Archaeology / History / Linguistics / Travel

Pan, Plato, and the Nymphs: exploring Vari Cave

Mount Hymettus is known to the local people of Attica as the ‘Mad Mountain’, η Τρελοβούνι. Situated on the western side of the Attica peninsula and stretching above the coastal towns of Elliniko, Glyfada, and Voula, this mountain and its undulating topography are eclectic — if not ‘mad’. The granular limestone of the mountain makes the landscape perfect for the formation of caves, and indeed there are over 300 caves documented for this area alone. A little over seventy of these were used in antiquity, and they have variously yielded archaeological remains from the stone age right through to more recent times. On a recent weekend off from life in Athens, we (Natalia and Michael) escaped the metropolis and took an adventure up to Hymettus. In this blog post, we recount what we saw in just one of these caves, ‘Vari Cave’, also known as the ‘Cave of the Nymphs’.

Vari Cave is located c.300m above sea level, on one of the southernmost points of the Hymettus range. Its situation commands majestic views out towards the rest of the mountain range and over the nearby beach to Aegina and Salamis; on a clear day, one can also see over the east side of Hymettus towards Euboea. A narrow opening barely 2m across marks the entrance to the cave, inside which one descends a narrow and steep staircase. The rock is crumbly and uneven, but a careful descent leads one into a much wider antechamber. Inside the cave, another sharp descent onto slippery wet rocks leads to the largest ‘room’ of the cave. This loops back round to the main entrance and which is lit only dimly by a few sunbeams.

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Once our eyes had acclimatized to the dark, we were struck by the richness of the archaeology here — nothing could have quite prepared us! The walls of the cave are heavy with rock-cut inscriptions, some of which date back to the 6th century BC. And they are all still remarkably clear, considering their age. What’s more, three remarkable rock-cut statues inhabit the cave. The first is of a man in profile who is holding tools in his hands, and he is identified by the inscription ‘Archedamos’. Could this be the ‘signature’ of the cave’s architect? The second statue is a three dimensional female figure carved in the round, seated on an elevated platform. Her face has weathered away, but plaits of stylised hair fall evenly on either side of her towards her shoulders, and this is reminiscent of a style adopted by other seated sculptures now on show in the Athens National Archaeological Museum. Finally, there is a small altar carved into the side of the rock, thought to be dedicated to the god Pan. When we visited the cave, there were some fairly recent looking candles left on the altar, and according to our guide, Alexandra, the altar is still used in various (pagan) religious activities to this day.

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Archedamos. With human, for scale.

But who was this cave for, and what went on here? No inscriptions identify the seated female figure, but on comparison with other similar artworks from the Greek world we might think she is Kybele, the mother goddess. Kybele was a goddess of fertility, whose worship probably reached Greek from nearby Asia Minor in the sixth century BC. Other cults of Kybele from across the rest of the ancient world are also located within caves, as these are places cut off from the ordinary world and where natural ‘fertile’ springs might be located. Archaeological remains suggest that during cultic activity at the cave, fires would have been burnt and small votive objects would have been left as gifts to the goddess. Interestingly, Kybele is also thought to have been associated with various animals, and among them bees; Pausanias, the second century AD ‘backpacker’ tells us that the area around Mount Hymettus was well-known at his time for farming bees. Is this another link between our cave and the natural landscape? Inscriptions link the cave with the worship with various other deities of fertility, such as the Nymphs; and that is why this cave —along with many others within Attica— are regarded in folklore as a small network of sacred spaces for nymphs. Many marble reliefs depicting Pan and the Nymphs were found when this cave was excavated in the early 20th century, and they are now on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

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Athens National Archaeological Museum — a similar statue? What do you think?

The inscriptions inside the cave are of great interest and are the living evidence of the people who have visited the cave, from its opening in the 6th century BC until the 20th century AD. Although some of the oldest inscriptions were damaged and cannot be read on the spot (even with the help of a torch!), most of them are in a surprisingly good condition and they introduced us to those who came down there before us. Among the multiple names in the archaic inscriptions, the most repeated  is that of Ἀρχέδαμος ὁ Θεραῖος i.e. Archedamos from Thera. His name appears in five inscriptions and, according to them, he built this cave for the Nymphs. To try to reconstruct the history of these inscriptions (and if indeed it was Archedamos himself who cut them) we might want to look at their dialect and script, since during archaic times there was no unified Greek alphabet and every city had their own local variations. The analysis of the script of Archedamos’ inscriptions does not give any firm conclusions, but there are some interesting issues in terms of the dialect. His Theran origin suggests that Archedamos spoke Doric, a dialect used in part of the Peloponnese and the islands of the southern Aegean. The main characteristic of this alphabet is that we see long α where in Attic-Ionic we would have η. We see that his name appears in the Doric dialect as  Ἀρχέδαμος, among other Doric dialectal elements, but some inscriptions use its Attic version Ἀρχέδημος instead. Therefore, we might think that, while some inscriptions were made by a Doric speaker or at least mimicking the dialect, others are clearly done by Athenian stone-cutters.

Another inscription in the entrance names the place as Σπήλαιον Νυμφολήπτου (lit. “cave of the caught by the Nymphs”, but it can be interpreted as “cave of the frenzied”). The style of the lettering suggests that this particular inscription dates from either the Roman or the Byzantine period, i.e. some time after the 2nd century BC. As a cave for the nymphs, this space was used as a pagan sanctuary for many centuries, until it was abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century AD. But even after that, travellers and visitors left their marks on the walls and stones in the cave. These are the kind of inscriptions that are not found on academic papers but are sometimes full of history. We saw the signature of the French travellers Jacques Foucherot and Louis-François-Sébastien Fauvel with the date 1781. Closeby, another rock showed other names carved in Greek and Latin alphabets together with the year of their visits, the latest being an unclear Greek name in 1947 during the Greek Civil War. What we did not see is whether Lord Byron also left his signature (as he did on the temple in Sounio), although he supposedly visited this cave.

But tradition links this cave with another figure from the ancient world, perhaps even more famous. The fifth/fourth century philosopher Plato was born around this area, and he would have no doubt explored this landscape and played in these caves as a small boy. When he grew up, he gave in his Republic one of his most famous philosophical analogies, known as the ‘Allegory of the Cave’. Plato argued that we are all like people chained to the wall of a large cave. As fire burns within the cave, we see shadows against the cave wall. These represent that we do not see the world as it really is, but that we only the shadows of much more complex things. The philosopher, by contrast, leaves the cave and sees the world as it really is: far richer, more beautiful, and widely more complex. There is absolutely nothing concrete that can link Plato’s metaphorical cave with the cave of Vari, but there are certainly interesting similarities: this is an underground cave with very little sunlight, where fires would have been regularly burnt; furthermore, this cave is ‘organised’ on two levels but has only one way out, another detail consistent with Plato’s description. Perhaps he knew about this cave, and that had a part to play in constructing his argument…?

After coming out of the cave into the real world —just as Plato had instructed— the view of the coastline of Voula invited us to go and swim in its blue waters, just as many other Athenians do in the weekend. We washed off our excitement and relaxed after a morning surrounded by history. We also continued the celebrations the next day when Michael, in an act of philoxenia,  prepared a wonderful Greek dinner to honour our guide and companions in this adventure. And so that we would never forget about this day, our friend Alexandra, to whom we are very grateful, made a cartoon that portrays faithfully the frenzy inspired by the Nymphs in their cave…

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An accurate depiction of the weekend’s events at the cave…

This blog post has been co-written by Natalia Elvira and Michael Loy.

Further reading:
Chandler, R. 1776. Travels in Greece, or, An Account of a tour made at the expense of the Society of Dilettanti. 150–3. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=RHBBAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA150&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
Dunham, M. E. 1903. ‘The Cave at Vari. II. Inscriptions.’ AJA 7(3). 289–300.
Kopestonsky, T. 2016. ‘The Greek Cult of the Nymphs at Corinth’ Hesperia 85(4). 711–777. [see p. 714 for this cave, and more widely for Nymph cults in general]
Pierce, N. 2006. ‘The Archaeology of Sacred Caves in Attica, Greece.’ MA Thesis, McMaster University https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/10306/1/fulltext.pdf
Weller, C. H. 1903. ‘The Cave at Vari. I. Description, Account of Excavation, and History.’ AJA 7(3). 263–88.
Wright, J. H. 1906. ‘The Origin of Plato’s Cave.’ Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. 17. 131–42.
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