Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cave mind, juniper fuse

Bird shaman and wounded bison at Lascaux
“Something in daily and nightly life had to encourage certain people to go into the caves on a quest. There must have been a crisis outside the caves that some people felt could only be resolved inside them." Thus Clayton Eshleman, in his poetic exploration of why our distant ancestors went deep below the earth to make  the first great art on walls that could be viewed, with ordinary eyes, only in the uncertain flicker of hand lamps like those at Lascaux, whose wicks were juniper twigs. Hence the book's title,  Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld.
     The oldest theory of the cave paintings is that they are just stone age graffiti, or art for art’s sake. You're sheltering down in a cave when you notice that a swelling in the rock resembles a bison's great body, or a crack suggests a woman's vulva, and then you expand that suggestion into an image. Next came the theory that the paintings were hunting magic, that the artists were spreading a magic net to catch the animals they depicted. That version sounded plausible in the abstract, but comes apart when we notice that there are relatively few game animals in the cave paintings (red deer, a prime source of meat in those days, are notably missing) and few explicit scenes of hunting or people with weapons. Side-by-side with the "hunting magic" theory came that of fertility magic, based on the vulvas and abstract Vs (read as feminine sex symbols) and lines (read as phallic).
     As the study of shamanism became popular in the wake of Mircea Eliade's 1953 classic, we heard that the cave paintings were evidence of - and vehicles for - primal shamanic ritual and shifting of consciousness. In Shamanism: The Beginnings of Art (1967) Andreas Lommel issued a passionate manifesto for the cave artist as shaman. In the celebrated painting of an ithyphallic bird-masked shaman and a bison spilling its guts in the shaft at Lascauz, Lommel saw a battle between shapeshifting shamans, in which the loser is stuck in dying form of his power animal, the bison.
    A gentler, more holistic view of the paintings is that they are products of a deep womb experience: the power of being inside the Earth herself. "To draw on the inside walls of a cave is to be part of the potential transforming powers of inside” writes Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, in The Roots of Thinking (1990).

    The cave paintings can bee seen as testimonies to experience, of the powers that appeared in vision and during ritual in the dark of the cave. If a power manifested as a horse, then paint a horse. If indeterminate, then a hybrid. Maybe some paintings were done to evoke the powers of the deeper world, and others to contain them.
    How can we know what the "cave mind" was like? We can learn from the experiences of those who have put themselves inside the cave world. One of the most interesting passages in Juniper Fuse is a report by Barbara MacLeod, who spent 48 hours without light or timepieces, “an hour’s scramble” from the mouth of a cave in Belize:

At first I perceived the darkness as two-dimensional – a flat screen spattered occasionally by drifting, bluish cloudlike images whose edges continued to unfold…These images were the same whether my eyes were open or closed…The most striking feature of the early phase, beginning within some four hours, was synaesthesia.

Slight sounds generate images, starting with brilliant geometric patterns, becoming vivid scenes from memory. There is the impression of being in “an eternal hypnopompic state.” Waking from her first sleep in the cave, MacLeod finds herself in interstellar space, frightened until she feels the ground and hears her companion’s breathing. Now

The darkness had acquired three-dimensionality, and seemed to be illuminated by a light behind and above my head…The infinity of the field before me seemed to take me into itself, such that I was no longer contained in my skull

There are inexplicable auditory phenomena, a tinkling on the ceiling overhead, like a small bell, and later, howls. "There was something else in here with us…I had an image of the “presence” as an amoeba-like consciousness which was the cave, rather than some spook flitting around in it."
     She had the sense of an invitation to apprenticeship from the cave itself
     I return to Eshleman's hypothesis that  "a crisis outside the caves" encouraged certain people to go down into the caves on a quest in order to find the means to resolve it. What was the nature of that crisis? he suggests, with poetic insight, that it lay in the separation of the world and the mind of humans from those of the animal powers. In the caves, with the aid of the "breathing images" (I am borrowing a phrase from the Greeks), the connection between human, animal and deeper powers could be re-forged.
     In our lives and our world today, how do we begin to count the cost of our disconnection from the animal powers and the Earth herself? We may not choose, or be able, to spend 48 hours in a cave in Belize - and will not be permitted to do that at Lascaux - but we need to find ways to renew the connection and spend some time in "cave mind", below and beyond our surface preoccupations. We do that in shamanic dreaming, when we learn to travel to the world-beneath-the world, through the mouth of a cave or the roots of a tree.


Justin Patrick Moore said...

In addition to dreaming and shamanic practices another potential way to spend some time in the cave mind is to listen to some recordings that have been made in caves. I'm particularly fond of The Deep Listening Band's album, "Troglodyte's Delight".

And Listen Deep. Turn off the lights, close your eyes, and immerse yourself as the sound is washed over you.

For me, a trip to Mammoth Cave is also not too far off.

Margaret said...

Thank you Robert, and Justin... I went through a phase of painting caves, hinting at the four-legged wise ones within... I cannot recommend enough Werner Herzog's recent film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," revealing most beautifully the astonishing 40,000 year-old paintings inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France. See it if you can.