The Greek myth of the Underworld and the afterlife is a familiar one to modern readers, with many of its tropes passing into common usage. To enter the Underworld one must pay the ferryman Charon to transport you across the river Styx, a perilous journey from which it is just possible to escape.
But how to get to the Styx? Surprisingly, as with many of the features in the landscape in Greek myths this can perhaps be mapped to a real-life location. Based on the ancient stories it is believed that we can find the entrance to the “Kingdom of the Dead” in the Mani region of the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece.
We can even narrow it down to a single cave, known as the Alepotrypa cave. The curious explorer in you might be seeking some plausible explanation right now, or at least asking the obvious question. What is in the cave?
What is the Alepotrypa Cave?
The Alepotrypa cave is located in the heart of the ancient Greek world, among the caves of Diros in the far southern tip of the Greek mainland. The geology of the area includes large deposits of Mesozoic carbonate rocks.
The rocks erode gradually due to the impact of water, thereby forming especially deep and winding caves such as Alepotrypa. The cave extends for over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) long and has massive chambers with flat surfaces to stand on, creating a succession of terraces which seem to wind into the bowels of the earth.
Alepotrypa therefore is a unique combination: a cave which seems to offer a path downwards and where the lower levels can be glimpsed but which are hard to access and even harder to retreat from. It makes perfect sense for the Greeks, investigating this cave, to see a one-way route to the Underworld here.
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The biggest chamber in the cave measures about 100 x 60 meters (328 by 197 feet), and at the bottom is a lake measuring 14 meters (46 feet) in depth. Could this dark, still and deep water be the river Styx? Certainly there is no ferryman, and any attempt to cross without one would be perilous in the extreme.
Archaeological finds from the site have revealed that it had been used since the beginning of the early Neolithic era, around 5300 BC, and was in use for almost 2,000 years. The findings also reveal that the local farmers which used the cave mouth for shelter and storage must have developed a large village just outside.
Evidence from the site near Alepotrypa cave reveals that early residents of the area consumed barley and wheat, usually evidence of a permanent settlement. On the other hand, remnants of animal bones alongside charred fruit also indicated that animal husbandry, fishing and hunting served as primary sources of diet. Some accounts put down the possibilities of farming as the immediate natural environment must not have supported agriculture.
I bet you want to see this with your own eyes, and indeed the Alepotrypa cave has long been a tourist attraction. However, the Greek government stopped the tourists to prevent damage to the site: its deep interior is now as mysterious to the average visitor as it was to the Greeks. On top of it, the site had to brave the dangers of private construction work before the Ministry of Culture began careful archaeological excavations in 1970.
Secrets of the Cave
But Alepotrypa will not give up her secrets easily. The efforts by the Greek government to unravel the mysteries of Alepotrypa cave came to a halt almost as soon as they started.
Political complications played foul for the excavation campaign by Giorgios Papathanassopoulos in 1970, which was delayed for almost a decade. The excavation finally started in 1978 and continued at a deliberately slow and careful pace until 2005 before being stopped due to a lack of funding.
Subsequently, the Diros Regional Project was created in 2010 to conduct a regional survey. At the same time, the Alepotrypa excavation team started preparing the relevant findings for publication.
Archaeologists have discovered the tools, pottery, silver and copper artifacts in the cave. The earliest have been dated to the Neolithic: there have been people in Alepotrypa for a very long time.
According to Michael Galaty, an arachaeologist working at the site, Alepotrypa cave was used as a burial site before the Bronze Age in Mycenaean Greece. The findings also suggested that cave dwellers had also used the cave as shelter. As Galaty paints it, the place must have been similar to a prehistoric cathedral or a pilgrimage site.
On top of it, the excavations also unraveled that the cave had been occupied and abandoned many times. The cave had the perfect strategic positioning at the southern tip of Greece for intercepting sea trade from Africa ranging to the eastern Mediterranean.
The settlements at the cave must have abruptly come to an end after an earthquake, which had buried the cave dwellers alive. Archaeologists had discovered bones of around 170 different persons alongside two adult human skeletons, traced back to the 4th millennium BC. In addition, the cave also had a Mycenaean ossuary, a container of bones dating back to around 2nd millennium BC.
Entrance to the Underworld
It is easy to see how the ancient Neolithic burial site morphed over time into the legend of the entrance to the Underworld. Evidence of burning animal dung at the site and occult practices also point out why it could have been associated with Hades.
The other things found in the cave include painted and incised pottery, stone axes, shell beads and blades of obsidian. All the items found in the cave indicate that it must have been the place where the supposed “Age of Heroes” in Greek mythology started from.
The presence of silver jewelry in the cave also indicates that the people living at the site must have been wealthy. Silver was rare in the Bronze Age and especially in Neolithic Europe. Greek Mythology suggests that people had to pay silver coins for passage through the River Styx to Charon, the ferryman who carried souls to the Underworld.
Anyone imagining the place lit with torches of fire and people gathered around for burials, or occult practices would develop a dark impression of the place. However, the comparisons to mythology depend on the individual perceptions of different experts. At the same time, collective cultural memory might have ensured that people believed it to be the gate to Hades.
The historical significance of Alepotrypa cave is evident in how it served as a site for early human civilizations. The myth behind the cave might connect it to Greek mythology, while the reality of the place connects back to the roots of mankind and European civilization.
Top Image: At the bottom of Alepotrypa cave the ferryman Charon awaits to take you to the Underworld. Source: Daniel Eskridge / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri