BMCR 2019.08.07

Antrum: riti e simbologie delle grotte nel Mediterraneo antico. Quaderni di studi e materiali di storia delle religioni, 16

, Antrum: riti e simbologie delle grotte nel Mediterraneo antico. Quaderni di studi e materiali di storia delle religioni, 16. Roma: Morcelliana, 2017. 414. ISBN 9788837231330. €35,00 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed at the close.]

viridi proiectus in antro (Virgil, B. 1.75)
in antro | Silenum pueri somno videre (Virgil, B. 6.13-14)
domus antra fuerunt (Ovid, M. 1.121)

Focused on ancient rites and symbols regarding grottos of the Mediterranean area, Antrum comprises studies that range from prehistory through Greece and Rome to Christianity. It stems from collaboration among scholars at four universities, Bari ( Aldo Moro), Padova, Roma ( Sapienza), and Enna ( Kore). The preface remarks how the theme grotta sacra has inspired enormous interest, often leading to overinterpretation and misprision owed to diverse traditions and schools of thought, resulting in a selva interpretiva that this volume means to reform through hermeneutic discipline.

Maiuri’s introduction links the project with contemporary attention to civiltà rupestri, in the honors accorded to Matera with its sassi, which employ natural features for sustainable urban life. Reporting the initial and corrective chapter on Methodology by Pisano, he reiterates the risk that modern viewpoints (termed etic) overshadow and distort what previous cultures made of caves (local peoples’ actual views and uses, termed emic). He himself still entertains the notion that caves, though natural features, have yet always been intimately recognized for their sacred quality, a trace of etic speleomythoplasmia that ill assorts with his emic view of Matera as a sustainable habitation.

Pisano, in his critique of etic and tralatitious methodology, turns from interpretive commonplaces to look freshly at texts and to see caves as others saw them. He cites, for example, the Hymn to Hermes, where the gods’ cave dwellings were hieroi domoi furnished with “tous conforts modernes.” The texts show, he argues, that the Greeks did not share the opinion of modern interpreters that the idea of sacral space evolved from dreadful grottos to majestic temples. He debunks modern notions of a universal and dreadful numinosity linked ever and always with caves. Likewise, he deconstructs the way in which such assumptions have supported claims to trace the origins of European culture to caves on Crete. His stringent analysis discredits notions promulgated by Spyridon Marinatos and persistently influential, e.g., on Paul Faure, who continues the notion of Crete as principium Europae. Pisano cites too the “volume fondamentale” of Henri Lavagne with its focus on operosa antra (Propertius 3.2.14), urban artifice, no longer in the wild. Yet here again he finds, in the wake also of Rudolf Otto, an ontological reductionism—viewing caves as essentially and always implying anxiety and desire. Likewise a notion of intrinsic numinosity infects the influential work of Yulia Ustinova, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind: Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth. In short, Pisano queries the recurrent and deeply seated notion of THE SACRED existing in itself, endowed with a unique and universal essence perceived in the same way by all. He further argues that passages like Aeneas’ descent to the underworld represent literary construction imagining terrific sound and scent rather than recording autopsic speleopathy. Among the ancients generally, he argues, caves were represented not so much as wild and scary, more as sonorous for song and aromatic, perfumed.

Looking back on his argument, Pisano remarks that the “sacred grotto” offers a kind of laboratory to show in action the dialectic between emic and etic: for the emic, he looks to how the ancients themselves represented naos and templum, while for etic he looks to the modern notion of development from simple cave to complex building, combined with the universalizing premise of “the sacred” as numinous and scary.

Within Pisano’s trenchantly deconstructive frame, the ensuing study of prehistory offers abundant yet often disturbed evidence, as Cazzela and Guidi trace evolution from early employment for sheltering people and animals to more symbolic uses, including burial. Opening the section on Greece and Rome in historic times, Capdeville addresses the rich speleological endowment of Crete which has produced the abundant legends known from literature and other documentation: Great Goddess, Eileithyia, cavern on Ida where baby Zeus was nurtured, frequented too by Pythagoras, Epimenides, Apollonius of Tyana. With a different focus, then, Arata argues that the Zerinthian cave mentioned by scholiasts and lexicographers was located in Samothrace and dedicated to Hecate.

The third and fourth studies of historic times focus on the mytheme of journey to the underworld ( katabasis). Coscia focuses on plots of journey and rites of immortalization from Pythagoras to Aristeas of Proconnessus, while Duchin studies the long sleep of Epimenides, the fabled Cretan, with the themes of preternatural somnolence and shamanic travel to the other world.

Turning to Italy, di Fazio studies the cult of Lanuvian Juno, with its multivalence: armed defense of cities, rites of passage in matrimony and birth, inauguration of the agricultural year. Concluding the set of historical studies, Campos Méndes looks at the cult of Mithra, arguing that the mithraeum, also called spelum, antrum, crypta, templum, was for the most part a small and artificially created underground space, which particularly attracted the ire of Christian polemicists, who considered it a foul and gloomy place antithetical to the nomen Romanum.

In Christianity, sacred grottos would come to play an important role, studied by Canella, Carnevale, and Patti, in cults of the archangel Michael, which came to serve Byzantine rule in Apulia and would continue to serve the successive Lombard rulers. The cult attracted many pilgrims to Gargano, sustained by hagiographic legend, Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in monte Gargano, which would be emulated by a shrine north of Rome, would acquire an apposite hagiography: Apparitio seu Revelatio S. Michaelis Archangeli in Monte Tancia. The latter was to enjoy particular popularity between the tenth and eleventh centuries when a local bishop and an abbey struggled for control, motivated by the flow of cash from pilgrims. The legend recounts that Pope Saint Silvester, refugee at Mount Soracte to avoid persecution, intervened to defeat a pestiferous dragon, driving it not out but down deeply into an opening to the left. This last detail, argues Patti, shows that the hagiography’s author knew the actual layout, for the grotto in fact drops off to the left just at the point where there once stood a stalactite carved into female form. Indeed Patti argues that the writer’s insistence on the exact placement might offer indirect confirmation that the chthonic cult preceding the cult of Michael also had a precise localization, still recognizable and recognized, when the hagiography was composed. Patti reports also that the grotto continued to be associated with witchcraft and demonic powers, in competition and coexistence with the archangel’s cult, at least until local authorities locked the entrance; while the festival of the archangel continues to be celebrated locally on May 8th. She notes that the mythemic linkage of female divinity and serpent invites a wide range of comparisons, not only with the Lanuvian Juno studied earlier in this book. She also compares the legend of Silvester defeating the serpent to the countless legends of saints defeating dragons. In a closing section Patti reports the employment of new electronic devices to record and produce studies of the grotto and residual works of art in three dimensions, with multiple advantage: more accurate accounts, affording topographical material subject to analysis with diverse techniques and questions, all the while facilitating study without subjecting a fragile site to risks of damage, and without requiring scholars to suffer lengthy and repeated sojourns underground. The new technology, she argues, makes it possible to envisage how the grotto served the two represented cults, the pagan goddess and the archangel, and how the grotto was calculated to shape the later pilgrimage experience and relegate the pagan goddess cult to the darkest and least accessible part of the space.

Focus shifts to the hills of southeastern Sicily—Hyblan, from the Sicel king Hyblon who allowed a coastal settlement by Greeks, and karstic, the geological type named for the eroded limestones around Trieste. The karstic topography forms canopies ( baldacchini) that research finds to have been adapted to every manner of human activity, not least because the canopies were more secure than construction by the hands of man, write Cugno and dell’Aquila. They show how Christian practice took on symbolisms from the oldest Mediterranean cultures.

Only a little eastwards in Trincria, Syracuse’s legendary first bishop, San Marciano, receives scrutiny by Caruso, Lizzani, and Iafrate, who examine archeological and hagiographical evidence to argue that the legend served to relate Syracuse to Byzantine power. An ideological, not to say propagandistic, agenda emerges too in Grandi’s study of compositions in which Jerome of Stridon combined a dazzling array of theological, rhetorical, exegetical, and stylistic threads, including grotto imagery, to promote his idea of the ascetic life—an ideal promoted more than practiced, ironizes Grandi, noting that Jerome even in the desert is never isolated from his books, copyists, and networking monks. With abundant detail, Grandi relates Jerome’s Life of Paul to a flurry of counter claims about the origins and patterns of monastic life in Egypt. Grandi argues too that the folkloric tendency manifest in this first of Jerome’s hagiographic essays intensifies in his Life of Malchi, adapting the cavern scene of Dido with Aeneas to the dilemma of sworn chastity constrained to marry and preferring me martyrem potius quam maritum. Grandi goes on to investigate the webs of allusion in the Life of Hilarion and Epistle 108, which praise the life of Paula, one of those wealthy women drawn to follow Jerome to Palestine—her funds founded two monasteries at Bethlehem; she was buried in the grotto of the nativity, her Roman roots commemorated by Jerome in an epitaph: Scipio quam genuit, Pauli fudere parentes | Gracchorum suboles, Agamemnonis inclita proles. [For sciscitants…fidem…accepi emend sciscitans…accepi.]

Tardily aware of the extremes credulity can reach, the tale of Tecla and Paul and its consequences in cavern cult can amaze yet hardly surprise as deftly recounted by Mariangela Monaca, adding to the myriad paradigms of female heroism and holiness. Closing then, though hardly topping the credulities just retailed, Scarcia looks at the so-called Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and documents some of the inextricable wanderings of the motif, from memory of Cretan Epimenides into Christian and Muslim quarters: searching for a real grotto opening northwards ( circium versus), producing yet another hermeneutic labyrinth without its Ariadnic clew.


Tessa Canella, “Prefazione”, 5.
Arduino Maiuri, “Introduzione”, 8.
Carmine Pisano, “La categoria di “grotta sacra” tra testi classici e storiografia moderna”.
Preistoria, 27.
Alberto Cazzella – Alessandro Guidi. “Aspetti symbolici connessei con le grotte nell’Italia centro-meridionale dal Neolitico alla prima età del ferro”, 47.
Grecia e Roma
Gérard Capdeville, “Caverne cretesi”, 67.
Luigi Arata, “A proposito dell’antro Zerinzio”, 98.
Alessandro Coscia, “L’antro sottoterra. Catabasi e riti di immortalizzazione da Pitagora ad Aristea di Proconneso”, 127.
Marco Duichin, “Il sonno di Epimenide. La caverna, lo scorrere soprannaturale del tempo e il viaggio sciamanico nell’aldilà”, 173.
Clara di Fazio, “Giunone, le vergini e l’antro del serpente”, 215.
Israel Campos Mendes, “Architecttura e regligione. Il mithraeum come rappresentzione simbolica della grotta”, 232.
Tessa Canella – Laura Carnevale – Daniela Patti, “La grotta sacra nelk culto micaelico. Dalla tipologica garganica al sangturario di s. Michele al Monte Tancia”, 247.
Santino Alessandro Cugno – Franco dell’Aquila, “Alcune osservazioni sui baldacchini rupestri dell’altopiano ibleo”. 275.
Federico Caruso – Federico Lizzani – Stefano Iafrate, “Le grotte pelopie e il culto di San Marciano a Siracusa”, 308.
Giorgia Grandi, “ Loci amoeni, creature fantastiche e paesaggi incontaminati. Le grotte nelle biografie geronimiane tra realtà e stereotipo”, 324.
Mariangela Monaca, “Tecla e la grotta. Una via di ascesi al femminile”, 355.
Gianroberto Scarcia, “Una grotta Circium versus da terra d’Islam a terra cristiana”, 373.