“Stars etched by forgotten hands emerge from the darkness, as animals swarm in red ochre and charcoal birds appear in feathered flight. Slowly, lamplight ripples over the curves and contours of the cave, illuminating a dreamtime within of tangled herds of auroch, bison and bear. A hunting ground of eternity lingering on in pigment and bone marrow. A world within a world, a celestial mirror where animals leap and arrows rain down in fire and blood. Enigmatic and strange, they are the dreams, visions and memories of those who have gone before, but as the wick is crushed the images fade into darkness, and the mind sinks back into primordial night, to the vast expanse of the dawning of the world.
To our ancestors the cave was not only a place of shelter, but also a symbol of the womb of the earth. An entrance to the chthonic realm that receives all things, where seeds germinate, and new life flickers into being. Although a place of origin to the Aztec, Pueblo and Hopi peoples, for most other cultures it was a place of illusion, of ritual offerings of shells, carved ivory and whitened bone. While in the mouth of the cave, the liminal line between the worlds, stones were often left, “symbolising the souls of the dead who would be reborn from the womb of the goddess, of the ancient earth mother”.2
The cave was also a place of initiation into the mysteries of life and death. The great 20th-century mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote of this when he said: “rites…together with the mythologies that support them, constitute the second womb…mythology being the womb of mankind’s initiation into life and death”.3 In the primeval wild of the cave, initiates would have crawled through cramped and suffocating passageways where, amid swarming spirits, they would have received visions in states of trance and ecstasy, before returning reborn, and bathed in the brilliant white light of the sun. This motif is found the world over, from the solar deity, or King, who is born in a cave in the depths of the bleak midwinter, to the Greek god Zeus, sheltered in a cave on the island of Crete, nursed by nanny goats, and fed with honey from the wild hive. As the sun emerges from the underworld and from the cave, it, too, is reborn. Once accompanied by the goddess, bringer of spring, beauty and fertility, together these ancient symbols – earth and sky, light and dark, masculine and feminine – are united, and from their sacred marriage balance and harmony are realised, both within and without.
Wholeness may then be seen as the goal of the great work, of the journey of life, whose allegorical symbol has long been compared to a labyrinth. With roots stretching back to the spiral carvings of the Neolithic age, the labyrinth symbolises the torturous path of life where, at the centre, we meet our darkest fears. It is at this darkest point where we face ourselves, and all that we have repressed up to that point. Our shadow filled with all the hurt, trauma and shame, but as Carl Jung said, “the shadow is ninety percent pure gold,” and so the realisation that life is worth living is so often born in that heart of darkness.”
‘The Golden Thread’ by Amy Fry can be purchased on Amazon.