Researchers suggest Bet Shemesh cave was used for necromancy in Roman era

Researchers suggest Bet Shemesh cave was used for necromancy in Roman era

The Te’omim (twins) Cave, east of Bet Shemesh was discovered in 1873 but a recent discovery has scientists speculating that the site was believed to be a portal to the underworld and used for necromancy some 1,700 years ago. 

During the unsuccessful Bar Kochba revolt in 132 CE against the Romans,, the Jewish partisan frequently hid in caves. One such hideout was the Te’omim Cave complex which is extensive and features inner water sources, deep pits, and caverns.

The cave was later used as a Roman cultic site. Early excavations in the 1920s and 1970s uncovered a large assemblage of oil lamps and coins in the entrance hall of the cave dating to the Late Roman and early Byzantine periods. But in 2009, as part of a collaboration of the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University and the Cave Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researchers went deeper into the cave complex, discovering inner chambers. Over 120 intact oil lamps were collected in the 2010–2016 survey seasons from all sections of the cave; most of them were dated to the second to fourth centuries CE. All of these lamps had been deliberately inserted in narrow, deep crevices in the main chamber walls or beneath the rubble. Researchers also discovered three human skulls, ancient pottery and weapons from the Bronze Age, dating some 2,000 years before the oil lamps were placed in crevices. The lamps and skulls, along with other artifacts, were found wedged into deep crevices in the cave that suggest ancient peoples deliberately arranged them for a ritual purpose.  It is interesting to note that there were no signs of other skeletal remains.

“This whole area underwent a radical transformation following the crash of the Bar Kokhba Revolt,” Professor Boaz Zissu, an archaeologist at Bar Ilan University who has been studying the cave since 2009, told Times of Israel

“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 square pool (with sides 6.5 ft long) hewn in the chamber collects water that drips from the ceiling. The water then flows westward through a rock-cut canal. Additional channels were hewn in various spots in the entrance hall to collect the dripping water in pools or storage vessels.

Caves and deep pits that were cultic sites were often associated with Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture and the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, the goddess of spring. Greek mythology recounts that Persephone was abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, and made his wife. She spends part of the year (winter) in the underworld with her husband and the rest of the year above ground with her mother. The lamps were placed in hard-to-reach crevices as offerings and to assist Demeter in her search for Persephone.

In the article published this week in the Harvard Theological Review, Eitan Klein and Boaz Zissu, archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority and Bar-Ilan University, respectively, “propose with due caution that necromancy ceremonies took place in the Te’omim Cave in the Late Roman period and that the cave may have served as a local oracle (nekromanteion) for this purpose.”

 Nekromanteion were also known as oracles of the dead. These shrines were generally located near water sources or in caves that were thought to be potential entrances to the underworld. Evil spirits were believed to be afraid of metal, particularly iron and bronze. As such, keeping a metal weapon close by, such as a sword or dagger, would keep you somewhat protected from evil spirits.

“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,” the researchers said in the study. “Most of the objects discovered in hard-to-reach crevices in the Te’omim Cave, including the oil lamps, the ceramic and glass bowls and vessels, the ax head, and the daggers, were used in one way or another for sorcery and magic in caves perceived as possible portals to the underworld. Their purpose was to predict the future and conjure up the spirits of the dead.”

“Because more than 100 ceramic oil lamps but only three human skulls have been found so far in the Te’omim Cave, we hypothesize that the primary cultic ceremony focused on depositing oil lamps for chthonic forces, perhaps as part of rituals conducted in the cave to raise the dead and predict the future,”

Many of the features were identical to cave shrines in the Greco-Roman world, where necromancy was practiced but controversial and ultimately outlawed by the emperor Constantius II in 357 CE.

“Due to the archaeological context of the finds and their location inside the cave, we assume that the craniums were placed together with the oil lamps as part of a ritual of magic,” the team said. “Examination of both the written sources and the archaeological finds may indicate the type of ritual that took place in the cave, involving the use and hiding of human craniums, lamps, and bowls, together with metal weapons and other artifacts dating to much earlier periods.” 

“The findings and their specific archaeological contexts provide a better understanding of divination rites that were probably held in the cave and shed a more tangible light over the spells of the Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri,” the researchers concluded.

Necromancy is prohibited by the Torah.

Do not turn to ghosts and do not inquire of familiar spirits, to be defiled by them: I Hashem am your God. Leviticus 19:31

When the prophet Samuel dies, he is buried in Ramah (1 Sam 25:1; 28:3). Saul, the king of Israel, seeks advice from God in choosing a course of action against the assembled forces of the Philistine army. He receives no answer from dreams, prophets, or the Urim and Thummim. Having previously driven out all necromancers and magicians from Israel, Saul searches for a witch anonymously and is told one is living in the village of Endor. Saul disguises himself and crosses through enemy lines to visit her, asking her to raise Samuel. The woman at first refuses on account of Saul’s edict against sorcery, but Saul assures her that she will not be punished.

The woman summons a spirit, and when it appears, she works out who Saul is and screams, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”. Saul assures her that no harm will come to her, and asks what she sees. She says that she sees “elohim” (plural word gods) rising (plural verb). Then, Saul asks what “he” (singular) looks like, and she describes an old man wrapped in a robe. Saul bows down to the spirit, but is apparently unable to see it himself. The spirit complains of being disturbed, berates Saul for disobeying God, and predicts Saul’s downfall. The living Samuel has already said Saul would have his kingship removed, but this spirit adds that Israel’s army will be defeated, and Saul and his sons will be “with me” tomorrow. Saul collapses in terror; the woman comforts him, and prepares him a meal of a fatted calf to restore his strength.

The following day, the Israelite army is defeated as prophesied: Saul is wounded by the Philistines and commits suicide by falling on his sword. In 1 Chronicles, it is stated that Saul’s death was, in part, a punishment for seeking advice from a medium rather than from God

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