Is a fascination with what lies underground a universal preoccupation? A positive answer to this question is the underlying message from Will Hunt’s recent book, Underground (Simon and Schuster, 2019) which argues that our relationship with what lies beneath is so tied into our evolution that it has become unconscious and instinctual.
From the oldest of legends and folktales, through millennia of spiritual practices and stories from religions around the world to the evolutionary theories, which some micro-biologists are suggesting today, the nature of the subterranean world and its inhabitants has provided us with some of our longest-lasting mysteries.
The physical world, of natural caves, caverns, tunnels or constructed spaces underground, has often become a sanctuary in times of trouble, a place of safety for the living as well as the dead. Even though caves might be full of traps and dangers, they provided early peoples with shelter. They became depositories for the dead and the scene of rituals which were linked to both the animate community and to those they mourned.
Deep in hidden chambers, people painted animals they depended on for life; sometimes those who hunted them; they patterned walls with dots and lines, spirals and circles and left their handprints stencilled in red ochre.
Neolithic peoples dug out subterranean temples such as the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni in Malta, 3300 – 3000 BC. Piercing the skin of the earth, and burrowing down through three levels, they cut out a sanctuary to contain the remains of more than 7,000 individuals, constructed entirely underground, where halls and chambers interconnect through a labyrinthine series of steps, lintels and doorways. It’s so carefully and smoothly carved, that the walls sometimes appear to be draped with soft curtains; these and the gentle, curves of the apse-like chambers show off the amazing skills of the builders.
In Cappadocia, people of many threatened communities from the 8th century on, sought safety underground, building and extending whole cities capable of sheltering 20,000 people, animals and stores.
These elaborate multi-level burrows contained living and work spaces, meeting places and chapels. Entries could be sealed by rolling a large boulder kept beside the openings over the entrance. Derinkuyu, begun 5000 years ago, became over the centuries a multi-layered town which was 60 metres deep.
A tunnel nine kilometres long linked it to another sprawling, ancient city Kaymakli, which was used off and on by the persecuted until after WW1. During WW2, making underground shelters available was British government policy whether these were Anderson shelters dug into people’s gardens, constructed of sheets of corrugated steel and covered with soil, or vast shelters for thousands, like the one tourists can now visit in South Clapham. And bunkers are still being built as a protection against Armageddon.
It’s hardly surprising that our planet is referred to as Mother Earth when we consider how many species of mammals, birds and insects burrow into the earth and hibernate in holes and caves. Like humans, they have always sought the earth’s protection from danger and for comfort.
But to some, the underground is also a sacred but dangerous dark in which monsters, devils and gods must be confronted; the character of the underworld may be that of Hades or Hell, a creative source of life, or even a fairyland but it needs to be treated with circumspection and respect. Ancient miners frequently built altars in the furthest reaches of their mines to a captious god, who had power of life or death over them.
Caves today may be explored out of a sense of adventure; many have been found by accident and entered impulsively, like the caves at Lascaux by three teenagers. Those which have been known down the ages may be the source and centre of creation myths. Their dark reaches are sought out as the site of spiritual experiences which may transform an individual so that they become one of the wise, a prophet or oracle. Visiting Delphi, years ago, an enthusiastic guide showed us a well like space in the floor which he assured us was the entrance to the oracle’s cave.
Almost all cities, on every continent, are built on ground that is riddled with hollows, caverns, passages and tunnels both natural and constructed. Sometimes the earth gives way and a crater swallows the surface, whether a grassy field, a roadway or the side of a building which is left tilted, turned into a “crooked house”.
Exploration of the underground has become a challenge taking adventurers and cavers deep into the web of lightless pathways under cities from Paris to New York. And though caves and darkness still urge us to be cautious, at the same time they fascinate us and draw us in. Entering the underworld has always been a fraught journey, requiring even a hero to summon up courage as W. H. Auden recognised in his “Three Short Poems” , the second of which is my favourite,
When he looked the cave in the eye,
Had a moment of doubt.