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Shamans in Paleolithic Art

Sorcerers, therianthropes in
Cave painting & engraving

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Artist's enhancement of the therianthropic engraving of a sorcerer or shaman at Gabillou Cave
The famous therianthropic engraving of a shaman or sorcerer, at Gabillou Cave in the Dordogne. Image by José-Manuel Benito/Locutus Borg. (Public Domain).

What is Shamanism?

The term Shamanism refers to a range of spiritual practices which involve altered states of consciousness.

Shamans typically enter a trance-like state in order to commune with spirits or deities from the 'afterlife' or 'other world'.

The idea is to direct spiritual energies into the physical world, typically for the purpose of healing, hunting and/or fertility.

Shamanism seems to have been an important strand of Stone Age culture, beginning sometime around 30,000 BC. Which makes it the exclusive preserve of modern humans, as Neanderthals were already extinct.

What is a Shaman?

A shaman (or shamanka) is a spiritual leader whose main role is to act as a mediator between the three worlds: upper (sky), middle (earth) and underworld (underground).

During the Stone Age, shamans would wear a special costume - usually including an animal or bird mask - and with the help of drums and other musical instruments, would seek to communicate with spirits for healing, hunting, or fertility purposes.

A key feature of a shamanic ritual was the trance, during which the shaman would 'make contact with the spirit world'.

These rituals were conducted at the intersections between the spiritual and physical worlds, such as deep caves or elevated spaces like mountains, including mountain caves.

There is considerable evidence that the cave wall was regarded as a crossable dividing line, between the human and spirit worlds, through which shamans were able to pass during their trance.

Shamans are sometimes referred to as sorcerers or wizards.

Caves As Aggregation Sites

Large paleolithic caves such as Altamira (Santillana del Mar), El Castillo (Puente Viesgo), Lascaux (Dordogne), and Trois-Frères and Niaux (French Pyrenees), were used as periodic aggregation sites.

An aggravation site was where bands of hunter-gatherers (each numbering between 50 and several hundred people) gathered for social get-togethers, trade, and a variety of social and religious ceremonies.

Shamans would almost certainly have been present to conduct their own unique rituals.

Shamanic Rituals

The key element in shamanic ritual was the trance, or altered state of consciousness, during which the shaman 'travelled' to the other world.

This ecstatic 'high' was often stimulated by music and dance.

Which explains the recovery of bone and ivory flutes, such as Divje Babe Flute (58,000 BC), and other musical instruments, from Geißenklösterle, Vogelherd, Hohle Fels, and Isturitz caves.

Archaeoacoustics

Paleolithic art may have been used in shamanic ceremonies - either as visual props or in conjunction with music.

In a dimly-lit chamber, sound can be an extremely powerful sensory stimulus.

So, when a shaman mimicked the sound of an animal, and heard the sound reverberating around him, it might have helped him to attain a deeper state of consciousness.

Today, experts in archaeoacoustics are trying to answer the question - how did prehistoric artists choose locations for their pictures?

So far, they have generated considerable evidence that paintings were located at points in the cave with the best acoustic resonance and echo properties.

Sound resonance tests at Le Portel Cave, the Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure, Niaux, Labastide, and the Great Hall at the Isturitz caves, as well as Kapova Cave in the Urals, have shown that the major clusters of painted panels in these caves are located at spots with the best acoustics.

This coincidence of sound and art surely provided even more special effects for shamanic ceremonies.

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Paleolithic Art as a Reflection of Religion

Like animals, humans have two major drives:

(1) preservation of the individual and the social group;

(2) preservation of the species.

The first drive is reflected in drawings and paintings that depict hunting, or game animals (fish, birds) that are common food sources.

The second drive can be seen in pictures showing symbols of reproduction and fertility, such as pubic triangles, phalluses, and also animals in the process of mating.

Unlike animals, humans also developed a third need: namely, to learn where we came from and what happens when we pass.

During the era of Upper Paleolithic art, this third need was reflected in depictions of shaman-like figures, often with therianthropic features.

Shamans & Sorcerers in Paleolithic Art

Images of shamanic, sorcerer-type figures are present in numerous paleolithic caves across France and elsewhere.

Here are ten examples of shamanic imagery, from France, Italy and the Czech Republic, during the Upper Paleolithic.

The Lion Man (38,000 BC)

In prehistoric sculpture, the best-known therianthrope is the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (or Löwenmensch), an ivory carving of a lion-headed man, from Swabia in south-west Germany.

Dated to 38,000 BC, this mysterious 31 centimetre figure combines the head of a cave lion with certain human features.

He stands upright, legs apart and arms at the side, while his powerful gaze is directed at the viewer.

Made from the tusk of a mammoth, the largest animal of the paleolithic world, and depicting its fiercest predator, the Lion Man is the oldest known example of a figure that symbolizes ideas about man's existence.

Paleolithic man lived in an 'eat-or-be-eaten' environment. Perhaps this hybrid figure helped its audience to accept their place in nature, on a deeper level, or in some way to transcend it.

According to some experts, it represents the oldest surviving evidence of religious belief in the archaeological record.

The Lion Man was certainly an object of great value. Scientific tests show that it took roughly 400 hours to make - a huge loss of labour for a paleolithic community.

In 2017, UNESCO designated Stadel Cave a World Heritage Site.

Fumane Cave Shaman (34,500 BC)

The oldest known shaman in parietal art comes from the Fumane Cave in the Lessini Hills, north of Verona.

It consists of a red ochre painting of a man wearing a horned head-dress, with outstretched arms, holding a shamanistic stick in his right hand.

Three more figures are visible, but cannot be identified due to erosion.

Chauvet Rhinoceros (30,000 BC)

A cave painting of a rhinoceros at Chauvet in the French Ardèche, may also have a shamanic element.

The rhino is outlined in charcoal, but curved red lines that symbolize bleeding, extend from the nose and mouth.

San shamans in South Africa sometimes suffer a nose-bleed when in a trance, and nasal haemorrhages are illustrated in numerous rock paintings.

The Chauvet rhinoceros was an important image: the wall on which it appears was carefully scraped clean and flat; it also occupies a prime position, more than 2 metres above the floor.

And opposite, is a split in the wall, from which a bison appears to be emerging and, on the other side of the split, a rhino.

The bison and rhino may represent embodied spirits enticed from the other side of the wall by the rhinoceros-shaman.

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Venus Figurines (from 38,000 BC)

The most ubiquitous type of symbolic or spiritual art, produced during the Upper Paleolithic, was the series of tiny venus figurines, which have been found throughout Europe.

See, for instance, the Venus of Willendorf (28,000 BC).

Typically nude, extremely obese, often pregnant, with exaggerated buttocks and vulvas, these totemic figures are believed to be associated with fertility and reproduction.

They may have been used in shamanic ceremonies connected with these issues.

Portrait Sculpture of a Shaman (24,000 BC)

The Dolní Věstonice Portrait Head depicts the face of a woman and is carved from a mammoth tusk.

It is 48mm high, 24mm wide, and 22mm thick. The head is sculpted in-the-round, so the oval-shaped face is fully modelled.

It was discovered near the Nové Mlýny reservoir in the Moravian Region of the Czech Republic.

The work is believed to be a portrait of a 40-year old woman whose grave was found nearby. Her skeleton was covered by two mammoth scapulas.

The mammoth bones and the soil were covered with red ochre, while a fox fur had been placed next to the skull.

These funerary trappings indicate she was a shaman, or shamanka, and thus someone worthy of being sculpted.

Lascaux: Great Sorcerer (15,000 BC)

Also referred to as the Large Sorcerer, or the Wizard, this 1-metre high therianthrope was carved into a painting of a large, black cow, at the junction of the Apse and the Nave, at Lascaux Cave in the French Dordogne.

First discovered in 1949, the image is shaped like a hut, and is overlain with a triangular pattern of fine lines.

The lines converge at the top of the 'teepee', where one can discern a bird's head and several eyes.

Overall, the carving resembles a human figure inside an outfit of dried grass, accompanied by a bird.

In his book 'Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art', the famous archaeologist Henri Breuil (1877-1961) placed a photo of the Great Sorcerer next to a photo of a shaman from French Guinea, who was dressed from head to foot in a grassy costume.

The two figures are eerily similar.

Lascaux: Shaft of the Dead Man

Lascaux also contains the most enigmatic painting in the whole of French cave art.

Located in the 'Shaft', and entitled 'Scene of the Dead Man,' it appears to show the aftermath of a violent clash between a man and a bison.

The scene consists of a triptych of (1) a disembowelled bison; (2) a dead or unconscious man, and (3) a retreating rhinoceros who appears to be defecating.

The man, who has a bird-shaped head and an erect phallus, lies prone on the ground next to a broken spear, and what looks like a stick with a bird motif on the top.

The meaning of this strange tableau is still a mystery, but we can make certain observations:

Gabillou Cave: Sorcerer Engraving (13,000 BC)

Seen by some archaeologists as a younger sibling of nearby Lascaux, Gabillou Cave is best known for its engraved drawing of a therianthropic figure, known as The Sorcerer.

The figure is located at the end of the cave passage, in a spot where only one or two people can see it, and faces right - towards the depths of the cave.

The figure has several human features, including an upright posture, a slim torso, an extended arm with a hand, two well defined legs and a left foot.

Its zoomorphic characteristics are those of a bison, and include a head with horns, along with a mane and tail.

Who is this half-human, half-animal creature?

Trois Frères Sorcerer (13,000 BC)

Trois Frères Cave in the French Pyrenees, is best known for its bizarre rock engraving which is also named The Sorcerer.

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What is the meaning of this strange therianthrope? Is he a divine being, a magician or a shaman? The answer is, no one knows, but we can make a few observations.

Niaux Strange Unidentified Image

Located in the heart of Franco-Cantabrian art, Niaux is one of France's greatest decorated caves.

At the extreme end of the Niaux's main chamber, the Salon Noir, is a deep half-hidden recess known as the Cul-de-Four.

Here, an unidentified black image - possibly a shaman, possibly an animal, possibly both - appears to vanish into the very cave wall itself.

Ritual at Addaura Cave (10,000 BC)

The Addaura Cave, north of Palermo, in Sicily, is famous for its rock engravings which are unique in paleolithic art.

They depict a scene of ritual punishment or sacrifice, involving about ten or so human figures in dance-like poses around two horizontal victims.

The victims' heads are covered, while their feet are bound with cord which is also placed around their neck, forcing them to arch their backs in a painful manner.

It looks like they are being prepared for sacrifice by two shamans standing nearby, while being observed by the other figures in the circle.

Altogether, a most unusual, complex and highly ambiguous composition.

Did Shamanic Trances Lead to the Creation of Cave Art?

The view that therianthropes (part animal, part human figures) represent shamans, is corroborated by data from recently-observed societies.

Animal and human masks are still used in parts of Africa, for ceremonies involving divination, medicine, the reincarnation of ancestors, and more.

Masks are also employed by dancers in festivals of the dead. In many of these dance rituals, the mask-wearer is driven to the point of ecstasy by the music and movement.

To what extent shamanism and altered states of consciousness are involved in the creation of rock art, has been much debated.

Prehistorians like Clottes and Lewis-Williams have proposed that images perceived during a deep trance were later reproduced on cave walls.

They say that shamanic trances may have been the link between the evolution of higher states of consciousness, and the origin of art, as exemplified by the swirling images in the Axial Gallery, at Lascaux.

But despite the fact that self-induced trances are a common phenomenon in many extant and recent hunter-gatherer communities, archaeology has yet to confirm that it is an essential step in the creation of rock or cave art, or even that such art was the outcome of shamanistic hallucinations.

NEXT: What's the Meaning of Cave Art?

References

(1) The Evidence of Shamanism Rituals in Early Prehistoric Periods of Europe and Anatolia. Neyir Kolankaya-Bostanci. Colloquium Anatolicum XIII 2014. dergipark.org.tr/
(2) The evolution of human artistic creativity. Gillian M Morriss-Kay. J Anat v.216(2); 2010 Feb.
(3) "Psychology Meets Archaeology: Psychoarchaeoacoustics for Understanding Ancient Minds and Their Relationship to the Sacred." Jose Valenzuela, Margarita Díaz-Andreu, Carles Escera. Front. Psychol., 18 December 2020.

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