CAVE ARTISTS: ANIMALS, MEN, AND HIDDEN PASSAGEWAYS
The World of the Paleolithic Cave Artists, mainly of France and Spain, is one that scholars of many fields have struggled to interpret and explain since the discovery of many of these painted caves in the last one hundred years. Others, however, seem content to view the amazing images these skilled artists created, often in even more amazing places, as simply an unexplainable “mystery” of early, modern Man—one for which we can never fully comprehend their motivation or the true meaning of the forms they represented on the stone walls. My own recent trip to visit several of these important sites in south-central France in order to view them with the perspective of 360 degree sight and low lighting not dissimilar from what the original artists might have experienced has left me with several impressions. Many of these were ones which I had not been able to access previously through books or photographs alone. I also wanted to bring to my visits several ideas about such places (NOTE: see the previous entry in this blog series on Caves) which recent broader research and thinking had begun to open up.
Like many visitors before me, I was nearly overwhelmed at the sheer virtuosity and anatomical insight the creators of these famous images undoubtedly possessed. Perhaps, this is part of the great “mystery” of their creation, which so many seem to strongly desire to maintain. Each time someone or another has proposed some new interpretation, traditionalists quickly line-up to reiterate the old position of “this is all beyond our ability to see into their minds”, often even before giving due consideration to what is being proposed or even suggested. Even at Lascaux II, the partial recreation of the most famous of the painted caves, the viewer has a sense of uniqueness of place immediately upon entering. However, even here the local guide seems “hell-bent” on ignoring any interpretation that might even suggest that a part of the mystery is actually explainable, based upon what we now know of other cultures. I experienced this attitude myself when I simply asked the guide privately a question about what I was seeing and pointed out a couple of obvious (at least I thought so) cross-cultural observations about what we had just observed.
(NOTE: The original Lascaux cave is, of course, now completely closed to the public to protect it. A fantastic new and expanded recreation of Lascaux is now under construction near Lascaux II and the original site which will open in 2016. It employs the most advanced technology in exactly recreating the original paintings and their back surfaces. Also, just opened last month is the state-of-the art recreation of the recently discovered and nearly equally impressive site of Chauvet Cave nearly one hundred miles to the east of the main Dordogne area sites. Unfortunately, I was not able to include this site of growing importance to my itinerary this trip. The other best known painted caves now have limited access. Pech Merle allows only 700 daily visitors, but its location limits traffic and it is still fairly easy to get a ticket there. Font de Gaum, the third of the polychrome painted caves in the region is now down to 52 visitors a day—4 tours of 13 people each. Get there early if you want to see these amazing bison, at least two hours before ticket office opens at 9:30 am from May through Sept. Altamira in Spain, the other important polychrome painted cave is all but closed to anything but serious researchers.)
With all this in mind, I would like to try to recreate for the reader, who may or may not have visited any of these main sites or others in the region, my general impressions of these painted caves. Then I will offer some interpretation based on my own research and experience in the much larger field of Paleolithic, and broader human cultural behavior in particular, as to how these unique places can fit into our ever-expanding and clearer picture of how our early modern ancestors possibly viewed their universe and their own places within it. First, I want to look at the shapes of the “caves” themselves.
CHAMBERED CAVE VERSUS PASSAGEWAY
The French use the term “Grotto” rather than Cave to describe these subterranean places, and I think this is a more useful term. Most are entered through narrow openings or fissures, ones that have in many cases remained hidden until their often fortuitous discoveries well into modern times. In short, they are and always were fairly inaccessible or relatively unknown places, possibly even in prehistoric times. Many of them were occupied by bears and other cave-dwelling creatures, as attested by their remains. Yet paintings of these particular animals themselves on the interior walls are fairly rare. Once inside two distinct types of caves are generally found. The true “grotto” such as the spectacular crystalline formations and vaulted ceilings of Pech Merle—and to a lesser extent the front chambers of Lascaux are much like what Americans are used to seeing in the many “caverns”, large and small of our own eastern and midwestern states. The other type of art cave can best be described as mainly a long narrow passageway with low ceilings, which may branch off into side chambers, many of which will also contain cave art of some type, oftentimes single figures even. Font de Gaum and the axial passageway off the main gallery of Lascaux (see below) are prime examples of this, as are other “grottoes” in the Les Eyzies de Tayac region. Some of these other caves contain more basically painted individual figures or panels, or outlined and etched figures (Rouffignac, for example.) Larger, true grottoes like Lascaux and Pech Merle contain both types of subterranean structures.
In the high vaulted “chambered” grottoes it seems the cave artists found these larger spaces to exhibit some of their most stunning work. Perhaps, the higher ceilings and more open spaces allowed greater choices for wall surfaces—which they were expert at using natural shapes to give almost three-dimensional shape to some of their work (the full expression of which one can only gain through seeing these in person and not on the page of a book). The Chamber of the Bulls near the front of Lascaux is the most famous of these at present, although the main painted chamber at Chauvet will eventually gain almost equal status, once its amazing cats and other animals become better known. Of course, the fantastic spotted horses of Pech Merle are also to be found in an even larger and more spectacular such “cathedral” setting as well.
The careful observer is almost immediately struck by the fact that it is in such larger chambers where some of the best and most lifelike, as well as largest, paintings are found. Lascaux’s bulls and horses fairly jump off the walls with their lifelike colors and animated composition. More importantly, I feel, this is where the best full representations of these larger animals seem to be found. By that I mean their heads are fully detailed, frequently including the presence of eyes, breathing nostrils, running feet, etc. Like any “cathedral” setting where possibly larger numbers of people can be accommodated, some of the best artists worked here it seems. (NOTE: For more insight here see the previous article on this blog titled: Caves and Other Dark Places.) As mentioned, lighting these places would be less of a problem, particularly if larger numbers of people, each carrying one of the many oil lamps that have also been found in the caves, were present.
Truly, these places are “ceremonial” in origin, I believe, and designed to express some central idea to more than a few people at one time, hence their easier access near the cave entrances, more breathable air for larger crowds, and their ability to reflect light from higher ceilings so entire painted panels can be seen at one time. It is also obvious that these larger chambers may have been used over longer periods, since many of the paintings found there have been painted over with other works, even if we cannot safely say how much time may have elapsed between the different artists. One stands close to these vivid images and fairly feels the presence of these animals, even if we do not fully comprehend why certain animals were selected to repeatedly be drawn in certain places—bulls here, horses there, bison or mammoth somewhere else, or even combinations. One thing we do know, however, is that human forms are almost never represented, and when they are they are like stick figures or anthropomorphized to appear as a man in animal costume perhaps (a deer, for example). Much has been made of this particular trait in the past; and the more one looks at these simple “human” figures the more one can lead himself to not see them even as human forms at all in most cases, not even as the “shamanistic” figures they are generally said to be representing. It is almost like the artist is humanizing an animal in some way, rather than the other way around as it is usually stated.
As one stands in the main gallery at Lascaux, surrounded by the fabulous bulls and animated horses among other animals depicted, your gaze is quickly directed to a narrower, almost ‘keyhole’ entrance to a descending passageway at the end of the larger chamber. It is upon entering this narrow passage that the visitor begins to grasp for the first time the larger import of the cave itself, I believe. This passage is painted on both sides and even the top with galloping, monochromatic (generally black) horses in particular, although other beasts are present, mainly near the entrance from the main chamber, with even the low ceiling presenting painted images as well. At the end of this ten meter or so passageway, one can turn and see the descending nature of the pathway you have just traversed and the animation of the horses in particular. It was here that I made a simple observation that when I asked the guide about it, he seemed to discount it or not fully understand what I was suggesting. I asked him if he had observed that all the animals in this passageway shared one common trait, regardless of what position they were facing, their species, or color. That is: None of them were depicted with eyes. When he merely shrugged and I offered the further observation that in many cultures the absence of eyes is a clear reference to Death, or that these moving animals may even have been leading the dead through the passage, it was almost as if he had no interest in putting such facts into a larger context.
As I visited other caves, I made this same observation in the narrow passageways of Font de Gaum and Pech Merle as well. True, not all animals in the larger chambers are depicted with eyes either, but in the narrower, descending passageways, I never observed the smaller painted animals, even the marvelous, incredibly detailed bison of Font de Gaum with clearly depicted eyes. Were these narrow passageways, often descending from larger chambers with important ceremonial overtones, possibly seen as entranceways to the Underworld—even 25,000 years ago and earlier perhaps? Was the Underworld already being viewed as not an end point for the dead, but merely as a “Passageway to the Other Side”—that other side being the darkened part of the Sky where the dead ALWAYS seem to go to dwell. It is, after all, a place where “eyes” are no longer needed; for the dark world beyond, which the SOUL of the dead is journeying toward, is a place where the body will be reanimated in the next life—or the dead will assume a new dimension of Being in the form of a star or other celestial life. The Greeks put coins on the eyes of the dead to pay for their passage across the dark river. The first thing we do to a dead person is close their eyes, since they will not need them anymore. It is a recurring theme in global mythology, and may now be viewed as one that has its roots in our earliest efforts to create a belief system? Where Do We Go When We Die? How Do We Get There? Surely, these are questions Humans have asked since the first men felt an immortal spark of some sort in themselves and were not satisfied that the visible end of their corporeal existence here on earth was the ultimate and final expression of their sentient lives. That destination point is almost certainly--and always has been--somewhere in the greater Cosmos that encircles us, and the way to get there, at least to its darker and often more invisible regions, is through the earth upon which we walk while alive and must traverse to get to our destination/reward in the heavens beyond. Is it also not somewhat telling of our ancient belief system, that only our most revered and founder figures (Christ and Mohammed, to name only two of the most recent) get to ascend directly to the heavenly sphere, without this intermediate passage--or struggle--through some darkened, underworld passage to the "other side", one that most often begins with our internment in the earth.
ARE THE PAINTED ANIMALS REALLY JUST ANIMALS?
The general interpretation of the animals the Paleolithic artists painted and carved on cave walls is based on the assumption that because these people were primarily big game hunters and because many of the animals exhibit clear signs of being “pregnant” then they must be representative of some kind of “sympathetic magic” expression, or fertility cult or symbol. While this may very well be true in some cases, the fact that not all the animals shown are prey animals (bears and cats mainly) nor are reindeer, which have been shown to be the most sought after and common prey during the period, a clear favorite of the artists, being entirely absent from some important panels altogether. And cannot pregnant animals also represent the birth of a new life to be achieved by one's journey to the other side, just as easily perhaps as they can represent the desire to increase the herd animals the artists hunted as their primary sustenance? What else then, beyond the obvious, might these clearly defined paintings or drawings refer to?
We (as Humans that is) have always looked to the heavens and noted the regularity of the stellar formations and their movements. They are beyond us, and yet we have always attempted to relate them to or organize our ceremonial lives around them. Our planets are gods, our stars are animals, our constellations places or events. The Sun and the Moon are parental or sibling figures. We animate and give life to them, using them to create a unique language that can be revealed by many cultures in many different times and places. This author has addressed this issue often and in many contexts over the course of the writing of this series of blog articles. The metaphors of birth, death, conflict, and rebirth we include in our myths were usually first played out and observed by us in the heavens above.
Even today we see the most common (and dependable) constellations in forms we can easily remember and name them as such. There is Ursus, the bear; Taurus, the bull; Pisces, the fish, and others. We have the “dog star” and on and on. The Inca saw llamas, the Maya saw jaguars, just as each culture selected the most familiar and important animal symbols it revered to be reflected in the stories preserved by and in the regularity of the celestial clock, the stars, planets, and their movements. Would those familiar stars, named for our most important animal companions, not have been guiding us through those tiny passageways to join with them on “the other side”? Did we never draw pictures of ourselves on the cave walls for fear of interrupting that critical journey in some way? Why is this singular fact not given more attention in the interpretation of these painted caves? One can only wonder at this proposition.
Is it such a stretch of the imagination to believe that our more distant ancestors, who possessed essentially the same brain and cognitive and language skills as we do, would not have arrived at the same basic conclusions at the time of the birth of a basic spiritual and ritual system that has--in simple terms--changed very little since its inception at whatever distant point in time we finally decide to ascribe a date to ? Could not the main chamber paintings, the best of the best as it were, not then be representatives of these ancient people’s choosing to use the same “Language of Myth” that later peoples did, and continue to do to this day. I firmly believe that relating and then organizing even the most basic belief systems to reflect what was being observed overhead in the skies—the one observable and regular, if still mysterious—aspect of all people’s lives in all times and places, is as solidly in-grained into Human behavior as any part of the past we have dragged with us through the centuries for tens of thousands of years can be. I have come to accept this guiding principal as a starting point in all discussions of myth and religious origins after forty years of study and reflecting upon the work of other scholars far more competent than myself, scholars who have lent their expertise to this subject time and again in the last century.
Yes, the cave artists and their motives may continue to remain the great “mystery” many will continue to make of them. After all, it makes for a good story, and who doesn’t love a good mystery now and again. But there will continue to be new light shined into those caves and other dark places by those who do not accept coincidence as a rational explanation and for whom ideas—even those on the edge of what is considered “mainstream” at any point in time—should never be dismissed out-of-hand just because they don’t fit neatly into someone else’s intellectual pigeon-hole. If there are answers, and one can only go forward logically by believing that to be true, then they may be “out there”, quite literally over our heads. We just have to gaze upward and understand that our ancestors have always done the same—even far back beyond the point in time we may have given them credit for. It shouldn’t surprise or shock us then that they organized their belief systems and then visually expressed them in their most sacred places based upon what they saw up there in the skies above, just as Men have, and continue to do, to this day.
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