The allegory of the Cave of the Nymphs in the Thirteenth Book of Homer’s Odyssey

“High at the head a branching olive grows
And crowns the pointed cliffs with shady boughs.
A cavern pleasant, though involved in night,
Beneath it lies, the Naiades delight:
Where bowls and urns of workmanship divine
And massy beams in native marble shine;
On which the Nymphs amazing webs display,
Of purple hue and exquisite array,
The busy bees within the urns secure
Honey delicious, and like nectar pure.
Perpetual waters through the grotto glide, 
A lofty gate unfolds on either side;
That to the north is pervious to mankind:
The sacred south t’immortals is consign’d.”

I’ve long been fascinated with the symbolism of caves, and allegorical tales connected with them (such as this one in a previous blog post about Hermetic Rebirth and the Cave of Initiation). They’re associated with initiation among other things such as transformation. I’ve also enjoyed researching the symbolic associations of East and West – for example in ancient Egypt, the East is the land of the living while the West is associated with the dead – there’s so much more and it’s a huge area for study. While looking into another subject I’m slightly obsessed with – the Daemon or Daimon, and its many appearances in the ancient world with varying interpretations among different belief systems, I came across this great read, which features all of these things.

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So I’m sharing a few passages from it, but would recommend reading the whole thing, (which is available to read online at the link at the bottom of this post) especially if you share an interest in these areas, or are studying Homer. (Also, there are footnotes for the article, which I haven’t copied here)

William Russell Flint illustration for the Odyssey
William Russell Flint illustration for the Odyssey

THAT THE POET  indeed, does not narrate these particulars from historical information, is evident from this, that those who have given us |6 a description of the island, have, as Cronius (note 1) says, made no mention of such a cave being found in it. This likewise, says he, is manifest, that it would be absurd for Homer to expect, that in describing a cave fabricated merely by poetical license and thus artificially opening a path to Gods and men in the region of Ithaca, he should gain the belief of mankind. And it is equally absurd to suppose, that nature herself should point out, in this place, one path for the descent of all mankind, and again another path for all the Gods. For, indeed, the whole world is full of Gods and men; but it is impossible to be persuaded, that in the Ithacensian cave men descend, and Gods ascend. Cronius therefore, having premised this much, says, that it is evident, not only to the wise but also to the vulgar, that the poet, under the veil of allegory, conceals some mysterious signification; thus compelling others to explore what the gate of men is and also what is the gate of the Gods: what he means by asserting that this cave of the Nymphs has two gates; and why it is both pleasant and obscure, since darkness is by no means delightful, but is rather productive of aversion and horror. Likewise, what is the |7 reason why it is not simply said to be the cave of the Nymphs, but it is accurately added, of the Nymphs which are called Naiades? Why also, is the cave represented as containing bowls and amphorae, when no mention is made of their receiving any liquor, but bees are said to deposit their honey in these vessels as in hives? Then, again, why are oblong beams adapted to weaving placed here for the Nymphs; and these not formed from wood, or any other pliable matter, but from stone, as well as the amphorae and bowls? Which last circumstance is, indeed, less obscure; but that, on these stony beams, the Nymphs should weave purple garments, is not only wonderful to the sight, but also to the auditory sense. For who would believe that Goddesses weave garments in a cave involved in darkness, and on stony beams; especially while he hears the poet asserting, that the purple webs of the Goddesses were visible. In addition to these things likewise, this is admirable, that the cave should have a twofold entrance; one made for the descent of men, but the other for the ascent of Gods. And again that the gate, which is pervious by men, should be said to be turned against the north wind, but the |8 portal of the Gods to the south; and why the poet did not rather make use of the west and the east for this purpose, since nearly all temples have their statues and entrances turned towards the east; but those who enter them look towards the west, when standing with their faces turned towards the statues they honour and worship the Gods. Hence, since this narration is full of such obscurities it can neither be a fiction casually devised for the purpose of procuring delight, nor an exposition of a topical history; but something allegorical must be indicated in it by the poet who likewise mystically places an olive near the cave. All which particulars the ancients thought very laborious to investigate and unfold; and we, with their assistance, shall now endeavour to develop the secret meaning of the allegory. Those persons, therefore, appear to have written very negligently about the situation of the place, who think that the cave, and what is narrated concerning it, are nothing more than a notion of the poet. But the best and most accurate writers of geography, and among these Artemidorus the Ephesian, in the fifth book of his work, which consists of eleven books, thus writes: “The island of Ithaca, |9 containing an extent of eighty-five stadia (note 2), is distant from Panormus, a port of Cephalenia, about twelve stadia. It has a port named Phorcys, in which there is a shore, and on that shore a cave, in which the Phaeacians are reported to have placed Ulysses.” This cave, therefore, will not be entirely an Homeric fiction. But whether the poet describes it as it really is, or whether he has added something to it of his own invention, nevertheless the same inquiries remain; whether the intention of the poet is investigated, or of those who founded the cave. For, neither did the ancients establish temples without fabulous symbols, nor does Homer rashly narrate the particulars pertaining to things of this kind. But how much the more anyone endeavours to show that this description of the cave is not an Homeric fiction, but prior to Homer was consecrated to the Gods, by so much the more will this consecrated cave be found to be full of ancient wisdom. And on this account it deserves to be investigated, and it is requisite that its symbolical consecration should be amply unfolded into light.

2. The ancients, indeed, very properly consecrated a cave to the world, whether assumed |10 collectively, according to the whole of itself, or separately, according to its parts. Hence they considered earth as a symbol of that matter of which the world consists; on which account some thought that matter and earth are the same; through the cave indicating the world, which was generated from matter. For caves are, for the most part, spontaneous productions, and connascent with the earth, being comprehended by one uniform mass of stone; the interior parts of which are concave, but the exterior parts are extended over an indefinite portion of land. And the world being spontaneously produced (i.e., being produced by no external, but from an internal cause), and being also self-adherent, is allied to matter; which, according to a secret signification, is denominated a stone and a rock, on account of its sluggish and repercussive nature with respect to form; the ancients, at the same time, asserting that matter is infinite through its privation of form. Since, however, it is continually flowing, and is of itself destitute of the supervening investments of form, through which it participates of morphe (note 3), and becomes visible, the flowing waters, darkness, or, as the poet says, |11 obscurity of the cavern. were considered by the ancients as apt symbols of what the world contains, on account of the matter with which it is connected. Through matter, therefore, the world is obscure and dark; but through the connecting power, and orderly distribution of form, from which also it is called world, it is beautiful and delightful. Hence it may very properly be denominated a cave; as being lovely, indeed, to him who first enters into it, through its participation of forms, but obscure to him who surveys its foundation and examines it with an intellectual eye. So that its exterior and superficial parts, indeed, are pleasant, but its interior and profound parts are obscure (and its very bottom is darkness itself). Thus also the Persians, mystically signifying the descent of the soul into the sublunary regions, and its regression from it, initiate the mystic (or him who is admitted to the arcane sacred rites) in a place which they denominate a cavern. For, as Eubulus says, Zoroaster was the first who consecrated in the neighbouring mountains of Persia, a spontaneously produced cave, florid, and having fountains, in honour of Mithra, the maker and father of all things; |12 a cave, according to Zoroaster, bearing a resemblance of the world, which was fabricated by Mithra. But the things contained in the cavern being arranged according to commensurate intervals, were symbols of the mundane elements and climates.

3. After this Zoroaster likewise, it was usual with others to perform the rites pertaining to the mysteries in caverns and dens, whether spontaneously produced, or made by the hands. For as they established temples, groves, and altars to the celestial Gods, but to the terrestrial Gods, and to heroes, altars alone, and to the subterranean divinities pits and cells; so to the world they dedicated caves and dens; as likewise to Nymphs (note 4), on account of the water which trickles, or is diffused in caverns, over which the Naiades, as we shall shortly observe, preside. Not only, however, did the ancients make a cavern,as we have.said, to be a symbol of the world, or of a generated and sensible nature: but they also assumed it as a symbol of all invisible powers; because as caverns are obscure and dark, so the essence of these powers is occult. Hence Saturn fabricated a cavern in the ocean itself and |13 concealed in it his children. Thus, too, Ceres educated Proserpine with her Nymphs in a cave; and many other particulars of this kind may be found in the writings of theologists. But that the ancients dedicated caverns to Nymphs and especially to Naiades, who dwell, near fountains, and who are called Naiades from the streams over which they preside, is manifest from the hymn to Apollo, in which it is said: ” The Nymphs residing in caves shall deduce fountains of intellectual waters to thee (according to the divine voice of the Muses), which are the progeny of a terrene spirit. Hence waters, bursting through every river, shall exhibit to mankind perpetual effusions of sweet streams” (note 5). From hence, as it appears to me. the Pythagoreans. and after them Plato, showed that the world is a cavern and a den. For the powers which are the leaders of souls, thus speak in a verse of Empedocles:

“Now at this secret cavern we’re arrived.”

And by Plato, in the seventh book of his Republic, it is said, Behold men as if dwelling in a subterraneous cavern, and in a denlike habitation, whose entrance is widely |14 expanded to the admission of the light through the whole cave.” But when the other person in the dialogue says: You adduce an unusual and wonderful similitude,” he replies, “The whole of this image, friend Glauco, must be adapted to what has been before said, assimilating this receptacle, which is visible through the sight to the habitation of a prison; but the light of the fire which is in it to the power of the sun.

4. That theologists therefore considered caverns as symbols of the world, and of mundane powers, is through this, maiifest. And it has been already observed by us, that they also considered a cave as a symbol of the intelligible essence; being impelled to do so by different and not the same conceptions. For they were of opinion that a cave is a symbol of the sensible world because caverns are dark, stony, and humid; and they asserted that the world is a thing of this kind, through the matter of which it consists, and through its repercussive and flowing nature. But they thought it to be a symbol of the intelligible world, because that world is invisible to sensible perception, and possesses a firm and |15 stable essence. Thus, also, partial powers are unapparent, and especially those which are inherent in matter. For they formed these symbols, from surveying the spontaneous production of caves, and their nocturnal, dark, and stony nature; and not entirely, as some suspect, from directing their attention to the figure of a cavern. For every cave is not spherical, as is evident from this Homeric cave with a twofold entrance. But since a cavern has a twofold similitude, the present cave must not be assumed as an image of the intelligible but of the sensible essence. For in consequence of containing perpetually flowing streams of water, it will not be a symbol of an intelligible hypostasis, but of a material essence. On this account also it is sacred to Nymphs, not the mountain or rural Nymphs, or others of the like kind, but to the Naiades, who are thus denominated from streams of water. For we peculiarly call the Naiades, and the powers that preside over waters, Nymphs; and this term also, is commonly applied to all souls descending into generation. For the ancients thought that these souls are incumbent on water which is inspired by divinity, as Numenius says, who adds, that |16 on this account, a prophet asserts, that the Spirit of God moved on the waters. The Egyptians likewise, on this account, represent all daemons and also the sun, and, in short, all the planets (note 6), not standing on anything solid, but on a sailing vessel; for souls descending into generation fly to moisture. Hence also, Heraclitus says, that moisture appears delightful and not deadly to souls; but the lapse into generation is delightful to them. And in another place (speaking of unembodied souls), he says, “We live their death, and we die their life.” Hence the poet calls those that are in generation humid, because they have souls which are profoundly steeped in moisture. On this account, such souls delight in blood and humid seed; but water is the nutriment of the souls of plants. Some likewise are of opinion, that the bodies in the air, and in the heavens, are nourished by vapours from fountains and rivers, and other exhalations. But the Stoics assert, that the sun is nourished by the exhalation from the sea; the moon from the vapours of fountains and river; and the stars from the exhalation of the earth. Hence, according to them, the sun is an intellectual composition formed from |17 the sea; the moon from the river waters and the stars from terrene exhalations.

[After much more, the essay concludes with]

IT MUST NOT however, be thought that interpretations of this kind are forced, and nothing more than the conjectures of ingenious men; but when we consider the |41 great wisdom of antiquity and how much Homer excelled in intellectual prudence, and in an accurate knowledge of every virtue, it must not be denied that he has obscurely indicated the images of things of a more divine nature in the fiction of a fable. For it would not have been possible to devise the whole of this hypothesis unless the figment had been transferred (to an appropriate meaning) from certain established truths. But reserving the discussion of this for another treatise, we shall here finish our explanation of the present Cave of the Nymphs.

The entire essay can be found here On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Thirteenth Book of the Odyssey

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