When that fabulous shape-shifter David Bowie died I was curious to see the videos he had done to accompany the release of his album ‘Dark Star’. If you have not seen them, take a look here. The imagery is enigmatic and visceral: the ritual shaking of the buxom women in their summer dresses, the crucified scarecrows with their rotting faces, his own withered hands, the weird black costume with silver stripes (lines of coke?) and his final disappearance into the wardrobe at the end of ‘Lazarus’. These images haunted me, particularly one night as I lay awake worrying about a friend who had just had a life-or-death operation. To me the images were all about a terrible fear of death. For me there was no sense of acceptance or equanimity about dying in these videos. Fair play to Mr B for his courage in exploring and exposing this terror via these images, but I needed to get them out of my head if I was to get to sleep.
I got up and found that my friend was fine, up fiddling on his computer. Reassured I slept and woke to make a trip to the British Museum to see the Celts exhibition. I was not feeling too good myself, being dogged by a virus which was draining my energy – and then London is a shock to us country dwellers and the BM staff were grumpy and unhelpful. Or was it me out of step with ‘life’ having spent the night thinking about death?
Anyway I was finally admitted, still feeling fragile and bad-tempered about the crowds who were obstructing my view of the beautiful Celtic artefacts. But then I got to the Gundestrup Cauldron.
Abruptly it all changed. As I clambered up the steps to look inside and saw the images face to face a wave of joy swept through my body: the horned god clutching his snake!
the silver warriors marching towards the cauldron to be reborn!
And at the bottom the sinuous victory of the woman warrior over the Death-Bull with her three dogs (I can’t find a decent pic of that). I wanted to cry and laugh. There was no reason for despair! This was the cauldron of regeneration itself, famed in our old stories! It was there to tell us there is nothing dies, everything goes into the cauldron and is reborn in a new form.
Later, back in Wales, I lay on my sofa staring at the pictures in the BM book (worth buying). I wanted to investigate how the cauldron had had such a galvanising and cheering effect on me – but I didn’t want to kill the joy and physical exhilaration I could still feel coursing through my body with analysis. There is plenty of that around, no more needed.
Here’s what I experienced looking at the horned god plate, here’s what I felt in my own body: the antlers connect me with the world around, melting my usual boundaries and joining me to the beasts and plants; the snake connects me to the life force, the chi, of the natural world, the torc anchors me and makes me feel safe. Sitting in the dancing half-lotus I sense the kick of the kundalini energy rising through my body. I feel a blissful pulsing power flooding through me… I find myself letting go of thought, of ideas of who I am and what I want, I want to dissolve into the cauldron, to just let go … in the faith that all will be well and all manner of things will be well.
This is the quality I found missing in Bowie’s videos – but which I hope he did experience when he died. The Tibetan Buddhists say we feel this intense wave of bliss when we die, when we let go of the painful and constricting coat of flesh we have worn for our lifetimes here. The great mystery rituals like the one enacted at Eleusis in ancient Greece freed the initiates from fear of death. The great silver cauldron of regeneration, made by men and women long ago who knew the truth about life and death, has risen up from its bog in Denmark is delivering the same message. It’s only on show at the BM till 31 January, then it moves to Edinburgh. You have GOT to see it: it has come through time and space to bring back what is lost.