III. The Earth
Ice Age artists called upon the largest and most massive animals they knew, namely the bison and the pachyderms, to visually represent the solid matter of the earth, its soil and its rocks, the very elements that frame and support all life. The bison’s large hump, often exaggerated by the artists, made it a ready image of the surface of the earth with its hills and valleys, just as the huge mammoth provided the living model for the mountains; the brute rhinoceros stood for the roughest, most forbidding mountain ridges and peaks. These motifs were often brought together by superimposed figures, whereby the compositions could approach some early form of “landscape painting,” but the aim was different. The bison as an image of the earth embodied the friendlier, soft and life-sustaining forces of the soil; the pachyderms as emblematic of the rocky mountains rather stood for everything hard and confining in nature. The artists would bring out this contrast wherever the two sets of motifs appeared jointly. Generally, images of the bison carry associations to fertility and sustenance of both animal and vegetal life; they convey both the abundance of the milder seasons of the year and the notion of protection of seeds in the ground during winter. Figures of mammoths by comparison imply hardship, barrenness, and the oppressive conditions of winter and frost; the rhinos even add a note of destruction and fury.
Representative of the most basic elements of existence, these motifs were inherently significant to Ice Age ideas about the earliest beginnings of the cosmos. Almost universally, myths of creation play out against the notion of an original abyss–dark, shapeless, and watery–from which the earth once emerged, originally generated out of just a grain of sand or a patch of soil (to mention but one version of a universal mythologem). This essential concept was readily framed by the nature of many decorated caves with their, sometimes accessible, sometimes just audible, subterranean pools and streams, and their deposits of wet clay or dunes of sandy soil. For the artists, these locations recalled the scene of original creation. Repeatedly, the true significance of such natural manifestations is brought out by means of bison figures. As for the mammoths, the artists invariably found their forms to be already embedded in large calcite formations and hardened stalagmitic flows. The ageless cave-spaces invited images that showed how the hard and cold side of matter was present right from the beginning of the world, inherently counteracting the friendly, pliable and tempered, side of creation.
This fundamental conflict, deeply rooted in cosmology, served the artists as a means to structure their decorative schemes by stressing the contrast between those segments of caves that project negative, restrictive forces, such as cramped and dangerous sections, and those areas that project positive, expansive forces, including wide and tall rooms. Intent on emphasizing the positive qualities of the earth, the artists might describe a progression from panels of black (that is, cold) images to panels of red (that is, warm) ones, or more dramatically, they might trace a development from figures of bison and mammoths that are shown as static (old, paralyzed, or dead) to figures of the same animals that are shown as energetic (alive, mobile, mating, with young). At points of transition between cave sections, mammoths or bison may also be shown in a transformative mode, drastically changed from agents of confinement in the inner cave, to agents of liberation beyond. Mammoths, in particular, may first resemble enclosing walls, and then, yield like opening gates.
At deep pits, descending passages, or other thresholds between lower and upper levels, inner and outer cave regions, we frequently find bluntly vertical figures of bison, heads directed up or down. The ominous locations and the odd direction of the figures here combine to articulate the dynamics of an emerge from, or a return to, the realm of the watery underworld–the primordial womb of all that exists. These strangely tilted figures tell us that the bison, though often likened to the physical earth, more profoundly represents the earth’s inherent powers. Furthermore, we see that when these powers were depleted, they had to be replenished through a return to the oceanic abyss that remains the ultimate source of all renewal. Eventually, the bison/earth returns from contact with that primordial realm, virtually re-created, with a new lease of vital energies.
This return to the primeval matrix of creation–the “eternal return,” to use Mircea Eliade’s phrase–also finds expression in the belief that the cave itself is the womb of the earth, a concept that frequently was presented in direct, physical terms whereby specific sections were designated as the cave’s uterus, its birth-canal, and its vagina. In a number of cases, it appears that the cave itself was personified by a Mother Earth-like deity portrayed in, often raw, sculptural form. Virtually all the caves engage in comparable references, usually in the form of engraved or painted vulvas, or by way of red ocher enhancement around vagina-like cavities and fissures. Of course, the artists included male counterparts in the form of phallic designs, painted stalagmites and stalactites, or male dancers wearing bison bull masks. At the heart of all this is an elementary feeling of the earth as a living, maternal body that sustains human life, a belief not unlike what we know from native tribes of North America, some of whom, indeed, associated the bison with the earth.
The scenes of the life of the earth, as conveyed primarily through animal imagery, are accompanied by a number of signs, ideograms that articulate related concepts in often more abstract or speculative form. Some of these signs are simple representations of earth-mounds that refer to the first appearance of the element, and often these signs are simplified renditions of just the back of a bison. Other signs are square or rectangular and refer to the ordering of the earth through the cardinal directions. According to an alternative tradition, some signs present the earth as a rounded container of seeds or sperm. In some of the more complex panels of ideograms, the sign-language traces the early development of the earth through stages of expansion, solidification, and structural layering–processes that all emanate from an assumed geographical center (“navel”) of the earth, which is marked as well, usually by a central divider within the earth signs. (January 2016).