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Shamans and Psychopomps

How the Le Bugue caves spurred a re-imagining of our prehistoric world

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Le Bugue is a picturesque and unassuming French provincial town, of the sort that has so often seduced the British imagination: winding, cobbled streets, pitched red tiled roofs, little restaurants by a cool river, creamy limestone cliffs and rolling woodland: la douce France of Périgord. My husband, the poet Sebastian Barker, and I had been given the opportunity to spend our writing summer in a friend’s house not far from this pretty town. One of the reasons I had seized the chance was that nearby, in the valley of the Vézère, were the Lascaux caves, containing some of the finest intact Stone Age paintings in the world.

I’d first heard the famous story of their discovery in my childhood. While accounts vary, in essence it involved four teenage boys who, discovering a hole they thought might lead to legendary treasure, found themselves when they descended into it in a vast complex of caves, their walls covered with colossal friezes of reindeer, bison, aurochs and ibex.

This was the extent of my knowledge upon our arrival, and of course Lascaux was definitely one of our goals. So we set off up the Vézère, reaching Le Bugue by lunchtime and picnicking by the lazy waters of the river. Out of almost casual interest we decided to visit the cave signposted on the outskirts of town. Inside, I saw none of the dramatic paintings I had naively expected, but the geological formations were intriguing as we followed the guide into the darkness. Gradually, the slightly damp coolness, the shadows, the enclosed space began to effect a change in our mental state to a heightened awareness and expectation. The guide used her pointer to make us aware of deep gashes on the cave walls which we would otherwise have failed to notice: they were the marks of Ice Age bears who had sharpened their claws as they awoke from hibernation. Then suddenly the tiny spotlight traced other lines and out of the rock face emerged the engraved silhouette of a bear, many bears, woolly rhinos and mammoths, stubby-maned horses, bison.

It seemed the wall was coming alive with their spirits as the guide showed us how the natural curvature and accidents of the rock had suggested an imaginative landscape to the hunter gatherers of some 17,000 years ago. A whole world of which I had known nothing burst into evocative life before me; by the time I emerged out of this strange new territory back into the sunlight, I knew I wanted to investigate what these caves could tell us about our human condition. As I subsequently did so, I found I needed to retell, in poetic form, this vanished and frequently misrepresented part of our history. This was the genesis of my sequence, ‘When the Animals Came’, published in A Valley of this Restless Mind (1997).

For the next three years my energies were devoted to researching this prehistoric world in order to enter it without sentimentality or preconception. It changed me forever.

I visited all the sites open to the public in that area of France, and some that were not. To do this I had to find out where they were. This is not as easy as you might imagine since only the most striking are listed in guidebooks. So I took to ferreting out scholarly volumes by archaeologists who had worked on countless smaller sites to give me a truly three-dimensional sense of this culture, or civilisation — as I soon began to think of it. The slow, powerful accumulation of evidence, where paleolithic man had left his art and artefacts, started to tell its own story. Clambering up steep-sided river valleys under perilously overhanging rocks; tracing extant and vanished water courses; squeezing into claustrophobic spaces and down dark passageways: all this physical experience spoke to me of the kind of vision paleolithic man had of his environment, real and transcendent.

Realising that their environment was one I had to seriously understand if I was to evoke how the cave painters lived, painted, worshipped and died, I began studying how climate has oscillated over time — patterns that are deduced from Antarctic ice and marine floor cores. It meant reading expert scientific literature on carbon and thermoluminescence dating and on paleobotany and zoology to recreate the ecological palette of the Old Stone Age, so that in my mind’s eye I could strip the landscape of its modern attributes and try to imagine steppe where now there is thick, deciduous forest.

It also meant researching the methods of experimental archaeology to see how flints are made, how you spark fire from dried mushrooms and crush paints from earth. It meant looking at rare breed cattle to see what an aurochs might have looked like. It meant learning about the everyday life of native Americans and Australian Aborigines before the colonial incursions, about the way modern Sami and Siberian pastoralists coexist with their reindeer. And it meant some very hard reflection as to how the rapid warming of our planet from around 10,000 B.C. brought about the modification and destruction of – and our profound amnesia about – the paleolithic way of life.

Central to my sequence ‘When The Animals Came’ was the question of ancient beliefs. Since the first discoveries of cave paintings in 1880 (in Spain’s Cave of Altamira), there has been constant speculation about their significance for those who made them. They have been interpreted as ‘sympathetic magic’ to ensure a successful hunt; as images of female and male within a sort of yin and yang cosmogony; most recently, and in my view, most convincingly, they’ve been read as a means of communicating with the spirit world which infused every action of these artists and their communities.

Face to face with the paintings, their sophistication of conception, symbolism and execution took my breath away: they were clearly created out of the deepest wells of human creativity and thought about our place in the universe. While I worked on ‘When the Animals Came’, the untouched cave complex of Chauvet in the Ardèche was discovered, provoking stupor at its size, accomplishment and great age, even amongst the most hardened of sceptics. Many such remarkable messages from our ancestors must still lie out there, waiting.

How did all this translate into poetry? Above all, it meant getting rid of the biases, prejudices and misconceptions about modern, Western civilisation that I had been taught or had assumed. I found myself stripped down, intellectually and spiritually, entering the world of the hunter-gatherers to learn what they have to tell us about our relationship to our planet. I began to comprehend that, long, long before humans farmed or lived in cities, we were spiritual beings and artists. This is what I wished to convey in my sequence.

The density of sites around Les Eyzies de Tayac (designated the ‘capital of prehistory’ in France) made it the obvious choice for the physical setting of the sequence. The first poem, ‘Autumn’ tells of a reindeer hunt along the Vézère as both man and animal move symbiotically with the changing season. ‘Winter’ is the time for the consolidating activities of the women, whom I imagine as being just as involved in tool making as the men, and it is where the two main protagonists, the shaman, Sinhikole, and his wife, Ezpela, enter the poem. Theirs is the central section, a celebration of their love and marriage, a union begun in youthful glory but honed over many years of experience together.

Their relationship is tested to the limit in the section, ‘Spring’, which imagines a coming together of the tribes for exchange, feasting and religious celebration, when marriages could be brokered and knowledge shared; but the crux of the sequence is Sinhikole’s descent into the caves to enter the spirit world. Here I drew upon a mysterious image in Lascaux found in a dangerously inaccessible shaft called ‘the pit’, where a rare depiction of a human, apparently gored and dying, lies beside a gored and dying bison.

The wounded man as psychopomp is one of the most widespread and enduring psychological and theological tropes in human culture, and so this image became for me the bridge between the ancient and the modern mind. Sinhikole finds himself invested with spirit powers. Finally, in ‘Summer’ I evoke how this way of life came to an end: the transformation of landscape and tradition by climate change, and the coming of the great forgetting:

                    	Sinhikole touches his wife’s hand.
High on the upper levels of the cliffs he leans
Against the limestone, warm from the setting sun,
And studies the outlines of the plateaux
Across which the brotherhoods used to come.
The river runs a curl of silver through the trees.

The bulls leap in the sleepless sanctuaries.

The silence of the forest grows apace.

Writing this poem turned out to be not just the product of my own acts of research and creation. My own mind was profoundly enriched and altered in the process and I can never look at my own society, its preoccupations, achievements and failures, in the same way again. It is my hope that others, reading it, will also go on this journey.

Hilary Davies’ fourth collection, Rhine Fugue, is due from Enitharmon Press in 2016.

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