Archaeologists claim to have found witch-goddess Circe’s cave featured in Homer’s epic ‘The Odyssey’

Homer’s epic “The Odyssey” straddles the line between myth and history, but a team of researchers believe they have found the cave location that inspired the Greek poet’s inclusion of Circe and her cave, in which the suffering hero Odysseus stayed for a year.

In the story, Odysseus, also known to the Romans as Ulysses, angered Poseidon and was thus prevented from returning home to Ithaca to reunite with his wife Penelope after the Trojan War. At one point, he sailed on to the mythical island of Aeaea after most of his fleet was destroyed. There, he visited the witch-goddess Circe, who turned his men into pigs and seduced him into staying with her, leaving his ship inside the cave for that time until she let him and his crew go. In doing so, she also warned him about the Sirens and provided him with beeswax to plug his ears so that he would not be drawn in by their song.

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Circe offered a poisoned drink to Odysseus. Had he not been slipped an antidote by Hermes, he also would have transformed into a pig. Image via Wikimedia.
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Circe turning Odysseus’ men into pigs as depicted by an ancient Greek wine cup. Image via Wikimedia.
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Ancient Greek vase depicting Odysseus and his crew encountering the Sirens. Image via Wikimedia.

But is Aeaea a mythical island, or have geological forces hidden it from us in plain sight?

Identifying the cave has been a nearly impossible task classical historians and researchers have been trying to achieve for a long time, without much success. Until now.

It turns out that just south of Rome in Italy there is a place known as Monte Circeo. Protected as the Circeo National Park, there just so happens to be a cave, Torre Paola Spaccata Cave, that is accessible from the sea through a gash on the side of the cliff.

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Monte Circeo on the Italian coast, where the Torre Paola Spaccata Cave is located. Image via Wikimedia.

Could a ship have been temporarily parked in the cave as in “The Odyssey”? Is the cave big enough for Odysseus and his crew to reside inside for a year? Had the cave ever been inhabited by humans before?

Researchers Alessandro Paoli, Riccardo Paolucci, and Riccardo Ribacchi, led by researcher Lorenzo Grassi, sought the answers to all of these questions. (translation by Google)

“An impressive cavity that pierces the cliff like a huge petrified lightning, just behind of the coastal fortification built in the sixteenth century,” Grassi described the opening in a statement released by the Association of Speleo-Archaeology Research.

The team found that history records that ships could, indeed, enter the cave from the sea.

[I]t is here, that the definitive proofs are hidden to locate the story of Homer. “Entering into the obscure bowels of the mountain, we were able to document what seem to be the “cave caves,” warns Grassi. The complex carved into the rock perfectly matches the description and geographical references of the Homeric narration. As proof, there is also a Charter of Monte Circeo and Circondarj of S. Felice, created by Giovanni Battista Cipriani in 1830, where the fissure is described as “two caves one above the other” and it is specified that “in the sea the ships enter.”

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A view of the cave opening from the inside. The water would have been higher when Homer wrote his epic, allowing ships to enter. Image via Association of Speleo-Archaeology Research.

Odysseus and his men could have comfortably anchored his ships in the cave and there would have been enough room in antiquity for him and his men to stay.

“Even considering the level of the Mediterranean at the time of Ulysses’ journey – reflects Grassi – it is possible to shelter the ships and there were vast underground areas where it was possible to put the loads safely”. The survey completed the first observations conducted 35 years ago by the historian Tommaso Lanzuisi.

You see, the sea-level during the time Homer wrote his epic tale was higher than it is today, and that means Monte Circeo may have appeared to have been an island, which is how Aeaea is described in “The Odyssey”.

Lanzuisi argues that as sea levels have fallen since the time of Homer, that in all probability “Monte Circeo had to be an island in whole or in part, depending on the seasons”.

If Homer had visited the area prior to writing the story, he would have seen what looked to be an island with a large cave opening that would allow ships to shelter inside. Thus, Circe’s grotto came to be.

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Image via Association of Speleo-Archaeology Research

And the inside is just as impressive, even having potential access to the surface, which would be important to Odysseus and his men so that they could explore the land without having to climb the cliff outside the cave opening.

“The walls are lost in the dense darkness, while cyclopean boulders testify ancient collapses,” Grassi said. “And in the inner part, a narrow tunnel seems to go up towards the surface as an ancient way out for the mountain.”

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Inside the impressive cave chamber. Image via Association of Speleo-Archaeology Research.
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A dark large chamber in the cave. Image via Association of Speleo-Archaeology Research.

Signs of ancient and current residents

Using technology, the team measured the cave and found it to be much bigger than it appears from the outside, and they also found a surprising number of guests among them.

The three-dimensional laser scanner survey has revealed colossal measurements: the salon alone measures 40 meters in length while the ceiling exceeds 25 meters in height. All for a total volume of 30 thousand cubic meters. And it does not end here, because the secret caves of Ulysses preserve a precious fauna treasure: thousands of bats.

The size of the cave chambers is definitely enough to provide quarter for a crew of men.

But the cave also revealed one last surprise that answered a key question. The team found the remains of terracotta vases, which means ancient humans once used the cave.

“It was incredibly exciting to find the terracotta and know that humans were there in ancient times,” Marco Placido of Roma Sotterranea told INews. “The features of the Split Cave of Torre Paola perfectly match the description and geographical references of the Homeric narration. While we can’t say with scientific certainty, there are so many elements that match the description in The Odyssey.”

It’s certainly a fascinating argument, especially since it is based on geography as described by Homer himself. Of course, the team could be wrong. But now millions of fans of “The Odyssey” around the globe now have an even clearer picture in their heads of what the mythical cave of Circe may have looked like.

In the end, it took Odysseus ten years to finally make it home to his beloved Penelope in Ithaca, an island that is part of the present-day Ionian islands of Greece. So, it’s very likely that Homer based Circe’s cave on a real place. And this connection to “The Odyssey” will likely inspire other researchers to take a look at the classics and wonder if they can find those locations as well. And with new technology, they just might succeed.

Below is the trailer from the 1954 movie, ‘Ulysses’ featuring Kirk Douglas as Ulysses and Silvana Mangano as Circe:

Featured Image: Association of Speleo-Archaeology Research with Franz von Stuck Tilla Durieux as Circe via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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