“What we call cultural evolution is essentially a constant growing and widening of the human imagination.”~Jacob Bronowski
Unearthed by three explorers in 1994, the Chauvet cave is one of the most important discoveries in the history of human culture. Dating back well over 30,000 years, the evidence of the prehistoric human presence there showcases some of the oldest and best preserved cave paintings ever found. It is a direct window into our earliest forms of artistic and abstract expression…………
Over an hour into Werner Herzog’s 90-minute documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), the French archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste appears to struggle to find the right words. As the director of the research project at Chauvet cave in Southern France, it is clear to Geneste that the cave paintings he is studying were created “to transmit knowledge that is somehow better than language.” Exactly what that knowledge was, however, seems less clear to him. “It is as if they were trying to inscribe and communicate the memory of their own mythology,” Geneste offers as he contemplates this inscrutable puzzle that seems to haunt every scientist in the film.
The intention of the wall art found in Chauvet cave is apparently spiritual in nature, according to Geneste. However, the specific religious functions of the cave and the symbolic meanings of many of its artistic representations remain shrouded in mystery. The speculation extends from the scientists to Herzog himself, who at one point in the film simply asks, “Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artists across such an abyss of time?” It is a place, as the title suggests, of forgotten dreams. Forgotten, yes, but not lost.
Geneste is not the only scientist to express a sense of awe at the mystery the Chauvet cave represents. In fact, the cave seems to have a profound spiritual effect on many who study it, as if the original artists have somehow succeeded in communicating their message. However, thousands of years of cultural separation from our primal intuition and instinct appears to have diminished the capacity to “hear” this inner voice as it narrates the contours of our collective mythological past. Archaeologist Julien Monney is part of the scientific team working to understand the cave and its contents. In a fascinatingly candid moment, Monney speaks of his visceral, emotional response to his first visit inside the cave. “It was such a shock to me. I am a scientist, but I am also a human being,” Monney tells Herzog who sits just off camera. “I dreamt of lions every night after leaving the cave.” Herzog then asks if he dreamt of “real” lions or just paintings of them, to which the archaeologist immediately replies, “Both.” When Herzog asks Monney if his dreams made him afraid, he categorically says they did not. “It was a feeling of powerful, deep things. It was a way to understand things that was not a direct way.” As if the boundaries between the “real” and the “drawn” were somehow dissolved.
Time and again, the archaeologists, geologists, art historians and anthropologists walk right up to the edge of this great mystery and stare into the abyss. For all they have discovered at this monumentally important natural “museum” of prehistoric religion, the deeper, integrative image still remains largely hidden. Fragments of this archaic paradigm shine through each of the scientific disciplines like the shards of quartz crystal in the cave walls. But centuries of specialization and segmentation in academics have left most of us without the internal mechanism to interpret the intuitive, living spiritual traditions of our ancestors. But without such awareness, a deeper understanding of the mytho-religious significance of the cave is not possible. It is only through an exploration of the prehistoric Goddess-worshipping cults of this region that an enhanced vision of the Chauvet cave and its mysterious art will come into focus.
The combination of abstract “dots,” hash marks (called “finger fluting”) and hand- prints are symbols that researchers agree give the cave a particularly spiritual significance. Anthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger suggests that these symbols might even be the actual origins of the written word. Previously, scholars have believed that written language originated in Sumer around 7,000 B.C. in the form of cuneiform tablets. Is it possible that this wall is a sacred inscription? Are these “written” instructions as to the true function and religious significance of the Chauvet cave? Image courtesy Mensula Ediciones.
Many feel that the religion of our Paleolithic ancestors has been dormant for millennia. But it remains visible in the changing of the seasons, the interconnected biodiversity of ecosystems, and the embodied image of the feminized, vegetative world. The paintings in the cave re-present a living testimony to the creative power of Mother Earth. The animal paintings in the cave, the clear connection to the ancient cult of the Cave Bear, and the religious altar spaces all suggest that the Chauvet cave was a holy place. The cave is a shrine, a place of worship, a sacred space in the “womb” of the Great Mother; set up for her adoration, seasonal ceremonies and mystical rites. As archaeologist Marija Gimbutas correctly claimed in regard to her groundbreaking work on Neolithic pottery and figurines, “It cannot be forgotten that through myth, images and symbols man first comprehended his being.” There are many clues within the cave and in the surrounding region that point to the essence of this “first” religion; one based on identification and cooperation with the natural world. To see them clearly, however, we must look with the right kind of eyes. If the dreams of Chauvet indeed have been forgotten, it is time for us to remember.
Jean Clottes, the former head of the scientific team and the first one to study the cave extensively, suggests that there are two concepts people of the ancient world believed in that we must also consider: namely, “fluidity” and “permeability.” Fluidity is the notion that there are no “fixed” forms. A person could become an animal or a plant, or vice versa. The categories that did exist for fixed physical forms (i.e., “man,” “woman,” “horse,” “tree”) could “shift” under certain conditions in the Paleolithic worldview. Permeability is the concept that there are no barriers between the world where we live and the world of the spirit. “A wall can talk to us,” Clottes suggests. “A wall can accept us or refuse us. So can a cave.” In the Paleolithic mind, the world was not filled with fixed, separate and self-contained forms but rather was alive, interconnected and infused with the archaic mystery of existence and the regenerative power of the Great Mother: Earth.
Furthermore, since glaciers covered Europe 35,000 years ago, 9,000 foot high ice walls held the sea level about 300 feet lower than it is today. This means that primitive people would have been able to migrate from the Germanic Alps through France and across a land bridge that is now the English Channel. The original inhabitants of the cave would likely have had contact with other humans living in the regions of Norway and Sweden to the north, Greece to the south, Russia to the east, and Great Britain to the west. This is important for two reasons: 1) It provides us with a socio-religious context for the Goddess cult, especially with regard to the famed “Venus” statues of antiquity that have been found throughout the region; and 2) It establishes the Cave Bear as a central symbol of the sacred feminine in the region and possibly beyond.
In the Chauvet cave, the sacred feminine emerges as the embodiment of the creative energy that selects and organizes the great menagerie of living, manifested forms. Like the life-giving water that symbolizes her generative power, fluidity and permeability are archaic notions of the interconnectedness of all life. A shaman can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or receive the spirits from there. “Humans have been described in many ways,” contends Clottes. “We are currently referred to as Homo Sapiens: ‘the man who knows.’ But this is not true,” he insists. Clottes knows that we do not know, or at least that we do not know very much. “Perhaps,” he muses, “we should be called Homo Spiritus: ‘the man who believes.’” And in the Chauvet cave it appears that during the Paleolithic era, man believed in a natural religion that was rooted in the recognition and elevation of the sacred feminine.
It is also important to realize that both fluidity and permeability apply to the “inner” and “outer” landscapes of the ancient world. Archaeologists suggest that the topography surrounding the cave, including the arch that stretches across the nearby Ardeche River, was integral to the Paleolithic understanding of the world they inhabited. “Perhaps,” Geneste claims, “the arch was not just a landmark for these people as they moved across the continent but also a mark for their stories, their mythology, their way of seeing the world.” The terrain was part of the myth.
The fact that the Chauvet shrine is in a cave and not a temple, pyramid, mountain top altar or ziggurat (all of which came thousands of years later with the advent of patriarchal religions) is in itself quite telling. In the ancient world, caves were universally identified with the “womb” of the sacred Mother, the logical place for ceremonies of symbolic birth and regeneration. As entrances to the underworld, caves were associated with the Great Mother’s yonic gate. The healing waters of all the sacred springs in Europe arose from the ancient traditions of the Goddess. Up to the 19th century A.D., a sacred cave near Dunsky, Scotland was used for the curative magic of its spring. The sick were brought from great distances to be bathed in the waters “at the change of the moon,” showing the place to be a matriarchal shrine. Similar healing springs have been found throughout the Continent and are almost exclusively associated with the life-giving waters of the Sacred Mother (a belief that continues to this day in many indigenous traditions and in Hinduism). As symbols of life, death, and transformation, caves were sacred places used for the exploration and manipulation of inner landscapes. To enter into a sacred cave was to re-enter the place of cosmic and material birth. To reemerge from the cave was to be reborn into the living world. The Neo-Platonist philosopher Porphyry once noted, “Before there were temples, all religious rites took place in caves.”
Near the entrance to the Chauvet cave is an arch that stretches across the Ardeche River (above). Horseshoe-shaped natural structures such as the arch and cave en- trances (below) were seen as symbols of the Sacred Mother’s “Great Yonic Gate.” By passing through them, one would be symbolically re-enter the Mother’s “womb” to be reborn on the other side. Above image courtesy of Bradshaw Foundation. Below image courtesy of Bruce W. Mielke @ Negative Space Studio.
The Chauvet cave is divided into two main sections (right). Paintings in red (most likely ochre and possibly mixed with menstrual blood) dominate the first zone that contains only 15% of the identified animal representations. This gives the individual a sense of increased fertility and creative energy as they move deeper into the cave. It is also significant that the Cave Bear is the most represented animal in this first section (73%). The Cave Bear was revered in the ancient world as a symbol of the sacred feminine and thus this section of the cave seems to be “setting the stage” for what follows. It was most likely used as a place of transition or initiation into the consciousness of sacred space: A “grotto” intended to focus and channel energetic intention into a visual meditation on regeneration before proceeding to the more “holy” section of the cave.
The Chauvet shrine contains the physical evidence to suggest Cave Bears inhabited the site before (and perhaps during) the times humans were active in the cave. Thousands of Cave Bear bones have been found at Chauvet. They make up 99% of the animal bones found at the site.[i] Evidence from the surrounding region shows that throughout prehistory, Cave Bears were associated with the cycles of life (and thus with the sacred feminine). Because of the hibernation cycle of bears, they represented the three-fold sacred experience (life, death and rebirth) all within the same lifetime. The Cave Bear goes back into the “womb” of the earth and is “reborn” each spring.
The image of a mother bear protecting her cub also became a symbol of the fierce power of the sacred feminine and stands in direct opposition to the more modern notion that feminine energy must always be passive, receptive and weak. Cave Bear imagery is seen throughout the extensive cave network in Southern France. The mythological aspect of the image is apparent in the religious practices of prehistoric Germany, Russia, Sweden, Great Britain and Greece.
Cave Bears are painted near the cave entrance (above). Could these images refer to the great Mother “She-Bear” and her cubs (Ursa Major and Minor)? Regardless, the bear imagery is unmistakably religious and reinforces the idea that the Chauvet shrine is devoted to the sacred feminine and the ancient religion of prehistory. Image courtesy Bradshaw Foundation.
An unmistakable altar space (above) sits centrally located in the first section of the cave. Although what this altar was used for exactly remains unclear, it is obviously a place of great spiritual importance. Many other spots in the Chauvet cave either incorporate or highlight Cave Bear skulls, bones and scratches into the sacred imagery as well. Image courtesy Bradshaw Foundation.
The constellation Ursa Major also figures into the religious symbolism of prehistoric people and directly into the Cave Bear paintings found at the Chauvet shrine. The bear imagery in the cave seems to have emerged from the multi-layered mythology of prehistory. Cultural mythologist Barbara Walker claims, “Ursel means ‘She-Bear’ in the guise of Ursa Major, the Great Bear (Big Dipper), whose constellation circles the pole star without disappearing into the sea.” This reinforces the idea that in prehistory, the sacred feminine was associated not only with the cycles of time and change but with notions of eternity as well. This aspect of prehistoric religion also dispels any notion that the ancients subscribed to a “Mother Earth/Father Heaven” model.[ii] Instead, the “Great Mother Bear” was seen as the Creatrix and Protector of all the living.
The ancients believed that Artemis Calliste, the She-Bear, ruled all the stars until Zeus usurped her place. The Huntress aspect of Artemis was another form of the destroying Crone or waning moon. “In her capacity as a hunting Goddess,” claims author and Goddess practitioner Zsuzsanna Budapest, “Artemis is the classical Greek version of the Lady of the Beasts who appears in art all the way back to the Neolithic Age and as Mother of the Animals in shamanic practice.” She is both the preserver and destroyer of the animals in her care. And she is the only one who knows which species should be controlled and which need protection. “She is merciless,” claims Budapest, “to those who kill them irresponsibly.”
With both images, Artemis the Huntress and the Mother She-Bear, we see the Goddess as powerfully ferocious, not just benevolent. In the Chauvet cave, we can begin to see then how the images of the Cave Bear suggest a close connection to the both the biological and astrological origins of the Goddess cult. Here we see the Goddess associated with both the cycles of time (birth, life, death and rebirth) as well as with the notions of eternity and transcendence. She extends a ferocious, protective power over all forms of life that depend on her for their very existence. Prehistoric people pictured the “Little Bear” (The Little Dipper) within the circle of the Great She-Bear as her “son/consort.” He represented the life force that emanated out of her and was forever under her protection, influence and care.
The constellation Ursa Major (above), the Great She-Bear, ruled the stars of the ancient sky. Like the Hindu Goddess Saranya who gave birth to all animals, she was called the “Mother of Creatures.” In the ancient cult of Artemis (below), priestesses wore Saffron-dyed garments in sacred ceremonies honoring the Great Goddess for her life-giving blood. Perhaps the red paint used in Chauvet cave to paint the majority of the Cave Bear images is associated with this practice. Above image courtesy NASA. Below image courtesy Alexandra Gallant / littlestfinch.com.
In this incarnation she was seen not only as the ruler of the stars, but also as the Protectress of the axis mundi: the Pole of the World. Marked in the heavens by the Pole Star (at the center of the small circle delineated by the constellation Ursa Major) the axis mundi was often associated with the phallic symbol and the creative capacity of male gods, as either a Great Serpent or a World Tree. Yet among the oldest mythological symbols extending back into prehistory, we find hints that this “world-supporting” tree or pole was female. In these archaic myths, this tree is called “birth-giving,” and “fruit- or milk- producing.”
The ancient Near East referred to this magical tree by its older name of Mutvidr, “Mother-Tree.” In the oldest traditions, it was said that “the tree is the source of unborn souls,” which would give birth to the new primal woman, Life (Lif) in the new universe after the present cycle came to an end. The spring at the tree’s root was a fountain of wisdom or the life-giving fluid which may be compared to the “wise blood” of the Mother—that much mythologized feminine life source (menstrual blood) likened to the Kula nectar in the uterine spring of Kundalini. This cosmic “Tree” can be seen as a symbol of the body of the Great Mother from which all light and life emerges. Her body becomes the sacred place of emergence: the abyss of primeval chaos from which the divine light first appears. She is the ground of our being. The symbol of both our divine and animal selves.
Woman with tree tattoo image. Courtesy Kamil Graphic.
The similarities in shape between the upper section of Chauvet cave and the female reproductive organs (see images below) may well have been recognized by the original inhabitants of the cave who would have developed this inner section as the “holy of holies,” the entrance into the most sacred part of the mythological womb of the Great Mother. It is most likely in this section that the more mystical rites of rebirth and renewal would have taken place. The lower section would have served as a sort of transition chamber or Grotto, a place for initiates, visitors or for lesser rites and ceremonies. Entrance into, and reemergence out of, the sacred womb of Mother Earth would have symbolized regeneration much like the later traditions of water baptism.
Reproductive organs image courtesy health.allrefer.com
Horse imagery appears to have a prominent position in the Chauvet Cave. Horses are painted at several key locations and seem to figure into the larger religious theme of the site. Throughout the region, horses were venerated as male deities who frequently were sacrificed in service of the Great Goddess. In fact, in the 15th century A.D., Pope Calixtus III decreed that no more religious ceremonies should be held in “the cave with the horse pictures.” Could he have been referring to the Chauvet shrine? Regardless, as partnership animals, horses figured strongly into the mythological world of prehistoric man.
Remnants of horse-worshipping cults are found in and around the region of the Chauvet cave. In the ancient Goddess religion, horses were incorporated into the ideologies and techniques of shamanic ecstasy. An animal that represented partnership and communion with the natural world, horse- worship was a central motif in the Goddess religion of prehistory and figured directly into the mythological function of the Chauvet shrine. Above image Creative Commons. Below image courtesy Bradshaw Foundation.
Shamanic use of horses in ecstatic ceremonies existed throughout the region of the Chauvet cave and extends even further into the mythological traditions of prehistory. Several aboriginals of India (the Bhil or the Korku, for example) represent their dead on horseback. As do the indigenous peoples of Germanic and Japanese societies. Tribal legends from across the inhabited world tell of horses carrying dead shamans to their new home. Professor of Religious History Mircea Eliade notes that even when horses are not documented in the shamanic séance, they are almost always symbolically present through the white horsehairs that are burned or through a white mare skin on which the shaman sits. “Burning horsehairs,” Eliade claims, “is equivalent to evoking the magical animal that will carry the shaman ‘into the beyond.’” As a “funerary” animal, the horse facilitated trance states: the ecstatic flight of the soul to forbidden regions. The symbolic “ride” expressed leaving the body, the shaman’s “mystical death.” Perhaps it is this very function that the horse paintings served in the Chauvet shrine. As symbols of transition and reemergence, they were spiritual animals that “carried” the shaman into the “womb” of the Great Mother where they would worship her creative power in sacred rites and ceremonies. Then the shaman would be “reborn” through her yonic gate and emerge back into the world of the living.
Robert Graves notes that the only human figure represented in what survives of British Old Stone Age art is a man wearing a horse-mask, carved in bone, found in the Derbyshire Pin-Hole Cave; a remote ancestor of the hobby-horse mummers in England. The Saxons and the Danes venerated the horse as much as did their Celtic predecessors. In medieval Denmark, during the ecstatic three-day horse feast, the priests would first sprinkle bowls of the horse’s blood towards the South and East—which explains the horse as an incarnation of the Spirit of the Solar Year: the son/consort of the Mare-Goddess.
In Norse myth, death was the significance of Father Odin’s eight-legged gray horse Sleipnir as well. Believed to be the horse on which men rode to the land of death, the “Great Horse” also symbolized the gallows tree where human sacrifices were hung in Odin’s sacred groves. Old Norse drasil meant both “horse” and “gallows tree.” Therefore the World Tree Yggdrasil on which Odin hung and bled was both the “Horse” of Yggr (the world) and the “Gallows” of the world. In this aspect, it is related to the axis mundi at the earth’s hub as well.
The horse cult of Odin was originally rooted in Vedic India with Hindu dying gods often assuming horse shape. Hindu queens also impersonated the Goddess as Mare-mother, Saranyu, by inserting a dead horse’s penis between their legs at the end of the sacrificial ceremony, calling upon the ‘vigorous male’ to ‘lay seed’ for the benefit of the land and its people. Ancient Rome knew him as the October Horse, or curtus equus (“cut horse”). During an elaborate ritual, priestesses known as the “Three Queens” divided the sacrificial horse into three sections. The horse’s amputated tail was then quickly carried to the temple of Vesta—the earth’s yoni—so its blood could drip on the altar. In Paleolithic times it was most likely the horse’s penis that donated blood to the Goddess. Castrated stallions were offered to all equine forms of the Goddess. The Taurians, for instance, sacrificed horses to Artemis from whom “the member was cut off.”
Traces of the horse sacrifice persisted in England up until the 16th century, when it was still customary for all horses to be bled on St. Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, for “luck.” This blood wedding of the Earth Mother and the Horse’s Penis produced the race of horse-gods known in the Aegean as centaurs, in India as Asvins or Gandharvas. They were great wizards, skilled in music and dancing, expert healers, lusty lovers of women. Western centaurs were similar, born of Mare-headed Demeter in Mycenae, or of Leukippe, the White Mare in Crete.
Robert Graves notes in The White Goddess, “The horse, or pony, has been a sacred animal in Britain from prehistoric times. Northern Europeans considered horses essential to the funeral rites of great warriors. In ancient times, the horse was usually sacrificed at the funeral and buried with the dead hero (above), just as boats were buried with Egyptian mummies to carry them over the waters of the “afterworld.” Above image courtesy Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. Below image courtesy Wessex Archeology.
Hindus, Arabs and Celts regarded the yonic shape of the horseshoe (below) as a symbol of the Goddess’s “Great Gate.” Druidic temples were often constructed in the shape of horseshoes. So were some Hindu temples, with the specific intention of representing the yoni. The horseshoe arch of Arabic sacred architecture developed from the same tradition. Greeks assigned the yonic shape to the last letter of their sacred alphabet, Omega, literally “Great Om,” the Word of Creation beginning the next cycle of becoming. The implication of the horseshoe symbol was that, having entered the yonic Door at the end of life (Omega), man would be reborn as a new child (Alpha) through the same door. This very figure, the horseshoe, is still nailed to millions of doors in various parts of the world as a symbol of good luck.
Horseshoe image courtesy of Tony Patti Ó.
Another relic of pre-Christian horse worship is the traditional horse-headed stick, or “hobby horse” (the “cock-horse” ridden to Banbury Cross to see the Goddess make her ritual ride as Lady Godiva). Similar horse-headed sticks were ridden by central Asian shamans, enabling the shaman to “fly through the air,” to reach the heavens. Eliade notes “the horse is employed by the shaman, in various contexts, as a means of achieving ecstasy, that is, the ‘coming out of oneself’ that makes the mystical journey possible. The horse carries the deceased into the beyond; it produces the ‘break-through in plane,’ the passage from this world to other worlds. And this is why it plays a role of first importance in certain types of masculine initiation.” An initiation, it appears in the Chauvet cave, into the prehistoric rites of Goddess worship.
Until at least the 12th century, Irish Kings underwent a ceremony of symbolic re- birth from the “white mare.” The Leukippe (“White Mare”) of Crete (or Demeter, as a Mare-Goddess) was widely worshipped under the name Epona, or ‘The Three Eponae,” among the Gallic Celts. Image courtesy © National Museum of History and Art – Luxembourg.
Near the back of the Chauvet cave, a large inner chamber reveals an enigmatic scene of several Cave Lions sitting in a circle around a human female form that is part Yonic representation, part shamanic Bison. This is the most sacred section of the site and offers the best evidence of the religious function of the cave and the mythology of its earliest inhabitants. Cave Lions were powerful symbols of shamanic magic and thus are given a place of spiritual prominence in the Chauvet shrine.
In prehistoric African religion, the lion was a symbol of the sacred masculine. Its mane reminiscent of the sun’s rays, the male lion represented the eternal (the sun does not change as it moves through the sky) and was a powerful totem of assertive masculine energy. The sun, in all hunting mythologies, was the Great Hunter. “He” is the lion whose roar scatters the flocks and herds; the luminous orb whose rays at dawn scatter the “herds” of the night sky: the stars. In prehistory, the lion stands as mythological guardian and protector of the Great Goddess. Joseph Campbell notes,
Among the symbols associated with the great goddess in the archaic arts of the Mediterranean we find the mirror, the knightly throne of wisdom, the gate, the morning and evening star, and a column flanked by lions rampant…Or again we may see her endowed with the head of a cow, bearing in her arms a bull-headed child; standing naked on the back of a lion.
As protectors of the sacred feminine, lions were revered as “sun-heroes” who ruled the hunt and, conversely, as protectors of the Goddess’ flocks and herds. According to Joseph Campbell, “The sun is the hunter, the Great Lion who scatters the herds and stars. And as tomorrow night we see the stars return, so will tomorrow the antelope return.” Nor has the great hunter killed the beast as a personal, willful act, but according to the provisions of the Great Spirit (The Divine Mother). And in this way, nothing is lost. He is aggressive only in her service and with her “permission.” The cycle continues into perpetuity. The violence allowed only to establish and maintain balance and to provide for the community.
Cave Lion paintings in Chauvet depict several aspects of the religious function of the animal in the mythology of prehistory. Whether existing in partnership and husbandry (below) or in what appears to be a circle of worship/protection of the sacred feminine, Cave Lions found at Chauvet, Laussel and other sites are totems of masculine power that stand in obedient service to the Divine Mother. In India and the Near East, the usual animal-mount of the goddess was the lion and in the mythological art both of the Hittites and the Yoruba of Nigeria, the goddess stands poised on the lion, nursing her child. The image of a lion as the guardian/protector of the Great Goddess, it seems, was ubiquitous in prehistoric mythological traditions.
Although the Cave Lions from the region surrounding the Chauvet shrine did not have manes (and thus cannot directly be associated with the masculine aspect of African religious symbolism) this totem (right) from a nearby cave reinforces the notion of the Cave Lion representing masculine energy, especially with regard to the hunting rites associated with Goddess worship in the region. Above image courtesy Ulmer Museum. Right image courtesy of Bradshaw Foundation.
Enshrined at the apex of the cave’s mythological trajectory hangs an esoteric figure: the Chauvet Venus/man bison (first image below). This Venus is classic in her proportions and style. The selection of the anatomical elements shown is characteristic of Aurignacian or Gravettian Venuses, as seen in the small statues of Central and Eastern Europe dating from the same time period. This is the only “human” form found in the cave.
As a mythological beast, the bison (image below) served as the male consort of the Great Mother Goddess. Known as the “Lord of the Hunt,” the buffalo- dancer shaman would entice a few of the herd to run over a cliff and thus “sacrifice” themselves for the tribe. In the nearby Trois Frère cave, there are images of just such a shamanic bison-dancer. In another location in Southern France known as Tuc d’Audoubert, there is a chamber in which two bison are represented in bas-relief around which the footsteps of a dancer have been found. This suggests that the mythological motif in the Chauvet shrine is consistent with the hunting/consort aspect of bison imagery found throughout the region.
Image courtesy Bradshaw Foundation.
Art historians and archaeologists have suggested that the multiple images of horns in the cave (right) are artistic flourishes meant to suggest movement and depth. This idea of presenting the animals as dynamic, moving and “alive” coincides with the notions of fluidity and permeability that were so essential to the prehistoric mind. But what if there is even more to the imagery? “Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of a divine being used to be a horned head—bulls, goats, stags,” claims Barbara Walker.
Frequently associated with the notion of masculine sexual potency, primitive sacred art throughout the ancient world shows men wearing the horns of bulls, stags, rams, or goats, which distinguished the shaman, sacred king, priest or victim. But horned animals were also frequently associated with the Mother Goddess. “Myths of all later periods,” Walker continues, “combined the Goddess with the Horned God, who was Actaeon the stag, Pan the goat, Dionysus or Zeus the bull, Amen the ram and innumerable other combinations.” This is consistent with the mythological use of horns in the Chauvet shrine. While there is no consensus of opinion among scholars that this is supposed to be depicted as a single individual, the Venus image at Chauvet nonetheless reinforces the archaic belief in the Goddess as the primary life principle, with all living forms emerging from, and returning to, her cycles of creation and destruction.
As symbols of the quarter moon, horns frequently represented the sacred feminine in prehistoric art. Images of horned animals such as bulls, musk ox and rams can be found throughout the region and stretching back into the religion of the African plains. The clear emphasis on the horn (below) seems to suggest an understanding of this feminized, moon aspect of horn mythology in the Chauvet cave. Above images courtesy Creative Commons, Public Domain.
In service of the Great Mother Goddess, the shaman/bison was seen as the “animal master.” Often referred to as the “Lord of the Hunt,” the bison/consort (embodied by the shaman in ceremonial garb) would “magically” entice the herd to run over a cliff and sacrifice itself for the tribe. When per- formed correctly, the bison/buffalo dance symbolized the notion that the animal’s flesh was the gift of that shaman/master and that particular herd to the people, in accord with the magical order of “Mother” nature. Scholars suggest that it is highly probable the Aurignacian hunters who inhabited the immense Eurasian territories that extended from Southern France to Lake Baikal in Siberia practiced this very Goddess/ Bison mythology.[iii]
The shaman was the guardian of the covenant between the animal and human worlds (right). A covenant written in the magical, life-giving blood of the Great Mother; written on the “scroll” of her vegetative body and renewed each year through the eternal cycles of birth, life, death and change. When experienced this way, the killing of animals was not necessarily seen as something against the will of nature. On the contrary, in the balance of nature, life eats life; and the animal becomes the willing victim, giving its flesh to be the food of the people. Furthermore, where the animal rites were correctly celebrated, a magical connection between the beasts and those who hunted them was established. “The bison/buffalo dance, when properly performed, ensures that the creatures slaughtered would only be giving their bodies, not their essence, their lives, their souls,” claims Joseph Campbell. “And so they would live again, or rather, live on; and would be there to return the following season.” Campbell sees this as a sort of “Paleolithic prelude” to the great theme of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, “Only the bodies, of which this eternal, imperishable, incomprehensible Self is the indweller, can be said to have an end.”
The Goddess, as the creative and regenerative energy manifested in the living world, was the “arbiter” of this process. She “decided” which herds could be hunted and which could not, and to what extent. It was the shaman’s job to “read” her signs correctly and thus ensure the tribe did not violate her natural laws of ecological balance and sustainability. The hunt itself, therefore, was a sacred sacrificial rite. “The proper sacrifice for the shaman/hunter is the animal itself,” according to Campbell, “which through its death and return represents the play of the permanent substance or essence on the shadow world of accident and chance.” And so it seems that through such shamanic ceremonial rites, the people living in the region of the Chauvet cave exercised a mythological identification with the animal world, a magical web of mutual understanding and respect on which the well-being of both the animals and the tribe depended. While it has not been determined that the Chauvet shrine was itself dedicated to hunting rites, it is clear that the mythology existed within the network of caves found in the region. Furthermore, the Venus/Bison painting in the Chauvet cave seems to support the paleo-religious worldview consistent with these hunting rites and ceremonies.
Indeed the title “Venus” itself contains the ideological seeds of the Goddess cult of prehistory. The term is derived from the Roman name for the Great Goddess in her sexual aspect. “Veneration” and “venery” were further derivatives. “Venery” used to mean “hunting;” because like her eastern counterpart Artemis, Venus was once a Lady of Animals. Her Horned God and consort, Adonis—as both the hunter and the sacrificial stag- became venison, which meant Venus’ son. Modern interpretations of classical mythology tend to depict Venus as a sex goddess only, however. Her birth- and death-giving aspects have been suppressed; but they were equally important in her cult.
In fact, theories on the origins of Goddess veneration in prehistory are founded not on sexual union but on the juxtaposition of mother-kinship customs to ancestor worship. Author Merlin Stone writes, “James Frazer, Margaret Mead and other anthropologists have established that in the very early stages of man’s development, before the secret of human fecundity was understood, before coitus was associated with childbirth, the female was revered as the sole giver of life.” Only women could produce their own kind, and man’s part in the process was not yet recognized.[iv] If this were the case, then the mother would have been seen as the singular parent of her family, the lone producer of the next generation. Accounts of descent in the family would have been passed from mother to daughter, rather than from father to son as is custom in modern Western societies. In such cultures, Stone suggests, “not only the names, but titles, possessions and territorial rights are passed along through the female line, so that they may remain within the family clan.” Researchers such as Jacquetta Hawkes point out that these matrilineal customs still prevail in parts of Africa and among the Dravidians of India, and relics of them appear in various traditions throughout Melanesia, Micronesia and Indonesia.
Numerous studies further suggest that ancestor worship would have been a central theme as the earliest concepts of religion developed among Paleolithic cultures. In the quest for the ultimate “source” of life (perhaps the core of all theological thought), it stands to reason that the clan would look back to its own origins for the mythological framework in which to understand the origins of all life. In these Upper Paleolithic societies, where the mother may have been regarded as the sole parent of the family, ancestor worship was thus the basis of sacred ritual. The recognition of that “First” woman as the creator of all human life, of all life in general, may have been formulated, according to Stone, “by the clan’s image of the woman who had been their most ancient, primal ancestor; and that image was thereby deified and revered as the Divine Ancestress.” In this capacity, the Chauvet shrine may be seen as a sacred space for the veneration and worship of that “First” Mother: the Creatrix of the living world. Indeed, the several Venus statues found throughout the region of the Chauvet cave are the most tangible physical evidence that the societies of the Upper Paleolithic understood the special mythological significance of women in early clan society. This is so, simply because although not all women are mothers, every human comes from a mother. In a matrilineal society that venerates ancestors as sacred, “She” is the source, the mysterious life-giving spirit of all the living – The Clan Mother.
In Paleolithic parietal art the Venus of Laussel (found at the entrance of a large cave in the Dordogne Valley of France) seems the nearest, thematically and topographically, to the Venus of Chauvet. One of four carvings found at Laussel, there are traces of red ochre on the sculpture, and reports suggest that it was covered in the substance when found. It depicts a nude female figure (right), with full breasts and exaggeratedly wide hips and buttocks. In addition, it has no facial features and no feet. However, unlike other figurines, the Venus of Laussel has clearly visible hands and fingers. Her left hand is placed upon her belly, while her right hand holds an object – probably a bison horn – upon which is engraved a series of 13 lines. According to some researchers, this may symbolize the number of moons or the number of menstrual cycles in one year. Statues like this one are the most convincing physical evidence of the Goddess religion among the Upper Paleolithic societies of the Eurasian landmass.
The Venus of Laussel and her horn have been interpreted in many different ways since the sculpture’s discovery. Scholars typically interpret a Venus figurine as a fertility goddess or shamaness; but the addition of the bison core, or whatever that object is, has stimulated much discussion. The best-known interpretation from Upper Paleolithic scholars is that the object the Venus is holding isn’t a horn core, but rather an image of the crescent moon, and the 13 stripes cut into the object are an explicit reference to the annual lunar cycle. This, combined with the Venus resting her hand on a large belly, is read as a reference to fertility. The tallies on the crescent are also interpreted as referring to the number of menstrual cycles in a year of a woman’s life.
A related concept to the fertility interpretation is the precursor of the classical notion of cornucopia (right) or “Horn of Plenty.” This interpretation relies on the identification of the horn as a symbol of food, or abundance, and the tally marks might represent a hunter’s score of animals slaughtered. Cornucopias are related to fertility as well: the idea is that procreation occurs in the head, and the horn represents the fertilizing function of a bull.
Following along with that theory, some scholars have argued that the Laussel Venus is actually holding a magical wand to help aid a hunter trap a pursued animal. This version sees the collection of drawings found at Laussel together, as different vignettes of the same story. This concept is important because it suggests that the images in the cave are not random but part of a single narrative: a unified, visible expression of an ancient, complex socio-religious culture. This approach allows us to view the Chauvet Cave with the same intention. Namely, that the paintings in the cave are interrelated and suggest a thematic progression as one moves through the shrine.
Whatever the actual function of the Venus of Laussel, and others such as the Venus’ of Hohle Fels, Willendorf and Lespugue, it is clear that these statues represent a mythological orientation that places the sacred feminine at the center of human society. All life, and thus all human art, music, religion and abstract thought, originate from within her infinite creative potentiality. She is the manifestation of the original Clan Mother, the progenitor of the species. At the Chauvet site, among others, her veneration is tied to the very heartbeat of the tribe by defining the relationships between the tribe and the natural world. She is the great, mysterious womb from which we emerge and to which we return to be born anew.
The Chauvet Cave shrine, therefore, is more than just an artistic and archaeological curiosity. The cave contains vital information for citizens of the modern world. It is significant because it suggests that for tens of thousands of years, our ancestors venerated a “deity” who personified the Great Goddess. These ancient cultures were animistic, acknowledging the existence of spirit in all living things, but they also recognized the feminine principle as primary for life, spirituality and consciousness. She represented abundance, fertility, and new life. She was the ground of our mythological being. As such, it seems that before women became possessions of the modern, warring patriarchal mythologies, they were possessors of the divine light and creative energy. The inventors of agriculture, pottery and weaving, women represented the highest potential of human cooperation and achievement. A balance that has been lost in the guise of “progress.”
The Venus of Laussel, or “Femme a la corne,” (above) is a limestone relief of a nude female figure, painted with red ochre. It is related to Gravettian Upper Paleolithic culture and is approximately 25,000 years old which places it in the chronological and topographical region of the Chauvet shrine. Image courtesy Creative Commons.
Our modern societies have thus become unhinged, hopelessly separated from the ability to self-reflect and heal themselves. We know that our definitions and cultural institutions must change to serve the needs and anxieties of the emerging world but how that change must occur and what new foundational principles it should be based on are still unclear. It seems the goals of Industrialism, Colonialism and Philosophical Dualism[v] have left us battered and assaulted as a species. Gone is our connection to the earth and the changing seasons. Gone is our sense of camaraderie with the other species of the biota. No longer do we keenly, intuitively, feel loyalty and brotherhood towards one another. We have forgotten our mythological origins; separated ourselves from the vast, cosmic ocean that is the ground of all knowledge and forms. “What does our great historical hunger signify,” mused Nietzsche, “our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb?” What is before us as a species is a model for understanding our place in the world that emphasizes our inherent connection to it as opposed to our separation from it. According to authors like Terence McKenna,
We need a new set of lenses to see our way in the world. When the medieval world shifted its worldview, secularized Europe sought salvation in the revivifying of classical Greek and Roman approaches to law, philosophy, education, aesthetics, city planning, and agriculture. Our dilemma will cast us further back into time for models and answers.
The Venus of Lespugue (above left) is a wonderful example of Paleolithic religious art. Dating from circa 25,000 B.C., she is an important symbol of the spiritual worldview of our earliest ancestors. “In the beginning there was Mother,” claims author and cultural anthropologist Barbara Walker. She is the “sole origin of the ironclad bonds of family and clan that united human groups, making possible such cooperative efforts and activities as would lead to the development of civilization.” Image courtesy Creative Commons. (Above Right) “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known,” Joseph Campbell claims. “She lures, she guides, she bids us burst our fetters. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding.” Image courtesy ÓJerry Uelsmann 1992.
McKenna believes that the way forward is behind us. Way behind. This means reaching back in time to models that were successful fifteen to thirty thousand years ago. Our ideas must again be based in the visible logos and not simply in the hopeless linguistic abstractions of the unhinged left hemisphere. We must each hold up our sliver of the fractured mirror to reflect the undifferentiated whole. And if we do, together, the reflection we see will be the One we have so desperately sought these many millennia. To embrace and expand the “sacred landscapes” of the non-local mind will allow us to manifest this unity into the physical spaces we share with each other and with other species of the biota. McKenna continues,
That same mind that coaxed us into self-reflecting language now offers us the boundless landscapes of the imagination. Without such a relationship…we stand outside of an understanding of planetary purpose. And understanding of planetary purpose may be the major contribution that we can make to the evolutionary process. Returning to the bosom of the planetary partnership means trading the point of view of the ego for the intuitional trans-linguistic understanding of the maternal matrix.
The material of our earliest cultural myths is the material of our lives, our bodies and our deepest, most profound experiences. And the first experience for anybody is the mother: what Jung called the “participation mystique.” To be in tune with the universe as the child is in tune with the mother’s body “is the principal function of mythology,” according to Campbell. Woman is the center and continuer of nature, of life. “The first object of a subject is, therefore, the mother. The child knows no other. The whole conception of Eros, of libido, is for a return to the mother. And the child is immediately ready for that: Mother as environment, child as creature.” The child knows exactly what to do and this is all pre- linguistic. Joseph Campbell writes of the Goddess:
The goddess is red with the fire of life; the earth, the solar system, the galaxies of far-extending space, all swell within her womb. For she is the world Creatrix, ever mother, ever virgin. She encompasses the encompassing, nourishes the nourishing, and is the life of everything that lives.
Psychologist Rollo May suggests that it is the loss of our primary mythic narrative that has created the widening existential void that is crippling Western Civilization. “Our powerful hunger for myth is a hunger for community. The person without a myth is a person without a home, and one would indeed clutch for other cultures to find some place at some time a ‘mythic womb.’” Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche. Dr. May suggests myths are “involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings.” According to Jung, “They are the psychic life of the primitive tribe, which immediately falls to pieces and decays when it loses its mythological heritage, like a man who has lost his soul.”
Myths are archetypal patterns in human consciousness. May argues that myth and self-consciousness are to some degree synonymous. “Where there is consciousness, there will be myth.” As such, it was the Goddess, not the God, who was the symbol of creation and life in most tribal societies of prehistory. She is the author of consciousness, and thus, as Buckminster Fuller calls her, the “architect” of culture. She is the first principle that informs both our animal and divine natures. The Chauvet Cave is her sacred text. Her priests and priestesses worshipped her in (and through) the manifested forms of the living world. Living within the food chain, these prehistoric people understood that their connectivity to the natural world was integral to the balance, health and regeneration of the inner world.
The mother carries for us, according to Jung, that “inborn image of the mater natura and mater spiritualis, of the totality of life of which we are a small and helpless part.” The metaphor of rebirth is central to all of the world’s major wisdom traditions. The female principle, therefore, has always symbolically been regarded as both life-giver and death-bringer. The ebb and flow of her creative and destructive cycles are the pulse of the living world. Image courtesy http://pregnancyneeds.net/.
Goddess “worship,” it must be stressed, is an ancient technology meant to trigger the empathic drives of our collective right hemispheres. The “forgotten” dreams of Herzog’s film rematerialize through a mutual re-cognition that life is precious and sacred. And that by increasing the dignity and freedom of all living things, we increase our own. The Goddess is the symbol of our highest responsibility to one another. Through understanding eyes, she is that purest image of our own potential to evolve from Homo sapien (the knowing creature) to Homo empathicus (the empathic creature). She allows us to see ourselves in the other and, thus, to embrace it. Once we relearn how to do this, we are again able to internalize our shared divine nature through the consciousness of our biochemical connectivity and interdependence. Then we can proclaim along with Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson that, “We are all connected: to each other, biologically; to the earth, chemically; to the rest of the Universe, atomically.” Unless we return to an understanding that nature is our first religion and the visible world the altar of worship, we will not be able to make the necessary sacrifices to heal our dying planet. The Chauvet Cave paintings are the clearest window we have yet found into this ancient, intuitive wisdom. Flashes of firelight against a cave wall offer glimpses of a forgotten truth — one that remains there for us all to see, if we have the courage of insight to see it manifesting.
“Whether he understands them or not, man must remain conscious of the world of archetypes, because in it he is still a part of Nature and is connected to his own roots. A view of the world that cuts him off from the primordial images of life not only is no culture at all, but in increasing degree, is a prison or a stable.”
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[i] Researchers at the Chauvet shrine have determined that the other bones found at the site (a wolf, an eagle and a few deer, etc.) were most likely brought into the cave by the Cave Bears themselves. Regardless, the Cave Bear is clearly central to the symbolic and mythological focus of the first section of the cave.
[ii] This “partnership” idea seems to have developed much later as a sort of transition out of matrilineal societies and into the more modern societal models of patriarchy, hegemony and ownership.
[iii] Archaeological evidence suggests that the tribes who migrated to North America around this same time period also originated from this same Lake Baikal region in Siberia. As such, evidence of the bison/buffalo dance among shamanic practices is found among many North American natives.
[iv] S.G.F Brandon, Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of Manchester observed, “How the infant came to be in the womb was undoubtedly a mystery to primitive man…it seems probable that the significance of gestation and birth was appreciated long before it was realized that these phenomena were the result of conception following coition.”
[v] The notion that there is a fundamental difference between mind and matter, dualism is also present in the “either/or” orientation of most Western educational and philosophical systems. Earlier models, such as those found in Chinese and Hindu societies (and perhaps also among the Upper Paleolithic cultures), embraced a “both/and” orientation; a more inclusive, expansive and integrative path to knowledge.
Cover Photo, Top Left: Handprint image © James DiLoreto and Donald Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution
Second From Top: Courtesy www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk.
Cave Diagram: Courtesy Kevin Malone
Blue Shaman image courtesy Ó Borean Dusk.
“White Buffalo Woman” image courtesy of BlueMaiya @ Maiya’s Mythological Emporium.
Venus of Loussel image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Cornucopia image: Detail of Sirens Holding a Cornucopia from the State Carriage of Peter the Great, circa 1724 Artist: Francois Boucher. Image courtesy Creative Commons.
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