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.
This figurine was carved from mammoth ivory some 32,000 years ago. It is 11.7 inches tall. It is said to be the oldest zoomorphic (animal-shaped) sculpture in the world, and one of the oldest of all sculptures. The pieces of the body were found in the Stadel cave of Hohlenstein Mountain, in the Swabian Alps in Germany, in 1939. The lion head was discovered, restored and set on the shoulders nearly sixty years later, in 1998.
In German, the figurine is called Löwenmensch, a word that is gender-neutral in meaning (though grammatically masculine) and can be translated as "lion person" or "lion human." Some scholars think the figure is female: a woman's body surmounted by the head of a an ancient cave lion.
To contemplate this little statue is to be transported into the era of Cave Mind. It is a state of being and consciousness in which human, animal and god are not set apart from each other. Waking and dreaming stream together. Fluidity of consciousness is matched by the mobility and mutability of the energy bodies. A bear may become a man, a woman may become a lion, appearing in two places at once, as animal and as human.
There is little doubt in my mind that the lion-human of Hohlenstein-Stadel is a shaman of Old Europe, with the shaman's ability to shapeshift, to meld forms, and to operate on multiple levels of consciousness.
In a provocative essay, William Irwin Thomson suggests that
One of the skills of the shaman that contemporary Everyman does not possess is the ability to separate the vital or etheric body from the physical body and to project it to take possession of an animal—a lion or a jaguar—as was dramatized in Val Lewton’s classic 1942 horror movie, Cat People. Contemporary Everyman often has experience of astral projection, or out-of-the-body travel, but this skill of animal possession is much rarer. Modern man as a geek alienated from nature is much more likely to project his etheric body into a computer or an avatar in a computer game
I won't mourn if contemporary Everyman has lost the power to "possess an animal" (that is to say, to possess an animal body) in the manner of the horror movies. But in a gentler mode, the power of transfiguration - to reshape and project energy bodies - is still with us, though dormant in most people, in a time when the Cave of Mind is an electronic cloud of geek projections.