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The Stones Cry Out:
Cave Art & the Origin of the Human Spirit, Part 6

Man as microcosm [1]

Man as microcosm

4,063 words

Part 6 of 7 (other parts here [2])

6. All and Nothing

In my account of ekstasis, I have drawn principally on two philosophers: Heidegger and Schopenhauer. And Hegel has been peeping out at certain points in my discussion (he will have a much bigger role to play very soon). But the truth is that the ideas I have been expounding in this essay have deep roots in the Western tradition, and are much older even than Hegel.

To advance my argument about ekstasis and human nature a step further, let’s briefly consider Aristotle’s account of the soul in De Anima. Actually, Aristotle speaks of three “souls” in us: the vegetative soul (characterized by the appetitive and nutritive “plant functions”), the animal (sensory, locomotive functions), and the rational. It is the rational soul or intellect (nous) that makes us uniquely human, of course. Nous is conceived by Aristotle basically as a kind of receptacle that receives the intelligible forms (or essences) of things without their matter.

But in order to be able to do this without distorting the knowledge it receives, Aristotle argues that nous must have no form or essence of its own. In short, the defining part of the human being is nothing. He tells us, further, that “actual knowledge is identical with its object” (430a21): when nous takes in a form or essence it becomes that thing (because, again, nous has no form of its own). Thus, although in our innermost or highest being we are nothing, we have the potential to become all things.

Consider now what Pico della Mirandola has to say in his Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486). He tells us that after God had created all the planets, stars, and beasts he felt the desire to fashion some sort of being that was capable of knowing and appreciating creation itself. Rather than endow one of the other beasts with this power, God created mankind and — in a sense — gave him no nature at all. Instead of having a fixed nature like the other creatures, God made man capable of acquiring knowledge from and imitating all other created things. Here, of course, we can discern an echo of Aristotle’s conception of nous, which is capable of knowing all because it itself is nothing. Pico held that when man uses his intellect to know the universe, he achieves a kind of communion with God and the angels.

The basic Western self-understanding from Aristotle to Heidegger — really, from Parmenides to Heidegger — is that man is the mirror of nature. Our Being is to reflect Being. Thus, we are potentially all. Furthermore, every philosopher from Aristotle to Sartre has to some degree or another sensed a very important implication of this: that somehow our special place in nature, to be the being that gives voice to all of Being, makes us the apex, perfection, or completion of nature itself.

We can see that Aristotle makes man the apex of nature in two ways. First, we recapitulate within ourselves the rest of nature, in possessing the appetitive and nutritive functions (plant nature), and the sensory and locomotive (animal nature). Biologically, we comprise the whole, but step beyond it at the same time. We step beyond it in being capable of having the idea (or ideas) of the whole come to be in our intellect. This — plus the fact that Aristotle thinks nous must be incorporeal — leads him to claim that man is part beast, part god. Through man, a natural but supernatural being, nature comes to consciousness of itself. (As I will discuss in the next section, this implication of Aristotle’s ideas would only be made explicit by Hegel.)

It is in the caves of Europe in the Upper Paleolithic, through the emergence for the first time on earth of representational art, that man first showed himself capable of grasping the essence of things — of, as Heidegger would say, “bringing Being it to a stand.” And remember what Aristotle has taught us: actual knowledge is identical with its object. Through ekstasis, in grasping the essence of the things they painted (or carved), man became possessed by them. Man “became” the animals he represented. But this grasp of the animal essence is a dual “act” of knowing the other, and knowing oneself: man finds himself in the animal, and he finds the animal in himself.[1]

We can now also see why it is entirely plausible to think that shamanism may have been practiced in Europe at the time the cave paintings were produced. The reason for this is that shamanism involves, in part, identification with animals or the “spirits” or “souls” of animals. But this just means the absorption by the shaman of the animal essence or Being. Thus, the Upper Paleolithic “bringing to stand of the Being of things” may not have been a purely contemplative activity, in which man simply opened to and gazed upon essences. Instead, our ancestors may also have believed that knowledge is power: that through the grasp of essence we do not simply know animals, we can acquire their power as well. (Of course, this standpoint would have been impossible if it did not rest upon a more basic standpoint of openness to Being — the capacity for simple wonder in the face Being, without any other purpose in mind.)

However, I completely reject the idea that the images in the cave are “records,” if you will, of shamanic “trips,” as Lewis-Williams asserts. Instead, they may be usefully compared to the images in churches. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for example, was the result of Michelangelo’s drive as an artist to create images of sheer beauty. At the same time, he was well aware that those images would function as aids to religious worship (or, let us say, to spiritual development) for those who worshipped in the Chapel.

Similarly, the images in the caves are, as I have argued, expressions of the artists’ desire to convey, in as aesthetically pleasing a form as possible, the essences of the animals depicted. At the same time, we must come to grips with the fact that these images were painted in remote caves. It is quite plausible to think that these caves may have been the scenes of shamanic “incubation,” with the torch-lit images on the walls of the caves serving as aids to the shaman.

It is unlikely that we will ever be able to determine whether this hypothesis is correct — that shamanism happened in the caves, and that the art played a role. But this is actually of no real importance, for we can be reasonably certain about something of far greater significance: it is in these images that we find human beings for the first time becoming, as I have said, the mirror of nature. Shamanism, if it occurred in the caves, would be simply have been a magical inflection of this “mirroring.”

Georges Bataille writes of the cave artists:

These men made tangible for us the fact that they were becoming men, that the limitations of animality no longer confined them, but they made this tangible by leaving us images of the very animality from which they had escaped. What these admirable frescoes proclaim with a youthful vigor is not only that the man who painted them ceased being an animal by painting them but that he stopped being an animal by giving the animal, and not himself, a poetic image that seduces us and seems sovereign.[2]

There is much that is profound in this statement — but it only partially correct. In the cave paintings we find man transcending animality, but also finding himself through it. The shamanic identification with the animal would be yet another form of this.

Now, Bataille goes on to note something else of very great significance: “In effect, prehistoric man depicted animals in fascinating and naturalistic images, but when he wanted to represent himself, he awkwardly concealed his unique, distinguishing features beneath those of the animal he was not. He only partially divulged his human body, and he gave himself an animal head.”[3] Bataille is referring to a number of famous cave images which are clearly anthropomorphic, but have various animal features.

Earliest known depiction of a (Siberian) shaman, late 17th century [3]

Earliest known depiction of a (Siberian) shaman, late 17th century

These images, in fact, dramatic illustrate the point I have been making: in the cave art, we see man finding himself in the animal, and finding the animal in himself. Human (or humanoid) figures in the caves are relatively rare: the animal images greatly outnumber them. But when the artists turned to depicting men like themselves, they drew those men as identified with animals. Why? Because, remember, art reveals essences. And it is the very essence of man to mirror nature, to identify with it.

The "Sorceror" of Trois Frères [4]

The “Sorceror” of Trois Frères

But something else is also going in these images. Consider the famous “sorcerer” of the Trois Frères cave. This image is some 75 centimeters high. It is partly an engraving, partly a charcoal sketch. The figure is clearly humanoid, but it has the head of a stag, with antlers, an owl’s face, wolf ears, a Chamois “beard,” a horse’s tail, and bear paws. Its lower limbs, its posture (it appears to be dancing), and possibly its genitals indicate that it is humanoid.[4] (The technical term for such a figure, by the way, is a “therianthrope.”) This is certainly man seeing the animal in himself, or vice versa. But I suggest that it is something else besides: it is man seeing himself as Lord of the Beasts, as apex of creation.

In the cave, man dimly (or, perhaps, not so dimly) sensed what Aristotle made clear: that man recapitulates all of nature in himself. In so doing, at the same time he transcends the merely natural. He combines all creatures within himself; he is all things. Thus, he occupies a privileged position in nature, reigning over all as the highest terrestrial being. Part beast, part god. And we see this motif running throughout the history of religion and mythology.

The 'Cernunnos figure' on the Gundestrup Cauldron [5]

The ‘Cernunnos figure’ on the Gundestrup Cauldron

We see it in Cernunnos, the horned god. In the famous horned figure on the Gundestrup cauldron, who holds in his hands the golden, solar torque and the serpent, symbol of the moon which waxes and wanes, as the serpent sheds its skin. All things, all opposites, come together in him. We see it in Pashupati (compare the famous “Pashupati seal” of Mohenjo Daro to the figure on the Gundestrup cauldron). These are all echoes of the sorcerer of Trois Frères, and the other, similar figures that we find in cave art. We see the principle involved here in the biblical assertion that God gave man dominion over all the beasts. And again in the microcosm-macrocosm correspondence, closely associated with mystical and esoteric philosophies (but which is implicit in philosophers like Aristotle and Hegel).

'Pashupati' seal of Mohenjo Daro ca. 2700 B.C.E [6]

‘Pashupati’ seal of Mohenjo Daro ca. 2700 B.C.E

In the cave art there is even a dim recognition of an evolution of natural forms; and of the idea that later forms are prefigured in earlier. Often the “basis” for a painting will be a fold or crack or bump in the rock. These shapes reminded the cave painters of the shapes of animals, and so entire paintings would be built around them. We see the same phenomenon at work in the thinking of the Hindus, who believe in the spontaneous appearance of lingams (phallic symbols) in nature, such as the famous “ice lingam” of Amarnath in the western Himalayas. As Hegel famously wrote “God does not remain petrified and moribund, however, the stones cry out and lift themselves up to spirit.”[5]

Of course, the therianthropes are not the only examples of the depiction of the human form in cave art. As I mentioned much earlier, human stick figures abound. These have been the source of a great deal of puzzlement. Leo Frobenius wrote: “It is to be noted that in almost all pictures of this kind the representation of the animals has been carried out with great care, while the human figures are exceptionally sketchy.”[6] And Bataille observes that the human drawings are “nearly all formless and much less human than those that represent animals; others, like the Hottentot Venus, are shameless caricatures of the human form.” And he describes the human stick figures as “childish.”[7]

Venus of Dolní Věstonice [7]

Venus of Dolní Věstonice

The depiction of animals is carried out in the cave paintings with such skill and artistry, why did these artists depict the human form so “crudely”? Couldn’t they see their own bodies as clearly as they could those of deer and bison? Couldn’t they have admired and depicted their own sinewy musculature as finely as they depicted that of, say, the lion? But such questions miss the point. Remember: art depicts essences. And there is no more “essential” art than that of the cave. The essence of man is to mirror nature. What the stick figures seem to be saying is “We view ourselves essentially as a framework on which the Being of other things can be hung.” And, of course, this is what we find happening in the therianthropes, like the sorcerer of Trois Frères: the Being of the animals hung upon the framework that is man.

Take away the essences that man absorbs, and he is nous, an empty vessel, nothing. A few simple lines are enough to indicate the sketchiness of man’s essence. This was obviously not how our ancestors saw themselves. It was what they felt themselves to be. (And I am not saying that our ancestors consciously conceived of themselves in this way, or that they had theories about human nature — though I am inclined to think that they were probably much more thoughtful than they are usually given credit for.)

From Lascaux, is this bird headed man 'rapt in a shamanistic trance' [8]

From Lascaux, is this bird headed man ‘rapt in a shamanistic trance’

All the aforementioned figures are clearly male, by the way. The alleged stick figure “shaman” of Lascaux seems to have an erection; and the sorcerer of Trois Fréres has a penis (opinions differ as to whether it is erect). Perhaps someone will correct me if I have missed something, but I can’t think of an example of a female figure from any Upper Paleolithic European cave painting or sketch. As everyone knows, however, numerous carvings of female figures from this period have been discovered. Most are portable art. However, one — the so-called Venus of Laussel (perhaps the most interesting of all) — was carved into a rock wall.

Venus of Hohle Fels [9]

Venus of Hohle Fels

All these female figures lack faces,[8] and the anatomical features suggesting fertility have been grossly exaggerated. It has been claimed by some researchers that these figures might be realistic, and could depict steatopygia. A glance at the so-called Venus of Hohle Fels (dated to 35,000–40,000 years ago — making it the oldest undisputed example of representational art), or the Venus of Lespugue (26,000–24,000) is enough to refute the idea that realism was the aim here. (And the theory that the figures depict steatopygia may be yet another instance of trying to understand early Europeans on analogy with later, radically different humans from other parts of the world — in this case Africa.)

Venus of Willendorf [10]

Venus of Willendorf

As Bataille writes, these appear to be “shameless caricatures of the human [female] form.” But in fact they are yet another illustration of how the art of the Upper Paleolithic aims at the expression of essence — a clearer illustration than the male figures, in fact. These female images express what male artists saw as the essence of womanhood.[9] For them, this was giving birth to and nurturing the species. The male essence, by contrast, was giving birth to essence — and this was a purely “spiritual” act, not a physical one. Hence, the female figures are physical through and through. The male figures are stick men — their physicality is de-emphasized — precisely because what preoccupied the (male) cave artists was their ability to open to Being, and to bring it to a stand in their art. Alternatively, the male figures are bedecked with animal essences — the therianthropes. In either case, as I have discussed, it is the male’s ability to identify with the Being of things that is depicted.

Venus of Lespugue (reconstruction) [11]

Venus of Lespugue (reconstruction)

The most famous of the female figurines, the Venus of Willendorf (28,000–25,000 B.C.E.), is undeniably grotesque. But some of the others are quite beautiful. This is certainly true of the Venus of Lespugue. The Venus of Dolní Věstonice (29,000–25,000 B.C.E.) could be taken for a very good example of modern abstract sculpture.

But perhaps the most fascinating and thought-provoking of these carvings is the Venus of Laussel, which is about 25,000 years old. It was carved into a rock wall in southwestern France, then hewn out for display at a museum. It is bulbous and “fecund” like the others, but with significant differences. The woman’s left hand is placed on her abdomen. In her right hand she holds what appears to be a bison horn. Her head, with what appears to be long hair, is also turned in the direction of the horn.

Venus of Laussel [12]

Venus of Laussel

Obviously, the Venus of Laussel is saying something to us, and there have been a great many speculations as to what it might be. There is a very ancient mythic connection between animal horns (usually a bull’s) and the moon. Thirteen lines are etched into the Venus’s horn, suggesting the thirteen lunar cycles in a year. And, as a number of scholars have suggested, by placing her other hand on her abdomen she may be connecting the two. The idea that there is a connection between the cycles of the moon and the menstrual cycle is very old. The words “menstruation” and “menses” come from Latin mensis (month), which is related to Greek mene or “moon” (both terms being derived from an Indo-European root meaning “moon”).

If this interpretation is correct then what we have in the Venus of Laussel is another microcosm-macrocosm correspondence, but purely on the chthonic level: the nature of woman reflects or mirrors the order of nature itself. Unlike man, however, this reflection or mirroring is purely on the level of physical correspondence. Nevertheless, what we may have here is a recognition that the human as such mirrors nature — with men and women doing this in different ways. Man is the nothingness, the nous, through which nature comes to know herself. Woman is nature itself, Mother Nature.

Phallic figure found at Dolní Věstonice dated to 29,000-25,000 years ago [13]

Phallic figure found at Dolní Věstonice dated to 29,000-25,000 years ago

I know of no examples of male figurines from the Upper Paleolithic that are not therianthropes. What we do find, however, is some phallic images — though they are few and far between. A notable example was found at Dolní Věstonice. Once again, matters have been pared down to essentials: the male, as physical being, is bearer of the phallus, fecundator. Of course, in physical terms that is not all that the male is. He is also hunter and warrior — indeed, this was the primary male role in the Upper Paleolithic. The curious thing is that these artists (who likely did double duty as hunter-warriors) must have been surrounded by lean, healthy men with well-developed bodies. Yet they chose not to depict them, even in stylized form. What this suggests to me is a curious, and really paradoxical lack of self-awareness on the part of these men. On the one hand, they intuited the metaphysical nature of man in a way that prefigures the deepest philosophical insights of the West. And yet they did not see themselves. They saw the woman, all right, though they exaggerated and stylized her features.

It would be many thousands of years before the male would discover and wonder at his own physicality, in Greek sculpture. (And then the element of phallic masculinity would be deemphasized almost to the point of absence.) It was the symmetry and musculature of the athletic male body that fascinated the Greeks. But they did not neglect the spirit either, for by this point the beautiful male body was thought to contain a beautiful and perfectible soul, open to Being and to the Ideal.


[1] Schopenhauer writes: “First of all, a knowing individual raises himself in the manner described to the pure subject of knowing, and at the same time raises the contemplated object to the Idea; the world as representation then stands out whole and pure, and the complete objectification of the will takes place, for only the Idea is the adequate objectivity of the will. In itself, the Idea includes object and subject in like manner, for these are its sole form. In it, however, both are of entirely equal weight; and as the object also is here nothing but the representation of the subject, so the subject, by passing entirely into the perceived object, has also become that object itself, since the entire consciousness is nothing more than its most distinct image.” Schopenhauer, 179-180.

[2]  Bataille, 60.

[3] Ibid., 60.

[4] I should note that there is a controversy about this image. Most authors have based their interpretation of it on a famous sketch made by Abbé Breuil. But some scholars (including Ronald Hutton) have claimed that the sketch is inaccurate. Among other things, they assert that the antlers are not present in the original. However, Jean Clottes — a major figure in scholarship on the cave art — has defended Breuil’s drawing, pointing out that since the figure is part etching, part sketch, it is easy to miss certain features if the image is not seen in the proper light, from the proper angle, etc. In particular, some features may show up poorly in photographs (which is the only “access” to the image that the vast majority of interested parties will ever have, since access to all the caves is heavily restricted).

[5] G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Nature, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 15 (paragraph number 247).

[6]  Quoted in Campbell, Primitive Mythology, 304.

[7] Bataille, 40, 50.

[8] The notable exception is the Venus of Brassempouy, which is a highly stylized face in any case.

[9] Can we assume that the artists were male? Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University recently published a study of the handprints left in the caves, which were made either by dipping the hand in paint and pressing it against the cave wall, or by spraying (spitting) paint around the hand. Comparing relative finger lengths (men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers; women’s about the same) Snow concluded that 75% of the handprints were left by women. Several news agencies and magazines duly reported the good news that “most of the cave art was done by women!” National Geographic was especially enthusiastic about Snow’s research. No wonder: it was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. But there are numerous problems here. First, we don’t know that the people who left the handprints were the same people who did the art (the handprints are not “signatures” found at the lower right corner of paintings!). Further, out of hundreds of such prints, Snow’s study only deals with 32. Most, he reported, were too smudged or indistinct to be studied carefully. This could be true — but obviously, the potential here for “cherry picking the evidence” is very great. Other scientists have studied the same issue and arrived at very different results. One concluded that the majority of prints were left by adolescent boys. Finally, we must confront the fact that throughout history the vast majority of artists were male, especially the further we go back in history. But political correctness demands that this not be mentioned. And one may be sure that ideology is at the back of Snow’s study, and the publicity it received. In one interview he states, “There has been a male bias in the literature for a long time. People have made a lot of unwarranted assumptions about who made these things, and why.” One wonders if he sees it as his mission to correct this bias, and if this has colored his judgment. See http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131008-women-handprints-oldest-neolithic-cave-art/ [14]