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Essay/Term paper: Mystical caves used throughout mythology

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Humanities

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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. Incidently, 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 love."6

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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