The experience of observing works of art that were created during the Ice Age in the depths of an extensive cave system is immense, sometimes overwhelming. Questions flood the mind: who painted them, when, and why? Why were the images painted in the depths of a cave? Knowing that our ancestors did not live in the caves, did they come underground to observe the paintings in the flickering torch light, or were there another reasons to be there? How long could one be in the cave, with limited oxygen and disorientated senses? What effect would this have had on our prehistoric ancestors' perception of the cave paintings, not to mention their inspiration and creation in the first place?
Based on the research in depth psychology of Dr. Ilse Vickers, this section is an introductory exploration of the direct and dynamic relationship between Palaeolithic cave art and the psyche. Dr. Ilse Vickers' academic career began in the field of C17th and C18th century history of ideas and at the time resulted in Daniel Defoe and the New Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 1997) as well as in a series of articles discussing the influence of Francis Bacon on the development of the English novel.
Between 1991 and 2007 Dr Vickers pursued a professional European career, working for the European Commission in Brussels and later for University College London. During this period Dr Vickers worked also as a freelance EU Consultant advising universities in the UK, government bodies as well as the European Commission.
The Niaux Cave
Whilst engaged in European activities, Ilse Vickers continued and broadened her academic interests which for the last ten years have included Jungian depth psychology. One aspect of her work is concerned with re-reading familiar writers from a Jungian perspective: 'Dr Johnson and Dr Jung: Two Physicians of the Soul', part I (Johnson Society of London, New Rambler, forthcoming); part II 'The Religion of Dr Johnson - a Jungian perspective', a paper to the Johnson Society of London, April 2012; 'The Tragic Human Condition, Carl Gustav Jung and Miguel de Unamuno' (Jung Club of London, Harvest, forthcoming).
Another aspect of Ilse Vickers' on-going research is concerned with the link between mythology and the psyche, and in this connection she is currently working on the relationship between Palaeolithic cave art and depth psychology. Over the years, she has visited a number of the French prehistoric caves. In June 2011 she visited Niaux, which inspired her short story entitled 'Mercy in the Cave of Niaux'.
At the time, the impact of the experience had been quite overwhelming. Thoughts and abstractions came later. In fact, it was not until after she had decided to write down the experience that she fully realized how all the parts mysteriously fitted together to make a whole.
It all happened on a gloriously sunny morning in early June. Celia sat on a rocky outcrop just outside the vast overhanging entrance-vault of the Cave of Niaux, a prehistoric cave in the beautiful Ariège region of the Pyrénées. Behind her, the gigantic, yawning mouth of the cave, in front a craggy landscape falling steeply down into the valley where the little village of Niaux still lay hidden in morning mist. It had been raining overnight but now an azure sky stretched as far as the eye could see. A light breeze stirred the distant tree tops and wafted the smell of moss, wild mint and thyme towards her. Here and there were clumps of late-flowering broom while heather and fern struggled for a little foothold in between the rocks. A few rain drops on a blade of grass sparkled in diamantine splendour. Silence, only the distant call of a cuckoo marking the pulse of time.
A deep sense of wonder and contentment swept over Celia. Today was to be her triumphant return to all the things she had had to miss of late: sun-flooded mornings like the present, walks on rough paths in untrimmed nature, and above all this liberating, exhilarating feeling of being part of it all. To be sure, today’s trip to Niaux had not been planned but was entirely on the spur of the moment. Despite the guidebooks’ insistence that reservations were always necessary since for environmental reasons each tour accepted only twenty visitors, Celia had taken her chance. She had driven up early - and wonder of wonders - had been able to purchase a ticket on the spot for the 11am tour. It was almost as if her visit to Niaux had to be, as if fate had had a hand in it. Now waiting for the tour to start, Celia’s mind travelled back to former similar experiences. What was the actual reason for her fascination with prehistoric cave art and what had started this passion? No doubt, what had so powerfully captured her imagination on her visits of the caves of Lascaux, Les Trois Frères, Rouffignac, and Pech Merle was the great artistry and dazzling beauty of the wall paintings. But there had been something else besides that had held her attention, something which was not so obvious and which, she now thought, might have had to do with the dreamlike quality of the paintings. Celia’s thoughts drifted back to her last visit to Pech Merle – how very long ago it seemed!
Of course, she should never have gone on that holiday to the Dordogne three years ago. The dull backache which had accompanied her all the way from Heathrow to Bergerac had rapidly deteriorated, so that within days she found getting up or sitting down an extremely painful procedure. Yet, she had managed to persuade herself that a little rest, or perhaps a bit more exercise would solve the problem. The truth caught up with her on a narrow, steep and slippery path in the depths of Peche Merle: what would normally have been no more than a skip and a jump was now quite simply beyond her. No matter how hard she had tried, she had been unable to control her legs, and every step had unavoidably ended in a collapse to the left. What a nightmare! In the end, it had only been with the greatest determination that she had managed to complete the tour and return to daylight. ‘Ca va, madame?’, the guide had asked as she held the door open for her. ‘J’espère’, had been her faint response. - On her return to England, she had needed a hip replacement. ‘Simple maintenance’, the surgeon had said encouragingly, ‘bad part out – good part in’. And at first it had seemed as simple as that. But then one year later, when all had seemed to go so splendidly, the new hip had dislodged and the surgery had had to be repeated.
And so, here she was ten months after the second operation, and three years after that horrendous Pech Merle experience - here she was again ticket in hand, waiting to start her next tour of a pre-historic cave, or to be more precise, not just any cave but the great Cave of Niaux famous for its exceptionally beautiful prehistoric art as well as for its depth and length. A slight chill began to creep over Celia’s heart. True, she had made a good recovery and she was walking really well, especially when the ground was even; she could go up and down, though preferably with something to hold on to. Disciplined as she was, she had taken regular and increasingly longer walks on Hampstead Heath…. But had the Heath really been sufficient preparation for what was awaiting her now? Her vivid recollection of Pech Merle told her: ‘No! Of course not!’ She suddenly felt cold, frightened, and then outraged at her own stupidity. How could she have been so damn reckless as to even think of scrambling down into this cave and at a stroke jeopardize her three years’ hard, patient work of recuperation! She must get out of this, quick! There was only one thing to do; she must at once return her ticket and leave. She remained on the boulder and continued her reverie. What could have possessed her to buy the ticket when it was so obvious that she was not ready for this? It really was as if something bigger than herself had urged her, lured her to go for the thrill of the unknown, the potential.