xix. Cosmic Swansong

Was there something special about the quality of deep caves which might have enabled supernatural communication to occur, and, if so, did this provide our Palaeolithic ancestors with a deeper understanding of the Cygnus constellation? Certainly, there is direct evidence from mythology to link the use of psychedelic substances inside caves with supernatural communications. This is found in the Bwiti religion of Gabon in West Africa, whose founder was led to find and use the iboga root inside caves. It is present also in the classical account of Somnus, the god of sleep, who lived inside a cave surrounded by opium poppies.

In the story of Somnus, his son Morpheus, the god of dreams, stood by ensuring that no noise entered the cave. Drugs and quite possibly silence was seemingly an important factor in the use of deep caves during Palaeolithic times. Yet how might this be linked with the stars of Cygnus, something exemplified by the site of Britain's best known example of cave art?

At Creswell Crags, on the borders between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire in Northern England, we see in a cave called Church Hole swan-like birds in its deepest section, as well as an ibis head and egg close to the entrance. Coincidentally, a person standing in the mouth of the cave in 10,500 BC, when the rock art was created, would have been able to see the stars of Cygnus framed above a south-facing cliff on the opposite side of the valley. It is very likely that as Dr Paul Pettitt, lecturer on human origins at Sheffield University, has intimated, the north-facing side of the valley where Church Hole is situated was reserved for cultic practices associated with the realm of the dead.

Church Hole becomes a perfect example of the relationship during Palaeolithic times between caves, birds of creation, cosmic life and death and the stars of Cygnus. Yet how did this link come about? Was it related in some way to something experienced deep inside the caves which might have been directly attributed to the influence of Cygnus?