Mystical Caves Used Throughout Mythology


The use of caves in mythology to depict darkness and
abandonment has branded it as a symbol of chaos. From this
perception other associations are made which connect the
cave to prejudices, malevolent spirits, burial sites,
sadness, resurrection and intimacy. It is a world to which
only few venture, and yet its mysticism has attracted the
interest of philosophers, religious figures and thinkers
throughout history.

These myths are exemplified in Homer's "Odyssey," where the
two worlds of mortals and immortals unite in the eternal
cave. To Plato, the cave represents the confusion between
reality and falsehood. Individuals chained deep within the
recesses of the cave mistake their shadows for physical
existence. These false perceptions, and the escape from
bonds held within the cave symbolize transition into the a
world of reality. Comparatively, in the Odyssey, Odysseus
must first break with Kalypso, and set himself free before
he can return to Ithaka, when he will then be prepared to
release Penelope from the bondage of suitors. His
experience within the cave is in itself a world of fantasy,
in that Kalypso is a supernatural being, and the only way
to escape her enslavement is to receive assistance from
immortals superior to her. 

The philosopher Francis Bacon also theorized about the myth
attached to caves in which he maintained that "idols,"
meaning prejudices and preconceived notions possessed by an
individual, were contained in a person's "cave," or
obscure, compartment, with "'intricate and winding
chambers'"1 . Beliefs that caves were inhabited by negative
thoughts, or spirits, were also held by the native-American
culture, in which these spirits influenced the outcome of
all human strivings, and had to be maintained inside caves.
The souls of the dead were thought to be the most
malevolent of all spirits, and were held within the deepest
parts of the cave. 

In Greek mythology this also holds true, according the
legend in which Cronus was placed in a cave in the deepest
part of the underworld. This was done by Zeus and his
siblings after waging war against their father for
swallowing them at birth for fear that they might overthrow
him. Incidentally, Zeus was raised in a cave after Rhea hid
him from Cronus. For his punishment, Cronus was placed in
Tartarus to prevent his return to earth, which would
unbalance the system of authority established by Zeus. 

Beyond the shadows of the cave, however, this balanced
system of power is nonexistent. It becomes a system both
unstable and lawless, and survival as a guest in such a
cave is only accomplished through the complete submission
to the sovereign. In Odysseus' encounter with the Cyclops,
it is his disregard for Polyphemos' authority that costs
him the lives of several 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 the island's
shore a "high wall of...boulders"2 can be seen encircling
each cave. Clearly impossible of being accomplished by
mortals, massive walls of similar description found
standing after the Persian Wars were also thought by
ancient Greeks to be the work of the Cyclops. Unfamiliar to
this system of power, Odysseus disregards these laws and
enters the cave without an invitation. For this reason,
Polyphemos implicates his own punishment onto the
trespassers, and kills six men. In order to escape the
wrath of the Cyclops, Odysseus eventually blinds him, an
offense which falls under the jurisdiction of Poseidon, and
for which he ultimately pays throughout his wanderings. The
uncontrollable winds next direct Odysseus through a narrow
strait outlined by rocks and cliffs through which he must
pass to return home. On these cliffs which stand opposite
each other lurk Scylla and Charybdis, one side "reach[ing]
up into...heaven"3 and the other not quite as high. Scylla,
a creature with twelve feet and six necks, resides in a
cave upon this high cliff and devours sailors from fleeting
ships. Across the stream of water dwells Charybdis, a
dreadful whirlpool beneath a fig tree. Three times daily
the maelstrom forms, and shipwrecks passing vessels. In the
"Odyssey," Odysseus and his crew encounter these two sea
monsters, and while avoiding Charybdis, fall prey to
Scylla, who swallows six men. This passage between both
cliffs is now believed to be the Strait of Messina between
Italy and Sicily in which the myth of the two monsters was
thought to have been created by sailors seeking an
explanation of the phenomenon. Surviving this encounter,
Odysseus' voyage is again interrupted by the course of the
winds, and shipwrecks on the island of Ogygia where he
becomes the subject of Kalypso's instant affection. Her
cave symbolizes abundance and order, exhibited by the
"flourishing growth of vine"4 which encircles her cave.
Known as the 'blood of the earth,' the grapes are symbolic
of her destructive character, and the cloud of darkness
which hovers above her cave. The cedar trees are
significantly placed around her cave as well, to drive away
the demons which make their homes in these caves, as the
legend goes. Odysseus is retained on her island for seven
years, with the promise of eternal youth. Although he never
receives the physical aspect of eternal youth, he is
however, spiritually reborn by a transformation which
occurs through immersion in the unconscious, which is
symbolized by the cave. This spiritual reformation results
in his prolonged life. During his stay, Odysseus lives as a
virtual prisoner, and is stripped of all his freedoms under
her control. She is the sovereign of her dominion, and
holds the right to govern her territory, Odysseus included.
The last cave identified in the "Odyssey" is "shaded and
pleasant,"5 inhabited by the Nymphs of the Wellsprings. It
is were his treasures are placed upon reaching Ithaka.
Although this location never becomes familiar to Odysseus,
the treasure kept inside is symbolic of the cave's
In Christianity as well, a legend exists in which Jesus was
tempted by the devil in a cave upon the Mount of
Temptation. Jesus was also eventually buried in a cave
after being taken down from the cross. Ironically a stone
was needed to block the light entering the cave after his
burial, in contrast to the widely accepted perception of
the darkness of caves. This practice of burying men in
caves was common among various civilizations, such as the
Aegean people of Asia Minor, and the biblical characters
Abraham and Sarah. Before the creation of temples, all
religious ceremonies were held in caves, which were
universally recognized as the womb of Mother Earth.
Buddhist temple structures of India, known as cave-halls,
used caves as their place of worship, and would place a
stupa at the far end of each cave. Stupas were structures
representing heaven, rising from bases symbolic of earth.
This could be compared 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 into heaven. Although Mt.
Olympus was not taken into account when creating their
religious figures, the stupa was symbolic of their own "Mt.
Olympus," known as Mount Meru. The up-pointing triangle of
the mountain is symbolic of a dominant male figure, while
the down-pointing triangle of a cave is symbolic of a
female. Although this assumption cannot be considered
accurate in all instances, it holds true for Kalypso,
clearly a dominant female present throughout Odysseus'
adventures; and Zeus, who held the ultimate decision on his
return home.
Caves were used frequently in mythological tales, not
necessarily pertaining to the Odyssey. In Roman mythology,
Somnus, the god of sleep resided 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 in a
cave, as did Pan, who inspired fear by his ugliness,
haunting caves and mountain tops. The parallelism between
these three legends, is their association with the myth of
the cave: Somnus' darkness, Pan's isolation from
civilization, and Python's ability to conceal himself
within the earth. In a Norse legend, Balder, the god of
light and joy, was sent to the underworld after being
stabbed by his blind brother. He was later sent for by his
father, but could only be released under the condition that
everything in the world wept for him. Ironically, the only
person who 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, a way to explain these unnatural occurrences. It
represents a detachment from the world, life, and
afterlife. When translated into Old Norse, "cave" becomes
hellir, and in Scandinavian mythology, the Black goddess
Hel, Queen of shades, is the derivation of our word, hell.
Other associations made with caves through mythology have
been resurrection, and fertility. Resurrection in the
Egyptian underworld, is represented by two doors, in which
the deceased enters through the Western gate, and leaves
through the Eastern gate. The Western entrance symbolizes
the dying sun as it sets, while the East, rebirth and the
freedom of the spirit as it is released from its body.
Finally, the intimacy provided by the warmth and darkness
of caves, creates an ideal shelter for love-making. In the
"Odyssey," Kalypso and Odysseus, "withdrawn in the hollow
recess of the hollowed cavern, [enjoy] themselves in

The variety of myths associated with caves, can best be
summed as a mortal'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 a child within the
shelter of a cave. Once grown, this adult may inhabit this
cave and use it as a place of residence himself, yet
regardless of the conquests and adventures which take place
throughout his life, he is eventually returned to the soil
in the form of a grave, and is released as a spirit back
into the cave. 

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