Pilgrimage/See for Yourself: a journey to a Neolithic
Goddess cave, 1977.
Mary Beth Edelson
Island of Hvar—Sunny
Adriatic island of vineyards; olive groves, aromatic plants and ancient
culture. From a tourist brochure.
For some years I had been attempting to make a pilgrimage to a Goddess
site. I had been doing private rituals in my art for some time, both
out- doors in nature and in the studio. I could feed off of them and
hold them in my mind like totems but I was still hungry. I needed to do
my rituals in an actual prehistoric cave; to experience a Neo-lithic
site where I could smell the earth, poke around in the soil, breathe the
air, and know that the cave air had circulated through my body and
become a part of me. To go to a prehistoric site
became an obsession, and represented the place to begin a new cycle.
Numerous grants had not materialized and the trip was long overdue. I
sold my car and bought the voyage.
Before leaving New York, I researched seven sites in hopes of being able
to locate and gain access to at least one of them. (I had been there in
my head many times.) My attraction to Yugoslavia, referred to as "Old
Europe” by archaeologists, came from my wanting to start with a
civilization linked to both the earliest Goddess worship and its art
forms as well as to the later Goddess worshipping cultures. My fantasy
plans are to continue my pilgrimage in the coming years throughout the
Mediterranean, to trace our archaeological herstory, to photograph and
document, perform rituals, gather natural objects from the sites, and
record my responses while transIating these perceptions into my work.
After arriving on the island of Hvar in the
Adriatic off the coast of Yugoslavia I set out to locate the Neolithic
cave called Grapceva, knowing only that it was near Jelsa, which turned
out to be a small harbor town on the north side of the island. My
information was gleaned from Marija Gimbutas’ book, The Gods and
Europe,* useful both for its wealth of Goddess information and its
archaeological maps. Though
not adequate for actually locating sites, the maps did get us to
outlying villages. Once in the general area, the best method for finding
exact locations proved to be word-of-mouth. In Jelsa, we (Anne Healy and
I were traveling together) tried to ﬁnd who spoke English and knew the
whereabouts of the Grapceva spilja, chosen because it appeared that I
could be alone there. Little attention had been paid to the site after
its initial excavation in 1955 by Professor Grya Novak. I thought, from
reading and intuition, that this cave
was used as a sanctuary by Neolithic people.
The travel agent in Jelsa said flatly that no one tell us where the cave
was, assuring us that he had lived in the area all his life and had
never seen it. Obviously it was not worth bothering with. Finally, we
wangled out of him that a villager, now retired, had led excursions by
donkey up the steep mountain to the cave. The agent had trouble
remembering the guide’s name, but at last it came out: "Vicko".
Vicko lived on a street behind a cafe in Jelsa. A second inquiry in town
directed us there. ”Yell his name and someone will point to his
doorstep.” This done, we were on the threshold of a house where we were
offered old world hospitality and an abundance of homemade wine. Yes, he
was too oId to go up the mountain, but his fourteen-year-old son knew
At daybreak the next morning we began the trip, climbing on and on while
we and the heavy gear baked in the intense sun. At the top of the
mountain, beyond the deserted village of Humac we began our descent to
the barely accessible cave. The climb down was a series of straight
drops. What had once been a path was now acres mountain stone, obscuring
the way to those unfamiliar with it. Suddenly the blue Adriatic
stretched before us, and in the next moment, we realised that we had
reached the area around the cave.
What an incredible Iocation: the sea vista, a shelf of flat rock
extending from the front of the cave, fruit and nut trees and berry
bushes on either side. We could easily visualize the daily activities of
the Neolithic inhabitants gathered there, talking, cooking, sunning.
Vicko s son unlocked the gate placed over the of the cave. I can think
of our entrance only in personal terms. It is very difficult to convey
how thrilling this experience was to me The cave was dazzling. It was
magnificent. The main room, the great hall, sparkled and glistened with
coral quartz. Stalagmites and stalactites, suggesting great temple
pillars, divided the rooms into chambers. The atmosphere created a
feeling of reverence and awe. For me, it was a holy place.
Vicko's son began to dig in the floor of the cave and shortly produced
some bones. As it turned out there were bones, shards and shells
everywhere. But the cave completely lacked light the few candles we had
did not begin to penetrate the surrounding darkness. Although our eyes
could pick up a faint glimmer, a camera
could not record more than the light of the candle itself. After
resting, we headed down the mountain to ask Vicko whether Anne and I
could have the key to the gate to go back by ourselves the next day.
The following morning we set out with two
dozen candles and three Yugoslav flashlights. First, I wanted to explore
the cave for myself. The low contracted entrance to the cave opened into
anteroom or anterior hall with a side chapel of the darkest and richest
coral quartz imaginable. Leading into the great hall, a vaulted ceiling
with two massive stalagmites, which had become pillars, added to the
majesty of the grotto. A dip in the middle of the hall-no doubt formed
from centuries of use—was a natural center. To the left side, chambers
formed by smaller stalagmites turned into narrow passages melting one
into another, curving downwards or upwards. Nature had produced a
complex labyrinth of sanctuaries.
Five 'lofts', which circled the back of the great hall and extended into
the chamber rooms about five feet above the floor of the cave, were
large enough to sleep three or four people. The largest caught my
attention in particular because, unlike the others, its floor and
ceiling were jet black with specks of mother-of-pearl imbedded in the
surface. Many of the pots recovered from the cave were made from this
black clay; others were made from more traditional red clays.
I crawled into the space where, deep in one
corner, crouching to examine a broken area in the black floor, I found
pure dark red clay, which was the right consistency, moisture content
and texture to begin making a pot without further preparation. I
wondered whether this blackened room could have been a kiln room. The
clay, ready to use, could have been dried near the kiln and fired in the
same place, a perfect set-up. An indoor kiln might have also driven out
the dampness, the only aspect of the cave I found uncomfortable.
Considering the surroundings, I began to revise my notions of the
hardships of primitive life—at least in this location. The temperature
and quality of the air, in spite of the heat outdoors, were far superior
to our air-conditioning. In one corner of the cave, a constant trickle
of water provided a natural water supply. Fruits, nuts and herbs were at
the doorstep, and the scent of lavender filled the air. The black crust
of clay on the surface of the ”kiln” loft wall was thin; scratching
through it I came to a bright white, and began to make the
impresso patterns common to the area in Neolithic times. In a few
strokes I felt one long hand extending across time, sending a jolt of
energy into my body. I began my rituals.
The energy from the rituals seemed to
pulsate from the vaulted ceiling to me and back again. Aware of the
privilege of having the cave to myself, l felt like the center of the
universe. My mouth was actually inhaling the cave, all of it, and
breathing it out again. The cave contracted and expanded with my
rhythms, and shimmered on its way back and forth. l made a pact with the
cave: it would tell me some of its secrets in ex-
change for my rituals, rituals that it had not seen for millennia. l in
turn would learn some secrets now and some later—l had only to listen,
to keep in touch.
The first stalagmite chamber to the front and left of the great hall
provided a natural altar, as it was elevated a few feet above the floor
and in clear view from any point in the hall. ln the center of the altar
stood a stalagmite the size of a large Mother Goddess. Full—figured, she
endured, frozen through the ages but still in charge. In front of Her
and facing the great hall was a sloping stalagmite the height of a
table; behind Her, concealed from sight, a small chamber divided into
threes: a hidden sacristy.
We poked around in the ground outside the cave, the sun warm on our
backs. Anne said, “I was in touch with myself today in a way that I have
not been for a long time.” On the way back down, we spent time in the
deserted village, abandoned, we guessed, for lack of water. But
here again was magic; on a back path we found a pomegranate tree in full
bloom. The vineyards originally cultivated by Humac villagers are still
harvested for their grapes and the fields for their lavender, which was
in bloom. The houses, made
from fieldstones piled one on top of the other without mortar, grew as
if molded from the earth.
Everything was in harmony. We continued to come down with our physical
bodies, but our spirits were still high up there.
Note: After this day, and with encouragement from the
natives of Hvar Island, we located Professor Novak. Again by word of
mouth, we found his house in the town , Hvar. He graciously allowed us
to visit his observatory, which he showed us with pride, and the visit
ended with gifts of shards and shells from the cave. Among scores of
artifacts, mostly bowls, removed from the cave or reconstructed from
shards, there were two chalices in Professor Novak’s observatory that
were of particular interest to me. Identically shaped, their form was so
non-functional that they must have been used for ritual purposes. They
appeared to be very special; seeing them was like seeing tangible proof
of an ancient secret. I struggled to get a photograph through the glass
case. Chalices of this type are referred to by Gimbutas as wine cups
with phallus stem bases, used when the Goddess of Vegetation was born. .
.[when] ”caves were used as sanctuaries, particularly those with
stalagmites and stalactites.” (Gimbutas notes that quartz caves were
particularly selected to be sanctuaries).
*Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe
3500/Myths, Legends and Cult Images (Berkeley:
California Press, 1974), p. 27.
originally published in Heresies #5 (1979)