Rocky Temples & Sacred Groves by Melusine Draco

Caves and groves played an important role in our ancestral story. In addition to providing shelter for our earliest forebears, caves were often considered to be an entrance to Otherworld’s mystical realms. For some cultures, caves were the gateways to the Underworld, while others believed that supernatural beings dwelled within.  Nevertheless, there are numerous craggy outcroppings and ranges of hills that add beauty and majesty to a landscape – and beneath them often lie miles of secret caves carved out of natural rock by primordial waters, giving us the Hollow Hills.

No doubt there are many caves – large and small, man-made and natural – around the world that have their own mystical character that remain tantalisingly beyond our understanding.   One such place is the prehistoric underground Hypogeum on Malta where Frater M was able to strip away all previous archaeological theories and reveal (to himself) the true secrets of this mysterious place and recorded in What You Call Time.

Without his extensive occult training Frater M would probably not have been able to ‘tune in’ to the psychic vibrations emanating from the underground chamber; an inexperienced person making the same discovery by accident would more than likely have been terrified out of their wits.  And, despite his vast experience of psychic phenomena, however, it still took about four hours for him to totally regain his equilibrium. [What You Call Time]

There is a marked different, however, between a sacred (temple) site and an ancient (burial) monument.  Sacred sites become sacred by a dedicated usage, while other places may have been consecrated for specific funerary use.  The building of megalithic monuments such as Maes Howe (Orkney) and New Grange (Ireland) burial sites are prime examples.  Rituals held in the past would have been dedicated to the cult of the Ancestors and the deities deemed to have been concerned with death and possibly regeneration.  It seems unlikely that such funerary sites would have been visited for anything other than the rites for which they were designed.

At the other end of the sacred/ancestral spectrum to the Maltese temple is Paviland cave on the Gower peninsula in South Wales, and a crucial site for tracing the origins of human life in Britain. It was in here, in 1823, that the excavated the remains of a body had been discovered that had been smeared with red ochre (naturally occurring iron oxide) and buried with a selection of periwinkle shells and ivory rods.  The headless skeleton was given the name – ‘the Red Lady of Paviland’ – and it is still called the Red Lady, even though the remains are those of a young man, probably in his late 20s.  He was buried some 34,000 years ago, making the ‘Red Lad’ the oldest anatomically modern human skeleton found in Britain, and marking Paviland as the site of the oldest ceremonial burial in western Europe.  The limestone cliffs along the Gower coast are known for their archaeological importance and a reindeer engraved on the wall of the nearby Cathole Cave has been confirmed as the oldest known rock art in Britain.

Equally mysterious are the engravings and paintings representing the first known flowering of cave art at Creswell Crags (a limestone gorge on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border) with other markings similar to those found in caves under the Mendip Hills in Somerset. The spectacular limestone gorge is thought to have been occupied as early as 43,000BC. This network of caves, weathered deep into the rock, no doubt provided shelter from the harsh conditions of the last Ice Age, and the area is now home to Britain’s most important collection of occupation sites from this period – but it was not until 2003 that Britain’s only confirmed examples of Ice Age cave art were discovered

The markings also include hundreds of letters, symbols and patterns carved at a time when belief in witchcraft was widespread; the scale and variety of the marks made on the limestone walls and ceiling of a cave – which has at its centre a deep, dark hole – is unprecedented.  Commonly known as ‘witch marks’ these apotropaic scratchings (from the Greek apotrepein meaning ‘to turn away’), are believed to be the biggest concentration of apotropaic marks, or symbols to ward off evil or misfortune, ever found in the UK.  Creswell Crags was already of international importance for its Ice Age art and to find this huge number of protection marks from the more recent past added a whole new layer of discovery.  Even two hundred years ago the English countryside was a very different place, death and disease were everyday companions and evil forces could readily be imagined in the dark.  One can only speculate on what it was that the people of Creswell feared might emerge from Otherworld into these caves.

The most famous examples of cave art are to be found in France and in Spain, but a few are also known in Portugal, England, Italy, Romainia, Germany and Russia with the total number of known sites being about four-hundred.  Most cave art consists of paintings made with either red or black pigment. The reds were made with iron oxides (hematite), whereas manganese dioxide and charcoal were used for the blacks. Cave art is now generally considered to have a symbolic or ritual function, sometimes both. The exact meanings of the images remain unknown, but no doubt were created within the framework of shamanic beliefs and practices. One such practice, no doubt,  involved going into a deep cave for a ceremony during which a shaman would enter a trance state and journey into Otherworld to make contact with the spirits in order to try to obtain their guidance.

Examples of paintings and engravings in deep caves – those existing in complete darkness -are rare outside Europe but are suggestive of being the forerunner of the chthonic beliefs of the Greeks and the deities of the Under/Otherworld.  And as Professor H W Janson observes in A History of Art, hidden away as they are in the bowels of the earth, to protect them from the casual intruder, these images must have served a purpose far more serious than mere decoration.

‘One of the most important and useful factors inherent in the study of rock or cave art is that its location has not changed – it is still where the artist chose to put it and the viewer is occupying the same space that the artist occupied.  This can give us a great deal of information that is far more solid and dependable than speculations about meaning.  In any culture there may be ‘good’ places and ‘bad’ places, and even inside caves there were probably places where such intangible factors played an important role in the decoration of the walls.

‘The natural architecture of caves played a role in the way in which they were decorated … and the ultimate example of this phenomenon is evident in the Pergouset Cave where the engraved art begins only after a long crawl, at full stretch, down a narrow, low, wet and unpleasant passage.  One of the engraved figures, a horse head, was made at arm’s length inside a fissure into which the artist could not possibly have inserted their head.  Even the artist never saw this figure: it was not meant to be seen by human eyes.’ [Art & Religion in the Stone Age]

What archaeologist, Paul Bahn finds even more intriguing are the numerous images that were purposely hidden, up high chimneys, under low overhangs or in niches. ‘Such imagery was not made to be seen by other Stone Age people, but was intended to be seen by – or was offered to – something else, perhaps a deity, spirit or ancestor.  In other words, some cave art (but not necessarily all of it) was clearly religious in some way and produced out of strongly held motivations’.  In fact, inaccessibility appears to be the crucial factor for this ‘hidden’ imagery.  Perhaps the overcoming of obstacles, the discomforts and dangers, were more important than the actual creation of the images.

Perhaps, too, the placing of the images in the most inaccessible location possible was somehow linked to the remoteness of the artist’s everyday world – and it was this remoteness that made the images as sacred as possible.  There is a suggestion that this exquisite cave art wasn’t meant to last and that its survival was irrelevant. This could certainly be true of Le Tuc d’Audoubert where the now-famous clay bison were made at the far end of the cave, after an arduous journey of nine-hundred metres – the farthest point that could be reached.  The images were left in the darkness, and it is doubtful whether anyone ever returned to see them until their discovery in the early 20th century.

And perhaps we should take Frater M’s experience in the Hypogeum in Malta into account when we study Bahn’s comments about another factor which may have played a significant role in the choice of location is acoustics:

‘Today we tend to enter these caves speaking in hushed tones, but this may be wrong – the original artists or users of the caves may well have been singing, chanting, or praying loudly while the images were being made or used.  We will never know, but studies of acoustics in some Ice Age decorated caves have detected a correlation between the locations of decoration and those places where men’s voices can best be heard. 

     Often, the areas with the best decoration have the best acoustics, while undecorated areas are totally flat in terms of sound quality.  In view of the obvious intelligence of artists, it is extremely likely that, just as they took full advantage of the morphology of the cave and of particular rock shapes, so they would also have used any acoustic peculiarities.  Anyone who has heard stalactites being played inside a deep, dark cave – they produce a soft marimba-like sound – will know how amazing the experience can be.

     One of the characteristics of Ice Age cave art is the exploitation of undulations in walls … and to gain a better idea of how these shapes would have appeared to Ice Age visitors, it is necessary to replicate the sources of light they would have used … which I believe can take us the farthest into the minds and motivations of the artists.’ [Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe]

In April 2003, further engravings and bas-reliefs were found on the walls and ceilings of some of the Creswell caves, an important find as it had previously been thought that no British cave art existed. The discoveries included an animal figure at first thought to be an ibex but later identified as a stag. Later finds included carvings on the ceiling of Church Hole Cave, the rarity of which made the site one of international importance.

‘To this day the finds at Creswell Crags represent the most northerly finds in Europe. Their subject matter includes representations of animals including bison and, arguably, several different bird species. The engravers seem to have made use of the naturally uneven cave surface in their carvings and it is likely that they relied on the early-morning sunlight entering the caves to illuminate the art.  The scientists and archaeologists concluded that it was most likely the engravings were contemporary with evidence for occupation at the site during the late glacial era around 13,000–15,000 years ago. Most of the engravings are found in Church Hole Cave on the Nottinghamshire side of the gorge. Since this discovery, however, an engraved reindeer from a cave on the Gower peninsula has yielded two minimum dates of 12,572 and 14,505 years.’ [Britain’s Oldest Art: The Ice Age cave art of Creswell Crags] 

Not all of the figures identified as prehistoric art are in fact man-made. An example given by archaeologists Paul Bahn and Paul Pettitt is the ‘horse-head’, which they say is ‘highly visible and resembles a heavily maned horse-head … lacks any trace of work: it is a combination of erosion, black stains for the head, and natural burrow cast reliefs for the mane’.  Others are a ‘bison-head’ which they think may be natural and a ‘bear’ image which ‘lacks any evidence of human work’. Notwithstanding they believe that more figures may be discovered in the future.

We know that sound plays an important role in magical practice, and research into our ancient past is revealing interesting technologies employed by ancient societies.  Also in history we see how the Greeks and Egyptians, and many other cultures worldwide used sound and light, and sometimes psychedelic substances in their temples.  The very bluestones of Stonehenge – themselves a long way from their native Preseli mountains – were hewn from rocks that ‘sing’.

 Nevertheless, this is obviously when the great awakening of symbolic, often referred to as ‘religious thought’ began.  The mysterious painted caves point to the time when mankind began to probe the boundaries of spirituality and are the natural cathedrals that witnessed the birth of religious belief. Questions inevitably follow.  How and why did the ancient artists do it?  The underground cathedrals of Palaeolithic times were dark, dangerous, dank and depressing.  They had to crawl through small openings carrying some 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.  Why would they do such a thing?

Chthonic might seem a lofty and learned word, but it’s actually pretty down-to-earth in its origin and meaning, since comes from chthōn, which means ‘earth’ in Greek, and is associated with things that dwell in or under the earth. And yet within living memory, at the inconspicuous Neolithic village of Carn Euny (Cornwall) there is a small, enclosed opening in the ground that leads to an underground chamber called a fogou.  Back when this village was occupied it was necessary to go to quite a bit of trouble to reach this subterranean, human-constructed cave, crawling on hands and knees down into the darkness. 

‘But there would inevitably come a day when kids grew old enough to be initiated into adulthood.  Suddenly mystery confronted them, and I imagine they were frightened out of their wits.  Here was a whole unexplored realm, right beneath their feet.  It must have been a spiritual awakening, discovering new worlds, adult worlds, and magical worlds where children were now expected to behave in a new way and take on mature responsibilities.  What went on down here?  What did they learn?  What mysteries were revealed?’ [The Modern Antiquarian]

There are no doubt many of these dark mini-caves all over the world serving a similar purpose. But once we get down on our hands and knees and make the mental and spiritual effort to crawl through the tunnel, we will, like the children of Carn Euny, never be the same again.  We will discover a world where much is the same, only more so.  We will discover the world of spirit, the world of alternate realities, the multi-verse, the place of alternative perceptions.  It’s right there underneath our feet and all around us, but we’ll never experience it unless we start searching … 

Once upon a time, there was a forest … and what a forest it was.  The Boreal Forest wraps around the globe at the top of the Northern Hemisphere in North America and Eurasia. Also known as taiga or snow forest, this landscape is characterized by its long, cold and snowy winters. In North America it extends from the Arctic Circle of northern Canada and Alaska down into the very northern tip of the United States in Idaho, Washington, Montana, and Minnesota.

In Eurasia, the taiga covers most of Sweden, Finland, much of Russia from Karelia in the west to the Pacific Ocean (including much of Siberia, much of Norway and Estonia, some of the Scottish Highlands, some lowland/coastal areas of Iceland, and areas of northern Kazakhstan, northern Mongolia, and northern Japan (on the island of Hokkaido).

Taiga in its current form is a relatively recent phenomenon, having only existed for the last 12,000 years since the beginning of the Holocene epoch, covering land that had been under the Scandinavian Ice Sheet in Eurasia and the Laurentide Ice Sheet in North America during the Late Pleistocene Age.  Nevertheless, it’s the planet’s single largest biological environment and makes up thirty percent of the globe’s forest cover. The main tree species, the length of the growing season and summer temperatures vary across the world. The taiga of North America is mostly spruce; Scandinavian and Finnish taiga consists of a mix of spruce, pines and birch; Russian taiga has spruces, pines and larches depending on the region, while the Eastern Siberian taiga is a vast larch forest.

Nearer to home, the Old Caledonia Forest (Scotland), was part of this immense area and even as late as medieval times, the great forest of native pine and birch stretched across most of the Highlands from Perth to Ullapool.  But with deforestation and the insatiable timber demands of the Napoleonic Wars and the Highlands Clearances, together with intensive sheep and deer grazing, by the 1970s it was estimated that little more than 25,000 acres remained.

Although I am drawn to the sheer beauty and magnificence of mountains, I would never have the courage to be a mountaineer.  And yet I have never had any fear of forests, no matter how dark or dense … and on the lower slopes of my mountains the forests are as dark and dense as any primordial woodland of the imagination. Forests can be spooky if we’re not used to them but it’s different if we grow up around them because the trees and the darkness are our friends and provide us with protection.

Nevertheless, there is something of the night about forests. Even at the height of summer, even under the midday sun, they are places of murk and mystery, blotting out the light with a mille-feuille of foliage. Even the most regimented spruce plantation has its shadows and its secrets. ‘At the heart of every forest is a darkness that bides its time,’ wrote Phil Daoust in the Guardian.  ‘And as the sun goes down, after that lovely hour of slanting golden light, this dark spirit reclaims its own, rolling out across bracken and brambles towards its still-grey borders. Then wood is at its woodiest.’

And yet … for those of us who grew up with Pan as a playmate these wooded places are beautiful, enchanting, magical and … yes … sacred.   There is a time-less romanticism in the forest that interweaves myth and history, legend and folklore.  It is a multi-layer tapestry woven in rich, natural colours that change with the season and provides a convivial habitat for a wide variety of flora and fauna. Which might explain why, in so many primitive cultures it is a requirement of tribal initiation to spend a lengthy period alone in the forests or mountains, a period of coming to terms with the solitude and non-humanity of Nature so as to discover who, or what, we really are – a discovery hardly possible while the community is telling us what we are, or ought to be.  Or as Alan Watts observes in Nature, Man & Woman:

‘He may discover, for instance, that loneliness is the masked fear of an unknown which is himself, and that the alien-looking aspect of nature is a projection upon the forests of his fear of stepping outside habitual and conditioned patterns of feeling.  There is much evidence to show that for anyone who passes through the barrier of loneliness, the sense of individual isolation bursts, almost by dint of its own intensity, into the ‘all-feeling’ of identity with the universe.  One may pooh-pooh this as ‘nature mysticism’ or pantheism’, but it should be obvious that a feeling of this kind corresponds better with a universe of mutually interdependent processes and relations than with a universe of distinct, block-like entities.’

The forest played an important role in the beliefs of our Ancestors, for in the remote area of Wildwood we find sacred groves but the term ‘ancient woodland’should not be confused with ‘wildwood’.  Wildwood refers to the woodland that developed in the UK and across Europe after the last glaciations, although the nature of the Wildwood is the subject of some debate. Was it dense, dark forest or open savannah with trees?  Whatever its nature, Wildwood was never ‘managed’ as we understand the term today.

Historically, the term ‘Wildwood’ is the name given to the forests as they were some 6,000 years ago, before human interference. On a magical level, the Wildwood refers to those strange, eerie places that remain the realm of Nature and untamed by man. It is the Otherworld of unearthly and potentially dangerous beings. This is the realm of Pan and the Wild Hunt. In modern psychology it refers to the dark inner recesses of the mind, the wild and tangled growths of the unconscious. Here among the trees we are never sure that what we see is reality or illusion, and the nearest most of us come to experiencing it is through that wonderful passage in The Wind in the Willows where Mole is lost …

“… he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer … Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before, and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water … Then the whistling began …”

Mériém Clay-Egerton wrote extensively on the subject of trees and produced some extremely evocative pieces relating to Wildwood experiences, which were sadly, left unpublished at the time of her death. Here she describes the strange half-light that anyone who walks in the Wildwood will immediately recognise …

To me this was a place that had obviously been held as a sacred area for so very long now that it had in its turn breathed this very atmosphere itself, and so projected this onto the mind which was prepared or conditioned to be both sympathetic and empathic to various woodlands and their forms of existence … It resembled what I might envisage as a naturally constructed ‘cathedral’. Here lived and breathed holiness and beauty …”

It is impossible to describe the sensations of the Wildwood, but no one who has walked there can remain unchanged by the experience. This is the natural Wildwood of our legends, where it is said that the forest knows all and is able to teach all; that the forest listens and holds the secret of every mystery. A legacy of prehistoric traditions of nature conservation, sacred groves are patches of forest that rural communities in the ancient world protected and revered as sacrosanct. Deeply held spiritual beliefs ensured that not a tree was felled nor a creature harmed within its boundaries.  Since ancient times, those woods have been the places of sacred groves and nemorous temples.

A sacred grove is any that is of special religious importance to a particular culture. Sacred groves feature in various cultures throughout the world. The Celts used sacred groves, called nemeton, for performing rituals, based on their mythology. Nemeton were often fenced off by enclosures, as indicated by the German term Viereckschanze – meaning a quadrangular space surrounded by a ditch enclosed by wooden palisades.

Trees held a particular role in Germanic paganism and mythology, both as individuals (sacred trees) and in groups (sacred groves). The central role of trees in Germanic religion is noted in the earliest written reports about the Germanic peoples, with the Roman historian Tacitus stating that Germanic cult practices took place exclusively in groves rather than temples. Scholars consider that reverence for, and rites performed at individual trees, are derived from the mythological role of the world tree, Yggdrasil; some historical evidence also connects individual deities to both groves and individual trees, and even after Christianization, trees continued to play a significant role in the folk beliefs of these people.

The Wildwood, however, is the dark, untamed part of natural woodland where unearthly and potentially dangerous beings are still to be found. This is not everyone’s favourite place and many urban witches never get over an ‘atavistic fear of Nature uncontrolled’. Mériém Clay-Egerton described the strange half-light that anyone who walks in the Wildwood will immediately recognise. ‘I was always glad to go deeper into the apparent gloom because I would be beyond one of the woodland’s outer barriers’.  Nevertheless, even witches are not always welcome in this tree-filled wilderness. Hostile forces can physically bar our entrance into the inner sanctum of the wood, just as Philip Heselton describes in Secret Places of the Goddess: ‘The undergrowth is a thick tangle of briar and bramble, giving the aura of a place ‘set apart for mysterious concealment’. Entwined with these almost impenetrable barriers, are tufts of tall ferns, the seeds of which can be used to cast a witch’s cloak of invisibility. We must learn to heed the signs, however, for Nature does not always allow humans to pass.’

According to the Speculum Christiani, a fourteenth century manuscript against divination, Welsh soothsayers would invoke the name of Gwyn ap Nudd, the king of the Tylwyth Teg or ‘Faere folk’ and ruler of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, before entering woodlands, proclaiming: ‘To the king of Spirits, and to his queen – Gwyn ap Nudd – you who are yonder in the forest, for love of your mate, permit us to enter your dwelling’.  Similarly, the oldest Hellenic oracle, the oak of Dodona in Epirus in northwestern Greece, was tended by priests who slept on the ground by the tree.  During classical antiquity, priests in the sacred grove interpreted the rustling of the oak leaves to determine actions to be taken.

Sacred caves and groves were natural holy places that were later re-created in the stone-built temples and cathedrals that mirrored the trunk-like columns and pillars and creating the cavernous darkness within the holy precincts. For the people of the Elder Faith, however, there is still a preference for those sacred places that were created when the world was young

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