the skull on the rock

Leonie, professor of anthropology (ret’d),
sits in her Riser-Recliner,
a blanket of crochet squares
tucked snug on her lap,
a view of the garden,
(bird feeder, gnomes,
water-feature – two children
sheltering under an umbrella
water running like rain).
‘Justin the priest was here earlier,’ she says.
‘You just missed him.
I think he sees me as a challenge,
a bit of a project.
And I have to say – poor chap,
he does bring out the devil in me.
I told him all about this documentary I’d seen
some paleolithic cave paintings in France.
Now – the thing is, of course
we don’t know why they did these paintings.
and one must always resist the temptation
simply to ascribe to ritual
things we do not understand.
That being said, it was clear the people
had gone to extraordinary lengths
to put those horses and deer on the walls.
And then – the most marvellous detail –
they’d placed the skull of a giant bear
on a large rock, looking to the entrance.
As soon as I saw it I thought
Ah-ha! Altar!
Now. I said to Justin, I said there are two ways
you can think about this. Possibly four.
Either they were celebrating God
as best they could, in a naive way
OR they were scratching a divine itch
in a way that felt appropriate to them
using their own symbolic language
drawings, rocks and bones and so forth.
I said to Justin – I could see he was flustered –
I said that it struck me quite forcibly –
as it had done many times in the past –
that this whole God-thing
was simply an illusion, a trick of the light.
I think no sooner had we the ability to work a tool
we experienced a collateral development of consciousness.
D’you see?
Suddenly we weren’t simply spending our time
running away from lions, or running after deer,
suddenly we found ourselves with time on our hands
looking round at the world
and worrying about our place in it
and that’s when we started painting the walls,
carving flutes, and putting skulls on rocks.
‘That’s an interesting argument, Leonie.’
‘I don’t think Justin finds it interesting.
Horrifying might be closer.
Still, he’s a sweet chap. Easily shocked
but his heart’s in the right place.
He hates to think of me being confined to the flames
when I pop off. Although quite what function
that would serve, I haven’t the faintest idea.
These vengeful father figures, they’re so persistent,
don’t you think?
‘Absolutely.’
‘I wouldn’t mind betting that old bear god
wasn’t known for his easy temper.
I bet you a pound to a pinch
once his skull was on the rock
everyone dropped to their knees.’
‘I bet!’
‘Poor Justin. I wonder he keeps coming round.
Aren’t you worried about the hereafter?
he said. No I said. It’s the here and now that concerns me.
But – bless him – he’d brought a peace offering
some macaroons he’d made.
They’re really rather good
I think there’s a couple left.
Would you like one?’

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