Updated: Aug 7, 2020
Where do dragons come from?
How about vampires?
"Ah-ha!" I hear you cry about that last one, "There's a funny story about the origins of that!"
As divers you have almost certainly heard the story about how it was drunken, scurvy-mad sailors mistaking manatees for super-hot fish-ladies. Which is patently absurd... yet here we are with mermaid legends.
Well, what if vampires came from the rumours of some poor sod in medieval Europe suffering from some combination of physical and/or psychological disorders?
And what would some bronze age farmer in the earliest days of the Chinese empire conclude from an entire sauropod head and neck tilled up out of his fields - an unimaginably large beast with bones of stone?
So with all that in mind: why do you suppose it is that, unanimously, early cultures across the world (and consequently the cultural extelligence of us all) regard caves as equal parts holy, spooky, and frequently the realm of the dead?
Without meaning to suck all the romance out of the world: there is almost always an explanation. Let's go back to vampires for a moment.
The scene: A small, village tavern in Hungary. It is the winter of 1150 and it has been snowing for eight days. Every time the door opens a terrible cold bellows through the room and threatens to put out the fire.
A traveler holds the rapt attention of everyone in the pub as he recounts the tale of a fearsome encounter from which he narrowly escaped when he tried to find shelter from the storm in an abandoned castle some days before.
Due to a temporal mishap from an unrelated adventure, I am among the patrons this night.
- "He had pale skin and blood red eyes that looked right through you!" - "Sounds like albinism." - "Well.... yes... I suppose, but... as the sun rose he shied from it and blistered as though the glory of God pained him to see it!" - "Oh! That's called porphyria, it comes from a..." - "NO! It was more than that. He shied away even from the holy cross!" - "I mean, he may have been autistic and he really hates that shape? Or OCD, that would explain the seed counting you were talking about? I mean, there's any number of emotional or developmental disorders that might...." - "Enough! I tell you I was only able to barely escape with my life! I found the only thing that would properly kill the unholy monster was a stake through the heart!" - "..." - "..." - "... I mean... a chunk of wood through the heart... that kills pretty much everything, doesn't it?" - "Well, I think cutting off its head may have also worked." - "Yeah, that tends to work on all vertebrates." - "..." - "..." - "Shit. I killed some poor crazy schmuck after I trespassed into his home didn't I?" - "Yep."
Definitely not as romantic as Stoker's version. And I definitely would not have been terribly popular in 12th century, rural Hungary.
One of the things my utterly useless degree in religion gave me is a curiosity about these sorts of things. It may not be as romantic, but it is just as wondrous in its way. The rich history of the "Why?" behind myths and legends is exciting.
Which is how I find myself wondering about why the caves have always been so universally revered with such a specific veneration.
There are the obvious reasons: - Caves go down into the ground, bodies go down into the ground*, the underworld is down under the ground, ergo caves are the gateway to the underworld where all the dead people are. - Caves are dark and labyrinthine, you can get lost in them easily, and sometimes people don't come back out of them, ergo they found their way to the land of the dead and weren't allowed to leave. - Animals like bears, wolves, and crazy-ass village outcasts use caves as shelter, making them elementally dangerous. There may even be cannibal bull-monster-people down there, who the hell knows?!?**
This is all to ignore the most obvious, "They are dark, foreboding places." Ignored because I'm most curious to explore WHY they are dark and foreboding. Why are we so scared of the dark? What are we frightened is being forebode?
Being social great apes we depend on community and, of the five senses, most of us depend most on our sight. So the idea of being alone and unable to see? Maybe it's just as simple as that?
There's the reverence. We WANT to go there. We've always wanted to go there.
Think of the Lascaux cave paintings. 200 meters into the serpentine darkness painted over generations and generations by torchlight some 17,000 years ago.
Or of the Cueva de las Manos in Argentina and the almost identical Red Hands Cave on the other side of the planet in Australia, both of them thousands of years old.
Something beckoned our ancient ancestors into these places. Something spoke to them of holiness (no pun intended).
Perhaps it taps even deeper into our cultural memory to a time before we knew how to build, when caves were shelter from the storm. That, somehow, we all actually remember them as places of safety and security.
For the Maya the lure of the caves was more straightforward... it's where the water came from. All civilisations have been built near rivers and the Maya were no different in that regard. They just may not have known there were rivers down there. So for them there is the interesting dichotomy, the almost immediate demonstration of the circle of life, that life comes up out of the ground from the underworld and then goes back down into it again. Along with all those horrifying xibalba.
(Seriously, though, the xibalba were terrifying as shit. Mayan gods did not fuck around at all. Look them up. Not before bed.)
And now here we are. Cave divers have all these fancy-pants tools and toys and ways to get ourselves into dicier and dicier situations not just underground, but underwater underground.
For most people either one of those things (underwater/underground) is a complete no-go because of something encoded within them from the dawn of our species that screams: DANGER!!!!!!!
Yet for us, we must go?
Why are we, like our great*700-grandparents painting huge aurochs on some dark wall, tantalised by the next turn or the next formation or what's over the next hill?
What is the practical explanation of why the traditional and ongoing vision of the gates of hell for most people are actually our vision of heaven?
The best nonromantic explanation I've come up with: magic.
For all my literal-mindedness about all things religious and superstitious... it is that the caves are simply magical places. Full of a truly timeless beauty that can not be found in the so-called land of the living. We are absolutely blessed to be the sorts of people who feel that call, who pursue the training and the practice and the gear and whatnot that we can celebrate and cherish such hallowed places.
I dunno. Maybe it's more icky and Freudian. Whatever.
Go cave diving.
Picture of the entrancing siren-song of the so-called land of the dead, the place of fear, of course, by SJ.
________ * OK, some cultures immolate and some practice air burials and some do all sorts of other weird shit to "honor their dead" but you may or may not be surprised to learn that even (or arguably especially) the style of inhumation that cultures practice has an immediate, practical component.
** You send 14 children down into underground caves with no light or provisions every couple of years and tell people they get eaten by a minotaur it doesn't matter if the thing is real or not, they're not coming out.