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Storytime: A cavern pleasant, though involv’d in night. Reading Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs, Part I

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[Corrigendum: As alert listener Bink Hallum reminds us, the murex from which Tyrian purple is derived is not a crustacean; it is a mollusc. We respond that both crustaceans and molluscs are hard on the outside and soft on the inside, and are therefore equivalent if not identical. Science.]

What does Homer obscurely signify by the cave in Ithaca, which he describes in the following verses?

High at the head a branching olive grows
And crowns the pointed cliffs with shady boughs.
A cavern pleasant, though involved in night,
Beneath it lies, the Naiades delight:
Where bowls and urns of workmanship divine
And massy beams in native marble shine;
On which the Nymphs amazing webs display,
Of purple hue and exquisite array,
The busy bees within the urns secure
Honey delicious, and like nectar pure.
Perpetual waters through the grotto glide,
A lofty gate unfolds on either side;
That to the north is pervious to mankind:
The sacred south t’immortals is consign’d.

We begin to find out in this episode, Part I of a two-part read-through of Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs in Homer’s Odyssey.

Works Cited in this Episode:


For a list of the many MSS, editions, translations, and so forth of the text of On the Cave, see Westerinck et al. 1969.

  • Heraclitus: Porphyry cites frr. B 77 D-K, B 62 D-K, and B 118 D-K.
  • Numenius’ fragments can conveniently be accessed in R. Petty. Fragments of Numenius of Apamea. Number VII in Platonic Texts and Translations. Prometheus Trust, Hockley, 2012.
  • Porphyry: Plotinus used Cronius and Numenius in his seminar-discussions: Plot. 21. Porphyry refers to genethlialogōn as horoscope-casters: Plot. 15.
  • Sophocles: frg. 795 Nauck.


  • Akçay 2019 (see below); we cite p. 9.
  • Beck 2006 : see below.
  • Lamberton 1983 (see below); we cite pp. 3 and 13.
  • Turcan 1975: see below.
  • Westerink et al. 1969 (see below).

Recommended Reading:

  • Nilüfer Akçay. Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs in its Intellectual Context. Number 23 in Studies in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Platonic Tradition. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2019.
  • R. L. Beck. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
  • James A. Coulter. The Literary Microcosm: Theories of Interpretation of the Later Neoplatonists. Brill, Leiden, 1976, esp. Appendix I.
  • John M. Duffy, Philip F. Sheridan, Leendert G. Westerink, and Jeffrey A. White, editors. Porphyry: The Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey. Number 1 in Arethusa Monographs. State University of New York, Buffalo, NY, 1969.
  • Robert Lamberton, editor. Porphyry On the Cave of the Nymphs. Station Hill Press, Barrytown, NY, 1983.
  • Idem. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1989.
  • Jean Pépin. Porphyre, éxègete d’Homère. In Porphyre, volume 12 of Entretiens Hardt, pages 229–66. Fondation Hardt, Geneva, 1966.
  • Laura Simonini, ed. and trans. Porfirio, L’Antro delle Ninfe. Milan, 1986.
  • R. Turcan. Mithras Platonicus: Recherches sur l’hellénisation philosophique de Mithra. Number 47 in EPRO. Brill, Leiden, 1975.
  • Yulia Ustinova. Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.