Israeli researchers discovered possible evidence of “ritual magic” in a deep cave in the Judaean hills.
Human skulls were arranged in patterns near oil lamps, with daggers and axe heads nearby.
The artifacts are thought to be necromancer tools, as caves were considered portals to the underworld.
Hidden deep in Te’omim Cave in Jerusalem, researchers have discovered evidence of ritual magic practices dating back to antiquity — with human skulls and daggers pointing to dark ceremonies where necromancers may have attempted to conjure the spirits of the dead.
In a new study for Harvard Theological Review published by Cambridge University Press, researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Bar-Ilan University detailed the results of over a decade of study on 120 oil lamps that were found in the cave within the Judaean hills, which date back to the late Roman to early Byzantine period, or late 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,” authors Eitan Klein and Boaz Zissu wrote in the study. “Some crevices contained groups of oil lamps mixed with weapons and pottery vessels from earlier periods or placed with human skulls.”
The fact that the lamps were inserted so deeply into the hidden, hard-to-reach crevices “suggests that illuminating the dark cave was not their sole purpose,” the academics theorized.
Klein and Zissu did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
In addition to the oil lamps, weapons including daggers and axe heads were located along with three human skulls. No additional human bones were found with the skulls.
These artifacts were likely used as part of necromancy ceremonies in the cave during the Late Roman period, the authors concluded after reviewing their discoveries and a library of ancient papyrus scrolls from the era, which detailed spells and customs honoring the cave.
“One spell explains how to restrain and seal the mouths of skulls so that they won’t say or do anything. Another shows how to raise the spirit of the dead with a disinterred skull: a spell is written in black ink on a flax leaf, which is then placed on the skull,” the research reads, indicating evidence of such rituals was found in the Te’omim Cave. “The purpose of another spell is to obtain assistance and protection from spirits by using the skull of Typhon (probably a donkey) on which a spell is written in the blood of a black dog.”
At the time, the cave, with its deep pit and interior spring, was seen as a potential portal to the underworld, an oracle, and a physical representation of a Chthonic deity — to which witches dedicated their ritual magic. Oil lamps in particular, such as the 120 found within the cave’s crevices, were used to lure spirits to the realm of the living.
One specific incantation, which calls upon the god Besas to reveal the future, contains the following chant to be said to an oil lamp, allowing the god to rise through the flame: “I call upon you, the headless god, the one who has his face upon his feet; you are the one who hurls lightning, who thunders, you are [the one whose] mouth continually pours on himself.”
Rather than evidence of live sacrifices, the daggers and other weaponry found in the cave likely served as talismans to protect against the spirits, which were said to have feared metal — specifically bronze and iron.
Human sacrifice was outlawed in 97 BCE by the Roman Senate. By 357 CE, the researchers note, necromancy was outlawed by the emperor Constantius II, who, due to his fear of sorcery being used against him, prohibited “all forms of divination, communication with demons, disturbance of the spirits of the dead, and nocturnal sacrifices.”
The punishment for violating the emperor’s rule was certain death.
While specifics of the lives of those who practiced necromancy in the Te’omim Cave remain unclear — and will perhaps remain unknowable forever — the artifacts they left behind reveal clues about how they secretly used ritual magic to predict the future and conjure up the spirits of the dead.
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