The use of caves in mythology to depict darkness and abandonment hasbranded it as a symbol of chaos. From this perception other associationsare made which connect the cave to prejudices, malevolent spirits, burialsites, sadness, resurrection and intimacy. It is a world to which onlyfew venture, and yet its mysticism has attracted the interest ofphilosophers, religious figures and thinkers throughout history. Thesemyths are exemplified in Homer’s “Odyssey,” where the two worlds ofmortals and immortals unite in the eternal cave.
To Plato, the cave represents the confusion between reality andfalsehood. Individuals chained deep within the recesses of the cavemistake their shadows for physical existence. These false perceptions,and the escape from bonds held within the cave symbolize transition intothe a world of reality. Comparatively, in the Odyssey, Odysseus mustfirst break with Kalypso, and set himself free before he can return toIthaka, when he will then be prepared to release Penelope from thebondage of suitors. His experience within the cave is in itself a worldof fantasy, in that Kalypso is a supernatural being, and the only way toescape her enslavement is to receive assistance from immortals superiorto her.
The philosopher Francis Bacon also theorized about the myth attached tocaves in which he maintained that “idols,” meaning prejudices andpreconceived notions possessed by an individual, were contained in aperson’s “cave,” or obscure, compartment, with “intricate and windingchambers’”1 . Beliefs that caves were inhabited by negative thoughts, orspirits, were also held by the native-American culture, in which thesespirits influenced the outcome of all human strivings, and had to bemaintained inside caves. The souls of the dead were thought to be themost malevolent of all spirits, and were held within the deepest parts ofthe cave. In Greek mythology this also holds true, according the legendin which Cronus was placed in a cave in the deepest part of theunderworld. This was done by Zeus and his siblings after waging waragainst their father for swallowing them at birth for fear that theymight overthrow him. Incidently, Zeus was raised in a cave after Rheahid him from Cronus. For his punishment, Cronus was placed in Tartarus toprevent his return to earth, which would unbalance the system ofauthority established by Zeus.
Beyond the shadows of the cave, however, this balanced system of power isnonexistent. It becomes a system both unstable and lawless, and survivalas a guest in such a cave is only accomplished through the completesubmission to the sovereign. In Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops, itis his disregard for Polyphemos’ authority that costs him the lives ofseveral companions, and ultimately a ten year delay on his return home.The land of the Cyclops epitomizes darkness, chaos, and abandonment;where the only law exists past the entrance of the cave. From theisland’s shore a “high wall of…boulders”2 can be seen encircling eachcave. Clearly impossible of being accomplished by mortals, massive wallsof similar description found standing after the Persian Wars were alsothought by ancient Greeks to be the work of the Cyclops. Unfamiliar tothis system of power, Odysseus disregards these laws and enters the cavewithout an invitation. For this reason, Polyphemos implicates his ownpunishment onto the trespassers, and kills six men.
In order to escapethe wrath of the Cyclops, Odysseus eventually blinds him, an offensewhich falls under the jurisdiction of Poseidon, and for which heultimately pays throughout his wanderings.The uncontrollable winds next direct Odysseus through a narrow straitoutlined by rocks and cliffs through which he must pass to return home.On these cliffs which stand opposite each other lurk Scylla andCharybdis, one side “reaching up into…heaven”3 and the other notquite as high.
Scylla, a creature with twelve feet and six necks, residesin a cave upon this high cliff and devours sailors from fleeting ships.Across the stream of water dwells Charybdis, a dreadful whirlpool beneatha fig tree. Three times daily the maelstrom forms, and shipwreckspassing vessels. In the “Odyssey,” Odysseus and his crew encounter thesetwo sea monsters, and while avoiding Charybdis, fall prey to Scylla, whoswallows six men. This passage between both cliffs is now believed to bethe Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily in which the myth of thetwo monsters was thought to have been created by sailors seeking anexplanation of the phenomenon.Surviving this encounter, Odysseus’ voyage is again interrupted by thecourse of the winds, and shipwrecks on the island of Ogygia where hebecomes the subject of Kalypso’s instant affection. Her cave symbolizesabundance and order, exhibited by the “flourishing growth of vine”4 whichencircles her cave.
Known as the blood of the earth,’ the grapes aresymbolic of her destructive character, and the cloud of darkness whichhovers above her cave. The cedar trees are significantly placed aroundher cave as well, to drive away the demons which make their homes inthese caves, as the legend goes. Odysseus is retained on her island forseven years, with the promise of eternal youth. Although he neverreceives the physical aspect of eternal youth, he is however, spirituallyreborn by a transformation which occurs through immersion in theunconscious, which is symbolized by the cave.
This spiritual reformationresults in his prolonged life. During his stay, Odysseus lives as avirtual prisoner, and is stripped of all his freedoms under her control.She is the sovereign of her dominion, and holds the right to govern herterritory, Odysseus included.The last cave identified in the “Odyssey” is “shaded and pleasant,”5inhabited by the Nymphs of the Wellsprings. It is were his treasures areplaced upon reaching Ithaka. Although this location never becomesfamiliar to Odysseus, the treasure kept inside is symbolic of the cave’sfertility.
In Christianity as well, a legend exists in which Jesus wastempted by the devil in a cave upon the Mount of Temptation. Jesus wasalso eventually buried in a cave after being taken down from the cross.Ironically a stone was needed to block the light entering the cave afterhis burial, in contrast to the widely accepted perception of the darknessof caves. This practice of burying men in caves was common among variouscivilizations, such as the Aegean people of Asia Minor, and the biblicalcharacters Abraham and Sarah.
Before the creation of temples, allreligious ceremonies were held in caves, which were universallyrecognized as the womb of Mother Earth. Buddhist temple structures ofIndia, known as cave-halls, used caves as their place of worship, andwould place a stupa at the far end of each cave. Stupas were structuresrepresenting heaven, rising from bases symbolic of earth. This could becompared to Mt. Olympus, known in mythology as the home of the gods.Similar to the stupa, its base was on earth, and its peak reached intoheaven. Although Mt.
Olympus was not taken into account when creatingtheir religious figures, the stupa was symbolic of their own “Mt.Olympus,” known as Mount Meru. The up-pointing triangle of the mountainis symbolic of a dominant male figure, while the down-pointing triangleof a cave is symbolic of a female. Although this assumption cannot beconsidered accurate in all instances, it holds true for Kalypso, clearlya dominant female present throughout Odysseus’ adventures; and Zeus, whoheld the ultimate decision on his return home.Caves were used frequently in mythological tales, not necessarilypertaining to the Odyssey.
In Roman mythology, Somnus, the god of sleepresided in a cave were the sun never shone and everything was in silence.Similarly, the serpent Python, made from the slime of the earth dwelt ina cave, as did Pan, who inspired fear by his ugliness, haunting caves andmountain tops. The parallelism between these three legends, is theirassociation with the myth of the cave: Somnus’ darkness, Pan’s isolationfrom civilization, and Python’s ability to conceal himself within theearth. In a Norse legend, Balder, the god of light and joy, was sent tothe underworld after being stabbed by his blind brother.
He was latersent for by his father, but could only be released under the conditionthat everything in the world wept for him. Ironically, the only personwho did not weep, was an old woman in a cave, the very symbol of sadness.Caves have been a source of legend since the origin of man, and myths, away to explain these unnatural occurrences. It represents a detachmentfrom the world, life, and afterlife.
When translated into Old Norse,“cave” becomes hellir, and in Scandinavian mythology, the Black goddessHel, Queen of shades, is the derivation of our word, hell. Otherassociations made with caves through mythology have been resurrection,and fertility. Resurrection in the Egyptian underworld, is representedby two doors, in which the deceased enters through the Western gate, andleaves through the Eastern gate.
The Western entrance symbolizes thedying sun as it sets, while the East, rebirth and the freedom of thespirit as it is released from its body. Finally, the intimacy providedby the warmth and darkness of caves, creates an ideal shelter forlove-making. In the “Odyssey,” Kalypso and Odysseus, “withdrawn in thehollow recess of the hollowed cavern, enjoy themselves in love.”6The variety of myths associated with caves, can best be summed as amortal’s cycle of existence, for it begins and ends in the same location.Life begins in the womb’ of mother earth as two individuals conceive achild within the shelter of a cave.
Once grown, this adult may inhabitthis cave and use it as a place of residence himself, yet regardless ofthe conquests and adventures which take place throughout his life, he iseventually returned to the soil in the form of a grave, and is releasedas a spirit back into the cave.