There are over 3,000 caves in Crete (a tribute to nature’s flair for interior decoration), and many are of great archaeological and historical interest. We don’t have time to explore even a small portion of these. However, any inquiry into ancient Crete must include caves – so we decide to visited a few during our travels around the island. As you might imagine, Stone Age people used caves as homes or at least as shelters. Later, when people began to build houses, caves were sometimes used as cemeteries. Perhaps because their ancestors were buried there, people began to view caves as places where spirits – and maybe gods – could be contacted. Caves were first used for religious purposes early in the Minoan period, at about the same time the first Cretan palaces were being built. Some experts think there is a connection between the great kings in the palaces and the institution of worship in caves.
One of the better known cult caves is located near Amnissos, about 20 minutes drive from our apartment in Koutouloufari. This cave was sacred to Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. Because everyone wants healthy babies, the cave of Eileithyia was an important place of worship for thousands of years – from the late Stone Age to the Classical Age of Greece (5th century BCE). It is even mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey.
The Altar in Eileithyia Cave
It was rediscovered in the late 19th century, and the locals call it “Neraidospilios” (the cave of the fairies). The cave itself is quite large – nearly 200 feet long and up to 40 feet wide – with a rather low ceiling. The most interesting feature is the place of worship itself. Near the middle of the cave is a cylindrical stalagmite enclosed by a low wall. Within the enclosure and in front of the stalagmite is a stone altar. This is where archaeologists have found figurines of women and animals, tools, and other gifts from those praying to the goddess for a child. The stalagmite might have been a symbol, or perhaps a vessel of the goddess (if you squint your eyes, it sort of looks like a person). Minoans worshipped the spirits residing in various objects, including trees and stone pillars, which they believed had mystical powers.
A far less impressive cave (but just as interesting to archaeologists) is one we find by accident while exploring the high plateau of Lasithi, an area devoted almost entirely to agriculture. Driving through Tzermiado, the largest and most important village on the plateau’s northern edge, we see a road sign that points the way to Kronos Cave.
Since we hadn’t heard of that one, we decided to investigate. After checking our reference book, we discovered that the actual name is Trapezas Cave, quite notable as a place where remains and tombs dating back to the late Stone Age were uncovered. Perhaps locals substituted the name of Kronos (king of the Titans and father of Zeus) to make it a bigger tourist attraction.
We drive about a kilometer along the base of a hill, through olive groves and small vineyards, until we spot a little sign and a pathway up the hill. New stone stairs make the climb easier. At the top, several roughly painted blue arrows on a rock wall point to a rather small black opening, as if to say “this is it!”
Entrance of Trapeza Cave
The entrance is rather low, but as you step down to the cave floor the ceiling is higher. A few meters into the cave, the corridor widens to a chamber that is large enough to provide living space for a family. But the cave does not end there. Around a corner is a passage to other chambers farther back into the darkness.
First chamber of the cave
Lacking a good flashlight and hearing the squeaks of agitated bats in the darkness, we decide not to explore the full extent of the cave (in fact, my own anxiety about close spaces keeps me near the entrance). However, the cave appears to be large enough to shelter a Stone Age tribe, and the abundant fields below would have provided enough food for all.
Sitting on a stone ledge at the mouth of Trapezas Cave, we can look straight across the plateau to the imposing peak of Mt. Dikti – site of the cave where Zeus was born and raised. Mythology tells us Kronos was afraid one of his children would end his reign as chief of the gods. To prevent this, he swallowed his children as soon as they were born. When Zeus was born, his mother (Rhea) gave Kronos a stone to swallow. She then hid the baby in the Diktean Cave with a nursemaid and guardians. When Zeus grew up, as you can guess, he overthrew his father and became king of the gods on Mt. Olympus.
Mount Dikti on the far side of Lasithi Plateau
We drive the loop road around the plateau, through half a dozen small farming communities, to the village of Psihro in the foothills of Mt. Dikti. From here, we turn into a parking lot at the bottom of a path that leads up to the cave. It is not a short hike, and I begin to think we should have hired one of the mules that local men use to ferry tourists up the side of the mountain. The cave entrance is not especially remarkable, other than the fact that it is very large. Inside the cave (happily lighted) is a wonderland of subterranean sights.
The main chamber was about the size of a football field, and nearly everything seemed covered in the melting forms of stalactites and stalagmites. There were smaller (but equally impressive) chambers opening on the sides. On the right side was a big antechamber with a rectangular stone altar. This is where archaeologists found Neolithic pottery sherds and early Minoan burials (2800-2200 BCE), as well as votive offerings of the Middle Minoan period (2200-1550 BCE). It is important to remember that people came to this cave thousands of years before there was a Zeus myth. Minoans had their own religion and did not worship the Olympian gods.
In another part of the antechamber contained an enclosure with paved flooring, forming a sort of shrine. It is difficult to say which gods the people prayed to in this place, but many offerings over the centuries suggest some of the Minoan deities and – later – the Greek gods. It is easy to imagine that this would be a mystical and holy place, because – like gothic cathedrals of later eras – it seems so “other worldly.” In the flickering light of torches, ancient people must have seen all manner of images and ghostly manifestations emerging from the cave walls.
Creatures seem to emerge from cave walls
During our later travels through Lasithi, we decided to visit another cave that has a special significance for the people of Crete. From the coastal town of Milatos, we drove slowly up a winding road until we saw a tiny sign pointing the way. We hiked up a rocky incline until we came upon a stone-paved path, which appeared to be still under construction. There was a rough wooden railing to prevent visitors from tumbling into the deep gorge, but I crept along the mountain wall – staying well away from the edge.
Arriving at our destination, we found several cave entrances into the stone face of the mountain. During the Stone Age, this cave – actually more like a series of caverns that extend kilometers into the mountain – might have housed a large population, but it is widely known for an event that occurred more recently.
Entrances of Milatos Cave
In 1823, during one of the early rebellions against the Ottoman Turks (who had ruled Crete for hundreds of years), some 2700 Cretans took refuge in the cave. The Turks discovered them and attacked the cave, but the defenders held out and refused to surrender. The Turks stuffed dry wood into the caves entrances a set it afire. The Cretans moved deeper into the caverns, but the smoke reached them and many suffocated. The ceiling of the cave is still blackened from the flames and smoke, which gives one a creepy sense of foreboding.
Ceiling Scorched by Turkish Fires
Unable to escape, the defenders finally agreed to the Turkish commander’s offer of safe passage if they surrendered and laid down their weapons. Unfortunately, he lied. As soon as the Cretan rebels surrendered, the Turks killed them or took them away in chains to be sold as slaves. Rather than discouraging other Cretans, this atrocity aroused their anger, and they fought even harder against their oppressors. When the cave was entered many decades later, after Crete was finally liberated, explorers were horrified to find the bones of Cretan freedom fighters still inside.
A diminutive church stands inside one section of the cavern. Next to it, on a stone ledge, rests a coffin draped with a Greek flag – a reminder of the cost of freedom.