Pilgrimage Report from Skotino Cave: Gifts of the Dark


For Seekers – Pilgrimage – Practices for Soul & Spirit

We left behind the wind and sweeping views of Anemospilla’s peak sanctuary to descend into the rock dark of Skotino Cave

Votive offerings have been found in the cave dating back to the earliest Cretan peoples, popularly called the Minoans. Worship and use of the site is ancient but also continuous.  

Above the path to the cave an old, but not ancient, Byzantine church from Venetian rule of Crete (13th to 17th centuries) stood in keeping with the tradition of building new places of worship over existing sacred sites. The little church is dedicated to Saint Paraskevi, whose image captured my attention because she held a bowl with eyes peeking over the rim. Saint Paraskevi is Roman not Greek and her story as an early Christian martyr is rather grim, but I didn’t know any of that when gazing up at her bowl of eyes painted above the doorway of the little church. 

Without context or specific story, I could just be with the unusual image, the spark it lit in me, and the invitation I felt to see in a different way. Standing under Saint Paraskevi up in the sun-filled day, I didn’t sense specifically that the call was to open my eyes in the dark, but I soon would. 

At the mouth of the cave we stopped to listen to Marilina Paters of Elissos Traveling Philosophy recount the cave’s history next to a fire pit that had recently been used. She told us that shepherds bring their sheep to the cave for winter shelter. The cave sanctuary embraces the practical as well as the spiritual. 

The evidence the ancient Creteans left for their use of the cave clearly mark it as an important site of ritual and worship with four distinct “rooms.” 

The entry room where light from the mouth of the cave still reaches contains a gathering of stalagmites and stalactites that rise darkly from the rocky floor. Offerings to the Cretean God were found here. Just beyond, a large rock marks this entry room’s boundary and defines the second room. 

After a sharp drop off and a deeper descent into the darkness, the third room offers a large space allowing many to gather for ritual. The final room is narrow with even narrower passages leading deeper into the rock. To move through these final passages, the ancient worshippers would have had to squeeze through the rocks and eventually crawl and mimic the movement of snakes, an epiphany of the Goddess. 

We began our descent into the cave over rocks that were uneven and loose but worn smooth by millenia of feet passing over them. All over Greece this smoothness of rock reminds us that we are not the first seekers to walk the sacred ways.

Photo by Linda Marson of Global Spiritual Studies

As we stood in front of the stalagmites and stalactites the cave filled with the echoes of birds cooing. I could not see them but their song was like doves. Their soundings came in waves out of the dark, first filling the cave with natural music and then falling into silence. 

We moved further into the darkness toward the large rock at the boundary of the room. We could see the drop off and knew we would go no farther as climbing equipment we didn’t have was required to descend deeper. 

I side-walked between rock and ledge until my fingers found a little indent. I slid down to sit on the stone floor and surrendered my body to the rock behind and below me, in front me the drop off into darkness and the shadowy far wall of the cave. I rested myself in the rock and felt as if embraced.  My eyes closed and breathing slowed. The doves stopped their singing and now silence held me, too.

After a restful while, I opened my dark-accustomed eyes to focus on the cave wall across the chasm from me. The rock rose vertically in fused and jagged columns, but just at my eye level was, well, a door.  There was a horizontal lintel above a square opening in the rock and clearly an indentation. I imagined a room beyond.

In and of itself an inaccessible door floating in a stone wall was striking, but there was also a personal resonance: the month before my imaginal eyes had shown me my late partner John shifting into the shape of a doorway. 

John’s sudden death in a car accident 10 years before upended my beliefs about death. And in the years that followed I didn’t settle into a set new understanding. John in the Beyond surprised me with his evolutions. 

First, he was Nothing, a terrible emptiness that lasted for weeks. Then he was, well, almost himself with notes left behind discovered and new messages arriving via friends. A friend of mine tentatively told me she might have seen him during a meditation. She heard him say an odd word which, as it turns out, was the answer to my bank security question. One of his friends said she had experienced John as a ball of light and had a picture to show me of said light. Skeptical? I hear you. I wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t happened to me.

But John didn’t stay so physically present. A year after his death, the metaphor I would use to describe him is water: the water of a cloudy day, the water that eats the light, black water. I felt like I’d lost him again, but my dreams were filled with boats. He was still under the boat of my life.

During the summer before I found myself staring at the door across the chasm, he’d grown so subtle I felt he might have evolved into something beyond the reach of any sense. A part of me had always wanted him to keep going and growing, stretching out in all directions. I told myself I accepted this shift. But I was sad.

While trying to come to terms with this new form of John, I sat in meditation. At first I perceived only dark behind my eyes but then a kind of light. It was John but not really John, and certainly not John of the body I’d known.  But instead he morphed into a different form: a doorway shaped from stone but shining like light. In my mind’s eye, I stood up and walked through the door into the place of the Beloved Dead and ancestors.

The image felt true. John had been my door opener into a fertile, joyful connection to the Beyond. Although they were dead, I found myself in new relationships with family, friends, and teachers who had died. The connection to my grandparents wove me into a whole web of ancestral wisdom and support. 

John opened the doorway of Death for me to look through and I discovered that love flows back and forth from there.

And now in Skotino Cave I was looking across the chasm at a doorway, a real manifestation of what came to me first in images from meditation. Here the doorway was more than a dream. The doorway of rock was real.

Whenever I travel to special places I carry a batch of Tarot cards with me, just a few cards out of the deck’s 78 images. Which cards are in my pocket or my purse, changes based on moon phase, weekly pulls, or spontaneous inspiration. When I need added insight into what I am seeing or experiencing I’ll reach in without looking to pull out a card and consider it in relationship to what is before me.

As I sat looking at the door, I had about 10 cards with me from multiple decks. I reached in to pull one out. In the faint light my eyes were adjusting to, I could make the outlines of a Knight of Cups card made from a photo of John. John’s signifier emerging here as I faced the door of stone. 

Did I seek this card out from the small batch I carried? Did I pull it towards me like a magnet? It is possible, but I tell you true that it was the first card my finger landed on.

I leaned back into the rock with the card in my hand and felt held.

What held me in the cave? 

Most obviously, the rock and the dark. These my senses keenly felt: the soliditity into which I leaned and the lightless surround shifting me from usual sight. Words fail to fully express what engaged my whole body and stretched me beyond my own skin into the black beyond. I could say I was dissolved, but rather than losing myself I felt myself found. Still I know I am not conveying the fullness of the experience to you. Struggling to tell my story of the cave, I am reminded of our ancient ancestors and their efforts to express the luminous dark.

What is preserved of their expression is ancient indeed: cave walls stenciled or painted with handprints more than 30,000 years old. Did the painter feel the dissolution between self, rock, and dark as the work was done? 

The oldest caves we have discovered are in Indonesia and also across the globe in Spain and France so this is a world wide phenomena. The oldest known figurative art may be of an over-40,000-year-old unknown animal in Borneo, Indonesia. 

Animals were immense presences in the lives of our ancient ancestors and they represented them with great skill. Made deep in the earth, the ancestors preserved these animals as powerful and beautiful. Bulls, bison deers, extinct aurochs, and horses run in herds or singularly over the walls of Lascaux’s famous cave in France. Those on the ceiling appear almost to roll from wall to wall. An over 17-foot-long bull, the largest figure discovered in cave art, appears truly to be running through what is called the Hall of Bulls. 

What is the purpose of these magnificent paintings that surely were an effort to create deep underground? Even the most learned among us is only guessing as the ancients didn’t tell us directly in a way we can understand. Popular theories relate the paintings to hunting, either depictions of past success or desired future hunts created to ensure success. But in the Body of the Goddess, Rachel Pollack counsels us to see the art with our own eyes and to mix knowledge and imagination as we make meaning from the images.

Rachel makes a connection between the bulls of cave art and the Great Goddess:

Remember that bovines, bulls, and cows are the commonest animals in cave art. And remember that in later cultures all over the world, the cow or buffalo embodies the Great Goddess, with figures such as White Buffalo Woman among the Lakota Sioux, Oya as a buffalo in West Africa, Europa in Greek mythology, Hathor in Egypt, and the cow in Scandinavian myth who licked a frozen block of salt-water to form the world. The Milky Way, the name for our galaxy, refers to the myth of the stars as milk from the (cow) Goddess streaming out into the sky. It is astonishing to find this complex conjunction of images and ideas so long ago, thousands of years before the beginning of animal husbandry. The conjunction of bovines and women in the image of the Goddess may have derived partly from the fact that bovine pregnancies last nine months.

When we look, as Rachel does, focused on the image and the pattern it creates we see the cave as the place of the cow, the cow as a sign of the Goddess manifesting. 

The cave—on Crete, in France, the one nearest to where you live—is the place of the Goddess.

So the Goddess held me in the cave. Not an abstract being I had read about but a Presence I encountered. While in the moment I felt an intense personal connection, I know I was not the first to meet this Presence and tell a story of encounter.

One way we seek to convey the Presences is to give them names. Names both reveal and disguise especially coming out of traditions separated from us by more than two millennia and existing over many millennia more. 

When we hear the name of a God or Goddess we know, stories and attributes may come quickly to mind. Artemis is a maiden Goddess, beautiful and agile to be found hunting in the woods. Zeus is the supreme God who rapes and seduces women, gives birth to children form his own body. But these images are only the surface of their Presence.  They come to us from storytellers consciously or unconsciously working to reinforce a particular social and spiritual worldview.

When we start to probe below the surface, a more complex understanding of the Presences emerges. Their attributes may become more complex. Their origins shift. 

Probing below the names of the Presences on Crete yields a layered story.

Due to its location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Crete’s culture has been formed and reformed by a synthesis and fusing of local culture with the influences of travelers, traders, warriors, and settlers from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. While In historic times, conquerors have tried to seize control of Crete, our guide Marilina told us that in prehistoric times the encounter between peoples seems to have been more peaceful and productive. Settlers  from Asia Minor and Egypt integrated into the existing indigenous society resulting in a unique and dynamic mix of social, spiritual, and technological influences that gave rise to what we call the Minoan culture. 

The Goddess was the Minoan culture’s principal deity. Marlina highlighted how She was an all encompassing figure. Within Herself, the Goddess held all. She was the Mistress of Sun and of Moon. She presided over birth and death. She was the manifest in the highest mountains and the smallest birds. She was everything held in balance. The people who worshiped this Goddess also sought to preserve a balance between all things and especially between themselves and the abundance of the natural world. Unlike we modern people, they did not divide the world into separate spheres of politics, art, religion, and practical concerns. Everything was imbued by the sacred, an expression of the Goddess.

From the Minoan Tarot by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince

This Great Goddess had not so much a name as a title. She appears to have been called Potnia, which may mean Lady or Mistress. The title was sometimes followed by a descriptor such as Lady of the Doves—Her epiphany as a bird—or Lady of the Labyrinth—the One who presided over the snaking pattern we’ve come to know through myth as the place the Minotaur bull lived. Might she also have been called the Lady of the Cave? Or perhaps the cave was the original labyrinth that inspired the later building. 

Using a descriptor of the Goddess is a step toward embracing the idea of Her having a name—or many names.

Skotino cave has been identified as sacred to a Createan Goddess of mountains and hunting named Britomartis. Solinus, a third century Latin geographer, translates her name as sweet virgin and makes the explicit connection to Artemis. who is often depicted with her bow and arrow. Along with mountain hunting, Artemis watches over women in labor. She ushers new life into being, but also in a time of high maternal mortality directs her arrows at those who die in childbirth. She kills even those she loves. And Her anger is easily roused by the wicked whose last earthly feeling is the sting of her arrow. She is a mirror to the Potnia in Her expression of both Life and Death.

The origin of the name Artemis is unknown and possibly not Greek. Is it an anagram of Britomartis … derived from the word arktos meaning bear …or formed out of an ancient language of Asia Minor? That we can’t say for sure clothes this Goddess is a veil of mystery and power. The clothes fit her limitless form well.

I’ve traveled a labyrinth of thoughts to arrive at naming Artemis as the one who held me in the cave. Because my exploring has been circuitous, my naming of Artemis does not dismiss the Potnia or Britomaris as my holders nor the rock and dark. They are all woven into my dance toward an understanding that involves not just my mind, but heart and body, too. 

And so hail to you,

Artemis, in my song, and all the other goddesses, too.

But I will begin first of all to sing about you, beginning 

with you, and then I shall turn to another song.

From Homeric Hymn 9, translated by Barry B. Powell in Greek Poems to the Gods

I do have more songs like this to share from the Greek Pilgrimage and they will keep coming to you as my thoughts gather into pieces. If you’d like an overview of the whole trip—and to see more pictures—you can check out the Report Back session that I recorded

Note on Sources and Resources: Marilina Paters’s talks as we toured Crete were filled with information and insights. She made the history come alive.I double checked dates and details on Wikipedia. Rachel Pollack’s The Body of the Goddess was my prep reading for the trip and informed the connections I made to the landscape. I read Marija Gimbutas’s The Language of the Goddess before the trip. Currently I am reading Gimbutas’ The Living Goddess and Carl Kerenyi’s Dionysos: Archetypal Images of Indestructible Life. The connections made and conclusions drawn are my own—as well as any factual errors. My purpose is to share the stories and lessons the trip stirred in me rather than be a comprehensive historical or archaeological review. Feel free to let me know what this piece sparks for you and any errors you spot.

If you would like to open to the nurturing dark, please do take a look at the retreat-in-everyday-life, Descent and Return of the Dark which takes the Winter Solstice as its center. We begin on Monday, November 21st.

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