The Magic of Caves

FireHeart 4 Cover for EarthSpiritThe Magic of Caves
by Walter Wright Arthen ©1989

When I die
I’ll Sleep in your Heart
Like a Bear in a cave
and come Spring
I’ll leap forth
from Shadow
the loving grave.
by Kelly Cherry1

If magic is the art of creating change according to will, then “setting the scene” is one of the most important magical acts. Where an action occurs, its time, place. and circumstance, will have a great (perhaps even determinative) influence on how that action turns out. The same act performed on a crowded city street, on the deck of a sailing ship, or in the desert may actually be very different in its consequences and meaning, But perhaps no settings are as powerful for doing magic as are places in nature: a mountaintop, a forest meadow. a seashore. Even in trance work, we most often move through natural landscapes and scenes, and each of them has its own particular qualities. Some may evoke fear and awe: others may evoke calm, humor, or excitement.

One such setting, a cave in the bank across the river from a privileged private school, is the meeting place for The Dead Poets Society in Robin Williams’s recent film of the same name. Here a group of students, inspired by Williams’s example, assemble in a candlelit circle to release the inhibitions of their regimented prep school existence, read the works of dead poets, and create the shape of their own lives. At first, the cave is a threatening place. To go there is to break the rules – leaving their beds at night, traveling through a misty wood, and going into a dark hole. But the magic of caves is evident in the changes and confrontations that result from what they do there – changes which include death, maturity and personal courage. Caves are powerful places. To enter them is to enter another world, but it is also to go to the heart of things. The students in this film set out to recover a space for their own development as individuals – a space which the pressures of school, parents. and society all wish to deny them. Their school mottos invoke the values of tradition maintained rather than of individuality affirmed, in the cave, these values are reversed, as the students confront the fundamental questions of meaning, renewal, fear, death, and life. While their experience reflects only some of the possible meanings that caves can assume in magical settings, it also serves to remind us of the primal power of caves.

The Original Cave-Sheltering and Threatening

We have, for the most part, lost touch with our origins. The primal experiences that laid down the base layers of meaning in our languages and symbols are remote from our present.2 But by tapping those origins and primal experiences, we can recover and deepen meanings that have grown thin. This is as true of caves as of anything else – both of the word itself and of the experienced significance of caves for our ancient ancestors.

The word cave comes from the Latin root “cavus.” meaning “hollow.” It names an absence, an empty space. From an Indo-European root keu- which means “to swell, vault, hole.”3 cave is linked to such cognate words as cage. excavate, accumulate, and church. All of them carry a sense of placement, opening, and bounded space. For us, though, the cave is an opening in the Earth, usually extending horizontally, although it may also go down and in.

The cave itself enters human awareness as soon as humans are aware of anything. From Palestine through Europe and even to Siberia, almost from the beginning, whenever human remains are found anywhere, they are found in and around caves. Large, open caves are nearly perfect homes: they require little in the way of modification to be habitable: they are the original temperature and humidity controlled environment – warm in winter, cool in summer’s heat; they offer protection from weather and foe; and they are everywhere. As perhaps the first human habitation, the cave mouth tells us much about our early ancestors. We find evidence of what they ate, the tools they made, how their dead were buried, and even (from skeletal remains) what diseases troubled them. And the deeper caves of Aurignacean Europe also tell us much about prehistoric mental and religious lives.

But the “original” cave was more. Caves were a safe physical home for more than just humans. They also were home to other animals, from lizards, snakes, and bats to the great prehistoric cave bears. Fierce predators and our rivals for cave space, cave bears play a major part in the mythology and ritual of early cave-dwelling peoples. Joseph Campbell talks about the cave at Drachenloch (Dragon’s Den), excavated by Emil Bichler in the 1920s, in which he discovered stone slab cabinets containing bear skulls. This and other similar caves were not necessarily the home of cave bears, but of cave bear hunters who treated these animal remains with religious respect.4 Artifacts from many other sites (especially in Germany and Switzerland) also serve as a witness to the significance of the great cave bear for early humans: these beasts were powerful foes to be propitiated, and symbols of a terrifying power. In this respect, the “original” cave was not only “sheltering” but also “dangerous.” Moving into the deep darkness of the interior, one could easily encounter death, and one certainly encountered something shadowy, risky, and other. The risk was real.

This aspect of caves is familiar to us as well in fairy tales and legends that show the cave as inhabited by threatening creatures. In Tolkein’s stories, for example, caves are never innocent and never entirely safe. Although hobbit holes are dry, comfortable, and full of food, caves are different: they contain dragons, orcs, Balrogs, slinking Gollums, loathsome giant spiders, the shades of the dead, goblins who leap out to drag off sleeping victims, and other dangers. Indeed, dwarves, as the only one of the great races of Middle-earth who chose caves as a home, show in their greed and xenophobia that they reflect the negative qualities of their setting. While this might be taken as evidence of Tolkein’s preference for shallow, domestic comfort over the dimension of depth and of the inward journey, it is also a theme that we recognize from other sources. For Tom Sawyer, the cave contains “Injun Joe,” a strong, dangerous enemy who is certainly “other” to Tom’s normal daylight world, and who will, in fact, try to kill him. And when Luke Skywalker enters the cave on a small swampy planet in the Dagoba system during his training as a Jedi, he meets Darth Vader – the “dark father,” who is his own other side. The cave is dark. To enter it is to meet the jungian shadow side: our fears, the parts of ourselves we refuse to recognize in the light, the dark places of the soul. This perception of the cave as danger persists in our thought of caves today.

The Vaginal Cave: Womb and Tomb

We do not know whether the cave mouth was a permanent home or merely a migratory shelter for prehistoric hunters, but we do know that from an early date, these tiny bands of hominids did not stay at the surface. Small shallow dishes – which archaeologists believe were used for carrying flaming bits of moss floating on oil – are found in many prehistoric caves. One major use for such lamps was surely to explore farther within.

Down through narrow, dark passages they moved in the flickering light of these simple lamps. Here, in the depths of the Earth, our early ancestors inscribed images of astonishing beauty. These drawings were not only “art”. Many of them can be reached only after a long and perilous journey. Why did these early humans come here? Why did they pass more easily available, more spacious walls to travel far underground (as much as three hours at Montespan) through the dripping dark, where there is no sign of daily activity such as we find at the cave mouth? Why did they risk so much by traversing narrow, labyrinthine galleries, descending deep pits, crawling through tiny apertures, or following surging underground rivers, to come at last to a decorated chamber, a bison carved of sandstone, or a wall of mysterious, almost living, figures? Was there some positive meaning to the danger and dark? The remoteness and risk of these sites can be attested further by the animal tracks including those of cave bears, which have been left in the mud floors and along narrow ledges near those of prehistoric human visitors to these depths.

While all accounts of these sites are necessarily speculative, the work of Levy and Campbell, together with patterns in myth and the use of caves in shamanic initiations,5 suggest three relevant semantic constellations.

First, the deep cavern was a place of religious power. The real threat implicit in the dangerous passage that must be made to enter the cave, its remoteness from human habitation, and the content of the images placed there all suggest that these are sites of ritual and power. Far away from the light of the sun and stars, far away from the daylight world of “ordinary” life activity they came into the uncanny, unchanging darkness as a return to the source of things, to a place of power.

Second. death and rebirth are what cave magic most fundamentally addressed. What frightens us most about the dark is that we may die and in cave art, images of hunting and killing stand side by side with images of fertility and life. Entering the cave is a journey both to the cold, earthen tomb and to the fertile womb of the mother.6 Very probably, the caves connect to the cult of the hunt. Here the hunters came to invoke the spirit of the master of animals (whether in the form of “fertile mother” as in the “Venus” statuettes, or as the shape-changing but obviously male shaman of Trois Freres) who controlled the fertility of the herds. Here they came to honor the spirits of animals taken for the tribe, and to call for the return of the dead beasts to renewed life. The deep cave is the first “horn of plenty.” it is the cosmic vagina which gives birth to all that lives. The “red ochre” burials by European Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon people, together with the evidence for red ochre on paleolithic carvings (as is the case with the “Venus” of Laussel), suggest that death and rebirth through the womb of the Great Mother were not for animals only. Indeed Campbell writes of the cave at Shanidar in the Zagros Mountains of northern Iraq, where to this day nomadic Kurds shelter flocks in winter. The cave has been excavated to a depth of 45 feet. exposing levels 100.000 years old. Among several human remains of great age, one, at a level of about 60,000 B.C., was especially notable.

It consisted of the skeleton, with a badly crushed skull, of a male about 5 feet 8 inches tall, which for a Neanderthaler was large. The body had been laid to rest on a filter of evergreen boughs heaped with flowers … The flowers of this burial were of eight species or more… seven of the eight being known today in Iraq as medicinal herbs.7

Ralph S. Solecki speculates that Shanidar IV (as this skeleton is known) might have been a powerful shaman or healer.8 Perhaps to be buried in a cave was to seek rebirth from the womb of the Great Mother.

Third, in coming to a place set apart where life and death meet, these early ancestors also came to a place “between the worlds.” The caves were very likely places for initiations and mystery ceremonies, whose exact nature we can barely imagine. Young members of the community entering adulthood might have been led blindfolded and in darkness through the dangerous passage. They traveled into blackness and fear, facing the unknown, until the moment of revelation when they met the animal spirits who protected the tribe, and whose give-away of flesh, skin, bone, hoof, and horn played such a role in their lives. Perhaps a vision quest or shamanic journey was played out in these lonely depths. We cannot know with certainty. But there are clues.

Mircea Eliade for example, discusses the significance of stories about Zalmoxis and Pythagoras having descended into underground places where they remained for years only to return, to the surprise of all, with new, inexplicable knowledge:

Retiring into a hiding place or descending into an underground chamber is ritually and symbolically equivalent to a katabasis or a decensus ad inferos undertaken as a means of initiation.9

This is not a merely intellectual matter, either for Eliade or for us. Going down into hell is a process of personal dissolution and loss in which we face the worst that we can imagine. Eliade goes on to cite Pythagoras’s initiation into the mysteries of Zeus, which included purification, a night spent wrapped in black fleece, and a twenty-seven day sojourn in the Idean cave on Crete, where Zeus was born. In matching the experience of the initiate to the events in the birth and sheltering of the god, these details link the initiatory meaning of descent to the underground with death and resurrection, and with the womb of the Great Mother. Clearly. the cave that could birth the god was a powerful place for renewal and healing.

There are also hints in what we know from more recent spiritual practice, Dick Mahwee is a Paviotso shaman who sought the power to heal during an all night vigil in a sacred cave. As a youth, Mahwee dreamed of healing. but he was 50 before he went to a special cave near Dayton:

I went into the cave in the evening. As soon as I got inside, I prayed and asked for power to doctor sickness… I said this to the spirit in the cave. It is not a person. It comes along with the darkness. This is a prayer to the night.10

To Mahwee and others, the cave is a place of mystery and possibility governed by the powers of night. In his cave experience, Dick Mahwee has visions of healing and receives instruction from a tall, thin man who bears an eagle feather and who enters the cave through a crack in the rock. This man, who at first seems dangerous. tells him what sacred objects to gather, what his future shamanic work will be, and how to proceed in healing others. By entering the dark and risking what is there, the shaman gains knowledge and the power to heal.

The Heart Cave

The cave is always an interiority. To “enter” the cave is to move “in.” As such, it involves a directedness toward core and away from periphery, toward depth and away from surface, toward concentration and away from dispersion. Like water, we flow into low spaces and fill them. Like water, we are drawn gravitationally toward centers. So the cave is a kind of magnet. Whenever our focus is with images of depth and centering, caves are not far away.

In this respect, cave images are heart images. When I enter a cave, I go to the deep heart of the matter. It is a place of working from the center, a place of recovering wholeness, and a place of healing. One of the most important places I go when traveling inside is a cave. It first entered my awareness about six years ago. Some years I spend more time there and some less, but it is always part of my practice. As a site for inner journeying, this cave has many meanings. When it first appeared, the cave was an inviting challenge. On a spirit journey, I had left my body in a circle and moved away flying in a particular direction. As I came over a wooded ridge, there it was. The opening was small and shaded. What lay within? First, I stood in the meadow outside the opening and turned to the directions, noting what was there. Then, taking a breath, I ducked into the cave. My first impression was of its cool air. As I moved further, I was told to remove my garments: and so I undressed, leaving my clothes folded on a shelf of rock. Continuing, I arrived at rough hewn stairs, descending deeper into the Earth. With each stair, I moved deeper and deeper in. At the bottom I found a small, sandy chamber, utterly still and safe. On this first visit, I explored the chamber briefly, and then returned to the surface, thanking the spirits of this place for allowing me to meet them.

Over the years, I have journeyed in all directions from the meadow outside this cave. I have found animal helpers and guides, been led to important and painful understandings, and I have never exhausted the resources of this place. But the core of everything is the cave. It is the vessel in which my deepest journeys and profoundest transformations have occurred.

Bears are the most centered and “human” of all animals, in part just because they return always to the cave as a place of restoration. And it is in the cave that they give birth. In this respect, the heart center and womb center are closely allied. Like Cerridwen’s Cauldron, the cave as heart brings rebirth. When we go “in,” we come to a place of potentiality. In that place, the literalisms and rigidities of the daily round are released so that something new can form. Our shape is freed to change within the alchemical alembic. Surrounded by the secluding solidity of earth, we can shed the holdings and defenses that lock us into particular patterns, and gain the freedom to “reform.” Is it any wonder that hermits and monks retire to caves to pursue solitary meditation and the way of ultimate liberation?

As an interior hollow, the heart is hidden. It is a place of darkness and isolation. In the cauldron, the shaman who has been dismembered must be cooked and nurtured for a certain period of time in order to be restored. If her greedily curious assistant lifts the lid too soon, the shaman may be revealed to be only partially restored as an embryo, a tiny baby, or she may vanish with a cry. But the process will have been disturbed and will not be completed properly. When the shaman’s body has been dismembered and cooked, its internal organs may be replaced by crystals, or new bones may be added in its reconstruction. Such outcomes suggest the new strength and resources that come from the process of deep transformation gained in the cave, cauldron, or heart.

The cave is an interiority. Its direction is inward, but it is also down. Unlike spirit travel to the sky world with its images of lightness, flight, travel, far-seeing, swelling energy and power, the cave journey involves “getting down.” The heart, womb, and cauldron are inward, earthy spaces. In the ordinary way, we cannot see very far at all when we are in them. Instead, the heart grounds us and centers us. In the heart-womb-cauldron, we are sheltered and centered within the body of the mother. We are “within” the whole, rather than standing alone as fragile, separable individuals. The path to the cave is an inward spiral,11 in which I concentrate within more and more focally rather than looking around to the horizon. At the same time, though, some kinds of knowing are opened by the movement inward that may be different from sky vision. The heart, too, has its ways: the oracle often dwells in a smoky cavern. Sky-seeing, in contrast, has a wide horizon. From high up, the eagle sees its prey as small and distant. It knows what happens afar and can scan in all directions. The movement up is a movement of transcendence which brings objectivity, inner distance, and knowing, free of affect. Heart-cave-knowing, on the other hand, pulls in. It is gut-knowing, womb-knowing. It is the knowledge of intimate merging rather than the knowledge of distanced sight. It may not have a pretty verbal formulation, and it may not be coolly “objective”: but what it lacks in clarity and distance, it more than makes up in contact and directness. To know from the heart, from the cave, is to know from being.

And so it is with the characters in The Dead Poets Society. From the beginning, their learning is not the acquisition of tradition or the storing of information. It is rather a movement of being that rebirths each of them in an unpredictable and original way. In the cave, which the students enter willingly and with excitement, they find danger and fear, rebellion and censure, death and transformation. But then, caves are like that. That is their magic.


  1.  “Resurrection Quatrain” from Bear Crossings: An Anthology of North American Poets, edited by Anne Newman and Julie Suk The New South Company Newport Beach. n.d., p. 21
  2. G. Rachel Levy. Religious Conceptions of the Stone Age and Their Influence on European Thought Harper and Row. New York, 1963. Levy argues that the basic pattern of symbolism and belief that is laid down in paleolithic cave culture continues to shape European religious thought to the present The book which was first published in 1948 as The Gate of Horn, has been overtaken in its details by the subsequent 10 years of archaeological work its basic thesis however modified by these developments still stands.
  3. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, The American Heritage Publishing Co., New York, 1969, p. 1523. The appendix identifies three key roots of which this is the third This dictionary’s appendix on Indo-European roots is a very useful tool in searching out primal meanings and ancient semantic connections.
  4. Joseph Campbell. The Way of the Animal Powers, Historical Alias of World Mythology Volume I Harper and Row, San Francisco 1983. pp 54ff. For further specifics on bear realities and legends. see PauI Shepard and Barry Sanders. The Sacred Paw Viking Press, New York. 1985.
  5. See Mircea Eliade Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Exstasy, Pantheon Books, New York, 1964. joan Halifax also gives a number of ciear examples in Shamanic Voices, Dutton. New York. 1979
  6. Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor summarize the evidence for this in Section II of The Great Cosmic Mother, Harper and Row New York. 1987. See particularly “Mysteries of the Throne, the Cave. and the Labyrinth”, pp 71-76. While I cannot always agree with their unrelenting Dianic interpretations. this is a thought-provoking book in the present case, however, the connection of cave art with hunting magic suggests that these were not exclusively – or even primarily – womens places.
  7. Campbell The Way of the Animal Powers, pp 52-53
  8. Ralph S Solecki, “Shanidar IV a Neanderthal Flower Burial in Northern Iraq” Science. Vol 190 P. 881 November 28. 1975 Wendy, Ashley has sug- gested (personalcommunication) that the eight flowers whose pollen was found in this burial are the same flowers carried in the processional at Eleusis. If correct this remarkable similarity is powerful evidence for the antiquity of the mysteries.
  9. Mircea Eliade Zalmoxis The Vanishing God Comparalive Studies in the Religions, and Folklore of Dacia and Eastern Europe University of Chicago Press Chicago 1972. See especially pp 24-27
  10. Cited in Joan Halifax. Shamanic Voices pp 180-83 There are many examples.
  11. Levy, in the work cited before makes a great deal of the connections between caves and spiral images. She finds in the spirals common in later European religious imagery a continuity with paleolithic forms Spiral incisions are common marks in graves and sacred places worldwide.

WALTER WRIGHT ARTHEN co-editor of FireHeart and a member of the Board of Directors of the EarthSpirit Community. He is a frequent contributor to FireHeart. His writing blends wide experience with many spiritual paths and a commitment to building bridges between the Pagan community and secular culture.