Held by the Great Mother

During our first Open Spirit day, Held by the Great Mother, we took inspiration from our Palaeolithic ancestors whom it seems expressed something of their sense of the sacred through travelling deep into the dark womb of the Goddess in underground caves. Around the world there remain many examples of ancient sacred art created with natural earth pigments and charcoal on the walls of caves, some in places that lay deep underground in complete darkness.

The lighter openings of caves and rocky overhangs also offered shelter and camp sites, especially it seems by the sea and during the winter months, as food would continue to be available there for hunter gatherer people. I remember visiting a site in Scotland where the rock is still stained black by the smoke of ancient fires and where great heaps of discarded shells (shell middens) have been found and excavated by contemporary archaeologists.

Some of the earliest burial sites in Europe have been found in the UK and are also in caves, such as the so called 'Red Lady' of Paviland in South Wales. 'She' actually turned out to be a palaeolithic man (currently dated to around 32,000 BCE) who seems to have been ceremonially buried in a red dyed garment with hoops and wands of mammoth ivory and a collection of perforated periwinkle shells, perhaps a necklace or for divinatory use. (See the book 'Pagan Britain' by Bristol University professor  and historian Ronald Hutton for further reading).

Here in Devon we are blessed to have another significant ancient cave site on our doorstep, so when our Open Spirit group was looking for our first field trip, Kent's Cavern at Torquay was our obvious choice.
So a handful of us set off for Babbacombe on a lovely sunny November morning. Having gathered a little late for the first guided tour, we got off to a good start by shouting and staggering along in the darkness of the caves in search of the rest of the tour party, only to discover they were in fact all standing behind us, no doubt rather bemused by these odd women! It's fair to say that we were probably a thorn in the flesh of our tour guide with a combined tendency to break out into sacred chants, ask too many questions, get out sketchbooks and wander off the beaten track into the dark rather than being good and sticking to the well lit and well trodden paths.

We did have a wonderful time though and there is something very special about journeying into the earth in this way. The caverns themselves are very beautiful with their pillars of calcite in different forms and many still in the process of forming and so slick and shining with moisture in a way that seems both strangely molten and solid at the same time and with some of the fantastic shapes reflected in dark pools of water.

We stood in a bear's den and were shown the bones of animals that had lived in the caves long ago, sometimes alongside our early human ancestors... But perhaps the most powerful moments, certainly for me (Sam) was that of all the lights being extinguished, such that we could really experience the rare and complete darkness of being underground. Later, walking into the dark caves on my own, with no sense of where I was other than the feel of the earth beneath my feet, I felt rested by the depth of this darkness and by the way it slowly sharpened my other senses to the music of dripping water and the cool tang of the air. Contemporary culture is so well lit and so visually dominant and often over stimulating - so, if you are reading this, why not close your eyes for a moment and cup your hands over them... take a few slow breaths and rest in a few moments of deep, dark stillness.

Emerging later from the caves, we walked down to the sea close to Ansty's Cove. Following recent mornings of study and meditation on local geology, with the Wood Sisters Celtic Circle, it was a particular pleasure to meet the limestone and red sandstone cliffs and find many beautiful stones on the shore. Some of our hardier members stripped off for some wild swimming and then we all gathered in a circle to create a natural altar and share a spontaneous silent communion (featuring a breaking apart of 'the small orange of Christ' in place of the more common communion wafer and spring water in the place of wine). We then headed home for hot chocolate, so all in all, it was a great day of good company and wild and wonderful explorations.


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