Well met by moonlight

Peter Tomkins wrote a very good paper a few years ago about the use of caves in prehistoric Greece. Most of these caves have been interpreted as places where people lived, although we have some very well-known Minoan and Mycenaean cult sites in caves. He argued that we have missed a lot of evidence for ritual because we have been overly influenced by the recent history of people living in caves and sheltering their stock in them in Greece.

I was reminded of this paper last night when I suddenly came across a very vivid account of 20th century cave use on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. I have been reading The Broken Road: the final, posthumous, volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s description of travelling across Europe in 1934. Fermor set off from London in late 1933 with the intention of walking from the North Sea to Istanbul. The journey took him more than a year, with many epic diversions and extended stop-overs in middle European country houses, and he finally began to write up the experience almost 40 years later. The two earlier parts of the trip were published as A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, both of which are now very well-known classics of 20th century travel writing.

Anyway, back to the caves. Towards the end of his extreme gap year, and after another gigantic tangent up into Romania, the 19-year old Fermor was working his way back towards his official destination by walking down the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. He describes being dangerously caught out by nightfall and repeated soakings in the sea and being saved by stumbling into the entrance of a large cave in the sea cliff.

Once inside he discovered that the cave was being inhabited by two different groups of people simultaneously. There was a central hearth, used by both groups. One side of the cave was filled with the boats and equipment of Greek speaking fishermen: the other with the dogs, cheese presses and penned stock of Bulgarian goatherds.

Both the sailors and goatherds (SInbad living alongside Polyphemus in Fermor’s words) might seem to fit with the ‘domestic’ cave use that Tomkins describes. However, the ritual and mundane use of caves are never easy to separate. Fermor gives an account of a remarkable set of dances performed by two of the fishermen, part of a tradition linking together Greek-speaking sailors across the eastern Mediterranean with its roots in the Late Byzantine world. These dances, and the structured division of the cave space, remind us that places where people live and work are never ‘simply’ domestic but that people fill them with meaning.





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