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niaux cave paintings france
'Palaeolithic artists let
the stone speak' - here a
black hole in the rock
is used for the eye-socket
What songs did they dream? Celia wondered and immediately went on to answer her own question. For she now realized that she must be standing in a sanctuary, the Holy of Holies of Niaux where in the dim and distant past rituals, shamanic activities, had been carried out whose ultimate purpose was to reach an ecstatic state of self-abandonment and union with the divine. She remembered someone saying that as the bison was the strongest animal and therefore symbolized the dark, blind forces of nature more than any other, it was not too difficult to imagine that the visionaries’ incantations would have been primarily addressed to the bison. When the Magdalenian hunters descended into the immense depths and darkness of the caves they would have done so in order to follow a spiritual quest, singing and consecrating the bison. And the spirit of nature manifested itself in bison form.
Celia stood in solemn silence. Once more, she was drawn to her favourite bison, the one with the magic eye. He appeared more majestic than ever. But this time she felt not fear but awe towards this partaker of the divine. She realized also that if she wanted to get but an inkling of his mystery, she, too, must abandon her need for explanations and answers, and simply accept that here in the depths of darkness the boundaries between the real and the mystical are fluid – that here things happen which could not happen in the daylight world of reason.
The guide’s reminder that time was running out and that they must start their return journey broke violently into Celia’s world of thoughts. Her experience of the paintings had been so intense; it had literally carried her out of the present. But it was time to leave the magic realm and commence the long and difficult trek back to the outside world. Would she be able to do it on her own this time, without the help of the kind stranger? She bent down and fumbled about to find her lamp. ‘Better not look up; it might appear as if I was looking for him.’ But her nameless, faceless saviour already stood next to her and without so much as a word, offered his hand. Using the previously established pattern, they once again proceeded hand in hand, now climbing up that precipitous descent that had led to the high-vaulted temple of the Salon Noir, now squeezing through the low galleries, down the rock face, across the flooded riverbed and back to the flat sandbanks where the going was relatively easier. And still they continued in silent unison. The thought that with his help she had almost completed the tour filled her with deep gratitude. But there was so much more than the physical achievement. Not only had she seen but she had been able - albeit in a small measure – to share in the mystery of the paintings. The realization that she had felt something of the paradox of seeing by the light of darkness made her feel light-headed, light-bodied even with joy. She could have jumped for joy. Perhaps he sensed her elation, for now they were effortlessly speeding across the desert sand, their feet hardly touching the ground. After a while he said: “C’est comme marcher sur la lune.” It was only the second comment during this long, arduous journey, and it hung like vapour in the air. “Yes, it certainly is!” she replied and inwardly she continued: ‘to walk hand in hand for almost two hours with a stranger, entrusting myself blindly to someone I do not know and will not recognize if I meet him again, and more extraordinary still, for this stranger to unquestioningly, unconditionally take on my difficulties as if they were his own, this most certainly is out of this world.’ Offering and taking someone’s hand was such a very personal act, and yet, what they were experiencing was not personal, it went beyond the personal, it was suprapersonal, beyond the boundaries of ‘you’ and ‘I’.
They were rapidly getting towards the end of their journey. They had just reached the point where the guide had shown them the original, vertiginous entrance into the cave from on high – the starting-point, too, of their unforgettable joint descent into the depths of the cave. Celia felt she needed to express her gratitude however inadequate and awkward the words might sound in her primitive French. ‘I want to thank you with all my heart’, she began but again he would not let her speak. She felt rebuffed, almost hurt by his refusal to let her thank him. She hoped though he would know how deeply grateful she would always feel. They walked on in mutual silence. They were back on the smooth path, and now they crossed the threshold that brought them back into the man-made tunnel. It was inordinately difficult to leave the shared experience behind and to re-emerge into the daylight world of chartered ways. Finally, they parted and put their lamps back on the shelf. When she had returned hers, she stood to the side and waited for him. She watched as deep in thought he replaced his lamp. She stepped forward and stretching out her hand, said: “I would like to say good-bye to you.” They shook hands and for a while their eyes met. Then he, the generous, selfless helper, said in a low voice: “Merci.” Celia shook her head in protest - surely, she was the one who was in debt, not he? But in her heart – that part of her which was still in the dark, undifferentiated depths of the cave – she understood that he thanked her for her part in the journey that had taken them down into the transformative, sacred zone, out of time, where the incomprehensible can happen, where gratitude and mercy had mysteriously intertwined and become the ‘twice-blessed - blessing him that gives, and him that takes.’ After a while he added: “au revoir” and after another pause: “à la prochaine.” She nodded and smiled politely. They were back in time where people know and respect the rules of the game.
Ilse Vickers
University College London
Further Reading:
Cave Art: An Intuition of Eternity
Dr. Ilse Vickers
Bradshaw Foundation Homepage
French Cave Paintings & Rock Art Archive
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