The Chapel of the Ancient Dead

Autumn Equinox, 2006.  A local Druid decides to energise greater awareness of ancient burial sites and the rights of those interred, with a vigil at Paviland Cave, site of the earliest known deliberate human burial in Britain, conveniently a few miles down the road.  A group of us volunteer to establish a base camp nearby while the Druid keeps vigil in the cliffside cave, which is accessible by land for two hours only, twice a day.

Paviland from outside

Paviland from outside

About this poem.  It is a straight factual account.  The one anachronism, the proto-Indo-European expression Wekwom teksos widtorm spel, is a well-attested bardic formula meaning ‘the maker of words tells the story,’ and I use it only to give a flavour of solidarity with that millennia-old oral tradition.  Every year at this time I revisit this poem, and I hope you get as much from it as I have over the years.

So, join us at a campsite on a wet September evening.  A small tent with four magicians sat inside, gathered around a little altar on which stands, among other things, a replica of the Venus of Willendorf.  Frankincense spices the atmosphere, previous rites have put the magicians into a magical state, and the Kite drums softly and begins to chant the poem, leading the others…

Here we gather, in the gloom, our little space like to the cave
wherein the Druid fasts and prays, Paviland, the Goat’s Hole cave
wherein the Druid fasts and prays for restoration, seeking balance. 

As we approach the Equinox, the seasons give a quarter turn,
the nights are getting longer now, the Indian summer turning cool
but in the cave so cold and dark, still the Druid keeps his watch.

Wekwom teksos widtorm spel.  I, the weaver of the words,
tell the ancient history.  I, the bard, recount the story
of the land and of its people, of the cave, the sacred site.

Five hundred million years ago the land around was undersea,
an ocean bed that teemed with life which had not ventured yet on land.
For millions and yet millions more the land around was undersea.

The ocean bed that teemed with life also took into itself
the dead who swam the ancient sea, who in time could swim no more
and their remains became the rock that lay beneath the ancient sea.

Once again and once again the oceans closed around the land
as the land submerged itself and washed itself in ancient seas
taking to itself the dead, who in time could swim no more.

 Every time it sank below, so again it rose above,
giving up its ancient dead, who at last became the land
the land which then became a home to their descendants in their turn.

And so in time a cave was formed, a fold within the ocean bed,
lifted up to face the sky, sculpted by the wind and rain,
sanctuary from the cold, a chapel of the ancient dead.

Wekwom teksos widtorm spel.  I, the weaver of the words,
tell the ancient history.  I, the bard, recount the story
of the land and of its people, of the cave, the sacred site
wherein the Druid keeps his watch.  There the Druid keeps his watch. 

Thirty thousand years ago, in spells between the Ice Age cold,
humans sheltered in the cave, sanctuary from the cold,
chapel of the ancient dead, descendants in their turn.

They hunted mammoth and the deer right across the ancient plain
fought it out with bear and rhino, fished for salmon in the river,
in the distant river Severn, right across the ancient plain.

To the cave they brought their winnings, worked the skins with tools of stone,
sinew, needles made of bone. They ate the flesh and left the rest,
bones which joined their forbears in the chapel of the ancient dead.

To the limestone cave they brought the stones that they themselves preferred,
in time they laid inside the cave thousands upon thousands more,
laid them in the hall of stone, the chapel of the ancient dead.

Six and twenty thousand years ago, between the Ice Age cold,
humans sheltered in the cave, one of them alive no more,
brought inside by those who cared, as they consigned him to the earth.

He was young, his early twenties, European, tall and thin,
eaten salmon from the river, hunted mammoth and the deer
right across this ancient plain, ate their flesh and wore their skins.

They dug his grave and laid him out, laid two stones at head and feet,
on his chest a set of bracelets, at his side a bag of shells,
and so he took into himself remains of those who lived no more.

They anointed him with ochre, haematite, the earth’s blood stone,
as they did with figurines of Woman buried in the earth,
from east to west of Europe six and twenty thousand years ago.

Finally they laid upon him precious bone and ivory,
said farewell and filled the grave, placed nearby a mammoth skull,
left him in the hall of stone, the chapel of the ancient dead.

Wekwom teksos widtorm spel.  I, the weaver of the words,
tell the ancient history.  I, the bard, recount the story
of the land and of its people, of the cave, the sacred site
wherein the Druid keeps his watch.  There the Druid keeps his watch. 

For several thousand years again, people visited the cave,
left behind their artefacts, works of art in ivory
and bone, which joined their forbears in the chapel of the ancient dead.

Twenty thousand years ago the Ice returned and froze the land.
No more mammoth, no more deer, no more salmon in the river,
Humans followed where they led, sanctuary from the cold.

As the Ice at length departed so the sea rose up instead,
sculpting rock, shifting stones, digging up the ancient dead.
The cave became a home to their descendants in their turn.

Nigh on two hundred years ago, humans visited the cave,
found the bones, found the horns, found the body’s open grave
and in the name of higher learning took what they could find of it.

They were not like ones who cared, coming to the hall of stone.
Without a thought they took the man, laid among the ancient dead,
took him as their property, dealt with him as they saw fit.

What they took they kept but some, threw away the ancient dead,
stole away the mammoth skull, robbed the sanctuary
of the chapel of the ancient dead. 

Wekwom teksos widtorm spel.  I, the weaver of the words,
tell the ancient history.  I, the bard, recount the story
of the land and of its people, of the cave, the sacred site.

Here we gather, in the gloom, our little space like to the cave
wherein the Druid fasts and prays for restoration, seeking balance,
where the Druid keeps his watch.  There the Druid keeps his watch. 

 entrance from inside

entrance from inside

The Kite

One thought on “The Chapel of the Ancient Dead

  1. the Kite says:

    Thanks for posting this. I offered it partly because of the time of year, and partly because of themes in the poem very apposite to Niki and Julian’s ‘The Book of Baphomet.’

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