Folklore, History & the Study of Myth

The Writings of Gary R. Varner

Portals to the Underworld

Caves and rock fissures have long figured in folklore as entryways to other worlds—worlds of spirit beings, of different lands and different times. These entryways are portals to other existences. It was in a cave on Mount Mashu that Gilgamesh became the “opener of the way” and crossed the Sea of Death to find Paradise.


The Kawaiisu myth (A Visit to the Underworld) contains an interesting illustration of these portals between worlds. The story tells of a man who entered an opening in a rock to find himself in another world where the spirits of deer killed in the hunt go after death. The story, as reported by Zigmond, says, “the man saw water that was like a window. He could see the mountains through it. But it wasn’t water. He passed through it and did not get wet. When he was outside, he looked back and saw the ‘water’ again.” (1) This individual found himself miles further up a canyon just by stepping through the portal—do we assume this is simply a tale of a shaman’s travels or do we consider that such portals may actually exist between realities? Archaeologist David Whitley, an expert on southwestern rock art, states “caves often served as vision quest locales because shamans believed the supernatural world lay inside or beyond them; the shaman entered the supernatural when the rocks opened up for him. Caves served as portals to the sacred realm.” (2) Whitley goes on to say that because the Indians believed that spirit helpers lived within rocks, caves and mountains, “it seems natural that within this region shamans received their power from rocks and mountains.” (3) Because of this it was the shaman’s quest to enter the rock where the supernatural power originated.
Apache shamans also revered the sacred mountain and caves that lead to other worlds. Morris Opler relates one tale told by an Apache:

“My father is a shaman. …a spirit came to him and told him to go into that mountain (the holy mountain known as Guadalupe Mountain). …When he thought he heard a voice telling him to go into the cliff, he turned around ad started to enter the mountain. The cliff opened like a door.” (4) The shaman entered the cliff and came to another “door” which was a “great rock turning around and around. They call it by a name that means ‘rock that swings around together’”. (5) As the man went through three more rock doors he finally emerged on the outside of the mountain where an ancient man sat who proceeded to instruct the shaman in healing knowledge and religious ceremonies.

Not only caves but cracks and fissures in boulders were thought by the southwestern tribes to be entryways to the supernatural. The snakes and lizards that are seen coming out of these cracks were regarded as messengers between the worlds. When the shaman traversed into the otherworld through the rock surface, or cave, he was able to experience the ancient creation of the universe. He could also visit with the creator.

In many cultures stories of small dwarfish or Faery-like creatures that live in and around rocks are common. In the Great Basin these creatures are called “Rock Babies” and have the ability to pass through rock. Described as looking just like a baby, with short black hair, the Rock Baby is seldom seen and more commonly heard. To see one is to court disaster. Like the Faery the Rock Baby is also capable of stealing human babies and exchanging them for non-human look-alikes.

The Kawaiisu, living in the area around the southern Sierra Nevadas in California and Nevada, call the Rock Baby “uwani azi” which is derive from “uwa uwa” which is said to reflect the sound of a baby crying. Ethnologist Maurice Zigmond reported that the Rock Baby are believed to be responsible for many of the pictographs in the Kawaiisu territory and they are never finished working on them—as indicated by the changing patterns of the rock art. The pictographs of the Rock Baby are characterized by the use of at least five colors rather than the one or two colors used by humans. “Both the Rock Baby and his pictographs are ‘out of bounds’ for people”, says Zigmond, “the paintings may be looked at without danger, but touching them will lead to quick disaster. One who puts his fingers on them and then rubs his eyes will not sleep again but will die in three days.” (6)

Throughout the United States and Mexico rock art drawings or carvings of Rock Baby tracks have been found. As an interesting aside, a set of footprint petroglyphs found in the 1930’s in Kentucky were so convincing that Wilbur Greeley Burroughs, an area geologist, gave them a scientific name of Phenanthropus mirabilis (“looks human remarkable”) thinking that they were the fossilized tracks of an unknown species of human being. (7)

Caves have been regarded as entryways to the Underworld and as linkages to the sacred for thousands of years. It is by no accident that the world’s most beautiful rock art is located in deep caves or that tombs mimic the reality of the cave. Caves are traditionally the homes of the famous Little People—the Menehune of Hawaii, the Faery of Britain and Europe, the Rock Babies of America, all having the same descriptions, characteristics, powers and attitudes. One small cave in Yorkshire, known as the Hob Hole, is said to have been the home of a brownie (i.e. “Hob”) that could cure whooping cough. Local residents used to take their children to the cave seeking the Hob’s help with the following plea:

“Hob-Hole Hob,
My bairn’s gotten t’kink cough,
Tak’t off! Tak’t off!”

In many stories those who successfully enter caves and return are awarded with new talents and skills by the cave Faery—musical skills were the common award but some gained everlasting life if they remained in the land of the Faery. In addition there were those who visited caves not for treasures or newly granted skills but for visions of the future given by oracles. “Sacred caves”, writes Nigel Pennick, “were places of mediums…in the side of the Teck, an ancient Celtic holy mountain in southern Germany, is the Sybillenloch. This cavern was the seat of a benevolent being who gave counsel to local people and made fields and flocks fertile…” (8) Such benevolent beings have been associated with caves up through the 20th century with visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes and the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico among others. The continuation of these sacred sites, and the pilgrimages made to them into modern times speaks of the continuity of Pagan traditions into contemporary Christian theology. These sacred caves are usually also associated with water, which is also a conduit to the underworld and divinity. Healing, such as that obtained at Lourdes and the Dripping Cave at Craigiehowie is a direct link to the sacred through the medium of water. Water is also directly associated with female divinity and the goddess.

Caves are invariably female. They are symbolic of the womb of the Mother Goddess and thereby rebirth and renewal. The creation of stalactites and stalagmites in caves is an examples of, as Terence Meaden says, “the Goddess’s life-waters…creating life pillars of rock from rock—phallic-like forms which became natural pillar shrines to the concentrated, regenerative life process.” (9) When we enter a cave we actually enter the Goddess and may emerge into another world beyond the fabric of our own. In some instances sacred caves are located near other sacred sites that are more obvious. One example is the temple of Athena Polias at the Acropolis in Greece. Built on the site of far earlier temples to the Goddess, Devereux notes that “a sacred cave lies beneath the northern horn (of the eminence of the area which is set out in a horned saddle), and an ancient cairn and a natural rock pillar all add to the sacred symbolism of the place.” (10)

The connection that humans have with the secret and special world of caves is present in many religions. Mircea Eliade wrote “caves are secret retreats, dwellings of the Taoist Immortals and places of initiation. They represent a paradisal world and hence are difficult to enter.” (11)

Caves and other openings into the earth are also associated with the emergence of humankind. Such beliefs are common among American Indian tribes such as the Navajo and the Hopi who believe that The People emerged from a great sipapu—a hole in the roof of the underworld. A large cave discovered under the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan probably also represented an emergence site for the ancient Aztecs. This cave may have been the legendary Chicomoztoc, the sacred cave of emergence of the Aztecs.

Caves were, and still are, used in religious ritual. Among the followers of Mithras (12) the cave was used for worship and initiation purposes. The cave symbolized the “cosmos contained by the vault of heaven” (13) to the members of this mystery religion. While natural caves were available the members would also create caves where the worshippers would gather in groups of around twenty. At times wealthy benefactors would have them constructed. Caves were also, according to Burkert, used for the activities of the Dionysiac cult and “were seen and experienced as a kind of netherworld.” (14)

Religious hermits of all religions, both eastern and western, are often thought to reside in caves where they meditate and receive inspiration and visions. This association has not changed over the thousands of years that mystics and shamans have practiced and speaks of the direct link between sacred caves and the obtainment of enlightenment.

Folklore from around the world and throughout history speaks of caves as time altering places. The folklore of Faeries tells of individuals who are either guests or somehow stumble into the underground Faery land and emerge years later even though time seemed to pass normally in their company. Legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table sleeping in a hidden cave, to be awoken when Britain is in their need, have been told for hundreds of years. Of course Rip Van Winkle is the best known of these stories.
Christian mythology also has its tales of time altering caves. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus was written by the Greek Symeon Metaphrastes (meaning “the Compiler”) in the 10th century. According to Symeon, Decius, a Pagan Emperor who ruled around 250 CE, found seven noble young Christian men and sentenced them to death. The seven men gave their possessions, except for a few coins, to the poor and went into a cave on Mount Anchilos to pray and to prepare for death. When Decius came back for the men he found them asleep in the cave. To simplify things he ordered that the cave be sealed up with the men inside. Over the years the empire turned Christian and one day, approximately 150 years later, a farmer who wanted to use it as a cattle stall unsealed the cave. Once the seal was broken the men awoke. They thought that they had only slept through one day and sent one of the men to the town to buy food. The story tells of his surprise at finding crosses on buildings since when they went to sleep the empire was pagan. The people in the town are amazed at the old coins being offered for food and eventually the Christian emperor Theodosus (who had banned paganism) arrived at the cave to talk to the seven that the populace was claiming as being miraculous men. After the emperor is satisfied that they are as they seem the men die praising God. The emperor wants to build golden tombs for them but in a dream the men tell him that they want to be buried in the cave instead. The emperor has the cave adorned with precious stones and has a church built over it and every year the Feast of the Seven Sleepers is held. The feast is held on the Byzantine Calendar on August 4th and October 22nd. The story has been incorporated not only in the Christian church but in the Koran as well. Various versions of the story appear in German, British, Slav, Indian, Jewish and Chinese traditions as well. Of course the seven noble men have been made Catholic saints as well. (15)

In Brittany, at Plouaret, is a chapel, which has incorporated into its structure the remains of an ancient dolmen. In fact the roof of the chapel is the roof slab of the dolmen. Built in 1702 the chapel is dedicated to the Seven Sleepers and at least through the 19th and early 20th centuries seven dolls of varying sizes were kept near the altar to represent the seven saints. Spence noted that the dolmen, according to local lore, “dates from the creation of the world...built by the hand of the Almighty at the time when the world was in process of formation.” (16)

Caves also house strange creatures, like the Rock Babies and Faeries, that at times prey upon unsuspecting humans. In Sweden is a shallow cave called the Snuvestuan cave. Here lives a creature, which, from the front, appears to be a beautiful girl, but from the back she is hollow with a fox’s tail. She could bring good luck to the hunter or bad depending on the day and would enchant young men so that they could never love a human girl. To break the spell you could either speak the name of Jesus or wear your jacket inside out or your hat front to back.

Australian lore speaks of a mysterious cave situated in a protected valley, near a stream of pure and refreshing water. On the cave’s walls were paintings of strange creatures and also rocks which were shaped like humans and animals. “This spot”, reports folklorist William Smith, “was regarded with much superstition and a great deal of fear. The elders of the tribes around had given strict instructions that no one was to be allowed to camp there, or even to visit the place.” (17) But caves also were the source of life. In the Aborigine creation myth the Great Father Spirit instructs the Mother Goddess to go forth and create life. She does so by awakening the unconscious life forms that had existed deep in the earths caves and caverns even before the creation of the world. The Mother Goddess’s presence, and her warmth (for she is the Sun Goddess as well) in the caves created all forms of life as well as the rivers of the earth. In each cave she visited new forms of life appeared.

Many of the ancient tombs were artificial caves, regarded as entryways to the Goddess and to the otherworld. One of these is West Kennet Long Barrow, approximately a mile and a half from Avebury. This 4500-year-old burial mound is 330 feet long, 8 to 10 feet high, with a 40-foot long burial chamber in one end. Used for over a thousand years, it was finally sealed with huge standing stones around 3600 years ago. Meaden notes that “the forecourt entrance to the chambered barrow or passage grave is modeled on the womb-opening which leads to a vault or chamber, the place of rebirth or regeneration for the souls of the dead.” (18) Forty-six individuals were interred here, including twelve children. During the 19th century a well-known doctor would steal bones from the tomb, grind them up, and use them for potions. West Kennet is also said to be haunted by the spirit of a Druid priest (which is unlikely since the Druid’s did not exist when the barrow was in use) or by the Lord of the Underworld since black dogs with red eyes seem to accompany the wandering spirit.


Mountains, like caves, are regarded as portals to the otherworld, the abode of the gods and the sites of sacred revelations. It was on a mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments; it was on a mountain that the last remnants of life were saved from the universal flood, it is only the mountain that connects with the Earth and with the Heavens. Mountains are also inhabited by strange beings of super, or supra-natural origin and many, like California’s Mount Shasta, are believed to be the homes of the lost races of Atlantis, Mu and Lemuria as well as landing ports for alien spacecraft. Time and space upon the mountains are also perceived differently which contributes to the mind-altering states that shamans experience as well as those travelers who become disoriented and lost. The demons and faeries of the mountains, and the very sacredness of these places, take untold numbers of travelers and climbers to their deaths.

The Cosmic Mountain is the center of the universe, which the ancient omphalos’ imitate. Mountains themselves have been worshipped not just as the sacred home of the Deities but also as the gods themselves. Carol and Dinah Mack state “the word alp (‘elf’ in English) means both ‘mountain’ and ‘demon of the mountain’ and expresses our ambivalence about wilderness…”. (19) While this is an interesting theory the authors do not cite their source for this translation and it does not appear to be based on fact. Alp is Latin meaning “high mountain” and “elf” is Old English meaning “white” or “whitish figure” and is related to the Old High German word alb, which means “nightmare”. It is not necessary to manufacture the meaning of words to make the connection between the sacred mountains of the world with the denizens of the underworld.

Icelandic folklore is full of accounts of Christian priests who take on the characteristics of mythic heroes that are able to open up these portals. In one story a man goes in search of his missing wife who has disappeared from the isle of Málmey. This island was cursed in a way that no one could live on it for more than 20 years. The man and his wife had lived on the island when she disappeared. The man goes in search of his wife with the local priest. When they come to an area of steep cliffs the priest dismounts from his horse where he “goes up to the rock and plucks a small green plant from the ground beside him; with this he strikes the mountain, and after a little the mountain opens” and the missing woman walks out. However the woman has turned into a mountain troll! (20)


Rocks themselves are often perceived to be entryways to the otherworld. The Rock Babies and other spirit helpers of Native American shamans live in the stone and freely pass between both worlds. The Yupa Indians of Venezuela have a tale of the Pareracha—a red stone:

“One day a woman found a great, reddish slab of stone on the bank of the river. It shone most wonderfully. How happy she would be if she could rub the very same color on her own body.

“So she searched and found a rough stone which she used to scrub the stone slab…until there was a little pile of red powder. She mixed some water with the powder. Then she colored her body with the shinning red. Standing there so beautifully painted she began to sing for very joy. And as she sang, the stone slab on which she stood opened and swallowed her up.

“Even today, on passing this stone, one can still hear the song of the enchanted woman.” (21)

The very word enchanted speaks of the stone. She was swallowed up but not harmed. She was taken through the portal into the world of spirit and Faery.

Icelandic folklore, once again, also has accounts of rocks as portals between dimensions. In the story “Eiríkur Rescues a Woman from the Otherworld” the theme of the missing wife is again related. In this tale the newly married woman disappears from her farmstead and the worried husband goes in search with the aid of a priest. As the two reach the boulders marking the boundary between two districts the priest stops and lays a large book upon the biggest stone. A large storm gathers but no rain falls upon the book and not a page is ruffled by the wind. According to the story, the priest then “went widdershins round the rock, and muttered something between his teeth, and then he says to the farmer: ‘Look carefully whether you see your wife coming.’

“Now a crowd of people comes out of the rock…” (22) As in the previous Icelandic tale, the woman had been captured by mountain trolls but is recovered by the priest’s actions. It should be noted that the practice of walking “widdershins” around an object three times is an ancient one spread across the world. It normally allows an individual to enter the Faery land or some other spirit world. In this case it opened a doorway between two dimensions to allow spirits and trolls and their captives to enter the physical world. This story is obviously a mixture of Pagan rituals and lore disguised in scant Christian clothing.

Openings to the otherworld through rocks are also part of Polynesian lore. In Samoa Talaga wished to visit the underworld to obtain fire, which was not yet known on the surface. He stood upon a rock and said, “Rock, rock, I am Talaga; open to me. I wish to go below.” (23) Talaga must wrestle the fire-god Mafui’e and twist off his arm to win a firebrand. Thus, humankind comes to know fire and is able to cook food.


1. Zigmond, Maurice L. Kawaiisu Mythology: An Oral Tradition of South-Central California. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 18. Menlo Park: Ballena Press 1980, 177

2. Whitley, David S. A Guide to Rock Art Sites: Southern California and Southern Nevada. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company 1996, 67

3. Whitley, David S. The Art of the Shaman: Rock Art of California. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press 2000, 88

4. Opler, Morris Edward. An Apache Life-Way. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1941, 269

5. Ibid

6. Zigmond, op cit 55

7. Coy, Fred E. Jr. “Petrogylphs and Pictographs in Kentucy” in Rock Art of the Eastern Woodlands: Proceedings from the Eastern States Rock Art Conference, edited by Charles H. Faulkner. San Miguel: American Rock Art Research Association 1996, 93

8. Pennick, Nigel. Celtic Sacred Landscapes. London: Thames & Hudson 1996, 96

9. Meaden, Terrance. Stonehenge: The Secret of the Solstice. London: Souvenir Press 1997, 25-26

10. Devereux, Paul. Symbolic Landscapes. Glastonbury: Gothic Image Publications 1992, 21

11. Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred & The Profane: The Nature of Religion. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company 1959, 153

12. The Mithras “cult”, which is the term preferred by present day scholars, was a popular religion during the Roman empire. Roman troops brought the religion to Rome from Persia. During the early Christian era Mithraism was more popular than Christianity and would have eclipsed the Christian religion except for the official approval given by emperor Constantine. There are many similar traits between both religions including baptism, communion, twelve apostles, a savior who rises from the dead and eternal life. The Mithras religion was only open to males however. There is some evidence that the Three Magi in the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth were Mithraic priests.

13. Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1987, 86

14. Ibid 101

15. See the Catholic Encyclopedia on-line version at for more details.

16. Spence, Lewis. Legends and Romances of Brittany. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. 1997, 41

17. Meaden, op cit, 131

18. Smith, William Ramsay. Aborigine Myths and Legends. London: Senate 1996, 278

19. Mack, Carol K. and Dinah Mack. A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels, and Other Subversive Spirits. New York: Owl Books 1998, 52

20. Simpson, Jacqueline, trns. Legends of Icelandic Magicians. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer Ltd for The Folklore Society 1975, 40

21. Wilbert, Johannes. Yupa Folktales. Los Angeles: Latin American Center, University of California Los Angeles 1974, 97

22. Simpson op cit, 64

23. Andersen, Johannes C. Myths and Legends of the Polynesians. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company 1969, 216