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. 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 world of reality. Comparatively, in the Odyssey, Odysseus must first break with Kalypso, and set himself free before he can return to Ithaca, 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 persons “cave,” or obscure, compartment, with “intricate and winding chambers(Bulfinch 52-54). 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 (Hamilton 23). 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 islands shore a “high wall of… oulders” 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 that 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 that stand opposite each other lurk Scylla and Charybdis, 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 Kalypsos instant affection. Her cave symbolizes abundance and order, exhibited by the “flourishing growth of vine”(CliffNotes 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 that hovers above her cave. The cedar trees are significantly placed around her cave as well, to drive away the demons that 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,” inhabited by the Nymphs of the Wellsprings. This is where his treasures are placed upon reaching Ithaca. Although this location never becomes familiar to Odysseus, the treasure kept inside is symbolic of the caves fertility. 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 many peoples 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,” also 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 (Graves 78-79), who is a dominant female present throughout Odysseus adventures; and Zeus, who held the ultimate decision whether or not he would 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 mountaintops. The parallelism between these three legends, is their association with the myth of the cave: Somnus darkness, Pans isolation from civilization, and Pythons 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. (CliffNotes 19) 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 lovemaking. In the “Odyssey,” Kalypso and Odysseus, “withdrawn in the hollow recess of the hollowed cavern, themselves in love. The variety of myths associated with caves, can best be summed as a mortals 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.