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. 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