Another mythologizing animal sharing a spark of intellectual passion!
It is at this point that the absurd scene (mentioned previously) with the spear thrower occurs. Interestingly, nothing at all is said about the greater importance of gathering or scavenging for the survival of our prehistoric ancestors; the narrator mentions only finding spearheads in the shoulder blades of horses and aurochs. The (highly faulty) impression you are left with is that prehistoric "man" survived on meat alone, and only hunters brought in food. Indeed, the filmmakers seemed quite thrilled over "man the hunter," referring to this mythical entity as "very aggressive, also strong and powerful." I can't help but wonder if this metaphorical single-gender version of humanity is a sort of sacred icon to them.
Apparently March to mid-April is set aside for scientific teams to enter the caves. After that Herzog and his crew are allowed one week, with four hours daily. As we're given that information, we see first a shot of the beautiful horse herd. The artwork is so amazing to me, right down to the careful charcoal shading to suggest three dimensions… and then there's a close-up of Herzog looking excited as he tells us about the artwork of the "minotaur" and the woman. I had to laugh again at that. Consider: we have astonishing and provocative artwork of the only human figure in the caves — a woman! -who is flanked by a lion(ess?) and a wisent. I found myself delightedly wondering: could this be an ancient goddess — maybe the first in Old Europe? What might we learn from her? Also, why are those two animals in particular flanking her; what wonderful concepts might they signify?
And yet… what does Herzog "see"? With alchemical alacrity, he somehow mentally transmutes the head and shoulders of a wisent into a Greek minotaur: a bull-headed man. Apparently to him that naturally de-emphasizes the woman, since of course the important figure is the mythic male. Still, at least that explains a little of the gender assumptions within the film: they literally cannot see any alternative. I find myself bemused, however: how can people who wear cultural or self-imposed blinders consider themselves objective? Maybe they cannot see the blinders either? More importantly, at least to me: what personal or cultural blinders do we all wear? I want to remove mine, but I have to 'see' them in order to do so. How does one go about learning to 'see' like that?
The next scene is a scientist speaking, and I very much regret not catching his name in time, since I rather liked what he had to say. He explained there were two concepts which the prehistoric artwork exemplified, which we must understand if we are to approach the art with any sort of understanding. The first concept is life's fluidity: humans can transform into lions, a tree may become a human, a wall can speak to you. The second concept is permeability, in that there is no strong, permanent barrier between the world of the spirits and our world.
While describing these two fascinating ideas, the scientist refers to shamans as those who can embody or work with both concepts to the benefit of their community. I am impressed as he actually refers to the shamans as "he or she" also — well done! I'm further intrigued as the scientist notes he believes we shouldn't call ourselves 'homo sapiens,' since we aren't actually inherently wise. He believes we would more accurately style ourselves as 'homo spiritualis,' or humans who are inherently spiritual. I find myself wishing very strongly this thought-provoking and thoughtful scientist had been given more screen time.
As an example of inherent spirituality, we are shown a cave bear skull which has been set up on what appears to be an "altar" rock facing the cave's former entrance. There are small bits of charcoal circling the boulder, which we are told might be the remains of something like incense. Amusingly, my companion later laughingly points out that spirituality is not the first possibility that occurs to him upon hearing of such a set-up — he'd be looking for the discarded equivalents of beer cans instead! I had to laugh at that, although later I wondered: even though we have carved off any hint of spirituality in most of our gatherings out in nature… isn't there a sort of spiritual bonding in a bunch of young men out on their walkabout — or from another perspective, out getting high together in a dangerous place?
Shifting back to Monney, the French scientist who was formerly the circus performer, we receive yet more fascinating data, as he notes that study of the different cultures of rock art creators offer us the potential for better understanding of, and different ways of looking at, the prehistoric art. He relates a story of an ethnographer in the 1970s who was taking shelter with his native Aborigine informant in a cave that had ancient paintings in it. The Aborigine appeared sad due to the decaying appearance of the paintings, and after a while he started touching the paintings up. Surprised, the ethnographer asked him why he was painting. The man replied: "I am not painting. It is the hand of the spirit who is now painting." As Monney noted, the man became part of spirit.
That gave me wonderful mental chills, as if we were on the edge of something amazing. Looking at paintings of open-mouthed lionesses continues that eerie/wonderful feeling: are these simply great predators panting after the hunt? Or are they some manifestation of spirit, of the painters calling to us-the-viewers across millennia? Looking at the pregnant, shyly wary pony painted in the very, very deepest niche of the entire cave complex: is this a reflection of real life, where pregnant mares wander off alone and hide for the few hours necessary to give birth — making it both the most dangerous and most miraculous time for both them and their foal? Is this half-hidden mare with bowing front legs painted at the precise moment of greatest vulnerability, kneeling in order to give birth in this dark, small, sheltered rocky niche? Is she a metaphor for the niche itself; perhaps for the entire cave complex?
Bestiaries depict mythical, moralizing animals, but are also potential allegorical sparks that can bloom into brilliant mental bonfires. My bestiary is this mythologizing animal's fascinated exploration of beauty & meaning in the wonder of existence -- in the hopes of inspiring yet more joyous flares of intellectual passion.
Help yourself & me too!