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The Cave - Womb

An ascent to the womb of the great mother goddess

We are going to dedicate this day to a unique adventure. Perperikon was the centre of a mysterious culture that might be called "civilization of the rock people". Apart from it, hundreds of rock-hewn sites have been discovered along the middle course of The Arda and the surrounding area. These are rock tombs of Thracian rulers, deceased millennia ago, and complexes of rock niches made at incredible elevation. Scientists have not comprehensively explained their function yet, but they seem likely to be related to the Sun cult. Along with the latter, the archaeologists discovered magnificent temples, which make our notion of the belief of the ancient Rhodopean Thracians complete.

Once again we are driving from Zlatograd to Kardzhali. This time we are heading northwest, past the exceptionally beautiful Kardzhali reservoir. Today an asphalt road leads to the Borovitsa mountain hostel, which is 20 kilometres away. The ruins of a medieval fortress, perched above the remains of a Thracian rock shrine, tower above it. Following the course of the big Arda tributary, the Borovitsa, each turn reveals niche ensembles, hewn in the cliffs. This is the place, where a sheer path starts, leading to the top of a high plateau. A few years ago a significant Thracian shrine, relating to the feminine principle and the notion of fertility, was discovered immediately beneath the crest. This is the Temple of the Mother Goddess.

Classical authors laconically mention the existence of mysterious womb-caves. According to them, in the interior of the Great Mountains in Thrace, there are temples where the symbolic sexual intercourse of the King - High Priest and Great Mother Goddess takes place. From a general philosophical point of view, this is the fusion of Heaven and Earth. That was precisely the type of the cave in the desert-like spot, unknown to science before, named by people from the vicinity "Tangardak Kaya" (The Thunder Cliff). We later discovered that it owed its name to the odd acoustic effect inside. At a certain spot the deep-toned male voices resound, echoing far in the surrounding rock massifs.

Nature has "done its best" to hide the entrance to the cave from human eyes. It is in a vertical rock crevice immediately under the peak of the plateau. Today it takes a lot of effort to climb the sheer rock, but the holes that supported a wooden staircase can still be seen. There are several trapezoidal niches round the opening. The place is waterless, but right at the foot of the cave there are some small springlets.

At the very moment of entering, one gets this long-forgotten feeling from the time of birth. The entrance and the entire interior reproduce female genitals and a whole womb anatomically. The crevice has a horizontal floor, which is precisely oriented from north to south with the opening in the south end. The rock walls are covered by dark-brown moss constantly humid with the underground water, trickling down. Expert-speleologist research showed that down to 16 m the cave is a natural karst formation. The pickaxes and the chisels of the ancient builders extended it to 22 m. And it was there, in the northernmost part, that they hewed the semi-circular niche for the holy altar.

Our investigation confirmed that this direction was carefully selected because of the crucial role it played in the mysterious rituals, performed inside. On the very ceiling of the cave a narrow 'chink' with the same direction was cut. So long as the crevice is located just under the plateau surface, the sky can be seen through it. It is exactly at noon that, on its way from the east to the west, the Sun passes above the chink and its rays project an enormous luminous phallus, oriented towards the dark inside, upon the cave's floor. By way of some additional cutting of the opening, the builders achieved a truly realistic shape of the sun ray projection. In different seasons the length of the ray varies because of the different height of the day-star's path. The phallus reaches its greatest length in winter, between January and March, when the Sun is at its lowest above the horizon. And only during a short period it gets 22 m long, thus penetrating into the altar niche, the symbolic uterus in the womb of the Great Mother Goddess.

The cult of caves must have existed as early as the Stone - Copper Age and the numerous clay figurines, found at different places, testify to that. There are plenty of natural and artificial caves in the Eastern Rhodopes. The ones in the vicinity of Raven village (Momchilgrad region) are noteworthy, and among them the site in In Kaya place stands out. And the Yagodinska cave in the Western Rhodopes was inhabited since prehistoric times. However, the cave in Tangardak Kaya place is entirely different. The ritual that was performed there long ago gives meaning to the overall theory of Thracian religion. It is quite likely that the rites of the symbolic death and rebirth of the Thracian ruler used to take place at this very spot.

As ancient Indo-Iranian tradition has it, the king, like Nature herself, periodically dies and is born again. In order to do so, he had to climb high in the mountain. There, the Ruler-High Priest offered a human or a big animal sacrifice, thus representing his own death. Then he symbolically got married to the Great Mother Goddess, fertilized her and came back to life again, together with the entire surrounding world. That is how the notion was created of the lover-son, born by the Great Mother Goddess and having intercourse with her in the uterus, i.e. the cave. This ritual was particularly well described by the Late-Roman writer Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius in his "Saturnalia". He was also the author who best depicted the sacred rites in the major shrine to Dionysus in Perperikon, the Rhodopes.

It only requires an elementary calculation to understand that these rites must have taken place in January and February, when the New Year was thought to start by the people of Antiquity. They considered this period to be the start of Nature's revival, carried out by the spring. And it is exactly during this time of the year that the sun-ray phallus, projected on the floor cave, reaches its maximum length.

The data gathered from the womb-cave, which was found in the Rhodopes, has been confirmed by certain observations on old-time folklore. There is a peculiar cult that has been preserved in the mountain recesses of the Strandzha. As popular belief has it, St. Marina (St. Margaret of the Pisidian Antioch in the western tradition) dwells a womb-cave with water trickling down its walls, a symbol of penetrating sperm. And Marina herself was conceived after her infertile mother had prayed to the Sun, seeking help. On this occasion, lasses and lads summon in the cave once a year to take part in the mystery of conception.

One cannot escape from the analogy with the promiscuity of Thracian girls, described even by Herodotus. On certain days they would copulate indiscriminately with the men. Later, in his tragedy, "Bacchae", Euripides depicts the orgies in honor of Dionysus, which used to take place in precisely the same kind of caves with trickling water-sperm, symbolizing the womb of the Great Mother Goddess. Let us consider folk belief again - or rather the "kuker" (traditional Bulgarian mummers) custom. In Strandzha region, St. Marina is associated with the so-called "kuker without a mask", who ploughs the land, allegorically fertilizing it, by means of an attached wooden phallus. In such rituals, historians recognize an echo of the ancient notions of the King - High Priest and the Great Mother Goddess. The ritual of the "white kuker", or "kalogeros", on the Greek side of the Rhodopes border is also curious. Its climax is on "Kuker day" at the beginning of February - the start of spring according to folk belief.

The cult of the Great Mother Goddess is known to be professed in the recesses of the Sacred Thracian Mountains. Historical sources point to two such mountains - the Pangeus, which is one of the names of the Rhodopes, and the distant Cogaeonum, mentioned by Strabo as lying northeast, in the lands of the Getae. The two sacred Thracian mountains correspond precisely to the deified ones in Asia Minor -the Ida in Phrygea and the Tmolus in Lydia. It was in the womb-caves of these mountains that the oracles - semi-gods or anthropodaemons -dwelled. In the Rhodopes these gods are considered to be Orpheus and Rhezos, whereas in the Getae sanctuary - Zalmoxis.

In fact the Greek name Pangeus itself means 'all-Earth" and is directly associated with the Great Mother Goddess as one of her bynames. According to Euripides's play "Rhesus", the character of the same name lived in exactly the same cave, or the womb of Pangeus, after his death. It was there that he became an oracle to the Orphic Dionysus. Researchers have come across symbols and inscriptions on precious metal vessels, found somewhere in today's Thrace, meaning "Mountain Mother", "Sun", as well as the name of the king who himself performed the sacrifice rituals, Kotys. Obviously, this hints at the main protagonists, taking part in the sophisticated ritual of the yearly reproduction of Nature. The well known text of Kotys 1st from the Rogozen treasure is quite similar. The Thracian king declares there that he is the son and oracle to the Great Mother Goddess's son - the Sun.

All these facts support the idea that the cult of the Great Mother Goddess was established even in the most remote past. As everything in Thracian religion, it has its origins in the mountainous regions, particularly the Rhodopes. It was only natural that tribute to the Mountain Mother should be paid in a megalith shrine, hewn in the rocky recesses. On the plateau above Tangardak Kaya place, traces of a dwelling have been found - unfortunately, destroyed to a large extent by treasure-hunters. It existed after the Late Bronze age, most likely servicing the shrine to the Great Mother Goddess and giving shelter to the numerous pilgrims.


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