You are in a small sanctuary, near the banks of the river Acheron, in the Western Peloponnese. A priest comes to fetch you. ‘It is time’, he says, leading you through the darkness. Stop. Breathe in deeply. What can you smell? The fertile soil, wet and black. The moss that covers the stone temple. You think you can just hear the river, gurgling away in the background – leading the souls of the dead down, down, down into the Underworld. That is why you are here.
As you enter the temple feel your body getting heavier. Relax your head, and neck, relax your shoulders. Feel a fog of tiredness wash over your mind.
You are about to commune with the dead.
You do not know how long you will spend living in the darkness of the temple, but you know it will be at least a week. You enter a long corridor. On your left, three arched doorways lead to the three small rooms you will live in. Here, in the impenetrable darkness you will prepare. You find your first meal in the room through the first arched doorway. Pork, broad beans, barely bread, shellfish. These are the foods of funerary banquets. You lift a cup to your lips – expecting wine, you start back as the sweetness of honeyed milk fills your mouth. This is a banquet for the dead – and you begin to realise the seriousness of where you are and what you are doing. You are putting yourself in a state between the worlds.
Days pass. You don’t know how many. You are disoriented. The mild toxicity of the broad beans begins to affect you. Slowly at first, but then one night – or day, you don’t know which, it’s all night right now – you feel your brother’s strong arms around you, in a cold, dead embrace. You start to believe that you have died, and you are at your own funeral. The banquet truly is yours.
Breathe in, deeply. Smell the dank, wet stone. Smell your own sweat and tears and mud and excrement.
A man enters? Is it the priest? He brings a sheep, presses some smooth stones into your hands. He guides you down a deep passage that seems to never end. He tells you to throw one of the stones in a pile, and then takes you into a room to wash your hands.
You take the sheep. The man tells you to dig a hole and hands you a knife. You are disoriented, but suddenly you snap back as the sharp metallic smell of blood fills you. You have slaughtered the sheep. Your hands are covered in blood and as you cut the sheep up the smell of half-digested sludge and offal overwhelms you. Now there is smoke, you don’t remember setting the fire – it must have been the priest. In this small passage way the smell and the smoke and the bile in the back of your throat have no-where to go. They linger, settling on you, surrounding you, obscuring the way out and the way forward.
The man pulls you to your feet and directs you into a winding, twisting series of passages. You turn the wrong way and hit a wall. You stop, and weep.
Breathe in. What can you smell, in the darkness? The metallic taste of blood clings to your hands. The smoke is still billowing up behind you. Your own panic begins to rise in your throat. You hear someone – or something – coming up behind you. You move on.
Finally, you enter a great hall, the air is clearer in here. Before you enter, you remember – somehow – to throw the barley in your hand onto the ground. You throw the final stone into the room and you enter.
Sinking to the ground, a figure appears in front of you. You can’t quite see it properly. You blink, hard, several times. The figure moves towards you. Who is it? You can’t tell. You try to speak – but the words don’t quite come out the way you imagine. Your brain spins. You breathe in. Blood. Smoke. Sweat. Shit.
Whispers in the dark that you cannot make out. The figure moves, shifts, swaps, slowly levitates. A different figure comes out. You are disoriented.
You think you ask the questions you came to ask. You think you get an answer. You’re not really sure. You fall into some kind of black oblivion.
Some period of time later, a man – the priest – enters the room and helps you up. He asks if you got the answers you wanted. Confidently, you say yes – and that feels like it’s true. In your sleep you had a vision of the future and you know what you must do.
The priest helps you out though a different door, and leads you to a room – bright, clean – and lays you on a bed. He helps you wash, gives you clean clothes. He lays you down and tells you that you’re back from the other side. You must stay here to cleanse that miasma of the dead away from your skin.
Breathe in. Sweet, bright flowers. You hear the river in the background, gurgling the dead into the Underworld…
Image by Samuli Lintula CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=227193
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