By April Holloway
Caves play an important role in the story of humanity. In addition to providing shelter for our earliest ancestors, caves were also often considered to be mystical and magical realms. For some cultures, caves are the gateways to the underworld, while others believed that supernatural beings dwelled in these subterranean areas. Here we look at ten incredible caves or cave systems of the ancient world, from 70,000-year-old shelters for prehistoric humans to 18th century meeting places for black magic and sordid rituals.
Devetashka cave is an enormous cave in Bulgaria, which has provided shelter for groups of humans since the late Paleolithic era, and continuously for tens of thousands of years since then. Now abandoned by humans, it remains a site of national and international significance and is home to some 30,000 bats.
Devetashka cave, which is known as Devetàshka peshterà in Bulgaria, is located roughly 18 kilometres north of Lovech, near the village of Devetaki. Beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, rivulets, majestic natural domes and arches can be found within the enormous cave and one can see why various human populations would have chosen Devetashka as their home.
The earliest traces of human presence date back to the middle of the Early Stone Age around 70,000 years ago. The Devetashka cave also contained one of the richest sources of cultural artifacts from the Neolithic (6th millennium – 4th millennium BC).
Dunmore (meaning ‘great fort’ in Irish) Cave is a limestone cave located about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) to the north of Kilkenny City, near Castlecomer. Within the cave, there is around 300 meters (99 feet) of known passages and caverns.
Dunmore Cave was at one point of time within the territory of the ancient Irish kingdom of Ossory, which was situated between the Viking strongholds of Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The rivalry of the different Viking clans in Ireland provided one of the most chilling episodes in the history of Dunmore Cave.
According to the Annals of the Four Masters, around A.D. 928, the Vikings of Dublin were marching to attack their rivals in Waterford. On their way to their enemy’s place, it is said they raided and pillaged the surrounding countryside. When they arrived at Dunmore Cave, they found a large number of women and children hiding in it. Allegedly hoping to capture them alive so that they could then be sold as slaves, the Vikings devised a plan to drive them out of the cave. They lit large fires at the mouth of the cave in order to force them out of their hiding. The fires grew too large and consumed the oxygen in the cave, resulting in the suffocation of the refugees. It is recorded that a thousand people died in this manner.
In 1973, the bones of 44 people, mainly belonging to women, children and the elderly, were found in Dunmore Cave, thus giving some credence to the annals. Yet, whether there were as many as a thousand victims, or perhaps less, is another question.
The mysterious man-made caves in Belgium burrow thousands of feet into the soft rock south of Brussels. The grottoes of Folx-les-Caves are located in the municipality of Orp-Jauche in the province of Walloon Brabant. In the distant past, the grottoes were used as mines. One of the rocks found there was tuff, a type of soft volcanic rock which is rich in calcium carbonate. It is unclear when humans first mined the grottoes. Some have speculated that they were in use since Neolithic times, i.e. around 2600 B.C., and that aurochs horns were used as mining tools.
The mines are a labyrinth of about 60,000 square meters (approximately 650,000 square feet) as a result of centuries of mining. This made it a perfect hiding place for refugees seeking to escape those who occupied Belgium over the centuries. It has been suggested that the mines have been used by refugees as early as the Roman period all the way to the Second World War.
The most famous tale relating to the grottoes of Folx-les-Caves is that of Pierre Colon, who lived some time during the 18th century. Colon was a thief dubbed the ‘Belgian Robin Hood’, as he, like his English counterpart, stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Colon was said to rob rich merchants passing through a forest nearby, and his hideout was the grottoes of Folx-les-Caves. Eventually, the law caught up with the benevolent thief, and he was hanged to death on the spot where he committed his crimes.
The Ellora Caves are a unique sanctuary that blend the art and culture of three different religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism – and illustrate the spirit of tolerance, characteristic of ancient India, which permitted these three religions to establish their sanctuaries and communities in a single place.
Ellora is situated not far from Aurangabad, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. This site is home to 34 monasteries and temples, extending over a distance of more than 2km. These structures were dug into the wall of a high basalt cliff. It is unclear when these caves were built, and estimates range from between 200 B.C. and 600 A.D. to between 600 A.D. and 1000 A.D. The oldest caves can be found on the southern side of the cliff and are of Buddhist origin. They are comprised of monasteries and a single large temple (Cave 10). A lot of effort was put into these structures. For instance in Cave 12, the three-storied building is believed to have been built entirely by human hands and hard labour. The rock-hard floors and ceiling of this cave were made level and smooth, reflecting the immense skill and craftsmanship of the builders.
Moving north from the Buddhist group, one reaches the Hindu Caves. These 17 caves belong mainly to the Saivite sect, and date to the Rashtrakuta period in the middle of the 8th century A.D. For instance, Cave 16 is said to have been built by the Rashtrakuta king, Krishna I, and dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva.
The last four caves belong to the Jain group. These were said to be built between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1000 by the Digambara sect. These caves are massive, well-proportioned and decorated. For example, there are delicate carvings of lotus flowers and other elaborate ornaments in Cave 32. In addition, the builders of these caves are said to have drawn their artistic inspiration from the pre-existing structures at Ellora.
The Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe are a network of man-made chalk and flint caverns in Buckinghamshire, England, made famous by their sordid past. They are named after the infamous Hellfire Club, made up of high-ranking members of society, noblemen, and politicians, who are believed to have engaged in rituals, orgies, and black magic deep within the subterranean chambers beneath West Wycombe. Nevertheless, the caves are a place where myth and reality are so entangled that it is difficult to separate one from the other.
According to accepted accounts, English politician Sir Francis Dashwood commissioned an ambitious project in 1748 to supply chalk for a 5 kilometer road between West Wycombe and High Wycombe and so the caves were said to be dug out for mining purposes. It was here that Dashwood created a meeting center for the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, a private members club which later became known as the Hellfire Club.
The club motto was Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt), a philosophy of life later used by Aleister Crowley. Legend has it that members engaged in numerous illicit activities including sex parties, drinking, wenching, and mock rituals.
Thanks to Ancient Origins for this article