Naples:life,death &
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entry Aug 2015

he Grottoes of Ischia

Grotto of the Sibyl near Casamicciola           
By grottoes I mean natural marine caves at sea-level and not man-made or natural spaces at higher elevations. Marine grottoes in southern Italy are well-known; some are of great anthropological importance; and some are world-famous, such as the Blue Grotto on Capri. The grottoes of Ischia are not as well-known as others in the bay, but there are a number of them, each with a bit of history and lore of its own. Almost all of the grottoes of Ischia seem to be connected with mythological beings. Sometimes it's a giant, a wizard, and even a sibyl. Indeed, the most famous sibyl of all, of Cuma, is said to have vacationed in a grotto hereabouts, now appropriately named for her—the Grotto of the Sibyl near Casamicciola.

On the Castiglione beach, near the necropolis of the Cumans, you find the so called Grotto of the Sibyl. It's not the true, splendid Grotto of Cuma with the "hundred paths and hundred chambers" located beneath the Temple to Apollo...nor even like the more modest false grotto at Lake's simple and rustic, but romantic and suggestive,
as is the entire riviera of the town of Casamicciola...

The Island of Ischia, W. Frenkel, 1928

And the tales of the famed Sybil on Ischia continue. Perhaps she was attracted by the medicinal properties of the baths (she was a notorious hag, having forgotten to bargain for a fine skin-gel instead of mere longevity) or perhaps forced into exile to flee the tyrant Aristodemus of Cumae (c. 550 – c. 490 BC) as was indeed the case with many Cuman families of the day (who eventually wound up assassinating the ruler). At that point, the sybil was free to return to her magnificent grotto at Cuma, itself. Local Christian tradition later incorporates her as one who prophesied the coming of the Redeemer by reading His coming in water-logged leaves, shrivelled by the sun..."born of a virgin...the times of Saturn shall return...justice shall triumph from sea to sea" (cited in Frenkel, above). Indeed, all of that is connected with that little hole in the rock, and that is what makes the grottoes on Ischia remarkable unto themselves, much more than just taking a dip.

The Wizard's (Mago) Grotto                    
There is a confusing variety of names; that is, one grotto may have been called by different names over the centuries. The Wizard's Grotto (image, right) on the south-east coast between Punta del Lume and Punta Parata (on the rugged south-east coast, about one mile below the prominent isle that holds the Aragonese Castle), for example, has also been called the Grotto of the Sun, the Grotto of the Earth, and the Silver Grotto, the last term apparently an attempt to go the Blue Grotto on Capri one better. Serious geological descriptions are mostly from the 20th century and usually repeat myths connected with the grottoes; this same grotto under the name of the Wizard's grotto, used to offer shelter to fishermen in storms, and here is where they encountered mysterious figures common to the mythology of the area, such as underground dwellers, giants and sirens. By the 1930s articles on the same place, now become the “Silver Grotto of Ischia” were appearing internationally. Articles also appeared in Italian archaeological journals from that decade describing the grotto as a prehistoric and man-made cavern once dedicated to worship of the sun. Since that time events have conspired to return the grotto, by whatever name, to obscurity, supposed paleolithic wall glyphs and all.                     

The "mysterious" entrances to the Mavone grotto     
The Mavone (also Magone - great Wizard) Grotto is on the south-west coast near Punta Imperatore. It may also be referred to in the plural as the Mavone Grottoes of the Scanella. It is in relatively rugged country; you can walk down, yes, but there are also taxi-boats from nearby Sant'Angelo. The site bears special mention since it was mentioned in a recent TV program about the isle of Ischia as a fabled entrance to the irrationalist and New Age idea of the Hollow Earth!

The grotto is marked by a remarkable piece of natural rock sculpture called the Rock of the Ship (image, left) and that helps to compound the tales handed down from mythology. Besides being one of the entrances on Ischia to the grand civilizations of Hollow Earth, the Rock of the Ship was indeed the galley used by the Phaecians, the ancient Greek people, who, Homer tells us, took Ulysses on his final trip home to Ithaca. And remarkable craft they were!
according to Homer (The Odyssey, Book 8):
Phaeacians have no pilots; their vessels have no rudders as those of other nations have, but the ships themselves understand what it is we are thinking and what we want; they know all the cities and countries in the world and can cross the sea just as well even when it is covered with mist and cloud...

The voyage home was successful, which so angered Poseidon, the God of the Sea, that he petrified the craft upon their return to Ischia, taking revenge for the fact that Ulysses had killed his (Poseidon's) son, Polifemus, one of the Giants as well as one of the Cyclopes in Greek mythology. The origins of the Phaecians was said to be Scheria in Greece, which name, after sufficient linguistic hocus pocus has given us "Ischia"! Besides all that, the diving in the area is magnificent, even if you barely managed to stay awake in Greek Mythology 101.

And so it goes at other sites around the island. I'm tempted to tell you just to grab yourself a kayak or one of those Phaecian ships and go for it. It's probably not even a 50 km/30 mile circumnavigation of the island. You'll find a lot of grottoes, but they might not be all that you want them to be. I found one called Grotto of the Turk. I had visions of by-gone sea battles between Saracen invaders and faithful Christian defenders of the island, just like the infantry clashes on the slopes of Mt. Epomeo before the combattants all disappeared down to Hollow Earth. Here, perhaps, in the water wars, in a rare, great burst of human common sense and potential they called it all off for a day to take a splendid dip in the mysterious waters of the mysterious grotto and then just collectively said, "To hell with it. Whaddya say, guys?!" and, foregoing any last hostile flipper in the face of the enemy, flopped and barked like happy seals down the long ecumenical fun-waterslide to Hollow Earth, knowledge, understanding and happiness. Amen. Man, that's for me. Hand me that kayak! The place turned out to be a Turkish bath in a hotel, at least that's what it is now, but back in the day...?

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