Musical Stones

When I was hiking on Exuma Cay in the Bahamas, I came across a number of flat stones marked with chalk circles.  On top, inviting the passer-by to experiment, were two oblong striker stones.  The flat stones were musical.  The chalk circles marked the best places to hit the stones for clear tones covering most of a scale.  This is exactly what ancient people found – unexpected musical stones.  Except where I found them entertaining, they found them endowed with magical power.

Ringing Stones

Tanzania has several ringing stones.  One is a free-standing stone in Serengeti National Park that’s been struck so many times it has cup-marks in different spots.  Its use by the native people is unclear though it might have part of rain-making ceremonies.

Discovering the cup-marks as musical place holders brings something new to the discussion of cup-marks, which are easily the oldest and most common form of rock art in the world.

music Tanzania rock, Wayne Jones

Photo by Wayne Jones

Ringing Rocks County Park, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, USA gives another interesting example. The most famous part of this park is the seven-acre field of boulders that sing. The Lenape Indians considered the area sacred, but it was acquired by the Penn family in 1737.  In 1895, Abel Haring, president of the Union National Bank, purchased the land.  Apparently he also saw some extraordinary value in the parcel; he refused an offer to sell the land to manufacturer who wanted to quarry the blocks.  Haring eventually donated the land to Bucks County.  The protected area now includes 128 acres.

Interestingly, the Lenape Indians left marks on the singing stones (See photo, right) much like those in other parts of the world.music Ringing Rocks, Lenape

Southeastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey are home to over a dozen ringing rock boulder fields.  While some have been obliterated by development, others have been carefully protected and now enjoy a community of supporters and researchers.

 

Gongs

Single stones have been used as gongs all over the world.  Usually, they are suspended and struck to make a single loud sound. Occasionally, multiple gongs are used at once, as shown in the photo from Ethiopia (below).

music Ethiopian_Lithophones_with_Stand,_Monastery_of_Na’akuto_La’ab_ by A. Davey

Lithophones

Lithophones are larger versions of exactly what I found in the Bahamas: a series of stones, either balanced on a frame or suspended from a bar, that produce specific tones when struck.  It’s the ancestor of our xylophones and marimbas.

Interestingly, many ancient sounding stone sites also include rock art images.   In 1956, archaeologist Bernard Fagg noted that rock gongs in Birnin Kudu, Nigeria also had cave paintings nearby and guessed that the two were linked in some way.  M. Catherine Fagg has continued the research at many sites world-wide.

In Azerbaijan, the caves of Gobustan include a rock which emits a deep resonating sound when struck.  Rock art images in the cave depict dancers.

India has many ancient sites that include ringing stones.  In Sangana-Kupgal, hundreds of petroglypmusic Kupgal 2hs decorate ringing rocks.  When the rocks are struck near the carvings, the stones emit a loud, musical tone.  (See photos, left and below)music Kupgal

 

Some of the bigest lithophones come from VietNam, where the instrument still enjoys considerable popularity.   In 1949, a French archaeologist named Georges Condominas came across a set of 11 tuned rocks, which he took to be very old, in the central highlands where the M’nong people, originally from Malaysia, lived.  Condominas took the stones back to France, and they now live in the Musee de l’homme in Paris.

Vietnamese lithophone

As it turns out, the area is rich in lithophones, and their popularity has spread throughout the country.  You can now listen to quite lively and tuneful performances.  My favorite is on YouTube, at     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCHno2kftVU.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge photo by Angeles Mosquera

Photo by Angeles Mosquera

Perhaps the largest and most famous lithophone of all is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.  According to recent research, about five thousand years ago people moved the giant bluestones, weighing about four tons each, at least 140 miles from a site in Wales to their current home on Salisbury Plain.  We have little information about these people, their reason for undertaking this Herculean task, or their plans for the stones once they’d reached the plain.  Most research on Stonehenge has concentrated on its astronomical features, including the stones’ alignment with the solstice.  However Stonehenge may well have been more than a visual wonder.  In recent experiments, British archaeologists found the stones have a distinct ring, not thud, when hit with a hammerstone, and that each stone has a different tone.  They described the sounds as something like wooden or metal bells, which brings up the idea of church bells and all of their different functions in an area.  Indeed, the Welsh village of Maenclochog (translated as Stone Bells) used Bluestones as church bells up until the 1700’s.  Marks on the Stonehenge bluestones indicate they were struck repeatedly, though we do not know the reason.

Dr. Rupert Till, an archaeoacoustics expert, maintained that based on his experiments, Stonehenge would have had extraordinary acoustics that included overlapping echoes.  He suggests listeners could have achieved a trance state by listening to music played within the circle.

Stalactites and Stalagmites

Some cave formations are also emit sounds when struck.  Their location within a cave serves to amplify the sound.  The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (USA) is a perfect example.  As early as 1878, the musical properties of the stalactites in Luray Caverns were well known.  Guides played folk tunes on the stalactites to the delight of visitors.  The 1906 postcard from Luray Cavers shows people playing the stalactites with hammers.

music Organ_and_Chimes_-_Caverns_of_Luray_Va_1906_postcard

The resemblance of a row of 37 tonal stalactites to a pipe organ inspired Leland W. Sprinkle to build the Great Stalactite Organ in 1955, which now uses a keyboard and a series of rubber mallets that strike the stalactites.  While this is certainly a commercial venture, it’s a modern reflection of the same awe the ancient people must have felt when they heard the amazing sounds.  It’s worth listening to one of many YouTube recordings of the organ being played in the cave. A recording of “Moonlight Sonata” is included in the reading list.

Echoes

Perhaps because ancient people did not understand sound the same way we do, they attributed special powers to the stones themselves.  Some singing stones gave voice to the spirits or the ancestors.  The most powerful of these were the places where spirits spoke back through echoes.  Sound-reflecting surfaces were often viewed as animate beings or as abodes of spirits.

Echo singing

In some cases, magic singing, which is singing with the echoes, was practiced, a skill which indicated a supernatural power.  This practice was carried over into medieval churches, where echoes were explained as accompaniment by a choir of angels.

The sound of water and rock

Ancient people often viewed boundary sites as especially powerful.

music Glosa rock art, Finland

In Finland, rock art has often been associated with water features. (See photo, above)  Antii Lahelma, Finnish rock art expert, has noted in her paper “Hearing and Touching Rock art: Finnish rock paintings and the non-visual” that most of the rock paintings she’s studied were associated with ancient water courses.  She claims the rock art images are more than visual, that they celebrate the meeting of worlds, the sound of water on rock.  They need to be touched and heard as well as seen.

In Alta Vista, Mexico, Tecoxquin people still visit ancient petroglyph sites as water’s edge to leave offerings. Note the petroglyph on the rock on the left.

music rock art Mexico

 

We are limited in our understanding of ancient sites by our tendency to put perception in rather clearly limited boxes.  It’s art or it’s music or it’s religion.  Increasingly, what we’re finding is a world that encompassed all of those things seamlessly.

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Indians made ‘rock music,’ BBC News. 19 March 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3520384.stm

Amos, Jonathan.  “Stonehenge design was ‘inspired by sounds’” BBC News, 5 March 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-17073206

Fagg, M. Catherine.  Rock Music.  Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1997.

“The Great Stalacpipe Organ,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Stalacpipe_Organ

“The Great Stalacpipe Organ: Moonlight Sonata” (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsKUUn29tSs

“Historical,” from Lithophones.com, a comprehensive list of countries with known musical stones.  http://www.lithophones.com/index/php?id=2

Keating, Fiona. “Scientists recreate ancient ‘xylophone’ made of prehistoric stones,” IB Times, 15 March 2014, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/scientists-recreate-ancient-xylophone-made-prehistoric-stones-1440455

“Kupgal petroglyphs,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kupgal_petroglyphs

“La Pietra Sonante,” Pietro Pirelli, musician (video).  Powerful ringing sound! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5Q5bW3bYMM

Lahelma, Antii.  “Hearing and Touching Rock Art: Finnish rock paintings and the non-visual,” Academia. http://www.academia.edu/2371980/hearing_and_touching_rock_art_ Finnish_rock_paintings_and_the_non-visual/  A very interesting paper.

LeRoux, Mariette and Laurent Banguet, “Cavemen’s ‘rock’ music makes a comeback,” The Telegraph, 17 March 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/10702186/Cavemens-rock-music-makes-a-comeback.html

“Litofonos.” Piedras que hablan…con musica.  (video) www.youtube.com/watch?v+qY1L–irW70

“Musical Stone, Namibia,” http://www.namibian.org/travel/archaeology/musical-stone.html

“A Mystifying Experience: The Alta Vista Petroglyphs,” A Gypsy’s Love blog, agypsyslove.com/2001/07 – photo of Alta Vista glyphs

“Ringing Rocks,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringing_rocks

“Ringing Rocks: A Geological and Musical Marvel,” It’s Not that Far: Great places to see and things to do near Eastern Pennsylvania, 10 September 2010, http://www.itsnothtatfar.com/2010/09/ringing-rocks/

“Rock gong,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_gong

Schultz, Colin.  “Stonehenge’s Stones Can Sing,” Smithsonian.com.  10 March 2014.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news-stonehenges-stones-can-sing-180950034/?no-ist

“A short introduction to musical stone,” from Lithophones.com.  http://www.lithophones.com/index/php?id=45

“The Sky at Night,” BBC 2-minute video about drums at a model of Stonehenge, 5 July 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01ccpsp

“Swakop River, Namibia (video – a little windy but interesting) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrlPxT4MS8.

Tellinger, Michael.  “Stone Xylophone.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aG-e7zGq3Y

Tellinger, Michael.  “Stones that ring like bells.”   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uX2P8utjk3A

Waller, Steven J.  “Archaeoacoustics: A Key Role of Echoes at Utah Rock Art Sites,” Utah Rock Art, Volume 24

Waller, Steven J. “Rock Art Acoustics” – a very extensive collection of information about sites and research.  https://sites.google.com/site/rockartacoustics/

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.

Print

el_castillo_sketched

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.

el_castillo_sketched

 

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.

 

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.

 

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

History

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

chauvethyenaandpanther2sm

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?

Doodling

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.

Neanderthals?

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.

Trance

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.

Competition

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.

Conclusions

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.

Teotihuacan Discoveries

 

Teotihaucan maskBig news in the archaeology world: In 2003, torrential rains exposed the mouth of a previously unknown tunnel near the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, in central Mexico.  Feathered Serpent excavation

Now, more than a decade later, researchers have reached the end of the 340’ (103m) tunnel (illustration) that runs about 60’ below the Temple. Finds from the tunnel (including the figure shown in the photo, left) include engraved conch shells, amber fragments, mirrors, greenstone statues, earspools, seeds, worked stone, beads, bones of animals and humans, mysterious clay spheres coated with a yellow mineral – over 50,000 pieces in all.  The photo (below) shows the outside of the structure.   A section added around 400 AD obscures the original façade (photo) featuring the feathered serpents that gave the structure its name.  Archaeologists debate the significance of the figures.  One set seems to be a realistic serpent while the other is a more blocky stylized creature sometimes identified at Tlaloc, the storm god.  However, Karl Taube, Mary Ellen Miller, and Michael Coe have said it is more likely a “war serpent” or “fire serpent.”  At one time, the circles were filled with obsidian pieces that would have caught the sunlight.

Teo feathered serpent  Teotihuacan Facade_of_the_Temple_of_the_Feathered_Serpent

Many people label the new finds in the tunnel under the temple extravagant, gruesome, mysterious.  Yet, when viewed next to earlier finds from Teotihuacan and those of other cities in the area, the new discoveries seem very consistent.  It’s their purpose that remains a mystery.

 

What is Teotihuacan?

Teotihuacan, Maya, Olmec, Mixtec

Teotihuacan is a world-famous archaeological site north of Mexico City, known for its massive pyramids, its precise layout, and the mystery surrounding its birth, its death, and a lot of what happened in between. We don’t know exactly who started this city around 150 BC, why these people embarked on an almost constant monumental building effort from 150 BC to around 250 AD, or what led to the sacking and burning of the city around 550 AD.

Teotihuacan View_from_Pyramide_de_la_luna

 

Adding to the mystery is the lack of any written records. Either the people who burned the city also burned any written materials, or there simply weren’t any. It’s hard to imagine people designing and building such precise, massive structures without a written record, but none have appeared so far in the excavations.

 

At its height, the city center covered 19 square miles (32 square kilometers) and served a population of 25,000 to 150,000, depending on what source you read, making it the largest city in the Western Hemisphere at the time. Its military power and cultural influence spread throughout central Mexico, out into the Yucatan Peninsula and down into Guatemala.

On the other hand, Teotihuacan also borrowed from earlier and contemporary cultures in Mexico, especially the Olmec, Maya, and Mixtec. The very deliberate, celestially aligned design of earlier Olmec cities like La Venta and Tres Zapotes, with clusters of mounds and central plazas, found its greatest expression in Teotihuacan.

Olmec mask

Olmec masks like the one in the photo (left) provided inspiration for the artisans of Teotihuacan.  The one shown in the photo (right) came from the newly excavated tunnel under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Teotihuacan mask  Olmec greenstone masks and figures were a few of many cultural features absorbed into the Teotihuacan culture.

Maya and Mixtec cosmology from contemporary cities also found its way into Teotihuacan culture, as did the value placed on items like fine ceramics and greenstone.

 

 

But whatever earlier cities contributed to Teotihuacan, the Teotihuacanos exaggerated. Pyramids became gigantic. The Pyramid of the Sun, (photo, below) the most massive building on the site, stands 233.6’ (71.2 m) tall, and 733.2’ (223.5 m) long and wide, a huge, commanding construction even today. With its decorative plaster coating and top-most temple long gone, it now has the severe look of a multi-national corporate headquarters, a symbol of complete, collective, threatening, and unemotional power.

Pyramid of the Sun

The whole site was so impressive to the Aztecs who moved into the area 600 years after Teotihuacan was abandoned that they considered it a holy place, a place where gods walked. Even the Spanish conquistadors didn’t destroy it. Its major damage has come from looters, both private and institutional, and from the ravages of time.

 

Spiritual Beliefs

Murals painted in upper class Teotihuacan living areas have provided important clues about the people’s spiritual beliefs, especially veneration of a figure often called the Great Goddess, who is associated with the sacred mountain visible from the site, called Cerro Gordo (Fat Mountain), as well as water flowing from the mountain, rivers and rain, fertility and new growth.

Teotihuacan-Great_Goddess

In the mural shown, the central figure (and the only one shown in the frontal view reserved for deities) has a bird face/mask with a strange mouth that might represent an owl or a spider. Out of the green feather headdress a twisting plant grows – perhaps a hallucinogenic morning glory vine. Circles (sometimes interpreted as mirrors), spiders and butterflies decorate the vine. Flowers sprout from its tips. Birds appear, some with sound scrolls, which probably indicate songs. From the figure’s outstretched hands, drops of water fall. Her torso splits into curling rolls filled with flowers and plants. From the bottom, under an arch of stars, seeds fall toward the border, which is a series of waves carrying stars and underwater creatures.

The figures shown in profile on the right and left of the Great Goddess carry what look like medicine bundles/offerings in one hand. From their other hand water emerges, as well as a cascade of seeds and circles. The entire background is a deep blood red.  Karl Taube has related the circles to mirrors that appear in the creation story in which the sun shoots an arrow into the house of mirrors.  The serpent, then released, fertilizes the earth.  Thus, he argues, the serpent appears on the façade of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent surrounded by a headdress of mirrors.

Teotihuacan Tepantitla_Mountain_Stream_mura

The panel below the picture of the Great Goddess shows bands of water emerging from a mountain around which red, blue, and yellow human figures swim, interact (sing? dance?) and float among butterflies while plants sprout along a snake-like band of water. Interestingly, for a city known for its militarism and bloody sacrifices, the scene looks idyllic.

Some experts suggest that the Great Goddess figure was borrowed from the earlier Olmec figure recorded in a petroglyph at Chalcatzingo that shows a woman seated in a cave from which water flows. Outside the cave, maize plants sprout as male rain falls. (Photo, left; illustration, right)

Chalcatzingo petroglyph   Chalcatzingo_Monument drawing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Others point to the Maya water deity Ixchel, the goddess of the moon, rain, surface waters, weaving and childbirth, sometimes called the Midwife of Creation. (shown as a young woman in the illustration).

Maya Ixchel MaidenIn her role as Mother Goddess and weaver, she set the universe in motion through the movement of her drop spindle. She was also called the Spider’s Web because she caught the morning dew in her web and made the drops into stars. However, she had two sides: the young woman and the old crone. She was both healer and destroyer, bringing about the destruction of the third creation through a terrible flood and then helping to birth the new age.

Of course, all of these interpretations have their detractors.  Karl Taube interprets the entire site as an exaltation of sacred war. He says the circles found in the caches are related to the mirrors worn by warriors as well as to the house of mirrors  from which the creator serpent originated in the creation story. The bodies found in the offertory caches might be captive warriors. His theory,  however, doesn’t explain the significance of the murals.

Aztec water goddess ChalciuhtlicueInterestingly, the later Aztec water goddess Chalchiuhtilicue, who presides over running water and aids in childbirth, shares many features with the figure in the Teotihuacan murals painted hundreds of years earlier.  (The figure in the photo is from the Codex Borbonicus.)

 

New Finds

So back to the amazing new discoveries –

The excavated section of the newly excavated tunnel under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent has 18 walls scattered throughout the length of the tunnel in a zigzag pattern, which archaeologists believe were used to seal off the tunnel on previous occasions. So this same route had been used many times before for some purpose, yet this was the last time. After this offering was placed, the tunnel was purposely filled and sealed.

Teotihuacan tunnel

Gomez feels going down the tunnel and leaving offerings probably had a ritual purpose. The original city was built over a four-chambered lava tube cave. In Mesoamerican cultures, caves were considered portals to the Underworld and the places of emergence at the time of creation. Perhaps, Gomez said, the trip into the tunnel provided the ritual power needed for a new leader. (Photo shows recent discovers in the tunnel, including greenstone figures in the foreground, dozens of conch shells, and plain pottery.  Lower left is a close-up of the two figures in the background; lower right is a close-up of the shells and pots.)

Greenstone figurinesConch shells and pots

Or the trip into the tunnel could have been a pilgrimage, a way to make contact with powerful spirit forces. Following the pattern evident in so many religious rituals around the world, the supplicant may have offered sacrifices in order to recognize the gods’ power and to seek their help.

 

A Survey of Discoveries

Back in 1982 and 1989, mass graves were found under and near the same Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The sites, dated to the period the temple was constructed, about 150 AD, included 137 people who’d been sacrificed with their hands tied behind their backs. They were accompanied by cut and engraved shells from the Gulf Coast (150 miles away), obsidian blades, slate disks, mirrors, ear spools, and a greenstone figurine with pyrite eyes. A hundred years later, people left very similar offerings in the tunnel.

In 1999, a burial site was discovered within the Pyramid of the Moon. That site yielded 150 burial offerings, including obsidian blades and points, greenstone figures, pyrite mirrors, conch and other shells, and the remains of eight birds of prey and two jaguars. Again, these are very similar offerings.

The male buried in the tomb under the Pyramid of the Moon was bound and executed, which seems to make it a sacrifice rather than a memorial. All of the human bodies found so far have been sacrificed. Some were decapitated, some had their hearts removed, others were bludgeoned to death. Some wore necklaces of human teeth. Sacred animals were also sacrificed: jaguars, eagles, falcons, owls, even snakes.

The 2014 discoveries, like the others, have been extravagant and gruesome. Some of the precious objects discovered in the tunnel include arrowheads, obsidian, amber, four large greenstone statues, pottery, dozens of conch shells, a wooden box of shells, animal bones and hair, skin, dozens of plain pottery jars, 15,000 seeds, 4,000 wooden objects, rubber balls, pyrite mirrors, crystal spheres, jaguar remains, even clay balls covered in yellow pigment (shown in photo).  And some came quite a distance – conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico, jade from Guatemala, rubber balls from Olmec or Maya sites.

Teotihuacan yellow orbs

While this team, like the earlier ones, hopes to find a royal burial, as of this moment, they haven’t. So far, this too seems to be an offertory cache. The difference is that this moment doesn’t mark the building of a new pyramid; it marks the effective end of construction. Some event required this extravagant offering. While some think this cache might be the remains of a huge feast marking a great funerary and sacrificial ceremony, a tunnel 60’ underground seems an odd place for a celebration.

The timing suggests the event was more than the death of an old ruler or the ascension of a new ruler who needed the spiritual trappings of leadership. It looks as if the city faced a crisis – perhaps weather changes, disease, internal strife, or some other threat. At this critical point, they might have turned to the Great Goddess, the one responsible for life and death and new life, to help revive the old strength that defined Teotihuacan. Indeed, the murals featuring the Great Goddess as the provider of joyful, abundant life were painted about the same time.

According to Mary Ellen Miller’s book The Art of Mesoamerica, “Constant rain and water crises at Teotihuacan exacerbated the difficulty of building and maintaining the city. The preparation of lime for mortar and stucco requires vast amounts of firewood to burn limestone or seashells, and the more Teotihuacan grew, the more the surrounding forests were depleted. With deforestation came soil erosion, drought, and crop failure. In response, Teotihuacan may have erected ever more temples and finished more paintings thus perpetuating the cycle.”

Whether this environmental degradation from both drought and flood was the crisis that precipitated the offering or only part of it, we don’t know. However, if crops failed, the power structure would soon fail as well.

A Similar Case

In 1200 AD, a terrible drought in what is now Arkansas (USA) drove people to bring their precious stone pipes, engraved shell cups, stone maces, projectile points, and colorful woven tapestries to the site of a new mound to be constructed. They chanted and sang and danced and said prayers after they built high walls and a domed roof around the offering chamber. “They gathered at Spiro,” George Sabo, director of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey said, “brought sacred materials, and arranged them in a very specific way in order to perform a ritual intended to reboot the world.”

Perhaps that’s also what the Teotihuacanos tried to do.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Archaeologists Make Incredible Discoveries in Tunnel Sealed 2000 Years Ago,” Huffington Post, 30 October 2014, http://huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/30/mexico-archaeologists-tunnel

Castillo, Edward. “Mexico Archaeologists Explore Teotihuacan Tunnel.” Sci-Tech Today, 3 November 2014, http://www.sci-tech-today.com/story.xhtml?story_id=010000ZQKM7K

Dvorsky, George. “Incredible New Artifact Found in 2,000 Year-Old Mexican Tunnel,” http://archaeOre.kinja.com

“Façade of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Teotihuacan),”  Wikipedia.com

“Great Goddess of Teotihuacan,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Goddess_of_Teotihuacan

Hearn, Kelly, “Who Built the Great City of Teotihuacan?” National Geographic, 1996-2014, http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/teotihuacan-/

“Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Mexico, 1 – 500 AD” and “Teotihuacan: Mural Painting,” 2000 – 2014, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/

“In Pictures: Relics discovered in Mexico’s Teotihuacan,” BBC News: Latin American and Caribbean, 28 October 2014 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-29828309

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

John Cabot University, Rome, “The Art of Teotihuacan,” AH 142 class materials, http://ah142group2.blogspot.com/

Lunday, Elizabeth, “Rethinking Spiro Mounds,” American Archaeology, Fall 2014, 26-32.

Lorenzi, Loretta. “Robot Finds Mysterious Spheres in Ancient Temple,” Discovery News, http://new.discovery.com/history/archaeology/mysterious-spheres

Meyer, Karl E. Teotihuacan. New York: Newsweek Book Division, 1973.

Miller, Mary. The Art of Mesoamerica, from Olmec to Aztec. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1983.

Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) Proyecto Tlalocan, photos.

Noel, Andrea. “Thousands of Precious Objects Unearthed in Ancient Mexican City of Teotihuacan,” https://news.vice.com/article/thousands-of-precious-objects-unearthed/

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omec#Trade (an excellent article!)

“Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan,” United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Heritage Convention, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/414

“Pyramid of the Sun,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_of_the_Sun

“Robot Uncovers Ancient Burial Chamber beneath Teotihuacan Temple,” Huffington Post, 28 April 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/28/robot-teotihuacan-temple

Schuster, Angela M. H. “New Tomb at Teotihuacan, Archaeology, 4 December 1998, http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/mexico

Taube, Karl A. “The Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Cult of Sacred War,” latinamericanstudies.org/Teotihuacan/Temple

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

“Teotihuacan Great Goddess,” (photo) Wikipedia, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons

Tepantitla Murals, including the Great Goddess panel and the Mountain Stream panel, from Wikipedia Commons, http://upland.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/Tepantitla

Vance, Eric. “New Artifact-Filled Chambers Revealed under Teotihuacan,” Scientific American, October 2014, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-artifact-filled-chambers-revealed

“Wagner Murals,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wagner_Murals

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Solstice and Equinox

Up here in the Great Lakes region, spring arrives, at least according to the calendar, on March 20 this year.  More specifically, the vernal equinox arrives (autumnal to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere).  Few people today care about this celestial event, but ancient people cared very deeply, so deeply they traced the exact moment it happened by marking it in stone.

You can follow it too.  All you need to do is look at the rising run each day from a fixed point.  Note where the sun rises.  If there is a building in the way, note where the sun rises in relation to the building.  If it’s a hill or a tree, note that position.  As the days go by, you’ll see the spot where the sun rises change.  If you keep track, you’ll see the rising sun location follows a certain path along the eastern horizon.   Then one day you’ll see the rising sun stop its forward motion.  That moment when the sun seems to stop and change direction is a solstice (sol = sun, stice = stop), a sun-stop.

If you keep following the sunrises, you’ll see a progression back along the same path on the horizon until it once again seems to stop.  That’s the other solstice.

sunrise-by-season

If you followed the sunsets each of these days, you’d find an equal swing from north to south and back again.  Burlington, Vermont erected an “Earth Clock,” a modern answer to the ancient circles of stones.  They’ve even provided blueprints for other communities that would like to build their own “henge.”  The University of Massachusetts created a “Sunwheel” that marks the solstices, equinoxes, and moon cycles (diagram).

University of Massachusetts sunwheel diagram

While the far points mark the solstices, the mid-points in these swings are the equinoxes (equi =same, nox = night), where the length of the day and night are the same.  In the northern hemisphere, we  will have the spring equinox around March 21, the summer solstice around June 21, the fall equinox around September 22, and the winter solstice around December 21.

Many ancient structurMound 72 woodhenge at Cahokiaes celebrate exactly this cycle.  Stonehenge and many other circles of standing stones or wooden posts, like the woodhenge at Cahokia Mounds in the photo, are aligned to mark the solstice points.

 

The Maya E-group, a common architectural feature in Lowland Maya sites, is believed to mark both the solstice points and the equinoxes  (See diagram).

solstice Sharer-E-Group

Unlike modern people, who see the celestial events as mechanical, predictable, and fairly unimportant, ancient people saw them as terribly important parts of their lives.  The changes in the heavens caused the changes on earth: the end of winter, the coming of spring, the rebirth of nature.  But without human help, the motion of the heavens could cease or change, causing ruin and death for all the beings on earth.   Important changes, such as the solstices and equinoxes, required recognition and participation, often in the form of rituals and sacrifice.

While we don’t usually sacrifice humans or animals to ensure the change of the season anymore, we often engage in ritual behavior associated with important holidays that fall on or near the solstices and equinox.

Vernal Equinox – in North America, March 20, 2014

During the vernal equinox, the sun shines directly on the Equator, and the day and night are equal length (12 hours each). It falls on the mid-point of the swing between the equinoxes.

The Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of the New Year in many cultures.  Traditionally, spring is associated with rebirth and fertility, often symbolized by the egg and the rabbit.  Modern versions include the Easter Bunny, which (curiously) lays eggs and leaves candy for children.

The Maya pyramid called El Castillo at Chichen Itza (photo) is famous for the Snake of Sunlight that courses along the stairway on the Vernal Equinox.  Excellent videos of the event are available on YouTube. Scholars have debated why it was so important for the Maya and other ancient people to mark this moment – to celebrate it in their monuments. 
 Some say the people needed to know when to plant and harvest, but they would have known that from many signs, just as you would know the change of season froElCastillo, Chichen Itzam your immediate environment.  Around here, you could see skunk cabbage pushing up through the last snow, red-wing blackbirds returning, hear wood frogs singing.  Your dirt road would turn into a mass of ice and mud.  Your dog would shed.  You wouldn’t need a stone monument to tell you spring was happening.   But if you believed that you needed to help spring arrive, a large, impressive monument would be very important as a focal point for the ritual of bringing in the change.

Easter, the Christian feast celebrating the triumph of Jesus Christ over death, falls on a date determined by the Vernal Equinox, specifically the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.

The Summer Solstice in North America, June 21, 2014

The June Solstice is one of the two sun-stops in the path of the sunrises (and sunsets).  In the Northern Hemisphere, it marks the longest day of the year; in the Southern Hemisphere, the shortest.  Festivals in Scandinavia celebrate the day of endless light, the Midnight Sun.  Ancient Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic people celebrated with wild parties and bonfires. In ancient China, it was the festival of the Earth and female/yin forces.  For the ancient Greeks, it marked the first day of the year.

Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

The Medicine Wheel (photo), set high on a mountain in Wyoming, is designed to mark the Summer Solstice.  Built around 1200, it is still considered a sacred site by American Indians in the area.  The photo shows the sunset on the longest day of the year.  Many researchers feel this was one of several installations in the area, each of which marked one particular moment in the turning of the year.

 

Stonehenge, the great circle of standing stones in England, has become a popular gathering place for people celebrating the Summer Solstice, though the site may have had many purposes, including honoring the dead during the Winter Solstice.  Over sixty cremated remains were discovered inside the inner circle.  The giant stone trilithon frames the Midwinter solstice sunset.

However, the revelers are not wrong in choosing this spot to mark the June solstice.  Archaeologist Parker Pearson, who has been working at the site, pointed out the avenue, discovered in 2008, that leads out of Stonehenge, built over a natural rock ledge.  Next to this ledge, pits were dug 10,000 years ago to hold a line of posts.  This feature, at least 4,000 years older than the familiar circle of giant stones, points directly to the spot where the sun rises on the midsummer solstice.Stonehenge

Celebrations at Stonehenge may also have been musical affairs.  The bluestone used to construct the famous henge makes loud and varied sounds, like gongs, bells, and drums, when struck, an early rock concert, if you will.  Some researchers believe these sonic qualities were one of the reasons ancient people dragged the giant stones 200 miles from Wales to Stonehenge. Researchers say the sounds could have been heard half a mile away.

Autumnal Equinox in North America, September 22, 2014

The September Equinox falls at the same midpoint as the April Equinox – the halfway point in the sun’s path across the horizon at the moment it rises.  Like the Vernal (spring) Equinox, the day and night are the same length.sun dagger stone, Chaco

The famous Sun Dagger on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built at least 1000 years ago, provided a different way to mark the solstices and equinoxes.  In 1977, an artist recording rock art in the area noticed three rock slabs leaning against a cliff.  Whether they were placed exactly there or someone noticed them there is not known.  But researchers soon realized that the spirals carved on the cliff face were very carefully placed to take advantage of the shafts of light falling between the stones.  At the summer solstice, sunlight passing between the rock slabs would fall directly across the center of the larger spiral.  During the Equinoxes, the dagger would fall between the center of the spiral and the edge.  At the Winter Solstice, two daggers would appear, one on each edge of the large spiral.  Unfortunately, visitors to the site caused some damage and the site is now closed to the public.

Harvest festivals are common around the Equinox.

The Winter Solstice, December 21, 2014

By far the most dangerous of the events in the sun cycle was the shortest day of the year, a time when darkness far outweighed light.  Ancient people feared the light would not return.  To ensure it did, they kept careful vigil, especially on the night of the winter solstice and the following day.  The passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, built more than 5,000 years ago, features a special roofbox opening that allows light to shine along the inner passage at sunrise on morning of the Winter Solstice.  The light illuminates a stone basin below intricate carved spirals, eye shapes, and disks. The photo shows how the site looked in 1905.  It’s now a very popular tourist site.

Newgrange, 1905 photo

Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland, has a roofbox that admits a shaft of light from the Winter Solstice setting sun.

The Great Zimbabwe complex in sub-Saharan Africa may have served a similar purpose.  Other sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East may have also marked this important day.  In Iran, people observed Yalda by keeping vigil through the night and burning fires to help the sun battle the darkness.

We still want to light up the darkness, even if we’ve forgotten about the solstice.  We still celebrate the passing of the sun on its yearly course, but those celebrations are now submerged into our holidays: Easter, Christmas, Halloween, even Groundhog Day.  Because Groundhog Day falls halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, we’ll always have six more weeks of winter, but the groundhog gives us a reason to party.

Happy Vernal Equinox!

Sources and interesting reading:

“Chart of 2014 equinox, solstice and cross quarter dates and times,” archaeoastronomy.com, http://www.archaeoastronomy.com/2014.html

“Chichen Itza Pyramid, the descent of the feathered serpent” (video) YouTube

“Customs and Holidays around the March Equinox” timeanddate.com, tyyp://wwwtimeanddate.com/calendar/march-equinox-traditions.html

“EarthClock measures hours, months, solstices and equinoxes,” Freethought Nation, July 29, 2011, http://freethoughtnation.com/earth-clock-measures-hours&#8230;

“Fajada Butte,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fajada_Butte

Griffiths, Sarah, and Amanda Williams, “Stonehenge was a prehistoric centre for rock music: Stones sound like bells, drums, and gongs when played,” Mail Online, Daily Mail (UK), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2515159/Why-Stonehenge-prehistoric-cent…

Hirst, K.Kris. “E-Group: Ancient Maya Building Complex,” About.com Archaeology, http://archaeology.about.com/od/mayaarchaeology/qt/E-Group.htm

“Huge Settlement Unearthed at Stonehenge Complex,” Science Daily, http://sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070130191755.htm

“June Solstice’s Influence Across Cultures and Ages,” timeanddate.com, http://www.timeanddate/com/calendar/june-solstice-customs.html

“March Equinox: March 20, 2014,” timeanddate.com, http://www.timeanddate.comcalendar/march-equinox.html

“Newgrange,” Wikipedia http://ed.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newgrange

Odenwalk, Dr. Sten, “Ancient Astronomical Alignments,” Sun-Earth Day 2010: Ancient Mysteries, Future Discoveries, NASA, Godard Space Flight Center, http://sunearthday.nasa.gov/2011/articles

“Rock Art and Ancient Solar Energy,” Stanford Solar Center, http://solar-center.stanford.edu/folklore/rockart.html

“September Equinox Customs and Holidays,” timeanddate.com, http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/september-equinox-customs.html\

“Stonehenge Revealed: Why Stones Were a ‘Special Place’” National Geographic Daily News, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130621

“Summer Solstice Traditions, History.com, June 18, 2013, http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/summer-solstice-traditions

“Winter Solstice – December 21,” http:www.crystalinks.com/wintersolstice.html

Young, Dr. Judith S., Department of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “Moon teachings for the masses at the UMass Sunwheel and around the world: the major lunar standstills of 2006 and 2014-25,” http://www.umass.edu/sunwheel/pages/moonteaching.html

Chickens, Sweet Potatoes, and Polynesians in Brazil

Map of Pacific Ocean When Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian explorer and botanist, went to the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva for his honeymoon in 1936, he was fascinated by the indigenous people’s legends that told of their ancestors arriving across the sea from the east.  The only land east of there was South America.  He also noted that island plants such as papaya, breadfruit, pineapple, sweet potato, pumpkin, and wild cotton were native to South America.  Early European explorers noted these plants already growing in the Polynesian islands when they arrived, so Heyerdahl saw their presence as evidence that ancient seafaring people had come from South America to Polynesia, probably floating with the current.  

When scholars refused to take his theory seriously, Heyerdahl had a 45’ long boat made of balsa logs and other native materials, which he named Kon-Tiki, built in Peru.  Boating “experts” all agreed that it would sink within a week.  Yet, 100 days later, on August 7, 1947, Kon-Tiki landed on Raroia Atoll in the South Pacific.  It had covered 4300 miles of open water.
Kon-Tiki crew

Based on this voyage and excavations he made on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), he concluded that people from an ancient advanced civilization from South America had traveled west across the ocean to the South Pacific islands.

Later, fascinated by the common design of reed boats from Egypt and South America, he launched Ra I and later Ra II to show that travel between Africa and South America would have been very possible using reed boats.  Ra I ran into structural problems and had to be abandoned, but in 1970, Ra II made the trip from Morocco to Barbados, off the coast of South America, in 57 days.  It had covered 3,270 nautical miles.

Despite these feats, several very popular books and a movie version of the Kon-Tiki adventure, most of his theories were never taken seriously.

Ancient Mariners

However, some of his ideas  are now enjoying a long-delayed nod of appreciation.  He noted the “bird-man” figure so common in Polynesian petroglyphs was also found on Easter Island, indicating at least some form of communication between them.  Actually, DNA studies have now shown Easter Island (Rapa Nui) native inhabitants to have Polynesian origins.

Perhaps Heyerdahl’s vision was too one-sided.  He saw the people drifting from South America to Polynesia, but they may well have sailed from Polynesia to South America and back again.

Chickens, Coconuts, and Gourds

Chickens likely originated in Southeast Asia, China, or India and spread across the South Pacific with seafaring people.  Interestingly, chicken bones discovered in an archaeological site in southern Chile match 2000 year-old chicken bones found in American Samoa in the South Pacific.  According to Brendan Borrell in the journal Nature, “The discovery of chicken bones with Polynesian DNA at an archaeological site in Chile has added hard, physical evidence to the controversial theory that ancient seafarers from the South Pacific visited the New World long before Columbus.”

Coconuts

Spanish conquistadors reported coconut palms growing in South America when they arrived.  Coconuts originally came from the Philippines.

Bottle gourds

calabash or bottle gourdThe calabash, or bottle gourd, is such a handy water carrier that it spread with human migrations from Africa to Asia, Europe, and the Americas.  The earliest bottle gourd found in an archaeological site in South America is in Ecuador, dated to 9300 years ago.

All of these seem to point to ancient navigators crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to the Americas.  A possible route across the Pacific is marked on the map, indicating how people could have traveled, island-hopping across the Pacific to the west coast of South America.  The red line marks another possible water route, from Asia to northern North America.

map of South Pacific migrations

Interesting New Evidence

According to a paper published in the journal Nature, April 2013, Polynesian DNA has been found in ancient Native American bones.

Botocudo man, South American natives of eastern Brazil, historical portrait, 1875

Molecular geneticist Sergio Pena analyzed DNA from teeth in skulls of Botocudo, indigenous people who lived in southeastern Brazil until they were eradicated by the Portuguese in the 1800s in an attempt to quell dissent. (The drawing included here is a portrait of a Botocudo man made in 1875.)  Fourteen Botocudo skulls were kept in a museum in Rio de Janeiro.  To the scientists’ surprise, in two of the skulls, they found DNA indicating Polynesian ancestry.  A second lab confirmed the findings.  Pena remarked, “The most exciting potential explanation of the DNA findings is that ancestors of the Botocudo once interbred with those of Polynesians before the peopling of the Americas 15,000 – 20,000 years ago.  Prior studies of skull shapes hinted that two distinct groups entered the Americas – one more Asian type seen now in the vast majority of extant Native Americas, and an earlier type seen in skeletons in Brazil and elsewhere that resembled some African groups, Australians, Melanesians, and Polynesians such as Easter Islanders.”

Loud debate erupted as soon as the news was released.  Yet one of the most interesting parts of the discovery went unnoticed.  DNA studies, on which we currently base our models of human colonization of the Americas, were – up until this study – based almost exclusively on living people.  Thus any race that went extinct, such as the Botocudo and many others, would never be represented and their part of the story never told.  Finally we get to see one of many missing chapters with the Brazilian study.

Yet even now, many are unwilling to admit that ancient people had the seamanship and navigational skills to cross vast areas of open sea. Perhaps that will change someday.

cover of Past the Last Island

This writer is particularly pleased with the study finding Polynesian DNA in now-extinct Brazilian Indians since Past the Last Island, the second book of the Misfits and Heroes series, follows a group of South Pacific explorers 14,000 years ago who purposely choose to go past the edge of the world.  And (spoiler alert) they wind up in the New World.

It’s too bad Thor Heyerdahl, who died in 2002, didn’t live to see at least some of his theories become more widely accepted.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Adventurer Thor Heyerdahl Dies,” National Geographic News, 19 April 2002

Borrell, Brendan. “DNA reveals how the chicken crossed the sea: Ancient Polynesians may have brought birds to the Americas,” Nature 447, 620-621 (7 June 2007), published online 6 June 2007

Choi, Charles Q.  “Polynesian DNA found in ancient Native American bones,” PNAS First Look Blog,  1 April 2013 http://firstlook.pnas.org/polynesian-dna

Hirst, K. Kris. “Trans-Pacific Connections: Was there Pre-Columbian Contact between Polynesia and  America?” About.com Archaeology  http://archaeology.about.com/od.transportation/a/trans-pacific.htm

“Kon-Tiki,” The Kon-Tiki Museum: Thor Heyerdahl’s Research Foundation  http://www.kon-tiki.no/Images/NOENTY.pdf

Perkins, Sid. “DNA study links indigenous Brazilians to Polynesians: Sequences shared by far-away population stir up a Paleoamerican mystery”  Nature News, 1 April 2013. http://www.nature.com/news/dna-study-links-indigenous-brazilians-to-Polynesians

“Thor Heyerdahl”  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.

Horoscopes

Many people today are pessimistic about the future.  They listen to dire newscasts and worry about apocalyptic predictions ranging from Y2K to Armageddon to the end of the 13th baktun in the Mayan calendar.

But they’re always curious about their personal, immediate future.  That’s why the girl in love picks the petals off a daisy, muttering “He loves me.  He loves me not.  He loves me.  He loves me not,” picking off the petals one by one until she comes up with the answer. 

And they read their horoscopes.  Even folks who don’t believe in horoscopes glance at them in newspapers or magazines.  Usually, the language is as vague as the note in a fortune cookie, with a message like “Hard work and perseverance will pay big rewards.”  Still, they’re very popular.

Horoscopes have a very, very long history.  They’re based on the assumption that all parts of the natural world are connected. Specifically, you are influenced by everything around you, including the sun, moon, stars and planets.  In western astrology, your daily horoscope is based on the angles (“aspects”) of the sun, moon, and planets, as well as their placement in the sky.  Your “sign” refers to the sun’s position in the ecliptic on the day you were born.  The ecliptic is the path the sun takes across the sky over the course of a year.  If you could superimpose the sun’s path on the night sky, it would move through the twelve constellations we call the Zodiac: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.

While some people dismiss modern astrology as nonsense, it may well have been the impetus for early humans to develop advanced counting systems, directional orientation, sophisticated language, and mathematics.

The Moon

For ancient people, the heavens provided a way to understand space and time.  According to the NASA Lunar Science Institute, etched bones tracking lunar cycles date to at least 36,000 years ago (Lebombo bone found in Africa (photo), Aurignacian bone in Europe).  After the sequence of day and night, the moon cycle offered the mostly easily understood division of time. Every moon followed the same pattern, taking the same number of days to wax and wane. It was predictable in the same way as day and night. Yet each moon was also connected to a slightly different season.  It had its own name and activities.

People near the sea probably knew that the moon influenced the tides.  During the full moon or new moon, they saw the high tide was higher, the low tide lower.  During quarter phases, the tides were weaker.  And it was obvious that a woman’s menstrual cycle followed the same general timing as the moon, which is perhaps why the moon was often described as female.  Clearly, the heavens influenced what happened on earth in profound and very personal ways.

They could see that the stars too moved in a predictable fashion.  The constellations that revolved around the center of the sky were always there, while those closer to the horizon appeared at a certain season and then later disappeared off the opposite horizon.

Their appearance, disappearance, and reappearance coincided with specific seasons.  They created the calendar.

Sirius, the “Dog Star” in Canis Major

For example, the first day that Sirius, the very bright star to the lower left of Orion (shown in diagram), appeared in the pre-dawn sky in the east was considered the beginning of the year for the ancient Egyptians because it marked the time the Nile would flood, bringing its life-giving waters to the parched area.

The ancients needed to know when the Nile would flood, so they needed to be able to count the days and record the information.  This necessitated both advanced counting and consistent record-keeping, to allow them to learn that it would be about 365 days between one instance of Sirius rising, bringing the floods, and the next.  Sirius, which they called Sopdet, came to be associated with the goddess Isis, wife of Osiris and mother of Horus, the falcon-headed god.  In ancient stories, the 70-day absence of Sirius from the sky was the time Osiris spent in the Underworld after he was murdered.  As Isis wept for him, her tears flooded the Nile.  Using her magic, she was able to collect the parts of Osiris’ body and restore him to life.  Of course, the flooding of the Nile also restored life to the area, and the celebration of the death and rebirth of Osiris became linked to the pre-dawn rising of Sirius and the annual regeneration of the parched earth along the banks of the Nile.

For the ancient Greeks, the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius marked the beginning of the hot, dry summer.  Since they called it the Dog Star, they called the stifling hot days that followed its appearance the “Dog Days of summer.” They found its appearance a bad omen, bringing on strange behavior in those under the star’s influence, a condition they called “star-struck.”

For the ancient Maori, the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius marked the beginning of winter.  One term for the star, Takurua, also meant winter.

Very early on, people realized that with enough effort, this sacred union of heaven and earth that moved time in cycles could be understood.  More importantly, if humans wanted to be part of this time, they needed to participate in the drama being played out in the sky.

Venus – The Morning and Evening Star

Many ancient people believed each day was a separate entity, defined by the combination of celestial forces at work on it.   For the Maya, one of the most powerful forces was Venus, the Morning and Evening Star.  They knew this “wandering star” appeared as the Evening Star just after sunset in the west for about 263 days and then sank into the Underworld for about 8 days before being reborn in the east as the Morning Star, just before dawn.  It stayed in the east for about 263 days then sank into the Underworld for about 50 days before reappearing in the west as the Evening Star.  The whole cycle took 584 days.  Five Venus cycles equals eight solar years, or 2,920 days.

The Dresden Codex, one of the few Mayan screen-fold books to escape burning by Bishop de Landa, dedicates six pages to notations of the appearance of Venus as both Morning and Evening Star, covering five full cycles or 2920 days.

The rising of Venus as the Morning Star was a very dangerous time.  Its light could bring evil down on those who looked at it.  In addition, it was often the first day of warfare with another Maya city-state.  The original “Star Wars.”

Lunar Eclipses

The Dresden Codex also follows solar and lunar cycles through 405 lunar months, for a total of 11,959 days.  Both the lunar eclipse glyph and the solar eclipse glyph  are visible in the pages in the photo (shown).  They have a light half and a dark half, suspended from a sky band.  A k’in (day) sign is superimposed on the two halves.  In some, a serpent rises from below, mouth agape.

The tables in the Dresden Codex are extraordinary records, requiring the collective efforts of many people over a long period of time.  These astronomers followed in the foosteps of many others who had recorded their observations.  Some of the oldest human records  note celestial events.  It wasn’t idle curiosity that drove these people.  It was a desire to be active participants in the sacred world the gods established.

Harmony of the Spheres

The famous Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (580 BC) felt the sun, moon, and stars generated unique sounds that blended into what he called the Harmony of the Spheres.  This sound was echoed in all life on earth.

This idea that human and celestial time are intimately connected wasn’t limited to the ancients.  Johannes Kepler, the noted German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, explored the same concept in his treatise Harmonices Mundi (1619), in which he stated that the regular pattern of the movements of the sun and planets reflected the glory of God.  The unique combination of planets and stars at a given moment created a special harmonic vibration that was then taken up by all the creatures under their influence.  This reflected the Hermetic maxim: “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below.”  Today, however, Kepler is more likely referenced for his discovery of the Laws of Planetary Motion and his ability to predict the motion of the planets far into the future.

That’s exactly what the ancients wanted to do – to claim the future as part of their own time by extending their understanding far beyond the present.  That quest demanded a uniform method of investigation, an exact method of counting and recording, a figuring of recurrent patterns, and a desire to share accumulated knowledge.

In our disenchanted age, where too much information is the norm and most of it is suspect, the daily horoscope survives as the distant echo of the time when people knew as surely as they were breathing that the alignment of the sun, moon, stars, and planets influenced all life on earth.

Sources and interesting reading:

Michael John Finney “The Dresden Codex: Eclipse Table” and The Dresden Codex: Venus Table” www.bibliotecapleyades.net

Maya Astronomy Page  www.michielb.n/maya/venus

The Dresden Codex: The Book of Mayan Astonomy by  Vladimir Bohm www.wolny.cz/paib/dresden_codex

NASA Ames Research Center “Johannes Kepler” kepler.nasa.gov/Mission/JohannesKepler

“Isis”  and “Sirius”  Wikipedia

Will Kyselka The Hawaiian Journal of History vol. 27 (1993)