Caves and Ancient Greece
Another very important recent book I must draw attention to is this:
This is critical reading not just for Hellenic polytheists interested in caves, mysticism, chthonic rites, or oracles, but really for anyone with this cluster of interests in any tradition – as I believe there is a lot we can learn from other paths.
What sets this book apart for me is that the author first delves into a discussion of how trance works in the human mind. It is rare to see a historian, archaeologist or classicist cross disciplines like this, and yet it opens up such important new levels of understanding. While many things have changed culturally and religiously over time, human neurophysiology remains mostly the same, and thus we can use modern knowledge of the latter to illuminate the otherwise unknown mystic experiences of the ancients.
So first, the brief introduction to how the mind enters altered states of consciousness from a neurological perspective. For those practicing spirit-workers who might be wary of such a discussion, it need not preclude a spiritual explanation as well (as is demonstrated exceptionally well by the book Why God Won’t Go Away, which goes into much more scientific detail without dismissing a spiritual component). It simply adds to our understanding of the many factors at work. Sensory deprivation (as one would find in a cave), along with a host of other physical cues, plays an important role in triggering altered states of consciousness, but it does not mean that the spirits and other worlds one encounters in those states are false – merely that our brains require certain mechanisms in order to experience them.
Anyway, after that the author relates most of the important instances of caves in ancient Greek mysticism – particularly in the use of oracles and other seers and the early “philosophers.” This last part is particularly interesting and important, as I think many people misunderstand who and what those philosophers really were, because we have certain ideas connected to the term that don’t really fit. They were more shamanic than strictly intellectual in their methods. And their lives and practices are invaluable to those trying to reconstruct some kind of authentic Hellenic mystic path. (See E.R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational for more on this.)
For me personally, the most important cave in Greece is the Korykian Cave on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos, above Delphi, home to the famous Korykian Nymphs who taught Hermes the art of divination (read the article “The Corycian Nymphs and the Bee Maidens of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes” by Jennifer Larson). I spent a night there in 2003 and it still haunts me to this day. (Or rather, I spent a few hours inside during the day and through dusk, and was summarily kicked out after performing my ritual and offerings by the nymphs who seemed to prefer their space to themselves. The rest of the night was spent just outside the mouth of the cave, watching the candles burn down behind me, and listening to the clinking of goat bells in the valley below.) This cave has frequented my dreams even before I set foot in it in person, and the spirits there call to me even thousands of miles away. I can’t explain it.
A few months ago, during an annual ritual I do for all the gods and spirits of Delphi, I did a little impromptu searching on YouTube for some reason, and found the most amazing set of videos, of a group of musicians playing in the cave itself. Not only is the music numinous and eerie, but you get to see a large part of the cave’s interior in the videos (it’s so huge, they could never show all of it, as it goes on and on towards the back, which is why the modern name translates to “40 rooms”). Here’s my favorite part below, but I encourage you to click on the related links on the site.
Here in Oregon, we have a different sort of cave than you find in Greece – instead of limestone, our caves are made of ancient lava flows, carved out by fire rather than water. It is in these caves that I most strongly feel chthonic Dionysos, and after a pilgrimage last year to the area called the Lava Lands, I’ve decided it will have to be an annual event. The mile-long lava tube is impressive, but it’s the smaller caves, with no other tourists in sight, that call to me more. In one, I found a tiny niche accessible only by squeezing through a small opening in the rock at the back wall, a space just large enough to hold my seated body. Almost entirely enclosed by rock, beneath the surface of the earth, in utter darkness, I felt a sort of peaceful intensity, or intense peacefulness.
But in every cave I’ve ever been in, I immediately understood why for many thousands of years, humans have sought them out as places of ritual, incubation, oracles and trance. Eerie and unnerving, deep within the earth and yet far from our homes, darker than any other place, and yet filled with spirit and power, caves intrigue some and scary the hell out of others, but I love almost no other place more.