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1.1: Cave and Cosmos

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  • Sacred Caves in Greek Epic Poetry from Homer (Eighth century BCE) to Nonnus (Fifth century CE)

    Emilie van Opstall

    Sacred spaces, both buildings (such as temples and churches) and certain natural sites (such as groves and caves) are places where divinity is often felt to be present. Persons entering them can have the impression that they come into closer contact with a divine presence. This non-rational experience involving wonder or amazement, aesthetic enjoyment or mystical rapture, has been characterised in various ways: as the experience of ‘the sublime’ (Burke 1757) or ‘the numinous’ (Otto 1923), or as an emotion evoked by ‘hierophany’ (an act of divine power reaching into human life, Eliade 1965), or by the fact that a sacred place is always a ‘storied place’ (i.e., connected to a culturally important narrative, Smyth 2008). Through the ages, people have repeatedly sought to capture this experience in literature. Yet, although literary analysis is capable of elucidating such ‘storied experiences’, there are surprisingly few literary studies of how sacred spaces are experienced.

    The present paper discusses sacred caves in Greek epic poetry from Homer (eighth century BCE) to Nonnus (fifth century CE) as ‘lived spaces’ [1]. It will not only investigate the way sacred caves are presented and valued by the external narrator or the characters but also pay attention to their symbolic meaning within the separate poems and within epic as a genre. I begin with a general introduction dealing with caves in Greek landscape and epic: whereas real sacred caves usually lacked religious furnishings because their religious aura was apparently sufficient to evoke the presence of a divinity, description of sacred caves in epics is often embellished by the literary imagination. In parts I and II, I concentrate on two recurring types of sacred caves in epic: the cave of nymphs (especially in Homer, Quintus of Smyrna and Nonnus), and the birth caves of divinities (in particular in Hesiod and Nonnus) [2].

    Caves in the Greek Landscape

    The Greek landscape is marked by innumerable caves. From the Neolithic period onwards, they were used by humans as shelters, dwelling places and graves. From the late bronze and early iron age onwards, some of which were located in remote and scarcely visible places were turned into sanctuaries [3]. Their darkness, dampness, and inaccessibility probably created the appropriately mysterious atmosphere for an encounter with the divine. Stalagmitic formations reminded devotees of divine figures, and dripping water provided acoustic effects. The amount of light depended on the natural light penetrating through the entrance and on the artificial light of lamps or torches introduced by the visitors [4]. While man-made sanctuaries were characterised by a delimited space or temenos, an altar, and a cult statue, sacred caves were ‘naturally sacred’: ‘Apparently, the natural aura of holiness was sufficient, so that no conscious display was necessary. To put it differently: the more natural the space, the more it was experienced as sacred’ (Sporn 2007: 46, my translation) [5]. Sacred caves, therefore, can usually only be identified by archaeologists through the presence of votive offerings (such as statuettes and reliefs) and inscriptions for divinities. Epic poets, as we shall see, tended to adorn such ‘naturally sacred caves’ with their literary imagination, enriching them with the description of various symbolic objects (such as bowls and looms) and architectonic features (such as doors and roofs).

    Most of the sacred caves were used for private religious purposes by locals or travelers. Divinities that were frequently venerated there, often more than one at the same time, included the nymphs and Pan, Apollo, Hermes, Dionysus, and Artemis [6]. Some of the caves served as a larger supra-regional cult and oracular sites, as archaeological findings have demonstrated. The Corcyran Cave high on Mount Parnassus in Delphi and the Idaean Cave on central Crete are the two most famous examples. The Corcyran cave is described by Pausanias (10.32.2-7) in the second century CE as one of the most impressive sacred caves, dedicated from time immemorial to Pan and the nymphs, where women raved in ecstasy for Dionysus and Apollo. The Idaean Cave is the birth cave of Zeus, with an associated mystery cult of singing and dancing Kouretes (see below) [7]. Sacred caves were also artificially constructed, sometimes as an integrated part of larger sanctuaries (especially from Hellenistic times onwards) [8].

    Caves in Greek Epic

    Like the Mediterranean landscape, Greek epic abounds with many kinds of caves [9]. Although they serve different purposes, these caves have two sometimes overlapping functions:

    (a) The cave as a dwelling place:

    • For mythical monsters (Cyclopes, especially Polyphemus, and Titans, such as Typhon and Rhea, etc.).
    • For divinities: major gods (Zeus, Dionysus, Hades, Hermes) and minor gods (especially nymphs, such as Calypso).
    • For (wild) animals such as lions, bears, bats, etc.
    • For natural phenomena such as winds and dawn.

    (b) The cave as a hiding place:

    • For the isolation or imprisonment of e.g. Titans (Cronus and Japetus) or humans (such as Philoctetes, maenads, etc.).
    • For safety, to put something beyond reach or sight, for example, infant gods (Zeus and Dionysus), humans (herdsmen who seek shelter) or belongings (Poseidon’s horses and Odysseus’ gifts).
    • For erotic unions (Cheiron and Polyphemus are conceived in a cave, Jason and Medea marry in a cave – called afterward either ‘cave of the nymphs’ or ‘cave of Medea’; Zeus rapes Persephone in a cave).
    • To give birth or to raise infants (for monsters or divinities, see above) or as a place of death (as a grave or the entrance to Hades itself).

    Perhaps not surprisingly, both categories are related to the ‘liminal’: category (a) contains mysterious, numinous, primordial and primitive (and therefore sometimes, albeit seldom, pastoral) elements, while category (b) is associated with danger and loneliness, birth and death. Both categories contain caves belonging to divinities, either as their dwelling place (see below, part I: the sacred cave of the nymphs) or as the place where they are born or raised as an infant, ‘in the womb of Mother Earth’ (see below, part II: birth caves of divinities). Some of them are explicitly called ‘sacred,' especially when described from a human point of view.

    Part I. The Sacred Cave of the Nymphs

    Homer (Eighth Century BCE)

    After years of travel adventures, the Phaeacians finally bring Odysseus to his homeland Ithaca. With the arrival of their ship in the bay of Phorcys, Odysseus leaves the fairytale world of the previous books. His adventures are still part of the heroic world, but their scale is more human. The passage (Odyssey 13.102-12) is a so-called ‘landing type scene’, in which a spatially organised description of the landscape is usually focalised by one of the characters looking around [10]. In this case, there is no focalising character, as Odysseus is still fast asleep on the ship of the Phaeacians. The external narrator takes over:



    At the head of the harbor is a long-leafed olive tree, and near it a pleasant, shadowy cave sacred to the nymphs that are called Naiads. Therein are mixing bowls and jars of stone, and there too the bees store honey. And in the cave are long looms of stone, at which the nymphs weave webs of purple dye, a wonder to behold; and therein are also ever-flowing springs. Two doors there are to the cave, one toward the North Wind, by which men go down, but that toward the South Wind is sacred, nor do men enter thereby; it is the way of the immortals. (translation Murray-Wyatt 1924)

    The external narrator describes the place in the present tense, as is the normal practice in ekphrasis (descriptions). It is a bucolic excursus: a sweet scenery with a natural cave, a tree, and water. The atmosphere is ‘lovely and shadowy’ (or maybe ‘dark’) and the interior, with its quite peculiar characteristics, is a ‘wonder to behold’ [11]: there are stone vases containing honey, a stone loom on which the nymphs weave a purple cloth, and two entrances, one for men and one for the gods. Some two hundred verses later, Athena describes the cave of the nymphs to Odysseus in order to let him recognise his homeland and pray (lines 345ff.). As soon as the mist disappears, Odysseus indeed recognises Ithaca by this description and prays to the nymphs. The hero and the goddess then hide his belongings in the cave (see also Odyssey 16.232), roll a stone in front of one of its entrances and sit down beneath the olive tree to plan the death of the suitors.

    Most modern scholars have discussed this passage in a general sense, often focusing on the degree of realism in the description. The positivist assumption that this cave must exist somewhere dates back to Antiquity, starting with the geographer Artemidorus of Ephesus (first century CE), and lives on into modern times: no fewer than twenty-three candidates for Homer’s Ithaca, including this cave, have been proposed. To mention two more examples from different periods of time: Heinrich Schliemann, inspired by his dream of identifying important places in Homer, had no trouble at all finding the cave of the Nymphs on modern Ithaca (1869: 21): ‘Die Örtlichkeit ist in der angeführten Stelle so genau beschrieben, dass man sich kaum irren kann’ (my italics). Only very recently, an interdisciplinary team of geologists, archaeologists and classicists reached an equally triumphant conclusion: Homer was right all along. Although ancient Ithaka has changed because of tectonic activity, the cave of the nymphs can still be found on the southeast end of the Atheras Bay of modern Ithaki [12]. Commentaries on the Odyssey are usually cautious: neither Stanford (1965) nor De Jong (2001) express any opinion about a possible location of Homer’s cave of the nymphs. Heubeck & Hoekstra (1989) wonder whether the poet got ‘his detailed and precise information’ by going in search of it himself, but conclude that the mixture of precise detail and lack of accuracy ‘may be typical of a poetic tradition.’ A topographical quest for the location of the cave of the nymphs does not seem to be very fruitful.

    The cave of the nymphs represents different functions of ‘lived space’ for divine and human characters within the narrative: it serves not only as a dwelling place for the nymphs, but also as a landmark, a sanctuary and a hiding place for Odysseus [13]. It differs from other caves in the Odyssey in that it is not as threatening as Polyphemus’ cave (Odyssey 9), set within the eerily beautiful but primordial island of the Cyclopes, nor as overwhelming as the cave of the nymph Calypso (Odyssey 5), a locus amoenus with trees, water, birds, and sweet scents, full of undesired and suffocating loveliness. Nor does the cave of the nymphs serve as the setting for a new encounter with another mythical character. At this stage of the Odyssey, the mythical world becomes more distant and the real world comes closer: on Ithaca, no nymphs are actually present in the flesh, but mortals have established a cult of them. Their sanctuary is a natural cave, presented as a pleasant place enhanced by literary imagination. However, the presence of the loom is curious: although in Homer the nymph-goddesses Calypso (Od. 5.61-62) and Circe (Od. 10.221- 22) are also said to weave, the loom never belonged to the actual cult of the nymphs [14]. The loom seems to enhance the suggestion of the sanctuary as a dwelling place full of divine (female) activity.

    Porphyry: Homer Poeta Vates

    Already in Antiquity, Homer’s cave of the nymphs and all its peculiarities, including the vases, the loom, and the entrances, was interpreted allegorically. In his philosophical treatise On the Cave of the Nymphs, the Neo-Platonist philosopher Porphyry (third century CE) interprets the cave as an allegory of a higher truth. In some ways, Porphyry is wiser than the positivist scholars mentioned above, as he opens his treatise with a discussion of the relation between reality and fiction. In Porphyry’s view, the question of whether Homer described a real cave or mixed reality with fantasy is irrelevant, as in both cases the cave has an allegorical meaning that deserves to be investigated. Before turning to the next epic example, I will briefly discuss Porphyry’s treatise. Over recent decades his allegory has justly received more scholarly attention [15]. It stands in a long tradition of allegorical interpretation, already known in classical Antiquity, but especially popular in Late Antiquity: Stoics and Neo-Platonists searched for allegories with a hidden truth, with an underlying intention referring not to subconscious patterns but to a higher reality. For them, Homer was a source of wisdom, a poeta vates (a fate shared by Homer’s colleague Vergil). As Lamberton (1983: 5) puts it, Homer was ‘the key to the mysteries of the structure of the universe and the fate of souls.’

    Until quite recently, the allegorical tradition had not been considered as serious literary criticism. But we should realise that ‘the critical commentary of any generation of readers more often than not seems outlandish to the succeeding one’ (Struck 2004: 12). Surely, fifty years from now, after the next ‘turn’ in research, people will probably smile at the prolific growth in approaches to space over these last years. Perhaps Homer did not intend that all the hidden meanings suggested by Porphyry should be read into his cave of the nymphs, but let us take Porphyry seriously as an intelligent (and, like ourselves, biased) reader and compare his approach with our own way of interpreting texts.

    According to Porphyry, the ancients considered caves on the one hand as symbols of the cosmos (‘because of their rocky nature’) and on the other hand as symbols of all invisible powers (‘because of their darkness and indistinct essence’) [16]. The Homeric cave is dedicated to the water nymphs who represent the souls that come into being. The weaving of purple garments symbolises the clothing of the soul with flesh and blood. The honey in the mixing bowls stands for purity, conservation, and the pleasure granted to souls descending into the material world. The bees represent justice for living souls. The two entrances are linked to the tropics – the northern one (Cancer) for those souls coming into being, the southern one (Capricorn) for the immortals. The olive tree stands for the intelligible cosmos. As Larson puts it in her discussion of the cult of the nymphs in Greek literature (2001: 60): ‘(Porphyry’s) analysis uncovers hidden transcendence in the cult tradition itself, a transcendence that he believed Homer, in the capacity of a theologian, wished to express.’ Moreover, Porphyry extends his interpretation to the whole Odyssey: Odysseus’ travels are those of the human soul, materialised in the sensible world and gaining perfection through growing insight.

    It is still common practice today to take particular elements of a story as representative of work as a whole, both at a poetical and meta-poetical level. Although modern interpretations of the Odyssey do not discuss the meaning of this particular cave, the Homeric landscape has been interpreted as a symbol for various kinds of travel: physical, mental, individual, collective, from the voyage of life to the writing process of the poet. A famous example of the creative reception of the Odyssey as an existential journey is, of course, Cavafy’s Ithaki on the increasing maturity of the human soul sailing to Ithaca: ‘As you set out for Ithaka / hope the voyage is a long one, / full of adventure, full of discovery / … / And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. / Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean’ (translation Keeley-Sherrard 1992). A recent scholarly interpretation of Odysseus’ journey as a Bildungsreise can be found in Giesecke’s inspiring book The Epic City, in which the Odyssey is discussed in relation to the nascent idea of the polis: the hero travels from dystopia (nature, primitivism, lawlessness, isolation: the caves of the Cyclopes and the cave of Calypso), through a utopia (perfect Scheria), towards a eutopia (civilization, justice, openness, and progress: future Ithaca). Seen from this perspective, Porphyry’s attempt to look for an allegorical meaning in Homer is not as strange as it might at first seem, but rather reflects the need of readers of any period to search for a deeper meaning in works of great literature, related to human existence in general.

    Quintus’ Demythologising

    The epic poet Quintus of Smyrna was probably a contemporary of Porphyry. His Posthomerica is a direct continuation of Homer’s Iliad, adding with vivid cruelty a series of Trojan battle stories that Homer had ‘omitted’. When Lassus, one of the Trojan heroes, is killed, Quintus honours him with a digression (6.468-91), just as Homer does with many of the minor heroes in the Iliad. Lassus is the son of the nymph Pronoé, who bore him in ‘a wide and wondrous cave’. What follows is an extended description of this cave without further connection to the storyline. It seems a somewhat hybrid conflation of Homer’s peaceful cave of the nymphs on Ithaca from the Odyssey discussed above (including the water, the vessels, the loom and the entrances, with numerous literal citations) and Apollonius’ threatening entrance to Hades in Paphlagonia, in the second book of the Argonautica (although Quintus generally does not depend on Apollonius) [17]:




    Then by his warrior-brother laid he low Lassus, whom Pronoë, fair as a goddess, bare beside Nymphaeus’ stream, hard by a cave, a wide and wondrous cave: sacred it is men say, unto the Nymphs, even all that haunt the long-ridged Paphlagonian hills, and all that by full-clustered Heracleia dwell. That cave is like the work of gods, of stone in manner marvellous moulded: through it flows cold water crystal-clear: in niches round stand bowls of stone upon the rugged rock, seeming as they were wrought by carvers’ hands. Statues of Wood-gods stand around, fair Nymphs, looms, distaffs, all such things as mortal craft fashioneth. Wondrous seem they unto men which pass into that hallowed cave. It hath, up-leading and down-leading, doorways twain, facing, the one, the wild North’s shrilling blasts, and one the dank rain-burdened South. By this do mortals pass beneath the Nymphs’ wide cave; but that is the Immortals’ path: no man may tread it, for a chasm deep and wide down-reaching unto Hades, yawns between. This track the Blest Gods may alone behold. (translated by Way, 1962)

    The ekphrasis (description; again in the present tense) demythologises the cave by presenting it as a natural phenomenon turned into a man-made cult place, a site for visitors (pilgrims or tourists), rather than a dwelling place of the nymphs. It is interesting to note that Quintus is much more evaluative than Homer: he includes the reactions of human visitors in accordance with the rhetorical rules for ekphrasis as described in the rhetorical handbooks (such as the Progymasmata § 7 by Aelius Theon, first century CE). Whereas in Homer the poet simply adds that the looms of the nymphs are ‘a wonder to behold’, in Quintus’ description it is amazement and wonders over the nature of the spectacle that prevail: it is ‘a wondrous cave’ (471), ‘marvellously moulded’ (475), ‘a wonder for men who enter’ (482-483). Is it made by men, by nature or by the gods? This is ambiguous: it looks like the work of the gods (474) and it seems as if the bowls were wrought by carver’s hands (478-479). The text suggests that the objects mentioned in vv. 480-482 are manmade (482: ‘fashioned by mortal craft’). But while statuettes of gods and nymphs are typical votive offerings, looms and distaffs are not. Are we supposed to think that they are of stone too, like Homer’s looms? Quintus concludes his digression by explaining why the entrance is meant for gods but not mortals: it is an abyss. This cave represents two functions of ‘lived space’, a birth cave for a hero in the narrative and a sanctuary appreciated by visitors belonging to the time of the narrator. The isolated position of this matter-offact description with regard to the main narrative renders symbolic interpretation difficult. Even a scholar like Porphyry would have difficulty seeing a poeta vates at work here.

    Nonnus’ New Cosmogony

    I conclude the first part of this article with a third example inspired by Homer’s cave of the nymphs: the cave of Persephone in the sixth book of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca (6.128-44). Nonnus wrote his enormous epic on the pagan god Dionysus in the fifth century CE in a predominantly Christian world trained in allegorical interpretation. The meaning and the quality of this vertiginous mythological poem are much debated. It is not merely an antiquarian or encyclopedic work, masterfully combining old stories and different genres. It also abounds with references to Orphic cosmogony, Neo-Platonic philosophy and Christian religion, recognizable to any educated reader in Late Antiquity, whether pagan or Christian [18]. Persephone’s cave is the setting for her rape by Zeus, and as such has an important function in the prehistory of Dionysus and for the interpretation of the Dionysiaca as a whole, as I will discuss later on. The first part of the description is focalized by Demeter: from high up in the air, she has been looking for a stony place to hide Persephone. She has passed Zeus’ Dyctaean cave on Crete from where the noisy dances of the Kouretes can be heard and eventually lands in Sicily, near a stream where she spots a remote cave to hide her daughter. It is a cave where nymphs usually work on a stone loom:




    And in the place where that River had often bathed the maiden Cyane, pouring his water in fountain-showers as a bridegift, she saw a neighbouring grotto like a lofty hall crowned and concealed by a roof of stone, which nature had completed with a rocky gateway and a loom of stone tended by the neighbouring Nymphs. The goddess passed through the dark hall, and concealed her daughter well-secured in this hollow rock. Then she loosed the dragons from the winged car; one she placed by the jutting rock on the right of the door, one on the left beside the stone-pointed barrier of the entry, to protect Persephoneia unseen. There also she left Calligeneia, her own fond nurse, with her baskets, and all that clever-hand Pallas gives to make womankind sweat over their wool-spinning. Then she left her rounded chariot for the Nymphs to watch, in their lonely home among the rocks, and cut the air with her feet.’ (translation Rouse 1940)

    The external narrator then tells us that Persephone spins and weaves, sings and … is raped by Zeus. This rape is an Orphic element in the story of Persephone, who is usually said to be abducted by Hades [19]. Nonnus’ Persephone eventually gives birth to the equally Orphic baby-god Zagreus, ‘the horned baby,’ as Nonnus tells us, ‘who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried the thunderbolts in his tender fingers’, only to be dismembered by the Titans later on. To punish the Titans, Zeus inflicts a world flood on their mother, the Earth. In the narrative, the Zagreus episode concludes the prehistory of Dionysus, after which a new episode in his biography can begin.

    In Nonnus, Persephone’s cave is the setting for an important moment in the Dionysiaca. It is closely related to the cave of Zeus-the-father (with his famous Cretan mystery cult) and to the cave of ‘the second Zagreus’, Dionysus-the-son (with caves as cult sites scattered over the ancient world), a more successful ‘saviour god’ than his little half-brother and the main character of the Dionysiaca. All three divinities, Zeus, Zagreus, and Dionysus, are significant for the history of the cosmos. In the Dionysiaca, the birth and death of Zagreus and the subsequent world flood not only close the prehistory of Dionysus’ life but also that of man in general, after which a new and more technically evolved phase can begin: the era of Dionysus.

    Persephone’s cave is situated in the mythical world of nymphs, monsters and divinities. The cave is a remote and dark hiding place of solid rock, formed by nature but looking like a man-made structure: it is ‘like a lofty hall’ (134), with ‘a roof of stone’ (131), ‘a rocky gateway’ (132) and ‘a loom of stone’ (132), and ‘doors’ (137-138) [20]. Some elements remind us of the Homeric cave of the nymphs, especially the presence of the stone loom and the weaving. Although Nonnus must have known Porphyry’s treatise, his references to it are veiled. Nonnus’ description can be explained symbolically in the following way: caves, spinning, and weaving are important in Neo-Platonic philosophy as well as in Orphic mysteries, where the cave is a place set outside normal space and time, while the spindle forms the axis around which the world turns and weaving symbolises the creation of the cosmos [21]. Nonnus’ Persephone does not finish her peplos, nor does her divine child Zagreus ever fulfill his destiny: he will be followed by a second and more successful divine child, Dionysus. By integrating the Demeter myth and the Dionysus myth, Nonnus brings together two important mystery cults. It seems that Nonnus has used Homer’s cave of the nymphs as well as Orphic and Neo-Platonic allegory in his own narrative, arriving at a new syncretic cosmogony adapted to the spirit of his time.

    Part II: Birth Caves of Divinities

    Having discussed an example from the first category of caves, sacred caves as a dwelling place of the nymphs, I shall now continue with examples from the second category, caves where divinities are born or raised as an infant, ‘in the womb of Mother Earth’. As I mentioned above, one of the most important cult caves in Greece was the Cretan birth cave of Zeus. It dated from Minoan times and began to flourish in the eighth and seventh century BCE. The number of its initiation rites grew until Roman times when Zeus Idaeus became a chthonic god [22]. Its initiates were sometimes called ‘Bacchoi of the Curetes’ and followed Zeus into the earth for his annual death and rebirth, protecting and guiding the young god. Ancient mystery cults such as the Cretan Zeus cult, the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Dionysian mysteries have several (cosmological) motifs in common: the presence of an initiation or purification rite, a personal relationship with the divine, the hope or promise of a blessed afterlife [23]; and, more particularly, the birth of a divine child (Zeus, Iacchus, Dionysus) in a cavern, a dance with weapons and the death of the divine child [24]. In the following, I shall discuss how similar ideas figure variously in cosmogonical passages of epic poetry, where the birth cave is a recurrent motif, with its liminal character and its darkness generating new light.

    Hesiod’s Theogony tells the well-known story of baby Zeus received by Earth from Rhea, who hides her son in a Cretan cave in order to save him from the jaws of his father Cronos. Baby Zeus in the cave represents the still fragile promise of a future era of justice, a new phase in the history of the world. His birth has to be kept secret until he is strong enough to present himself to the world. According to Graziosi and Haubold, preoccupation with cosmogony is not exclusive to Hesiod’s epic, but shared by the entire archaic production of epic: to its contemporary audience, every single epic evoked a wider epic tradition and situated itself within a single cosmic-historical framework, encompassing the world from chaos to the present time [25]. In fact, the theme of cosmogony is inherent to the original function of poetry in general: ‘religious song that brings order and harmony to the world’ [26]. There are several descriptions in the epic poetry of singers appeasing their audience with cosmogonic songs, such as Hermes trying to calm Apollo in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (427-433) or Orpheus trying to settle a fight between two Argonauts in Apollonius’ Argonautica (1.496-1.518) [27].

    As we have seen, the birth cave has a prominent role in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca not only for Zeus (whose birth lies outside the prehistory described in this epic), but is mentioned in book 28.309-344 and for Zagreus (as discussed above, in book 6), but also, and more significantly, for Dionysus. During his infancy, Dionysus is hidden in three different caves. The first, his birth cave, is located on Mount Draconus (9.16) [28]. He is born from his father’s thigh and is consubstantial with him. He does not need to be bathed and he is breastfed by the nymphs whose milk flows spontaneously. But when these nymphs are struck with madness by the jealous Hera, Hermes saves the baby by bringing him to Semele’s sister Ino. Mystis, one of Ino’s slaves, hides him in a second cave (9.101- 9.110) [29]:



    She then took Bacchos away from those god-feeding breasts, and hid him from all eyes in a dark pit. But a brilliant light shone from his face, which declared of itself the offspring of Zeus: the gloomy walls of the house grew bright, and the light of unseen Dionysos hid the darkness. All night long Ino sat beside Bromios as he played. Often Melicertes jumped up with wavering steps and pressed his lips to pull at the other breast as he crawled close to Bacchos babbling “Euoi!” (translation by Rouse, 1940)

    The dark cave is represented as a house with gloomy walls (105). In a typically Nonnian (contorted) turn of the phrase, the light of the invisible god renders the darkness of this hiding place invisible: Dionysus is born as a new light unto the world [30]. The scene of Ino and the two little children, her son Melicertes and the infant god Bacchus, in the cave is quite domestic. During the first period of his life, Mystis teaches Bacchus aspects that will belong to his own future mystery cult. But he has to leave this cave, too, because Hera has spotted him again. So Hermes, in the guise of the authoritative primordial Orphic god Phanes, for whom even Hera feels awe, brings the nine-year-old child-god to a third hiding place, the ‘echoing lions cave’ of the goddess Rhea in Phrygia. There, he will learn to dominate animals and get used to the sound of the Corybantes (13.8-15). Zeus orders Iris to convey the message to Dionysus that he must earn his place on Mount Olympus (just like Hermes and Apollo, see 20.94-96): in order to be deified, Dionysus must drive the unjust Indians out of Asia and bring festivities and wine to men [31]. The severe, Homeric sounding, guest-type scene of Iris’ arrival at Rhea’s cave looks like a stern Byzantine court ceremony with Rhea as a hieratic empress, but it certainly has a light touch. The cave must be large because it is echoing (9). Only two elements of the interior are described: a bowl and a table (15) [32]:



    She paddled her way with windswift beat of wings, and entered the echoing den of stabled lions. Noiseless her step she stayed, in silence voiceless pressed her lips, a slave before the forest queen. She stood bowing low, and bent down her head to kiss Rheia’s feet with suppliant lips. Rheia unsmiling beckoned, and the Corybants served her beside the bowl of the divine table. (translation by Rouse, 1940)

    The new god, the main character of this mythological epic, is born at a time when the world has difficulty recovering from cataclysms: it has suffered from Typhon’s attacks turning the earth upside down and a deluge as a divine punishment for the Titans who killed his half-brother Zagreus. It is his mission to bring happiness to mankind. The liminal, undefined and primordial caves, housing a new divinity full of promises unknown to the world, again symbolise the coming of a new cosmological order. In spite of the sometimes antiquarian and encyclopaedic character of the Dionysiaca, these 48 books tell a vivid story that must have appealed to its Late Antique audience, whether pagans or Christians. While it is impossible consider the Dionysiaca a Christian work, it is intimately linked with several contemporary religious ideas common to both mystery cults and Christianity, such as the idea of a saviour god with a mission. One of their shared motifs is the divine birth cave: around the second century CE, an oriental version of the Christian nativity story was quite popular, as written sources and iconographical material overwhelmingly show. According to this version, Jesus was not born in a stable but in a cave. His birth was accompanied by light. The description of the nativity scene in the Greek Protoevangelium of James shows the obvious similarities (38.4-39.8) [33]:



    (…) And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: “My soul has been magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen strange things – because salvation has been brought forth to Israel.” And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: “This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight.” (translation by James, 1924)


    In the Mediterranean landscape, sacred caves are either dedicated to major cults such as the cult of Pan and the nymphs (Delphi) and the cult of Zeus (Crete) or to the individual worship of various deities (proven by the presence of graffiti and terra cotta statuettes or reliefs, often including nymphs). This last category usually does not have specific boundary markers, architectural subdivisions, altars or cult statues. Sometimes, natural stone formations are used as an altar or as a cult image. In this article, I have discussed two types of sacred caves in epic poetry from Homer to Nonnus: firstly the cave of the nymphs in Homer, Quintus and Nonnus, and then the birth caves of divinities, particularly in Hesiod and Nonnus.

    While real sacred caves are usually unadorned but highly suggestive places, literary sacred caves are often embellished by the imagination of the poet: rock is transformed into houses for divinities with gateways, halls, walls and roofs, containing bowls, vessels, looms and tables. Caves function on different levels as ‘lived space’. They can be used as a setting for characters in a story and have symbolical implications. While for the nymphs the cave is a dwelling, for Odysseus it is a landmark, a sanctuary and a hiding place. Porphyry invests Homer’s cave of the nymphs with Neo-Platonic meaning, interpreting it as an allegory for the voyage of the human soul. Quintus, on the other hand, demythologises it, turning the birth cave of one of the Trojan heroes into a contemporary sanctuary for pilgrims filled with votive offerings and ‘wondrous to behold’. Nonnus’ cave of the nymphs serves both as a setting for the characters in the story and a symbol: it is an unsafe hiding place for Persephone with wider religious-philosophical connotations, shared by other caves figuring in the Dionysiaca, namely the cave of Zeus and Dionysus. The dark and mysterious nature of caves, generating and hiding, as liminal places of birth and of death in close connection with the earth and with earth-related powers, seems to have invited epic poets to use the cave as a cosmogonic symbol. The cave of Zeus, the cave of Persephone, and the three caves of Dionysus are all places for the secret conception, birth or infancy of a new divinity who has to be protected, in anticipation of a new and better phase in the history of the world: Earth secreting a divine promise. As such, the cave echoes with the universal religious imaginary shared by pagans and Christians alike, as the example of the oriental Nativity story shows. All these different types of literary imagery may have resonated with the experience of entering a real sacred cave.


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    1. See Bachelard (1957) and Lotman (1990).

    2. I would like to thank the editors of this volume, as well as Suzanne Adema and Pierluigi Lanfranchi for their stimulating comments on this article.

    3. Within the boundaries of modern-day Greece, over 10,000 caves have been counted, of which 130 functioned as sanctuaries (Sporn 2010). These flourished in the Archaic and Classical period but were less popular in the Hellenistic period. They regained popularity in the Roman period and especially in Late Antiquity (Sporn 2007: 42).

    4. See Kerényi (1976: 17) and Burkert (1977: 55) for the interpretation of stone formations; see Sporn (2007: 42-44) for form, sound, and light. The literary caves discussed in the present article confirm the visual impact of the stone formations mentioned by Sporn but do not mention the aquatic ‘lithophony’. Moreover, when light is described in epic, it is always supra-natural (see below part II).

    5. See also Scully (1962: 10), Sporn (2002) and (2010) for the general absence of boundary markers, altars and divine statues with the one conspicuous exception of the Vari cave of ‘Archedemus the Nympholept’ (fifth century BCE). For the larger cult caves, such as the Corcyrian Cave and the Idaean Cave (see below), the situation is different. Architectural elements such as marble entrances were added only when natural caves are part of larger sanctuaries. Sometimes, statues or altars were placed outside, in front of the cave.

    6. For the different kind of religious practices in caves, see Sporn (2007: 57) Ancient legends also tell us about caves used by individuals in quest of visionary wisdom, such as the Cretan seer Epimenides and the philosopher Pythagoras (both sixth century BCE) (see Dodds 1951: 110). Other examples are Elia who withdrew in a cave on Mount Horeb (eighth century BCE) (1 Kings 19) and the church father Hieronymus who retreated to a cave in the Syrian desert (347-420 CE). Many early Christian anchorites were said to have dwelled in caves by way of spiritual withdrawal from the secular world.

    7. In Antiquity, two caves on Crete were seen as Zeus’ birth cave: the Idaean cave as well as the Dyctaean cave. For confusion between the two, see Call. Hymn I.4-6 and 47-51; Aratus 33-35; Apollonius Rhodius 1.509 and 3.134.

    8. See Lavagne (1988) on caves from Sulla to Hadrian.

    9. In major epic from the Archaic period to the Late Antique period, words for ‘cave’ occur over a 160 times. To give an impression of the distribution in the corpus studied for this article: in Homer 57 times, mainly in the Odyssey (book 5: Calypso, book 9: Polyphemus and book 13: nymphs); in Hesiod 2 times; in Apollonius 15 times; in Quintus of Smyrna 31 times; in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca 48 times.

    10. See De Jong (2001: 317-318).

    11. In Homer, this expression is used for mortal focalisers, see De Jong 2001. There is one exception, though: Calypso’s cave, admired by the god Hermes (Odyssey 5).

    12. See, consulted 13.05.2011.

    13. Caves functioning as mere landmarks or features of a landscape are very rare in epic: the cave in the harbour of the island of the Cyclopes (Odyssey 9.141); the Eileiuthyia cave on Crete (Odyssey 19.188); the island Aeolia ‘rich in caves’ (Quintus of Smyrna 14.475); a wood ‘impenetrable like a cave’ (Nonnus Dionysiaca 21.328); an abyss in a landscape (Nonnus Dionysiaca 2.70).

    14. See Larson (2009: 61) on stone formations in caves of the nymphs suggestive of furniture. There is one exceptional finding of a ‘bed of the nymphs.’

    15. Pépin (1965), Verhoeven (1984), Lamberton (1983) and (1986), Agosti (1986), Larson (2001: paragraph 1.4.5), see also Finkelberg (2011: s.v. ‘Allegorical interpretation’, ‘Allegory’ and ‘Porphyry’). In his commentary on the Odyssey, Stanford (1965) still condemns Porphyry’s treatise as a fantastic allegorical interpretation, ‘neglecting such otiose speculations, the stone mixing-bowls and two-handled jars in 105-107 (…) and the looms were probably stalagmite formations as often seen in caves and grottos.’ Of course, but Stanford misses the point: stalagmite formations often arouse the imagination and are interpreted as divine figures or religious objects.

    16. Porphyry corroborates this by mentioning the Allegory of the Cave of Pythagoras’ / Plato’s philosophy and the cave sanctuaries in the Mithraic cult (De Antro Nympharym 7).

    17. Relevant citations and allusions are indicated between brackets next to each verse. Vian (2008: 391): ‘It is hard to say whether he wished to give Apollonius’ digression a Homeric turn or simply ignored it.’ Vian (1959: 129 and 143) concludes that Quintus’ descriptions seem to be based mainly on geographical and fictional works (‘souvenirs de lecture’, ‘sans souci de l’exactitude’, thus Vian). See also Larson (2001: 1.4.5) on Quintus’ cave of the nymphs.

    18. See the French edition by Vian et al., the Italian commentary by Gigli Piccardi et al., Shorrock (2001) and (2011), García-Gasco Villarrubia (2007) and (2011), Hernández de la Fuente (2011), etc.

    19. In the Orphic tradition, the rape of Persephone and the birth of Zagreus are usually located on Crete. Chuvin remarks that the setting of this episode sprang from Nonnus’ fantasy because he did not know the actual Sicilian landscape (1991: 73): ‘Kyanè est un trou d’eau bleutée au milieu d’une plaine parfaitement plate’. It was described by some ancient writers as a stagnant swamp.

    20. For similar imagery, see the Homeric Hymn on Hermes, where the nymph Maia gives birth to Hermes in a shady cave on Mount Kyllene in Arcadia. This cave is described as a hiding place, but during the hymn, while Hermes changes from grumpy newborn outsider to accepted member of the Olympic pantheon, it assumes more and more architectural features. This is very rare in the case of sacred caves, as we have seen. Firstly, it is transformed into a human dwelling, with a threshold, high roof, courtyard gate, hall and door with keyhole, and then into a house of a god, bright and filled with tripods and cauldrons (first an instance of wishful thinking/singing), with even an ‘abounding inner shrine’. It is large and full of treasures ‘as are kept in temples’. Thus, the cave in this hymn is a hiding place transformed into a would-be temple.

    21. See the excellent introduction to and commentary on books I-XII of the Dionysiaca by Gigli-Piccardi (2006: 16-17) and commentary on lines 128-144. The Orphic-Neo-Platonic interpretation is too complicated to discuss here in its entirety, as it extends to many other elements in the Dionysiaca. Weaving can also seen as a metaphor for the text itself (text < Latin texere), but I doubt if this metaphor is intended here. The passage recalls to a certain extent the description of Persephone’s unfinished peplos by Nonnus’ contemporary Claudian in his Latin De raptu Proserpinae, where Persephone is weaving, locked away and abandoned by her mother in an iron palace on Sicily. She does not finish her peplos and leaves the world, as it were, in an imperfect state. For De raptu Proserpinae and its relation to the Eleusinian mysteries, liminality and cosmogony, see Dirven-Gerbrandy (2010).

    22. See Burkert (1977: 393). Some spectacular votive offerings (ninth century BCE) have been found in the cave on Mount Ida: a bronze tympanon (shield) showing Assyrian-style demons holding cymbals, representing the Curetes trying to cover the cries of baby Zeus (although here Zeus is depicted as an adult man, ‘the Lord of the Animals’, i.e. lions). The cult was linked to a post-Hesiodean Cretan theogony. Two literary sources confirm the presence of a Zeus cult in Crete: the remaining fragments of Euripides’ tragedy Cretans and The Palaikastro Hymn or Hymn of the Kouretes, a Hellenistic cult hymn for Zeus Dyctaeus as almighty and ever-returning divinity. This hymn mentions soldiers (probably the Curetes) singing and dancing around an altar, performing a kind of military dance, accompanied by thunder-like ecstatic-orgiastic sounds of their clashing shields. In the cave on Mount Ida, the remains of many cult objects have been found, from the eighth century BCE continuing into the fifth century AD (see Watrous 1996: 59).

    23. Tripolitis (2002).

    24. While the cult of Zeus and of Demeter have fixed locations, the cult of Dionysus is a ‘roaming’ cult. Caves are one of the possible settings for celebrations. Burkert (1977: 434): ‘Als Zeichen der geheimnisvollen, Geschlossenen, Jenseitigen tritt die bakchische Höhle auf’. See Boyancé (1961) on the importance of caves in Dionysian mysteries.

    25. See Graziosi & Haubold (2005): cosmogony begins with (a) primordial chaos, heaven and earth; (b) the birth of the gods, the first divine couples Ouranos and Gaia, Cronos and Rhea, Zeus and Hera (Hesiod’s Theogony), the younger Olympians (Homeric Hymns); (c) Heroes, Helena’s lovers (Women Catalogue), the Theban and Trojan war (Homer, Epic cycle, Cypria); and (d) the end of the Heroic era after the Theban and Trojan wars, the present day (Works and Days). See also Clay (1989).

    26. See Klooster (2011: 91).

    27. However, Zeus’ birth cave and his infancy remains a minor motif in Apollonius’ Argonautica: in 2.1231-41 Zeus’ birth cave is a mere indication of time and in 3.129-44 Aphrodite blackmails Eros, promising a beautiful ball from Zeus’ infancy which, judging by its description, is a symbol of the cosmos. But see Williams (1991) on Zeus as a prefiguration of the young Jason.

    28. Not Nysa > Dio-nysos. See also Theocritus 26.33.

    29. This cave remains unspecified, possibly as a general reminder of initiation-caves in the Dionysian cult. See Gigli Piccardi (2006: 643): ‘probabilmente con lo scopo di sottolineare in via generale il ruolo della grotta nell’iniziazione dionisiaca’. In Oppian’s Cynegetica. 4.244-49 Ino, Autonoe and Agaue take care of the newborn child, putting him in a cave.

    30. See Gigli-Piccardi (2006: 648).

    31. Dionysus’ adversaries can also be understood as the actual enemies of the Byzantine empire under Justinian and Heraclius, see Gonnelli (2008: 62-63).

    32. Gonnelli (2008: 64-65).

    33. For this parallel, see the commentary of Gigli Piccardi (2006) on lines 103-106. Other versions in Latin, Syriac, Arabic and Armenian elaborate even more on this theme, see the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in Latin 13.2 (cave and light, because of the presence of Mary); the Gospel of the Nativity in Syriac Arabic 4.1 (cave and light, because of the presence of Jesus: ‘And the cave at that moment looks like a temple of a higher world, because celestial and terrestrial voices glorified and magnified the birth of the Lord, Christ’); the Gospel of the Nativity in Armenian 9.2-4): (cave and light, Maria = Eve, the first mother. Later on, Maria is presented as a second Eve and Jesus as a second Adam: ‘when I entered the cave I saw a nimbus of light that emanated from the cave, while from above the sound of voices and of hosts of angel choirs were being heard thanking and glorifying’). In archaic and classical Antiquity, the divine is already associated with light, in religious practice, iconography and literature. For examples of Greek divinities associated with light, see Parisinou (2000) on Zeus with his thunderbolt, Demeter with her torches and Dionysus with his celestial brightness (expressed in divine radiance, a golden or rayed crown or appearance as lightning) and torchlight. Birth in general is seen as a passage from darkness to light, but a divine birth in a dark cave accompanied by light is especially characteristic of mystery cults and has a cosmic significance. Gigli Piccardi (2006: 17) compares the second birth cave of Dionysus in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca 9.55 with his cave of the Logos in his Paraphrase (1.1), where the light of the Logos illuminates the dark cosmos and the cave prefigures cosmic salvation.

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