Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Melissani :The famous Cave of the Nymphs in the Thirteenth Book of the Odyssey.

 (excerpt from the book: Homeric Ithaca, H. Putman Cramer / G. Metaxas)


The dramatic lake-cave of Melissani    (Karavomilos- Sami, Kefalonia)

The famous Cave of the Nymphs in the Thirteenth Book of the Odyssey together with Mount Neriton are mentioned by Homer as one of the main landmarks of Ithaca.
Athena, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, was well aware of the importance of these  landmarks
when she wished to give Odysseus a sure sign whereby he would recognize his homeland, she said:

         ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε τοι δείξω Ἰθάκης ἕδος, ὄφρα πεποίθῃς.
Φόρκυνος μὲν ὅδ᾽ ἐστὶ λιμήν, ἁλίοιο γέροντος,
ἥδε δ᾽ ἐπὶ κρατὸς λιμένος τανύφυλλος ἐλαίη·
ἀγχόθι δ᾽ αὐτῆς ἄντρον ἐπήρατον ἠεροειδές,
ἱρὸν νυμφάων, αἳ νηϊάδες καλέονται·
τοῦτο δέ τοι σπέος ἐστὶ κατηρεφές, ἔνθα σὺ πολλὰς
ἔρδεσκες νύμφῃσι τεληέσσας ἑκατόμβας·
τοῦτο δὲ Νήριτόν ἐστιν ὄρος καταειμένον ὕλῃ."
                                                                           (οδ ν 344-351)
Come then, I’ll show you theisland of Ithaca, so you will know. There is the harbour of  Phorcys, the Old Man of the Sea, and there at its head is the long-leaved olive tree, with that lovely shadowy cave nearby, sacred to the Nymphs they call the Naiads. That indeed is the echoing cavern where you once offered the Nymphs many fine sacrifices, and over there is Mount Neriton, clothed in forest.”(Οd.13. 344-351)

The cave was very close to the harbour of Phorkys sacred to the Neïades[i] or Naiads (water nymphs), which was full of running water and stalactites, sea-purle in colour but dark in the innermost recesses, and was said to be the abode of bees [Μέλισσες][ii] (spirits of the dead):

Φόρκυνος δέ τίς ἐστι λιμήν, ἁλίοιο γέροντος,
ἐν δήμῳ Ἰθάκης· δύο δὲ προβλῆτες ἐν αὐτῷ
ἀκταὶ ἀπορρῶγεςλιμένος ποτιπεπτηυῖαι
αἵ τ᾽ ἀνέμων σκεπόωσι δυσαήων μέγα κῦμα
ἔκτοθεν· ἔντοσθεν δέ τ᾽ ἄνευ δεσμοῖο μένουσι
νῆες ἐΰσσελμοι, ὅτ᾽ ἂν ὅρμου μέτρον ἵκωνται.
αὐτὰρ ἐπὶ κρατὸς λιμένος τανύφυλλος ἐλαίη,
ἀγχόθι δ᾽ αὐτῆς ἄντρον ἐπήρατον ἠεροειδές,
ἱρὸν νυμφάων αἱ νηϊάδες καλέονται.
ἐν δὲ κρητῆρές τε καὶ ἀμφιφορῆες ἔασιν
λάϊνοι· ἔνθα δ᾽ ἔπειτα τιθαιβώσσουσι μέλισσαι.
ἐν δ᾽ ἱστοὶ λίθεοι περιμήκεες, ἔνθα τε νύμφαι
φάρε᾽ ὑφαίνουσιν ἁλιπόρφυρα, θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι·
ἐν δ᾽ ὕδατ᾽ ἀενάοντα. δύω δέ τέ οἱ θύραι εἰσίν,
αἱ μὲν πρὸς Βορέαο καταιβαταὶ ἀνθρώποισιν,
αἱ δ᾽ αὖ πρὸς Νότου εἰσὶ θεώτεραι· οὐδέ τι κείνῃ
ἄνδρες ἐσέρχονται, ἀλλ᾽ ἀθανάτων ὁδός ἐστιν.

Now in that island is a cove named after Phorcys, the Old Man of the Sea, with two bold headlands squatting at its mouth so as to protect it from the heavy swell raised by rough weather in the open and allow large ships to ride inside without so much as tying up, once within mooring distance of the shore. At the head of the cove grows a long-leaved olive tree and near by is a cavern that offers welcome shade and is sacred to the Nymphs whom we call Naiads. This cave contains a number of stone basins and two-handled jars, which are used by bees [spirits of the dead] as their hives; also great looms of stone [stalactites] where the Nymphs weave marvellous fabrics of sea-purple; and there are springs whose water never fails. It has two mouths. The one that looks north is the way down for men. The other, facing south, is meant for the gods; and as immortals come in by this way it is not used by men at all. ( Οd.13. 96-112)


Homer’s description of the Cave of the Nymphs presents an almost photographic image, down to the last detail, of the dramatic lake-cave of Melissani, in whose name we hear a loud echo of Homer’s ‘bees’ (μέλισσαι). 


                                                                                                                        Photo by Dimitris Vandoros                                                                                      

The Melissani lake cave ‘where bees(Melisses) have their hives’.

In very ancient times the spirits of the deceased were called “Melisses” (transl.: bees).
In the study of the philosopher Porfyrios  (234-304 A.D.) regarding the Homeric cave of the nymphs with the title “Περί του εν Οδύσσεια των νυμφών άντρου we read that the springs and the clear waters were related intimately with the water nymphs and of course they were even more intimately related with the nymphs-spirits who were called “melisses” in very ancient times.

The famous gold jewel with the bees. Consists of two bees holding a piece of honeycomb between their legs, a filigree “cage” containing a gold bead balanced on their heads and little disks hanging down from their wings and sting. An exquisite example of Minoan goldwork, it combines hammering, filigree and granulation. From necropolis of Malia (1800-1700 BC).
Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Width: 0,046 m

From: http://www.latsis-foundation.org/megazine/publish/ebook.php?book=8&preloader=1p.308
 — στην τοποθεσία Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

In 1963 the archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos undertook an archaeological research in the cave of Melissani. The archaeological finds of this research proved the relation between the Naiaden nymphs with this specific cave. (see the photos beside of the plaques with the Naiaden nymphs that were found in the central sacrificial area of the cave /Archaeological Museum of Argostoli, Kefalonia Greece).


It seems that indeed the lake-cave of Melissani with its running water flow was the entrance of the spirits towards the underworld in antiquity.
"The nymphs in Melissani" , oil painting by Maria Randuleskou (Takis Tokkas, House Museum in Sami) 
This cave is just a short distance inland from Sami Bay, Homer’s ‘harbour of Phorkys’, which is marked on early maps of Kephallenia as Fochi or Focchi (Φόρκυ = Forchi).     
                                            
Map of Kephallenia, of 1616. Here the bay now known as Sami Bay is marked as Fochi. 
 (Collection of Fotis Kremmydas).


panoramic photo of Sami Bay (harbour of Phorkys)

It should also be emphasized that the geographical features mentioned by Homer as landmarks of Ithaca ( the Mount Neriton = today's Ainos and  the famοus Cave of the Nymphs = today:'s cave Melissani)  are identical with the main landmarks of the broader region of south-eastern Kephallenia and the surrounding districts, which, as we know, have given the Kephallenian landscape its unique character through the ages.  
  




[i]    Petros Petratos, «Ομηρικό Σπήλαιο των Νυμφών: Το Σπήλαιο της Μελισσάνης», Κεφαλληνιακά Χρονικά 8 239-265.
[ii]    Henriette Putman Cramer and Gerasimos Metaxas, Ομηρική Ιθάκη, Athens: Kaktos Editions, 2000, 472-473.

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