El Castillo: Wonders and Questions

El Castillo Cave

El Castillo Cave in northern Spain is famous for containing the oldest cave art in Europe: a red disk that was painted on the cave wall at least 40,800 years ago, perhaps as long as 42,000 years ago.  These dates caused a major uproar because it’s just about the time modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) are thought to have arrived in Western Europe.  Before then, Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) occupied the area.  So debate rages about whether the red dot was the work of our Neanderthal cousins, modern humans, or perhaps a hybrid of the two.  The latter is certainly a possibility; we now know the two races/species interbred. Or perhaps the meeting of the two lines of hominins released a flood of new creativity on both sides.

You can find a good introductory video, “Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain,” on YouTube.  It also shows how close the quarters are inside some sections of the cave.

The cave also contains many very old hand stencils, the oldest of which are at least 37,000 years old.  Just for reference, the oldest paintings in Chauvet Cave in France are 32,000 years old, and the famous Lascaux Cave paintings are about 20,000 years old.

El Castillo gallery of disks

People are drawn to contests determining the first and the oldest, so most of the attention given to El Castillo has been directed at the very old dots and hand stencils.  Two of those tested are marked on the photo.

But El Castillo’s value is more than just its antiquity.

hand el-castillo-handprints

The 13,000 year span

Experts once considered the drawings made on the walls of El Castillo the product of a single time period – about 17,000 years ago.  This somewhat arbitrary date was assigned because they thought France had the oldest cave art, so any cave in Spain had to be younger than Lascaux Cave in France.  When scientists were able to date the art by dating the calcite deposits that had formed over the top of it, they were amazed at its age.   And its range.

The oldest, the red disks, are over 40,000 years old.  Some may be 42,000 years old.  But some disks are far younger, at 20,000 years old.

The disk and hand print that were analyzed by Pettitt, Pyke, and Zilhao are marked with numbers on the sketch below.

Some of the hand stencils, mostly near the front and middle sections of the cave, were apparently painted more than 37,000 years ago, but some of the more recent hand stencils are 24,000 years old.

The animal figures painted over the hand stencils are generally more recent than the stencils, in some cases by thousands of years.

So the artwork in the cave was created over thirteen thousand years. Thus, it’s impossible for us to make a single assumption or interpretation about all the paintings in the cave.  The space, though probably considered very powerful and important, may have served very different purposes over those years.  What’s interesting is the ancient artists’ decision to continue to mark the cave, often using the same imagery, and in some cases to mark right over the top of earlier signs.


The Panel of the Hands

One of the most intriguing sections of the cave is the Panel of Hands, located far back in one leg of the cave.



The stenciled hands included in it were created by placing a hand over the rock and blowing a mixture of red ocher and water over it.  The slurry was held either in the artist’s mouth and blown out directly over the hand, or in a clam shell. (Several shells, mixing stones, and hollow bird bones were found on site.)  When researchers attempted to recreate the process of creating a hand stencil, they tried two methods: they blew out a mixture held in their mouth for some and for others they used two tubes, one inserted in the slurry and one held in the mouth.  The passage of air from the mouth tube over the slurry tube creates a vacuum that then allows the slurry to be sprayed over the hand.  Those of you old enough to remember artists’ fixative blowers before aerosols will be familiar with the process.  As the Dick Blick art supplies site explains, “Place the short tube in your mouth and the long tube in the bottle of fixative.  Blow gently and evenly, aiming at your drawing.  This atomizer can also be used to spray watercolors and thinned acrylics for special effects.”  (In the photo below, a modern artist uses an atomizer for special effects.)

When experimental archaeologists attempted to replicate the hand stencil technique with two hollow bird bones forming the atomizer, they found it El C atomizer in usedifficult to master. Archaeologist Paul Pettitt reported that using the two tubes to spray the slurry left them light-headed.  Many heard a persistent whirring or whistling noise in their ears.  It’s not hard to see how this would have added to the impression of entering a different world.


Who left those hand prints?

el castillo hand

Another interesting discovery colors our view of this panel.  Older interpretation was that the hand prints were those of men seeking success in the hunt, but research now shows that three-quarters of the hand prints and stencils in the caves of France and Spain were made by women.  Dean Snow, who analyzed hundreds of hand stencils in eight caves in France and Spain, showed that the hand prints carry a distinct signature.  Women tend to have ring and index fingers of the same length.  Men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers. Snow’s data showed that 24 of the 32 hands in El Castillo were female. Their reasons for making the prints remain a mystery.

The semi-circle of dots

Another curious feature of this panel is the semi-circle of dots on the far right.  Several scholars have interpreted this as a representation of the Northern Crown constellation (Corona Borealis).  It’s a fascinating theory.  (I admit this whole section is sheer speculation but fun!)CoronaBorealis

El Castillo seven dots, drawing after Anati, 1991
In northern Spain, the Northern Crown constellation is visible in the night sky from spring to fall.  Since El Castillo seems to have been occupied only during those seasons, it would make sense to include it as a sort of seasonal marker.  If that’s true, it shows an impressive level of sophistication in our relatives so long ago.



If you want to push that theory, you could point to the position of the Northern Crown on the far right and see the vertical line of hands as the standing Milky Way, as the sky would have appeared in the spring. The line of hands across the middle would cross the center of the sky in early May.
The dark curved bands would appear at the base of the Milky Way, just about where Cassiopeia would be.

Addendum, January 2016

There’s something about the El Castillo Frieze of Hands that I can’t let go.  I thought initially that the Northern Crown constellation was notable enough to include in the post, though of course it is speculation.  However, I now think that the entire panel, perhaps excluding the bison drawings, relates directly to the summertime night sky.

The section marked with the heavy red lines that resemble a boat looks like the summer position of the constellation Cassiopeia. It appears, about 9:00 PM, as an uneven “W” in the summer and an uneven “M” in winter, while it appears to stand on one leg during spring and fall.

Above it rises the Milky Way, with the three stars of the Summer Triangle marked near the top, the most conspicuous asterism in the summer sky, made up of the brightest stars from the constellations Aquila, Lyra, and Cygnus.

star chart 1

With Cassiopeia in the position marked, this would be a mid-summer star scene, typical of about 9:00 PM in July.

In the drawing shown earlier, the somewhat enigmatic figure in the center of the panel could refer to a number of constellations or combinations of them.  If it is Perseus to the Pleiades, that angle would be typical of a later summer sky, late August or September.

Finally, the only times the Northern Crown would look the way it’s painted on the far right of the panel (arms pointing up) would be in spring or fall (March and October).  The constellation appears in the spring and disappears from the night sky in the fall.

The three constellations would then reference three different times during the summer.

It’s fascinating to consider the possibility that our ancestors so long ago not only understood the patterns in the stars and their relationship to the seasons but could reproduce them deep inside a cave.

Forgive me if I’ve stepped into the land of speculation.  This one wouldn’t stay quiet.

Addendum to the Addendum, June, 2017

After visiting El Castillo and looking at the panel in question, I have to admit I was wrong.  It’s not a clear semi-circle of stars but more like a full circle.  I suppose that’s the danger of working from a diagram rather than the real thing.

None of this detracts from the cave itself, which is incredibly powerful and impressive.

The Bison

Interestingly, at least eight yellow bison figures were painted over the top of the stenciled hands in the Frieze of Hands.  More appear in other sections of the cave, often painted in black.  The bison images are remarkably similar – showing the same rump and single hind leg, large hump and (often partial) head with two horns, as if they all followed the same template.  They appear at the top of the vertical line of hand stencils in the photo on the left, and over the left and central portions of the horizontal line of hands.  In the image below, lines of yellow ocher descend from the bison’s mouth, as if it’s bleeding.

El Castillo bison2

While experts once thought the hand stencils on this panel were a way for hunters to spiritually connect to the bison, perhaps to ensure success in the hunt, current research shows the people who used the cave didn’t eat bison.  Mostly they depended on deer for meat.  As the famed anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss pointed out, “Animals were chosen [for representation] not because they were ‘good to eat’ but because they were ‘good to think.’”

Besides, the bison were painted later than the hands – in some cases, much later.  The hands aren’t touching the bison.  The bison are crowding out the hands, or superseding them.

Bison also appear prominently in both Chauvet (France) and Altamira (Spain), as well as Las Monedas, Buxu, and El Pendo.  Rather than a form of hunting magic, the bison image, which seems very similar from one site to another, might have represented a spirit power, in particular a male power in a female cave.  The figure on the left is from El Castillo.  The one on the right is from Buxu Cave (Spain).

El C. buxubison

The Bison Man

This bison spirit idea is supported in El Castillo by the “Bison Man” figure.  Deep in the recesses of the cave is a carved stalactite figure known as the Bison Man.  It seems to show the figure of a bison standing upright or climbing a cliff.  There’s a nice YouTube video of the Bison Man at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdbMAZgC7VA showing not only the carving of the bison but also the shadow effect when a light is shined on the whole formation, transforming it into a bison-human moving through the cave.  The photo (left) does not show the figure very well.  Start with the hind leg, toward the bottom of the photo.  Then follow the standing figure, which looks as more like a wolf hybrid than a bison to me.  The body uses the natural form of the rock and emphasizes it  with black drawing.

El C. Bison Man 2

The Bison Man figure is reminiscent of the Sorcerer figure in the back of Chauvet Cave (France), which combines both male and female characteristics, and the Sorcerer figure in Trois Freres Cave (France) which combines features of reindeer, bison, bear, horse, and human male.  It would be interesting to find out the date for Bison Man and compare that to the dates of the bison drawings.  If indeed the bison is the mark of a particular cult or group, it would seem logical for those people to put their symbol over the top of earlier ones, just as the horse and mammoth figures were superimposed on earlier animal forms in Chauvet.  Or the way Roman Catholic Spaniards in Peru built their churches on top of Inca stonework.

The Techtiforms

There’s much to learn from the drawings made so long ago in El Castillo cave, including the meaning of the bizarre abstract figures, called techtiforms, that appear at the base of the vertical line of hands and other places in the cave, each time accented very definitely. (Photo, right.)El Castillo boats

These forms are usually explained away as drawings of boats, maps, buildings, corrals, or simply the product of hallucinations or shamanic trance.  But they obviously had a very specific meaning and great importance.  That’s why they were repeated and emphasized.  Perhaps findings in other caves in the area will help us understand.  The drawing from Buxu Cave shown in the photo  (below left) seems to suggest an animal form, maybe a horse, but it’s hard to tell. I suspect that as we make more discoveries, we’ll get a better idea of what these diagrams mean.

El C. Buxu ideograph horse

Studying these very old drawings reminds us that our ancestors were far more sophisticated than we guessed.

If it turns out that at least some of the El Castillo artists were Neanderthals, the evidence of their art should help revise the negative image of them we’ve held for so long.





Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Alphecca, jewel in Northern Crown,” Wikipedia, http://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/alphecca-norathern-crowns-brightest-star/

Borenstein, Seth. “Spanish cave paintings shown as oldest in the world,” USA Today, 14 June 2012, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/scienc/story/2012-06-14/cave-paintings-spain/55602532/1\

“Buxu Cave,” Don’s Maps, http://donsmaps.com/buxu.html

“Claude Levi-Strauss,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_1_%C3%A0vi-Strauss/

“Corona Borealis,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corona_Borealis/

“El Castillo Cave,” Don’s Maps (an excellent source), http://www.donsmaps.com/castillo.html

“First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human,” Wired, 14 June 2012, http://www.wired.com/2012/06/neanderthal-cave-paintings/

“Fixative atomizer,” Dick Blick Art Supplies catalog

Garcia-Diez, Marcos.  “Ancient paintings of hands,” BBC Travel photos of El Castillo

Garcia-Diez, Marcos, Daniel Garrido, Dirk L. Hoffmann, Paul B. Pettitt, Alistar W. G. Pike, and Joao Zilhao, “The chronology of hand stencils in European Palaeolithic rock art: implication of new U-series results from El Castillo Cave (Cantabria, Spain), Journal of Anthropological Sciences, Vol 93 (2015) 135-152.

Hughes, Virginia.  “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?”  National Geographic News, 09 October 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131008-women-handprints-oldest-neolithic-cave-art/

“A journey deep inside Spain’s temple of cave art,” BBC Travel, www.bbc.com/trael/story/20141027-a-journey-deep-inside-spains-temple-of-cave-art

“New Research uncovers Europe’s Oldest Cave Paintings,” The New Observer, 24 September 2013

“The Night Sky,” the original 2-sided planisphere (star guide), copyright 1992, David Chandler

“Paleolithic Cave Arts in Northern Spain: El Castillo Cave, Cantabria,” a video available on YouTube, with English subtitles, https://www.youtube.com

Rappenglueck, Michael. “Ice Age People find their ways by the stars: A rock picture in the Cueva de el Castillo (Spain) may represent the circumpolar constellation of the Northern Crown,”  Artepreistorica.com, http://www.artepreistorica.com/2000/12/ice-age-people-find=their-way-by-the-stars

Rimell, Bruce. “El Castillo – Formative Image from the Upper Palaeolithic,” Archaic Visions, http://www.visionaryartexhibition.com/archaic-visions/el-castillo-formative-images-from-the-upper-palaeolithic/

Sanders, Nancy K.  Prehistoric Art in Europe. Yale University Press, 1995.

Subbaraman, Nidhi. “Prehistoric cave prints show most early artists were women,” NBC News 15 October 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/science/prehistoric-cave-prints-show-most-early-artists-were-women-8C11391268

Zim, Herbert, and Robert H. Baker.  Stars: A guide to the constellations, sun, moon, planets, and other features of the heavens.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.  Still a cute book.


Cave Art

Jean Clottes, the French cave art expert, has written several books, including one on Chauvet Cave and one entitled Cave Art, an imposing coffee-table sized book with beautiful full-page color illustrations.  However, it’s curious that a book with the title Cave Art is really about only three caves in France:

Chauvet, (35,000 – 22,000 years ago)

Lascaux, (22,000 – 17,000 years ago) and

Niaux, (from 11,000 years ago).

That list may be understandable in that the author is French and most familiar with French cave art in these areas.  However it’s misleading and perpetuates a misconception.

cave art, Altamira UNESCO

At first glance, it seems to be a glaring omission of Spain’s notable cave art, especially that of Altamira, El Castillo, and other sites.  Altamira cave paintings are so impressive that the area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.  One section of the ceiling of Altamira cave is shown in the photo (left).

   ROCK El Castillo disk

El Castillo Cave (Spain) contains the oldest cave paintings known in Western Europe, with a red disk dated to 40,800 years old – perhaps the work of our Neanderthal cousins.  That’s at least 8,000 years older than the oldest dates from Chauvet Cave in France.  The photo on the right shows negative hand prints and a red dot visible in the lower left – the famous disk.


But Clottes omits more than Spain.  He leaves out the rest of the world!

In his introduction to Cave Art, Clottes defines art as “the result of the projection of a strong mental image on the world, in order to interpret and transform reality, and recreate it in a material form.”  Thus, he says, older marks, like circles, spirals, and crossed lines cannot be considered art.  I wonder if he’s strolled through a modern art collection lately.

He dismisses African and Australian art as hard to date and therefore not worth considering.  He omits Indian and Indonesian cave art entirely.  Even Eastern European finds like Pestera Coliboaia cave art in Romania, the oldest cave art in Central Europe, doesn’t merit a mention.

Then he moves on without apology:  “So while we can be sure that European Paleolithic art was not modern man’s first artistic endeavor, it is without a doubt the best known and best researched form of ancient art.  This is due in part to complex economic and historical factors – Europe is rich, and its Paleolithic art has been studied for well over a century – but also, and perhaps especially, because its spectacular imagery still appeals to our modern sensibilities.”

That’s the argument, in a nutshell.  And its endless repetition helps perpetuate the erroneous idea that art originated in Europe because, well, you know, Europe is the richest and the best.  And by Europe, he means France.

The truth is that French cave art is probably the most extensively studied but not the oldest or even the most sophisticated cave art in the world.  Instead, it shares many themes with other cave art sites around the world and fits easily into the world cave art collection.

Consider these examples:

Maros Cave, Sulawesi Island, Indonesia 

rock pig deer Indonesia


Currently, cave art found in Sulawesi Island, Indonesia has been dated to over 40,000 years old. (If you’re keeping score, that’s competing with Europe’s oldest.)  The red ochre paintings were dated by examining the calcite deposits that had formed on top of the drawings, on the theory that the paintings had to be at least as old as the material that covered them.  Paintings include human figures, wild animals, and many hand stencils, one of which, when tested, was found to be 39,900 years old.  Next to that print is a drawing of a pig, found to be 35,400 years old.  They are currently the earliest known handprint and the earliest known drawing of an animal.  Interestingly, scholars have known about these drawings since the 1950’s, but the images were dismissed as being no more than 12,000 years old because that was the date they had assigned to human migration to the island.  This sort of constricted thinking, in which the data must fit the model, is a continuing problem in archaeology.  The image in the photo (left)  is fragmented by deposits laid down on top of it.  The animal is facing right.  Its narrow nose is fairly easy to spot.  Its little hind legs are also easy to see.  A stenciled hand print is visible below the pig’s shoulder.


Australiarock art Kakadu, Australia

Some cave paintings in Arnhem Land feature the Genyornis, a giant emu-like bird considered extinct for over 40,000 years.  Rock shelters in the Northern Territory provided homes for people as far past as 50,000 years ago.  They left behind drawings of fish (photo, right), turtles, possums, and wallabies, but few images have been dated. Geologist Bruno David noted, “We don’t have the dated art itself, but we’ve found the tools that were used to make the art.  For that reason, we rightfully assume that Australia has pigment art going back to when people first came here which is close to 50,000 years ago.”


The charcoal drawings at Nwarla Gabarnmang have been dated to 28,000 years old.  A drawing of the Rainbow Serpent in the Northern Territory was found to be 23,000 years old.  All of these would then be older than the famous paintings in Lascaux Cave in France.

One of the problems with dating Australian aboriginal rock art in some areas is the practice of renewing sacred drawings: painting over images to increase their power.  While the practice is completely understandable, it makes dating the images very difficult.


rock art India Bhimbetka_rock_paintng1

Evidence found in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India indicate they were inhabited by hominins for over 300,000 years; some experts claim more like 700,000 years.  That would make the most ancient residents Homo erectus.  Some cupules and an engraving discovered in the 1990s were dated to 290,000 years old!

This adds more evidence to the argument that art came before modern humans.

The earliest Bhimbetka paintings known at this time have been dated to 30,000 years old (Photo, left).  That’s close to the dates for Chauvet Cave, the oldest rock art site in France.


South AmericaPedra Furada rock art

Pedra Furada, the controversial early site in Brazil, has been dated to between 32,000 and 48,000 years old.  Some experts claim 60,000 years old.  Rock art there, including images of animals, has been dated to at least 12,000 years old.  The image on the right may show a mother deer and baby, as well as a smaller figure, perhaps a frog or turtle.

Cueva de las Manos in Patagonia (Argentina side) has handprints dated to 13,000 years ago.



rock art, Mongolia

Khoit Tsenkheriin cave in Mongolia has paintings dating back to the Upper Paleolithic Period (20,000 – 15,000 years ago).  In one corner of the cave, overlapping symbols and animals painted on the ceiling and wall include lions, elephants, sheep, ibexes, ostriches, and antelopes, camels. Often, the animals’ horns, humps, and necks are exaggerated, just as they are in the more well-known cave art of Lascaux, roughly its contemporary.




Even more interesting than the range of ancient rock art is the number of curious commonalities.

Stylized animals

rock Rhinocéros_grotte_Chauvet

rock rhinocoliboaiasm

Often the creatures painted on cave walls are not animals commonly hunted for food but fearsome, powerful beasts.  Typically they are painted in profile, with exaggerated but recognizable features.  The head, horns, neck and shoulder sometimes stand in for the whole animal.  The wooly rhino from Chauvet Cave (left) is remarkably similar to the painting from Pestera Coliboaia cave in Romania (right).


rock Chauvet bison

The bison paintings are also similar.  The painting on the left is from Chauvet Cave, France, while the figure on the rock bison, Coliboaia Cave, Romaniaright is from Coliboaia Cave, Romania.  Interestingly, both images give a sense of movement in the front legs.  The Romania image uses the natural curve of the stone.  The French image uses a kind of animation effect where multiple front and back legs give the sense of motion.




The hand stencil

The most universal image in cave art is the hand print and the negative hand stencil.  The print was made by applying pigment to the hand and pressing the hand against the stone.  The stencil was made by placing a hand on the rock and blowing pigment over it, leaving the negative image of hand.  In many sites, both techniques are employed.

These positive and negative hand prints appear all over the world, including sites in India, Borneo, Australia, Africa, Europe, North and South America.

rock cueva de las Manos 2  


Here is a sampling from  Cueva de las Manos (Patagonia, Argentina – far left), Sulawesi (Indonesia second from left), and Canyon de rock hands BorneoChelley, Navaho Nation (third from left)


handprints Canyon de Chelley







rock El Castillo hands and dots

The panel of hands and dots on the lower left is from El Castillo Cave (Spain).   The ones on the right are from Indonesia.  The two panels are about the same age: 37,000 years old.rock art Indonesia hands


For ancient people, a handprint might have been a registry: “I was here,” an ancient form of marking (or “tagging”).  Several hand prints might mark the presence of a group.  Multiple prints in the same spot might increase the energy of that place and reinforce the power of the group.  The hand print proclaims participation, even if it is with the rock surface itself, just as you might touch a sacred relic or a photo of a long-lost friend or relative.


The handprint is still very important in our culture.  In some hospitals, a baby’s hand and foot prints are recorded immediately after birth. As they grow up, children love putting their handprints on – everything!  Maybe your toddlers put handprints along your clean wall because the desire to mark a place with their hands is embedded in them.  It’s part of being human.

Children's colorful hand prints on black background for texture and design

In a local high school I noticed a large paper sign covered with hand prints, apparently from students who had agreed not to drink and drive after their senior prom.  The photo of chalk hand prints on a blackboard (left) brings out the sense of energy that the collective prints generate.

If you’re a famous movie star, you get to leave your hand and foot prints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by the Chinese Theater.  Then you’ve really made your mark. (See photo, right)

rock hands - Walk of Fame, Chinese Theater




Rather than perpetuating the myth of art beginning in Europe, we should be celebrating the wealth of our heritage as humans all over the world.  We are, as far as we know, the only species to make art (and orchestral music and space flight).  We need to keep exploring rock art sites, especially in areas that are currently being lost to rising ocean levels, so we can learn as much as possible about these treasures.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Aboriginal rock art – how old is it actually?”  Ask an Expert.  ABC Science, Brad Pillans and Keith Fifield’s talk about dating cave art.  http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/10/09/4102916.htm.

“Ancient Art of Kakadu,” Australia.com, http://www.australia.com/en/places/kakadu/nt-rock-art.html

Balter, Michael. “Romanian Cave May Boast Central Europe’s Oldest Cave Art,” Science Magazine,   http://news.sciencemag.org/erope/2010/06/romanian-cave-may-boast-central-europes-oldest-cave-art

Bryner, Jeanna. “In Photos: The World’s Oldest Cave Art,” Live Science, http://www.livescience.com/48199-world-oldest-cave-art-photos.html/

“Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain,” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage List, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310/

“Cave painting,” Wikipedia (a very good article), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave-painting

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  London: Phaidon Press, 2008.

Clottes, Jean.  “Paleolithic Cave Art in France,” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.badshawfoundation.com/clottes

“Cueva de las Manos: A Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” http://www.patagonia.com.ar/circuits/587E_Cueva+de+las+Manos

“El Castillo Cave Paintings” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art. Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/castillo-cave-paintings.htm/

Ghosh, Pallab, Science Correspondent, “Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art,” BBC News, 8 October 2014,   http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29415716/

“Hand Paintings: Hand Paintings in Rock Art around the World”  The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/hands/

“Handprints on blackboard” photo, celestecotaphotography.com

“History of India,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/History_of_India/

“Khoit Tsenkheriin cave,” Mongolian Cave Research Association, http://www.mongoliancave.com/CaveEng/2

“Madhya Pradesh,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madhya_Pradesh/

“Oldest Rock Art,” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art.  http://www.visual.art.cork.com/prehistoric/rock-art.htm/

“Pestera Coliboiaia – Coliboaia Cave Rock Art,” Central Europe’s oldest cave paintings discovered at Coliboaia Cave, Don’s Maps (a fabulous source)  http://www.donsmaps.com/index.html#sites

“Prehistoric Hand Stencils,” Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art, Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/hand-stencils-rock-art.htm/

Thompson, Helen, “Rock (Art) of Ages: Indonesian Cave Paintings are 40,000 Years Old,”  Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/rockart-ages-indonesian-cave-paintings-are-40,000-years-old-180952970/?no-ist

Vergano, Dan. “Cave Paintings in Indonesia Redraw Picture of Earliest Art,” National Geographic News, http://news. Nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141008-cave-art-sulawesi-hand-science/

Vergano, Dan. “Q&A: Cave Art Older, More Widespread than Thought, Archaeologist Says,” National Geographic News,  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141010-cave-art-indonesia-alistair-pike-questions-science/

Wilford, John Noble.  “Cave Paintings in Indonesia May Be among the Oldest Known,” The New York Times, 8 October 2014,   http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/09/science/ancient-indonesian-find-may-ival-oldest-known-cave-art.html/

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life image is very popular today.  It’s found on T-shirts, jewelry, drawings, paintings, wall-hangings, sculptures, the French 2-euro coin, and many beautiful tattoos.

If someone asked you to draw the tree of life, you’d probably draw a tree trunk rising in the center, surrounded by spreading branches.  Maybe you’d draw a circle around the image, or perhaps the foliage tree of life trivetwould create a circle.  If you drew a Tree of Life like the one on the trivet pictured on the right, which is identified in a sale catalog as a Tree of Life, what makes it a Tree of Life rather than just a tree?

The answers are varied because the image has many forms.  The one on the trivet is a very plain variety. Others tree Julia's Needlewordshold many animals in their branches, including those that never live in trees (like deer or lions) or contain elements that don’t go with the tree, like giant flowers. Or very stylized branches and foliage, like those pictured in the drawing (right).tree Yggdrasil ultime IIby Bog Viking

Often, the image contains a clear pairing of opposites, such as the foliage fan contrasting with the root fan.  Or the presence of the sun and moon.  Or a bird in the branches and a snake in the roots.  In the tattoo illustration on the left, an eagle perches in the tree top while the dragon/serpent controls the lower part.

tree yggdrasil_and_dragon_by_tattoo_design-d7652i2

In many of the examples you’ll find on this post, the Tree of Life features male and female elements.  The trunk is an upright rod (male) while the branches form a fan or circle (female).  Sometimes the whole design is enclosed in a circle.  It’s a symbolic glorification of the union of opposites.

In some cases, the tree itself is simplified into a series of lines, but the intent is the same.  These are examples from Persian rug designs and from ancient Assyria:
tree Persian carpet patternstree Assyrian bas-reliefs

tree of life celtic nordic belt buckle, ebay live_fast (13205)

Some Tree of Life images quite clearly indicate sexual union of humans, but the symbol is usually far more universal.  It illustrates the pairing of opposite forces that engenders creation in all of nature.  Thus the flowers and animals appearing in its branches. The fine pressed paper design by Kevin Dyer uses the oak tree, sacred to the Druids, to illustrate the pairing of opposites that results in new life, represented by the acorn cradled in its roots.tree of life cast paper by Kevin Dyer

While the tree is often generic, as in the trivet, sometimes it’s a specific species, such as an oak (Celtic) or an ash (Nordic), an almond tree (basis for the menorah), a Ceiba (Maya), a Ficus (India), flowering yucca (Anasazi), or a wild plum (The Koran).  In other areas, an ear of wheat, a corn plant, or a thistle might be substituted.  Most of the time, the male (rod) /female (circle) balance remains.

tree thistle by Devin Dyer

In other examples, the tree is a mirror image, combining the power of positive and negative opposites, forming an arboreal yin and yang.

tree of life Paradign Shift


tree petroglyph, Naquane, ItalyBecause the Tree of Life is a very old symbol, it’s had many variations over thousands of years and probably many different meanings.  Certainly, the graphic elements of the rod and circle are some of the oldest known images found carved in stone.  The example on the left is from Italy, but similar figures appear all over the world.tree pictograph interior pictograph BC,Canada The rock art figure from British Columbia, Canada, on the right, shows a figure rising out of the combined rod and circle elements.  The stone carving  in the center is from Galicia, Spain.rock art, Spain

While we don’t know what meaning the carvers attached to those images so long ago, we can interpret some of the more recent uses of the same image by asking the descendants of the carvers.  In some cases, the flowering of the combination of male and female is cosmic, as in the union of the earth and the sun, or Scan_20150622personal, as in this petroglyph from Crow Canyon, New Mexico.  The humpbacked Ye’i known as Ghanaskidi bears a sack full of seeds, decorated with feathers.  Similar to the Hopi kachina Kokopelli, he seduces the girls and then offers them gifts. He’s associated with harvest and abundance, increased fertility in humans, plants, and animals.

tree Huichol goddess of lifeThe peyote-driven yarn painting created by the Huichol Indians (Mexico) shows Tacutsi, the Goddess of Life,  giving birth to everything that lives.





The Importance of Trees

In some creation stories, the tree was literally the source of life, in that people, plants, and animals emerged from it.   In the Nordic epic, the Edda, the first couple: Askr and Embla, were created from ash and elm trees.  Ancient Indian tales mention a giant Ficus (fig) tree that granted wishes and immortality.  In Germanic myths, apple trees guarded by dragons grew the fruit of eternal youth.  Remains of apples found in a burial site in Sweden, dated to 1500 BC, seem to reinforce this idea.

tree Pakal 2The famous tomb lid of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, in Palenque, Mexico, shows the dead Maya lord being reborn as the young Maize God on the Tree of Life.   Unfortunately, bizarre theories explaining this as the figure of an alien astronaut have become so widespread that people fail to see the very consistent Maya imagery used in the carving.  Pakal, who died as quite an old man, is dressed as the young Maize God.  His position is typically used to show a baby.  He lies just above the gaping jaws of the Underworld, but above him rises the cruciform World Tree that unites the three worlds.  At the top the creator god, Itzamna, perches.  Like the kernel of corn, he must be buried in order to be reborn.  This idea is reinforced by the turtle shell ornament he wears on his chest, a reference to the world being born out of the split back of a turtle.  Around the edges are images of the sun, moon, and stars.

Spirit Trees

Many groups around the world believed that dead people’s souls returned as trees.  Tree worship was common Sacred tree, Japanin many areas in the distant past and persists in some areas to this day.  The photo on the right shows an honored spirit tree in Japan.


Modern religious application

Because the Tree of Life was a powerful and popular symbol, it was incorporated into the monotheistic religions that replaced older animist beliefs. In ancient Babylonia, the Tree of Life was called Ea, and the fruits of it bestowed eternal life.  This is perhaps the source of the Old Testament Tree of Life growing in the center of Paradise. Judaism also incorporated that image in the menorah and the Kabbalah Tree of Life.  The Koran includes mention of the Sidra or Tuba tree, which grows in the center of Paradise.

tree  Christ crucified  on treeInterestingly, the male/female dynamic that was so central to older representations of the Tree of Life was often played down or replaced by the central figure of the faith, who became the sole generative force.  In the image shown on the left, the tree of life image was used to represent Christ’s crucifixion on the cross (tree) as the source of life in the world.

In some cases, ancient tree worship combines with modern religious beliefs, as in the icon tree pictured on the left.  It also includes the idea of the tree rising out of the waters of life.

icon tree

The Labyrinth

The new labyrinth is a revival of a very old symbol that provides yet another dimension oftree labyrinth the Tree of Life.  Like the most abstract versions of the Tree of Life, it is a rod (the only path in) and a number of circles (which must be navigated in ritual stages), with a six-petal flower at the center of the circle and end of the rod.  In this case, the flowering is personal and spiritual, rather than sexual or universal.  The pattern pictured on the right is most commonly used in contemporary labyrinths.  It’s based on the design in the Cathedral of Chartres, France, built in 1220 AD, though the earliest surviving labyrinth was found in a rock carving in Sardinia, dated to 2500 BC.  Others were found in Crete, Syria, Greece, and Egypt.  At one time, walking the labyrinth was a popular spiritual exercise.  And it’s coming back into favor.  Over fifty turf labyrinths are currently found in England, Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Sweden.   The Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California has been so successful that church leaders had to make portable versions to take to other locations.  Dr. Lauren Artress, who spearheaded the effort to establish the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, notes in her book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth, that the Chartres labyrinth references the moon, sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn as elements of the whole that one enters when walking the labyrinth.  How interesting that the ancient sense of wholeness, including the sky world, is now popular among church goers in San Francisco!  Many people have said that the experience of walking the labyrinth was transformative and included an element of the feminine and spiritual that they felt had disappeared from the Christian church.

tree turf labyrinth The photo on the left shows an open-air version of the labyrinth. Unlike a maze, the labyrinth does not involve solving puzzles.  The path is very straightforward, can be walked at any pace, and can be used as a guide to meditation.



So the trivet, the item we saw initially as the Tree of Life, is actually a stripped-down version of an ancient symbol.  It’s lost most of its sexual and spiritual elements, yet it retains something of its history and power.  That’s why it’s so popular.  tree of enlightenment, heaven on earth silks

tree CrowsFeaters Art wire tree amd agate
tree of life steel drum art from Global Crafts

Sources and interesting reading:

Amadi, Reza T.  “Symbolism in Persian Rugs,” Manuscripta Orentalia, vol. 3, no. 1, March 1997. http://www.islamicmanuscripts.info/reference/articles/Ahmadi-a997-mo-03-1-Symbolism.pdf

Artress, Dr. Lauren. Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool.  New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.

Bonaguida, Pacino di, “Tree of Life” painting of the crucified Christ, from the Galleria dell’ Accademia, Florence, Italy

Bjornson, Anthony, “The World Tree or Tree of Life,” norsespirtualism.wordpress.com

Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS), “Images of Ancient Iran: Achaemenid Dynasty (550 – 330 BC) Metalwork and Glass, Golden Décor Piece,” RezaAbbasi9.jpg

Collyer, Chris.  “Tree of Life Rock: Bronze Age Rock Carving”  http://www.stone-circles.org.uk/stone/treeoflife.htm

“Conventional trees of Assyrian bas-reliefs” (Figure 63), www.sacred-texts.com

Davidson, H. R. Ellis.  Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.  Reprinted by Penguin Books, 1990.

Diaz, Gisele, and Alan Rodgers (ed) The Codex Borgia. New York: Dover Press, 1993.

Drawing of Pakal’s sarcophagus lid, Palenque, Mexico, http://www.utexas.edu

Fage, Luc-Henri. “Rock Art of Borneo,” interactive image, from Hands across Time: Exploring the Rock art of Borneo, books.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0508/feature2/zoomify/index.html

Kagedan, Binyamin, “Menorah: History of a Symbol,” JNS.org.  Httyp://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2013/9/23/menorah-history-of-a-symbol

Kim, Jimi, “Yggdrasil” by lazysongwriter, traditional art painting, fc01-deviantart.net

“Labyrinth,” Blanton-Peale Institute and Counseling Center, http://www.blantonpeale.org/labyrinth.html

“Labyrinth: The Walking Prayer,” http:..www.emu.edu/seminary/labyrinth

Lechler, George, “The Tree of Life in Indo-European and Islamic Cultures,” Ars Islamica, Vol.4 (1937) 369-419.

Nuttall, Zelia (ed).  The Codex Nuttall: A Picture Manuscript from Ancient Mexico. New York: Dover Press, 1975.

Rock art, Navajo petroglyph of humpbacked Ye’i, Crow Canyon, New Mexico, from The Serpent and The Sacred Fire by Dennis Slifer

Rogers, Richard A. “Rock Art: Indigenous Images, Historic Inscriptions and Contemporary Graffiti,”  documentaryworks.org/stories/rockart.htm

Saward, Jeff.  “Historic Turf Labyrinths in England,” Labyrinthos, Labyrinths and Maxes Resource Centre, Photo Library and Archive, http://www.labyrinthos.net/turflabuk.html

Slifer, Dennis.  The Serpent and the Sacred Fire: Fertility Images in Southwest Rock Art.  Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2000

“The Tree of Life,” Learning about Rock Art, http://www.angelfire.com/trek/archaeology/tree.html

“The Tree of Life” Symbol Dictionary: A Visual Glossary, http//symboldictionary.net?p=34

“Tree of Enlightenment mandala” from Heaven on Earth Silks, www.etsy.com/listing/182211309/treeofenlightenment

“Tree of Life,” Carpets Auction – LAVER KIRMAN

“Tree of Life,” cast paper art by Kevin Dyer

“Tree of Life,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life/

“Tree of Life in Oriental Rugs,” www.capethomeca.com

“Tree of Life mandala,” from Heaven on Earth Silks, www.etsy.com/listing/117394192/tree-of-life-mandala

“Tree of Life Meaning,”   http//www.treeoflife.net.au

“Tree of Life” steel drum art, Global Crafts, Haiti

“Tree of Life Teachings: Living with Passion, Heart and Purpose,” http://www.treeoflifeteachings.com/tree-of-life/

Tree of Life trivet (wood) from Oxfamshop.org.au

“Yggdrasil Art, Yggdrasil,” th05.deviantart.net

Wire Tree of Life on Agate, CrowsFeather Art, on Etsy

Chauvet Cave

In 1994, three cave explorers were surveying a cave in the Ardeche region of southern France when they discovered another cave nearby.  That cave, now world-famous, carries the name of the lead explorer: Jean-Marie Chauvet.  More than 400 meters long, it features several “rooms” or sections covered in amazing paintings, some of which have been found to be between 30,000 and 33,000 years old.  The famous paintings in France’s Lascaux Cave, in comparison, are about 20,000 years old.  The Chauvet dates were so old that many archaeologists refused to believe them even after artifacts had been tested repeatedly.  That’s because Chauvet art challenged a long held theory that art “progressed” or developed greater sophistication as modern humans developed.  Thus early art should be primitive, minimal, and naïve.  Instead, Chauvet art showed great power and inventive design effects.

Chauvet Cave Layout

Chauvet Cave is a 400-meter (1312’) long network of galleries and rooms divided by very narrow sections. A landslide 26,000 years ago completely sealed off the cave, preserving its contents until its discovery in 1994.  So when we study the images of the cave provided by Jean Clottes, Werner Herzog, and the French Ministry of Culture we see exactly what the ancients – and some wild animals – left behind.

Several rockslides closed the original opening.  When Jean-Marie Chauvet, Christian Hillaire, and Eliette Brunel found the current opening, they had to squeeze through a very narrow space that led to a deep shaft.  Eliette Brunel, the only woman in the group, went first, climbing down to the large chamber that now bears her name.  When she saw drawings on the wall, she cried out, “They have been here!”  Indeed they had, though the artists and the viewers had missed each other by an almost unimaginable stretch of time.

Brunel Chamber

In the Brunel Chamber, an ancient artist must have felt the mineral flows on one wall looked like a mastodon, for the form has been outlined in red ochre. The mastodon is one of the central animal forms in the cave decorations.

This chaBrunel Chamber red panelmber also contains a striking panel of red dots made by coating a hand with red ochre and pressing it against the wall.  To the right of the red dots is a section with red dots and lines that seem to pour out from a central fissure in the rock.  The cruciform symbol appears several times on the panel (photo, left).

chauvet brunel bears

Farther along in the Brunel chamber is a panel of three bears drawn in red ochre (photo, right). Almost every drawing in the front half of the cave is done in red.  Drawings in the back of the cave are done in black.

Like most of the figures in the cave, these feature a clear head, shoulder and top line while legs are merely suggested.

Also in the Brunel Chamber is an animal form made of dots – handprints actually, all from the same artist.  Together they make up another mammoth.

The Red Panels Gallery


The eastern wall of this gallery holds several panels of hand prints, dots, and red figures of a bear/hyena and a panther (photo, left).  Note the similarity in drawing style to the bears pictured above, especially in the treatment of the face and the added smudging or stumping around the eye ridge and nostril.

The Cactus Gallery

The most prominent features in this section are a red mammoth painted on a hanging u-shaped formation (photo, right) and a red bear on the wall (photo, left).chauvet cactus mammoth

chauvet cactus red bear

Note the similarity of the style of the bear drawing with the previous bear and hyena drawings.

Past the Cactus Gallery, the cave abruptly narrows, the floor drops and the ceiling drops, making a tight passageway that forms a natural boundary between the two sections of the cave.  The art is also divided by this point.  The front section is almost exclusively painted in red figures and forms.  From footprints left behind, researchers know that men, women, and children visited the front section. The back chambers, including the monumental panels painted in black, are very different and may have had far fewer visitors.

The Back of the Cave

The Hillaire Chamber

The Hillaire Chamber has a deep depression in the center, about ten meters (32’) in diameter and four meters (13’) deep.  The walls around it feature over a hundred paintings as well as engravings of a horse and a mammoth, (shown in photo, left) and an owl.  Some other engravings to the left of the horse have been scratched out.

chauvet hillaire horse and mammoth

The most famous panel in this chamber is the one featuring a collection of horses, rhinos and aurochs (photo), as well as fainter marks that might have been earlier figures.  According to researchers who have recreated the order of painting, the horse heads are the most recent addition to the panel.  Next to the group is a fissure in the rock, so the horses seem to be emerging from it.

Chauvet horses and rhino

On the left wall is a panel of horses as well as a pair of cave lions. The horse heads in this panel seem to be drawn by the same artist as those on the other panel, or at least in the same style.  The lion heads show especially delicate shading work and stippling around the muzzle.

 cave lion pair and horses

Researchers have recreated the sequence of strokes involved in painting the lions.  See photo below.

chauvet cavelionstumping

Also in this chamber is a panel of drawings of aurochs, bison, horses, and others – all done in brief outlines with none of the shading or power of the previously mentioned panels.

The Skull Chamber

This section gets its name from a cave bear skull left on a prominent rock.  Over 3700 cave bear bones were found in Chauvet Cave, thought to belong to at least 190 different individuals.  (The next most common was wolf bones, belonging to six individuals.)

The End Chamber

Beyond the Megaloceros passage is the End Chamber, which contains some of the most astounding art panels in the cave.  A young mammoth was drawn over older figures of rhinos.  Three lions, using the same shading and stippling pattern as the earlier ones, were drawn over earlier figures.  Multiple rhinos appear on one side of a crevice while what looks like a pack of lions chases bison and other animals on the other side of the crevice.  A single horse appears in a scraped-clean recessed area (photo below left).  The photo on the right shows the whole section, complete with the phallic protrusion described below and the hole on the cave wall.

chauvet end chamber rhinosbisonimg285sm

chauvet end chamber

Thechauvet bisonwomansm most enigmatic part of the End Chamber, and indeed the whole cave, is the V-shaped rock formation mentioned above.  It’s painted with the head of a male bison and the pubic triangle and leg of a woman that seems to fade into a lioness painted on the flat section (See photo, left).  It’s often called the Sorcerer.  Though its function is unknown, it certainly encourages comparisons with the androgynous Spirit Master of western US cave art.  Yahwera, as the spirit master is known, keeps all the animals inside the earth and then releases them through a crack or crevice.  People mark the location of the portal to the Spirit Master’s cave with hand prints and drawings on the rock.

Past the End Chamber is a small area known as the Sacristy, which contains only the figure of a mammoth drawn in black with tusks emphasized by engraving.

What do these images mean?


There’s always some expert who claims ancient people were incapable of abstract thought; therefore anything they produced must be simply doodling, without any specific meaning.  It’s hard to believe these people actually looked at the images in the photographs.

Hunting Magic

Some experts claim the cave paintings were a form of hunting magic.  Hunters drew images on the walls to increase their luck in the hunt.  The problem is that most of the animals on Chauvet’s walls weren’t animals the people hunted. And, unlike the images in Lascaux Cave, these animals do not appear with arrows piercing them. Often they appear to be emerging from cracks in the cave wall, or in the case of the End Chamber, from the depth of the cave itself, like a womb of life presided over by the androgynous figure of the Sorcerer.

The Brilliant Crazy Ones

David Whitley, in his book Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief, argues that amazing ancient cave art is the work of one or more individuals we would call mentally ill. Specifically, he suggests bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.  These mood disorders, he says, provide the springboard for creativity.  He backs up his argument with studies of shamans who endured mental illness and through their struggles were able to experience the mythic creation of the world.  He claims that in the case of Chauvet, the enlightened crazy ones “used art to permanently materialize their spirit contact.  They created something in the real world [art] to illustrate what was in fact unreal.”

While I don’t rule out enlightened crazy artists, I think the process of art creation in Chauvet was more gradual that that thesis implies.  The art in Chauvet was an on-going process.  The first stage covered two thousand years!  Newer artists painted over older work.  Sometimes they purposely scratched out older images.  Older images tend to be simpler line figures without varying intensity of line or shading while the most recent work is very sophisticated indeed. But then, the later artists had a great gallery of previous work to study.


Studies of the earliest cave art at El Castillo Cave in Spain, dated to over 40,000 years old, revealed the strong possibility that the first artists to leave their marks on the cave walls were Neanderthals.  They left red dots and series of lines as well as two figures clearly resembling fish.  Perhaps the impetus for the great art of Chauvet and later Lascaux in southern France came from the folks who lived in the area for thousands of years before Homo sapiens sapiens.


Other experts, following the lead of David Lewis Williams, show that a trance state, brought on by fasting, drugs, repetitive sound, light deprivation, or even the toxic air inside the cave could have resulted in the impression that the mineral deposits on the walls were indeed animals coming out of the rock.  This idea is backed up by the outlined mammoth shape in the front half of the cave.  Trance was and is critical to religious practices in many parts of the world.  Through trance, shamans – people especially in tune with the spirit world through their constitution and their training – can bridge the gap between the world of spirits and the world of people in order to restore balance between them.

In many parts of the world caves are still seen as portals to the Underworld, powerful places that form a passage between worlds.

These theories may in fact overlap.  Perhaps inspired by the claw marks bears left on the walls, early residents left their own marks.  Later, visionary individuals may have understood the cave as a place to contact the spirit world.  These people and those who believed them would want to touch the walls that formed the only barrier between them and the otherworld. They would want to put their mark on the cave, to become part of it.  Later, the cave might become so powerful in local society it had to be claimed for a specific group and covered with their symbols. As that power shifted, so did the symbols.


Even among the most recent works in Chauvet, there seems to be some competition involved, perhaps by individual artists, clans, villages, or other groups. In the Skull Chamber, older red hatch marks were covered with an ibex drawing which was later scratched out and a reindeer added.  The mammoth outline is often drawn over older rhinos. A mammoth has been included in various parts of the cave (including the front and far back) over earlier images. Lions are often drawn over older figures (including on the feline panel in the End Chamber), but the most common over-draw is the horse head, occurring often as a head scratched right over the top of other figures or as the suggestion of a whole body, such as the figure in the Niche of the Horse in the End Chamber, which was drawn over a scraped area.  Other older red figures were effaced, along with a series of dots.

Several of the charcoal drawings seem to have been made by the same master artist who didn’t hesitate to cover or replace earlier works.  In the photo, it’s clear that the artist has scraped the left panel clean to make a stronger contrast between the white background and the black charcoal.

chauvet sectorofhorses

The mammoth artist seems to have a different style entirely but also “tagged” many different areas in the cave.  This artist tends to use only an outline, sometimes of the head, shoulders, and front leg, and sometimes the whole body.  The very last image in the cave is just such a figure.  (See photo, right)  The young mammoth was drawn first in charcoal, then the tusks were emphasized by engraving.

chauvet sacristy mammoth

Competition among artists may have also driven rapid developments of style.  The fully shaded horse heads and lion figures make a far more powerful statement than the smaller outlines of earlier efforts.


It may be difficult to explain how the ancient people perceived these cave drawings, but one conclusion is easy: The paintings in Chauvet Cave should show how absurd the whole Social Darwinism/March of Progress theory really is.  Obviously, the development of humankind is not a slow and steady march toward greater ability and sophistication, with modern humans at the top of the mountain.  Our distant ancestors had art, culture, and abstract thought 30,000 years ago!

While the cave is closed to the public to protect its contents, you can visit a replica that is now open near the cave.  Or check out the French Cultural Ministry’s map of Chauvet Cave at http://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/arcnat/chauvet/en/   It provides an overview of the cave shape as well as an interactive display of the paintings, human artifacts, and animal remains in each section.  It’s worth seeing!

Sources and Interesting Reading:

Balter, Michael, “Did Neandertals Paint Early Cave Art?” Science/AAAS/News, 14 June 2012, http://news.sciencemag.org/2012/06/did-neadertals-paint-early-cave-art

“Chauvet,” French Ministry of Culture site, http://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/arcnat/chauvet/

“Chauvet Cave (ca.30,000 BC)” Hellbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chav/hd_chav.htm

“Chauvet Cave,” Don’s Maps, www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html   – This is an excellent source for photos of the paintings and maps of the galleries!

“Chauvet Cave Paintings: Prehistoric Murals, Ardeche, France: Discovery, Significance, Cave Layout,” Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/chauvet-cave-paintings.htm

Clottes, Jean. Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times. University of Utah Press, 2003

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  Phaidon Press, 2010.  This coffee table book has fabulous full-color photos of very famous and some less famous European cave paintings and engravings.

“Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardeche,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage List, http:whc.unesco.org/en/list/1426

Herzog, Werner. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (film) 2011, IFC Films

Hitchcock, Don, “Floor Plan of Chauvet Cave,” from Philippe et Fosse (2003) with additional text from Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, by Jean Clottes (2003)

“Introduction to the Chauvet Cave,” Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/chauvet_cave_paintings.php

“Prehistoric Colour Palette: Paint Pigments Used by Stone Age Artists in Cave Paintings and Pictographs” Visual Arts Cork, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/artist-paints/prehistoric-colour-palette.htm

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic, 14 June 2012, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120614-neanderthal-cave-paintings…

Thurman, Judith “First Impressions: What does the world’s oldest art say about us?” The New Yorker 23 June 2008, http://www.newyorker/com/magazine/2008/06/23/first-impressions

Whitley, David.  Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009.

Photos: Photos from the French Ministry of Culture’s website are credited to Dominique Baffier and Valerie Ferugio.  Other photos come from Don’s Maps Chauvet post, at www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html  Some of the photos on his post come from Jean Clottes and his team, some from National Geographic photographers.

The Shaman and The Spirit Master

Wow – What is it?

Bizarre, vaguely human figures in rock art have long puzzled viewers. They look a little like people yet clearly they’re something else. Why do they have weird heads, often without facial features? Why do they often have fewer than five fingers on each hand (or occasionally more)? Why do they have long torsos and missing limbs?

Anasazi pictograph

Animal Master PBA


Learning to see through others’ eyes

In the 19th century, anthropologist Edward B. Tyler introduced the concept of animism to describe the widespread ancient belief that all entities, including humans, animals, and natural features such as mountains, rivers, and trees, have souls, or spirits. All of these entities are interconnected, sharing a magical power. The person is identified not just by a physical body but by all of the connections made to the rest of the spirit world. Tyler found this belief to be the oldest and most common spiritual belief in the world. (It’s also the basis of “The Force” in the Star Wars films.)

rock art in Arkansas

In the 1980s, David Lewis-Williams argued that many odd figures in rock art, including the spirals, dots, and therianthropes (figures that combine human and animal characteristics) were images typical of a visionary trance brought on by chanting, drumming, fasting, and taking hallucinogenic drugs. He pointed out that many of these images are typical of visual distortions associated with trance experiences. They have been replicated many times in experiments involving LSD. Lewis-Williams argued that the rock art figures like the one in the photo (left) represented the shaman in the process of transformation into something supra-human, able to change physical form and slip between worlds.


Game Pass Shelter pictographHe described the famous fresco on the wall of the Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensberg region of South Africa as a shaman in a dream state connecting with the dream beast, the eland. The shaman is bleeding from the nose, as is the eland; their legs are crossed in exactly the same position. The eland is dying in order to bring rain to the people. The shaman has entered a pseudo-death in order to make the connection with the dream beast. For Lewis-Williams, the therianthrope – the figure combining human and animal characteristics – represents the shaman in his or her transformed state. (Photo left, drawing below)

Game Pass Shelter drawing


In 1976, Patricia Vinnicombe published the results of her work with the Drakensberg (South Africa) rock art paintings, in a book titled People of the Eland. In it, she reviewed stories told by San (Bushmen/Khoi San) people and recorded since the 19th century. Some told of a shaman catching a “rain beast” – usually a female ox, eland, elephant or other large herbivore. This was done through a trance, with the help of the group chanting, drumming, and dancing. Then the beast was sacrificed, and rain would fall where the beast was killed.

Interestingly, two San men that Patricia Vinnicombe interviewed saw the therianthropes in this image as mythical people of an earlier race, the First Bushmen, not images of transformed shamans.

These seem to be two very different explanations, but they may in fact be complementary. The shaman in a trance state may be the means of contacting spirit entities, including animal spirits, nature spirits, and spirits of the dead.

South central California rock art

New research on rock art in southeast California may suggest a slightly different way of seeing the famous panel in South Africa – and perhaps another mysterious figure found in the deepest part of Chauvet Cave in southern France.

The Patterned Body Anthromorphs Patterned body anthromorphs, Coso Range, CA

While studying thousands of rock art images in what is now the China Lake Air Force Base, Dr. Alan Garfinkle and his associates noted over 700 strange figures they called Patterned Body Anthromorphs, images notable for a long torso marked with various patterns, a head devoid of normal facial features, and truncated or missing legs, often with three toes. Sometimes a twisted snake accompanied the figure. In many cases, there was no gender evident, but in others, the figure had male, female, or both male and female characteristics. Almost all carried a staff or atlatl (dart thrower). Some carried a bag of seeds, which trailed out in lines behind the figure.


The Kawaiisu and other American Indian groups that lived in the area where the paintings appeared shared similar beliefs, which Dr. Garfinkel felt could provide a frame of reference for the rock art figures. Caves were seen as important places, imbued with sacred power. A spirit named Yahwera lived in a cave where the spirits of all the animals resided, even animals that had been killed.


In the spring, Yahwera opened the portal and allowed the regenerated animals to fill the land. Yahwera also provided healing medicines (“magic songs”) and successful hunts. Occasionally, a human, through accidental discovery or shamanistic transformation, could enter the world of Yahwera through a portal in a rock surface or a cave. There, below ground, the visitor would see all the animals, including those waiting to be reborn. Guarded by a large snake, the androgynous Yahwera was the keeper of the animals, wisdom, and power.


Images of Yahwera were inscribed on the sites of the portals. A known portal to the home of Yahwera was located near a spring and marked with an image of the Animal Master: a humanoid figure with red circles for the face, a feathered headdress and clawed feet. Next to the figure was a snake almost as tall as the main figure.Animal Master, Coso

The two drawings included (left) are representations of the patterned body anthromorphs in the Coso rock art collection (on the left) and the known representation of Yahwera, the guardian of the animal spirits (on the right).

The Yokuts, another tribe in the area, refer to rock art sites as “shaman’s caches,” vaults of magic power. When a shaman spoke to the rock, the portal opened, and the Spirit Master gave the shaman magic songs and wisdom.

The shaman as intermediary

The shaman talks to the rock, but the Spirit Master opens it. In this sense, the shaman is the intermediary. Because he can break the confines of this world, he is able to intercede for the people, asking the Spirit Master to release the game the people need to live. (I’m referring to the shaman as male though San people indicate that any male or female could accept the dangerous role of dream healer if desired.) The shaman delivers the request, not only for game but also for rain, wisdom, or cures for sickness. In this way, the shaman is acting in the same role as a modern priest, delivering the faithful’s requests to their Spirit Master.

One Kawaiisu narrative tells of a man who took jimsonweed (or raw tobacco in other versions) and found Yahwera’s cave. Inside he saw many animals, including deer and bear, who spoke the same language as the people. Yahwera explained that the animals weren’t really dead; they were only waiting to be reborn. At the end of the experience, the man was cured of his illness and left the cave through water at the end of a tunnel. When he came out, he found himself far from his starting point. He’d been gone so long, his people thought he had died.

In the Coso rock art, the strange figures on the rock surface are probably not shamans in a transformative state. According to tribal beliefs recorded in the 19th and 20th century, the figures represented the Spirit Master, the keeper of the animals, the source of magical power. The shaman was the one who is sensitive enough to find the portal to the Spirit Master’s realm and powerful enough to traverse the dangerous realms beyond this one.

Rock art images like the one included here from Utah seem to indicate a hierarchy of spirits because one figure is so much larger and dominates the image.  While all things living and dead may share in spirit energy, some are apparently far more powerful than others. Horseshoe Canyon, Utah, HolyGhost


An interesting side note:

The Memegwashio Indians of Quebec explain the red handprints on the rock over a sacred place as the mark of the spirits where they close the portal.

And another:

Cheyenne traditional beliefs held that the realm of deep earth could be accessed through sacred caves. In certain caverns animal spirits gathered, from which the animals might be released in physical form or refused rebirth.



And now to ancient cave art in Europe

Please forgive the jump from North American cave art to Europe 35,000 years ago. I don’t pretend to know the cultural references that would explain the beautiful ancient cave art of southern France and northern Spain, but others more knowledgeable than I have seen some commonality that bears examination. And the similarities are hard to ignore.

The oldest cave painting in Europe, possibly the work of our Neanderthal cousins, is a series of handprints on the wall of El Castillo Cave in Spain dated to 40,800 years ago. The cave shows no evidence of use as a living space, so it was apparently visited for other purposes. If the artists were Neanderthals, they were painting at the end of their reign. Not many years later, modern humans took over. Still, the idea that they may have marked the cave as special and that modern humans continued the association is intriguing. We now know that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred. Perhaps their ideology was passed along as well.

As Enrico Comba points out in his paper, “Amerindian Cosmologies and European Prehistoric Cave Art: Reasons for and Usefulness of a Comparison,” rock art of Paleolithic Europe is an art of caves, mostly in remote areas hard to access. The figures are mostly animals. The few human figures are hybrids – human/animal crosses. The cave functions as a womb and a refuge for the animals, much the way that Yahwera’s cave held the animals in the California rock art references.

The second-oldest known cave art in Europe is in Chauvet Cave, at least 32,000 years old. The animals painted are realistic yet dreamlike, incomplete, presented in moving groups without any ground line.lascauxpanorama

In the back of the cave, in the last and deepest chamber, is a curious image known by some as “Venus and the Sorcerer.” It is a combination of a bull head and a pubic triangle surrounded by female legs that blend into the front leg of the bull and the leg of a lioness.

Venus and Sorcerer

It’s not much of a stretch to see this image as the Spirit Master, the keeper of the animal spirits in the cave, similar to the androgynous spirit that the shaman called upon in California art to release the animals held in the cave so they could be reborn in the spring.

Once again, the cave would function as the home of the animals, many of them pregnant with new life. It’s certainly an interesting possibility – that the mysterious Sorcerer/Venus figure in the very back of Chauvet Cave serves the same function as the Spirit Master.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Rock Art of the World,” Rock Art Documentary, DVD, ILecture Films, Boilerplate Productions, made in conjunction with the Bradshaw Foundation

“Art of the Chauvet Cave,” Ice Age Paleolithic Cave Painting, Bradshaw Foundation www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” DVD, Chauvet Cave documentary film by Werner Herzog, IFC Films, 2010

“Cave Painting,” Wikipedia   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_painting

“Cave Paintings (40,000 – 10,000 BC)” Artchive.com   http://www.artchive.com/artchive/C/cave.html

Comba, Erico, “Amerindian Cosmologies and European Prehistoric Cave Art: Reason for and Usefulness of a Comparison,” Arts journal, 27 December 2013   www.mdpi.com/journal/arts

Garfinkel, Alan, with Donald Austin, David Earle, and Harold Williams, “Myth, ritual and rock art: Coso decorated animal-humans and the Animal Master,” Petroglyphs.US, 19 May 2009 <http://www.petroglyphs.us/article_myth_ritual_and_rock_art.htm&gt;

Garfinkel, Alan and Steven J. Waller, “Sounds and Symbolism from the Netherworld: Acoustic Archaeology and the Animal Master’s Portal,” Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly Vol.46, 4

Howley, Andrew. “70th Anniversary of the Discovery of Lascaux” National Geographic Newswatch, 17 September 2010, http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2010/09/17

Lymer, Kenneth, “Shimmering Visions: Shamanistic Rock Art Images from the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Expedition (Journal of the Museum of Pennsylvania), vol. 46, no. 1

Solomon, Anne. The Essential Guide to San Rock Art. South Africa: ABC Press, 1998

“The Sorcerer (cave art)” Wikipedia   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sorcerer_(cave_art)

“Talking Stone: Rock Art of the Cosos,” DVD starring Dr. Alan Garfinkel, distributed by the Bradshaw Foundation

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic News, 14 June 2012, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120614

“Venus and the Sorcerer” image from http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet

Witze, Alexandra, “Rock Art Revelations?” American Archaeology, Summer 2014, vol 18, no. 2, 33-37.




The Eagle and The Serpent, Reconsidered

eagle_snake_by_stoffe3337- on deviantart

Several readers of this blog have wondered about the meaning of the battling serpent and eagle, a very dynamic image, especially popular in tattoos.  It turns out there is no simple explanation.  In some cases, it represents a battle of good vs. evil.  In others, a battle of the present vs. the past, or one belief system vs. another.  In others, it is a dynamic combination of opposites that becomes the force that turns the universe.

The Eagle

The eagle is a logical choice for a group’s symbol.  It’s a large, powerful predator.  Like all raptors, it has amazing eyesight, a hooked beak designed to deliver a killing bite and rip flesh off bones, and sharp talons that can pierce and hold prey. An eagle’s wingspan is typically twice the length of its body, allowing it to soar easily.

The eagle stands for admirable, intimidating power, which is why it appears in connection with so many political entities, second only to the sun, moon, and stars in its appearance on official flags and seals.  It might be the black eagle, golden eagle, or bald eagle. It might have one head or two.  In some cases, the two headed eagle represents the combination of secular and religious power.

flag of Russia,_Federal_agency_for_government_communication_and_information,  Flag of Albania

The eagle is sometimes shown with a crown over its head, reinforcing its connection with royal power.  In the same way, the eagle might be holding a royal scepter or orb in its talons.  It often has a shield or emblem on its chest carrying the colors or symbols of the political

eagle -Flag_of_the_President_of_the_United_States_of_America_svgentity.  The United States versions, shown on everything from the official seal of the President of the United States to the dollar bill, feature the eagle carrying a bundle of arrows (a symbol of military might) in one foot, an olive branch (a symbol of peace) in the other.

The Mexican flag carries the image of the golden eagle atop a cactus, grasping a snake, the very image the people had been promised would direct them to the place they would make their new home, Tenochtitlan, now the site of Mexico City.

The eagle is also used as a team name and symbol (e.g. the Philadelphia Eagles), taking the impressive power of the animal and associating it with the sports team, in the same way as the Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Falcons, Memphis Grizzlies, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams, and many more.

So the eagle symbol seems pretty clear.  It’s powerful, strong, and beautiful.  It demands respect.  It transfers the strength and glory of the eagle to the group, or at least to its leader(s).

The Serpent

Adam and EveThe serpent/snake/dragon is a far more complicated part of the equation.  Many people associate the serpent with evil because of the Bible story in which the snake offers Eve the fruit from the forbidden tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In the Genesis story of the Fall of Man, the serpent is described as “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.”   The serpent says to Eve: “Did God really say, ’You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’”  When she replies that God told them not to eat the fruit or even touch the tree in the center of the Garden for if they did, they would die, the serpent replies, “You will not surely die…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  That’s apparently the selling point, for then Eve, “desirous of gaining wisdom,” takes the fruit, eats it, and gives some to her husband.  (It’s very curious that this image and others portray the fruit as the Amanita muscaria mushroom!)

After that, all the problems of humankind were laid at the feet of the woman – and the snake.

Except that, even in the Bible, the snake is not necessarily evil.  But it is associated with scary power.  When Moses and his brother Aaron go before the Pharaoh to demand he let the Israelites go out of Egypt, Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake, just as God had promised.  In reply, the Pharaoh’s sorcerers throw down their staffs and each one becomes a snake.  In a final show of power, Aaron’s staff/snake swallows up the other staffs/snakes.  Both sides used snakes as tools of power.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples to go forth and be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves” (Mathew 10:16).

Admittedly, there are lots more negative serpent images than positive ones in the Bible.  Take the deadly Leviathan in the sea, the Apocalyptic red dragon with seven heads bearing seven crowns that throws a third of the heavenly stars to the earth, and “the dragon, that old serpent, which is Satan and the Devil” from the Book of Revelations.

Still, even in the Bible, the snake is not always a symbol of evil.

Caius College, Cambridge UniversitySerpent Power

Curiously, even with the negative press the Bible gives the snake, its symbolic use is fairly common. It shows up on many flags, including one for Gaius College, Cambridge (illustration).

In 1754, during the French and Indian War, Benjamin Franklin published the famous “Join or Die” cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  It shows a snakeagle join or die flage cut into eight segments, each labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies. American colonists adopted the rattlesnake and the eagle as symbols of their new land.

The Gadsden American flag, first created in 1775, eagle Gadsden_flag_svgfeatures a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background, and the words “Don’t tread on me.”  It effectively connected the power of the snake (and the fear it instills in others) with the fledgling American colonies that were facing the much stronger British forces.  It is currently being used by the Tea Party, a right-wing faction of the Republican Party.


World Serpents

Buddha_from_Cambodia,_Angkor_kingdom,_Bayon_style,_12th_century,_sandstone,_HAAIn the rest of the world, serpents have a long history as symbols of fertility and rebirth, as well as spiritual power.  The meditating Buddha was shielded by a multi-headed serpent deity, or naga, named Mucalinda (photo).  In Hindu mythology, Vishnu was said to sleep peacefully while floating on the cosmic waters, supported by the serpent Shesha.  In Dahomey mythology (West Africa) the serpent that supports everything is called Dan.  In Vodun of Benin and Haiti, Ayida Weddo, the Rainbow Serpent, is a symbol of fertility, rainbows and snakes, and a wife of Dan, the father of spirits.

In Mesoamerican and North American Indian groups, snakes often served as spirit guides, or Others, during shamanic trances, enabling the shaman to cross over into the spirit realm in order to restore balance between the two worlds. The figure on the right side of the rock art photo has snakes on the left and right side, generally interpreted to be the shaman’s spirit guides.eagle rock art with snakes

The vision serpent curls up from the dish holding a Maya blood offering, allowing the penitent to communicate with the ancestors. In the illustration, the head of the ancestor appears out of the vision serpent’s mouth.Yaxchilan Divine Serpent

In Australian Dreamtime stories, the Rainbow Serpent is the Mother of Life, creator of the waterways and the laws, the humans and the stones.

Then why are Western images of serpents so negative?

Pre-Christian Europeans were animists, believers in spirits that resided in natural elements such as trees, rivers, the sky, and various animals.  Snakes and birds were especially important because they were capable of crossing between worlds: the snake could go above ground or to the Underworld; the bird could be on the earth or part of the sky.  As such, they held special powers. Because they can shed their skins, snakes were associated with the cycle of life and death.   A very old Celtic snake goddess named Corchen was connected with the energy of the earth and rebirth. The Ouroboros, the snake biting its tail, was a symbol of eternity. The Celtic god named Cernunnos was usually portrayed as a man with stag antlers because he could shape-shift into a stag. Typically his legs were snakes, sometimes horned snakes.

Serpent devotion was common in Britain and the continent.  The Druids’ symbol was the snake.

When Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Catholic Church felt it was important to transfer religious power from the Druids to the new religion.  Saint Patrick is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland, but actually there weren’t any snakes in Ireland after the last Ice Age.  The driving out was symbolic, one of many such efforts.  The snakes belonged to the old religion. St. George impaled the dragon on his righteous spear.  St Margaret stabbed a dragon with a cross.

Saint_George_and_the_Dragon_by_Paolo_Uccello_(Paris)_01In the painting by Paulo Uccello (shown), the knight arrives on a white horse just in time to slay the dragon and save the maiden in distress.

Meanwhile, Cernunnos, the god with snake legs and stag horns, was made into a devil figure.

Serpent subdued by eagle Byzantine eagleSo the snake/serpent/dragon came to represent the old, pagan, lesser power now subdued by superior, Christian power, as shown in the mosaic floor from the Imperial Palace in Constantinople (photo).

A combination of Old and New

But the dragon refused to be conquered.  Long a favorite of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Norsemen, the dragon continued, even after the advent of Christianity, to be the emblem of the chief.  King Arthur, whose father was Uther Pen-dragon, wore a dragon insignia on his helmet.  Later, the dragon became the symbol of the kings of England, especially those who needed to establish themselves as having a legitimate claim to power.  Henry VII took as his personal symbol the red dragon, which helped to link his family, the Tudors, to the ancient kings.  Later it was used by Henry VIII, Edward V, and Elizabeth I.  (Of course, the imperial dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, as well.)

Book of Kells snake

More often, the old ways simply merged with the new ones.  The Book of Kells, the beautiful illustrated manuscript made in Ireland (c. 800 AD) features many snakes and birds, as well as other animals, plants, and landscapes in the decorative chapter pages and initial letters of sections.  The snake, always a symbol of rebirth, becomes a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection in the book.  So while it appears in a Christian book, it continues its original pagan association.

The Eagle and the Serpent as One Entity

Pliny the Elder (c.100 AD), in his work Natural History, refers to a certain large serpent that fights with eagles.  It tries to steal the eagle’s eggs.  In the struggle, the snake wraps itself around the eagle so tightly that the two look like one animal with two heads.  This is a very early reference to the eagle and snake involved in a match of equal, opposite powers.  It’s also a reference to what seems to be the combined animal – the winged serpent.

At this point, when the eagle and serpent are perfectly paired opposites, they represent not victory or defeat but dynamic cosmic completion, the union of spirit and matter, as shown in the Japanese emblem (illustration).

dragon and phoenix, from Vinnycomb book

This is the same combination as the American Indian winged rattlesnakes, the Mesoamerican feathered serpent, the Egyptian winged snake goddess Wadjet, and the paired winged, serpent-tailed creator beings in Chinese myth.  This is the force that drives the universe as the celestial bird and the serpent wheel forever, in perfect balance of opposite energies, around the portal of heaven.

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Adam and Eve,” painted wood ceiling at  St. Michael’s church, Hildesheim, Germany, 1192 AD www.ambrosiasociety.org/the_fruit_of_the_tree_of_life.html

Birrell, Anne. Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993

“Celtic Gods and Goddesses,” www.joellssacredgrove.com

“Dragon,” The Medieval Bestiary http://bestiary.ca./beasts/beast262.htm

“Double-headed eagle,” Wikipedia

“Eagle” A-Z Animals.  A-Zanimals.com/animals/eagle

“Eagle,” The Medieval Bestiary http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast232.htm

“Eagle Snake” tattoo design by stoffe3337 on deviantart.com

“Gadsden flag,” Wikipedia

Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South.  Richard Townsend (ed.) The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, 2004

Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984.

Oodgeroo Nunukul. Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories. First published as Stadbroke Dreamtime.  Angus & Robertson, 1972

Power, Susan C.  Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents & Winged Beings. University of Georgia Press, 2004

“Rainbow Serpent, The” ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com (a wonderful blog)

Rock Art images,  http://www.eskimo.com/~noir/southwest/rockart

“Saint George and the Dragon,” painting by Paulo Uccello (c. 1458), Wikipedia Commons

Saint George and The Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, Little, Brown, 1984.

“Serpent,” New World Encyclopedia. www.newworldencyclopedia.org

“Serpent and Saint Patrick,” I Am An Owl blog, (a very interesting blog) http://amayodruid.blogspot.com

Saunders, Nicholas. J. Animal Spirits. Little, Brown, 1995

“Serpent (symbolism)” Wikipedia

“Snake,” The Medieval Bestiary (1400 AD)  http://besatiary.ca/beasts/beast264f.htm

Taylor, Sea, and Fernando Vilela. The Great Snake: Stories from the Amazon.  Frances Lincoln, 2008

Missing: Fierce, Powerful Goddess

Seated Woman with Lions, at least 10,000 years old

Catalhoyuk, Anatolia, present-day Turkey

Middle East Ankara_Muzeum_

Very little is known about the spiritual beliefs of the people from Catalhoyuk, but the figurine, one of many like it found at the site leads to some interesting possibilities.  She is enormously fat, like the Venus figurines (See earlier post on the Venus Figurines) but she does not look like a victim.  She sits on a throne flanked by lions, two symbols of power.  James Melhart, who excavated the site in the 1950s and 60s, claimed this figure and many others like it found at the site, carved from marble, limestone, basalt, alabaster, and clay, represented an Earth Mother deity.  However, Ian Hodder, who worked on the site in 2004 and 2005, claimed “in fact there is very little evidence of a mother goddess.”

The map below shows the major settlements in the ancient Near East, including those mentioned in this post.  (Map courtesy of Resources for History Teachers)

Ancient Near East

Al-Uzza, Al-Jauza, Al-Jabar

“What’s in a name?” Lots, as it turns out.


The constellation we know as Orion the Hunter was known to ancient Arabic astronomers as al-Jauza, a feminine form meaning the Central One.  In ancient illustrations of the constellation, al-Jauza is clearly a woman.   However, the name later changed to al-Jabar, a masculine form meaning “The Giant.”  When the Greeks named the constellation, it became Orion the Hunter.  However, echoes of the past remain in the star names, including Betelgeuse (“Bet-al-Jauza,” translated as the armpit of the Central One, the hand of the Central One, or the house of the Central One, depending on which scholar’s work you’re reading).Orion illustration from Heritage Arabe des Noms Arabes Pour Les Etoiles

The ancient Arabic goddess called al-Uzza, meaning “The Mightiest One” or “The Strong,” was associated with both fertility and war.  She was worshipped, along with Hubal (the chief of the gods) as well as Manat (goddess of fate) and Al-lat (goddess of the Underworld) at many important sites between Medina and Mecca, including the Kaaba, though all shrines, statues, and other evidence of their worship have been destroyed.

Inanna, Queen of Heaven, Goddess of Love, War, Fertility, and Lust

Sumeria – present day Iraq; main temple in Uruk, 6,000 years agoInanna, Louvre vase

The most powerful Sumerian goddess was Inanna, who may have been borrowed from an even earlier mother goddess figure.  But Inanna was no loving mother figure.  Often pictured standing on the backs of two lionesses, she was associated with both sex and war. It was said she could stir up confusion and discord.  According to one story, a bully who drank blood and ate the flesh of his victims terrified the residents of Uruk until one of Inanna’s men defeated him, hitting him with an axe.  The villain then begged forgiveness of Inanna, promising to praise her and make offerings at her temple in Uruk.

Her planet was Venus, the Morning and Evening Star, famous for its brilliant appearance in the western twilight sky, followed by its disappearance into the Underworld and reappearance in the eastern pre-dawn sky.

Ishtar, Queen of the Night, Goddess of Love, Fertility, and War

Akkad – center in city of Uruk, 4,300 years ago,

Sumeria – Uruk, in present-day Iraq

Assyria – Nineveh and Ashur, in present-day Iraq


The Akkadian Empire absorbed almost all of the land drained by the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers about 4,300 years ago, putting both the Semites and Sumerians under Akkadian rule and enforcing the Akkadian language. After the fall of the empire 140 years later, two main groups emerged: Assyria in the north and Babylonia in the south.

Ishtar was simply a later version of Inanna.  She was an unpredictable goddess of love, fertility, sex, and war.  She was incredibly powerful, capable of creating and destroying.  While she was praised as the creator of the human race, provider of continuing sustenance, and giver of arts and culture, she also had quite a reputation as a cruel lover, often killing her partners.  Like Inanna, she was associated with lions, often pictured standing on the backs of two lionesses.  Venus, particularly as the Evening Star, was her planet. In the terra cotta plaque of her that is now located in the Louvre (pictured), she is also flanked by owls, an indication of her position as Queen of the Night.  Her temple at Tell Bank in present-day Syria contained thousands of figurines of staring owls that were able to “see” justice.

Both Inanna and Ishtar were often portrayed with horns on their heads representing the crescent moon.

Astarte, Queen of Heaven, Goddess of Fertility, Sexuality, and War

Phoenicia – centers in Tyre and Byblos, 3000 – 5000 years ago


Astarte, Statuette_Goddess_Louvre_AO20127Cyprus

Dama_de_Galera AstarteAstarte is the Phoenician version of Ishtar.  Since the Phoenicians were great sailors and traders, they spread the cult of Astarte throughout the eastern Mediterranean from the early Bronze Age to classical times, when the Greeks made her into Aphrodite and the Romans made her into Venus.  While these goddesses kept her sexuality and capriciousness, they downplayed the warlike aspects of Astarte.

Astarte’s symbols are the lion, horse, sphinx, and dove.  The statue of the Lady of Galera in Spain (left) shows Astarte flanked by sphinxes.  Her statue now housed in the Louvre (pictured) shows her naked except for her necklace and long earrings, with blazing eyes and a blazing navel.  The crescent moon on her head looks like horns.  In Phoenicia, she was sometimes portrayed leaning forward at the bow of a ship, becoming the original for the figureheads on many later boats.

Astarte appears in Egypt as a warrior goddess, often conflated with the lion-headed goddess Sekmet and with Isis.

She appears in the Bible as Ashtoreth, combining Astarte with bosheth (abomination), who is condemned as a female demon of lust.

Sekhmet – Powerful One, The Destroyer, Lady of Terror, Eye of Ra, One Before Whom Evil Trembles, Lady of Life, Protector of Pharaohs

Centers – Memphis and later Thebes, Ancient Egypt

Sekmet seated

Depicted as a lioness or a woman with a lion’s head, Sekhmet (also Sekmet), daughter of the sun god Ra, was one of the oldest deities in the Egyptian pantheon.  Nothing soft about this lady; her hot breath was said to create the desert.  When Ra felt that humans had failed to live correctly, he sent Sekmet as his avenger.  She killed so many people that Ra tried to stop her, but her blood-lust drove her to more killings.  Finally, Ra poured thousands of gallons of pomegranate-stained beer in her path.  Thinking it was blood, she drank it until she passed out and the killing stopped.  In her honor, public drinking festivals were held each year, which might be one reason her cult lasted 3000 years.

Since she was associated with lions, tame lions were often kept in her temples.

Later on, Sekhmet’s image changed when she was merged with Hathor, particularly at the Temple to Sekhmet-Hathor at Kom-el-Hin.  Hathor was the mother goddess, pictured as a sacred cow or a woman with cow’s horns on her head.  Unlike the warlike Sekmet, Hathor was associated with joy, sex, music, dance, pregnancy, and birth.  The combined figure was known as “Destroyer of Rebellion,” “Mighty One of Enchantment.”

Tanit – Virginal Mother, Fertility Goddess, Goddess of War

Tanit, Bardo_National_Museum_

Center – Carthage, present-day Tunisia, on the Mediterranean coast across from Sicily

Tanit was the Carthaginian version of Astarte, worshipped from Malta to Gades (Cadis) on the coast of Spain.  She is usually pictured with a lion’s head.

Many of these goddesses obviously share some characteristics.  It’s easy to see the shared qualities of Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Sekmet, Ariadne (Crete), Neith (Lybia), Asherah (Hittite), and Anat (Assyria).

In all of these, she shares heavenly titles such as Goddess of the Heavenly Upperworld, Lady of Heaven, Queen of Heaven, Ruler of Heavens, Shining One, and the Torch of Heaven.  To recognize her fierce qualities, she was referred to as Goddess of War, Lady of Victory, Lady of Sorrows and Battles.  She was also Goddess of Love and Goddess of the Evening.

However, as the goddess morphed over time, her warlike qualities began to disappear.

Ba’alat Gebal – Goddess of love, Goddess of Byblos

Center – Byblos, Phoenicia, Temple built 4700 years agoStatue of Ba'alat Gebal at British Museum

As the Greeks made Astarte into Aphrodite, she became the love goddess, a physical beauty.  The first century AD statue of Ba’alat Gebal now housed in the Louvre, shows the transition.  The Phoenician goddess stands in a classical Greek pose.  Her symbol is no longer the lion but the dove, included in her headdress, which also includes a sun disk, a symbol of the Egyptian goddess Isis.  She retains two feathers in her headdress, reminiscent of Astarte.

Hathor with cow horns

Hathor – Celestial Cow, Personification of the Milky Way, Lady of Stars, Mother of MothersEgypt -Isis suckling Horus

Isis – Nurturing mother, Patroness of Nature and Magic

Hathor, the Celestial Cow, was an ancient Egyptian goddess probably morphed from Bat.  She is shown early on as a full cow with a sun disk between her horns. Later, she appeared as a woman with a sun disk between cow horns (pictured, right).  She was the patron of music, dance, and sexual delight, also associated with cosmetics and incense.

In many ways, Isis absorbed the qualities of Hathor but added the dimension of loving wife and mother.  As mother of the falcon-headed god Horus, she is often pictured holding or suckling the infant (pictured, left).

The fierce goddess, the lady of terror, has gradually disappeared.

With the rise of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the goddesses disappeared almost completely.  The name Queen of Heaven was applied to Mary, the virginal mother of Jesus wearing a mantle of stars, often pictured holding or suckling the infant Jesus.  In Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe continued the heritage of the Aztec Mother Earth goddess Tonantzin.  However, the Reformation downplayed the role of Mary and outlawed statues of her or the saints as idolatry in Protestant churches.

The sea is still referred to as female though the figurehead on boats has disappeared.  The terms Mother Earth and Mother Nature survive though in most uses they engender none of their original respect.

Many of the areas where the goddess cults once flourished now practice extensive discrimination against women that has become accepted as part of the culture.

I miss the fierce goddesses.  I wander through the local toy store, looking at endless rows of pink Barbies looking like so many perky prostitutes, and wonder what happened.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Near East,” courses.cit.cornell.edu

“Arabic in the Sky,” Saudi Aranco World, September/October 2010

“Arabian Mythology,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabian_legend

“Asherah,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/Asherah

“Astarte,” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com

“Astarte,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astarte

“Ba’alat Gebal,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/ba’alatGebal

“Betelgeuse,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betelgeuse

Cass, Stephanie. “Hathor,” Encyclopedia Mythica. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/hathor.html

“Catalhoyuk,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalhoyuk

Cross, Fran Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the Religion of Israel. Harvard University Press, 2009.

“Inanna,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inanna

“Ishtar,” PaganPages.org, http://paganpages.org/content/tag/ishtar

“Isis,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/isis

Map of the Ancient Near East During the Amarna Period, www.ancient.eu.com/image/171

Map of the Ancient Near Eastern Empires.  http://resourcesforhistoryteachers.wikispaces.com

Map of the Oriental Empires about 600 BC, www.hopeofIsrael.org

“Neith,” Wikipedia

Palestine History: From pre-Bible to the Old Testament, http:/www.israel-a-history-of.com/palestine-history.html

“Phoenicia Trade Routes” map from “Phoenicians,” Wikipedia

“Seated Goddess, CatalHuyuk, “AP Art History: Art of the Ancient Near East.” http://www.westcler.org/gh/curlessmatt/arthistory

“Sekhmet,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sekhmet

“Statue of Ba’alat Gebal,” British Museum http://depts.Washington.edu/silkroad/exhibit/rome

“Statue of Tanit,” Bardo National Museum, http://upload.wikimedia.org

Stuckley, Johanna H. “Goddess Astarte: Goddess of Fertility, Beauty, War, and Love” http://www.matrifocus.com IMB04/spotlight.htm

al-Sufi, Kitab suwar al-kawakib (The Constellations), 903 – 986 AD, World Digital Library

“Tanit,” Wikipedia


The Serpent and The Celestial Bird Become The Dragon

The dragon, the winged serpent, is the most widespread mythological beast in the world. Dragons appear in Old World myths from Europe, India, the Middle East, Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, as well in the New World in the form of the feathered serpent from Indian tribes in North America and Olmec, Maya, and Aztec cultures from Mesoamerica. Dragons have been represented on the gates of Babylon, Chinese vases, pictographs above the Mississippi River, and bones carved by Inuit artists in the Arctic.

The oldest versions were snakes, but after the Middle Ages, dragons were often pictured with legs, either stubby reptilian legs or sturdy avian or feline legs, usually two or four. Most have one head, though some have two or even three. Most are associated with bodies of water and rainfall.

Where did this image of the flying snake come from? In The First Fossil Hunters, Adrienne Mayor suggests that fossils of dinosaurs such as Archaeopteryx or skeletons of whales spawned the legend. Others suggest crocodiles, giant goannas (in Australia), or the Komodo lizard (in Japan). Anthropologist David E. Jones suggests that dragons were the sum of ancient people’s fears: snakes, birds of prey, and big cats.
All of those arguments may have some merit, but none explain the universality of the image. I think the people saw the winged serpent in the stars, specifically, in the combination of Ursa Major and Draco.

The Big Dipper

One of the most familiar asterisms in the night sky is the Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major. It’s easy to find because the stars are so bright.

The constellation Ursa Major

The constellation Ursa Major

For many, the seven bright stars look like the outline of a giant ladle or dipper, but other people see the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper as a plough, a wagon drawn by oxen or a carriage drawn by horses, a camel, a skunk, a fisher cat, a salmon net, a butcher’s cleaver, a coffin with three mourners following behind, a saucepan, or a basket. In some places, the seven stars represented people, such as the Seven Sages or Seven Brothers.

Many northern peoples saw the Big Dipper as a giant bear, a mother bear being followed by three cubs, or a bear being chased by three hunters. The bear image itself is subject to debate. Some see the Big Dipper as fitting in the bear’s back while others make the handle of the Dipper into a very long tail, which is strange since bears have such stumpy little tails, though the problem is often explained away with a story.
Let’s look at it a different way: take the Big Dipper as the body and wing of a great bird instead. Add the other wing from the bright stars already included as part of the Great Bear constellation that you can see in the illustration. Then you’ll have the body and both wings of the bird. The tail comes out at the bottom of the bird’s body, and the head comes from stars not included in the constellation grouping.

Ursa Major as part of the Great Bear

Ursa Major as part of the Great Bear

Always Circling the Center

The Big Dipper is a circumpolar asterism, meaning it rotates around the unmoving center of the night sky, which we now call Polaris, or the Pole Star, in the course of the night. It also marks the seasons, in that it rises in different positions at twilight during winter, spring, summer, and fall. It would be easy for ancient people to tell what time it was at night by the position of the Dipper, and to know the seasons from the Dipper’s position at dusk.
When you consider all the seasonal positions of the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, you get a whirling pattern like the one in the diagram.

Big Dipper and North Star

Dipper around pole

Draco the Dragon

The other half of the dragon is Draco, the constellation that snakes around between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. While Polaris is currently the closest star to true North in the night sky, 5,000 years ago it was Thuban, one of the stars in Draco. Farther back yet, it was the dark space between the stars referred to as the Cave of Creation.

Constellation Draco, with Thuban marked

Constellation Draco, with Thuban marked

Constellation Draco with major stars marked

Constellation Draco with major stars marked

In North America, many images of the whirling logs or swastika design appear to incorporate the movements of the Dipper. Some include both the winged figure and the serpent.

American Indian artifact at least 800 years old, showing the movement of the Big Dipper

American Indian artifact at least 800 years old, showing the movement of the Big Dipper

Whirling winged serpents

Whirling winged serpents

This piece shows the whirling pattern incorporating both horned rattlesnakes and winged figures with feline heads, combining forces of the earth and sky. As far back as 1901, Zelia Nuttall recognized the role of the Big Dipper in the whirling logs or swastika design so common in American Indian artifacts. The review of her article “The Fundamental Principles of New and Old World Civilizations” from the Archaeological and Ethnological Papers of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, notes that Ms. Nuttall suggested that the swastika symbol was “believed to have originated in the revolution of the stars of Ursa Major about Polaris….” In fact, she suggests that the swastika itself is merely a representation of the Big Dipper at all four seasons.
If indeed, the Big Dipper is part of a great Celestial Bird, the Bird and the Serpent together wheel around the Portal of Heaven, the Cave of Creation. Their power as opposites is combined into the force that moves the heavens. They become the Winged Serpent, the Feathered Serpent, the place where earth and sky, male and female join to generate the force that moves the heavens.

My drawing of the Big Dipper as a bird and Draco as the serpent

My drawing of the Big Dipper as a bird and Draco as the serpent

This is the image I use for the Misfits and Heroes series of ancient adventure novels. It’s my own drawing based on the current positions of the stars in Ursa Major and Draco, designed to be a symbol of the dynamic opposites so important to the ancients, especially in Mesoamerica. It’s a dragon, or at least its parts, momentarily and somewhat artificially suspended in time and motion in its endless circle around the Portal of Creation.

The Lion-headed Figurine

lion-headed figure

The most well-known – and controversial – piece of Paleolithic European art is the carved mammoth-ivory sculpture known as Lowenmensch, German for “lion-man” or lion-human,” although perhaps Lion Lady, or Lion Man/Lady would be more accurate.  Like everything else about it, its gender is the subject of debate.  While little is known about the people who carved it or its significance to them, the figure, even in fragmentary form, is arresting.  Now, new clues from the cave where it was found and others in the area put the famous figure in better context.

The figure is about 30 cm (11 ½ inches) tall, with a clearly formed lion head and a left arm, which looks more like a lion’s leg, bearing striations.  A double line runs down the side of the head, from the front of the ear down to the neck.  The posture is human but the body and left arm (front leg) seem very feline. The hand seems more like a paw though the left foot seems like a small human foot with a pointed toe.  A clearly marked navel lies above the ambiguous genital triangle.

It’s thought to be somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 years old.


Given its complicated story, it’s surprising we know about The Lion-headed Human at all.

In 1861, a priest collecting bear bones in Stadel Cave, one of several caves in a limestone cliff in Hohlenstein Mountain in southwestern Germany, also found thousands of flint chips, but being interested only in the bear bones, he dug around with his shovel, found dozens of bear skulls, and threw everything else away, destroying levels of archaeological sediments and fragile pieces of ivory in the process.

In 1939, Robert Wetzel came to the cave to check on the rumored flint tools.  Unfortunately, he had little time.  World War II was beginning, and soon he was called up for service in the German military. On the day he was to leave, his team discovered fragments of ivory below pieces of worked flint.  Because he had to hurry, he scooped up the fragments he’d excavated into cardboard boxes, then hid the boxes until after the war, when he donated them to the Ulmer Museum, where they were placed in storage and forgotten.

lion-headed figure2

Between 1954 and his death in1961, Wetzel continued his excavations in Stadel Cave, finding bones that indicated the cave had been inhabited by both Neanderthals (The thigh bone he found is one of few Neanderthal bones found in southern Germany.) and Homo sapiens.  The bones included those of a man, woman, and child with severed heads, buried together.  In addition, he found bone fragments from at least 54 individuals.  As with the fragments of the Lion-headed figurine, he donated these finds to the museum at Ulm. (The photo at the right is from the Ulmer Museum exhibition.)

In 1969, in the course of an inventory at the museum, Dr. Joachim Hahn came across the mammoth-ivory fragments and noticed a similarity among some of the pieces.  Eventually, he pieced together nearly two hundred fragments to make a human/animal figure missing a head.  Dubbing it Lion Man, he saw this figure as evidence of Stone Age people’s belief in mystical/spiritual concepts.

Twenty years later, Elizabeth Schmid added more pieces from the museum’s collection and completed a new examination of the cave, finding many other fragments, completing the head and arm.  However, Schmid disagreed with Dr. Hahn and declared the figure was female, not male, noting what she identified as a clearly marked pubic triangle.

The mystery continues to play out clues.  In 2011, the Stadel cave was excavated again, in the same place as the original find.  In the course of the excavation, archaeologists sifted through the rubble piles left behind by the first group.  Claus-Joachim Kind, who oversaw the screening, announced: “We have about a thousand items which may be of the statue.”  In order to fit them exactly, the old glue was removed and the new pieces inserted.  New finds include part of the neck and back, as well as most of the missing right arm.  Researchers also found more striated marks on the surface like those on the arm.

Artifact found in Hohle Fels Cave

Artifact found in Hohle Fels Cave

The digging spot was located beside a fire pit in a niche 27 meters from the entrance from the cave.  Nearby were decorated deer teeth and artic fox incisors as well as ivory beads.

More Finds in the Neighborhood

A few kilometers from Stadel Cave is Hohle Fels cave, which is famous for the Venus of Hohle Fels figurine found there and dated to 35,000 years ago.  There, in 2001, a smaller version of the Lion-Headed Human was found.  Like its taller cousin, this one-inch tall, partial figure exhibits both human and animal characteristics, with a clearly carved leonine ear and truncated arm/leg, just like the Lion-Headed figure.  Also, it has a clear slash mark down its left arm.  It cannot be determined whether the figure is meant to be male or female because it doesn’t have any genital area.  This figure is thought to be 33,000 years old.

After considering the curious similarities between the different Venus figurines (See earlier post on Venus Figurines) found in fire pits, broken into pieces, it’s very interesting to find the same circumstances for this figure.  The cut marks found on the figure, as well as its “Little Brother,” are also reminiscent of the marks on the Venus figurines.

The Shaman’s Journey

Many experts say the Lion-HumSan theriotropean combination suggests a shamanistic trance in which a person may enter another world, often through the portal offered by a cave.  In this sense, the shaman may take on the characteristics of an animal as part of the transformation.  In the San rock art picture from South Africa (left), the figure on the left is the shaman who has become part human, part large animal, taking on the power of the animal (n’om) in order to fight off illness or imbalance in the tribe.

This shamanic alteration is common in many parts of the world, where holy men and women wear headdresses or whole skins of animals as part of their ritual.  If that is the case with the Lion Human, it indicates a very early sense of this dual world and the ability of some humans to access it.

The apparently hermaphroditic condition of the figure would be consistent with the shamanic theory.  Some cave paintings from the same era include both male and female characteristics, such as the famous “Sorcerer” figure in Chauvet Cave, which combines the head of a bull with a female pubic triangle.  According to Dr. Jean Clottes, it is the combination of opposites which creates power.

In any case, the combination of lion and human, for which this figure seems to be the first representative, plays a very important part in our history, from the lion-headed goddesses like Tanit, Astarte, and Sekmet, to the lion-headed incarnation of Vishnu, to the lion (singa) city (pora) of Singapore, and King Richard the Lion-Hearted.

Guennol Lioness, Mesopotamia

As post script, the Guennol Lioness, a 5000-year-old limestone statue found in Iraq, features a well-muscled lioness with a human body and hands (pictured, left).  It was sold through Sotheby’s Auction House to a private collector for $57 million in 2007.  The notes on the 3 ½” figure indicated that many ancient Near East deities were represented by anthropomorphic figures, which evoked the Mesopotamians’ belief that they could attain power over the physical world by combining the superior physical attributes of various species.  Interesting, eh?

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Archaeology: Lionheaded Figurine” http://www.showcaves.com/english/explain/Archaeology/Loewenfrau.html

“Caves of Germany” Hohlenstein, http://www.showcaves.com/english/de/caves/Hohlenstein.html

Davidson, Laura Leigh. “First Flute Found: Scientists discover the world’s oldest musical instrument,” www.scholastic.com

“Guennol Lioness” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guennol_Lioness

“Lion – Cultural Depictions”  Wikipedia,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion

Lion-headed figurine” – updated, TYWKIWDBI, March 8, 2013, http://tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com/s013/lion-headed-figurine

The Lion Lady – Die Lowenfrau, Don’s Maps, www.donsmaps.com/lionlady.html.

“Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel,” Wikipedia, January 25, 2013


Partian, Gary. “The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel: Mystery from the Stone Age” October 21, 2009     http://voices.yahoo.com/the-lion-man=hohlenstein-stadel-mystery

“The Paleolithic Age” The Prehistory of Homo Sapiens, Part IV, The Essay Web, http://essayweb.net/history/ancient/prehistory

Schulz, Mattias. “Puzzle in the Rubble,” Der Spiegel, 2011, http://www.spiegel.de/speigel/print/d-82612721.html

“Swabian Jura,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swabian_Alb

Ulmer Museum Archaeological Collection, The Lion Man Exhibition


Marsha Walton, CNN.com “Cave Art from 30,000 Years Ago?” December 18, 2003

The Night Sky: Calendar, Compass, Culture

For some modern viewers, the sight of a sky full of stars is unnerving, making them feel small and insignificant.  In “We’ve Got Tonight,” Bob Seger sings, “Why should we worry, no one will care, girl.  Look at the stars, so far away/ we’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?”  This makes a curious statement.  Because the stars are so far away, what we do is irrelevant.  No one will care if we spend the night together, just as the stars don’t care.   Not much in the romance department.

Ancient people had a very different view.  Their lives were inextricably linked to the stars and planets.  The rising and falling of stars with the seasons, the appearance and disappearance of the planets determined what happened on earth.  We see this as astrology, but the ancient people saw no difference between astrology and astronomy.  They needed to understand the motion and patterns of the night sky because their lives were entwined with them.  The stars weren’t distant at all.  They were immediate and active.


For the ancient peoples, the sun and moon provided easy measures of time.  Every 29 days or so, the moon begins a new cycle of waxing from a slim crescent to a full moon and then waning back to the last crescent before it goes completely dark, only to start over again.  Some modern people still use a calendar based on the cycles of the moon.  The Chinese traditional calendar, the Islamic calendar, and the Jewish calendar are all lunar, with twelve months of 29 or 30 days.  The Chinese calendar adds extra days as needed at the end of the year to correspond to the solar calendar.  The Jewish calendar adds them every Leap Year.

For many ancient societies, each of the moons had a name, indicating a significant seasonal marker: New Rains Moon, Deep Frost Moon, etc.

By the stars’ position, people could identify which moon it was.  Take the most identifiable asterism in the night sky, The Big Dipper, which many ancient people saw as part of a celestial bird.  In the early evening in January, the dipper seems to stand on its handle (or wing).  By April, it lies upside down.  By July, it seems to stand on the outside of the cup.  In October, it lies right side up.

Source: www.physics.ucla.edu


The pointer stars, the outside of the dipper’s cup, point to the North Star.  You can find approximate north by sighting along any straight object aligned with the North Star.  The opposite end of the same stick points south.  Once those two are established, you can find east and west with only a little more work.  As recently as the 1800’s, escaping slaves used the Big Dipper, “The Drinking Gourd,” as a guide to lead them to freedom in the north.

For those in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross serves the same purpose as a circumpolar asterism, but the pole itself is an empty space, sometimes referred to as a cave, unmarked by a star.  This was the case in the Northern Hemisphere as well 10,000 years ago, when the center was between stars.

Night Clock

The Big Dipper appears to move in the course of the night, swinging around the unmoving center of the sky, the North Star.  It would be easy for people to judge how late it was by how much the dipper had moved.


More importantly, for the ancient peoples, the night sky, especially the Milky Way, was a powerful, frightening force that was connected to all life on earth.  It contained creation and death, darkness and light.

Seeing The Milky Way

The Milky Way is the galaxy we live in.  It contains, according to the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, over 400 billion stars, including our sun.  If you’re unfamiliar with the Milky Way, start with finding a familiar constellation like Orion (diagram).  The Milky Way passes over the figure’s shoulder.  You’ll need a dark sky, away from sources of light pollution that will rob you of all but the brightest stars.

The three “belt” stars, the very bright shoulder star Betelgeuse, and the very bright “foot” star Rigel make this constellation easy to differentiate from others.



With some help from the Hubble telescope, you can see the rest of the story!

Source: httyp://hubblesite.org/gallery















(Photo source: Patrick’s Photoblog, vignette.com)

In the photo, look for the three stars of Orion’s belt and the bright smudge that is the Orion Nebula.   The Milky Way rises almost vertically in the center of the photo.

The Milky Way looks like a river of bright stars flowing across the sky.  The name comes from the ancient Greeks, who said it was milk from cows, with each star a cow, though the story was later changed to milk spilled by the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, as she suckled Heracles.  The confusion probably came from the ancient Egyptians, for whom the Milky Way was sacred cow’s milk of Hathor, a goddess who was often represented as a woman with a cow horn headdress, or a sacred cow.  (See earlier post “The Eye in the Hand” for more on Hathor and Tanit.)

For the East Asians, it was the Silvery River of Heaven. For Finns, the Pathway of the Birds.  For Hungarians, the Warriors’ Road.  For many cultures, including the Maya, the dark rift within the white band was considered the Black Road, the Pathway of the Dead.

Linda Schele and other prominent Mayanists have held that for the ancient Maya, the movement of the Milky Way in the night sky repeated their creation story.  When it is vertical, it is the World Tree, first used by the creator gods to lift up the sky and separate it from the water.  (See the dramatic Milky Way photo by Dyer.)  As the night goes on, and a different section of the Milky Way becomes visible, the shape is interpreted as the Crocodile Tree, where the World Tree grows out of a crocodile’s back, and again later, when the Milky Way stretches horizontally across the sky, it is seen as the Celestial Canoe that carries the Paddler gods to the place of Creation, near Orion, where they set the first stone.  The placing of the hearthstones and the lighting of the first fire began our time, the fourth age.



The Dark Patches

The Australian Aboriginal peoples see their creation stories in the Milky Way as well, but they deal more with the black areas of the Milky Way, what astronomers today refer to as dark dust clouds.  If you have a really good sky for viewing, you can see these dark areas quite clearly.  (In the stunning photo by John Gleason, you can understand how people could see shapes in the dark sections.)

According to Bill Yidumduma Harney, his Wardaman people see all their creation figures in the Milky Way.  Even more, the important sites for viewing specific moments echo in the landscape the position of the important stars in the sky.  At those special places, when the sky is in perfect harmony with the land, the Wardaman feel the sky is alive and star beings can easily go from one world to another.   Note the carving of the emu on the rock that coincides with its appearance in the sky.

(For a complete though not easy explanation of Wardaman cosmology as expressed in the night sky, see Dark Sparklers by Hugh Cairns and Bill Yidumdum Harney.)

The night sky – The World Tree, The Crocodile, The Emu, The Dolphin, The Paddler Gods, The Seat of Creation, The Birthplace of the Stars, The River of the Dead, The Black Dreaming Place, The Warrior Road, The Pathway of Birds – is still there, waiting to amaze you, to fill you with wonder.  Find a dark spot on a clear night and let it become part of your world.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Creation, Cosmos, and the Imagery of Palenque and Copan,” by Linda Schele and Khristaan D. Villela, University of Texas, Austin

Maya Cosmology, www.authenticmaya.com/maya_cosmology

“2012 and the Milky Way Tree,” by Brian Keats, October 2009

A Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, by Lynn V. Foster

“Beautiful Milky Way Photography,” in Paulo Gabriel’s blog, abduzeed.com

Professor Gene Smith’s Astronomu Tutorial: The Sturcture of the Milky Way,” University of California, San Diego, casswwwu.ucsd.edu

Tony Garone’s simulations of Maya Creation story superimposed on star maps, www.garone.net/maya

Patrick’s Photoblog, vignetted.com

Observatorio ARVAL, oarval.org