Cape Matapan Caves – Laconia, Greece - Atlas Obscura

Cape Matapan Caves

A cave network located at the southernmost tip of mainland Greece was once believed to be an entrance to Hades. 


Cape Matapan (also known as Cape Tainaron) is a small landmass at the end of the Mani Peninsula in Greece.

This southern tip of the mainland separates the eastern Laconian Gulf from the Messenian Gulf in the west. However, the cape also provides the backdrop for a number of important myths and legends - and the ancient Greeks believed that a cave on the tip of the cape was an entrance to Hades, the underworld of Classical mythology.

Here, according to the stories, is the place where Orpheus entered the underworld in search of his lost love, Euridice. When the hero Hercules passed down into the underworld, it was again through the Cape Matapan caves.

In the second century AD, the celebrated Greek geographer Pausanias wrote of the site:

In the bend of the seaboard one comes, first, to a headland that projects into the sea, Taenarum, with its temple of Poseidon situated in a grove; and secondly, near by, to the cavern through which, according to the myth-writers, Cerberus was brought up from Hades by Herakles.

These are not the only legends ascribed to the remote peninsula, however. The Spartans viewed this as a highly significant place of worship, and they built several temples to their gods along the rocky headland. Most prominent amongst the surviving ruins, are the remains of a temple dedicated to the sea god Poseidon – located on a hill directly above the cave to Hades.

The Temple of Poseidon features in a notable folk story regarding the poet Arion. Kidnapped by pirates during a voyage from Italy to Greece, Arion – who had previously invented the ‘dithyramb,’ a song and dance in praise of Dionysus – threw himself from the pirate ship in an attempt to escape. He sang to Apollo, the god of poetry, and his call was answered by a pod of dolphins. They carried him to safety, to arrive at the shores of Cape Matapan and the sanctuary of Poseidon.

When the Byzantines arrived this temple was converted to the Christian faith, and to this day the site is still used in religious services. Nearby visitors will find a bronze likeness of the poet Arion riding a dolphin.

The caves at Cape Matapan feature an intricate tapestry of stalactites and stalagmites, and while they are partially beneath the water level it is possible to visit the caverns by boat.

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