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Symbols from the Sky in Cave Art

18 September 2010

See http://seedmagazine.com/content/print/symbols_fromthe_sky/ … sent in by Gary Gilligan this is essentially about Rappengluck’s novel interpretation of cave art – at sites such as Lascaux and executed by Magdalenians (physically modern humans living in the final stages of the Ice Age). Rappengluck suggests the art has heavenly parallels, and dots and freckles on the animals (backs and face etc) actually represent groups of stars in the night sky such as the Hyades and the Pleiades. These star clusters are part of the constellation of Taurus and in the cave art they are associated with an auroch – a prehistoric European bull.

Over the years the cave art has been variously interpreted – sometimes by what is fashionable at the time. Firstly, they were viewed innocently and it was thought they were simply decorative, art for art’s sake, evidence of a prehistoric Van Gogh or Da Vinci. Of course, the likes of Vincent had an agenda, and Leonardo is famous for his religious paintings on ceilings of churches so it was not surprising that later the idea developed, among anthropologists I imagine, that the paintings were sympathetic magic, a part of hunting ritual. Others suggested the Bull was a fertility symbol and the art was all about virility – commonly associated with big animals like horses and bulls. The fertility interpretation gained momentum in the 1960s as it percolated into the academic consciousness from the New Age and from the ideas of Marija Gimbutas. After all, what were caves for if not for some kind of fertility, being dark and mysterious places or prehistoric temples to some kind of God or Goddess. Simple explanations appear to be excluded but when all the avenues were explored about the insides of caves and humans the idea that the animals symbolised the changing seasons developed – associated with constellations in the sky at particular times of the year. A sort of Hamlet’s Mill in paint on the walls of Lascaux. Rappengluck has taken this a stage further by actually identifying the individual star clusters associated with the animals and in doing so he has brought a bit of realism into the subject – but he is being strongly resisted by others. It is probably a minority view that may never gain traction as symbolism is much preferred when authors can wax on about the human psyche. Archaeologists and other scientists really do not like astronomy of any kind – even when it is staring up at them straight in their faces. The problem of course is they can’t think of a reason why humans at any point in the past should have been taking an interest in the sky – they aren’t interested in the upstairs so why would primitive people have taken the trouble to build structures to look at the heavens at particular points in time during the year. It doesn’t make sense from a practical point of view even though it is largely accepted that the same people that did the cave art were also using a rudimentary lunar calendar – so there must have been something going on. However, when the ideas of catastrophists such as Velikovsky and Firestone et al, or the more prosaic Clube and Napier theory, one is left with the feeling that yes, they could very well have been extremely interested in star clusters such as the Hyades or the Pleiades, Ursa Major, Bootes, and others, and yes, there might be a very real reason why prehistoric people were interested in the motions of the Moon, as Alexander Thom was convinced in the more recent past.

Note … the idea that the bull was associated with stars in the constellation of Taurus (the bull in the heavens) as early as the Late Pleistocene epoch must have implications. We know a bull featured in the art at Catal Huyuk, where it was also interpreted symbolically rather than astronomically, and in the early Mediterranean region at large. It survived as the Minotaur, the Spanish practise of bull fights, and cattle cults and rituals involving eating the meat of bovines. The era in which the zodiac was invented is assumed to be the third or even the second millennium BC but Rappengluck’s ideas might push that further back in time. There was a suggestion that the flood tradition went back to the 4th or 5th millenniums and this appears to have an astrological association so what might happen if this was dated even earlier. How much of legend and myth might have a parallel in the Pleistocene?

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