Grotto - Places: A witch’s Travel Guide

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Places: A witch’s Travel Guide

A natural grotto is a small cave, usually located near water (ocean or spring) and subject to flooding or liable to flood at high tide. A grotto may be a real cave or an artificial recess or structure created to resemble one. Although some grottoes are very small, others are the size of a good-sized room and can accommodate a small throng (at least at low tide!).

The English word “grotto” derives from an Italian word (grotta), which in turn derives from the Latin crypta meaning “cavern” or “crypt.” Caves in general are associated with uterine imagery but natural grottos—wet, fluid-filled caves—are even more intensely identified with Earth’s womb, resembling a pregnant womb filled with amniotic fluids. Tidal patterns of water flowing in and out of grottoes are equally reminiscent of women’s lunar, menstrual mysteries. It’s no wonder that grottoes were considered sacred, power-charged places, identified with mermaids and other spirits. Dionysus was born in a grotto.

Grottoes thus had natural affiliation with witchcraft and various female spiritual traditions. Many were believed under the protection of powerful female spirits; this tradition survived post-Christianity. No doubt the pirates and smugglers who favored grottoes for caching their treasures made sure those legends stayed alive to discourage trespassers.

Ancient people transformed natural grottoes into sacred shrines and chapels. Some contained mineral springs and may be understood as primordial bathhouses. (See page 645, Bathhouse.) Although many are naturally very beautiful, grottoes were also ornamented with altars, statues, and paintings. Italian grottoes, in particular, were decorated with images of intertwining vines, floral garlands, and fanciful creatures.

Not all grottoes occurred naturally, although the first ones did. Creating artificial grottoes was a popular fad during the French and Italian Renaissance, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ancient ornamented Italian grotto-shrines had been unearthed and served as inspiration.

These artificial grottoes were recreations of Pagan shrines. The outside was usually designed to resemble a rocky cave: the inside was decorated with a combination of natural and mythic features. Ceramic stalactites and stalagmites enhanced the natural cave ambience: walls might be covered with seashells, both real and crafted from ceramics. Images of mermaids, spirits of the classical age and herms decorated the interior. Many contained fountains, intended to resemble sacred springs. Some of these grottoes served as conventional baths or chapels but others were rumored used for secret Pagan and witchcraft rites.

This type of architecture and interior design associated with grottoes was called “grotesque.” Grotesque is now most frequently understood to mean hideous but that was a reaction to changing styles. Originally grotesque merely indicated this type of painted, ornamented cave characterized by fanciful human and animal forms typically interwoven with foliage.

From the start, witches were associated with grottoes, both natural and artificial, and the grotesque style, especially Circe, the beautiful island-dwelling sorceress, and the Sibyls, who prophesized from within caves. Mountain witches Sibilla and Tante Arie might also be considered grotto-goddesses. (See DIVINE WITCH: Circe, Sibilla, Tante Arie.)

Eventually grottoes, their Pagan associations and grotesque style fell from fashion, but the word “grotesque” remained attached to witches while developing other, very negative connotations. When people heard witches described as grotesque they misunderstood and envisioned them as physically hideous, when literally what it indicates are witches festooned with garlands, seashells, and perhaps a mermaid’s tail or two.

Natural grottoes remain identified with witchcraft, for example, the Gruta das Bruxas (“Witches’ Grotto”) found near the village of Sao Thome das Letras, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The village is now a popular New Age travel destination, particularly for those fascinated by UFOs. Another nearby feature is the Cachoeira das Bruxas or “Witches’ Waterfall.”