The Cave of the Centaur

© 1997, John Opsopaus

[This report was written in the fall of 1997 after a visit to sacred sites in Greece.]

As you requested, I did some checking on centaurs during my recent trip to Greece. I found out much more than I expected. I'm sorry it has taken me so long to write it down, but I've had to sort through my notes and make sense out of what happened.

When I got to Athens I called a contact I had been given; he goes by the name "Skorpios" on the Internet. I walked through the busy Plaka to the corner of Hermes and Athena Streets, where we had arranged to meet. Soon a serious-looking young man in his 20s approached, walking quickly with a lurching roll, which I attributed to leg braces. "Iyia, my friend," he said abruptly (I recognized the modern Greek form of the ancient Pythagorean greeting). "Let's go where we can talk." He flagged one of the cabs (most of which seemed uninterested in stopping for us) and shouted and gestured at the cabby. We roared off and careened through a sea of cars, in which jubilant Athenians honked horns and waved flags, because earlier that evening (Sep. 5) they had learned that they would host the 2004 Olympics.

After paying the cabby, Skorpios led me up a rather seedy looking street (I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten into) and turned into a tiny alley filled with tables. This was the restaurant. Only the kitchen was indoors; everyone ate in the alley. We squeezed between the celebrating Athenians and wedged ourselves around a tiny table. The waiter came and after a few animated words with Skorpios, threw the blank order pad on the table in front of him. That was fine with Skorpios; he filled in his favorite dishes and handed it back to the waiter next time he passed. I don't know what he ordered, which is probably just as well. I was enjoying some spicy sausages, when he pointed at them and said, "bulls' balls."

Our conversation was somewhat chaotic, following Skorpios' serpentine stream of consciousness. Here are some snippets:

"These beastly legs are my karma. I did some very bad things in my last life. You know I found an altar to Pan in the woods on Mt. Lykaion; I made a blood sacrifice and met him there. Now I know my task for this life."

"We Greeks have forgotten the ancient ways! All this," sweeping his arm to indicate Athens, "is just a way of getting tourist money." He was getting vehement. "We shit on the altars! I'm telling you we do!" He was almost in tears.

"But one of my Cabirian Brothers is very high up in the church; they don't even know he's one of us. We invoked Eris and now they are in chaos, fighting each other for money. They make their own reality."

"You are 4=7, right?" he asked with no explanation. I wasn't sure what I should say, so I shrugged and he seemed to accept that for an answer. I quickly turned the conversation to centaurs. Soon Skorpios was off and running.

"Cheiron learned his arts from Apollo and Artemis, the secrets of the sun and moon, you see? You know there are two centaurs in the sky; he put Sagittarius there to show the way to the golden fleece.

"Cheiron was so wise because he combined the best of man and beast. This is higher than the alchemical union of male and female, because it unites animal vitality with human wisdom and compassion: a human head and heart united with a stallion's libido! This union will come in the new aeon, a revolution in heaven as well as earth. That's why Uncle Al" (he means Aleister Crowley) "called it 'lust'. He knew these things; too bad he was so fucked up! Remember this about Cheiron: to grasp him you must embrace his body as well as his mind!

"This is also why Cheiron is the vehicle for Faust to meet Manto, his Soror Mystica; Cheiron is always moving, circulating, but Manto is motionless; they unite the opposites, you see?

"Manto was the Thessalian Sibyl, the psychopompos who initiated Faust into the mysteries of Persephone in the underworld, so he could complete the mystical union with Helene. She leads him to the world axis where sun and moon stand still. Goethe wanted to tell what he knew about the mysteries, but he could not, so he wrote about them under a veil. So he tells us about Homunculus, a fiery spirit looking for a body. He follows that nymph, Galatea, on the shell of Aphrodite, and they submerge in the salt sea. It's the alchemical union of fire and water by Eros, right? All life comes from the sea! Goethe was a good alchemist! Let him be your guide!"

I showed Skorpios a photo of the centaur skeleton and told him what we know and suspect. He became very excited and said, "You must go to the centaur's cave. Not the big one at the foot of Pelion; that is garbage. And not to Cheiron's cave between Pelion's peaks. Go to the cave near Anilio on the east face. It's not so high as Cheiron's cave; you will have to climb down to it. The bastards keep it locked now. You will have to get the key from the museum in Anakasia. You must find the kleidouchos, the key holder, of the cave. Don't mention my name or you will never get it. Here, Skorpios will help you find the centaur." He began writing directions on a napkin.

By the time he was done, it was well after midnight so we paid our bill and squeezed back out through the alley. Skorpios snared a cab to get me home (he lives near the restaurant).

I thanked Skorpios for his help and he replied, "Good luck in Volos. You know, that is the place where wild Eris came to the wedding of Thetis of the silver feet." Then he shouted, "Hail Eris!" which made me shudder. As I climbed into the taxi he wagged his finger at me: "Never forget to invite Eris!"

I think she was not far away, since I had another hair-raising cab ride through downtown Athens, this time with a cabby who swerved to try to hit every dog that ventured near the street!

Although my visit with Skorpios had left my head spinning, the next day I rented a little Fiat and drove up the coastal highway to Volos. As soon as I was settled in my room I called the Theophilos Museum in Anakasia and tried to make them understand that I wanted to get the key for the Anilio cave. After being passed from one non-English speaker to another, a woman named Alexandra came on the phone and she understood what I was asking,

"You will have to make application to visit the cave," she explained. "How long will that take?" I asked.

"One week, maybe two."

"That's no good," I said, "I must leave for Mykonos the day after tomorrow."

"It is impossible then; I'm sorry."

"But I have come all the way from Tennessee to see this cave," I pleaded. "Have you heard about the centaur skeleton at the University of Tennessee?"

There was a moment of silence, and she said, "Be at the museum by 2 o'clock," and hung up. It was already 1:30, so I jumped in the Fiat and screamed up the road that winds northeast from Volos to Anakasia.

When I got to the museum I had to run the gauntlet of guards and others who couldn't understand me. I didn't have much luck explaining what I wanted, so I kept asking for Alexandra. Eventually they took me back to her office and I said that I was the one who had called. I handed her my business card (hoping she wouldn't notice that it had nothing to do with archaeology), and she led me to the director's office. He glanced at my card and handed it back to her while they spoke in Greek. It didn't look promising.

He turned to me. "Why do you want to go in this cave? There is nothing for the public."

"Because it's said to be a centaur cave and I have a special interest in centaurs. You know, there is a centaur skeleton at the University of Tennessee," I said.

"Yes, I know of that hoax!" he laughed.

"Yes," I laughed along with him, "it's a rather silly joke, but I still would like to visit the cave." Impulsively I added, "A*** said I should see it."

He stopped laughing and stared at me for a moment; then he wrote two phone numbers on a slip of paper while he spoke to Alexandra. She moved to lead me out, but I asked, "What about the application?"

"No application is necessary," he said without looking up from his papers.

It turned out that the first number was for a certain Dr. Mavrogenous, who would show me the cave, and the second was for her friend, where she was often to be found after 4 PM. There was no answer at the first number, and the man who answered at the second knew no English and couldn't comprehend my attempts at Greek. But I said "Mavrogenous" often enough that he got the idea and put Mavrogenous on. Fortunately she spoke some English, and I said the director had told me that she could take me to the cave; I judge she had already heard this from the director himself, because she said, "Be at the Antiquities Office at 10 tomorrow morning."

When I arrived at the office the next day I found it deserted but for a young woman, in khaki shorts and shirt, wandering among the ruins and spraying something - an herbicide? protection for the stones? - from a spray bottle. She looked up at me and said, "Five minutes!" so I sat down while she finished her rounds.

When she was done she disappeared into the office and returned with a flashlight; she waved me toward her car. She offered her hand and said, "I am Manto Mavrogenous." She must have seen my startled expression, because she explained, "Yes, I was named for the Greek patriot; she was a pirate, you know." I haven't a clue who she was talking about! But I noticed that her left boot had a brass frame over it, some sort of brace I suppose.

As we drove away she asked, "Do you have a light?" and I admitted I didn't, so she stopped in front of small store and said, "Go get a light and batteries." Thus equipped we roared up the narrow, winding road that ascends Pelion's western face.

I thanked Manto for being my guide and told about my difficulties finding the key holder of the cave. "You grasp beyond your reach; that is good," she commented enigmatically. When I pulled out the photo of the centaur skeleton and showed it to her, she went pale and said, "I have heard of this thing."

Soon we left the olive groves and fruit orchards behind, as Mediterranean plants yielded to mountain varieties, and we entered forests of pine, cypress, and plane, interrupted by magnificent views of Volos Bay. Eventually we cleared Hania Pass and began careening down the wildly twisting road that descends Pelion's steep eastern face. Now extraordinary views of the Aegean Sea alternated with dense forests of beech and chestnut.

We came to the hamlet with the forbidding name Anilio (Sunless), which is perched on the side of a crevasse of breathtaking depth, and Manto turned onto a narrow road - hardly more than a bridle path - that wound down the face of the mountain into an impenetrable forest. She parked at an unmarked place and we climbed out. She remotely armed her car alarm, which seemed anachronistic and redundant in this wilderness.

We picked our way down the steep, rocky slope, Manto going ahead and showing me step by step where to place my feet. Soon we were deep in the dense woods: mostly beech and chestnut, but also plane, oak and cypress. We frequently encountered rippling brooklets and splashing waterfalls. The forest's damp, cool, quiet twilight made it seem an alien environment far from the clear, bright Mediterranean sky. Manto stopped from time to time, looking ahead, as though gathering her strength, or perhaps praying.

We seemed utterly alone on earth, yet Manto stopped by a low, flat stone, pulled a small package from her backpack, unwrapped a piece of baklava and placed it on the stone. Although I watched without comment, she explained, "I always bring a gift for Pamphile, the old woman in these woods."

Manto swept her arm around. "This is the Forest of the Pheres. That is the old Thessalian name for centaurs. It is said they lived here before they were driven off to Mt. Pindos."

It was high noon and getting warm when we came to a spring running from a crack in the rocks. Manto washed her face and arms in it and suggested I do the same. In fact, as I recall now, she was quite insistent about it. However, I needed little encouragement and the water was exceptionally revitalizing.

Just beyond the spring we came to a small clearing, bathed in sunlight, in which an ancient fig tree grew from a cleft in the rocks. "This is it," she announced, "the Cave of the Pheres."

I looked into the pit between the rocks. Behind the gnarled trunk of the fig was the mouth of the cave, which was closed by a rusty iron gate. I watched from above as Manto climbed into the pit and pulled the key from her pocket. It was much larger than I expected - about 6" long - and looked very old. Before she put it in the lock she did an odd thing; she stamped her brass boot three times!

Manto seemed to be struggling with the key and after a few minutes climbed out and handed it to me. "Please, you must unlock the gate; it must be your dynamis" (strength?). That was OK with me, so I took the key and saw immediately how unusual it was. It had two obliquely intersecting rings for its wards. She watched me inspect it and asked, "Do you know the Timaeus?" I said, "Not well," and she smiled but said no more.

I climbed into the pit, fit the key into the lock, and turned it quite easily, although it made a scraping sound. I was surprised Manto had experienced so much trouble, but perhaps she got it in crooked.

I pushed the gate open and looked up to her for guidance, but she said, "Go ahead; take the key with you." I took it from the gate and stepped into the twilight of the cave mouth. A moment later Manto joined me.

Just inside was a large stone carved with a Gorgon, presumably for protection. Manto surreptitiously slipped something under its edge. An offering? On the floor I noticed many roots and sprigs of herbs, some quite fresh, apparently put through the gate as offerings.

With Manto leading the way, we made our way past the Gorgon into the depths. Although our flashlights were on, the dark was oppressive, and I could not help thinking that I was descending into the maw of Orcus.

The floor was littered with pot shards and figurines, and even I could tell that they dated to every period from the neolithic, through the Mycenaean, up to the Hellenistic and Roman. In an open area there were modern (but not recent) excavations in the floor, and I wondered if this was the place where the skeleton was found. The size seemed about right.

Then Manto retreated to a dark corner, leaving me to explore on my own. Further back in the cave, as I turned the flashlight toward the right-hand wall, I saw painted images of centaurs that reminded me of the cave paintings in Les Trois Freres.

When I turned my flashlight to the left, my hair stood on end as the light revealed a large double stalactite reaching to the floor. It made such a perfect, life-sized image of a centaur that one might believe that here Cheiron had met the Gorgon Medusa. It even had a crystalline phallus. The stalagmites around the centaur's feet were smooth from the touch of the hands of a thousand generations.

In front of the image a circular hole was broken through the 3 cm. thick crystalline floor; it exposed a deep well filled to the brim with water of perfect transparency. I could not look in it for long, because its great depth made me dizzy. Bestial faces seemed to glare from the depths!

I was a bit disoriented when Manto came, and led me down into a deeper part of the cavern. "This place is for the Three: Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate," she whispered. There was a sudden blaze of light in our flashlight beams: a shining tripod, made of gold I suppose. In its basin was a fat candle, which Manto lit, and soon strange fragrances filled the air. I remember her saying, "Look through the smoke," which swirled into almost recognizable shapes. I thought I heard her say, "Take the key. Strike the tripod of fire." I remember hearing it ring with a strange tone, but that is all.

I must have been overcome by the fumes in the closeness of the cave, as my recollections are very confused. I remember waking up and finding a cloth over my head. I think I tried to pull it off, but someone stopped m, and I thought I heard Manto say something about a veil protecting me from the Gorgon. The first clear thing I remember is lying on the cave floor with Manto watching over me. She helped me to my feet and we made our way back to the mouth of the cave, me in the lead. As I came to the gate she said something in Greek, which sounded like, Teliosate tin ierin teleturyian; apodoste ton sto ieron fos - "Complete the highest ritual; restore him to the sacred light."

I stepped out into the sun, and it was so bright it blinded me. When my eyes had adjusted to the glare, I thought to look back for Manto, but a strange reluctance stopped me from doing so. Soon she was at my side. I looked up out of the pit toward the towering summit of Pelion, which was crowned with snowy cumulus clouds. As I watched, they seemed to take the form of a resplendent queen in her throne. Beside me Manto said, in a hush, "Ixion will be with white-armed Hera tonight."

There is not much more to tell. On the way back I was too confused and overwhelmed to try to talk, and Manto seemed occupied with her own thoughts anyway. The next day I drove back to Athens and caught the 4:50 PM Olympic flight to Mykonos.

I hope this rambling account is of some help. Let me know if you have any further questions about what I learned in Greece.

Best wishes,


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