Arie Amaya-Akkermans
The Charonion:
Antioch’s Gate to the Underworld

For B.Y.

From the Antakya-Reyhanlı Highway, we traveled up a dirt road by motorbike to the western foot of the Staurin Mountain, on the northern flank of Mount Silpius to finally reach the cave church of Saint Peter. According to oral tradition, this was one of the first churches used by the Christians of Antioch, around the year 40 AD. Almost nothing remains of the church, except the cave itself and small fragments of floor mosaic and traces of frescoes added in later centuries. Across from the courtyard lies Antakya, the modern city, nondescript and sprawling erratically in all directions — a place that could be anywhere. Could this possibly be the same place where Peter preached, opposite a highway lined up with hotels?

To the left of the church, we climbed up the rock at an elevation of some hundred meters, surrounded by shrubs and litter, to arrive at the monumental rock carving known as the Charonion. This isn’t anything like the ancient temples you would like to imagine as a visitor, such as the Temple of Artemis or the Asclepion, separated from the world by an archipelago of time. Instead, the monument is scribbled in red paint and left in a state of abeyance.

Fig 1. The Charonion, Antioch

Everything in Antakya is so noncontinuous with its past that without precise instructions, you could never know how close the Seleucid wall and agora of Antioch on the Orontes, the seat of the Greek kings of Syria, was from both the cave and the monument. The name Charonion is a reference to the mythological figure of Charon, the messenger of Hades, who carries the souls of the recently departed who have received the rituals of burial across the river Styx, from the world of the living into the underworld. A coin to pay for passage was sometimes placed in the mouth of a dead person, according to the poet Callimachus’ Hecale (fragment 278).

In the mytheme of the catabasis, a hero journeys to the underworld, but returns, still alive, conveyed by the boat of Charon. However, in the most compelling version of this narrative Charon is surprisingly absent: For the journey of Odysseus to the underworld, instructed by the witchlike goddess Circe in the Odyssey XI, in order to consult the prophet Tiresias in the land of the dead, she instructs him to tie his ship in the deep-eddying Ocean, and to go directly into the lower realms. Odysseus’ catabasis was also a nekya, a rite by means of which ghosts are called up and questioned about the future, after slitting the throat of two sheep and draining the blood into the pit.


But the spurious association of the Charonion with Charon is, if anything, a fiction inside a truth wrapped inside fiction nestled within a coincidence. The belief that 6th century AD Antiochenes associated the monument with Charon is not exactly untrue, but a partial amalgamation of fact and fantasy, coined up by early 19th century travelers who discovered the monument, and based on a single source — the 6th century AD Chronographia by Syrian chronicler John Malalas, describing events that took place during a plague. In the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Hellenistic king of the Seleucid Empire, in the 2nd century BC, it is said that there was a plague in the city, and after many people died, Leios, a sorcerer, ordered that a rock from the mountain above the city be carved with an enormous mask, looking towards the city.

Malalas adds that Leios wrote an inscription on it which stopped the plague, and that to the present day, in his time, Antiochenes called this mask the Charonion, identical with the Greek expression to name caves and pits that produced toxic gases, but nowhere to be found in the geologically active environs of Antioch. No evidence of such an inscription has ever been found and Malalas omitted its content.

The monument is composed of two figures; a colossal bust and a figure standing on its right shoulder. The bust is wearing a double veil, like a shawl with twisted ends, resting on the shoulders. But most of the details in the carving are lost today, unknown whether to the erosion of time, or vandalism against pagan cult sites in later eras. It is also possible that the monument was never finished, or that it was quickly abandoned, perhaps because the plague came to an end?

Fig 2. Cave Church of Saint Peter

The fact that stands out however, is that the bust bears nearly no resemblance with other artistic depictions of Charon. Scholars who have surveyed the site arrived at no definitive conclusion, but they generally suspect that the Charonion is an Anatolian-style mother goddess cult site, derived from strong neo-Hittite cultural influence. Plenty of iconographic parallels relate the Charonion to female deities, such as images of Amazons in Greek vase paintings, the scarves worn by Phoenician Demeter-Kore terracotas, or the neo-Hittite ivory goddess, wearing a headscarf and carrying a child on the shoulder.

The Charonion is most likely a combination of a Hellenized Cybele, the Phrygian mountain-mother, and the Syrian goddess Atargatis, the most important deity of the northern Levant, called Dea Syria by the Romans. If it was indeed built in the 2nd century BC, then the Antioch Charonion is most similar to Anatolian Cybele’s open-air temples.

Tyche, the Greek goddess of fortune and luck, a daughter of Aphrodite and Hermes or Zeus, and the symbol of the city of Antioch, who according to Polybius is the deity responsible for unexplainable events, is the likely figure standing on the shoulder of the bust. But the history of Tyche’s cult in Antioch is more complicated than that of a deity imported in the turbulent Hellenistic era (there were a number of different schools in the Tyche cult).

The long Hittite presence from the 14th to the 8th century BC, preceded by the Mari, left many traces in a region inhabited by Semitic and Hurrian peoples. With the arrival of the Hellenistic era, as Greek cultural elements were introduced, Near Eastern and Anatolian beliefs then merged with Greek names, while maintaining local ancient features. This type of syncretism has a long history in Antioch, and is still present in a variety of superstitions, incantations, and associations with abandoned sites.

There is Canaanite mythological material found in Egyptian magic collections (13th-12th century BC) from the Levant, where the multifaceted Egyptian god of the sky, Horus, is identified with the Canaanite Hauron or Horon, which might place the roots of a belief in Charon in the cults of the Near East. The ancient historian Diodorus Siculus thought that the messenger of death and his name had been brought from Egypt.

In fact, matters further complicate: The intended function of the Antioch Charonion, asking for the protection and mercy of the gods, has very little to do with the Charon of Greek mythology, a psychopomp leading deceased souls from earth into the afterlife. Another interpretation is that since the monument was dedicated to stopping a plague that had left countless dead, Charon might have needed to be appeased as the guide into the underworld of masses of Antiochenes dead from the plague.

It is possible perhaps that there are two Charons, or that they took on different forms after the collapse of the Bronze Age? This question remains unanswered, but it is likely that the association with Charon might have also happened long after the monument was built, when its primeval function had been already forgotten.

The story of this marginal, constantly misattributed monument, and
one of the very few visible remnants of the many layers of the ancient
city in present-day Antakya, is not only paradigmatic of the violent
palimpsestic configurations of life and historical space in this
political hinterland, but also a reminder that here histories (in the
plural) are never transparent, and facts are often distorted by
unexplainable events.

Or is it the myths that become distorted and fall
into obsolescence? Temporalities are superimposed, like suns that double
up, or merge into mountains like in the paintings of Etel Adnan.

Fig 3. Old City, Antioch

I could tell you everything about the violence of this city, in rich colorful descriptions: The gift shops with busts of Hittite kings,
sitting alongside the busts of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The exiles of Armenians who fled here after the genocide, and once again escaped to the French Mandate of Syria when Hatay was annexed to Turkey, in a fraudulent referendum. The ghosts of the city center, ruins both fresh and ruined, in the form of elegant Damascene houses, as a reminder of gentler times, have been transformed into entertainment venues, breathing an air of pretended foreignness. And it goes on.

The extractive regime of imperial archaeology provided the template for the excavations of the 1930s that removed entire squares and walls of the old Roman villas, into the archaeological museum, started by the French Mandate and then completed under the Turkish republic. This extractive violence then translated into a cycle of expropriation and extermination, creating islands of belonging and exclusion, enveloped by imaginary seas of brute force. In this clean slate, peppered with a few minor archaeological sites, many largely apocryphal, time is weaponized as a national archaeology that encompasses the entirety of human history, teleologically directed at the birth of a noble, modern, nation state.

But these descriptions would serve no purpose, because the obliteration of everything that you will hear me say is so complete, that the city expands like a tabula rasa swallowing everything in its wake; the end result of a century-long demographic experiment. What we are seeing here is the erasure of entire peoples, who survive only as gift shop souvenirs, vague resemblances, or perched on distant highlands.

Antioch on the Orontes, lies deep buried underneath the modern city, and without an entrance in sight, not even to the underworld. Deep buried like the Roman city of Orthosia. In their sculptural work, “Under the Cold River Bed” (2021), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige turned to the Palestinian refugee camp of Narh el Bared, 100 km north of Beirut, destroyed in 2007 in clashes between the Lebanese Army and the group Fatah al-Islam, which resulted in the destruction of nearly all buildings in the camp, leaving thousands homeless.

As the reconstruction work began, major archaeological discoveries were made, uncovering stratified layers, from the Neolithic period and all the way to a very well preserved Roman city, called Orthosia. Archaeologists were working against time: a decision was taken to backfill the entire camp and seal Orthosia as a sarcophagus, with gigantic layers of concrete varying in thickness between 50 cm and 4 meters. Their sculpture is an imprint of the sarcophagus that buried Orthosia as soon as it rose. As Khalil says in an interview, included in this issue, Orthosia will have to wait until Palestinians are free.

Fig 4. Under the Cold River Bed, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, 2021

Imagine Antioch then as an Orthosia on the Orontes, but without a latent promise of liberation. If you would come here, you wouldn’t even be able to measure the boundaries of the architectural sarcophagus: Where is it? Antioch on the Orontes, Antioch by Daphne, Seleucia, Seleucia Pieria, Alexandretta. Nothing is precise. How can you reconstruct something that has vanished without leaving traces? What are the pieces? Will it be necessary then to summon a ghost through the nekya of the catabasis?

There is an ineffability of language in this catastrophe that deafens us to storytelling as we know it. Here it is no longer possible to tell the story of things as they are, as they were, as they have been, without breaking the continuity of life that guides us through reality. Simone Fattal asks at the end of her text about travels and peregrinations from her native Syria during the Ottoman world, ‘What happened to this society? What happened to our countries? What kind of fury, and unfairness has settled over us?’.

The way we tell stories, and the stories we tell, defines by and large who we are, who we become. Is it perhaps possible that we need to move from historiography into the imagination, and ultimately back into myth? Toying with the speculative possibility that our foundational narratives can be transformed, moving from destiny into destination.

And here enters again the Odyssey: A song about ‘the man of many turns’, rendering of the Greek polytropos, a man of different minds, who could take on different forms, and most importantly, from a psychoanalytic perspective, a man who could change his ways. Odysseus wandered and was lost after he had laid siege to the holy city of Troy, and he suffered much pain in storms at sea, and worked to save his life and bring his men back home to Ithaca. But in this song about a return, this hero, a wildly imperfect character, managed to fail at just about everything. Disaster, death, wreckage, loss, and endless grief.

Yet in the “Apologoi” (stories inside a story) in books IX-XII of the epic, the hero takes over the narration from the bard as he’s telling his own story to the Phaecians, of the journey from Troy to Calypso’s island Ogygia. Through this control of the narrative, he re-charts his own journey from a passive spectator and sufferer into a whole person with the power of agency; to achieve this he resorts to all kinds of psychological and narrative devices: exaggeration, omission, metaphor, manipulation, lies, temporal dislocation, selective memory, parody.

Joel Christensen offers us a reading of Homer through the lens of post-structuralist narrative therapy arguing that ‘We are constantly telling stories to ourselves and others to make sense of our place in the world —often these stories are distortive but defensive (acting to protect our self-esteem) […] Our relationship with narrative, therefore, can be indicative of our overall health. As researchers have shown, the ability to control narrative is often lost during times of emotional and physical crisis. For trauma victims, memory can become fixed and its resultant narratives spin out of control.’  In the course of telling these stories, and rearranging them, as if for the first time, Odysseus presents himself as a man capable of changing himself and his surroundings.

There’s a story right near the middle of the “Apologoi”, told by Odysseus himself, that seems to steer the narrative of loss, unexpectedly, into a whole new direction, in the course of which, a resolution appears in the horizon of possibilities — the encounter between Odysseus and majestic lady Circe, the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and of the ocean nymph Perse.

After Odysseus arrives in the remote island of Aeaea, where Circe lives, she turns his men into swine, and only after the intervention of Hermes, making him immune to her spells, he spends a year living with Circe, alongside his men, feasting and drinking. She tells him: ‘You are worn down and brokenhearted, always dwelling on pain and wandering. You never feel joy at heart. You have endured too much.’

After a year there he wants to finally return home, and for the first time, he receives clear instructions, however heart-breaking: ‘But first you must complete another journey. Go to the house of Hades and the dreadful Persephone, and ask the Theban prophet, the blind Tiresias, for his advice. Persephone has given him alone full understanding, even now in death.’ A stunned Odysseus replies, ‘But Circe, who can guide us on this journey? No one before has ever sailed to Hades by ship.’ Her instructions are clear: ‘Tie up your ship in the deep-eddying Ocean, and go into the spacious home of Hades. The Pyriphlegethon and Cocytus, a tributary to the Styx, both run into the Acheron.’

Whatever happens to him in the underworld isn’t exactly our topic right now, or will be added later, but it suffices to say that it was only there that a return really materializes. Christensen continues, ‘The second step comes when Odysseus tells his story: he isolates his mistakes and conceptualizes them as part of a causal chain that was ultimately responsible for his suffering.’ And then later on, ‘Odysseus’ therapeutic narrative re-charts his journey as one where victim and victor can co-exist in one body, one tale.’


We can conclude our story, right now, only as a parafiction, the parafiction of the catabasis:

After we failed to locate Charon at the Charonion, since he probably goes now by a different name, Aramaic or Ugaritic, and without any other local deities to turn to, since gods do not dwell in plundered temples, we set for the valley of the dead, armed only with the instructions of Circe to Odysseus. But what kind of pilgrimage downwards begins with the ascent of a mountain? And why would we want to descend into the underworld? It is necessary to summon a ghost. The ghost of Sophia, a bird that had recently died. We wanted her help to finally reach Orthosia on the Orontes, buried in thick slabs of concrete under this city. Is this how the catabasis begins then? On a beautiful summer day in August?

From the instructions of Circe, we know that the Acheron, one of the rivers of Hades, and related by many authors to Charon, is located in the Epirus region of Greece, but with only a motorbike, and without a visa, how could we ever get there? Uncertain whether Odysseus stared into the void of Hades or physically traveled there —the epic is very economic on the details and the reasons for the journey, he came up with a plan: There might be perhaps another river that leads to Hades, the mythological Orontes, a river-god and in fact, a river of death: The Battle of Kadesh, the Battle of Qarqar, the Battle of Isus, the Battle of the Iron Bridge. In more recent times, neighbor fighting neighbor in the Syrian Civil War: Jawreen, Jabb al-Ahmar, Aziziya, Sqelbiya, Qaalat al-Moudiq, and many others.

We traveled then to the end of the known world, the southernmost tip in the geography of this country, by the mouth of the Orontes river into the sea, on the bay of Seleucia Pieria, in modern-day Samandağ, once known by its Armenian name, Svetia. After the annexation of the province of Hatay by Turkey, nearly all the residents of the surrounding Armenian villages emigrated to Anjar, Lebanon, near Labweh, the birth of the Orontes in the east Bekaa valley. So it would be like a full cycle of life and death.

At the other end of the river, we stood on the silent bay, in the pitch dark night, gazing far into the unknown at two fading lights coming from Syria, that new borderland of another world, pierced by bombings, seen in the distance from this very point, only a couple of years ago. In the morning we would venture into the river, by the edge of the deep-eddying Ocean, only a few kilometers south. 

Do you see this ocean? He asked me: It’s the most beautiful thing in the world, a thing of blinding beauty… This used to be the place where I came to find peace, but now I’m trapped, it’s a prison. We fell into a deep sleep by the shore, and Sophia, who had been buried nearby, appeared to him in a dream as a shadow, saying: You cannot descend into the underworld because you’re already in hell! In the ascent of a mountain, you search for Charon but only in order to ferry you back to the light! Anticleia, Odysseus’ mother tells him during their meeting in the underworld, ‘Now hurry to the light; remember all these things, so that you may tell your wife in times to come.’ The dim lights from Syria continued flickering, and we sat there, among all the other shadows.

Fig 5. Seleucia Pieria

A catabasis, however, must be followed by an anabasis, in order to be considered a true catabasis, and not simply death. The anabasis is the return, or the marching up to the light. Douglas Frame tells us that the return of Odysseus is not only back home but also a return to light and life. And the catabasis doesn’t have to be only to the underworld, but also to dystopic areas, grey zones of confinement, of displacement, of remoteness, where reality no longer makes sense. Most of Odysseus’ return journey ultimately takes place in such locales, far from the Olympian sight—Aeolia, Telepylos, Aeaea, Scylla and Charybdis, Ogygia, Scheria.

But what does it mean to be far at this point? Far away in relation to what? That cruel sea from where Odysseus’ death would come, according to Tiresias, stood impassively before us, having reached the boundary limit after which even death is not possible. Here in the sea of the underworld, all days and nights are the same, everybody becomes invisible and time flows completely without direction.

The prophecy of Tiresias, while it contained information about Odysseus’ death which takes place in another epic, lost to us, did not specify anything about his return home! The precise instructions would be given by Circe, but only out of the underworld.

Why is your life in the dark? Sophia inquired of him once again, and at last, showered us with a lasting vision: One day, in another time, on our way out of Antioch on the Orontes, finally unburied, on Khalil’s promise of Orthosia, Circe herself awaited by the Charonion, and greeted us with the same words that she uttered to Odysseus when he and his men returned from the valley of the dead: ‘This is amazing! You all went alive to Hades—you will be twice-dead, when other people only die one time! Eat now, and stay here drinking wine all day. At dawn, sail on. I will explain your route in detail so no evil thing can stitch a means to hurt you, on the land or sea.’

We’re just waiting to sail on.



Acknowledgements: Joel Christensen, Simone Fattal, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Karina el Helou, Barış Yapar.