Σπηλια ιλλιθιας

Spilia Illithias - Cave of Ilithias - Cave of Illithia

Σπήλαιο Ειλειθυίας - Cave of Eileithyia - Elithia's Cave

Neraidhóspilios - Cave of the Nereids - Cave of the Fairies - Fairy Cave


Useful Information

Location: 1 km south of Amnissos.
From the road Herakleion to Agios Nikolaos, right before Amnissos turn right on road towards Episkopi. 7 km east of Heraklion and 1 km southeast of Amnissos.
(35.324584, 25.205421)
Open: Closed by gate.
Request key at the Minoan Villa in Kokkini Hani.
[2004]
Fee: free.
[2004]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: none, bring electric torch.
Dimension: L=64 m, W=12 m, H=4.5 m, A=85 m asl.
Guided tours:  
Photography:  
Accessibility:  
Bibliography: Aimee Genova (2019): Strategies of Resistance: Cretan Archaeology and Political Networks during the Late 19th and Early 20th Century, PhD dissertation, University of Chicago. academia.edu
Anna Kofou (1990): Kreta - Sämtliche Museen und archäologischen Stätten, Herder-Verlag, Freiburg im Breisgau 1990, S. 170f. With a detailed cave description, photographs and survey. (Deutsch - German)
Iosif Hatzidakis (1888): Κατάλογος τῶν ἐν τῷ μουσείω τοῦ Φιλεκπαιδευτικού Συλλόγου ̔Ηρακλείου ἀρχαιοτήτων οὗ προετάχθη ἡ κατά τὸ λήξαν έτος 1887 λογοδοσία τοῦ προέδρου ̓Ιωσήφ Χατζιδάκη καὶ περιγραφή τοῦ ἐν ̓Αμνισῷ σπηλαίουτης Εἰλειθυίας., (Catalogue of the antiquities in the museum of the Heraklion Philelepaedagogical Society of Heraklion, which was prepared in the year 1887 by the president Joseph Hatzidakis and description of the cave of Eileithyia in Amnissos.). Iraklio: ̓Εκ τοῦ τυπογραφείου Στυλ. Αλεξίου.
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History

1886 rediscovered and excavated by Iosif Hatzidakis (*1848-✝1936).
1929 excavations by Marinatos.
1964 excavation by Eleftherios Platákis.

Description

The Σπηλια ιλλιθιας (Cave of Ilithia) was the main place of worship of Ilithia, the goddess of childbirth and midwifery. Ilithyia is the Latin spelling. However, the cave is also spelled Σπήλαιο Ειλειθυίας (Cave of Eileithyia), The original name of the goddess is Εἰλείθυια (Eileithyia) but she is also mentioned as Eleuthia in a Linear B fragment from nearby Knossos from the 14th century BC. Actually this is the cave of multiple names, not only the same name in different spellings. The cave was forgotten many centuries, and re-discovered in the late 19th century. The locals call it Neraidospilios (Cave of the Nereides), and as Nereids are quite similar to the Celtic fairies, it is also called Fairies Cave. And another name is Aneragdóspilos, though we cannot explain the origin of this name.

Τὸ ἱερὸν τοῦτο τῆς Εἰλειθυίας ἄντρον οὐδεὶς τῶν νεωτέρων περιηγητῶν ἀνεῦρεν. ̔Ὁ Pashley ἐζήτησε τοῦτο παρὰ τὸν ποταμὸν ̓Ἀποσελέμην, ὑπολαβὼν ἐσφαλμένως τοῦτον ὡς τὸν ̓Ἀμνισὸν τῶν παλαιῶν. ̔Ὁ Spratt ὀρθῶς λέγει ὅτι ὁ ̓Ἀμνισὸς τῶν παλαιῶν εἶνε ὁ νῦν καλούμενος Καρτερὸς, οὐδὲν ὅμως περὶ τοῦ σπηλαίου λέγει.
This sacred cave of Eileithyia was not found by any of the more recent travelers. Pashley looked for it near the river Aposelemis, erroneously supposing it to be the Amnisos of the ancients. Spratt correctly says that ancient Amnisos is the place now called Karteros, but says nothing about the cave.
Iosif Hatzidakis (1888: 13-14)

During the 19th century archaeologists, scholars, and tourists tried to locate the places mentioned in legends and stories. The most famous scholar who tried to do this was Schliemann, and until today archaeologists are not sure if he really discovered Troj. One of them was Iosif Hatzidakis who re-discovered the cave and made fisrst excavations in 1884. He wrote a paper named Discovery and Exploration of the Cave Dedicated to Eileithyia.

The theory connecting the goddess of childbirth and midwifery with caves where an entrance section resembles the birth canal, sounds good. A cave is mentioned by Homer, as the place where the goddess was reputedly born by Hera. Unfortunately Homer gave no detailed location information in his text, not even GPS coordinates. He mentioned only the village named Amnisos, which could be modern Amnissos. A story, even a good one, is not really relevant for archaeology or history. But the contents of the cave, the archaeological discoveries made here, were very convincing. In the center of the cave is a remarkable rectangular altar surrounded by two cylindrical stalagmites which have human shape. As excavations indicate, the cave served as a place of worship from the Neolithic Period to the 5th century BC. The excavations uncovered idols of women in the act of giving birth, nursing or praying, figures of animals, shells and Neolithic tools. Women devoted milk, honey, oil and wool to the goddess. So the cave obviously was a sacred place connected with childbirth and a goddess, however her name was spelled, was obviously worshipped here.

The bases of a building at the cave entrance are interpreted as a part of the temple, it probably housed priests or guards. The central altar in the main chamber is called a vetylos, a worship stone. The idea is that this is the place where a statue of the goddess was placed. Unfortunately this statue was never found.

This once was a real show cave, with parking lot and paths inside, but it seems there were too few visitors, and it was closed long ago. There are no regular open hours anymore, and the cave entrance is gated to protect the cave. But the cave may be visited by requesting the key from the guardian of the Minoan Villa, in the nearby village Kokkini Hani. At least that was the case 20 years ago, it is not possible to get current information. The archaeological finds from the cave are on display at the Iraklion Museum and the Archaeological Museum of Iraklion.