A well-known passage from Plato’s Republic describes how a group of people, chained to the wall of a deep cavern, spend their entire lives looking at the shadows dancing on the cave wall in front of them. The captives are oblivious to the source of divine light behind them. The shadows are synonymous with illusory objects spun by the goddess Maia, as the Hindu would probably say, while the light symbolizes the true and real world of eternal forms. In Plato’s universe, what we take for real are mere shadows.
The allegory of the cave was also popular with Neoplatonists, notably with Porphyry, author of the treatise “On the Cave of the Nymphs.” When Odysseus, the “complicated” (polytropos) man who wandered and was lost, finally arrives in Ithaca, the first place he visits is the Cave of the Nymphs. For Porphyry, “a cave is a symbol of the sensible world because caverns are dark, stony, and humid.” Here the Naiades are busy clothing the incarnating souls into bodily forms. It would seem that for Plato the cave was a place one ought to seek freedom from whereas for Porphyry it was a reservoir of gigantic generative powers as well as a place of initiation. In his Science and Religion in Archaic Greece, Roger Sworder also says that in Homer ”this Ithacan cave is symbolically transformed into the whole earth.” In the Odyssey, as Sworder elaborates “the southward path leads to mortal death, the northward path to immortality.” Thus, Odysseus’ and Athena’s passage through the southern entrance of the cave brings his spiritual rebirth. Although Plato and Porphyry claim it is necessary to seek flight from the cave, it seems that the generative Earth-born energies of caves are affirmed by Porphyry.
In Man and His Symbols, Jung referred to caves as “a place of meditation and of the mystery of transformation from the earthly to the heavenly, from the carnal to the spiritual.” For Jung the cave was an alchemical vessel, a symbol of the unconscious, where transformative processes can brew in peace and concealment from the unwanted eye. The unconscious is a dark place, where our daylight orientation methods become unreliable. Entering a cave has been traditionally associated with incubation and introspection for the depths of the unconscious psyche are indeed cavernous.
Symbolically, caves have been associated with the womb or as Erich Neumann wrote in The Great Mother:
“To this world belong not only the subterranean darkness as hell and night but also such symbols as chasm, cave, abyss, valley, depths, which in innumerable rites and myths play the part of the earth womb that demands to be fructified.”
Some American Indian tribes believed that “mankind was born of embryos which matured within underground caverns,” says The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. In Book 19 of The Odyssey (transl. by Emily Wilson), Odysseus “narrowly escaped the winds and found a refuge, mooring his ships in Amnisus, beside the cave of Eileithyia.” This was the Cretan goddess of childbirth, daughter of Hera and Zeus, who in Cretan myth was also born in a cave. Near the cave of Eileithyia many votive offerings were found by archaeologists.
In this connection, pre-historic cave paintings can be recalled. As Jean Clottes states, prehistoric peoples saw the cave as “a place crawling with spirits and animal forms…” (1). Caves were consequently felt to be “places of power, a power that could be attained and made use of.” Perhaps this could explain the mysterious hand markings found in prehistoric caves, for example in the Argentinian Cueva de los Manos. Caves were “liminal points of contact with the supernatural,” concludes Clottes. Similarly in Tibet, some features of the landscape, including sacred caves, were believed to possess “gnas” or power. (2)
Especially fascinating was the role caves played in Egyptian cosmology. Cave-like spaces were constructed there because the area lacked natural caves. The Egyptians believed that the live-giving inundation of the Nile had its source in a cave. (3) Egyptian temples incorporated the imagery of the underworld through construction of restricted dark “caves.” Similarly, so many Catholic churches not only house crypts but were sometimes built near a cave, Lourdes being a prominent example. Black Madonna statues are often to be found in these hidden recesses of the Christian temples. Caves, where prominent teachers would meditate, were also frequent foundational elements of Tibetan temples and monasteries such as Potala Palace.
Cave symbolism naturally incorporates a full circle of life, as caves were also traditional places of burial. They were also believed to be entrances to the underworld, which the Ancient Egyptians called “the Swallower of All.” In German, the words Höhle (cave) and Hölle (hell) are closely related. In Greek myth the entrance to the Underworld was known as Charon’s cave. Also novelists are not blind to the dreadful symbolic dimension of the cave. There is a short story by Haruki Murakami called “The Wind Cave.” In it, a 12-year old sister of the narrator dies of a heart disease. Some time before that a family had been hiking around the caves of Mount Fuji. At one point the children found a narrow passage and the girl decided to explore it. She was gone for a long time, which made the boy increasingly uneasy. At the end of the story, when the sister had already died, the narrator’s thoughts return to the cave incident:
“At that time, a thought struck me: that maybe, even before the doctor at the hospital officially pronounced her dead two years later, her life had already been snatched from her while she was deep inside that cave. I was actually convinced of it. She’d already been lost inside that hole, and left this world, but I, mistakenly thinking she was still alive, had put her on the train with me and taken her back to Tokyo.“
The terrifying symbolic quality of caves is conveyed in another short story, by a Korean writer Bora Chung. In her story collection called Cursed Bunny, one of the scariest bears the title “Scars.” A young orphan boy is thrown into a cave by the villagers. He is preyed upon by a monster:
“Flashing sunlight or suffocating darkness, the blinding sky or the damp and moldy air of the cave, water as cold as ice or sticky humidity and feces – there was nothing in between for the boy and no foretelling of what would happen when. It came to the boy once a month, pierced his bones, and sucked at his marrow.”
Thoughts of death also accompany modern explorers of caves. I found the following passage dedicated to potholing (extreme caving) very striking:
“The language of extreme caving is often openly mortal and tacitly mythic: stretches of passageway ‘dead out’, one reaches ‘terminal sumps’ and ‘chokes’, the furthest-down regions are known as ‘the dead zone’. But over time I saw that – as with extreme mountaineering – there was another aspect to the thanatos at work. Divers and cave divers often describe their experiences in terms of ecstasy and transcendence. ‘I have had such beautiful moments in the water,’ says the British diver Don Shirley, who dived below 790 feet in Boesmansgat. ‘You are absolutely, completely in a void, like being in outer space . . . You get to the point where there is no God, no past, no future, just now and the next millisecond. It’s not a threatening environment – just total serenity.” (4)
That is perhaps what sages and hermits looked for in caves as the most perfect spaces for meditation. Whatever caves mean, their fascination has been with humankind since the beginning. From the Homeric hymn to Hermes we learn that “the luck-bringing messenger of the immortals,” “a bringer of dreams,” and “a watcher by night” was born in “a deep, shady cave” at dawn, when the first light was penetrating the darkness of earth’s womb. His mother’s name was Maia, which has an apt resonance with the Hindu goddess mentioned at the beginning. In symbolism there is perhaps nothing more stirring for the imagination than the cave.
(1) Jean Clottes, “Ritual Cave Use in European Paleolithic Caves” in : Holley Moyes, ed., Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves
(2) Mark Aldenderfer, “Caves as Sacred Spaces on the Tibetan Plateau” in: Holley Moyes, ed., Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves
(3) Stuart Tyson Smith, “The Chamber of Secrets: Grottoes, Caves and the Underworld in Ancient Egyptian Religion” in: Holley Moyes, ed., Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves
(4) Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey
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