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.
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.
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)
- 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.
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
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.
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