Cave of Forgotten Dreams, pt. 4
Also shown during the tour was a wall with a series of red rhinos with, underneath them, “positive” handprints (i.e. you paint your palm, then press it to the wall, just like near the original cave opening) and a partial circle of nine red dots. There was a niche nearby with torch swipes on the rocks there as well, with carbon ‘crumbs’ under them which had been dated to about 28,000 years old.
Next Baffier pointed out the artwork which she said proved the prehistoric lions were the maneless sort. There were two line-drawings of the dorsal half of two lions with no manes, one overlapping the other. This art has been dated to about 30,000 years old — it’s the included photo next to this paragraph. The taller and larger of the two lions is about 6′ long, and Baffier pointed out the “scrotal bump” which she said proved that particular lion was male. Since the other is smaller, she added, this showed it was a female.
However, I had two issues with these assertions. First, if you look closely, it appears the “female” has a bump in the same location. So does that mean the artwork is of two lions and you simply can’t tell their gender, or does it mean Baffier has no idea what she’s talking about — or both? Maneless lions are not common, but even today some still exist — and unlike maned lions (where all the adult males eventually head off alone), maneless brothers will sometimes remain friends, stick together, and hunt together. Further, if Baffier is going to sex animals as male by the presence of possible squiggles to denote gender, then shouldn’t that logically infer that she should also assume all the many animals without such squiggles are all female?
At this point in the film Baffier leads the camera crew into the furthest, deepest cave. Testing revealed there was a constant, low level of CO2 seepage there, so for health reasons the time they were able to spend in that cave was even shorter than the others. That’s a real shame, since this cave has some of the most wonderful art of all — including the stalactite some distance off the walkway which has on its further side the only human depiction in the entire cave system! The camera man had to put his camera on a long stick so it could be rotated slowly around the stalactite to take shots of the art from all sides.
Even more fascinating, the figure portrayed is female: a woman’s lower body from about the hips down to the ankles, with a large and strongly charcoaled pubic triangle and a clear vulval opening. The subject matter, plus its depiction on the side of the stalactite which faces the wall, makes me believe the artists were attempting to convey numinousness. The mystery inherent in the art is compounded by her attendants: on her right (although it is not shown in the movie) a large lion(ess?) faces away as it flanks her — or joins with her upper body? -while on her left (the viewer’s right) is a shaggy, humped aurochs or wisent head which appears to be rearing up by her thigh as if covering a cow. All three entities are line art of mostly unfinished figures, the charcoal marks suggesting more than defining, which I suspect added to the sacred mystery for its prehistoric viewers. You cannot clearly tell at all, for example, if the two flanking animals are female or male, partly human or wholly animal.
Then, without warning, the movie cuts away abruptly to show us statuettes of what are consistently referred to as “Venuses” — despite the fact that the goddess Venus will not be known and worshipped for a good 20 or 30 thousand years. Since there are almost no human-artifact remains in Chauvet, I guess Herzog wanted to take a look at three dimensional versions similar to the painted Lady of Chauvet. We are given a quick glimpse of the lower half of a copy of the goddess figurine from Willendorf, and then a male scientist enthuses for several minutes about another figure he’s holding. It is a copy of what he says is a maneless-lion-headed man, and he’s utterly fascinated by it, wondering aloud about what it could mean. It is he who, while talking about where the figurine was found, uses the phrase, “…as if the modern human soul awakened here.” I was bleakly amused to note, however, that the “male” figurine’s smooth groin appeared to have labial lips!
More importantly, it would seem to me, is the curious consistency of the symbolism of the cave: the divine feminine with her sacred animals — a bull and a lioness. Why those two animals in particular, so consistently throughout the millennia? Completely aside from the beautiful artwork in Chauvet, there’s the bull-god Apis who is sacred to Isis; Inanna and Dumuzi, her beloved Wild Bull — and then around that time the myths start making the bull violently destructive, such as in the tragedy of Queen Pasiphae and the Minotaur of Crete, or the bull from the sea which Hercules must conquer; and finally the poor bull is but another means by which to manipulate women — such as the rape of Europa by Zeus in the borrowed shape of a bull; or the Golden Calf that so infuriated Moses, cast from the donated jewelry of the tribal women.
The big cats suffer a similar fate through time, it would seem. Inanna is not the only great goddess who rides a lion — demon-slaying Durga does as well. There are also the beautifully spotted leopards of the goddess of Catal Huyuk, as well as lioness-headed Sekhmet and cat-headed Bast. The ancient Greeks, of course, have their patrifocused myth of Hercules’ slaying and skinning of the Nemean lion, but both Kybele and Freyja have chariots drawn by beautiful cats of various sizes. Medievally, old women were often burned at the stake with their supposed feline “familiars,” and even today cats remain associated with women, although “pussy” has become a more derogatory connection.
I find myself wondering if the bull and lion are associated with the Goddess because they are material forms for concepts and mysteries which She embodies. Could the bull symbolize life and rampant fecundity, while the lioness symbolizes death but also the promise of rebirth? Might that be why they appear so often with goddesses?
Returning to the movie, we next see a copy of the oldest figurine ever found of a human; it is clearly of a large-breasted woman with a strong vulval aperture (much as the Lady of Chauvet has), and with a ring where the head would be — perhaps so she could be worn as a pendant? Carved of mammoth ivory about 40,000 years ago, she was discovered in the Hohle Fels cave. The archaeologist, Nicholas Conard, points out that the oldest renditions of humanity, both 2D and 3D, are all clearly of women and all with strongly defined sexual attributes. He mentions his theory that they were symbolic of fecundity, both for the people, and for the land and wildlife upon which they depended. I find myself wondering with what reverence Woman must have been viewed then… and wondering also when we forgot that the ability to create life is a miracle.
Interestingly, the sea level then was much lower — today’s England was not an island at that time — and Conard thinks this might have something to do with the relative uniformity of the female goddess figurines across Old Europe. Also, there were still Neanderthals about when this figurine was carved, although to our current knowledge the Neanderthal never created symbolic artifacts. The later musical instruments and other decorative items discovered are believed to have been created instead by our ancestors. Curiously, caves with paintings in them don’t tend to have artifact remains, and the reverse is also true. It’s as if the painted caves were too special to be simply lived in. Also, I was fascinated to hear two archaeologists in the film (a man and a woman archaeologist-intern) discussing a delicate ivory flute which the woman had recently discovered — as she carefully sorted through excavated remains which had been boxed up and put into storage about three decades ago!