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

An Atheopagan Tarot Spread

I have written before about “divination” and particularly the use of complex symbol systems such as runes or Tarot cards in Atheopaganism. We can use these symbol sets to access our intuitive and subconscious understandings of our situations, despite the fact that the arrangement of the cards (runes, bones, tea leaves, etc.) is random.

When reading Tarot, what I am always looking for is that sense of deep recognition: when a particular card in a particular position just feels wise and right and true.

I have long since divested myself of the commonplace “Celtic Cross” layout which is the most commonly taught layout for the cards, and thought today I would share a layout I have devised which is consistent with my Atheopagan practice.

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The reading begins with a reader declaration: The aspect of my life this reading applies to is…

And then the eight cards are laid out, as above.

  1. Where I have been.
  2. Where am I headed now (if I keep doing what I am doing).
  3. What is known.
  4. What is hidden to me.
  5. My challenge is…
  6. How I can help myself to evolve?
  7. This evolution will help me to…
  8. Theme/summation/archetype

 

In the reading above, my declaration was, “The aspect of my life this reading applies to is career and finances.”

  1. I have been worried and fearful, perhaps not noticing some of the good in my life for fear of survival.
  2. Where I am headed now is to confront and overcome this fear. I am on a good track.
  3. What is known is that it is an economically hostile world. Opportunities can be hard to come by, and previous encounters haven’t necessarily worked out.
  4. What is hidden, however, is the opportunity presented by an expansive vision and a willingness to take risks.
  5. My challenge is a feeling of imprisonment, of being trapped. Of not having options.
  6. I can help myself to evolve by transitioning out of “refugee” status: no longer thinking of myself as powerless, but rather having new opportunities.
  7. This evolution will help me to master my economic fate, and thrive.
  8. The summation of this is that I have prioritized other areas like love and relationships over money-making. It is not a “failing” to be in this circumstance now.

If the Tarot spreads you have been using don’t feel quite right, give this one a try!

With Both Hands in Grave Dirt

‘Tis the season for we Pagany/witchy types. There is an entire aesthetic we—or most of us, anyway—enjoy that has a brief moment in the waning sun each year, and this is it.

Now, as Atheopagans, we don’t believe in ghosts or spirits or Dark God/desses. But that doesn’t matter: there is plenty of rich fodder for ritual, for reflection, and for psychological transformation at this time of year.

We’ve all been hurt. We’ve all suffered loss. And we have only to look out to the world around us to find ample and overflowing reason for rage, for sorrow and for lament.

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Bones, skulls, graves and funerary ceremonies are powerful images and processes. They bring us into encounter with the fact of death and are cathartic moments when our deepest feelings can emerge. And this is the time of year most apt for these kinds of rituals.

So here are some ideas. These can be solitary or group rituals; in my experience such rituals are powerfully transformative and can make a real difference in our lives. You can do them in a back yard or even in a private corner of a public park*.

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  • Dig a shallow (perhaps 1′ deep) “grave” and hold a FUNERAL for (preferably biodegradable) symbols of what has departed or no longer serves you in your life. Enclose them in a wooden or cardboard “coffin” and bury it with full ritual honors. Keep a flower from the funeral and dry it for your Focus (I put mine in the Underworld section of my Focus, where I keep pictures of my Beloved Dead, as well as of ancestors, destruction and change.)6325510481_ffb3c10f22_b
  • Alternatively, build a PYRE. Place on it the symbols of what you wish to release, and light it ablaze. Be sure to practice fire safety–you can even do this ritual on a backyard fire pit. When the flames have cooled, keep a coal or a small portion of ashes from the fire for your Focus, to remind you of the change you have undergone.a4203082386_10.jpg
  • Perform a RESURRECTION. Something Missing from your life that you once had–some activity you loved, or quality or feeling about life? Build a mounded grave with a symbol or symbols of it buried inside. After dark, go to the grave and build a Focus beside it illumined by chimney candles or a jack o’lantern. Go for the spookiest look and feeling you can find!Contemplate the Focus; perhaps sip some blood-red wine. When the moment feels right, slowly dig for the symbol(s) of what has been lost, chanting, Bring it back to me, bring it back to me. Seize the symbol(s) tightly when you find them, and hold each to your heart. Replace the dirt as before. Carry the symbol with you, at least until Yule. This ritual can be even more powerful if done as a group, with one person as the “subject” and the rest choosing the symbol(s) to be buried and creating the grave–in this way, the subject will not know what is in the grave and its emotional impact will be stronger.

 

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  • Visit with ANCESTORS. This one CAN be done in a a cemetery, preferably after dark. Prepare by anointing a black candle with cedar oil (the scent of coffin wood–at least, that’s my association. You can also use yew, which is an evergreen traditionally planted in cemeteries). Plant the candle in the ground, and light it (bring a glass chimney to keep the wind from blowing it out).Bring a list of ten or twenty of your ancestors’ names, if you don’t know many of them by heart. Read the list aloud, repeating 3 times. Ask aloud, three times, What, wise ancestors, would you have me know? What is your message for me? Pay close attention to what message arises from within you, for it is your wisest self speaking to you. I do not recommend this ritual for those with a history of abuse at the hands of family—the Abuser Voice is a powerful psychological structure and may hijack the process.

One of the things that scares people of the Overculture about Pagans is that unlike them, we are not in denial about the dark aspects of existence. We understand an emphasis on “white light and love” to be an incomplete and illusory perspective on the complex mixture that is our human reality. Death and loss are a part of this—and we as Atheopagans are even more unflinching about this, because we understand that an afterlife is highly unlikely. Working with the physical and symbolic reality of death and endings renders us more grounded in reality, more psychologically healthy and empowered, and more able to be effective in the world.

Speaking of, it IS the season! Be sure to complete or update your Death Instructions!


* Though it would be really cool, I do not recommend trying these rituals in an actual cemetery, as you may end up talking with police.

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