“Witches’ Cave” discovered near Beit Shemesh, Israel
Editor’s Note: This blog article contains images of human skeletal remains.
An extensive cave just southeast of Beit Shemesh, less than 20 miles west of Jerusalem, has revealed an assortment of items that suggest it was the site of ritual acts of necromancy in the late second through early fourth centuries CE, experts say. In a study published in the Harvard Theological Review, Eitan Klein of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Boaz Zissu of Bar-Ilan University describe and interpret the findings of seven years’ worth of work at Teomim Cave.
Within the tomb, excavators discovered three fragmentary human skulls, a variety of pottery vessels, an axe head, and bronze spearheads from a much earlier period. Tucked away in scattered nooks and crannies throughout the cave, they also found more than 120 small ceramic oil lamps. The items were carefully fished from their resting places using wire rods and hooks. The lamps’ distinctive features permitted the team to date the finds to the late Roman period (late second–early fourth centuries CE).
In the Greco-Roman world, such places—especially those with deep pits like the one about 300 feet into Teomim Cave—were often understood to be gateways to the underworld. This perception often led to the performance of various necromantic or divinatory rituals and ceremonies involving mediums consulting the spirits of the dead.
Such rituals frequently involved the very types of items found at Teomim Cave: oil lamps; the reflective surface of water held in bowls; human skulls; and metal implements or weapons used to repel any unwanted spirits. For this reason, Klein and Zissu posit that the cave was a site for the performance of these rituals during the late Roman period, about 1,700 years ago.
According to local lore, Teomim Cave is broadly associated with the supernatural. Both its Hebrew name (Me‘arat ha-Te’omim, “Cave of the Twins”) and Arabic name (Mugharet Umm al-Taw’amin, “Cave of the Mother of the Twins”) refer to a local legend about an infertile woman in the 19th century who drank from the water pooled in the cave and gave birth to twins soon thereafter. This has led to a traditional belief about the healing power of the cave’s water. Additionally, local farmers told British surveyors in the 1870s about adulterous women who were cast into the cave’s deep pit.
The use of the cave as a place to engage in necromancy thus fits within a more extensive body of tradition surrounding the site, especially from the standpoint of heterodox local tradition. As Klein noted, “This was a popular ritual; the ancient authorities did not support rites of this kind. In some periods the custom was declared illegal; in any case, the authorities took a negative view of it.”
Teomim Cave has been studied several times, beginning in 1873 with a British survey team. Since that time, a French expedition in the late 1920s and Israeli efforts in the early 1970s yielded numerous artifacts and improved mapping of the cave’s interior. Eitan and Zissu’s recent publication describes and interprets the most recent work at the site. In addition to the late Roman-era finds, the cave also has yielded items from the time of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion (early second century CE) and the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 BCE).
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.