Cave Art

The depths of a cave were man’s first sanctuary. In deep, silent inaccessible places, away from the surroundings of their everyday life, the Stone Age hunters worshipped and practised magic. We know this today, because the carvings and paintings of those men of the dawn, men separated from us by a veritable gulf of time, have been found in caves which were evidently chosen for their secrecy. The art of the painted caves of France and Spain, from which we have gained a certain insight into the mind of Stone Age man, is a religious and magical art. Painted caves have been found which were far from the places actually inhabited by primitive man, and which were evidently set apart as shrines. Some of them display such a variety of art that they seem to have been used in this way for several thousand years. Among the great beasts depicted on their walls some are shown wounded, or being struck by weapons. A figure of a mammoth has a heart indicated by a blob of red ochre, within its outline. By drawing the pictured ‘heart’, perhaps man could, in his belief, gain power over the mighty beast, and slay it. By carefully representing a bison struck by spears, the artist intended not only a picture, but a magical ritual to ensure that his hunting would be fortunate, and his spears hit their target. This was the beginning of sympathetic magic. The magic of the caves was concerned with primal things : life and death. In order to live, primitive man had to master the great beasts, to hunt and kill them. But unless there were many young born to the beasts, the herds would fail, and man would go hungry. Unless the women of his tribe were fertile, in those days when life was precarious and its expectation short, man’s species too would lose its hold upon the world. So man made magic for life as well as hunting. For instance, he fashioned figures of animals mating. Two clay figures of bison, a bull and a cow, were found in a deeply hidden cave at Tuc d’Audoubert, near St. Girons in France. Nearby were found interlacing footmarks on the floor of the cave, thought to be the traces of ritual dancing. This cave had been blocked by a landslide untold centuries ago ; and the traces of primordial magic had lain hidden here, in the silence and the darkness, until three young men in 1912 took a boat up a subterranean river and explored through caverns of stalactites until they found another way in, and stood beside the prints of naked feet that had been dust since the dawn of time. Some of the most remarkable and beautiful of early man’s works of art are his figures of women. They are not portraits, but impersonal characterisations of female fertility, of woman as the vessel of life, with pregnant womb and swelling breasts. Some of these so-called ‘Venus figures’ are quite small, beautifully carved from soapstone or mammoth ivory. Other larger figures of the same kind are drawn or sculpted on the walls of caves. A particularly interesting find is that made at Anglessur-l’Anglin, of a triple representation, three life-size goddesses, at a place significantly named Roc aux Sorciers, ‘Witches’ Rock’. A wonderful Palaeolithic carving, which is certainly fit to represent a goddess, is the so-called ‘Venus of Laussel’. This was carved in basrelief on the wall of a rock shelter in the Dordogne, and it also showed traces of red pigment, symbolic of blood to give it life. The figure is that of a naked woman with long hair hanging over her shoulders, holding in one hand a drinking horn. The latter is perhaps a very early version of the Horn of Plenty. Male figures are sometimes depicted also. The ones given most importance are those of men wearing a ritual disguise, the skin and horns of a bull or a stag. In Britain, a small example of such a figure has been found, in the Pin Hole Cave at Cresswell Crags on the border of Nottinghamshlre and Derbyshire. A bone was found, beneath 3 inches of stalagmite deposit, and on it was carved a little figure of a ithyphallic, and wearing an animal mask. Incidentally, the Pin Cave got its name because it contained a water hole into which people dropped pins to gain wishes-a long continuity of magical use which seems almost incredible but is nevertheless true. The most numinous of these male maskers is the famous ‘Sorcerer’, or Horned God, of the Caverne des Trois Freres, in Ariege. This cave was found by the same three interpid brothers, the sons of Count Begouen, who discovered Tuc d’ Audoubert, and it is named after them. The figure is that of a dancing man wearing an animal’s skin and tail, and a mask crowned with the antlers of a stag. The impression of movement, and of the human limbs beneath the animal skin, is skilfully conveyed. It is a very fortunate thing that this masterpiece of Stone Age art was not discovered until the beginning of the twentieth century. Had it come to light in the days of the great witch persecutions, the Church would have ordered its destruction, as a figure of the Devil, and sprinkled the place with holy water afterwards. Undoubtedly, in these motifs of Stone Age art, the Naked Goddess and the Horned God, we have the very deities of the witches. The claim of the witch cult to be the oldest religion in the world is justified. Not only the deities, but the ritual of the witches is depicted, in the round dance of women portrayed in a cave-painting from Cogul in Spain. Also, it is evident from the foregoing that the processes of imitiative or sympathetic magic, ‘raising the power and showing it what to do’, are of great antiquity. Yet magic on these lines is still practised today. The unknown person who nailed two thorn-pierced human effigies, and a sheep’s heart also transfixed with thorns, to the door of the old castle at Castle Rising, Norfolk, in September 1963, was attempting the same sort of magic as was used by the shamans of the Stone Age. This is only one of many such evidences of magic ritual that have been found in Britain in recent years. The cave itself conveys to man’s mind the idea of the womb of the great Earth Mother; the place of birth and also, as a sepulchre, the place of death. It represents the Round of Life : birth, death and the possibility of rebirth. Thus the dead were ceremonially interred in a way that would aid the great magic of rebirth. Bones found in caves where Stone Age man buried his dead have been stained with red ochre, showing that this was sprinkled abundantly over the dead to simulate blood, the fluid of life. Shells have often been found buried with the dead, as a female symbol, the emblem of the portal of birth. Cowrieshells, which especially resemble this, were possibly man’s oldest talisman ; and they are still valued in Africa today. Even though the graves were many miles from the sea-coast, the body would still be accompanied by shells. Other valuable things, such as flint tools, would also be buried with the dead ; the archaeological term for these deposits is ‘grave goods’ . Even Neanderthal Man, the mysterious primitive species now vanished from the earth, buried his dead ceremonially, with grave goods. It is strange that this creature, with receding forehead and body matted with hair, should have had more faith in his own immortal soul than many civilised men today. He sent his dead into the Beyond with tools and weapons and with meat for their journey. The bones of food animals have been found in Neanderthal graves, as in those of other types of primitive man. A very old practice which definitely connects with the magic of rebirth is that of so-called ‘crouched burial’ . This means that the body was buried in a position like that of a child in the womb, lying on its side with knees drawn up. In dying, man returned to the womb of the Great Mother, his first idea of divinity ; in due course, he would be born again. The cave was his shelter, his birth-place, his dwelling, his temple and his sepulchre. The tradition of sacred caves still survives all over the world ; sometimes in connection with witchcraft. Wookey Hole in the West Country is famous as the legendary dwelling-place of the ‘Witch of Wookey’ ; and remains found there, including a primitive gazing-crystal, confirm that it was in times long past inhabited by a woman recluse who practised magic. Deep caves at Eastry, in Kent, have in one part a kind of chapel, ornamented with pairs of stags’ antlers, evidently of considerable age ; and vague stories claim that this was once the scene of secret rituals. Present-day witch covens sometimes use caves for their rites. The occult magazine, New Dimensions, published in November 1964 a remarkable article called “Witches’ Esbat”, by a coven leader who used the pen-name of ‘Robert Cochrane’. It gave a vivid description of a rite in a West Country cave, when chanting and dancing took place round a fire, until a spiritual presence, that of a master witch of long ago, manifested itself. The identity of the author of this article is known to the writer. In modern times also, the aborigines of Australia have used caves as the scene of magical and religious art. They paint figures of deities whom they invoke to send rain, and they also depict animals whose numbers they hope to increase. If a painting becomes dimmed with the passage of time, they touch it up with fresh colours, in order to maintain its magical potency. By our observation of how living tribes of primitive people do things l ike this, we can achieve some further insight into the thoughts and feelings of the artist of the Palaeolithic days. So far as our present knowledge goes, the time-span covered by Palaeolithic art in Western Europe extends over some 1 8,000 years, from about 30,000 B.C. to about 1 2,000 B.C. After that time, man’s culture merged into the Middle Stone Age conditions, when the climate became warmer, and he became more a food-gatherer and fisherman, and less dependent upon hunting ; and the brilliance of cave art seems to have died away. In the New Stone Age, man discovered agriculture, and evolved new kinds of magic connected with the growth of crops and the fertility of the earth. But the Horned God and the Naked Goddess, the magical images of the primordial cave, continued to appear and reappear in man’s religious conceptions, and to be invoked in his magic.