The Theosophical Forum – April 1941

THE LAND OF THE CULT OF CAVES — H. T. Edge

In the January number of The Review of Religion (Columbia University Press) is the report of a lecture delivered last November at Columbia by Spyridon N. Marinatos, Professor of Prehistory at Athens University. It is entitled "The Cult of the Cretan Caves" and gives an interesting and sympathetic account of the many subterranean shrines found in Crete since this site of the ancient Minoan civilization was unearthed by Sir Arthur Evans in the early years of the present century. Professor Marinatos was himself a partaker in this more recent work of exploration. As we shall see, this account furnishes valuable items of confirmation for H. P. Blavatsky's thesis, that all cults have sprung from one ancient and universal parent-cult, which she called the Secret Doctrine or Wisdom-Religion. But, whereas H. P. Blavatsky takes the existence of that Secret Doctrine as a starting-point, and then proceeds to substantiate her claim by reference to recorded facts, archaeological research, on the other hand, proceeds in a contrary direction, theorizing on the basis of its knowledge up to date, and enlarging its theories step by step in order to accommodate new facts. These two roads to truth are destined to converge. The immediate acceptance of H. P. Blavatsky's thesis would mean a thorough recasting of prevalent ideas as to the nature of man and the immense antiquity of civilization — ideas which archaeologists are not ready to adopt — and in the meantime their inferences are handicapped by the persistence of narrower preconceptions which the light of knowledge has not yet dispelled.

Professor Marinatos says that the oldest civilizations were born in the lands surrounding the eastern Mediterranean, and that the Minoan civilization was the first upon the soil of Europe. The former of these statements seems too dogmatic, in view of the fact that it is based on the latest information, and hence is as liable to change in the near future as it has changed in past years. Indeed it is doubtful whether it would meet with general concurrence among the archaeologists of today. The date assigned by the author for the Minoan civilization is from the early part of the third millennium b. c. to about 1200 b. c. This does not carry us very far back even in the history of the Fifth Root-Race of humanity, and says nothing of the preceding Root-Races or of the immense antiquity of civilization in Egypt, India, America, and other lands.

The religion, he says, was a kind of monotheism with a supreme goddess at the head, who has several aspects as goddess of sky, water, earth, domestic affairs, etc. One name for this divinity is Eileithyia (variously spelt as Ilythyia, etc.), connected with childbirth and mentioned in the Odyssey. The ancient cave-worship in Crete is described by Greek writers, and the caves of Dicte and Ida are also mentioned by them. The author comments on the curious absence of temples and of large monumental buildings and plastic works in general; and regards the large caves as the Cretan substitute for such buildings. Crete is connected with the child Zeus, who was said to have been born here, and who must be distinguished from the Olympic or heavenly Zeus. In fact these caves were the seat of chthonic worship, the cult of earth-divinities.

Professor Marinatos says that Crete may be thought of as the classical land of the cult of caves, and that, in the light of archaeological research the Cretan cave cult is to be recognised as the origin of one of the most persistent motifs in religious history. But cave-worship is far more widely extended and far more ancient than that. Norse mythology provides us with Gimil's cave; Moses is said to have been initiated in the cave Horeb; we have the cave-temples of India; the site of the Delphic oracle was a cave; and so on. Caves were habitually used as places for a particular stage in initiation rites. The candidate, at this stage, had to descend into the underworld, there to undergo the mystic crucifixion. The major divinities in every land have their earthly or chthonic aspect as well as their celestial. What is done above is repeated below, whether in the sense of cosmic deities or of candidates for initiation. It was no superstitious awe that led to the use of caverns for such purposes, but a knowledge that caverns were the naturally appropriate sites therefor.

The author takes us through a detailed account of the structures and artifacts found in the numerous caves, and makes a special point of the magnificent stalactite formations in the spacious cave of Eileithyia. He represents the ancients as being impressed with superstitious awe by these superb spectacles and as having regarded them as the work of Gods. But, we are told, science has now revealed their true origin. Others may hold that there is nothing in nature which is not due to divine power, and will regard the scientific explanation as concurrent, not alternative. We may be aware that the stalactites are formed by precipitation of calcium carbonate, but why should this detract from our feeling of reverence before a sublime manifestation of Nature's divine creative power? Does the dissection of a human body abrogate our faith in the immortal glory of the human soul?


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