Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cave Woman

Day three of my one hundred day blogging challenge and I’m faced with what I knew would happen, but I was hoping a bit further on up the road. I’m pooped. I don’t want to write. I spent my morning into my afternoon on top of a mountain, deep in the belly of a cave, in a sanctuary of the nymphs....and this was tiring!

But it begs an explanation.

The belly of a cave is something like the skin of a toad. One has the impression that by staring at it long enough it will start rising and falling like a lung. The earth is soft, slightly catching the heel of my shoe as I walk. It’s cool, shadowy, secretive, and crawling deeper inside, I feel pressure starting to leave me and am sinking quietly into a world that is both primordially familiar and at the same time completely alien. It is like walking in meditation. I make out faces and figures in the crystalline walls of rock. They are expectant, old, watchful, and I find myself composing myself the way I do when I’m in someone else’s house; polite and slightly timid, very careful not to offend.
“Do you mind if I touch a stalactite?”
“Would it be alright if I go a bit deeper in? Or would you rather I stop here?”

And in this gentle, slow introduction, I now know about myself that one of my supreme, most pleasurable places to be in the world is inside of a cave. This revelation has only come about by meeting Tasos, or “Ikarios” (Icharus) as I thought his name was based on his email address which he gave himself in a similar manner to my naming myself “banzai aphrodite,” out of deep respect for mythology. Sometimes we mistakenly address each other by our handles.

I met Tasos when I took my mother and her two delightful friends, Gail and Donna, for their “mystical’ day of touring Athens last Spring. Not many tourists have ever been to Pendeli Mountain, and even fewer have been inside of the strange and eerie cave of Davelis where there is a 7th century church built into the rock, a shrine of the nature god Pan deep within a hole, several mysterious occurrences and, of course, the legend of the Greek Brigand, Davelis, for who the cave was possibly named.

But “Davelis” can also mean “devil,” and the god, Pan, who is deeply entwined with nature, mischief, sex, and the dark, feminine nature of the cave, that early Christians used his goatly visage and character to personify evil. In other words, evil is that which is natural and difficult to understand. Pan represents the parts of ourselves that are tied to the earth and maybe a bit wild and untamed. I think Pan is a good god to remind us that we are, in part, animal.

Mom, Gail and Donna were completely enamoured with the fairytale churches of St. Spyridon and St. Nicholas. When I had visited alone to scout the area, the door of the churches had been wide open, so my stomach sunk when I saw the entrance shut tight, sealed with a heavy iron door. Pulled once, twice...what a time to lose face. In front of your mother and her friends?

We were not alone on the site. There were some loud boys to our left and one lone figure standing off to the side, who I approached and asked in broken Greek if he knew whether the church was closed today.

This lone figure is Tasos, our hero of the story, who has been coming to Pendeli for twenty years as her guardian spirit, patrolling the area and thwarting the efforts of those who would do her harm. The loud boys to our left had provoked him to closing the heavy iron door himself in an effort to discourage them from entering. He told me that he thought the boys would be leaving soon and we could go inside. He even pulled open the mighty door.

When he recognized us as friends of the cave and eager students, he happily began showing us her secrets. Strange carvings on the side, dated all the way back to medieval times. A tiny hole where you crawl on your hands and knees until the room opens and there is an underground lake. This is where the sanctuary to Pan and his nymphs existed in ancient times.
The more he showed us, the more excited he became, and it was through him that we learned the other huge importance of this area. This very side of the mountain was where the ancients cut the marble and painstakingly maneuvered it down to Athens to build the temples of the Acropolis.

As we drove away I said to George, “How am I going to remember these stories so I can tell them?”
“You’re not going to tell them. He is.”

So one year later, we’ve pulled Tasos, “Ikarios” into the fold of our little team as our mountain guide. The last three weeks we have been journeying with him deep into the three mountains surrounding Athens, Parnitha, Hymettos, and Pendeli, judging whether a trail is friendly or a bit abrasive, scouting out ideal places to sit and gape, eyeing the Attica landscape up and down, drinking it in, cool, clear and straight from the source (which can also be experienced. When is the last time you fearlessly cupped your hand into natural water and drank? Would you doubt it couldn’t be done on a mountain sacred to the nymphs?) He's excited to show the mountains to Americans, and bristles when he remarks that it's shameful that they have more respect for the stories and the places than the Greeks himself.

"The Greeks they just look at this mountain and say, why would I want to climb up there. I have a car. Or, Pendeli Mountain, bah. You haven't seen Mount Olympus."

You can see that it physically hurts him when people talk so flippantly about nature, especially Pendeli, which holds a special place in his heart. When the fires burned down one side of it last summer, we didn't hear from him at all. He had sunk into a dark place and was not to be seen or heard from until he had come to the "acceptance" stage of his grieving. In a way, Tasos belongs in this world like wild birds belong in shopping malls.

Today we started low and walked the original, ancient road that was used by the quarry men to roll down the marble for the Acropolis and Temple of Zeus. We saw statues left in the rough, abandoned for unknown reasons, past the sad, spoils of the burned forest from the fires of last summer and the summer before, but lit up with the signs of new life.

Tasos grabbed my leg at one point. “Careful! Look down...” and I saw that below my raised foot was the delicate head of an infant pine tree, shooting from the earth and determined to grow.
Other reasons to step lightly included a baby turtle, lost in a forest of weeds, and a decadent spread of wildflowers in such a wide range of colors, so strange in the shapes of their petals... I think of the pathetic little daisies I’ve drawn a million times and I’m ashamed I called them “flowers.” They are such complicated things, unique and thorny...there’s nothing friendly about a flower. Or at least not these flowers. Not frail, either, when you look at their scorched surroundings. All the same, a pity to stomp on them in all of their effort to bring beauty into the world.

A few motorcycles roared past on the trail above and George, Tasos and I hid behind a hill to protect ourselves from the dust. We spent a few minutes imagining all the ways we could make hell for them in the future, including investing in the rental of a tractor to position boulders in their path, but in the end I firmly believe nature will be the victor in this saga. Eventually we will be reduced to memory through our artifacts, but the flowers will always grow.

The medieval chapels of St. Spyridon and St. Nicholas

See this tiny little place where I'm shining the light? Can you imagine there's a hole in there leading to what was once an underground lake and sanctuary to Pan?

Well believe it. Here's me coming out.

This is inside a cave without a roof, a sanctuary to the nymphs that stayed perfectly preserved until the late 19oo's when digging in the area revealed the place in it's entirety.
Parts of the original cave are here in the open air, but it's nestled, hidden, green. You suspect fairies to come out and start talking to you at any moment.
Did you imagine they start so small?