CAVES AND OTHER DARK PLACES: Myth, Symbol, and the "Other Side"

We are all CAVEMEN! The images and many connotations of that single word have been with us for thousands of years, even though those images have undergone many changes over time. It has taken generations, but the mental picture of the club-wielding, hairy brute in the last half century or so has gradually been converted to one of the shamanistic artist with skills and intellect beyond even our own understanding in some cases. A wave of post WWII discoveries in Europe and elsewhere has continued to push back in time the earliest dates for when our first ancestors used caves for more than just living spaces or casual shelters. As that past has deepened, these dark places are now viewed with equal intensity as locations where the earliest artists and others found outlets for their fantastic and enigmatic expressions of more complex beliefs, which we can still only guess about even as we marvel at them.

My own recently completed trip to the south of France to personally view several of these important sites, as well as to get a better picture of the overall environment in which many of them are located, has helped to advance the development of some more complex thoughts on human cultural origins that I have been contemplating for some time. These ideas are in addition to the typical response to such a visit as one of being nearly overwhelmed by the sheer virtuosity and visual scope of the Ice Age cave artists. That subject will be dealt with more directly in a subsequent article to appear in this blog series in the days ahead. Many readers of previous articles on this blog site will be fully aware that one of the author's primary objectives in writing these short articles on what are generally considered esoteric or confusing topics in archaeology or anthropology is to offer reasonable--at times even controversial, perhaps--explanations that may sometimes challenge conventional wisdom. Furthermore, I hope to do this in a way that the lay reader as well as the more experienced student of these subjects might comprehend, enjoy, and even be challenged by.

If this writer has learned one thing in over forty years of dealing with the deep human past in as many aspects and locations as I can, it is that whenever the words "coincidence" or "ceremonial purposes" creep into discussions or explanations of some prehistoric behavior or "mystery", then it is probably time to dig a little deeper and look around with a more inclusive eye. At that point, being able to put one's hands on as much cross-cultural and other comparative information as possible is always a great analytical advantage. The other factor that readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed is that such a viewpoint change or investigation stream more often than not leads the seeker of larger truth into the realm of ancient astronomy and comparative mythology at levels of deeper revelation than were possible even a mere half century ago. When mythological themes or material concepts keep reappearing in many different times and places, it is necessary to "dig in" and get to the heart of the matter and forget about "coincidence". It is a journey of discovery that is often reflected in the myth or behavioral pattern being viewed itself, and is also one that has led this writer into many more obscure places of the mind--and the skies--of ancient peoples the world over.

The darkest of all those places, however, may be the caves, great and small, that our ancestors either occupied, or sometimes created themselves. They did this in the absence of real ones in order to maintain their distant connections with a mysterious past, which they were always vaguely aware of, but could only grasp and hold onto through the many stories and myths they developed and orally--or visually--transmitted. Those myths always needed a point in reality upon which they could base their larger belief system. It now appears that caves and other dark places--both in the earth and in the sky--are central to the understanding of where those origin points may lie and what the truer meaning of them might be. When arriving at such in point in any such investigation of cultural origin points, I often stop to reflect upon a wonderful quote from the archaeo-astronomer and writer Dr. E. C. Krupp from his informative book ECHOES OF THE ANCIENT SKIES. To quote him directly: "Our myths of the intrusion of chaos and the restoration of order have a celestial dimension, for the sky and the seasons mirror this conflict and its outcome. We gaze upward and harvest the metaphors we find there."

Truly, ancient peoples the world over did gaze upward and apply the regularity,change, and predictability of that change they observed there to their own lives and surroundings on earth. Hence, they were always looking for connections with the two distinct "worlds" they observed: the one upon which they lived and the more distant, yet clearly visible, one overhead, which though still beyond explanation in rational terms often dominated the visible one below (storms, eclipses,etc.) For all men in all times and places two basic questions have always dominated our belief system in whatever form it may take. Those two questions are: WHERE DID WE COME FROM? WHERE DO WE GO WHEN WE CEASE TO EXIST ON EARTH? If we accept the basic proposition that, based on archaeological evidence, even earliest humans buried their dead with obvious belief that there must be some form of Afterlife, then we could also add a third basic question to the two above: How Do We Get To Where It Is We Go After We Die?

We know that perhaps our most distinctive human behavioral and cultural trait is the development of belief systems built around our unique desire to deal with those two basic questions referred to above. The "origin myth" is probably the most universally studied and cross-culturally compared connection of all the many aspects of those various belief systems, followed closely by our need to deal with an "afterlife" accounting connected in some way to those origin beliefs. With this in mind, we can start to probe some of the "dark places" our ancestors journeyed to in order to discover, or at least attempt to explain, where they came from and where they might be going--and how to get there. These are frequently places that we sometimes misidentify as not being real when they actually are, and label as real when they are really metaphors for someplace else.

                                                      EMERGING FROM THE DARK EARTH

There are many cultures around the world, perhaps even most of them, whose basic origin myth recounts the emergence of the original "humans" from the earth through some "portal" or other sacred location. These are often associated with an actual cave or fissure known to their collective memories and identified with a real location they can journey to or otherwise mark in some dramatic fashion. However, as we dig deeper into some of these myths we find that the original humans (often related or paired in some way,such as twins or brother and sister) were "created" by, or as, celestial beings and sent to earth to form the basis of some new, or restored, human population. These "founders" must emerge from within the earth or the Underworld below, from where they must engage in some struggle with the Gods of Darkness before they can escape or gain passage through it to become the progenitors of a new cultural heritage somewhere on the surface.

Often, however, we neglect to note that these founders do not always emerge into a world unpopulated by other existing humans or cultures. They frequently represent the founding heroes of a new class of superior humans or a new ethnic group or culture that is explaining through myth why it has supplanted or come to dominate those pre-existing peoples it is now sharing the same space with. As such, an actual physical connection with their myth-explained origins can be essential as an observable organizational tool for developing a wider spreading or acceptance of "the new order of things". At this point, the Sacred Cave, the Sacred Well-Spring, or some other known hole in the earth can become a place of primal ceremonial importance. The Great Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan in Mexico appears to be built over just such a place, for example. The Inca, the Maya, and other cultures that came to dominate a geographic area through religious and/or military expansionism can be seen as other examples of this common phenomenon. Nor is it any coincidence that many of these sacred locations are found (or created as will be discussed) with a direct correlation to celestial alignments that later become a critical ceremonial aspect of the more dominant ethnic or tribal group's world view, which has suddenly "emerged" and become ascendant over a wider region.

Often, the sacred cave of origin is found in a mountain or other high place where the heavens can be more clearly viewed or reached. In some of these myths the first humans may descend from a tree that grows from the mountain or high place. (NOTE: Origin trees are another class of myth with greater celestial ramifications which have been discussed in earlier articles in this blog series and will not be pursued further here.) In some cases, obviously, when no such real mountain can be moved to other locations of ceremonial importance, artificial mountains must be created. Most often, these also contain artificial caves within (usually for burials of important ancestors connected by blood to the founder myth) or portals on top used by the living to summon forth ancestral spirits at critical times (the Maya, for example). The Babylonians and Egyptians did this, as well as the Maya, the Inca, and others.

Conversely, when the sacred place of emergence is not a cave but a fissure or hole in the earth the culture may replicate an emergence portal in some other way. The pre-Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest created such apertures in their circular Kivas. The "sipapu" opening found near the center of the underground kiva chamber was said to represent the pathway through the earth to the surface for the emerging ancestor humans. It is surrounded by the Kiva, usually sunk into the earth, and the kiva itself may represent a physical replication of the sky surrounding the earth. The larger Kiva is entered through a hole in the roof, where the entrant must "descend" into the other world below and to connect with the emergence "sipapu" within. Many kivas have important celestial observational alignments, especially the larger ones at more sacred sites, such as Chaco Canyon. (NOTE: See the two previous articles in this blog series for more information here) The ancient Greeks particularly revered such dark places and fissures as oracle centers(Delphi for one), where the origin gods (i.e. planetary bodies as a rule) could be consulted, or such places worshiped as pilgrimage sites.

                                                  RETURNING TO THE SKY

In the last century, studies of celestial correlations with pyramids, temple mounds of all types, and many of "civilization's" earliest monumental architectural projects have grown to the level that few scholars still continue to reject out-of-hand either our ancestors' abilities to conceive or then to execute such often very sophisticated, multi-purpose structures. The central concept of emergence from the earth as a cornerstone of many origin myths almost forces us to look at the several common elements so many of them contain. These go far beyond the more obvious ones of emergence from a low place, or descent from a high one--or that twin beings of some sort are involved too often to be mere coincidence.

This brings us to another key element often present in this class of myth: that is the role of the serpent in representing the earth, the Milky Way, an underworld river, a totemic ancestor, or some other central component of the larger myth. The Snake as an image tied closely to both the earth and the underworld, but also the skies, is also a well-documented mythical element, especially in origin or rebirth mythology. (NOTE: See earlier article on this blog entitled SERPENTS OF STONE AND TREES OF BIRDS) From ancient Babylonians and Egyptians to native peoples throughout the Americas, the snake is an important and varied symbol in many important myths, not the least of which is the basic Judeo-Christian one. They are so often seen as the "connective tissue" between the earth and sky, or the living and the dead, that to ignore their central importance to any myth in which they appear would seem to be foolhardy or negligent scholarship.

As icons, snakes are used to represent connections to the Underworld. Snakes often emerge from holes in the earth in reality, but are also frequently associated mythically with mortality, medicine, or deceit. Their mouths (in Central America, for example) are frequently used to create portals to the Underworld or "the place where the ancestors reside". Their bodies become a passageway symbolizing the winding waterway or river which must be traveled or traversed to get to the desired destination of the afterlife, usually somewhere beyond in the celestial sphere, of course. In the sky, the movements of the stars and the Milky Way inevitably gain mythic significance in the form of a serpent. At first glance, these two separate connotations of the snake might appear to be in opposition. In reality, however, the winding passageway to the underworld, or the serpentine river that must be navigated to get to the underworld and the heavenly dwelling place of the ancestors beyond, may be virtually the same thing or idea. All this goes beyond the obvious sexual significance of snakes as they are also often seen as fertility or rebirth symbols in association with cave portals in the earth. (NOTE: See the earlier article on this blog on STONE BALL COURT IMAGERY for a more detailed discussion of the serpent in this context, both mythically and iconically) We are beginning to comprehend the nuances of these multi-tiered myths in many cases for the first time.

One of those nuances we often lose sight of is that this passageway to or through the Underworld of the dead "is not a place within the earth itself, but in reality is the DARKENED part of the sky which cannot be viewed overhead at that particular time or season because it is hidden by the regular movements of the celestial sphere behind the earth's horizon."

Arriving at this critical viewpoint must inevitably lead us to re-evaluate myths of Hell, Hades, Xibalba, etc. as not merely places where certain classes of the dead go to reside "within" the earth, but as transient stops or places of "testing" on lost souls' passage "through" the earth to that part of the Sky which is merely "dark" at that particular point in time. The key element to remember is that the Sky is where all the ancestors, including the ancestral "gods" (the moving planets in most cases) reside regardless of the journey they must make through the earth to get there. The most important Sky god, of course, is the Sun. In its daily journey across the sky--a journey frequently seen as one of rebirth with each dawn, ascendancy, and death with each sunset--the Sun must journey from the place of its dying each evening at dusk "through the Underworld of darkness" to get back to the other side of the Sky (or earth) to be reborn with the new day, usually after some desperate struggle with other supernatural beings or forces there while in the darkness. Therefore, we can view the duality of such an emergence point as the "sipapu" of the pre-Pueblo Kiva as not just a vestigial symbol of the ancestors' emerging from the earth, but also as an important passageway "back through the earth" to a sky-dwelling place on the invisible side of the Sky for all beings. Without such an interpretation, there is really little need for the obvious celestial manifestations of such places which have been so well-documented in recent years. Hell is not a place within the earth, nor do the Mayan nine lords of the Underworld rule over a subterranean realm. They, too, must be seen as Sky Gods, as are all the planetary rulers of such places--from Osirus, to Hades, to Lucifer and beyond--from our earliest mythological heritage. The Underworld is a stopping-off place on our journey where we must struggle against the dark forces that would keep us from joining our ancestors in an earned immortality in the Heavens. It is a test we must all pass, whether we be gods or men. We enter through a dark opening in the earth and emerge on the far side into the light of the sky, reborn just like the Sun each day.

 The dark places within the earth are not the only ones remembered in the caves and other holey (or holy, I suppose) places. There are also visible dark places in the Sky itself, which these emergence or returning origin points must surely also represent. Within the Milky Way, for example, several "dark stars or holes" are well noted by ancient peoples. The ancient Peruvians, to cite one such example, saw one well-known dark area or "cloud" (near or part of the constellation Scorpius) as a mother llama and her suckling lamb that figures prominently in Andean origin mythology. This same celestial dark spot in the Milky Way appears in several other cultures' mythologies as well. There are "dark spots" whose movements are not as regular as other planets, stars, or constellations. Sometimes these are interpreted as small birds, or bats, whose actual flight patterns are also irregular. Caves as a dwelling place for bats in particular then take on a further significance in stories in which these animals figure prominently. It is no coincidence that bats, as they emerge from a dark portal in the earth at the end of the day, are often seen as a symbol of death or blood-letting in many cultures--not the least of which is our own current obsession with vampirism and dark places in the earth where death (often bloody) at the hands of some primeval beast originates.

Finally, we must not forget the near obsession with all peoples, past and present, with recreating these dark places where none exist to fulfill some basic or important need. Is this simply our remembrance of our long lost, cave-dwelling past? I think not; for in reality most of our ancestors probably spent little time actually living in caves. Think of it this way by asking how many people would willingly choose to live in a church or other sacred--perhaps even fearful--place? True, caves and rock shelters were obviously used for shelter, particularly in Ice Age environments or desert places where building materials might have been scarce. But it seems most ancient peoples preferred more open spaces near water when they had the choice--just as we still do today. They built their "man caves" not out of some innate need to connect with a forgotten past, but mainly out of necessity and available building materials. (Not to mention that those real dark places were often occupied by bears, snakes, and other tenants high on our ancestors' list of things to avoid when possible.)

We bury our dead in the ground to ease their passage through the Underworld to their heavenly residence, just as our ancestors have done since Cro Magnon times, and beyond. Important deaths are given especially important "caves" to temporarily inhabit on their winding journey.  These pyramids, tombs, etc. also house the many things the important dead are taking with them to reaffirm their earthly status on "the Other Side", as we often say without thinking about it, or to continue their earthly lifestyle, thus enabling them to continue to intercede for and look after those left behind in the same fashion they did as living men. Then, we build an artificial mountain (like a pyramid) over their artificial cave to simulate their (or their family's) important connection with an ancestral origin myth or personage. Only the rich or important get such and artificial cave--above ground--because they want to be seen as a living connection with the past (and because, unlike the rest of us, they don't need a headstart on their way through the earth anyway.  Besides, we have equipped their tombs with everything they will need for their journey, even a boat sometimes. Hmmm.). If we build a temple atop the artificial mountain or mound, it is usually equipped with a portal through which the ancestors can be summoned from beyond the Underworld (i.e. the Heavens), even if it is just by means of a well-projected sunrise beam of light, or a ray from a particularly important rising star or planet, to intercede for the living in some way--although they may often require some "sacrifice (often blood of the living) or ritual consumption of the ancestor in return for their help and in order to re-connect, as it were, with the living.

Caves are places we have returned to from the beginnings of our Culture, not for comfort or security mainly, but for reassurance that we are on the correct path from the world of the living to the unseen world of the dead. We go there to reaffirm or symbolically mark that path, which the revered ancestors have laid out for us through myth and ceremonies of replication of that original journey. As time has gone by we have seen the caves themselves as critical ceremonial centers. The ones in the earth became the first places our artistic and ritualistic expression of those earliest belief systems were played out. Over time we have created great, artificial places above ground, or below, and have continued to decorate these with some of our finest artwork for important rituals, much in the manner of our ancestors. It is no coincidence, for example, that Lascaux Cave in France is often referred to as "The Sistene Chapel of Prehistoric Man". In reality, the vaulted ceiling of a great cathedral, or your local church, is little more than a representation of a Cave. It's just that now we sometimes choose to paint the heavens, or our origin myths, on the ceilings of our sacred caves, whereas early Man simply had to step outside, gaze upward at a much clearer sky, and "harvest the metaphors he found there." Often, these were then artistically manifested in the animals he named the stars and constellations he saw up there after and then recreated on the walls and ceilings of the best natural "cathedral" he could find.

In the subsequent article to shortly follow this one, I will take a closer look at the world of the cave artists, both inside and outside of the caves, and their amazing work in order to try to convey some of the impressions and other perspectives gained from my recent trip to several of the still-open sites in southern France. As always, the reader is strongly encouraged to add his or her own comments, questions, or additional information directly to this article by clicking on the Comment listing at the end and logging in to our secure website. The reader may also communicate personally and directly with the author through email by clicking on the CONTACT icon at the top of any page of the website.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment With Your Facebook Account!