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Interpreting palaeolithic art: prehistoric approaches to the Transcendent

Michael Everson

    Abstract. Scholars of many different disciplines have attempted to interpret the “meaning” of palaeolithic art ever since such art has been known. Unfortunately, vague and ill-defined notions of “sympathetic hunting and fertility magic” continue to persist among scholars interested in this art, and continue to be taught to the layman. Independently, the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, art history, and the history of religions can only get at parts of the spectrum of meanings hidden within the art of the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic. In order to continue with the tremendous material we have to hand at present, a synthesis of the approaches of these disciplines, with a new methodology explicit in its criteria for interpretation, is essential. Taking the material culture of the Palaeolithic, and comparing it with reconstructions made of its descendant cultures, in light of what we know of universals in human spirituality, we may be able to envisage more clearly the content of palaeolithic religion as it appears to be reflected in palaeolithic art.

    “Worship”, in the Palaeolithic as elsewhere, may be taken to be an immediate personal response to the Transcendent, and palaeolithic art one of the culturally-conditioned expressions of the universal human motives of celebration, invocation, and sustained evokation of experience of the Numinous.

Introduction. Studying prehistoric religion, as one hardly needs to say, is difficult to do. The way is blocked and we are blind, for the people who could defend or deny our propositions are long since dead: so all we can really say that we understand is what we have seen for ourselves. We can never know for certain, we can never prove that we know what it was that our long-dead ancestors were doing, what they meant, or what they thought. Whatever interpretations we make are our own interpretations, and based on our own experiences, both personally and scientifically. It might be good to recognize that our interpretations of palaeolithic art and religion will tell us more about ourselves as people and as researchers than they will about the populations of prehistoric epochs.

But we should not mind this, for we have been trained in the rigours of scientific supposition and theorizing. In a word, we know how to guess. This does not mean that we must guess randomly, however; nor does it mean that our guesses must be wrong.

I imagine that scholars who study the Palaeolithic do so for many different reasons. Since I am an historian of religions, the guesses which I would make are about the vaguest part of palaeolithic life, at least from our scientific point of view. I believe that the goal of the study of prehistoric religion is no different than that of any humanistic study: to increase our understanding of ourselves by discovering and celebrating the legacy of the past as it relates to the present, and perhaps so to inform our choices as we move onward into the future. Our colleagues the economists and engineers of the world invest their time and energies in funding and building bridges for people to cross; perhaps we in the humanities will be able to offer reasons for people to cross them.

I. Is the art of the Palaeolithic religious?

We know that, broadly speaking, there are two major kinds of art in the Palaeolithic: pictures of animals and people painted and inscribed on cave walls and on objects, and figures of people and animals made out of clay and stone, antler and bone. In and of themselves such images have no meaning beyond that which their creators, and we, put upon them. The placement of the images, however, forces us to think of them as more than purely decorative. An image placed with great difficulty in the dark, inaccessible corner of the roof of a cave hundreds of metres away from its entrance can hardly be considered a work of art for art’s sake. We can compare this with the decorated kerbstones and orthostats at Knowth, a megalithic tomb-shrine complex of neolithic Ireland: while many of the stones are richly decorated, some of them have decoration which is completely inaccessible, having been buried after the decoration was applied (Eogan 1984:80-89, 172-77). Muiris O’Sullivan has suggested that this means that some of the art was meant to be seen, that its visibility was part of its raison d’être (O’Sullivan 1986:75-76) – so the meaning of the hidden decoration may have been independent of its ability to be seen or not. Indeed it is possible that the placement of art in inaccessible positions is essential in some cases to its value; or, if you will, that the energy or power or principle it is intended to represent is independent of human beings altogether. In any case I believe that we must consider the art of the Palaeolithic to be religious in nature, because it can appear in contexts which emphasize its symbolic value.

This is the view of an historian of religion. What an art historian would think of it I am not sure, because she or he is concerned with “style” and with “development” of style (that is, the elaboration of forms), and in some cases, with the “origin” of art (that is, the history of forms). Some of this is important for the student of religions: for change in forms may imply change in attitude towards the referent of the symbol itself (cf. O’Sullivan 1986:76). But I think we must take as given the notion that there is a concern in palaeolithic art with a non-mundane Referent.

II. What was the religion of the Palaeolithic like?

More than 70 years ago, Rudolf Otto suggested that religious expression in general is a human response to an experience of das ganz Andere, ‘the altogether Other’ (Otto 1971:28ff.), which we generally now call the Transcendent or the Numinous. The expression given to the apprehension of the Numinous by those who experience it is as diverse as are human cultures themselves. It is therefore difficult to characterize, though still we are able to recognize its appearance to one degree or another in every human society.

Generally speaking, the Transcendent is characterized as a Reality which is greater than what our minds, limited by the constraints of physical bodies and of time, can normally perceive. The mystics, shamans, prophets, and poets who perceive this Reality – whether to a greater or lesser degree – and relate their experience of it are those who create the great myths which speak to us of our place in the world and the Cosmos. These myths are metaphors: God is like a Father; the Goddess is like a Mother; Brāhman is an impersonal One.

Not a single culture is ignorant of life’s great mysteries: the birth of a child, the joys of play, the difficulty of adolescence, the responsibilities of maturity and parenthood, the weakness of the body in age, the release of death, and the Reality in which all this is played out. Myth is what shows us how do deal with all of that; as Joseph Campbell said, it is the blueprint necessary to teach us “how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances” (Campbell 1987:31). Every culture postulates that there is some invisible existence supporting the visible one. Even in our materialistic age, the Transcendent finds its way into artistic expression: myths taking the form of science fiction and fantasy – for instance – continue to transmit these vital images to us, and continue to be among the most popular of entertainments. The Numinous is always present, and always expressed in poetical, mythological terms: a culture cannot survive without them. The Force is with us whether we want it to be or not.

The cultures of the Upper Palaeolithic can be no exception to this, though scholars of the past 95 years do not appear to have recognized it; chiefly because they have not been able to treat their subjects like full-fledged human beings. If we do not banish the word primitive from the vocabulary of prehistoric social anthropology, we will never be able to understand the people of the Palaeolithic. Now the physical anthropologist can use the word primitive with impunity; the hand, for instance, is more primitive than the foot (look at your hand and think about that). But the word primitive means more than that in the context of social, religious, or intellectual organization, and it is no longer acceptable in any context, in my opinion, which treats “Cave Men” and their lives.

The men and women of the Palaeolithic were Homo sapiens sapiens, weren’t they? And this means that they were just like us. They lived differently – but those differences were cultural, not essential.

The differences between the people of the Palaeolithic and ourselves can be attributed to the same causes as the differences between ourselves and any other human culture on our planet today: the climate, the technology we employ, and the thoughts which we think (which admittedly are the product of a long cultural development – including the thought of the Palaeolithic). The men and women of the Palaeolithic were not brutish savages; they were just as bright and capable as we are, with the same potentials for creativity and invention, industry and perseverance, and laughter and affection as we are. Indeed, when you consider the world in which they lived, you can’t help but appreciate how strong a people they must have been. After all, how many of us today would fare very well in a world with glaciers, mastodons, cave bears, and the Palaeolithic toolbox?

III. How does the art of the Palaeolithic reflect its religion?

Many modern researchers, however, do not treat our Palaeolithic ancestors like the human beings they were. We might expect a certain patronization of “primitive artists” by the scholars who first looked at the art and culture of the Palaeolithic in the first half of this century. But even relatively recently, scholars have been remarkably patronizing of the people of the Palaeolithic. In 1979 Anne Sieveking said that Palaeolithic art had been known “to civilized man for nearly a hundred years” (Sieveking 1979:13). It seems to me that this rhetorical device supports a hidden prejudice. It would be better just to have said that it was known “to us”. Walter Torbrügge remarked just twenty-two years ago that the tiny figurine from the cave of Weinberg near Mauern in Bavaria resembled the schematized female figures of elsewhere in palaeolithic Europe. “Looked at from another angle”, he says,

    the find from Mauern seems no less obviously to represent a phallus and scrotum. If the work was, indeed, intended so to combine two motifs in a single object, like a puzzle picture, then it supplies evidence that the purpose of most early art was magical. This small sculpture would fall among the group of representations made in a ritual spirit to increase human and animal fertility. Its artistic or pseudoartistic effect would in this case have to be regarded as a secondary manifestation at best, even if its maker had no more in mind than the production of a schematized female statuette. The important thing is not to mistake the resemblance to a picture puzzle – the ambiguity – for some purely formal device, let alone a refinement. The strangeness is better accounted for as reflecting the peculiar bipolarity of primitive modes of thought, ever prone to find similarities in seeming opposites and to represent them as identical (Torbrügge 1968:6).

Now, by this logic, the tenets of one of the world’s great religions, Chinese Daoism, should be indicative of the same “peculiar bipolarity of primitive thought”. But Lǎozǐ’s Dào dé jīng is an elegant and beautiful description of the world in which the duality of things is taken as a representation of their fundamental unity – and I doubt very much that we should postulate that one of the foundations of Chinese civilization is merely an exercise in “finding similarities in seeming opposites and representing them as identical” – simply because it is dissimilar to Western categories of thought.

In fact Torbrügge has missed what appears to me to be a very important clue to the reconstruction of palaeolithic religion. There is an image-tradition, lasting from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic, in which the form of a Goddess is fused, abstractly, with the phallus (cf. Gimbutas 1989:xxii, 228ff., 328).

The art preserved for us which reflects this particular stylistic and symbolic approach to the Transcendent and to sexuality, show us the great tenacity such images had in form, and by inference, in content (see Figs. 2-6). While they span some 20,000 years, they are found in an area in which we may expect that there was cultural contact and influence, and which, with respect to the history of religions on our planet, we may consider to be one cultural zone. Although it is difficult to discuss continuity in the absence of missing links, still I think that we are justified in doing so by the uniqueness of these symbols.

I believe that these images are indicative of a great subtlety in religious thought, not the kind of accidental, crude confusion Torbrügge has implied. The notion that there was a “fertility goddess cult” in Europe has been known to Western scholars at least since Bachofen (1861). It is easy to imagine that “primitive” people might see the Source of Life – the Transcendent – as Feminine: but it is another thing entirely for them to recognize that all regenerative principles are essentially one. Merging the phallus with the Goddess’ body is not “an artistic or pseudoartistic effect”: it is a subtle and elegant statement which may imply a very different idea of sexuality and the world than we maintain.

Note that I have used the word Goddess to describe these figurines. Once again: religions and myths endeavour to speak of the Transcendent in metaphorical terms. The metaphor in this class of Eurasian palaeolithic – and in most European neolithic – figurines is not impersonal, it is personal. It is not male, it is female. The common English word for that metaphor is Goddess.

Now, if we can accept the fact that palaeolithic cultures are human cultures, then we can look for the same universals in religion among the populations of the Palaeolithic that we find in more contemporary cultures. The questions we can ask become more specific: Can we find evidence for the demarcation of sacred space, time, and activity? Can we find symbols which refer to the Transcendent? How might a culture living in such a world imagine or symbolize the Transcendent? Are there ethnographic parallels today? Do there have to be? Do the symbols we find reflect our reconstruction? Do they help us make a better guess?

I am often tempted to treat the two major classes of palaeolithic art separately: the animal or “hunting” art vs. the figural or “Goddess” art. While there may certainly have been an intimate connection between the two in the Palaeolithic period itself, it is much more difficult to determine anything about the former than the latter, because the figural tradition continues into the Neolithic period, while the cave paintings do not. In my opinion, the anthropomorphic representations of palaeolithic art are connected with those of the Balkan Neolithic, and we may take the Neolithic religion to be a direct development of the Palaeolithic religion, with the influence of agriculture and climatic change in large part responsible for the transformation and elaboration of the details of that tradition. Regarding the general character of pre-Indo-European religion in Europe prior to 4500 BC, I would agree in the main with the reconstruction of Marija Gimbutas (1982; 1989). To defend this view adequately is beyond the scope of this paper; but I have done so in some measure elsewhere (Everson 1989).

IV. What are our criteria for continued, sensible reconstruction of palaeolithic religion?

Theories of sympathetic hunting and fertility magic, deriving from work of the second half of the last century (Tylor 1871; Попов 1880; Frazer 1890), are inadequate to explain the anthropomorphic figurines in their palaeolithic context as well as in relation to the rich iconography available from the Neolithic (cf. Vasilʹevskij 1987:21-22). Such theories are in general unsatisfactory, based on suppositions of “primitive superstition” rather than on a recognition of the concern for the Transcendent in human societies; they therefore fall short of dealing with the question of prehistoric religion in a modern way.

In my opinion we are going to have to be more creative, imaginative, and cooperative. Much of prehistoric studies today is frightfully set on refusing to actually say anything. Ruslan Vasilʹevskij has recently complained that the

    Утилитарное истолкование значения женских изображений ведет к обедненному восприятию произведений первобытного творчества. Методологическая опасность такого подхода к оценке палеолитического искусства заключается не только в том, что он задедомо исключает целостность восприятия его образов, но, главное, в том, что он исключает самую мысль об уникальности художественных произведений палеолита (Васильевский 1987:25).

But even utilitarian interpretations are rare against a general tendency not to try to offer any interpretation at all. There is an abundance of literature which simply describes the nature and disposition of the finds of such and such a site. I am not suggesting that all scholars need to be synthesists, or that the description of prehistoric sites and art is superfluous. Far from it. Many researchers into the Palaeolithic quite properly choose as their work the bringing to light, classification, and dating of prehistoric material, quite apart from its interpretation. What I do suggest is that more attention be paid to the work of the historians of religion who choose to enter the debate. Eszter Bánffy has observed correctly that too many archaeologists are content to end their articles with a couple of obligatory sentences saying that thus and such an object “eine ‘religiöse, magische Bedeutung, eine Rolle im Ritus’ haben könnten”, or that a figurine is an example “der allgemein verbreiteten mediterranen Großen Mutter, der Fruchtbarkeitsgöttin” (Bánffy 1986:155).

Scholastic caution is justified, but the assumption that we can’t have a better idea just because there is no writing is to my mind simply too cautious. Certainly there is a difference between describing something in vacuo and describing it in light of a context. But we have a context for prehistoric religion which has hitherto been largely untapped, overlooked, denied: for we know now that prehistoric religion is another expression of human spirituality, and if we know anything about that, then we can treat the sites and art and finds of the prehistoric period in that light and see what there is to see.

This approach requires a new breed of interdisciplinary scholar. An interdisciplinary methodology, making use of the tools of the archaeologist, the art historian, the historian of religions, and the anthropologist may assist us in interpreting the legacy of our prehistoric ancestors – at least insofar as we are interested in their spiritual life.

Methodologically, we should seek to make a structural analysis of the relationships between symbols appearing in various contexts, and interpret them in light of their interconnectedness as well as their relationship to the postulated religious metaphor, the Transcendent.

The guidelines for such a synthesis will be founded on what is particular to each discipline: the archaeologist’s careful attention to the facts of the find; the art historian’s keen eye for style and context; the anthropologist’s understanding of human cultures and the ways in which people live; and the historian of religion’s concern for human spirituality and the ways in which people express their apprehension of the Numinous.

In order to reconstruct Neolithic or Palaeolithic religion we will have to come to terms with the fact that we will have to guess in order to fill in the gaps. We can insist on a clear criteria for acceptable guesses. Suggestions about the content of Palaeolithic religion must certainly be elegant and plausible. We may no longer treat the men and women of the Palaeolithic as though they were not real men and women like us. We may recognize that in their culture, as in ours, there were men and women who knew the Transcendent. Joseph Campbell reminded us that “anyone who has had an experience of mystery knows that there is a dimension of the universe that is not what is available to his senses” (Campbell 1987:207). Palaeolithic religion, like any other, points to this mystery; and if the art of the Palaeolithic is religious, then we must learn to look for the mystery hidden therein.

If these suggestions are followed, perhaps a new evaluation of the corpus of prehistoric art, involving such a synthesis, will be possible.


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