by Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe


The CAVE is a cavity inside the earth which may be either natural or artificial in origin. Natural caves come into existence by the action of water or tectonic displacement. Both natural and artificial caves have served humankind in various capacities since time immemorial.

Caves are ambiguous spaces, offering both protection and shelter but can also trap and imprison. Because of its location within the earth, which many cultures have identified as female, the cave has been identified as the womb of Mother Earth, and associated with birth and regeneration. Although sacredness may have been invested in many other natural forms and objects (such as trees, mountains, etc.) during the prehistoric period, the earliest known sacred places are naturally-formed caves, such as that at Lascaux in France. In various cultures, caves have been location for the celebration of diverse cults and mysteries, and this was most likely the case at Lascaux.


Natural caves have long been a focus of veneration and appear frequently in both mythological and religious stories. The Greek god Zeus was born in a cave on Mount Ida (or Mount Dikte) on the Island of Crete. When excavated in this century, both caves were filled with votive offerings. Sacred caves are found throughout Greece, such as the Corycian Cave at Delphi sacred to the nymph Corycia and Pan. Rites associated with the Phrygian Mother Goddess Cybele took place in caves.

A sacred cave may also contain a sacred spring which may possess special healing or divinatory properties. Famous sacred caves are found in India, at Ajanta, Ellora, and Elephanta which have been embellished with carvings and frescoes.

Besides naturally occurring caves, artificial caves were dug into mountains as at Abu Simbel in Egypt. Often the mountain itself was also artificial. The pyramids in Egypt were man-made sacred mountains inside of which were created artificial caves. It may be argued that a number of prehistoric megalithic 'burial' mounds, such as Newgrange in Ireland were built to 'house' an artificial cave. Conceived along the same lines are Myceneaen tholos tombs and Etruscan tumuli.


The Neoplatonist Porphyry (234-305 CE) explains that before there were temples, religious rites took place in caves. In this sense, it may be argued that temples in ancient Greece and Rome were in some respects man-made substitutes for the cave. It can be pointed out that the cella or naos of a classical temple was not provided with windows, so that the interior space was dark and cave-like. One set of doors provided the only access and the only source of natural light. The doors would have been opened on religious occasions, and perhaps at times when the location and angle of the sun (and because the temple was so oriented in the first place) permitted sunlight to penetrate directly into the otherwise dark interior space (such as occurs at Abu Simbel and Newgrange).


A cave-like environment is also experienced in Christian Romanesque churches; their dark, gloomy 'Mediterranean' interiors contrasting with the impression of a light-filled forest grove which characterizes North European Gothic architecture (Chartres).