Initiation Rites – The Womb of the Mountain

Initiation Rites – The Womb of the Mountain

Several readers of The Priestʼs Wife have commented on the passage in which Morag, the protagonist, descends to a cave deep in a mountain and there spends three days and nights in darkness. The Priestʼs Wife is the second book of the Isle Fincara Trilogy by A.G.Rivett, published by my small imprint, Pantolwen Press. The third book is still being written but, like the first two, it is set on an imaginary island in a parallel world with a Celtic culture rather like ours of a thousand years ago. “I wouldn’t have liked to go down in that cave,” said one reader. Another asked the author, “Is the cave based on a rite youʼve experienced?” (Heʼs been down a coal mine and a slate mine.) “I recognise that cave scene on an intuitive level,” affirmed a third, adding: “The initiation it describes is something much needed in our times.” This last reader went on to discuss Homo naledi, who lived approximately 250,000 years ago (well before Homo sapiens). The bones of this hominid were found deep in a network of caves in South Africa, and excavated in 2013 and 2014.

Thereʼs some controversy about the Netflix documentary about this find and its implications. The scientists involved have been accused of making claims without adequate supporting evidence. But how much supporting evidence can you expect from 250,000 years ago? I’ve recently been attending a series of seminars on Celtic Religions by the archaeologist Dr Ralph Heussler. After presenting the evidence thatʼs been dug up, the matter of interpreting it becomes one of speculation. No doubt there are better and worse-informed guesses. But, so often, there just isnʼt enough evidence to be definite about exactly what went on all those years ago, let alone why. Tom Stoppardʼs play Arcadia illustrates this, showing us scenes in the life of a country house in the early 19thcentury, interspersed with scenes of late 20thcentury academics speculating about what happened—but never discovering what we, the audience, have been shown. Time and again in Ralphʼs Celtic Religions seminars, when we had laid out all the possibilities that occurred to us, someone turned to him in the hope of hearing received opinion. He never rose to this. We long for definite answers, but so often are left with mystery.

Iʼve been watching Neil Oliverʼs three-part series, Sacred Wonders of Britain, on the BBC IPlayerArchive. The first of these goes back to the times of the earliest human settlers of the British Isles and the traces they left behind of their lives. One of the sites Neil Oliver focuses on is a Neolithic flint mine in present-day Norfolk, known as Grimes Graves. But, he points out, nobody needs to carve out a mine to get flints. They’re readily available on the surface. So why the mine? Itʼs been suggested that people went down there at the cusp of adult life to find the flint they would use as a cutting instrument for the rest of their lives. Did they go alone? Or were they, like Morag, taken down and left there for a limited time? We cannot tell. But it seems likely, if there was no practical need to mine for flints, the purpose of the mine was on another level. Was it created to provide an ordeal of initiation into adult life?

Adult life in those times would have required very considerable qualities of courage, endurance and skill that we, in our more comfortable times, can hardly imagine. I mean—how ready might you or I have been aged, say, twelve, for our first mammoth hunt? Naming the mammoth immediately brings up for me the regret that our ancestors hunted it to extinction, suggesting that our forefathers werenʼt necessarily wiser in their dealings with the creatures they shared the land with than we are now. But, for sure, to survive into adulthood in the times before farming, hunting as well as gathering would have been essential. For me, Carlos Castenedaʼs shamanic books set in New Mexico make that kind of a world more imaginable as, with the viewpoint of a twentieth century man, he details the level of skill needed to read a landscape and tell of the comings and going of its occupants.

What are our initiatory rights? In these days of compulsory school attendance for all, the one provided by society is the public examination system. These certainly are an ordeal—particularly for those who put their all into doing the best they can. Exams hone and test qualities of cognitive understanding, but also our determination, mental stamina, willpower and application. Depending on the area being examined, other qualities may also come to the fore. But nothing that the public exam system tests is on a par with the initiatory ordeal suggested by Grimes Graves when it comes to facing and managing sheer fright and physical endurance.

In The Priestʼs Wife, Morag chooses to endure the ordeal of being left alone in the Womb of the Mountain. In the society of the Island itʼs a challenge usually undertaken only by the Islandʼs spiritual Guardians. But Morag feels an inner summons to it and it becomes the gateway to her deeper self-knowledge and thereby, later on, her ability to step into a public role beyond the expectations of her society.

I think for all of us it’s worthwhile to look back over our lives at events that have marked us. For myself, being left alone was an early ordeal. I was left for two weeks in a hospital when aged only six months, at a time when parents were not allowed to remain with their children. Six years later, I was left at a boarding school, surrounded by strangers, with no prospect of seeing a dear, familiar face for a period that was immeasurable to me. To survive these situations psychologically, it was necessary to reach inside for an inner resource I did not know I had, and which still seems mysterious to me. But I did not emerge unscathed, and a priority for my adult journey, when it came, was inner healing.

Major ordeals need careful preparation. Dropping people into extreme situations unprepared leads to damaged human beings and if cave ordeals were indeed a feature of the lives of some of our ancestors, I imagine they would have been the culmination of a careful initiatory process. But if this has been well-handled, the individual emerges strong and better able to withstand the unexpected ordeals life may throw at them later.

Gillian PB

May 2024

Gillian runs Pantolwen Press, a small independent publishing house

Recent publications: The Seaborne and The Priest’s Wife by A G Rivett—first books of the Isle Fincara Trilogy

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