In symbolism, there is often a manmade and naturally occurring equivalent. The tunnel is the manmade version of a cave, the sewer a sea (littoral) cave.
- The pool is the manmade equivalent of a pond. This symbolism is utilised by Helen Simpson in her short story “Up At A Villa“.
- The atrium is the manmade equivalent of Heaven / sky.
- The cathedral is a manmade attempt at a forest. (So is a barn, e.g. in Charlotte’s Web.)
- The cauldron is the manmade, utilitarian equivalent of a woman’s womb.
- This is a bit different again, since both rugs and gardens are manmade, but the Persian rug symbolises a garden. (Check our my post on heterotopias.)
The list goes on, but you get the idea.
Basically, caves and tunnels recreate darkness and night-time, so naturally inherit much of the symbolism of black, darkness and night. Other associations:
- secret, hidden space
- the universe
- the human mind, especially the unconscious and subconscious
- the womb of Mother Earth (the vagina would then be the entrance)
- mothers in general, fertility
- resurrection and rebirth (the Easter Bible story)
- place of initiation
- place of earthly energy
- the primitive part of the self, or where Self meets Ego
- the heart and centre (especially in Hindu tradition, where Atma is seated)
- a liminal space where the divine meets the human
- a place of refuge (especially robbers)
- primitive shelter
- where gnomes and monsters live
- where failed mothers hide in shame (e.g. Lamia, wicked cannibalistic fairy-ancestor of Greek myth)
In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where people literally believe their villages and families comprise multitudes of witches, even babies aren’t safe. This is apparently because witch mothers take their babies to the cave at Owia Stone:
[Witch mothers] go to the stone, and file their teeth and when they see that they are sharp, then they know that the child is ready. They can eat people now … kill people … destroy people. From the time they are babies they are prepared …. Now many of the little children — they are witches. But you can’t tell ….
Bad things happen in caves! Equally, though, to enter a cave can symbolise entering the womb, or somehow returning to one’s beginnings. Safety, not danger.
Passing through a cave can symbolise overcoming some kind of dangerous obstacle, leading to rebirth and anagnorisis.
In Native American tradition, a series of caves one above the over symbolises the different worlds.
In Celtic tradition the cave is the portal to another world. In the music video below, the tunnel is also used as a portal to a person’s emotional landscape.
In China the cave is the feminine, the yin, and the gate to the Underworld.
According to Jewish thought, Obadiah is supposed to have received the gift of prophecy for having hidden the “hundred prophets” from the persecution of Jezebel. He hid the prophets in two caves, so that if those in one cave should be discovered those in the other might yet escape.
The Allegory of the Cave is a Platonic story in which Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Also known as Plato’s Cave.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates, Plato, and several of their fellows debate the nature of ideal government. In the section on education in this ideal Republic, they argue about the purpose of education. As part of Socrates’ argument, the discussion veers into an allegory in which human existence is being trapped in a cave of ignorance, chained in place and unable to view anything except shadows cast on the wall. Some of those shadows are vague outlines of actual unseen truths beyond the perception of the senses; others are false images deliberately designed to mislead the cave-dwellers, keeping them content and unquestioning. The purpose of education becomes freeing the imprisoned human and forcing him to leave the cave, to look at the actual objects that make the shadows. Cf. Platonic Forms.
While reading Plato’s cave as an allegory of education is a common interpretation, some philosophers (especially medieval readers) often took a more mystical approach to the Greek text, interpreting the cave as the material or physical world, while the shadows were mere outline of a greater spiritual truths–hidden and eternal beyond the physical world. C. S. Lewis coopts this idea in The Last Battle, in which the characters discover after death that Narnia has merely been a crude approximation of heaven, and the further they travel in the “onion ring,” the larger and more beautiful and more true the inner rings become.Literary Terms and Definitions
The cave has unambiguous sexual connotations, associated with an historically taboo part of cis women’s bodies. (Sea caves even more so.)
“You know how you feel when someone whispers to you that so-and-so is ill and you say, ‘Too bad,’ and ask what the matter is and they whisper ‘Women’s troubles’? You never pursue it. You have this vague sense of oozings and drippings, blood that insists on pouring out of assorted holes, organs that drip down with all the other goo and try to depart, breasts that get saggy or lumpy and sometimes have to be cut off. Above all there is the sense of a rank cave that never gets fresh air, dark and smelly, its floor a foot thick with sticky disgusting mulch. Yes.”Marilyn French, The Women’s Room
The sirens in the painting below are presented to us as sexual objects. Here’s the thing about femme mythical creatures: They spend part of their history as formidable, then eventually are ‘tamed’ and rendered useful by artists and storytellers who sap their powers by presenting them as consumables.
That said, I don’t think the dangerous side of sirens has been forgotten entirely. It lurks within our collective psyche. These sirens may be presented as helpless, highly sexualised objects, but there’s something dangerous and troubling happening in the background. Where there are sirens there is trouble. Using sexuality, they are supposed to lure sailors to their deaths.
The painting below shows the Greek god Vulcan hiding in a cave. Vulcan was the only ugly god, which was a real problem because even his mother couldn’t love him. Juno kicked him off Mount Olympus. (In her defence, he did have a bright red face and cried constantly.) He fell for an entire day and night and eventually landed in water. This broke Vulcan’s legs. Fortunately for him, sea nymphs found him. They raised him. According to the painting below, he might’ve lived in a sea cave. When he grew up, Vulcan tricked his mum into sitting in a jewelled chair. This chair wouldn’t let her go, and Juno was mad as hell. Jupiter persuaded Vulcan to let her go. If he let his mum get out of the damn chair, he’d get beautiful Venus as a gift. So here’s Venus, visiting Vulcan in his cave. They didn’t live happily ever after in this cave, by the way. Vulcan returned to Mount Olympus. He had a beautiful wife now, so she compensated for his ugliness.
Australian Aboriginal culture also features a fearsome woman in a cave. She is similar to the Greek Lamia but has sharp teeth and cannibalises her lovers (in common with some spiders). She is a figure from a series of Aboriginal cautionary tales. These tales were designed to prevent young men from too much sexual adventure. (Others were the Mungga-Mungaa and the Abuba.)
Tunnels inherit much of the symbolism attributed to caves but, on top of that, tunnels signify focus. Sometimes the dominant culture feels someone has too much focus. We call that tunnel vision. In that case the word ‘monotropism‘ is often applied to people with autistic phenotypes.
A monotropic mind is one that focuses its attention on a small number of interests at any time, tending to miss things outside of this attention tunnel.Wikipedia
Tunnels, more than caves, are also thought to lead somewhere. tl;dr: Nowhere good. In stories they are often a kind of portal.
Hayao Miyazaki features many caves in his anime. I’ve written about tunnels in Totoro and Ponyo. Tunnels feature large in Japanese superstition. Until quite recently women were not meant to enter tunnels. Naturally, this restricted women to their local areas, since Japan is a mountainous country. The superstition is based on the misogynist notion that women are jealous by nature:
According to the superstition, the god of a mountain is a jealous woman who will cause accidents if a woman enters the construction site of a tunnel.Bucking superstition, Japanese woman tunnels way to top of civil-engineering world, The Japan Times
Canadian author Alice Munro makes use of tunnel as a kind of portal in her short story “Powers“. This is an excellent example of speculative fiction with grounding in the real world. (The supernatural powers are probably no such thing… but could be.) The tunnel is therefore a good choice of fantasy portal because tunnels exist in real life and a tunnel could be just a tunnel.
Sea caves are especially scary because the tide sends water rushing in. You don’t want to hang around for too long inside a sea cave. If you get disorientated due to utter darkness you might end up drowned. This puts a natural ticking clock storytelling device on narratives featuring caves by the sea.
Sewer as City Sea Cave
In the realm of the city, the sewer is the manmade symbolic equivalent of the sea cave.
The snail under the leaf setting is an appealing horror setting, epitomised by comfortable suburbs. The definition of an snail under the leaf setting is ‘something rotten lurks beneath the surface’. Sewers epitomise that feeling of dread. Rats are the animal most closely associated with sewers. (Though turtles may have stepped into that mental picture for kids of the 80s and 90s.)
Header painting: William Shayer Senior – Scene Near Zeldkirch in the Tyrol