Finding ourselves together in Crete after attending a conference, four friends and I set out to visit the caves of Eilitheia in Amnissos and Agia Paraskevi in Skoteino. As we drove along the coast toward Amnissos, I recalled that caves have been understood as sacred from the dawn of religion. When people knew the earth as their mother, the cave, the opening in the earth was her vagina and womb, the passageway to her deepest mysteries, the secrets of birth and rebirth.
The Eilitheia Cave is in the hills above the ancient port of Amnissos. We arrived in the morning, accompanied by the guard who came with us to unlock the gate. The cave has one large, long room, with a wide mouth, and a low ceiling. There is a belly stone near the entrance that women rubbed to insure conception. Near the center of the cave, in shadowy darkness, are two stalagmites, one squat and the other tall, surrounded by the remains of ancient walls that enclosed the sacred space. The guard told us that they were worshipped as the Mother, seated, and the Daughter, standing. Their heads were chopped off with the blow of an ax. In the back of the cave there are small pools of water, used for healing
As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we felt that we too had entered into the womb of the Mother. Naomi sat by the Daughter stalagmite, while I leaned against the Mother. We chanted to Her and sang, aware of the bemused but accepting presence of the guard, who retreated to the entrance of the cave. As we turned to leave, Mara crouched at the cave’s entrance to take a picture, her short, full body the image of the Mother Goddess, her wispy blonde hair capturing the light, crowning her like a halo. Slowly, we emerged from the cool depths, the place of ancient mysteries, into the light and warmth of the midday sun.
We visited the Skoteino Cave late in the day, after lunch and a refreshing swim in the sea. To reach the cave, we ascended into the mountains, passed through the small village of Skoteino, and turned right down a dirt road. Above the cave is a small church dedicated to Agia Paraskevi, the patron saint of eyesight. I had been to the cave eleven years earlier with my husband, Roger, on the saint’s name day, July 26th. That day the locals celebrated first in the church, where they decorated the icon of Agia Paraskevi with flowers and lit candles, and then in the cave, where they roasted lamb, sang, and danced. It is likely that this cave has a continuity of worship from ancient times to the present day.
The first time I visited the cave of Skoteino, which means dark, I thought it was a single, huge, high-ceilinged, cathedral-like room, adorned with stalagmites and stalactites. In the meantime, I had learned that beyond the first room, there are three more levels, the final one, totally dark. Mardy offered to lead the way. Two young German men, emerging from the depths, told us the way down was not easy, as there was no clear path.
Marie, unsure of her footing, stayed near the entrance. Naomi, afraid of the unknown, perched on a rock at the back of the first room holding her candle. Mara, Mardy, and I braved the descent. We did not know what awaited us in the dark. With candles and small flashlights, we climbed and slid, sensing a way down. The rocks were cool, damp in some places, but not slippery. There were no sharp edges because the rocks had been smoothed by water. Encouraging each other we reached a place where it looked like the next descent would be though a hole or narrow opening. We still had faint light from the mouth of the cave. The final passageway was unknown, frightening, inviting. We paused, eyes fixed on the dark opening. Mardy broke the silence saying that we should turn back because the sun was about to set.
I made the ascent more rapidly than the others, my body urging me on until I reached the first level. As I walked slowly up the path that meandered through the first large room, I could see two women before me with candles, and two behind me coming up from the depths. I could almost see Persephone coming up from the underworld, torch in hand. Surely it was in a place like this that the Eleusinian Mysteries began.
**MHG Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Carol’s forthcoming book, A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess, forthcoming from FAR Press in 2016. Originally published on Feminism and Religion.