More on Landscaping Religion
The interior landscape is influenced by the exterior. Caves, with their shadowy twilight zones, are a great place to start any mythic journey as they are womb-like and occupy a very special place in the religious imagination. Jesus, for example, was born in a cave and resurrected in one; Elijah spoke to his creator outside a cave on Mount Carmel; St. Francis of Assisi meditated naked in Eremo della Carceri; Saint John received his epic dream vision in the Cave of the Apocalypse on Patmos Island; Muhammed met his creator inside the Cave of Hira; Joseph Smith received the plates that would become the Book of Mormon near the Cave of Cumorah, and then hid them there, “along with other sacred treasures” like the Sword of Laban; Bodhidharma, after igniting Zen Buddhism and all martial arts at Shaolin Temple, meditated inside a nearby cave for so long (nine years) that his arms and legs fell off and his eyes dried out! Commemorative eyeless dolls in Japan called Daruma look like black, white, and red eggs. It’s customary to color in one of the empty eyes as a form of good luck magic, and then burn the doll every new year.
There are a lot of fictional and true horror stories about getting trapped in caves, and a whole genre called “subterranean fiction” that spans Dante’s Divine Comedy (where Hell is a system of caves) to The Three-Body Problem, Broken Earth Trilogy, LOTR, The Matrix, The 100, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, Lost, and so on. As we now move into homes designed with “Zoom Rooms,” we have to wonder if our technology is preparing us for this epochal transition underground already.
Aronofsky’s film mother! features a secret cave. At one point, the “mother” fingers a red stain on her floor that opens into a hidden cave where she finds her secret power: fire. Caves also embody what feminist Elaine Showalter (1992) calls the “female wild zone.” It’s a place where women can harness and unleash their power.
Perhaps all openings are caves are vaginas are sources of knowledge. Performance artist Carolee Schneeman famously explored these links in Interior Scroll (1975), versions of which took place inside actual caves. She speaks of a “translucent chamber of which the serpent was an outward model.” Bjork likes to sing in caves.
Within art history, caves are where the strange is both hidden and spotlighted. There is a genre of oil painting, Grotto painting, that features chiaroscuro dramas in caves, where the mouth acts as a spotlight and the cave walls are curtains. What is staged often reflects a queerer or more alien world — literally “grotesque” which derives from grotto and from Emperor Nero’s cavernous 16th-century palace, Domus Aurea, decorated with frescos representing bizarre motifs inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses — harpies, alien plants, women transforming into architecture, and more!
These decorative patterns — grotesques — are part of the history of surrealism, horror, fantasy, and are sacred vocabulary: wide-mouthed masks and puking gargoyles are used to decorate churches. Mikhail Bakhtin calls the mouth specifically a main feature of the grotesque (see The Monster in the Garden: the Grotesque and the Gigantic in Renaissance Landscape Design, 2016).
Grottoes also refer to fake caves built for gardens and parks to evoke the spiritual. They are symbolic but also merely aesthetic: dark places contain deeper colors. Junichiro Tanizaki in his famous essay In Praise of Shadows even argues that shadows are the foundation of a human house: “In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.” Check out this kickass episode of Weird Studies Podcast about Tanizaki.
The Brain on Caves
A cave’s darkness, the “dark zone,” does things to us. Caves create conditions like sensory deprivation and Ganzfeld effects (akin to a James Turell light installation) that force the brain to deviate from its normal waking state. According to historian Yulia Ustinova, this is why, in ancient Greece, entering caves was a requirement for visionary or prophecy-giving experiences. I’m thinking of that part of Aronofsky’s film Noah, where Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) lives in a cave, and Noah (Russell Crowe) sees it in a dream and travels there to receive psychoactive tea that helps him envision the ark.
Apparently, after just a few days of total darkness, the human brain produces more DMT, the endogenous “spirit molecule” partially responsible for dreams and mystical experiences. More, studies using eye-tracking glasses indicate that eye-movement patterns during darkness resemble those during activities involving abstract and divergent thinking. Darkness seems to provoke creativity. Studies also suggest even just brief periods of darkness cause the brain to retrieve ambient magical consciousness. Professor Holley Moyes who studies the archaeology of religion thinks darkness not only makes us hallucinate, it promotes “magical thinking.” In her 2012 study, volunteers sitting in a dark room were more likely to answer questions in a “supernatural” way, while people sitting in a well-lit room answered the same questions more rationally — questions like: If you wake up and smell the pipe smoke of your dead grandfather, what is your first explanation? Check out Moyes’s TED talk.
It’s the darkness, but it could also be toxic fumes that alter our minds in caves. Some scholars think poisonous cave gasses were responsible for Greek histories and myths. It was probably ethylene, a gas that “produces feelings of aloof euphoria” (see For Delphic Oracle, Fumes and Visions). Ethylene plus a spike in DMT plus sensory deprivation effects? Given our four-dimensional selves, this all could have helped people foresee a future. Nevertheless, even when completely sober:
We do not behold a passive, inert scene but are immersed in a pulsing space, in the currents and energies of a world-in-formation, even in the darkness, and the light or lack of it is entwined with our sensing bodies, blurring distinctions between outside and inside. — Tim Edensor
Caves are important destinations for enlightened revelation, and if you don’t live near one, you can still “retreat” by closing yourself up in a dark room or closet, as we see in the Tibetan practice of a dark retreat. You can recreate some of the conditions of a cave, however, the dangers that heighten the body’s awareness cannot be replicated in a dark closet.
As drug-laced sacred destinations, caves help information from the margins of consciousness get felt by the mind and transformed into art. Leonardo Di Vinci famously had a powerful experience with a cave as a young man. He stumbled upon one in the forest that caused him to feel two contrary emotions at once, fear and desire, “ — fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there were any marvelous things in it.” He went in, and after that episode recorded in his diary, Leonardo started drawing helicopters, tanks, and advanced geometry. Ancient Aliens wonders if inside that cave Leonardo was beamed visions from elsewhere. Maybe he fell into a portal to the future, or to his own 4D “long self.” Around this time, he also went missing for two years! Alien abduction? Maybe, or maybe he was just laying low after being charged with sodomy — I think he was 24 — a traumatic event he never got over. Leonardo remained celibate for the rest of his life.
What else do caves represent?
It’s not the world in which we live our daily lives, but the unseen, underground world where people live out their fantasies that has power. Forbidden desires and fantasies… ~ Virgil Ortiz