BMCR 2009.10.50

Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth

, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xi, 315. ISBN 9780199548569. $95.00.

For Plato, metaphorically speaking, ideas are up above and philosophy, the rational search for ultimate truth, is represented as an ascension. Is Plato’s view representative of ancient Greek culture? Only in part, argues Yulia Ustinova.

In Greek culture caves were also regarded as privileged places to which one had to descend, physically, to search for ultimate truth through inspired prophecy, which is a direct communication with gods and requires the attainment of a state of ekstasis, mania or enthousiasmos. Only inspired mediums—prophets, poets and sages—were able to do it. One can approach inspired prophecy from different angles, but Ustinova’s is rather surprising: it is that of modern neuropsychological research.

Chapter 1 offers an overview of the current issues in neuropsychological and anthropological research that are “of crucial importance for the examination of the experiences of Greek sages, seers and religious practitioners inside caves and closed chambers” (11). The author states, however, that “not being a professional neuroscientist or psychologist, [she] made every effort to avoid statements on controversial issues and to remain within the limit of consensus among the experts” (11).

The following chapters deal with: Greek institutionalized oracles that operated in caves (Chapter 2); seers, poets (Chapter 3), sages and philosophers (Chapter 4) who descended to caves or underground chambers in their search for ultimate truth; and mystery cults in which caves or grottoes played an important part (Chapter 5).

Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 proceeds in three steps: first, (i) “the literary and archeological data concerning cultic or intellectual activities in caves” are examined; then, (ii) their “historical significance” is evaluated; finally, (iii) “the evidence is juxtaposed with the results of non-historical research, expounded in Chapter 1” (12). It should be noted that “the written testimonies cited in this book are extremely heterogeneous, dating from different periods and belonging to several genres, such as history, philosophy, epic and lyrical poetry, drama, geography, and lexicography” (12).

Steps (i) and (ii) are extremely valuable, offering a much-needed systematic discussion of evidence on underground revelations in ancient Greek culture. The evidence regards caves of the Nymphs and Pan, oracles of the dead (at Taenarum, Heracleia Pontica, etc.), the oracle of Heracles at Bura, the Shrine of the August Goddesses in Athens, cave oracles along the valley of the Meander, cave oracles of Gaia, oracles of underground dwellers (Trophonius, Amphiaraus, Asclepius, Aristaeus, Zalmoxis, Rhesus, Orpheus on Lesbos), oracles of Apollo “where vatic activities were centered in caves” (257), and caves as mise-en-scène for mystery cults (Eleusis, Dionysiac and Orphic mysteries, etc.).

Step (iii) works well in Chapters 2 (on Greek institutionalized oracles that operated in caves) and 5 (mystery cults in which caves or grottoes played an important part). The section in which the Delphic adyton is discussed (121-153), for instance, is extremely helpful for anyone interested in the subject.

Step (iii), however, remains controversial in Chapters 3 and 4 (seers, poets, sages and philosophers who descended to caves or underground chambers in their search for the ultimate truth). As the author admits, the standard view in social sciences and humanities has been that social and cultural facts should be approached with social and cultural methods. To approach them from the perspective of neuroscience and cognitive psychology is “welcomed by some and remains anathema to others” (15). So what does the author aim to prove by juxtaposing ancient testimonies with the results of modern neurological research? Here it is in her own words:

It is now abundantly clear that human consciousness is largely defined by the neurological functions which are characteristic of Homo sapiens as a biological species, irrespective of social conditions. Hence, the conclusions of modern neuroscience are applicable to the study of historical phenomena, including ancient Greek religion and philosophy. Neuropsychology provides a methodological basis for the study of the consciousness of religious practitioners and its transformation in different environments. Especially revealing is the study of altered states of consciousness which, in many cases, entails a sense of ineffable revelation of superhuman truth. Since such states of consciousness often occur when people are exposed to sensory deprivation, seers, shamans, and other mediators between gods and mortals undergo long isolated sojourns in caves and other closed spaces in their quest for ecstatic illuminations (51-52).

Let us take, for instance, the philosophers featured in Chapter 4: Epimenides, Pherecydes, Pythagoras, Parmenides and Empedocles. The preserved evidence on Pythagoras, Parmenides, Empedocles is meager. Still, argues Ustinova, it is sufficient to allow us to claim that they attempted to reach the ultimate truth through mystical experiences and that they “followed the lead of Epimenides, who became a purifier after a long sojourn in a Cretan cave which accommodated initiations into a famous mystery cult” (217). Here is how the author sums up her argument on Parmenides. The head of the Eleatic school was called pôlarchos, “lord of the den” (as attested by inscriptions). The complex that was the seat of the Eleatic school included a cryptoporticus, which “constitutes precious archeological testimony to the catabasis of philosophers” (193). Parmenides’ poem, claims Ustinova, reveals a divine truth that “fully matches the core of mystical insights attained in altered states of consciousness, namely that the world of appearances is illusory, and the true being is an indivisible eternal whole” (260). To conclude: “Parmenides developed his conception through enlightenment attained in a mystical state, which he most probably reached by means of sensory deprivation in a secluded place” (260). Needless to say, many scholars will find this explanation far-fetched.

“When I was young”, says Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo, “I was remarkably keen on the kind of wisdom known as natural science. . . Is it blood that we think with, or air, or fire? Or is it none of those, but the brain that provides the sense of hearing and seeing and smelling, from which memory and judgment come to be?” (96a-b, Gallop’s translation). Plato found physiological explanations of little merit. Would he have changed his mind had he had access to transcranial magnetic stimulation and electroencephalography? I doubt it. It is true that in his Timaeus he deals extensively with questions regarding physiology, but he was an anti-materialist philosopher. Other Greek philosophers, however, were not.

Some will find Yulia Ustinova’s attempt to approach ancient evidence on underground revelations from the perspective of neuroscience and cognitive psychology interesting and challenging, while others will dismiss it as being at best irrelevant. The gigantomachia between materialist and anti-materialist philosophers continues, although it must be said that the current grant-system favors the former. However, Ustinova’s systematic discussion of evidence on underground revelations in ancient Greek culture remains highly valuable.