Enlarged entrance to Carn Euny fogou.

Caves and Portals: The Hidden World Beneath Us & Rites of Passage

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To enter the famous European caves of Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira, Pech Merle and many others is to enter another world.  You are greeted by a whole menagerie of hauntingly beautiful representations of animal images.  Bison, bear, deer and mammoths abound, painted in such a way that the very rock formations of walls and ceiling accentuate their features.  The famous Hall of the Bulls in Lascaux is a gallery that will easily accommodate fifty people.

Great Hall of the Bulls, 15,000–13,000 BCE, Paleolithic rock painting, Lascaux, France ©Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication

Great Hall of the Bulls, 15,000–13,000 BCE, Paleolithic rock painting, Lascaux, France ©Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication (Steven Zucker/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

The ancient artists who created these masterpieces can stand toe to toe with Michelangelo.  Though their work may not be as polished, coming from a different culture, using primitive material for pigment and working under extremely harsh conditions, the sensory effect is the same.

After the initial shock of discovery wears off you are forced to wonder what could have inspired these ancient, creative artists.  

Explanations abound, but two are most popular: 

1.  Henri Breuil believed the paintings were meant to serve as magical aids to increase the success of the hunt or to initiate young boys into the society of men.  This was a predominate theory for years, popularized in the ‘70s by the late Joseph Campbell.

2.  David Lewis-Williams decided they were the work of Paleolithic shamans who, beginning some 40,000 years ago (although recent discoveries of similar caves in Indonesia push this date back an astonishing 164,000 years!) figured out how to induce a trance state, either naturally or through the use of psychedelic plants or mushrooms, in which they would "journey" to what they perceived as parallel spiritual dimensions.  Upon their return they painted what they saw during their "trips." 

Ancient altered perceptions.

Ancient altered perceptions. ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 /Deriv)

He believed that the paintings were representations of hallucinogenic illusions, dismissing parallel dimensions out of hand.  Others question his hypothesis.  They wonder if the realms to which the shamans journeyed actually exist out there in a huge universe of mysterious dark matter.

Symbolic and Religious Thought

In any case, this is when the great awakening of symbolic, often called religious, thought began.  The mysterious painted caves point to the time we began to probe the boundaries of spirituality.  They are the cathedrals that witnessed the birth of religion.

Questions inevitably follow.  How and why did the ancient ones do it?  The underworld cathedrals of Paleolithic times were dark, dangerous, dank and depressing.  They had to crawl through small openings carrying torches or some other sputtering light source, fully aware that if it went out, leaving them in darkness so profound they couldn't even see their hand in front of their face, they would probably die there.  The sharp, ragged rocks scraped their back and knees, and unfathomable drop-offs opened up suddenly before them at every turn.  They risked their life and sanity every time.  Who would do such a thing?

As it turns out, artists did.  Again and again. For thousands of years.

Entering the Unknown: Carn Euny

I caught a glimpse of what it must have been like to leave the world of the familiar and enter a portal to the unknown a few years ago when I was invited to speak at a gathering in Cornwall in the UK.  A few days before I gave a talk about the roots of world religions, my hosts took me to visit the ancient Neolithic village of Carn Euny.  Though separated from the great painted caves of Europe by thousands of years, the cultures of the two sites may have shared some similar goals and attributes.    

The energy there was wonderful.  It was a peaceful feeling, a happy place.  People lived here right up until the time of the Romans.  They loved, dreamed, worked and probably thought their way of life would last forever.  I could easily believe that children had been born on this spot of ground, grown to adulthood and died in peace, never having traveled very far from the site of these rolling hills.

But beneath their feet lay a completely different world. 

An Underworld Explored

At an inconspicuous place in the village there is a small, enclosed opening in the ground that leads to an underground chamber called a fogou.  It has been excavated and a new entrance built so we could actually walk almost upright into a subterranean, human-constructed cave.  But back when this village was occupied you had to go to quite a bit of trouble to reach it, crawling on your hands and knees down into the darkness.  I imagine that if the entrance was covered and protected by a strong warning whenever a new generation of kids discovered it, the youngsters might never have known it was there.

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