A spiritual experience
One thing that Tenerife has plenty of is ravines, or ‘barrancos’ to those in the know. Another feature of which there are many is caves. The barrancos were a nuisance if not a severe obstruction to travellers in not-so-olden times, whereas the caves were very useful to the Guanches, the original inhabitants of Tenerife, who used them for homes, for storage, for animal shelters and for tombs.
One cave in particular, discovered in the 18th century, was known as ‘The Cave of a Thousand Mummies’. However, the location of this cave, if indeed it actually existed, was lost not long after its discovery. Another feature of Tenerife, which I find rather eerie, is that the natives of the Canary Islands, like so many prehistoric people, carved symbols onto rocks, the patterns of which are the same as many found throughout Europe, including the British Isles. The meaning of these symbols has occupied men’s minds since they were first recognised and yet we are nowhere near to unders-tanding them. Visit the Mu-seum of Nature and Man in Santa Cruz to wonder at these things for yourself.
A few months ago I was extremely privileged to be taken to a Guanche mummy cave in the side of a barranco and a carved ceremonial rock. Not many islanders know about them, and even fewer outsiders. We parked the cars at the end of a tarmac road and the six of us walked along a dusty track for some distance before turning off to follow an invisible path that only my friend and guide knew.
The cave, although it’s not far from a well-known ancient route, is barely visible, having as it does a small, insignificant entrance through which one has to almost crawl before it opens out into – well – a cave. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it was something more than what I actually saw. The floor of the cave sloped steeply, it was strewn with loose stones and there had been no attempt made at levelling it out, nor to make platforms for the mummies or to carve out niches for them, but then I had entered with preconceptions of what a crypt or mausoleum ought to look like. Never-theless, simply to be there in total darkness where the Guanches had ritually laid their dead 500 years ago, and for centuries before that, to be one of the very few ‘outsiders’ to have stood there, was a very spiritual experience.
Outside in the heat and bright sunlight of the day, and much more impressive than the cave, was the ceremonial rock. Some distance away from the cave, on one of the precipitous sides of the barranco is a projecting peninsular of rock that is quite a different colour from its surroundings. The outer edge forms a platform almost overhanging the barranco, while on the ‘landward’ side the horizontal rock strata forms a natural stepped auditorium, where the audience or congregation would sit to watch the rituals. The flat, gently sloping surface of the ceremonial rock has been carved with a series of scooped out cups and channels. My friend told me that when he first visited the site a long time ago, there were sea shells and shards of pottery scattered around, remnants from the Guanche feasting centuries before, but these have all disappeared. So the site is not completely unknown – souvenir hunters have paid their visits.
Regular readers of the ‘Tenerife News’ might recall an article published in January 2014 entitled ‘Death, the dog and the Guanche astrono-mers’. It was about this rock that I wrote the article. I hadn’t seen the rock at that time but my friend had, and in fact he was the one who recognised in the carving the configuration of Canis Major, ‘the Big Dog’ constellation dominated by Sirius, the dog star, the main celestial body and the brightest star in the heavens. The significance of that stellar sign for the Guanches is a subject for astronomer historians.
My imagination took me back hundreds of years to one of the religious ceremonies of the Guanches; the people of the tribe of that region seated on the terraces watching their wise man carry out a libation to the gods, perhaps praying for rain, or perhaps thanking the gods for a good harvest or a good year for fattening the livestock, while pouring some kind of liquid to flow down particular channels to fill the cups. I had to ask, would the liquid have been water, or milk, or blood? I was assured it would not have been blood. Now suppose on that day long ago, while the people were sitting at their worship, they glanced out over the ocean and saw, coming over the horizon, the ships of the Spanish conquistadors. And suppose their spiritual leader, pausing in his ceremony also to look, had the gift of foresight. As he gazed at the ships he would have seen the ultimate end of the Guanches and their culture, as it was inevitable with so many other ‘primitive’ people in the face of ‘civilisation’.
I apologise that there is no happy ending or a witty remark to finish this article, but that’s the way it is.