GUEST RITUAL: Annual Lascaux Cave Rediscovery Celebration

This ritual was proposed by Michael Halloran of the Atheopagan Facebook group and perfected through input of other members of the group.



Perform this ritual every September 12 to commemorate the accidental finding of this French cave in 1940.

Objective:

Celebrate the rediscovery of this impressive prehistoric cathedral as a community. Since most people can’t visit caves like this, and it’s often actively discouraged in order to preserve the works of art, this is a way to learn a little history, connect with the past, and have some fun as a community or family. You could use this as a lead up to your autumnal equinox celebration, since it takes place on September 12. It’s also an excellent opportunity to teach children about conservation, biodiversity, and geology. 

Themes: 

Creativity, education, joy, history, nature, ecosystems, the story of humanity

Number of people needed: Better with a lot of people, but at least 3. This is a playful activity and may be better to carry out with older children due to the created cave’s darkness.

Ingredients (every item you need to complete the ritual)
  • A large room
  • Very large sheets of paper, preferably brown
  • Tape or tacks
  • Tinsel or other materials you can hang from the ceiling to give the impression of stalactites 
  • Paint (perhaps blacklight reactive)
  • Paintbrushes
  • Old newspapers or drop cloth 
  • Drums, bells, whistles, and other percussion instruments
  • Flashlights (maybe with a black light bulb) and candles
  • An arbor or gateway of some kind to create the sense of a cave mouth
  • Mats, cushions, or chairs
  • Projector, speakers, computer
  • Food to eat afterward, maybe with a prehistoric theme

A word of advice: I recommend you do not attempt this ritual at an actual cave. Human activity in caves can have a detrimental impact on the internal ecosystem. Plus, caves have also been overexploited in general and can be dangerous if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain. If you really would like to do something at a cave, speak with a local expert to ensure your intended actions remain benign.

The ritual:

Before you start:

Choose a spacious room in which to hold the ritual. Close the curtains (Preferably do it at night so that you can ensure total darkness in the room. Put the large sheets on the walls, and place the newspapers or drop cloth beneath to catch the paint. You might want to consider crumpling the wall sheets to give them a texture too. Hang the stalactite stand-ins from the ceiling. Place a few candles strategically around the room, so when lit, they will create a nice ambiance, but still maintain a low-light feeling overall. 

Arrange the chairs, cushions, or mats in a circle with an instrument for every participant. Place the cave-entry arbor at the doorway. 

Optional: If you want to be extravagant, maybe place some kind of tunnel from a staging area to the cave room entrance. This adds the effect of moving between ritual spaces. 

The work of the ritual:

I’ve written this as a ritual with one leader, but you can hand off the various roles to different people. 

Part 1 – Prep: In a different, well-lit room, have all the participants gather around to listen to an explanation of what is going to happen: We’re gathered here to celebrate the rediscovery of the cave art at Lascaux. We’ll discuss the discovery, the significance, and we’ll then move to our own cave to paint it, play music, and then eat!

Part 2 – At this point, you can either tell the story of the discovery or share an informational video using a projector and computer.

Part 3 – Then, show this virtual tour of the cave. Maybe choose an appropriate piece of music to play while you watch, perhaps even ambient cave sounds.

ALTERNATIVELY: Instead of doing parts 1-3—and if you have the time, and people have the interest—you could watch the movie The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is a detailed look at the art.

Maybe talk about some of the animals that were shown in the cave, and which ones still exist in the wild, and talk about the efforts that exist to preserve biodiversity, so we don’t lose megafauna. What does everyone think were some of the reasons for people making these paintings? 

Part 4 – Next, it’s time to enter the cave you’ve created. Make sure it’s dark, and have everyone get into a line, ready to enter. Escort them one by one into the dark room and have them sit down at their assigned spots. Then sit down yourself and say: Welcome to our cave. It’s cool and dark, and the world outside is far away. We will sit here in the darkness for a few minutes as we get used to the cave and start to feel at home. 

Part 5 – At this point, you can play some ambient music to synthesize the soundscape of a cave. Let everyone sit in silence for a few minutes.

Part 6 – Without warning, turn on your flashlight, ghost-storytelling style, illuminating your face, and start reciting the poem Hands, by Robinson Jeffers:

Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s
palms, no more,
No other picture. There’s no one to say
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended
Religion or magic, or made their tracings
In the idleness of art; but over the division of years these
careful
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: ‘Look: we also were human; we had hands,
not paws. All hail
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season,
her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human.’

Hands, by Robinson Jeffers

Then, slowly walk around lighting the candles to create the low-light atmosphere (use the flashlight to guide your way)

Part 7 – There are many cave stories from cultures worldwide. Consider sharing one from your culture. Any cave story that will create a mood of mystery and wonder. Maybe even a scientific narrative of how caves come to be formed.

Perhaps discuss the conservation issues surrounding cave-dwelling animals, such as White-Nose Syndrome in bats. You could also talk about how cave art is being actively threatened right now, such as the recent destruction in Australia, and how this impacts communities of traditional owners. You could even have other people tell stories, or invite an expert to talk and discuss ways to be part of the movement to protect caves.

Part 8 – Explain: Now, we are going to paint our cave. You can do handprints, or animals, or anything. Maybe consider the kind of message you’d like to share with everyone here, or with yourself. 

Part 9 – You can hand out flashlights if the candlelight is not enough. Now allow people to go around and paint on the walls of the cave using their hands or paintbrushes. Perhaps have a basin of soapy water ready if people want to wash up after painting.

Part 10 – Once they’re done, each person now guides everyone else through the images they’ve created. Optional: if you’ve opted for fluorescent paint, use a black light to illuminate the art.

Part 11 – Now have everyone sit down again and grab their instruments: Now, let’s bring some life into the cave. Let’s bring the animals to life and make the handprints clap!

Have everyone play the instruments, starting slowly, and gradually building up. Have people call out the animal sounds. Become the animals through your sounds. Become the handprints through claps. Have everyone stand up and start stomping around the room playing the instruments, getting faster and faster. And then, when it’s reached a frenzy, call out “stop!” and have all sit down. 

Part 12 – Thank everyone for coming, and then have your feast! So, either do that in the cave or have people leave the cave and eat in another room. The meal is a time for people to share their experiences and give some feedback on the whole ritual.

But before you leave the cave, slowly go around and blow out the candles, and then lead everyone out one by one, maintaining the facade of a real cave experience. Make sure to keep the wall art for next year so people can add to it or alter it. This is great for children too, as they can see their hands getting bigger.

Optional extra activities

My intention for this ritual is to provide an emotional and educational experience. However, if you’d like to add a spiritual/religious transformational aspect, consider adding these additional activities.

Bring a load and leave it behind:

If there’s something you want to get rid of emotionally or psychologically, use the journey to the cave as an opportunity to unburden yourself. Before you enter, acknowledge the burden, and through the actions of the cave ritual, allow yourself to be released from it and leave the cave lightened. Consider painting the burden onto the cave wall as an abstract image, so it remains locked on the paper, trapped in the cave.

Charity event:

With caves worldwide facing so many existential threats, use this opportunity to fundraise for cave conservation. Have participants donate to organizations like the National Speleological Society or Bat Conservation International.

Time capsule activity:

Have all participants bring something with them of meaning into the cave and place it in a container that you return to every year you carry out the ritual. Take out previous “offerings” and discuss their meaning, tell stories, and add to the capsule.


For another take on using cave-painting imagery, see Rites of Passage #2: Into Adulthood

GUEST POST: An Atheist’s Spirituality, by Gwendolyn

(Please note that this article will use terms like “true” and “untrue” surrounding religion and various religious beliefs. I typically try to avoid words like those, but doing so is not an honest description of my experience, and I want to be perfectly honest here.)

I’m an atheist, a materialist, a determinist, a naturalist. I believe in the physical world and nothing else.

I was raised that way, chiefly by my loudly atheist father. I’ve always had the world figured out, always had the right answer, and was often confused by the fact that people kept asking questions that they thought were supposed to stump me. Questions like “what is the human soul?” and “what happens after we die?” that I thought had pretty clear answers to. I only realized in high school that there were people on this earth who believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, and I only realized in college that the very idea of there existing a single objective truth was not universally agreed-upon.

I’m not sure what first set me out to trying to find a spiritual path. I think it boils down to frustration. I saw so much potential in holidays and rituals; families who are religious together can achieve a level of seriousness and interpersonal depth that my family never had. We’re a bunch of friends who share loads of inside jokes, but we don’t share our personal journeys with one another, and rarely talk about subjects such as the meaning or purpose of life. We celebrate secularized Christian-American holidays, but not for any discernible reason.

And I’ve seen so much beauty associated with religion. Churches are like magical, otherworldly places that I’m not allowed into; the few times that I’ve participated in a Christian service I’ve felt like a liar or infiltrator. Why did religious people get to have this beauty and magic in their lives? Couldn’t there be a way for me to celebrate life and the world and the people I love without being forced to subscribe (or pay lip service) to untrue beliefs?

Feeling sort of silly, I began searching for “atheist spirituality” online. I eventually stumbled upon the Spiritual Naturalist Society and started listening to their podcast*.

Here’s the thing about being an atheist: you’re not allowed to have magic. You’re barely allowed to have beauty, and you’re certainly not allowed to have spirituality. It can be difficult to explain to someone who wasn’t raised atheist, but essentially there are certain words that set off an alarm response. The easiest ones to explain are words like holy, sacred, spiritual, religion, etc.; I think even people who have been raised in their religions can understand why these might put off an atheist. But there are other words on this list, too, ones that I think people might not expect. These ones can include wisdom, inspiration, traditions, flourishing, and walking a path.

You see, atheists aren’t wise; they’re intelligent. They aren’t inspired, they’re creative. And certainly tradition is a red flag, mired in the flagrant idea that ancient philosophies could have any bearing whatsoever on modern life.

The Spiritual Naturalism podcast and website were replete with not only the innocuous code words listed above, but the obvious ones, too. They carelessly threw around dangerously magical phrases, claiming that “existence is holy”, and that the universe is “natural and sacred”. I had my thumb hovering over the delete button for weeks. Nothing is holy! Nothing is sacred! Those are buzzwords made up by religious people who want to imbue nonexistent meaning onto random things! But the speakers kept peppering these phrases around such relievingly logical statements as “Naturalists’ conception of reality consists of the natural world as outlined by the latest scientific understanding”, and “we are careful to limit our claims about reality to what we can experience and measure, as well as reproduce and show to others.”

This was the first time that anyone who believed in science stood in front of me and described anything unironically as holy.

It’s scary for a lifelong atheist to use religious language. It’s difficult, and it feels wrong and silly, like we’re playing pretend. And that’s just the language, not even the practice.

It took me a while to get used to the parlance–the idea that the words sacred and holy don’t inherently imply the existence of a deity–but even feeling confident that I was still through-and-through atheist, I was not about to use words like that in front of anyone. I practiced in secret, although at that time my ‘practice’ was little more than listening to podcasts and giving gratuity in my head before some meals.

When I switched to Atheopaganism, it was chiefly for the holidays, but I’m not ashamed to admit it was also for the aesthetic. Paganism has always looked interesting to me, but was one of those groups that asked me to subscribe to too many new beliefs as a barrier to entry. Atheopaganism was the perfect combination: it was a way for me specifically to revere the earth (rather than the nebulous philosophical concepts that the SN Society liked to discuss) while also being able to re-embrace the Supremely Weird Kid that I had once been.

I’m still new to having a spiritual practice. It’s been roughly a year since I created my first Focus, and I’m finally at the point now where I seek out sacred moments for their own sake: things like embracing the sunlight, greeting the stars, and meditating in the fresh air. My path into ritual has been–and is going to be–slower than most people, and that’s okay. It’s more important that I feel the depth of my own love for the universe than it is for me to put on some wild performance.

The ritual state doesn’t come easily to me, and it makes me feel silly and vulnerable, and it’s going to be quite a while before I can do it in the same room as a single other person… but it is wonderful, and I’m glad I was able to find a completely honest way to experience it.

That’s the thing about Atheopaganism. I didn’t have to sacrifice anything about myself in order to express my gratitude for being alive, or to feel a wonder down to my bones for the complexity of the world around me. I didn’t have to qualify my beliefs in order to bring beauty and magic into my life, and I didn’t have to translate my experiences into metaphorical deism just to be able to share this beauty and magic with others.

I’m still an atheist, a materialist, a determinist, a naturalist; now, I’m also an Atheopagan. And I’m so relieved that I found my way here.


*SNS Today. You may also enjoy THE WONDER: Science-Based Paganism. Link in the sidebar at right.

GUEST POST: Seeds of Hope

By K.M.

On returning to my home from a walk the other day, for the first time in a long while, I truly noticed my lone flowerbed as I approached my front door. How many days had I walked on by it? I couldn’t recall the last time I had actually looked at it. Today, it grabbed my attention.

I had intended to fill it with mulch, flowers, and shrubs earlier this year. But, the threat of disease and general bedlam we have collectively been experiencing was enough to keep me away from the shops. So, it lay mostly untouched. I had half-heartedly thrown out two packets of zinnia seeds a while back, hoping that they might pop up on their own and fill the bed without conscious effort from me.

A whole two plants had successfully made it to flowering. That was all.

Months of neglect showed in the tangled mess of grasses, ivy, and weeds of all sizes choking out the zinnias. As I looked at the bed, would-be gardener’s regret welling up from within, I began to consider something else.

The stress of the times has worn on all of us. Though I consider myself to be usually quite genial and even-tempered, I am not immune. My fuse has been shorter this year, and I noticed as it dragged on, more and more things would annoy me, bother me, or flat out trigger my anger.

But why? Most subjects of my ire were comparatively small matters that would not normally upset me so. It was then, as I stared at the sad state of my flower bed, a thought came to me. My inner garden had also not been properly maintained.

The weeds are taking over, and I had let them.

Now more than ever, I needed to take stock of the state of my own mind. I needed to pull the weeds and re-cultivate the good in my perspective. I had allowed myself to be swept up in the chaos and left some awful weeds to grow as they wanted: unchecked malaise, noxious anxiety, choking anger. How much space in my head had this negativity greedily taken up when I wasn’t looking? How similarly must everyone else feel right now?

I reached down and wrenched some ivy away from where it was invading the siding of my house before going inside.

I might not clean out the actual flowerbed anytime soon, but my mind definitely needed some care. Times are hard (to put it obscenely mildly), and emotions high, so it’s easy to unconsciously get swept up in it all. And surely, everyone else in my life is also feeling pain and anguish. Grouchiness and pessimism, in all their manifestations, are easy for us; empathy and optimism are sometimes quite difficult. But if there’s anything the world needs more of these days, I believe compassion, patience, and understanding perfectly fit the bill. If I can just weed my own flowerbed, then my hands become free to help others do the same. All it took to remember this was a messy, unkempt flowerbed.

I went back outside to look at the zinnias. They stood bright and tall amongst the dandelions and brambles. They were, after all, the survivors of seeds sown with hope, and made it against the odds. I might not have a full flowerbed of blooms this year, but those two tiny seeds germinated into plants of perception.

That day, as I untangled my two zinnias from the surrounding grass, I brought back my awareness to my moods and thoughts. What kind of inner world then, do I want to create? What seeds shall I allow to take root in my heart and affect my life tomorrow? I must choose my next plantings carefully and deliberately so I can care for myself and extend that goodwill to others around me.

Thanks to two tough flowers, I now see that I have a lot of gardening to do indeed. And for this lesson from my front yard, I am certainly quite grateful.