An Eternal Shrine

The Odyssey’s Cave of the Nymphs is so full of (such) obscurities that it must be something allegorical in which Homer indicated the images of things of a more divine nature. But is it his fable or did the Poet describe an actual shrine which dramatized ancient wisdom? Was there an actual cave?

But the best and most accurate writers of geography, and among these Artemidorus the Ephesian, in the fifth book of his work, which consists of eleven books, thus writes: The island of Ithaca, containing an extent of eighty-five stadia , is distant from Panormus, a port of Cephalenia (Same), about twelve stadia. It has a port named Phorcys, in which there is a shore, and on that shore a cave, in which the Phaeacians are reported to have placed Ulysses (Odysseus).

From Panormus, twelve stadia. This cave was in Polis bay, in the north west of the island of Ithaca. And in the 1930’s, archeologist Sylvia Benton pumped out a flooded cave there and found layer upon layer of cult practice dating from the time of the Odyssey until the cave’s collapse in the early Roman era. There were tripods, inscriptions, even a mask inscribed my prayer to Odysseus. Surely Homer’s welcome cave where Odysseus used to offer the nymphs a generous sacrifice to bring success. The Poet had described a real shrine! But …

The Poet has the Phaeacians put Odysseus down in the extreme limit of his land, in a sandy harbor, made by two jutting headlands, near Raven’s rock and the spring called Arethusa. This is the south-west of the Island, a day’s walk over the rugged road to the city of Ithaca, with our harbor, a good match for Polis bay. Sylvia’s cave isn’t Odysseus’. Then where is the cave?

In the south west, above a sheltered bay, there is a cave called Marmarospilia. Today you’ll be told this is the one and though it now has interior lighting, no trace of any cult has been found inside. Remember that rugged, rocky Ithaca has harbours to suit every mooring and caves a-plenty.

Oh, why didn’t the well-traveled Porphyry trek to long-neglected Ithaca, a pilgrim of Odysseus? See the fallen cave of Sylvia and then question its suitability given his knowledge of the Odyssey? After all …

how much the more anyone endeavours to show that this description of the cave is not an Homeric fiction, but prior to Homer was consecrated to the Gods, by so much the more will this consecrated cave be found to be full of ancient wisdom.

So why didn’t he endeavor?

Neither did the ancients establish temples without fabulous symbols, nor does Homer rashly narrate the particulars pertaining to things of this kind.

Yes, old shrines embody the divine but so too do the Poet’s works. Does it matter whether he was inspired by the divine or had walked through an ancient representation of the divine? Either way, he sings “divine nature” to us. His songs are shrine enough and have far outlasted the buildings and cults of Ithaca, long-dead even by Porphyry’s time.

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