route. Then back up the passageway, up via another ladder, through a different hole, and into the 'Room of memory'.

Here's the kicker. The enquirer was extensively debriefed in this room. The experience was recounted, and suggestions thrown in to make the memory seem even more hellish. And if but a trace of scepticism was detected, then the enquirer was killed. Yes, killed. And it was said the underworld had claimed another victim.

Paget and Jones have discovered all of the passages, rooms, and even the river Styx, mentioned above. By looking at the surviving literary accounts of hellish descents, and marrying them to the archaeology and local history, researchers have pieced together the story of Baia.

When I first discovered Baia in Temple's book, I thought I'd reserve judgement until I saw another account. It was too good to be true. However, and happily, since then, I've chanced upon two other references, so I don't doubt its bona fides.

Just had to end that in Latin.


Caleb Strange.

Not many views for this so far, and I threw out a lot of history, without perhaps making the bizarre implications explicit. So a few ideas.

This would make a great variation on the haunted house theme, I think. It's much the same as a seance message reveal as far as the basic effect goes, but is obviously so much more. We use candles, and props, but do we use them in such a committed manner?

A few lessons on pre-show work. Really do a number on putting the people in the right frame of mind for an effect. Look at the proportion of time spent on each segment. 3 days, at least, mood setting, to a couple of hours in the tunnel.

Let's use archetypes where we can. The descent into the earth. The uncertain journey. The return to reality. Myth doesn't mean something's untrue. Often, it's quite the reverse.

Let's get al fresco, and use natural locations some more. Include nature in your effects. 'Bust' some clouds, which, done at the right moment, can drop jaws. Alter the weather. Still the choppy waters of a pond with the touch of your staff.

Let's use the prevailing culture to our advantage. What do people fear, what do they believe? What are their dreams, and what are their nightmares? The Baian descent into hell wouldn't have worked half so well, had people been hurled into the pit without the momentum of prior belief.


Caleb Strange.
-- QCiC --
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