XI. The Proto-Zodiac
While momentary celestial events–like comet sightings, or solar eclipses–are too ephemeral to be traced in Palaeolithic art, long-term phenomena–like zoidacal constellations–may be feasible topics of study, because they were potentially durable (valid for thousands of years), useful (as seasonal indicators), and possibly of symbolic significance. The present study is focused on constellations of the zodiac, and argues that three of our twelve zodiacal stations were acknowledged in Palaeolithic astronomy and appeared already in early cave sanctuaries, namely, the aurochs bull/Taurus, the ibex/Capricornus, and, the lion/Leo. Such longevity of astronomical observations are, admittedly, a challenging concept, but we may recall that certain constellations have a recorded history of several thousand years, and that we can not discard evidence (in Near Eastern imagery) of even twice that age. For sure, a major constellation is prone to retain its symbolic image, once that form has become a fixture of traditional lore.
To the above three, we shall add a fourth zodiacal image, namely the rhinoceros, as the predecessor of the historical scorpion/Scorpius. Because the four constellations in question are spaced between two and four months apart, that is, separated by approximately a full season, their mutual relationships within the framework of a decorated cave allowed the artists to effectively trace the progress of the sun throughout the year merely based on these four cornerstones of early astronomy. Toward the end of the cave art era, following drastic changes in climate and fauna, the rhinoceros disappeared from the imagery, just as the lion/Leo also became increasingly scarce in cave art. Instead, other zodiacal images–including Aquarius, Pisces–grew in importance.
Numerous visual arrangements in cave art readily suggest astronomical events, including a great number of juxtapositions involving the horse (the sun) and one of the zodiacal motifs, as well as many configurations of two zodiacal motifs (in sequence or in opposition). Ultimately, the reliability of an astronomical interpretation must rely on a consistent match between each of the supposed zodiacal images and each figure of a horse in a given cave–all relative to the seasonal narrative of that cave. (January, 2016).
An addendum (Part Five) investigates an eight-year calendar that kept lunar and solar years synchronized with fair accuracy. (May 2017). Part Four remains to be written (2018).
(April 2015/May 2016/ May 2017)):
PART ONE: THE ERA OF LASCAUX
For most of human history the sky was the only clock and calendar. On a daily basis, sky watchers of the Upper Palaeolithic checked the moon; to follow the progression of the year they, like people of later cultures, kept track of the shifting positions of the sun as it moves southwards along the horizon between summer and winter, and vice-versa. In so doing, the observers noticed the gradually changing relationship between the sun and the stars, notably in the case of those constellations that mark off the sun’s (and the moon’s) path. Some of these constellations might be highly visible in winter but would then become inconspicuous in summer, while others were prominent either in spring or in fall; the changing appearances of these select constellations made them useful as seasonal indicators. For example, a given constellation might rise shortly after sunset in spring evenings, in which case it would be visible all night long; by fall, however, that same constellation would be obliterated by the light of the setting sun and even disappear for a while (the sun being “in” that constellation at that time of the year). These reliable events were made useful because select constellations were each associated with a specific visual motif, typically one of the major animal species of the artists’ repertory. The shifting fortunes of these constellations in the course of the year, thus, assumed symbolic significance, which made it easy and engaging for observers to follow the course of the year and for artists to provide clear references to seasons in the narratives of cave decorations.
When Ice Age art was discovered in the late 19th century, astronomy was not yet an integral part of cultural anthropology, and early studies of Upper Palaeolithic images ignored sky lore beyond generalizations about, for example, the moon-symbolism of the “Venus of Laussel” and her notched horn. However, from the 1970s to the 1990s, the growing awareness of astronomy in rock art–notably in North American petroglyphs–brought the recognition, that the regular patterns of the skies were basic to Palaeolithic hunter/gatherers’ concept of time and space. Alexander Marshack’s The Roots of Civilization (1972/1991) focused attention on time-factored features in the art works, mainly in images of animals and plants with seasonal implications, but also in notational marks on many stone and bone artifacts that suggest regular observations of the moon’s phases.
Marshack also speculated that Upper Palaeolithic people watched the sun’s yearly movement along the horizon, but he shrank from the topic of star watching. Yet, we need not doubt that people of the Upper Palaeolithic saw constellations in the sky. Gestalt Psychology confirms the inherently human propensity for seeing shapes rather than isolated points, hence constellations rather than disparate stars. Early historical sources show that particular animal species have served as images of specific constellations for several thousand years, and proto-historical images of some of these animals accompanied by asterisks (probably stars) indicate that certain constellations–Taurus, Leo, Capricornus, and others–have lasted for twice that long (Hartner 1965). The extensive use of wild animals as images of major historical constellations (bear, swan, lion, etc.) points further back into prehistory, apparently to an age before Neolithic farming cultures. Even for the Paleolithic age, some scholars have long suspected that one painted figure in the Shaft of Lascaux–part swan, part human–may be the prototype for the historical Cygnus, the Swan, which suggests that some constellations may have lasted for even tens of thousand of years (Rappenglück 1999).
Because seasonal themes are significant in most decorated caves (cf. Chapter VII) and because the horse–as an image of the solar year (cf. Chapter V) dominates some major caves, besides being a presence in most other caves, we may hypothetically assume that the artists took a particular interest in the circle of constellations along the ecliptic, the path of the sun. These constellations, which comprise our zodiac, are the milestones that mark the sun’s course through the year, thereby signaling the changes of seasons. We shall investigate the knowledge and use of this calendrical function of the zodiac as reflected in the art of the caves.
Early star gazers may have recognized fewer stations around the ecliptic than the twelve of the historical zodiac. In any case, of these twelve, only eight are animals (or, part animal), and of these eight only four were also depicted by the cave artists. These four–aurochs, ibex, lion, and fish–could, however, be very old, whereas three other species (crab, ram, scorpion) must be younger symbols.
We shall examine evidence that suggests some elementary, embryonic version of our zodiac in the Upper Palaeolithic. This thesis has, of course, been stated before, for example by the artist/philosopher Asger Jorn, whose book about the zodiac and the Wheel-of-Fortune (1957) assumed that some images of zodiacal constellations–including Taurus, Leo, and Sagittarius–date back to the hunters of the Upper Palaeolithic. Such speculations, however, did not gain credibility until decades later, with the discovery of the ancestor of Taurus among the paintings of Lascaux.
The Taurus of Lascaux
In the 1990s, with the increasing interest in archaeoastronomy, a number of scholars independently noticed the profound similarity between one giant white aurochs bull in Lascaux and the historical Taurus (Antequera Congregado 1994; Edge 1997). This proto-type of our current Taurus constellation is featured in the cave’s famous frieze of white bulls (Fig. 1b, and Fig. 2, to the right). The largest of the white aurochs bulls in the Rotunda is, certainly, a close counterpart to the familiar Taurus (compare Fig. 1a and Fig. 1b). A group of conspicuous dots on the bull’s face mimics the shape of the Hyades, with the first-magnitude star Aldebaran as the eye, like in the current Taurus. We recognize the angular shape of the Hyades, with the upper leg of the “V” composed of a line of four dots (from Gamma to Epsilon Tauri), and the lower leg marked by Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri). Astronomer Frank Edge even argues that the shape of the “V” of the Lascaux Hyades agrees with a small shift in the location of Aldebaran within the constellation over the course of the last twenty millennia (Edge 1997, 16-17).
The fact that these dots are also natural markings in the animal’s fur does not speak against a mythological reading, but rather agrees with historical evidence, as exemplified by the cult of the Egyptian Apis bull, whose natural markings revealed his sacred nature. As for the Lascaux bull’s extremely long horns, they seem intended to pick up the only two bright stars available for marking the tips of Taurus’ horns (including Beta Tauri, called El Nath, “The Butting One”). The bull of Lascaux mirrors almost to perfection the actual configuration of stars, and to eliminate any doubt, the six dots above the bull imitate the shape of the Pleiades, the star cluster that throughout the world is variously seen as comprising six or seven stars, and which in Western zodiacs is still depicted above the shoulder of Taurus.
To these observations we may add that the figure of the bull is painted on the tall, domed ceiling of the Rotunda, an almost planetarium-like setting that contributes to the spectacle of a celestial object. This is the more compelling as the figure spreads across the fullest expanse of the dome (Fig. 2). In fact, the bull in question is plainly the largest extant figure from all of Palaeolithic cave art! The author of this exceptional work was certainly not casual about its sparse details. We have no compelling reason to question the identity of the Taurus of Lascaux. We do, however, have reason to test this conclusion against the seasonal program of the decoration and the the iconography of the cave with its predominance of solar horses.
The skies of Lascaux
The painted representation of the Palaeolithic Taurus is an image of extraordinary magnitude, executed on a pristine wall-face, in the most prominent location within a major cave sanctuary, all of which suggests that the world of the night skies was a significant theme, certainly at Lascaux and possibly in other decorated caves. Initially, this figure is only one example of its kind, but a review of other images of aurochs bulls at Lascaux may determine if they, too, represented the celestial Taurus and if they all related to the seasonal program of the cave’s decoration.
A reading of astronomical symbols in Ice Age art must take notice of the slow-but-steady change whereby the location of the sun within the zodiac shifts forward by one constellation in roughly 2,000 years (the so-called precession of the equinox). In a given age, the sun may be in Taurus at the time of the vernal equinox, but 13,000 years later, that same event–the sun in Taurus–would, to the contrary, mark the fall equinox. This poses a challenge to our chronology of cave art, for in order to know what the seasonal skies looked like when a given cave was decorated, we must know the age of the decoration; once an approximate date is determined, we can test representations of the four zodiacal motifs against our knowledge of the seasonal appearances of the four constellations at that time.
Even in the best of cases, we have only approximate dates for cave decorations, but this inaccuracy is largely compensated for by the fact that, for a given zodiacal constellation, significant changes of seasonal references occur over a very long period of time; typically, a particular reference is good for at least 2,000 years. Fortunately, this gives us some leeway. From proto-historic and early historic sources we know that people successfully adjusted their readings of the skies to match the actual seasons, so that zodiacal constellations have remained useful for calendrical purposes throughout the last approximately 5,000 years. We may assume that Ice Age populations likewise–slowly and perhaps imperceptibly–fine tuned their seasonal narratives to reflect the changing skies..
In the present age, Taurus is a winter constellation, but this was not necessarily so in earlier ages, because the correlation between the constellations and the sun–that is, between constellations and seasons–changes, slowly but steadily, during a 26,000-year cycle known as the “precession of the equinox.” In order to determine what season was implied by the Taurus in the Rotunda of Lascaux we must, therefore, determine the age of the cave’s art works, which is a complicated process that must negotiate a range of distinct dates and adjust well-established mistakes in the literature on the cave. Prehistorians have for more than half a century been guided by carbon 14 dates for Lascaux that go back no farther than approximately 17,000 BP (i.e., “before the present”), and which place the decoration in the early Magdalenian age; for several reasons, this attribution is no longer convincing. Since the time (the 1950s) when the familiar carbon 14 dates were obtained, it has become clear that a systemic error of the radiometric procedure requires calibrations that may add about two thousand years for the era of Lascaux, extending the upper range of carbon 14 dates to about 19,000 BP. To this comes, however, the evidence of an alternative carbon 14 date (from the 1990s) for a bone artifact from the cave. This item yields the date of 18,600 +/- 190 BP (Aujoulat 2004, 59), or, calibrated, 22,219 +/- 384 BP (using the CalPal 2007 online calibration tool). Though prehistorians tend to treat this date as aberrant, it may not be readily dismissed, for the bone in question belongs to a cache of similar spear points found at the foot of a painted panel in the deep Shaft. Significantly, these artifacts also relate visually to the wall art, because one of them carries a specific sign (see Fig. 6b) that is identical to one engraved on the figure of a horse in the Nave (Fig. 6c). As the deposition of these bone points most likely post-date the paintings of the Shaft, we can not exclude the possibility of a date close to 23,000 BP for the murals of Lascaux.
The fauna depicted at Lascaux may provide another argument in favor of such an early date. The strong presence of aurochs and red deer–as opposed to bison and reindeer–speaks for a temperate climate such as prevailed during one of the intermediate periods of the Ice Age. Traditionally, the so-called ”Lascaux Interstadial,” between roughly 21,000 BP and 18,000 BP (calibrated), has been acknowledged as fit for the cave’s decoration. The impact of this particular warming episode has, however, been disputed (for example, by Soledad Corchón 1999), and with the adjusted, older date for Lascaux in mind, we may rather associate Lascaux with the better established “Laugerie Interstadial,” roughly between 23,500 BP and 22,000 BP. This earlier period of relative warming is clearly detectable in the Greenland ice core samples and is sustained by other climate studies (Rivera Arrizabilaga 2004). Almost certainly, the period preceding 24,000 BP saw severe climatic conditions that were incompatible with the temperal fauna of Lascaux, while a period of severe cold, around 21,000 BP, separated the two warming episodes in question. Ultimately, we must accept the wide range of feasible dates between 23,000 BP and 20,000 BP.
Finally, a comparison between Lascaux and caves with similar, better dated, art speaks for the earlier date of approximately 23,000 BP. Notably, the imagery of Lascaux aligns well with the works from the second phase of Cosquer, a body of art that yields calibrated carbon 14 dates of roughly 21,000 – 23,500 BP. Cosquer conforms to Lascaux stylistically, for example, in the articulation of the muzzles of horses, the attachment of the horns of ibexes, and the shape of the horns of bison (Clottes and Courtin 1996, 172-73). Thematically, too, we find such parallels as a bracket-like arch cut through by the horns of an ibex (ibid. 121, our Fig. 17), and of particular relevance to the present study, an aurochs bull with enormous horns (ibid. 103), which is the largest figure of Cosquer and which is located at the highest point of the ceiling in the cave’s great hall, and thus, a close parallel to both appearance and setting of the largest of the bulls in Lascaux. In general, the painted aurochs of Lascaux resemble figures of aurochs that are engraved or sculpted on objects from Fourneau-du-Diable and Le Placard, both sites of unquestioned Solutrean dates, probably pre-dating 20,000 BP (Aujoulat 2004, 60-61).
We have chosen the date of 23,000 BP for three reasons: first, this is the upper-most limit suggested by the known evidence; second, knowledge of the skies in any given age probably was conservative rather than progressive, reflecting centuries of obserervations and testing; and third, the first lay-out of a decoration would reflect this reality and set the frame for later images, even additions over many centuries. Our charts of the seasonal skies of Lascaux pertain to roughly 23,000 BP (Fig. 3A, andFig. 3B ), but they also readily apply to 22,000 BP, at which time events in the sky would occur in the same season, only some ten days later. If, however, the charts are applied to an age closer to, say, 20,000 BP some adjustments would be needed, because a given constellation that, for example, marked spring around 23,000 BP, rather would characterize summer three thousand years later. Even so, the implied changes would not have forced the artists of the later age to completely change their repertory of visual themes and formulations; after all, an advance by less than three thousand years would answer to a difference of only about half a season, and not require a total shift of paradigm. Bear in mind that the following discussion is focused on constellations that lie on the path of the sun–ancestors of the later zodiac–and that this approach to prehistoric astronomy benefits from the fact that the relationship between a given constellation of the zodiac (for example, Taurus) and a particular season (for example, the spring) will remain relevant for at least two thousand years, namely during the entire age it takes for the sun to move into the vicinity of that constellation, to traverse it, and to pass on to the following one.
Another source of uncertainty, adding to our open-ended chronology, is our ignorance about the observational practices of Palaeolithic star gazers. We do not know how they defined the solstices, which they may have perceived as periods of days, even a week or more, rather than one particular day. Likewise, contemporaries of the artists may not have recognized the equinoxes beyond a general awareness of the balance between days and nights. Feasibly, the artists of Lascaux –like their heirs, the Celts–observed the ”cross-quarter” days (early February, May, August, and November) that, fully as well as the solstices and equinoxes, match the real changes in seasonal weather. Furthermore, we ignore if their sky lore was tied to the moon and its phases, a practice that could shift significant moments of the year back and forth by several weeks. Sky gazing in a prehistoric culture was necessarily less systematic than early historic practices that involved written records. We may assume that Palaeolithic observers primarily studied the skies early in the evening as the stars came out, and that they most likely paid little attention to events throughout the night (midnight was probably a fuzzy concept without timepieces). If they rose early, they looked for constellations that had re-appeared to the sky just before sun rise, particularly if the return of those stars was eagerly anticipated and symbolically significant.
The above-mentioned shortcomings caution against a too exact presentation of Upper Palaeolithic astronomy. Our charts acknowledge this uncertainty by the use of schematic renditions of the night skies and conventional images of constellations. As our study is focused on the sun’s path across the sky, the charts look toward the south. It is assumed that Palaeolithic sky watchers typically restricted their observations to the times of the rising and setting of the sun (midnight was hardly a useful point of reference for a culture without clocks). At those moments, observers checked the location of the sun against horizon markers and noticed the positions of select stars. The sun’s entrance into a constellation–that is, a station of the zodiac–was readily anticipated by the sky-watcher who regularly followed that constellation in its gradual movement toward the west and toward its eventual conjunction with the sun in the evening (heliacal setting). About a month later, this same sky-watcher would anticipate its reappearance in the east (heliacal rising) just prior to the sunrise.
Taurus in spring
The charts of the skies of Lascaux, which trace the varied appearances of Taurus during the year, show at a glance that spring was the only season during which the skies offered a spectacle to match the image of the exuberant white bull in the Rotunda (cf. Fig. 3A, a). Taurus is the most splendid of the zodiacal constellations, and–in combination with neighboring Orion–one of the most conspicuous configurations in the northern skies (second only to Ursa Major). In the age of Lascaux, Taurus was at its most splendid in spring, after sunset, when the bull constellation was near its peak, close to zenith.
The brilliant appearance of Taurus in spring justified the artists’ use of the sparkling white, calcite-covered wall face of the Rotunda for the body color of the enormous aurochs bulls of the Rotunda, even though the natural hue of the wild bulls (known from specimens still extant in Eastern Europe in historical times) was a dark shade of brown with only a lighter stripe along the back. The brilliant white sheen of the bulls of the Rotunda is, in itself, a celebration of spring after a long, dark winter. Certainly, the concurrence of these two phenomena in the age of Lascaux–the majestic appearance of Taurus and the triumph of spring–motivated the enormity of the white bulls. On this scale, size is certainly a signifier.
The battle between winter and summer
The brilliant white aurochs bulls in the Rotunda convey the appearance of Taurus around the spring equinox (or, assuming a later date, in early summer). The artists’ attention to the constellation and its seasonal appearance should, however, not be taken as evidence of a purely objective interest in astronomy, nor should the frieze be seen as a proto-scientific mapping of the sky. Rather, this figure, as well as the composition at large, served a narrative/dramatic interpretation of a moment in the course of the year, as is strongly suggested by the arrangement of the main figures into two groups of bulls that are pitched against each other (Fig. 2); this situation is, of course, not to be observed in the night sky, where Taurus does not move in opposite directions. The two leading bulls facing each other may recall the fights of male aurochs, but those, naturally, take place in the fall, whereas the timing for the scene in the
Rotunda is the spring. The encounter of the two groups must, then, be seen as a symbolic battle, the more so as the two camps, besides aurochs, also include horses and deer (cf. Fig. 7a, and Fig. 8), which suggests a confrontation on a wider, even cosmic, scale. If we pay attention to the situation of the Rotunda within the cave and to the geographic/cosmic orientation of Lascaux at large, we can not fail to see the scene as the battle between a “winter group” and a “summer group,” representations of the two halves of the year that vie for influence during the unfolding of the spring (cf. Fig. 5a). Comparing the plan of the cave ( Fig. 4) and a diagram of the solstitial positions of the sun (Fig. 6a), we realize the significance of the directions and orientations of the figures: one group moves toward the inner cave, in the direction of the south-east, that is, toward the winter solstice; the other group moves toward the exterior, that is, toward the north-west and the summer solstice. A battle between winter and summer is, indeed, a fitting theme for a composition devoted to spring and/or early summer.
We gain further understanding of the ritual implications of such a battle of the seasons if we focus on the imaginary figure at the beginning of the frieze (Fig. 7a, to the left). The profile of this odd character matches the postures of two persons covered by a large hide in the manner of a Chinese dragon, as shown in the reconstruction (Fig. 7b), where the sagging belly is a skin hanging down loosely, the square head is a mask, and the horns are straight sticks. This masquerade figure is the force behind the contrary move of the entire left-hand section of the frieze that opposes the beneficial move into summer pursued by the right-hand group, and which, thus, goes against the direction prescribed by the basic seasonal scheme of the cave’s program (cf. Fig. 4). With his horns the mischievous character drives the two left-most aurochs bulls in the wrong direction, and with his chest he physically pushes a file of horses–like a fox walks its young–all toward the south-east and winter (Fig. 7a).
As the instigator of the move toward winter, the masked character is, de facto, a personification of winter, comparable to the fur-covered agents of winter familiar from much later rites of spring. His positive counterpart in the ritual battle is the group of male deer that spearheads the right-hand group of bulls (Fig. 8). They represent summer–the forces of growth–in the battle against winter, and we may find the equivalent of their large, wildly branching, antlers in the green branches often carried by the agents of summer in well-documented, ceremonies that celebrate spring. Foremost among the deer is an all-red stag with surreal, flame-shaped red antlers that are superimposed, quite demonstratively, on the nostrils of the foremost winter bull (Fig. 8, left), thereby showing that heat, the fiery breath of life, is infused into the bull so as to break the grip of the frost spirit. (See color photos, for example in Aujoulat 2004, 66-67, 86-87. The connection between stags and fire is discussed in Chapter VI). In the same vein, the “winter spirit” at first succeeds in coaxing the file of black horses (the sun in winter; cf. Chapter V), but he eventually looses control as they grow, gain color, and rise to the top of the sky (the dome), revealing the sun’s growing strength with the advance of spring. The description of a staged battle between seasons accounts for much in the frieze that does not directly mirror events in the skies, but the ritual theme also explains why the artists chose to spell out the celestial identity of the aurochs bull, by means of the explicit, tell-tale configuration of dots that reflect specific stars (the Pleiades, etc.) and why they did so by way of an image of unprecedented size: the colossal figure proclaimed the triumph of Taurus in spring, when this constellation announced the return of summer. Its cosmic nature spelled out and its sexualized power highlighted, this figure projects everything in nature that, with the unfolding of the revived year, is energized and pushing forward and upward (the figure appears to be seen, literally lifting off; cf. Fig. 2).
The microcosm of the cave
The animated spectacle of the frieze of white bulls agrees well with the date of ca. 23,000 BP assigned to Lascaux, for in the following millennia, Taurus would increasingly become a sign of summer, so that the Rotunda’s combat between winter and summer would become increasingly irrelevant; conversely, in preceding millennia, Taurus would have been a winter constellation, emblematic of a season when the coming of spring could only be wishful thinking. Our charts of the skies of Lascaux may therefore be considered reliable points of reference, as we proceed to investigate the seasonal implications of the other figures of aurochs bulls in the cave.
Lascaux has about fifteen images of aurochs bulls, and if our thesis about their astronomical implications is right, they must all relate to Taurus, and each must reflect the situation of Taurus at the time of the year that is indicated by its specific location within the microcosm of the cave. While the artists made full use of the grand Rotunda and the five large bulls located there in order to celebrate the appearance of Taurus in spring, the remaining nine aurochs bulls are in other sections of the cave and suggest different seasons. Determination of the seasonal associations of individual sections of the cave is, fortunately, possible without guesswork due to the consistent and logical set of references applied by the artists according to the actual, nature-given lay-out of the cave itself.
The decoration of Lascaux reflects a world model in which the four solstitial positions–rather than our, more abstract, cardinal directions–constituted the corners of the world (cf. Fig. 6a). The artists of Lascaux apparently illustrated precisely this concept, both on a bone point found in the Shaft, and in an engraving on a wall in the Nave (Fig. 6b and c). In agreement with the binary philosophy of the age (cf. Chapter X), this model allows for two complementary interpretations of the year: one divides the year into a summer-half, in which the days are longer than the nights, and a winter-half, in which the nights are longer than the days (cf. Fig. 5a); the other divides the year into a spring-half, during which days get ever longer, and a fall-half, during which days get ever shorter (cf. Fig. 5b).
The longitudinal axis of Lascaux that runs north-to-south through the entire length of the cave (cf. Fig. 4) suggests a binary division of the year into a summer-half and a winter-half (as in Fig. 5a), north meaning summer and south meaning winter. Because the sun is farthest north in summer and farthest south in winter, this scheme fits the cave’s artistic program, which is dedicated to the story of the sun in the image of the horse (Lascaux has several hundred figures of horses) and which finds expression, notably, in the long file of horses moving through the Nave, aiming toward the north and summer. The physical cave space, itself, supports this theme, in so far as the wide, lofty rooms of the northern (outer) cave are compatible with the expansive quality of summer, while the cramped corridors and alcoves of the southern (inner) cave are confining and oppressive, in the likeness of winter. Indeed, the artists emphasized this contrast through the brightly painted panels of the outer cave that differ from the merely engraved (occasionally, darkly colored) images in the back. Incidentally, the artists marked off the boundary between the northern and southern divisions by designating a point close to the middle of the cave as the mid-point of the year and marking it by the symmetrical composition of a “winter bison,” heading south, and a “summer bison,” heading north (cf. Chapter III).
The alternative division of the year into a spring-half and a fall-half (cf. Fig. 5b) applies to the cave’s two side-branches, the Axial Gallery and the Apse. The Axial Gallery is oriented along a line from the summer solstice sunset in north-west to the winter solstice sunrise in south-east (cf. Fig. 4), and the decoration traces the year from mid-summer to mid-winter and back, following the movement of the sun along the horizon, so that the left-hand wall is to be read on entering, progressing from summer toward winter, while the right-hand wall is to be read on leaving, advancing from winter toward summer. The pronounced fall of the floor towards the back of the gallery accentuates the descent into winter, on entering, versus the ascent toward summer, on leaving. The Apse is oriented east-west and is read according to, basically, the same pattern (cf. Fig. 4): the left (southern) wall from summer to winter, followed by the right (northern) wall from winter to summer. Located at the end of the Apse, the Shaft incorporates winter, so that the visitor who descends into–and ascends from– the Shaft moves from the fall-half of the year (the left wall) to the spring-half (the right wall).
Taurus and the aurochs bulls beyond the Rotunda
In the Axial Gallery a large, all black aurochs bull (Fig. 9) contrasts, both by the nature of its location and by its appearance, with the white bulls in the Rotunda. The figure belongs to late summer/early fall in so far as it is placed in the inner half of the downward-sloping gallery, but not quite at the end (south-east and winter solstice; cf. Fig. 4). Correspondingly, the bull’s black hue fits an image of Taurus at the end of the spring-half of the year, most fittingly, after the summer solstice, when the constellation became invisible due to the conjunction with the sun (cf.Fig. 3B, f). A small yellow horse is juxtaposed with the large black figure, and considering the way this horse is tucked in, dovetail-wise, under the bull’s head (Fig. 9, to the left), it may well represent the sun entering the zodiacal constellation Taurus.
While the sun was in Taurus, the constellation remained obscured for more than a month, and it is likely that the disappearance of the constellation following its heliacal setting was symbolically equated with the extinction of its life, in which case a horizontal line drawn across the animal’s eye may signify death (Fig. 9). However, the panel of the black bull also reaches beyond the moment of the constellation’s disappearance, suggesting a wider time frame that includes its eventual return–or, rebirth–at the heliacal rising (its return to the morning sky), which occurred in late summer/early fall ( Fig. 3B, g). Precisely this event is evoked by the multifaceted composition, whereby the bull’s black body is carefully superimposed on four yellow heads of bulls, so as to allow them to be partly visible through the black paint, making sure that their yellow horns clearly protrude above the back of the main figure (Fig. 9). This painterly device generates the effect of light emerging out of darkness, and even of new life sprouting forth from a dead body. Neither the black nor the yellow are the natural colors of the aurochs (no more so than the white of the bulls in the Rotunda), but the play of colors moves the narrative beyond the eclipse of Taurus (black), toward its reappearance (yellow). Taurus would not be re-established in the evening skies until midwinter (cf. Fig. 3B, j), but its reappearance at dawn with the coming of fall was an early promise of the full restoration of the constellation.
The promise of Taurus’ return–the eventual return of spring–was fulfilled on the opposite wall of the gallery (which reads like a boustrophedon) by means of the figure of a white bull that is placed near the middle of the gallery, that is, half-way between winter and summer (Fig. 14, in the center). Only the head is shown, but it suffices to evoke the character of the white bulls of the Rotunda, which entails that the figure initiates the display of Taurus in spring.
The two panels in the Axial Gallery–the black-and-yellow bulls, and the white bull’s head–are the main images (and the only painted ones) outside the Rotunda. Farther inside the cave the role of the aurochs bull is diminished, although the correspondence with the seasons are observed. The Apse, with its jumble of engraved (spot-wise painted) figures, contains three aurochs bulls, all on the northern wall and related to spring/summer (cf. Fig. 4). One is located near the Shaft, indicating early spring (Fig. 11a); the other two are closer to the middle of the room and approach summer (Fig. 11b). These are powerful figures that well match the appearance of Tarus in spring, but they are small in comparison with the large images of the Apse (including a number of large aurochs cows); they function as a commentary on seasonal events, not as the main theme. Finally, the head of an aurochs bull is engraved in the low ceiling of the Passage (Glory’s no. 160, ; Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979, p. 213). Like the above-mentioned head of a white bull in the Axial Gallery, the bull’s head in the Passage prepared the visitor for the return to the Rotunda (cf. Fig. 4), invoking the presence of Taurus in spring.
In conclusion, all of the cave’s aurochs bulls agree with the cosmic orientation and seasonal program of Lascaux. In particular, the description of the staged battle between winter and summer in the Rotunda confirms our assumption that the frieze of giant white bulls celebrated spring, just as the dramatic sequence of colors for the painted bulls in the Axial Gallery–from black, via yellow, to white–captures the transformed appearances of Taurus, first from late summer to fall (on the left wall), then back to spring (on the right wall). The decoration captures the varied states of Taurus through the year, the extremes of defeat and glory of Taurus, from the all-black figure, low in the Axial Gallery to the monumental white one, high in the Rotunda.
Evidence of the proto-zodiac
Taurus is a highly noticeable constellation on the ecliptic (the path of the sun), and while one station does not make a zodiac, this example makes it seems likely that other signal constellations along the ecliptic were noticed as well. This hypothesis does by no means imply that the frieze of white bulls in the Rotunda may be considered a disguised, hermeneutic zodiac, as assumed by some astronomers with a pioneering interest in prehistoric arts. Given that one figure represents Taurus, they have theorized that the neighboring figures (be it another bull, or a horse) represent closely following constellations (Gemini, for example), and so forth, the length of the frieze. This approach relies on arbitrary selections of accidental visual marks–an ear here, a muzzle there–that supposedly match specific stars. Accordingly, different authors see different segments of the zodiac in the frieze: from Taurus to Scorpius (Antequera Congregado [n.d.]); from Taurus to Sagittarius (Frank Edge, according to Lee [n.d.]); or, almost the entire zodiac (Jègues-Wolkiewiez 2000).
The search for sky-maps agrees neither with the visual composition in the Rotunda nor with the files and structured panels elsewhere in Lascaux, and in order to avoid the fallacy of a fixation on maps of stars, we must insist on three criteria: that aurochs bulls represent no other constellation than Taurus; that all aurochs bulls represent Taurus (explicitly, or implicitly); and, that no other animal species represent Taurus. Of course, this is what we find in the historical evidence, where for example, the image of a bull never signifies Pisces, and fishes can not represent Taurus; anything else would obfuscate the visual narrative and defy the very purpose of representing constellations by symbolic images. Palaeolithic cave art functions by way of a traditional iconography that grants defined roles to distinct motifs: the aurochs bull can not be both Taurus and Gemini; the solar horse can neither be Sagittarius at one place and Libra at another place (Jègues-Wolkiewiez 2011, 34, 45), nor can it be Leo at yet a third place (Rappenglück 1999, 165).
The association with Taurus not withstanding, aurochs bulls were obviously used in a variety of contexts without apparent astronomical significance. In the course of Western art history (at least since early Antiquity), wild bulls, fishes or lions have figured with numerous symbolical implications, mostly without specifying their astronomical significance, but also without ever losing their specific association with Taurus, Pisces or Leo. The bull, for example, has figured as the vehicle of weather gods, as the impersonator of rain and rivers, as the voice of thunder, as the main sacrifice in ancestor cults, as the prime emblem of male fertility, as the model of combative energies (Attenborough 1987, for the Mediterranean evidence). All the while, the bull has retained its association with Taurus. Likewise, in the Rotunda of Lascaux, the aurochs bull is not only Taurus, but also the representative of a season, an image of the sky (cf. Chapter IV), and a sexualized, combative symbol. The frieze of the Rotunda is not a static map of the sky, but a dynamic narrative with wide-branching implications.
Beside the aurochs bull, two animals of the current zodiac are represented at Lascaux, namely the ibex and the lion, and the logical next step in our study will be to examine whether these two motifs also corresponded to the modern constellations, that is, to Capricornus and Leo. Lascaux has no fishes, rams, crabs, or scorpions, so we shall initially restrict our investigation to these two motifs.
Proof of their stellar identity will, unfortunately, not come from any obvious similarity between the actual stars and the images, for the group of dots that positively identify the Taurus in the Rotunda of Lascaux remains an exceptional find (for reasons explained above). In any case, perceived similarities between an image and a given constellation are elusive, as visual representations of constellations often lack any resemblance with their celestial model (Ursa Major, for example, is an impossible bear). Occasionally, the Ice Age artists drew star-like signs next to an animal figure, as in the case of a six-pointed star that accompanies a lion in the ceiling of Gabillou (Gaussen 1964, nos. 31 and 21), apparently designating that figure as Leo; or they added heads and horns of goats to geometric triangles in Palomera (Jorda Cerda 1968-69), probably recalling the pronounced triangular shape of Capricornus. Such instances are, however, too rare to support an identification. Ultimately, we rely on context in order to corroborate our hypothesis about the ibexes and lions of Lascaux: the stellar motifs must reflect the seasonal skies that are indicated by the cave’s decorative scheme.
Taurus, Leo, and Capricornus may seem a minimal basis for keeping track of the year, but the principle of the zodiacal circle can be served by far fewer constellations than the present twelve. An embryonic zodiac would be functional, provided that it marked significant moments of the year and registered the changes of seasons. The three solar stations in question would, in fact, meet this minimal demand, because they are distributed in an optimal pattern: approximately 90̊ apart (cf. Fig. 12a), at intervals of roughly three months, or, a full season.
These three constellations could be used to signal several crucial episodes of the solar year (cf. Fig. 12b): Taurus’ prime exposure fell in spring, Leo’s in summer, and Capricornus’ in winter. In between them, they performed a perpetual drama with the bull as the sovereign “hero,” the goat as the aid and “herold,” Leo as the savage “villain,” and the sun as the prize or “grail.” In summer, the demise of Taurus concurred with the peak exposure of Leo (cf. Fig. 3A, e); in the fall, the sun entered the station of Leo just as Capricornus returned to the night sky (Fig. 3B, h); in winter, the prime exposure of Capricornus announced the awaited return of Taurus to the night sky (Fig. 3B, j). These are the events–preferably involving two or more motifs–that we may expect to find illustrated at Lascaux.
Capricornus and Taurus in the Axial Gallery
The cave at large has numerous ibexes, most of which are only partial (heads alone) and many merely engraved, so that two figures in the Axial Gallery stand out as the only two ibexes that are both complete and painted. They show an all-black ibex confronting an all-yellow ibex (Fig. 13b). They are located near the mouth of the Tunnel (which terminates the gallery) and are painted on the right-hand wall, so that they, in the scheme of the cave, follow closely upon winter (cf. Fig. 4). In fact, the situation in the skies at the end of winter provided a match for the striking color-contrast of the two figures. The black ibex recalled the disappearance of Capricornus prior to the spring equinox, when it became the station of the sun ( Fig. 3A, a). The yellow ibex mirrored the return of the constellation in late spring/early summer (cf. Fig. 3A, b, c). Evidently, the re-appearance of Capricornus was perceived as a positive sign, hence the presence of the cave’s only large, complete, and brightly colored ibex. The artists’ attention to this figure is understandable, for the return of Capricornus, appearing just before dawn (its heliacal rising), announced the rise of the rejuvenated spring sun.
The horses that cluster around the yellow ibex (Fig. 13b) extoll the contribution of Capricornus in shaping the course of the year (that is, the life of the solar horse). One particularly revealing detail is the position of a small horse that seemingly grows out of–or, arises from–the body of the ibex, bluntly demonstrating how energy coming from the ibex/Capricornus is infused into the solar image. Without a doubt, this small vertical horse with its front legs in the air is a replica of the large, vertical figure in the immediately preceding panel (Fig. 13a). Both figures show the rebirth of the sun and the emergence of a new, invigorated year, and both show only the forequarters, because the foremost half of the horse represents the first part of the year. As in the Vedic hymn quoted earlier (in Chapter V), the horse’s body is the year, and the front part of the body is the spring; its head is the dawn; its front legs signify spring and summer. Along with the just-mentioned superimposition, the yellow ibex is directly touched by three more horses, one of which has huge front legs that, again, accentuate the fore-part of the horse, signifying the moment of early spring (Fig. 13b).
The horse, in its capacity of the sun, is visibly empowered as it emerges from its union with Capricornus. This renewal of energies becomes apparent in the subsequent move of files of horses along the right-hand wall, toward the north-west and summer (Fig. 14). The movement unfolds in a straight-forward, directional narrative that spans the end of winter, early spring , and early summer. We first see the moment of the sun’s entrance into Capricornus depicted in the form of a horse’s head that is juxtaposed with the black ibex (Fig. 13b, and Fig. 14, to the extreme left). Next, the horse/sun passes through the constellation, as shown by the mentioned horse rising out of the yellow ibex; in turn, the renewed momentum of the sun/year is carried forth by the file of horses beyond the panel of the ibexes (Fig. 14, middle and right).
The above scenario might seem to exaggerate the significance of a minor station of the zodiac, considering that Capricornus is a much weaker, less eye-catching constellation than Taurus. Yet, the less forceful presence suited its supporting role as herald of Taurus: Capricornus at its peak merely prophesied the end of winter, but Taurus at its prime proclaimed the reality of spring. Consequently, as we follow the movement of the dark “winter” horses from the panel of the ibexes to the middle of the gallery, we arrive at the above-mentioned white bull’s head (Fig. 14, in the middle), at which point the horses gain greatly in size and vibrant color (recalling their light-colored summer coat); this change announces the move into early summer (Fig. 14, to the right). Capricornus, however, had no part in the development past the spring, and so, the ibexes are left behind, in the far end of the gallery. In sum, the artistic plan of the Axial Gallery conveys the development of a good portion of the year, its decline and revitalization, with contributions from just the two zodiacal constellations discussed so far.
Capricornus in the Nave and in the Passage
Located in the northernmost end of the Nave, the frieze of seven painted ibexes’ heads (Fig. 15) relates to the transition from spring to summer. This attribution is corroborated by the two figures directly below the frieze: a pregnant mare (indicating late spring) and an aroused stallion (suggesting early summer). The ibexes display striking color contrasts that obviously do not reflect the animals’ natural looks, but which do acknowledge the changing performance of Capricornus between winter and summer. The seven figures are divided into two groups, with three red heads followed by four black heads (Fig. 15). Because all seven figures point in the same direction (toward the north), they represent stages of a development rather than a confrontation between two groups. A likely reading may be that the three red heads show Capricornus in late winter, when the constellation was still a noticeable presence (Fig. 3B, j) while the four black heads stand for Capricornus around the spring equinox, the time of its conjunction with the sun ( Fig. 3A, a). Pursuing this reading, the all-red horns that top the four black heads announce the subsequent revival of Capricornus with its heliacal rising in late spring/early summer (cf. Fig. 3A, b and c). The striking color accent–an artistic effect, not a nature observation–provides a graphically clear illustration of the first glimpse of the reappearing constellation (and recall the horns of the four yellow bulls emerging from the dark in the Axial Gallery, cf. Fig. 9).
The above interpretation furthermore agrees with the numerical symbolism of three-versus-four that is presented via the arrangement of the seven ibexes’ heads. Through the composition and the color scheme, the panel associates the ibexes with the two large horses below: the three red heads align with the red stallion and the four black heads align with the black mare (cf. Fig. 15); this is meaningful, as the number three addresses the world of male energies, including the sky, the sun, and fire (heat is implied by the color red), while the number four pertains to what is female and belongs to the earth and to darkness (cf. Chapter X). Thus, the red ibexes’ heads relate to Capricornus as seen in the sky, while the black ones denote, partly, the constellation’s descent into the netherworld, and partially–by the red horns–their return into the sky. The numerical symbolism at the root of this display is a variant on the scheme we find in the Rotunda (Fig. 2), where the “winter” and “summer” bulls confront each other in a group of two versus a group of three–two being even and exponential of winter, three being odd and related to summer. In the Nave, the horns of the seven ibexes show by their length that the animals are all males, and in so far as the horns are emblematic of male aggressiveness, the red horns on the black heads signify the return of the male force of the ibex constellation from the female sphere of the earth (cf. Fig. 3A, b).
The frieze of red and black ibexes’ heads belong to the confluence of the Nave, the Apse, and the Passage, a section where we find a total of about fifteen images of ibexes that (almost) all consist only of heads without bodies. This fact is not readily explained in purely astronomical terms; rather, we may see the decapitated heads (protomes) as pertaining to a spring sacrifice of ibexes, a rite that was first recognized by Alexander Marshack (1972/1991, 173-79, 217). The aim of this ritual sacrifice was apparently to expedite the progress of spring (cf. Chapter VII); yet, this ritual act was imbued with cosmic implications due to the symbolical identity of ibex / Capricornus: the spring sacrifice of an earthly goat was inherently connected with the spring-time “death” (heliacal setting) of the celestial goat. Consistent with these speculations, we find that the images of decapitated–sacrificed–ibexes are intimately associated with images of horses, plainly to show that the ritual offering served to advance the progress of the sun. Thus, a number of vigorously moving horses, indicative of the quickening of the sun in spring, follow closely on the frieze of seven painted ibexes in the Nave, to continue without delay into the Passage, aiming toward the north and summer (Glory’s nos. 181, 182, 188, 189; Aujoulat 2004, 143), and several of these images show protomes of ibexes juxtaposed with, or directly superimposed on, these horses (Fig. 16a, b), so as to demonstrate Capricornus’ contribution to the renewed vitality of the sun. As in the case of the yellow ibex of the Axial Gallery, the ibex protomes tied to the horses of the Nave and Passage related to the cosmic model, namely, the sun in Capricornus. Again reminicent of the sequence in the Axial Gallery, the horse-and-ibex images of the Passage (Fig. 16) are located close to the above-mentioned head of an aurochs bull, engraved in the low ceiling–uniting the four inter-connected elements of the ibex sacrifice, Capricornus as the station of the sun, the advance of the sun/year, and, the presence of Taurus in spring.
Capricornus and Leo in the Chamber of Felines: the decline of the year
The remaining ibexes in Lascaux are closely associated with images of lions and pertain to a pronounced dichotomy opposing Capricornus and Leo. The main images of lions at Lascaux are gathered in the Chamber of Felines, which is located in the southern part of the cave and is accessed through a “cat-hole” and a narrow tunnel (cf. Fig. 4). As a passage to the southernmost section of the cave and, thus, to winter, the Chamber of Felines more precisely relates to the fall, the threshold of winter (cf. Fig. 5a). In the era of Lascaux, Leo was the station of the sun at this time of the year (cf. Fig. 3B, h and i), and the sun in Leo is, indeed, shown with utmost clarity by the figure of a horse placed between two overpowering lions (Fig. 17), a scene that strikingly illustrates the ominous turn of the year, when the horse/sun was trapped in the constellation of the lion, subject to its lethal power. The rendering of this horse, shown en face, is truly unique among the cave’s hundreds of horses; in fact, it is the only one not shown in profile. Aimed neither right nor left, this particular horse is immobilized, its frontal pose a demonstration of paralysis. The arrested motion makes the frontal horse a defining image of the fall, when the sun has lost its strength and the progress of the year is brought to a halt. As a visual metaphor, the lion was the deadly force behind this negative turn; its celestial manifestation was Leo, the beast of prey in the zodiac.
By its secluded location, its restricted space, and its crude images, the Chamber of Felines stands diametrically opposite to the spacious, vaulted Rotunda with its brilliant white bulls. The Chamber is roughly shaped, too small to hold more than one person, and too low for standing upright. Correspondingly, the figures here are small and merely engraved; some are incomplete or, in the case of the lions, decidedly monstrous (like the two specimens shown in Fig. 17). The accumulation of six grotesque lions at this location made a fitting commentary on the end of the summer-half of the year–the beginning of which was the very subject of the Rotunda.
We can not fail to notice that the Chamber of Felines’ description of Leo as the station of the horse/sun is as deeply negative, as the Axial Gallery’s description of the horse/sun in Capricornus (the yellow ibex) is warmly positive. Leo and Capricornus are positioned opposite to each other in the circle of the zodiac, and their roles in the seasonal drama are stark contrasts as well; this plays out in the symbolic/narrative spectacle of the Chamber. While the immobilized horse among the lions eloquently describes the perils of the sun under the spell of Leo, the Chamber of Felines also presents a counter-force to the lions in the form of a group of ibexes (Fig. 17, to the left). The scene in its entirety would, thus, apply to events in the night sky around the fall equinox, when Leo and Capricornus were both present in the sky: Leo about to enter into conjunction with the sun; Capricornus newly reinstated in the evening sky (cf.Fig. 3B, h). This symbolically charged configuration was possible because the exact antipode to Leo actually is not Capricornus, but Aquarius (cf. Fig. 12a), to the effect that an observer could simultaneously (or in short sequence) watch Leo approaching setting in the west, and Capricornus just emerging above the horizon in the east.
The return of Capricornus to the evening sky in the fall may be illustrated by the black sign that brackets the ibexes (Fig. 17), a broad arc of black paint was placed on the wall before the ibexes were engraved, so that the tips of their horns actually cut through the black paint. The effect is reminiscent of the mentioned black ibexes with red horns in the Nave, and we may assume that the meaning is similar: the black arc represents the earth/netherworld (cf. Chapter III), which is pierced by the horns, as the male energy of the celestial goat breaks free of the retaining realm (cf. the position of Capricornus at the horizon, Fig. 3B, h). The three strokes on the side (Fig. 17) indicate the numerical three, again pointing to the active, sky-related, male principle. In the Chamber of Felines, the polar forces of Leo and Capricornus pull the year in opposite directions: the former threatening to imprison the sun in the depths of the earth; the latter struggling to break the bondage.
Leo, Capricornus, and Taurus in The Apse
While the Chamber of Felines has no images of aurochs bulls (Taurus is inconspicuous in the fall), the Apse has images of all three zodiacal motifs. A small room, yet complete with a sky-like cupola and a crypt-like Shaft, the Apse embraces a wide portion of the year, and its decoration is–like that of the Axial Gallery–composed in accordance with a binary scheme, so that the southern wall reviews the fall-half of the year from late summer to winter, and the northern wall traces the spring-half from the end of winter to summer; winter, then, falls in the innermost Shaft, which is appropriately the most forbidding section of the cave (cf. Fig. 4). We shall trace the zodiacal motifs, moving from fall to winter (the southern wall, east to west), followed by the move from spring to summer (the northern wall, west to east).
Half a dozen small, rather demonic figures in the Apse have been called imaginary creatures (Denis Vialou in Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979, pp. 237, 238, 249, 278), but they are for sure lions. In fact, they resemble the above-mentioned, grotesque lions in the Chamber of Felines, and some among them are also very similar to the undisputed lions in the cave of Roucadour (Coussy 2005). The first, and largest, of the monstrous lions in the Apse (Glory’s no. 520; Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979) is engraved on the southern (fall) side of the Apse, closely preceding a row of wounded horses that are shown in a step-wise descending line–the lowest at floor level–and which are painted black (Glory, nos. 422, 423, 429, 435). Clearly, this shows the demise of the solar year, and the configuration with the grim lion matches the skies: Leo as the ominous station of the sun in the fall. The situation obviously recalls the mentioned paralyzed-horse-among-lions scene in the Chamber of Felines.
Likewise reminiscent of the Chamber of Felines, here too we find the ibex/Capricornus assuming the role as the opponent of Leo in the fall (cf. Fig. 3B, h). An ibex (the first one in the Apse) is engraved above the just-mentioned black horses, and the particular design of this ibex’ horns (Fig. 18), which is unique in Lascaux, subtly signals a turn of events: the splayed perspective of the horns, one curved left, the other right, provides a heraldic symmetry (reiterated in reddish ocher, just below the engraved figure; Fig. 18, bottom) that graphically illustrates the balance between summer and winter just around the equinox, which was the time when Capricornus returned to the night sky to thwart Leo’s “attack” on the sun. This figure is located near the middle of the southern wall, as is compatible with the time of the fall equinox Incidentally, the time around the fall equinox is also indicated by an engraving that is juxtaposed with the ibex and which shows two stags locking horns (Glory’s nos. 396 and 486). These two are the only ones among more than seventy stags in Lascaux to be shown engaged in the characteristic battles of male deer in the fall.; almost certainly, theartists placed them here as a seasonal indicator. To finish the display on the southern wall, we find, at the very end , directly above the Shaft, a group of ibexes (Fig. 19) that we, consequently, may relate to Capricornus as the main winter constellation (cf. Fig. 3B, i).
Across from the just-mentioned group, now on the northern wall, though still at its innermost point, an ibex is shown jumping upwards as if ascending right out of the Shaft (Fig. 10a). With this image the artists moved forward, beyond winter (the Shaft), to late spring and to the heliacal rising of Capricornus. An adjacent panel includes the figure of a lion in a descending pose (Fig. 10b), which matched the setting of Leo at dawn, simultaneous with the rising of Capricornus (cf. Fig. 3A, b).
Advancing along the (lower) northern wall, which pertains to summer, we find, first, three handsome aurochs bulls (Fig. 11a and b), and then, a group of half-a-dozen ugly lions (Fig. 11c). This confrontation, approaching the middle of the northern wall, indicates the situation in early/mid summer, when Leo was advancing in the night sky, but Taurus still maintained its presence, creating a perfect balance of the two antagonists around the center (meridian) of the evening sky ( Fig. 3A, d). Like the bulls, the lions are small against the main figures of the Apse, almost like a footnote (in the bottom range of the wall) that comments on the progression of the year, but are not allowed to impair the hymn to renewal and growth projected by the main figures (stags, horses, aurochs cows, plants, bison) unfolding on the northern wall at large.
Mid-summer, with Leo at its peak, spelled the end of the spring-half of the year and the beginning of the fall-half, and the oddly contorted posture of one of the lions (Fig. 11c, in the center) illustrates this turn by a stunning graphic devise: the lion is twisted so strenuously that its body adopts the shape of an “S.” The figure is reminiscent of other, rather infrequent, images of animals turning their heads to look back, typically with reference to the solstices (like the horse at Pair-non-Pair, for example; cf. Chapter V). With the S-shaped lion, however, the artists of Lascaux anticipated the S-shaped animals (lions, goats, and others) in the much later, proto-historic, “animal style,” art; figures that graphically illustrate significant turning points of the zodiac (Christensen 2003-2004).
This completes the list of zodiacal motifs in the Apse. Other images of aurochs and ibexes found here are either young ones or females (recognizable by their slender forms or short horns). In spite of the amazing crowding of perhaps a thousand figures in this small room, the zodiacal scheme apparently remains intact and recognizable as a kind of sub-text to the larger, dominant images. (For zodiacal theme in the notorious Shaft, see Part Three, below).
The proto-zodiac in the artistic program of Lascaux
Within the artistic program of Lascaux, the three constellations considered above were signposts that marked the chapters in the story of the year. These zodiacal images may be considered the “skeleton” of the narrative, while the hundreds of horses that describe the course of the solar year, its advances and set-backs, so to speak, constitute the “flesh” of the decoration. The function of the proto-zodiac was crucial to the overall unity of the decoration, creating essential continuity to the narrative that unfolded across the three branches of the cave system (aligned with the Axial Gallery, the Nave, and the Apse), each pursuing a distinct sequence of seasonal events. As representatives of an august, seemingly eternal, celestial order, these stations of the zodiac made a coherent narrative both feasible and compelling.
Astronomy was integral to the art of Lascaux, but the artists used their proto-zodiac to suit an artistic program and support a visual celebration of Taurus, spring, and the cycle of the year. In theory, the artists could have chosen to emphasize summer and to give the lion a conspicuous role that would match the prominence of Leo in summer. However, they chose otherwise, not only featuring the brilliant aurochs bulls in the great hall, but also restricting the lions to remote and recessed sections–casting them as small and monstrous figures, at that. The story of the year as told at Lascaux is projected by means of astronomical observations, but the sunny version of that story and the bright ambience of the decoration result from artistic choices.
A parallel to Lascaux: astronomy at Gabillou
The decoration of Gabillou is not dated directly, but appears to be of the same general age as that of Lascaux, and the two caves feature similar imagery, including the three motifs of the proto-zodiac; also, the solar horse is the prevalent motif in both caves. We may, therefore, expect Gabillou to display seasonal observations of the skies following the same pattern as Lascaux. The motivic/stylistic compatibility of the two sites has, in fact, been noticed repeatedly (Gaussen 1964; Clottes 2003), and a few, specific instances may be added to show that such similarities extend to cosmological/seasonal symbolism as well.
The subdivided rectangular signs that are frequent in both caves are used in quite similar ways. For example, by marking the upper, central field by a spear point, as in Gabillou (Fig. 20a), or by a wound-like cut, as in Lascaux (Fig. 20b). In both cases the signs represent the female earth penetrated by the male sun (cf. Chapters III and V). Likewise, both caves contain comparable drawings of spears or arrows that double as phallic images (Fig. 20 f and g), and these ideograms–what Jean Gaussen called “pseudo-arrows” (Gaussen 1964)–are employed in similar fashions; thus, the upwards-directed arrows on a male horse at Lascaux (Fig. 20 e) resonate with the up-turned “pseudo-arrow” on a male horse in Gabillou (Fig. 20 f). Because they are associated with the solar horse, both formulations point to a third function of the “pseudo-arrows,” namely as solar rays. It is hard to miss the similarity of a scene in Lascaux that unites horses, the sun, sexuality, and vegetation (Fig. 20 e), and a matching suite of juxtaposed images in Gabillou that also includes an agitated stallion pursuing a mare, solar arrows, and a vegetation symbol on the body of a horse (Fig. 20 c, d, f). These are closely related descriptions of spring. The fantastic creatures of the two caves are also similar, as evidenced by the long straight horns of some imaginary creatures in Gabillou that recall the stick-like horns of a character in Lascaux (Fig. 20 h and i). Even Gabillou’s notorious group of weird monsters is matched by some unreal creatures in the Apse of Lascaux (Glory’s figures 117/120, in Lerois-Gourhan and Allain 1979).
The skies of Gabillou
The close ties between the two caves indicate that their decorations most likely were separated by decades or centuries, not by millennia, and we may assume that Gabillou, like Lascaux, dates back to roughly 23,000 BP at the most. The charts of the night-skies that apply to Lascaux are, therefore, relevant for Gabillou, the more so as the three stellar motifs of the charts–the aurochs bull, the lion, and the ibex–are well represented in Gabillou, just as their diverse patterns of distribution, here too, suggest distinct seasonal connotations. Like Lascaux, Gabillou is primarily dedicated to the motif of the horse and its solar implications, which is advantageous because scores of horses, present throughout the cave, allow us to test the zodiacal images at different locations against the progression of the solar year.
Though Gabillou consists of only one, fairly straight gallery, as different from the more complex topography of Lascaux, the lay-out of the smaller cave matches a significant portion of the larger one: Gabillou’s overall direction, from entrance to end point, is north-west to south-east (Fig. 21), as with Lascaux’s Rotunda and Axial Gallery (cf. Fig. 4). Here too, this orientation accommodates opposed solar positions of summer solstice and winter solstice, so that the visitor, returning from the end of the cave, partakes of a seasonal progression from winter to summer. The following discussion tracks successive scenes from the back to the front (panels ” A” through “K,” marked off in the left-hand column of the map, Fig. 21), comparing them with the changing night-skies (indicated in the right-hand column ).
Panel “A.” The only lion in the inner cave ( Fig.22 a) is engraved on a protruding rock overhanging the descent into the low and narrow chamber at the very end of the cave. Inside this terminal chamber we find no representations of our three zodiacal motifs, but the lion guarding the descent fits the alignment of the innermost space with the south-east, the lowest reach of the winter sun. Winter was, indeed, the season when Leo was the station of the sun (cf. Fig. 3B i).
Leaving the back chamber and winter behind, we face panel “A,” in which the all-dominant figure is an aurochs that is identified as a bull by its massive shoulder (Fig. 22 b). It is among the largest figures in the cave and fittingly conveys the prominence of Taurus in early spring, particularly approaching the equinox, when the celestial bull commanded the night-sky (cf. the chart in Fig. 21). The ibexes and horses of the panel are subordinate to the large body of this figure so as to show that, in spring, events in the skies happens under the auspices of Taurus. Quite remarkably, one ibex, which first was engraved like all of the cave’s figures, was then enhanced with black paint that covers its head (Fig. 22 b). This is, certainly, an apt representation of the extinction and disappearance of Capricornus around the time of the spring equinox when the constellation was over-powered by the sun (cf. Fig. 21). Furthermore, this ibex assumes a striking pose (unusual in cave art) as it turns its head to look back toward the descent, recalling the Orpheus mythologem: death is the toll of looking back–the more so as that gesture makes it look toward the descent and, thus, winter. To its right, another ibex strikes an opposite stance, moving forward and outward, so that the two figures make a show of the shifting seasons around the equinox; the winter-half of the year lies behind, the summer-half ahead.
The rectangular sign next to the first ibex (Fig. 22 b) commands attention because it–again, in a highly unusual gesture–is painted yellow. The color contrast of black (the ibex’ head) and yellow (the rectangle) is surely reminiscent of the black and yellow ibexes that confront each other in Lascaux, the more so, as both sets of figures are located in the south-eastern end of a gallery. Indeed, both scenes illustrate the transition between two halves of the year with special reference to the disappearance and reappearance of Capricornus. The shining yellow rectangle that is closely tied to the ibex (Fig. 22 b) may allude to another asterism (possibly the Pegasus Square, which conspicuously rises along with Capricornus), but even so, the square may also represent an altar and relate to the above-mentioned sacrifice of an ibex in spring. In any case, the sign is essentially an image of the four-cornered earth, and the fiery yellow color signals the warming of the earth in early spring (cf. Chapter III).
As for the two horses in panel “A” (Fig. 22 b), they are, like the ibexes, demonstratively antithetical: they face in opposite directions, the one facing out with its head lifted, the one facing in with its head lowered. Evidently, they stand for the transition from the winter half of the year to the summer half, as it occurs around the equinox. To emphasize these roles, the horse that stretches upwards is reinforced with red ocher, covering its neck and head, denoting the warming of the sun in spring.
Panel “B.” Once past the equinox, the imagery begins to describe real evidence of spring awakening, at first concentrating on the horse/ibex theme that bridges early and late spring. A scene (Fig. 24 a, b) is focused on a vertical “pseudo-arrow,” its multiple meanings on display: as a phallic image it captures the sexual energies that arise with spring; as a solar ray, pointing upwards, it agrees with the vitality of the rearing/rising horse (the two motifs later combine into one, in panel “E”) signaling the recovery of the sun; composed of three strokes, it also entails the male number “three” (cf. Fig. 20 f, g). Juxtaposed with the ibex (Fig. 24 b), it implies the position of the sun in Capricornus while hinting at the return of the constellation as it rises ahead of the morning sun (cf. Fig. 21).
Panel “C.” In this large panel, which is centered around a horse and crowded with reindeer, the protome of an ibex (Fig. 23 a) again recalls the animation of the spring sun by the sacrifice of an ibex, a theme that, as discussed for Lascaux, pertained to the disappearance of Capricornus (heliacal setting around the equinox) and its subsequent reappearance (heliacal rising in early April). Concurrent with the awakening of the sun, nature’s life starts stirring, which accounts for the most striking feature of this panel, namely the proliferation of reindeer in association with the horse (Fig. 23 a, b, c). These reindeer evoke the north-bound migration of the species, a momentous event in the life of the hunters, and one of the earliest, reliable signs of the coming of spring. The emphasis in the panel and in the surrounding figures is obviously on movement, establishing a symbiotic relationship between the moving herds of reindeer and the movement of the sun, both north-bound. Events in the skies and on earth, thus, coincided and was recognized in arts and rituals.
Panel “D.” The following corridor contains the cave’s only image of a bear. As it comes out of the narrowing, it portrays the emergence from hibernation as another sure harbinger of spring. Here we also find an aurochs bull; smaller than the one in panel “A,” yet reminding us that Taurus remained present, emblematic of spring.
Panel “E.” With the following chamber we advance, for sure, into early summer. We still find a panel of horses in diffuse order (some pointed outward, some inward, some upwards, some downwards), but the conclusive statement is carried by a robust male horse, shown rising upwards, carrying a “pseudo-arrow,” also pointed up (Fig. 20 f), as well as by the two horses that perform a scene of pre-mating, the agitated stallion driving a mare in heat (Fig 20 c). This composition , which recalls the above-mentioned one at Lascaux (Fig. 20 e), naturally belongs to late spring/early summer, and quite likely to the beginning of May.
Panel “F.” As we leave the chamber of the mating horses, we pass a particularly tight spot (a “cat hole”), a restriction that divides the cave fairly closely into two halves, the inner one dedicated to the end of winter, the outer one to the coming of summer (Fig. 21). At this point we find a strong gathering of ibexes, a concentration that we may associate with the appearance of Capricornus , fully returned to the sky at dawn in early summer. The restrictive setting, actually, calls for the male ibex to exercise its battering force and assume its typical role of ramming through obstacles (cf. Chapter VII): forcing open the narrowing, the ibex opens up the way to the outer cave, blasting a passage toward summer. Certainly, the largest of the ibexes here displays the powerful horns of an adult male, the dots on its horns indicating the knobs that count the years of growth; Fig. 25). Again, the antithetic composition demonstrates a seasonal dualism: the old ibex–with the large horns and beard–occupies the hindquarters of the horse–that is, the winter-half of the year; a young ibex is placed on the head of the horse–that is, the spring part of the horse/solar year; the symbolism is rooted in the zodiac, for Capricornus is at its peak in winter. Above all, the group of horse and ibexes and the characteristic topography vividly recall the above-discussed groups of ibexes superimposed on horses in the Passage of Lascaux.
Panel “G.” Having breached the narrowing, we enter the summer-half of Gabillou, as is immediately clear from the decoration in the Chamber of Red Horses, named from some large figures of horses that are painted red. These include the largest of all the horses in Gabillou (Fig. 20 d). Not only does the size and warm color of this image speak of summer, we also find a vegetation sign engraved on its body. These images amply testify to the establishment of summer.
Panel “H.” Facing the large red horse in the Chamber of Red Horses, we find an aurochs bull that reflects the decline of Taurus in summer: its chest is marked with a demonstratively large wound from which blood flows profusely (Fig. 21). The episode refers to the beginning down-turn of Taurus, which however, is still seen supporting the sun in the neighboring scene, where the head of a large aurochs bull seems to lift a horse to the top of the wall (like the top-most horse in the Rotunda of Lascaux).
Panel “I.” On the way out of the Chamber of Red Horses, we find a composition that again combines aurochs bull and horse, but which also juxtaposes the head of the bull with the equally large head of a lion (Fig. 26). The oddly stacked heads of these precariously balanced figures–the proud bull and the snarling lion–reflect the sky around the middle of May, when Leo was gaining on Taurus, but an equilibrium was retained as yet (cf. Fig. 21) The head of a young goat in this panel (Fig. 26) records the re-established presence of Capricornus with the advance of summer, although it, as yet, was a frail opponent of the snarling lion.
Panel “J.” The demise of Taurus around mid-summer is recorded in the last preserved section of the cave, where a large lion occupies the vaulted ceiling, while the head of an aurochs bull is seen on the wall just below. This bull is both struck by a “pseudo-arrow”–aimed downwards, like the setting sun–and superimposed on the body of a (partly preserved) horse (Fig. 27). This scene is, thus, a true description of the spectacle in the evening of the solstice, when Taurus was absorbed by the sun while Leo ruled the sky.
Panel “K.” The destruction of the front of the cave prevents a definitive assessment of the end-phase of the seasonal narrative. Among the images preserved near the entrance is, however, the figure of a horse shown vigorously running toward the outside, that is, the north-west and summer solstice (Fig. 21).
Star-lore at Lascaux and Gabillou
As the artists of Gabillou arranged and combined images of the three zodiacal animals, they maintained a close agreement with the progression of the seasons (measured primarily by figures of horses, secondarily by reindeer), all of which unfolded according to the morphology and the cosmic orientation of the cave. Their consistency reveals a deliberate, programmatic approach, and it is not surprising to find that they intentionally pointed to the stellar implications of the decoration by engraving a six-pointed star in the middle of the vault in the front part of the cave, just preceding the first of the cave’s lions (Fig. 21, panel “J”).
The similarities between the visual formulations at Lascaux and Gabillou are indisputable. Even as the two caves differ in specifics, the differences between the two decorative programs merely suggest that the proto-zodiac was perceived as a series of themes that were open to artistic interpretations, rather than as a codified template. Gabillou does not provide a grandiose image of Taurus in spring, like we find in Lascaux, but neither does Gabillou have a location like the Rotunda of Lascaux to accommodate a monumental display. External circumstances–probably a somewhat more severe climate–may also account for the large role of reindeer in Gabillou, as opposed to the proliferation of the less hardy red deer in Lascaux. This would feasibly explain Gabillou’s rather conflicted description of the coming of spring, as it differs from Lascaux’s reassuring view of the yearly cycle. Certainly, the presence of large lions in the summer-section of Gabillou (Fig. 21, panels “I” and “J”) reflects a different attitude from that of Lascaux, where the lions are hidden away in remote spaces that border on winter sections. A darker outlook may also explain the devious and monstrous beings (including the ones in Fig. 20 h) that occupy a panel in the very same chamber that features the reassuring scene of pre-mating horses. In any case, such differences did not detract from the fond of images with which the artists at both sites articulated the seasonal variations, drawing on the zodiacal motifs, on figures of horses, and on the cosmic dimensions of the cave spaces. We can conclude that, more than twenty thousand years ago, observations of the sky were not just integral elements of myths, rituals, and world-view, but also structural elements in the decoration of cave sanctuaries.
PART TWO: THE ERA OF CHAUVET
Among the oldest dated caves, Chauvet is the one with the richest decoration and, therefore, the one that offers the best opportunity for testing very early evidence of the proto-zodiac. Radio carbon dates of paint samples from black figures in Hillaire Hall agree with dates for charcoal collected next to the natural altar (with a bear’s skull) to suggest a calibrated age of about 37,000 years (32,900 +/- 490 BP as the oldest C14 date). Hundreds of dates from the cave allow for a distinction between two phases of use, of which the oldest–37,000 – 33,500 BP (calibrated) corresponds with key figures discussed in the present study (Quiles et al. 2016). Although the process of decorating the sanctuary may have continued for thousands of years–with new images added and older ones revised–the cave’s seasonal program was probably formulated at an early stage, and we may assume that a substantial number of images retain that original vision. In any case, our chart of the night skies around 37,000 BP (Fig. 28) are essentially valid for an extended period between approximately 36,000 BP and 38,000 BP.
Our preceding analysis of Chauvet (Chapters V, X) employed the solar horse as the guiding image, allowing us to trace a seasonal progression from the depths of the cave to the front, from winter to summer. In the present chapter, the focus is on the three zodiacal agents, Taurus, Capricornus, and Leo and their performance through the year. Around 37,000 BP (more precisely, between ca. 38,600 and 36,500 BP) the spring sun was in Leo, following Leo’s culmination around midwinter (Fig. 28a). Because of the location of the celestial north pole in that age, Leo would stand quite high in the night sky around the winter solstice, and in agreement with this situation, the innermost and deepest section of the cave, the remote Sacristy (Fig. 29, at a), contains two large figures of lions that completely dominate the few solar horses here. Furthermore, two of these horses–closely juxtaposed with one lion–are turned in opposite directions of each other (Fig. 30), thus indicating the turn of the solar year around the winter solstice.
In the age of Chauvet, Taurus played a very reduced role, or was completely eliminated, in winter (Fig. 28a); correspondingly, we find the aurochs bull to be absent from the lower cave. True to its role as a summer sign, Capricornus is also absent here, except for the single figure of an ibex located in the Descending Gallery (Fig. 29, at h). This isolated ibex, painted black and turned toward the interior (Clottes 2001, 127), may signal the brief presence of the constellation in the early morning skies of winter. In the much later age of Lascaux and Gabillou, the heliacal rising of Capricornus was a crucial harbinger of spring; but in the era of Chauvet, the sighting of the revived Capricornus did not carry comparable significance as spring seemed far away.
The reign of Leo in the winter skies of Chauvet was spelled out in the panoramic frieze of the Inner Hall, the belly of the cave. Here about fifty lions surround the niche with the single–black and wounded–horse (Fig. 29, at d). To the right (Fig. 29, at c) is a large pride of hunting lions, aggressively rushing toward the niche; to the left (Fig. 29, at e) are four huge lions–the largest images in the inner cave. The wounded horse among the lions is a grim image of winter, but the circular nature of the year and the zodiac requires, logically, some indications of change to come. This is, in fact, provided by the single, fragile figure of a reindeer that, though seemingly held in a strangle hold by four huge lions (Fig. 31), yet allows for a look toward the early spring migration of reindeer (the multiplication of the legs already suggest movement). Likewise, some touches of red paint–a halo of red dots above the reindeer and some outlines of the larger figures traced in red (Fig. 31 )–predict the release from winter. Besides, these red signs refer obliquely to myths about the origins of fire (guarded by the lions, then stolen and deposited in the antlers of deer, as related in Chapters VI and IX), stories that indirectly bear on the transition from winter to spring. Pursuing these associations, the artists painted similar traces of red outlines,”sandwiched” between black contours (Chauvet et al. 1996, 104), in the frieze’s last group of lions (Fig. 29, at f), a panel showing two large figures placed side by side (Clottes 2001, 130-31). Contrary to all of the preceding lions, these two are directed inward, thereby ending the surge of deadly beasts rushing out of the depths, a release of pressure that would match the beginning downturn of Leo toward the end of winter (leading to its demise in spring, Fig. 28c). A timing to late winter also agrees with the portrayal of the two lions in question, as they show a female lion rubbing her body against her larger, explicitly male, partner–a pre-mating gesture that belongs to the last phase of winter (Clottes 2001, 132).
Moving upwards/outwards through the Descending Gallery, the horses increase in size and number as is appropriate because they embody the invigorated sun and the ascending year. To the contrary, only one lion remains in the gallery (an engraved figure; Clottes 2001, 123). Instead, the escalating horses are accompanied by several representations of the large, hardy megaceros deer (Chauvet 1996, 94-5; Clottes 2001, 189), and on arriving in Hillaire Hall above, the first panel (Fig. 29, at j) features other species of deer that illustrate the stirring of life at the end of winter (Fig. 32): reindeer preparing for their migration north, and red deer (the latter identified by forward-pointing tines) returning from their southern retreats. Like the later artists of Gabillou, the artists of Chauvet here used deer to project the notion of movement and revitalization, but on the heels of this expansion, the zodiacal imagery picks up again. In their seasonal moves, the red deer were followed by the aurochs, and it is in this first panel of the Hall that we come upon an aurochs bull (Fig. 32, on the left), the first of the species encountered on moving up from–and out of–the lower cave. The celestial counterpart to this bull was Taurus, as it returned to the morning skies of late winter/early spring (Fig. 28 b and d).
The complex panel of the first aurochs bull is organized by movements in two opposed directions from a central divide that is marked by two red deer graphically crossing each other (Fig. 32, in the center). Their crossing illustrates a watershed moment of changing seasons: the right-hand part of the composition shows three figures aiming back toward the Descending Gallery and winter, while the left-hand part shows six figures moving forth toward summer. The latter group includes the head of a large horse–the first sizable horse, so far–which tells of the year advancing into spring and of the sun gaining strength. The branching antlers of two flanking deer herald the appearance of the aurochs bull, much like the flame-shaped antlers of deer still guide the advancement of the bull–Taurus in spring–in the Rotunda of Lascaux (Fig. 8). The Chauvet scene is less triumphant than the later one of Lascaux (perhaps because an appearance before dawn seemed more ephemeral than an appearance at night); nevertheless, the celebration of the re-appearance of Taurus after winter is significant in both cases. At Chauvet, the larger of the cold-loving reindeer sides with the hardy bison, aiming back toward the descent (Fig. 32, right); the tender red deer generally side with the aurochs, heading for summer (Fig. 32, left).
Chauvet (37,000 BP) is separated from Lascaux (23,000 BP) by approximately half of the 26,000-year long precessional cycle, to the effect that Taurus in the era of Chauvet was a fall sign–directly the opposite of Taurus as a spring sign in the era of Lascaux. The artists of Chauvet, therefore, were not in a position to cast Taurus as the overpowering, victorius image of spring, as was done by their distant successors at Lascaux; instead, the earlier artists connected Taurus with spring by focusing on the heliacal rising of the constellation, its return to the skies–its “resurrection”–at the end of winter (Fig. 28 b). Moreover, they followed up on this event by tracing Taurus’ subsequent rise into the pre-sunrise skies (Fig. 28 d). Thus, one engraving in Hillaire Hall shows the bull/Taurus emerging from a niche in imitation of the heliacal rising (Fig. 33. ). Another engraving illustrates the constellation’s closeness to the sun/horse at that same time of the year (Fig. 34). Still observing the sky at the end of the night, progression toward the late spring culmination of Taurus is plainly illuminated by the main panel of Hillaire Hall (Fig. 29, at l) where the heads of several bulls are juxtaposed with the forequarters of an entire troupe of advancing horses (Fig. 35b), the bulls moving ahead of the horses the way Taurus actually emerged before the arrival of the sun. Correspondingly, events at sun-rise are indicated by the fact that only the forequarters of the horses are shown. With their massive necks, these aurochs bulls appear strong in spite of the fact that only heads (and vaguely outlined forequarters) are shown; we may, therefore, connect the figures with the time between the emergence of Taurus and its culmination in the pre-dawn sky, as it occurred shortly after the vernal equinox (Fig. 28 d); thus, the panel proclaims the return and the beginning recovery of the constellation as crucial to the approach of spring. This is, for sure, a very different kind of spectacle than the overwhelming display in the Lascaux Rotunda, and yet, the Chauvet version manages to give an impressive illustration of Taurus and the coming of spring, and to show in a parallel development, how the sun/horse is also gaining momentum. Capricornus, as well, comes to the fore in Hillaire Hall, notably in the group of engraved ibexes that precedes the aurochs bulls (Fig. 35a). Again, this configuration would recall the spectacle in the pre-dawn skies where Capricornus was guiding the way for Taurus, persistently so, from the end of winter to the spring equinox (Fig. 28 b). For certain, the ibexes of the Hall were not perceived as harking back to the constellation’s heliacal rising in early winter, but were understood as celebrating Capricornus’ role as herald of Taurus in early spring. Moreover, the composition cleverly anticipated the moment in late spring when Capricornus—its mission as guide of Taurus fulfilled–re-entered the evening skies (Fig. 28 c). This development was implicit in the artists’ decision to place the aurochs group and the ibex group on either side of a sharply projecting edge of rock wall, so that the ibexes are actually drawn right in front of the bulls’ heads, even though the visitor can not see both at the same time (Chauvet et al. 1996, 57 and 62; Clottes 2001, 101 and 114); this configuration would even accommodate distinct observations on the same day but at different hours: at the equinox, but in the morning, respectively in the evening (Fig. 28 c and d). To better match the latter view, the five-or-six ibexes (Fig. 35a) are shown in an upward-slanting position that would fit the rise of Capricornus just after sunset. Yet another ibex, engraved in the same area of the cave (Fig. 36), likewise stresses the concept of Capricornus rising. We also notice that one of the ibexes on the main wall (Fig. 35a) is wounded in the chest, and considering the relatively low number of wounded figures in Chauvet, this may well refer to the above-mentioned spring sacrifice of an ibex.
The lions of Hillaire Hall are all crowded together in the large, walk-in-size niche of the main wall (Fig. 29, at k). In the age of Chauvet, this confinement was congruent with the reduced state of Leo in spring, a reading that finds support in the distinct character of these images. One lion (Fig. 37, to the right) is placed vertically, head down, in imitation of the descent of Leo toward its heliacal setting at the vernal equinox (Fig. 28 c). Another lion (Fig. 37, to the left) has an all-black head, suggesting the apparent extinction during the conjunction with the sun. Jointly, the four lions of the niche perform a rotating motion that well captures the descent, disappearance, and eventual re-emergence of Leo as it took place from around the equinox into late spring. Red marks on the body of the central lion of the niche (Fig. 37) stand out against the all-black figures here, and a group of three red strokes, notably, suggest not only that the beast is wounded but also that the sun is inflicting the wounds, as the numerical “three” signifies the agency of the sun (Chapter V). This reading is, of course, in agreement with the tight juxtapositions and super-impositions of lions and horses in the niche, all of which would reflect the conjuction of Leo and the sun around the equinox. The artists added a concluding step by positioning an aurochs bull above the black-headed lion, on the left-hand edge of the niche (Fig. 37, to the left), a configuration that matches the superior position of Taurus at the heliacal rising of Leo (Fig. 28 d).
Leaving Hillaire Hall, we move beyond spring and into early summer; that is, into the front half of the cave and into the domain of red images–notably, descriptions of bears and their revival from hibernation (cf. Chapters VII, X). Beyond the Threshold that separates the two cave-halves, the first panel (Fig. 29, at n) contains a black horse that, in a symbolic gesture meant to promote the warming of the sun, is marked with a red hand print (Chauvet et al. 1996, 44) . In the following panel (Fig. 29, at o), multiple hand prints are connected with four figures of lions, and everything is painted red (Fig. 38). This is the last conspicuous presence of the lion motif (reading the cave from the inside toward the outside) and it is evidence of a drastic transformation from the grim, black lions that dominate the inner cave to these all-red ones that coexist with solar hand-prints and red dots. We may understand this shift as signifying a transition from winter to summer. The artists apparently saw the sun as emerging victorious from its vernal equinox encounter with Leo, and half a dozen red hand prints ritually affirmed that victory. Correspondingly, the warm red coloration of the beasts gives testimony to the mellowing effect imposed by the conquering sun. Keeping in mind the impact of the deadly black frieze of lions in the depths, far behind, the visitor perceived the promise implied by the red panel: from hence (until next winter) the lion’s fierce power is exorcised. The last figure of a lion, the only one to be found in the foremost part of the cave, is a black painted head in Brunel Hall (Fig. 29, at s), and next to it is a red line that apparently represents an arrow pointed at the lion (Fig. 39). Here, as in other instances discussed above, we can safely assume the equivalence of arrows and rays of the sun, and we may conclude that the panel shows Leo, the winter sign, checked by sun in summer.
Several red figures of ibexes (Fig. 40 and Fig. 41) are unique to the front half of Chauvet, where they are evenly distributed (Fig. 29, at p, q, r). We may see them as representations of Capricornus in its most notable phase, from the beginning to the middle of summer (Fig. 28 e). The aurochs bull, to the contrary, is not represented beyond the Threshold, apparently as a consequence of the fact that Taurus returned to the evening skies only after the summer solstice (Fig. 28 f), while the artistic program of Chauvet was dedicated to the development from mid-winter to early summer–with an emphasis on the agony of that transition, quite different from the confidence of the victory of summer projected by the program of Lascaux.
The rhinoceros and Scorpius at Chauvet
The wealth of motifs in Chauvet provides us with an opportunity to expand the minimal repertory of just three zodiacal images pursued above. Specifically, we shall search for a fourth constellation that would have provided the missing leg of a zodiacal quartet, and which would have given the artists better opportunities to portray all four seasons. This objective points us toward Scorpius, as this is the zodiacal constellation that is located opposite to–that is, half a year from–Taurus, and is distant by three months–or, a full season–from Leo (cf. Fig. 42). Our familiar Scorpius is a late construction, in so far as Scorpius and Libra formed a single constellation until the Romans introduced the present scales and put an end to Libra’s role as the scorpion’s claws. The main stars of Libra still bear the names of the Northern Claw and the Southern Claw, and early star maps perpetually confused some stars of one constellation with some of the other (Allen 1963, 368). It therefore behooves us to search for a prehistoric image that fits the combined outline of the historical Scorpius and Libra.
Considering the extraordinary number of rhinoceroses in Chauvet (they are about as numerous as the lions) a feasible hypothesis might be that the rhino was the original representation of the Scorpius/Libra constellation. Unfortunately, the rhinoceros disappeared from Europe and its arts and lore with the end of the Ice Age, leaving us without continuous visual or narrative traditions that could corroborate this hypothesis. Hence, our investigation must rely, in the first place, on formal similarities between the actual shape of the constellation and certain images of rhinos. In the second place, we may find circumstantial evidence in the artists’ use of the rhinoceros within the framework of the seasonal program of Chauvet.
If we consider only those stars of Scorpius/Libra that are readily visible with normal eyesight (cf. Fig. 43), the main stars of our current Libra immediately stand out as a potential match for the large frontal horn of the rhinoceros. The similarity with a horn is not to be missed, and sometime in the past, Libra was indeed perceived as a “horn” (Cornu, a Latin name for sigma librae), although this assimilation had no bearing on traditions from the Ice Age. In any case, the artists of Chauvet gave full attention to the rhino’s frontal horn (Fig. 44, a through e), sometimes exaggerating it beyond any apparent need of artistic effect (for example, Fig. 44d), and in so doing they often achieved a fair match for the visual appearance of our Libra.
The smaller horn of the rhino could be represented by several stars in Scorpius (for example, Fig. 44 a, b, e), even though this may have been a minor concern A greater problem for the artists was, perhaps, the demand to make the constellation’s brightest star, Antares, fit the location of the rhino’s eye, which actually sits right behind the smaller horn, but somehow they often met that challenge, as well.
The association of Scorpius/Libra and images of rhinos is also detectable in figures from other early caves. An example is the single rhino at Baume Latrone (Fig. 45a), which, significantly, carries the same rolled-up ears as all the rhinos of Chauvet. The frontal horn of an old (Aurignacian) engraved rhinoceros in the Rumanian cave of Coliboaia (Fig. 45b) is indeed similar to some of the Chauvet specimens (Fig. 44 b, d, e). In turn, the appearance of this East European example is quite close to a somewhat younger (Solutrean) image from Cussac (Fig. 45c). The latter two both relate well to the stellar prototype.
While the artists of Chauvet mostly showed complete figures of rhinos, the two last-mentioned examples (Fig. 45 b and c) suggest that the constellation, more specifically, was perceived as showing only the head and shoulder of the animal (as was the case with the projection of the celestial bull, Taurus). Even though Scorpius in the era of Chauvet culminated higher in the sky than in our present age, the lower portion of the constellation–the scorpion’s stinger, respectively, the body of the hypothesized rhino–would still be dragging along the horizon and often be out of sight. In any case, only the horns of the assumed rhino would reach the actual pathway of the sun (cf. Fig. 43). We may speculate that the first appearance of the constellation in the evening sky after a period of absence was felt as a momentous event, the emerging horns casting an ominous spell. The physical setting of the Coliboaia image (Fig. 45b) may illustrate just this sight: the long horn, the short horn, and the eye rise above the horizon that is suggested by a fissure along the upper edge of a recessed area of wall.
A chart of the skies showing the varied appearances of Scorpius/Libra in the age of Chauvet (Fig. 46) allows us to evaluate how well the hypothesized rhino constellation performs in relation to the seasonal patterns of the aurochs bull/Taurus, the ibex/Capricornus, and the lion/Leo. While Leo was prominent in the evening skies throughout the winter (Fig. 46 a, b), Scorpius became noticeable only around mid-winter, but then remained strongly present until the beginning of summer (Fig. 46 c, e). Scorpius was, thus, destined to be perceived as an agent of perpetual winter, and a threat against the advent of summer. In this perspective, the emergence of Scorpius, the first showing of its horn (Libra), sometime in the dead of winter (Fig. 46 a), would carry grave symbolic implications and the sighting was prone to generate a strongly negative response. Evidence of precisely this experience abound in the back of the Inner Hall (Fig. 29, at b, c, and e). At the entrance to the Sacristy (inside which we do not find the rhino, only the lion) one rhinoceros is shown in a vertical position, its huge horn pointing straight up (Fig. 47a), an ominous image that recalls the negative implications of the term “Scorpius rising” that lingers in the astrology of much later date. Close by, another rhino is painted in black except for the horns that are red (Fig. 47b). As strokes of red paint also emanate from this animal’s nostrils and mouth, it is evident that the red color here signifies blood, and that this image captures a feared, deadly apparition, an unpleasant spectacle that forebodes a long winter, just as the spear in the animal’ side is an act of exorcism to dispel a bad omen (for the wider, conceptual implications, see Chapter IX).
The sense of terror is more explicit, still, in the case of a rhinoceros located next to the niche of the wounded horse (Fig. 47c): this rhino’s body is painted mainly black and dark brown against the lighter rock wall, but an area of the wall-face around the forequarters is painted solid black, so that the engraved outline of head and shoulder stands out white against black, the eye eerily glowing in the dark (like Antares, the notorious red star that is the scorpion’s eye). Certainly, this laboriously achieved effect served to identify the figure as a shining constellation against the night sky, but again, the effect is threatening rather than comforting. In the adjacent representation of an entire herd of rhinos, the artists expanded on the theme of the foreboding emergence of the constellation, obtaining an almost surreal vision of the herd advancing like an armored phalanx, aggressively wielding their enormous horns (Fig. 47 d).
At the top of the Descending Gallery, on entering Hillaire Hall (Fig. 29, at i), we find a replica of the vertical rhino from the opening of the Sacristy, far below, and it is hard to understand this exact repetition otherwise than as a reminder of the drearily extended ascendancy of Scorpius/Libra, the quite long constellation starting its rise in the dead of winter and not passing its culmination until the time of the vernal equinox (Fig. 46, b to c). The just-mentioned images, as well as other rhinos painted on the walls of the Descending Gallery, all emphasize the animal’s obtrusive horn as a symbol of the tenacity of winter and its stubborn refuse to yield to summer.
In Hillaire Hall, spring is finally set to prevail. Yet, we still find a number of rhinoceroses here, the most conspicuous ones being two battling rhinos in the great panel of aurochs bulls and horses (Fig. 35 b). These brutes, however, no longer dominate the ensemble, which, besides the aurochs and horses, also features a group of ibexes (Fig. 35 a) that pertain to the return of Capricornus in the evenings of late spring/early summer (Fig. 46, c, e)–that is, when Scorpius was finally receding. More emphatically still , the massive aurochs bulls in the Hall’s main panel acknowledge the march toward the culmination of Taurus in the pre-dawn skies of spring/early summer (Fig. 46 d), at a time when Scorpius was approaching its descent. Reversing the situation in early winter(Fig. 46 a), the shift in the destinies of the two antipodes, Taurus and Scorpius, in early summer (Fig. 46 e) found expression in a curious detail of the great panel, as one aurochs’ horns were demonstratively painted over a tiny rhino (Fig. 48).
As we enter the front half of the cave (Fig. 29, at o) and advance into early summer, we find the remaining rhinos to be thoroughly transformed: like the last of the lions here (Fig. 38), the rhinos are all under the spell of the prominent red hands at the center of the large panel, and all are painted red. At the bottom of the Panel of Red Hands, a large rhino is juxtaposed with a negative hand print (Fig. 49), forming a scene that visually conveyed the situation when the sun’s rays–the radiant fingers–obliterated the constellation (Scorpius/Libra) at its heliacal setting, a turn of events that happened in early-to-mid summer (Fig. 46, e and f).
At the top of this large panel–above the field of red hands–we find a file of rhinoceroses, including a nucleus of three figures that jointly constitute a peaceful family scene (Fig. 50): the adult male is leading; a young individual follows, carefully guided by the adult female’s frontal horn–a surprising and pleasant reversal of the blunt force of the rhino’s horns explored in the inner cave. To all appearances, the conjunction with the sun was believed to defeat or soften the aggressive drive of the rhinoceros/Scorpius. In the front part of the cave, the rhino disappears while the ibex becomes significant, which reverses the situation in the lower cave, the realm of winter, where the rhinos abound, and only one ibex is found as a token image of summer.
Baume Latrone and the zodiacal quartet of Chauvet
The art works of Baume Latrone are assembled in a single hall, and the images are, thus, fairly well dated by charcoal collected here. This suggests a calibrated age of approximately 37,000 years (C14 date of 32,740 +/- 530 BP; Azéma et al. 2012), which indicates that Baume Latrone was roughly contemporary with Chauvet. In fact, the two caves share numerous artistic conventions: the “butterfly” ears of the Chauvet rhinos are matched at Baume Latrone (Fig. 45 a), as are some equally odd designs of mammoths tusks (Fig. 55 a, and b; Fig. 56), and certain images of horses with bulbous muzzles (Fig. 51 b; Fig. 53 b). A rare lion with extended tongue in Chauvet (Fig. 51 a) is echoed by the central figure of the main panel of Baume Latrone (Fig. 52).
The same four motifs which the artists of Chauvet used to represent stations of the zodiac were also employed in Baume Latrone–only, on a smaller scale, with just one image for each motif. Further simplifying matters, these images are gathered in the final chamber of the cave, a location that is reached after a long and difficult passage (without decoration) and which is the last section before the final drop toward a subterranean stream. This setting–perched at the top of the terminal slope–has features of both the Inner Gallery and the Hillaire Hall of Chauvet, and we may suspect that the artistic program of Baume Latrone, like the one of Chauvet, concerns the transition from winter to spring. Given the concentration of images in one area of the cave and the dominance of one, major panel, the sequence of events is unlikely to be described as a step-wise progression, as in Chauvet, but rather in the form of an intense drama in which some characters may be transitional, with features that point back to winter as well as forward to spring/summer.
The signs of winter are the most conspicuous. Around 37,000 years ago, the appearance of Leo in the dead of winter (Fig. 46, a, b) was an obvious reference for the dominating, three meter long, lion at the center of the main panel (Fig. 52). Early-to-mid winter was also a likely season for the much smaller rhinoceros (Fig. 52, below the lion’s tail), which is relegated to a slightly recessed area at the bottom of the panel and, thus, seems to capture the sight of the constellation (Scorpius/Libra) as it emerged in the evening skies below the triumphant lion constellation (Fig. 46 a, b). Engraved in a corner behind the main panel–poised above the terminal descent–the juxtaposition of an aurochs bull and a horse (Fig. 53, a, b) again matched the time around the winter solstice when Taurus was in conjunction with the sun (Fig. 46 b).
One sign of a further progression into spring is the wound inflicted on the lion, the winter sign of Leo, by three projectile points (Fig. 52). By the numerical symbolism of ”three” this implies the force of the sky and the sun and, in particular, refers–like the three red marks on the lion in the niche of Chauvet’s Hillaire Hall–to the demise of Leo by the encounter with the sun at the heliacal setting in spring (cf. Fig. 46 c ). Another note of ambiguity is struck by the figure of an ibex painted in red ocher on a wall-face adjacent to the main panel (Fig. 54 a). The ibex is shown with horns that curve symmetrically in opposite directions, in a symbolic gesture meant to evoke the moment of change at the transition from the waning half of the year to the waxing half, a concept that we have seen illustrated identically in Lascaux (cf. Fig. 18 ). Just as the artists of Chauvet alluded to Capricornus as the herald of Taurus towards the end of winter (cf. Fig. 35 a, b), the artists of Baume-Latrone apparently related their red ibex to the time of Capricornus’ return to the evening skies with the approach of the spring equinox (Fig. 46 c).
The imagery of Baume Latrone does, indeed, go on to describe the surge of the year into spring. Two red figures of bears, painted next to the main wall (Fig. 54 b, c), signal–like the red bears of Chauvet–the end of hibernation and the beginning of a warming trend. Yet, the most dramatic proclamation of the change of seasons is articulated by the half-dozen mammoths surrounding the central lion (Fig. 52). The composition of the main panel divides the mammoths into two antithetic groups, whereby the three mammoths to the right illustrate the paralysis of winter by their rigid, frozen stance, with trunks that hang down motionless, while to the contrary, the mammoths to the left are energized, lunging forward, their trunks twitching. The drastic transformation from static to dynamic is the more significant as the large pachyderms are emblematic of everything solid (epitomized by the mountains; cf. Chapter III), to the effect that their animation visually demonstrates the impact of spring and thaw, breaking the iron grip of winter and frost. Again, this use of the mammoth is a visual convention that finds its parallel in Chauvet, notably in several images of agitated, vigorously scratched, mammoths in Hillaire Hall (Fig. 55 b). Like the other pachyderms of the panel, the rhinoceros conveyed more than a single moment in time: at first, juxtaposed with the lion, the image would indicate Scorpius in late winter/early spring; subsequently, situated among the static, recalcitrant mammoths (Fig. 52, to the right), it too would assume the role of a force that stubbornly worked against spring almost to the very beginning of summer (cf. Fig. 46 e).
Aldène and the skies of Chauvet
Charcoal collected in the cave of Aldène suggests a date close to the early phase of Chauvet (37,080 +/- 620 BP, calibrated; Ambert and Guendon 2005), an attribution that is corroborated by shared artistic conventions, such as the “butterfly” ears of a rhinoceros (Fig. 58 e), or the close resemblance of the lions (notably, the ears and muzzles) in the two caves. Of the four zodiacal motifs under consideration, Aldène has but two, and only in extreme concentration: two lions and one rhino.
The entire decoration consists of half a dozen images that are arranged along the two walls of a short, narrow corridor (schematically rendered in Fig. 58). This location stands out as the section of the cave in which claw-marks by bears are most numerous and noticeable (as is the case in the decorated chamber of Baume-Latrone), and we may assume that the decoration responded to these concrete signs and reflected their symbolic association with the end of winter and the advance of spring. Indeed, the only colored figure among the engravings of the cave is a red bear (Fig. 58 b), an image we may compare to the mentioned red bears of Chauvet and Baume Latrone.
Applying our chart of the night skies of Chauvet to Aldène, we find that the cave’s zodiacal images readily match celestial events in early spring. The dominance of Leo in winter–evoked by the two lions on the right-hand wall–was brought to an end with the constellation’s heliacal setting (Fig. 46 e), an event that was depicted twice: in one case, by the juxtaposition with a horse that is placed slightly behind and above the first lion (Fig. 58 c and d), and suggests the conjunction of sun and Leo; in the other case, by the superimposition of a circular sign–presumably the sun’s disk–directly on the second lion (Fig. 58 a). Conversely, the simultaneous culmination of Scorpius/Libra (Fig. 46 c) was acknowledged with the figure of a rhinoceros that dominates the opposing wall (Fig. 58 e). As lapidary as the astronomical statement of Aldène may appear, it nevertheless reflects the same complex system of the zodiac that is spelled out in great detail at Chauvet.
PART THREE: SCORPIUS/LIBRA AFTER CHAUVET
The rhinoceros became less frequent as a motif in the caves following the era of Chauvet, eventually to disappear from the very late Ice Age cave decorations. In Spain, the rhino never was a presence in the arts. In a different, Eastern Mediterranean climate the scorpion appeared as Scorpius around the end of the Ice Age of Europe, as witnessed by the art of Gobekli Tepe (A. Collins 2013). In the classical cave sanctuaries of Magdalenian France, however, the rhino remained as the representative of Scorpius/Libra. Before reviewing its role in Magdalenian astronomy, we shall return to the Solutrean Lascaux–almost 15,000 years younger than Chauvet but about 5,000 years older than the major Magdalenian sites –and consider the evidence for the continued function of the rhino as the fourth station of a zodiacal quartet.
The rhinoceros of Lascaux
Among more than a thousand animal figures in Lascaux there is only one rhinoceros. We can, however, assume that this single figure (Fig. 59 a) was significant, because the artists went to considerable effort to paint it in the deep Shaft, at a place that could only be reached through a difficult descent (cf. Fig. 60 a, b). This extreme location makes the figure a reversed counter-part to the large aurochs bulls, which occupy the highest point of the cave in the Rotunda (Fig. 60 a, b). The polarity of the two motifs is the more obvious as the artists had to access the site of the rhino by means of a long rope, while, to the contrary, they had to build scaffolding to reach the elevated location of the bulls. This extreme contrast of low and high positions recalls the inherent polarity of Scorpius and Taurus, which are to be found at diametrically opposite points of the sky, one rising as the other one is setting.
A chart of the skies through the year (Fig. 61) shows that the contrasting performances of the two constellations in the age of Lascaux corresponded with the seasonal extremes of summer and winter. Taurus returned to the evening sky around the winter solstice, at the time when the year turned from the fall half to the spring half, whereas Scorpius/Libra appeared at the summer solstice, concurrent with the turn toward fall/winter; this corresponds with the geographical layout of the cave (cf. Fig. 4) that assigns the Shaft to winter. The artistic treatment of the figure refers us, more precisely, to the end of the reign of Scorpius, and with it, of the fall half of the year, for the figure is not only aimed toward the west, it is plainly the western-most image of the entire cave. With the connection between west, sunset, and death in mind, the situation suggests the spectacle of the rhino–Scorpius/Libra–approaching its heliacal setting and disappearance in midwinter (Fig. 60 a, and Fig. 61 d ).
The black head of a horse, placed across from the panel of the rhinoceros, is also turned toward the west and likewise conveys the notion of winter (Fig. 59 b, and Fig. 60 a, b). This is the only image of a horse to be found in the Shaft, which makes it the most subdued representation of the horse/sun theme in any section of the cave; certainly, this represents the winter sun as it approached its lowest level and moved toward conjunction with Scorpius/Libra. Completing the zodiacal line-up associated with the Shaft, the elevated position of Capricornus at the heliacal setting of Scorpius/Libra (Fig. 61 d) is reflected in the group of ibexes that, though engraved in the Apse above, hugs the narrow lip overhanging the Shaft itself (Fig. 60 a, b; Fig. 19).
The rhinoceros is part of the famous panel of the Shaft, a composition that projects a sense of death and destruction, not just by the ominous presence of the rhino but also by the display of a speared and disemboweled bison (Fig. 62 a). As the bison generally stands for the earth (cf. Chapter III), the latter figure is a grim illustration of the ravages of winter. Confronting the bleak prospect of winter and dissolution that is jointly conjured by the rhino, the bison, and the black horse, the two central figures of the scene, the bird on a staff and the bird-headed man, carry a message in support of the enduring order of the sky and the revival of the year. The bird-headed person (Fig. 62 a) has long been identified by some interpreters as the equivalent of our Cygnus, the Swan (cf. Rappenglück 1999, 118). In the time of Lascaux, this constellation was circumpolar, that is, so close to the celestial north pole that it (or, at least its main star, Deneb) never set but was always present in the night sky. It belonged to the hub around which the world turned, and as such, it was an agent of cosmic order vis-à-vis the destructive agency of the rhino/Scorpius.
Cygnus is situated in the midst of the Milky Way (our galaxy), from which this constellation is virtually inseparable, and the artists pointed to that association by placing the figure within an irregular patch of the rock-face that is brightly white, whereas the surfaces around the figure are darkly brown; thus, the body of the bison and the forequarters of the rhino (as well as the horse across from them) are in dark zones, but the Cygnus-like character is surrounded by shimmering light (see photos, for example, in Ruspoli 1986, 151; Aujoulat 2004, 160-61). In archaic cultures, Cygnus and the Milky Way were often perceived as connecting earth and sky, a concept that resonates with the frequently voiced view that the Lascaux figure shows a prehistoric shaman, representative of a priestly order with the powers to travel (in the spirit) between vertical levels of the universe. Pursuing this thesis, the staff with the bird is perceived as belonging to the shaman’s paraphernalia and described as the pole by which he reached the zenith of the sky; in short, the staff represented the world axis, along which the shaman traveled between cosmic regions (Rappenglück 1999, 122-43; 174-87; 237-77).
In midwinter, in the age of Lascaux, the sky presented a particular configuration of stars that fairly well matched the arrangement of the figures in the Shaft (Fig. 62 a, b): close to the winter solstice, Cygnus and Aquila (the Eagle)–the celestial counterpart to the bird on the staff–were right at the meridian, the large arch that joins the terrestrial south, the celestial north pole, and the terrestrial north; in this position, the bird-staff was aligned with the imaginary world axis, and for a moment, the image of the staff, and the axis of the cosmic model coincided well enough to confirm their identity–the ceremonial staff was, indeed, understood to be a gnomon, a representation of the world axis (Rappenglück 1999, 105ff). We may add that, in this situation, the inclination of the galaxy corresponded well with the oddly slanted position of the bird-headed man.
Several interpreters have further argued that the panel in the Shaft alludes to the three bright stars that constitute our current “Summer Triangle”: Altair (in Aquila), Deneb (in Cygnus), and Vega (in Lyra). This triangle is apparently composed by the eyes of three central characters of the scene, namely, the bird, the bird-headed man, and the bison (Fig. 62 a, b). In the age of Lascaux, this configuration was not a sign of summer but rather a “Winter Triangle.” With its apex at the circumpolar Deneb, the prominence of this triangle around the winter solstice assumed special significance as a tribute to the permanence of the stellar order. The near-perfect line-up of the staff, the bird (Aquila), and Cygnus along the meridian assured the vertical order and elevation of the sky-world in spite of the cosmic turmoil provoked by the rhino/Scorpius.
Significantly, the rhino is fleeing toward the west, and thus, toward its heliacal setting., and the artists emphatically sealed its defeat with a highly visible representation of the distinct numerical sign of “2 x 3″ (Fig. 62 a), a powerful display of the principle behind the created cosmos in which earth (“2″) and sky (“3″) co-exist inseparably. Clearly, this sign drives the rhino to flight, ending the threat of a perpetual winter imposed by Scorpius/Libra during the fall and early winter (Fig. 61 c, d).
The victory of light over darkness explained in terms of cosmic symbolism is essential to the program of Lascaux. In the Rotunda, the frieze of aurochs bulls proclaims the freshness of creation, in strict contrast to the scene in the Shaft with its fear that creation may be undone, and here too, we find a representation of the world axis. Juxtaposed with the largest of the bulls, the one rising obliquely toward the summit of the dome, we find a straight, near-vertical sign that aims for the very top of the hall (Fig. 63) and may be readily seen as an apt visualization of the conceptual/mythical pole that supports the heavens, fastens the north pole, and provides the pivot around which all rotates. This staff has a cross at its lower end, indicating that it is based at the center of the world. The same motif, a staff with a cross at its base, recurs twice in the panel of the Shaft (Fig. 62 a). One time (to the right, at the bottom) it is tilted, and this slant may imply a collapse of the vertical order of creation and the return to primordial chaos, as illustrated by the destruction of the earth/bison, with which the tilted pole is juxtaposed. A second time, the world axis appears in the form of the staff with the bird. Around midwinter, when the Eagle constellation was “seated” on the meridian like the bird on its perch (Fig. 62 b), the ceremonial staff/world axis was plainly seen as the back bone of the orderly cosmos.
The three just-mentioned renditions of the world axis (Fig. 64 a, b, c) are variants of the same design (the side-branch in one version may signify “rotation”), and they all served the artists as commentaries on the zodiacal/cosmological imagery. The bird-staff–with its proto-shamanistic implications–also suggests a ritual performance in connection with sky watching and sky lore. In fact, evidence of such ceremonial activity also comes from the deposition of several fine bone points at the foot of the panel in the Shaft. Among these artifacts, one echoes the painted images of the world axis, in so far as the engraved decoration on this particular item (Fig. 64 d) shows the (horizontal) world order with an emphasis on the center of the world that, of course, is the very point at which the world axis stands.
After the extensive discussion of astronomy at Lascaux–here and in Part One, above–we may step back to realize that the topic, reduced to its essence, was more simple than our extensive analysis may suggest. In brief, the polar opposites, Taurus and Scorpius/Libra articulated the glory of creation and the threat of destruction, while the polarity of Capricornus and Leo more specifically represented the conflict between life and death. The story of the year went through equally plain contrasts: in spring, Taurus proclaimed the blessings of the recreated world; in summer, Leo brought an end to vitality and growth; in the fall, Scorpius/Libra was emblematic of intrusive decay; in winter, Capricornus turned the tide toward renewal. This basic scheme was easily mastered by contemporaries, who used it as a guide through the seasonal fluctuations of the year. For the artists, it served to structure their varied images.
The zodiacal quartet in Magdalenian caves
In the same geographical region as Lascaux but roughly five thousand years later, a group of large caves, including Font-de-Gaume and Combarelles, continually used the rhinoceros as the image of Scorpius/Libra. These classical Magdalenian caves are related to each other through shared motifs–such as the triangular design of huts–and even though the artistic decoration of each site may have covered an extensive period of the Upper- to Middle Magdalenian age, the artists must have known essentially the same skies. The following discussion refers to charts of the sky (Fig. 65) that pertain to approximately 17,000 BP, assuming this to be the upper end of the likely range. This date responds to the oldest available Carbon 14 dating for Combarelles: 13,680 +/- 210 (Barrière 1997, 541), calibrated to 16,608 +/- 456. This cave, like Font-de-Gaume apparently had an early, tentative phase of decoration before the familiar one, to the effect that we must consider the upper date most appropriate.
Combarelles, however, also has a number of formulaic, pseudo-triangular, figures of women (the “headless women” of Bosinski 2011) that point to an age around 15,000 BP, so we must consider a time-frame of roughly two thousand years for this group of caves. Our charts are flexible enough to accommodate this open chronology, because the events shown, though they would happen slightly later at a more recent date, still would fall within the indicated seasons. For example, stellar configurations around the winter solstice of 17,000 BP would occur towards the end of winter–perhaps close to the cross-quarter day of early spring–by 15,000 BP.
The cave of Font-de-Gaume is dedicated to a terrestrial theme featuring bison and mammoths, with relatively few figures of horses to evoke solar associations. The cave does, nevertheless, have a few images of each of our four astral motifs, which, thus, act as counterpoint to the dominant, terrestrial theme. This function is the more obvious as the cave, which in the main follows a straight run (Fig. 66), is oriented north-west/south-east, mapping out the highest and the lowest points on the pathway of the sun through the year, the inner-most section partaking of winter, the outermost one of summer. The very front of the cave (which extends beyond our map) may have lost a number of original images, but this loss will only peripherally disturb the following reading, in so far as we start in the back and move–spatially and temporally–towards the front.
The cave’s two images of rhinos are located together near the end of the cave (at “2″ in Fig. 66), inside the tall but extremely narrow Terminal Fissure. This section is so tight that, towards the end, the artists had to move sideways and, in fact, execute the imagery with their faces virtually against the wall. In this section we also find a lion and an aurochs bull as well as some horses, so that we have the opportunity to determine how well the decoration here matches the inner section’s alignment with the season of winter and the corresponding spatial confinement.
The innermost figures (at “1″ in Fig. 66) show a group of horses facing a large lion (Fig. 67 b). As the horses are on the inside, and thus literally cornered and held captive by the lion, we may see this scene as an illustration of the lowest moment of the solar year, with the sun in Leo, dangerously close to definitive extinction (Fig. 65 d ). This threatening moment is, however, also the turning point of the year, and in keeping with the geographical orientation–south-east being the location of the rising sun at its lowest–the decoration also offers the vision of another sunrise following the longest night. Thus, the very last image in the cave, painted at the utmost place reachable, is a sign composed of seven short, red lines in a half-circle, lightly fanning toward the top–the formalized image of a sunburst (Fig. 67 c).
The crucial return of the sun, escaping death, is predicted in the description of certain horses in the innermost scene. This includes the two horses’ heads directly underlying the lion (Fig. 67 b): their symmetry, one turned inward, the other outward, indicates a shift of direction. Also pointing in this direction is the head of a larger horse (Fig. 67 a), which is painted red and turned outward. Located just beyond the lion (but still at “1″ in Fig. 66), this horse suggests the escape from extinction and the return of the warmth of the sun.
The above reading agrees with the look of the skies of 17,000 BP, around winter solstice (Fig. 65 d). The sun in the grip of Leo was rendered, quite literally, by the two small horses that share the space with the lion and are subjected to the powers of the much larger feline (Fig. 67 b). The configuration resembles the above-mentioned triangle of a lion and two smaller horses in Chauvet’s Sacristy (Fig. 30). For the artists of Chauvet, the preponderance of Leo at winter solstice was the issue; at Font-de-Gaume, the emphasis had shifted to the spectacle of the sun passing through the power-field of Leo, and moving beyond.
The two images of rhinoceroses in the Terminal Fissure (Fig. 67, d and e) again invite a comparison with the rhinos at Chauvet: in both caves the strong presence of rhinos in the inner sections (in each case associated with lions) tells about the spoils of winter; in both, the menace of the rhino’s frontal horn is stressed, although the superimposition of the horns on a bison at Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 67 d) more specifically recalls the ravaged bison with the rhino in the Shaft of Lascaux (Fig. 62 a). Different from the innermost part of Chauvet is, however, that the rhinos of Font-de-Gaume are painted in red, which tempers the threat they present; in the older cave, this color effect is not applied in the inner–solidly black–parts of the cave. These different solutions reflect the shifting skies: in the age of Chauvet, Scorpius/Libra was a depressing reality throughout winter and spring; in the skies of Font-de-Gaume, the constellation peaked around the winter solstice, and it succumbed to the restored strength of the sun already by early spring (Fig. 65, d and a). To complete the review of zodiacal images in the Terminal Fissure, we notice that the one aurochs bull found here (at “3″ in Fig. 66) is placed low on the wall (below the rhino and bison) and is painted solidly black (Fig. 67 f), which may reflect the absence, or the greatly reduced, presence of Taurus in winter (cf. Fig. 65, c to d).
This situation is clarified by the location of three more aurochs bulls, all painted in dark hues (one shown in Fig. 68 a), in the small Alcove of the Bison just outside the Terminal Fissure (at “4″ in Fig. 66). This tiny room is entirely covered with painted figures of bison, and the aurochs bulls in question are completely framed within– or only partly separating themselves from–the all-dominant bodies of bison (Capitan et al. 1910, 84, 85, 87). In astronomical terms, all of this suggests that the bull/Taurus is absorbed in the bison/earth following its virtual disappearance with the heliacal setting (Fig. 65, c to d). In terms of cosmogony, an episode from the separation of earth and sky is also implied (cf. Chapter IV).
Tracing the cave’s aurochs bulls into the foremost part of the Main Gallery (at “5″ in Fig. 66), we find two heads of bulls, now all in red (one is shown in Fig. 68 b), two figures that evoke the prominence of Taurus in summer (cf. Fig. 65 b). This season is, as mentioned, also indicated both by the location in the north-western end of the Gallery, turned toward the setting sun of the summer solstice. Add to this, that the two red aurochs are painted very high up on the wall in the section of the cave where the ceiling is the highest, at a spot that could not have been reached without the use of scaffolding. Here, the aurochs are elevated far above the solid band of bison and mammoths that trail the bottom level of both walls; thus, they contrast strikingly with the just-mentioned aurochs bulls that are submerged by the bison in the inner cave, and again, the astronomic description of spring/summer triumphant parallels the cosmogonic reference to the elevation of the sky above the earth.
As Font-de-Gaume is on the whole dedicated to the terrestrial forces of bison and mammoth, the solar horse never achieves the high status of, for example, the horses of Lascaux. Still, a few dynamic horses are shown to come out from the Lateral Gallery, as if about to move into the Main Gallery. These horses accompany a number of reindeer pursuing their spring migration in an exodus that originates with the first of the reindeer in the far back of the Lateral Gallery (at “6″ in Fig. 66; Cleyet-Merle 2014, 40); the movement becomes manifest in the Crossing, and continues in the Main Gallery in the direction of the outside world and summer. The themes of horse/sun and aurochs/Taurus, thus, develop in tandem following a formula that we have noticed in the older caves of Chauvet and Gabillou.
The ibexes of Font-de-Gaume are associated with the just-mentioned spring-time development. No ibexes are found in the Terminal Gallery and inner part of the Main Gallery, just as Capricornus played an insignificant role in fall and winter (Fig. 65, c, d). The innermost ibex (Fig. 69 a) is found in the back of the Lateral Gallery along with the first of the reindeer and a red bear (Fig. 69 b). This is the only bear in the cave (which otherwise has numerous marks from bears’ claws), and it invariably refers to the animals emergence from hibernation in early spring, which coincided with the ascent of Capricornus toward its highest location in the evening sky sometime before the equinox (Fig. 65 a). The second ibex (Fig. 69 c) is found in the Main Gallery (at “7″ in Fig. 66), where it is placed high on the wall. We may see this image as Capricornus in late spring/early summer.
Only one more zodiacal figure remains not mentioned, namely a tiny engraved lion (Cleyet-Merle 2014, 10) placed at floor level in the Main Gallery, close to the Crossing (at “8″ in Fig. 66). The location associated this figure with the move into spring/summer, and its diminutive size agreed with the faint showing of Leo before its return to the evening skies around mid-summer (Fig. 65 b).
Considering the fact that the decoration of Font-de-Gaume is dominated by an earth-bound theme (bison and mammoth) the consistent performance of the celestial motifs testifies to the intentional use of the zodiacal quartet as the artists’ means of anchoring the narrative scheme (probably focused on a myth of creation) in the visible reality of the sky.
PART FOUR: THE ZODIAC IN LATE MAGDALENIAN CAVES
(in preparation, 2017)
PART FIVE, ADDENDUM: THE LUNI-SOLAR CALENDAR (THE OCTAËTERIS)
Lunar notations on portable objects helped Ice Age people measure short expanses of time, just as observations of the stars helped them track the seasons of the year, but a different technique was needed in order to maintain a calendar that would be valid for an extended number of years. This is an elusive topic in a prehistoric context, but the inner workings of such a device may be found in the Tuc d’Audoubert cave, in a tiny recess that contains an exceptional accumulation of about a hundred uniform, engraved signs, all shaped somewhat like the letter “P” (usually called claviforms). This ensemble has the potential of a genuine calendrical notation due to several features (Fig. 1) : the great number of steadily repeated signs; their division into fairly regular files; and, the shape of a number of them, which graphically recall the appearance of the moon, somewhat like a half-moon put on a stick. If we hypothetically assume that each of these signs actually represents one month, then the Tuc assembly would amount to about eight years of annotated time. An eight-year calendar is, in fact, a historically documented device, known by its Greek name as the Octaëteris. An examination of the evidence in Tuc and some related caves will serve to verify that this calendar was actually known to the Palaeolithic artists.
“P”–the “month” sign
A good argument can be made for the hypothesis that the “P” sign is, in fact, a conventional representation of the quarter moon, and that it, indeed, carries the implied significance of “a month.” This particular sign is characteristic of an advanced (Magdalenian) phase of Palaeolithic art, and it is geographically concentrated in Pyrenean sites with additional examples in a handful of caves in northern Spain. “P” signs have been interpreted as stylized figures of women, whereby the bulging part of the design would suggest breasts, bellies, or buttocks, but that thesis is hard to sustain in the absence of transitional versions of “P” signs with explicit human features like heads, or arms. In any case, the moon itself appears to be the primary reference. It is not an image of the moon, but apparently a character meaning “moon,” or rather, “month.”
As if to support this reading, some versions of “P” signs actually assume a distinct “D” shape that is rather similar to the image of a half-moon as seen in an example from Portel (Fig. 4 c). The Portel sign specifically recalls the lunar phase of the first quarter, which is typical because most “P” signs, by far, turn the rounded part, the buckle, toward the right and thus match the appearance of the waxing moon, always to the left (east) of the sun. This tendency is obvious at Tuc (Fig. 1) where only two (perhaps three) signs in the large ensemble are turned with the arch to the left in imitation of the waning moon (that is, the last quarter). The artists’ predilection for the growing moon may also find expression in the repeated association of a “P” sign with the number six (Fig. 4 a-d), apparently a reference to the six days from the first crescent to the quarter moon. Of course, the numerical “six” together with a waxing moon sign also suggests half a year (particularly, the six months of the growing half, spring-to-summer), but those are, after all, two aspects of the same matter.
We may perhaps understand the artists’ preference for the first expansive phase of a lunation if we reflect on the appearance of the first quarter moon as it hovers high in the middle of the sky (at the celestial meridian) right after sunset (cf. Fig. 5); at this point the new moon has manifestly passed beyond its inception as a slim sickle-shape, faintly pale against the setting sun. It is also worth recalling the information from a Roman source (Pliny’s Natural History) that the Celts–descendants of Ice Age Europeans– celebrated the beginning of their month at the first quarter expressly because the moon by then had regained its full strength; they, accordingly, began their year at the first quarter (Olmsted 1992).
The function of the “P” signs as markers of months is corroborated by certain images that almost certainly reflect a year of twelve lunations. In Trois-Frères (the twin cave of Tuc d’Audoubert) a horse in the famous Sanctuary carries a uniform file of twelve “P” signs on its front legs and body (Fig. 6). In so far as the horse may be seen as the principal image of the solar year (cf. Chapter V), this configuration illustrates the basic fact that there are twelve full lunations in a tropical year. These twelve signs all show waxing “moons” (right-turned) and each represents the energies–growth potential–of a new moon, just as the horse itself evokes the dynamic force of an advancing year (cf. its exaggerated erection). At the end of the file of twelve right-turned “P” signs, a thirteenth specimen is turned left and may, thus, be seen as a representation of the waning moon. We may conclude that this variety refers to the depleted forces of growth at the end of the year, the more so as this last sign is aptly positioned on the horse’s hind-quarters: the rear of the solar horse is, indeed, the tail end of the year. A similar configuration is found in Tuc (Fig. 19, at a) where a waning-type “month” sign is situated above the hind-quarters of a downward-turned, severely wounded horse–a grim image of the outgoing year.
The Trois-Frères scene (Fig. 6) with its association of horse and moon signs is special because of its numerous “P” signs, but Ice Age art elsewhere offers comparable compositions that use other, more common representations of the moon to illustrate the same fundamental relationship of the solar/lunar year. In Lascaux, for example, we find a horse with a time-line drawn across its body in a way that recalls the Trois-Frères case, only with a different sign for the month (Fig. 7). This horse carries representations of twelve months (six for the spring half of the year, six for the fall half), and each month is composed of two opposed sickle-shapes that visualize the waxing and waning halves of a lunation. In Bédeilhac (Fig. 8) twelve red dots under the body of a black bison trace a comparable curve of the year. As Bédeilhac is a cave of the Pyrenees, this composition also features a “P” sign, and because the latter is superimposed on the bison, the configuration of points and “month” sign brings out the similarities between the twelve dots and the above-mentioned twelve “P” signs in Trois-Frères. On a bone object from La Vache (Fig. 9) we find a varied, yet comparable, formulation. Likewise drawn under a bison, this design again relies on opposed crescent-shapes to represent a year of four seasons, each containing three lunations.
The above may suffice to show that the use of “P” signs at Tuc and Trois-Frères are in line with common artistic practices of Ice Age art. In the just-mentioned images from Bédeilhac and La Vache, the lunar signs address the seasonal changes of the earth as represented by the bison (cf. Chapter III), but more frequently and more profoundly, the “month” signs are tied to images of the solar horse; the relationship between lunations and solar years is the main theme. This is emphatically clear in the rotunda of Tuc, where the horse at the top of the dome is the center around which the files of “P” signs organize themselves (Fig. 1). Other instances occur in various sections of the cave, notably in another tight chamber with a fair number of “P” signs (Fig. 10). In Trois-Fréres, as well, the above-mentioned horse with the twelve “P” signs is accompanied by yet another image of a horse carrying identical “month” signs (Fig. 11 a).
The luni-solar calendar
Returning to the chamber in Tuc (which we may call the Chapel of Months; (Fig. 1), we look for a scheme to harmonize the rhythms of the moon, represented by the “P” signs, and the sun, represented by the central horse. The endeavor to align moon and sun has been a major challenge for all historically-known cultures engaged in mastering time. At the roots of the entire issue is the inescapable fact that twelve months are 10-11 days shorter than a full solar year, or in other words, the tropical year equals about twelve and a third lunations. Inserting an extra–thirteenth–month at the end of the first year of a tentative calendar would only aggravate the discrepancy by making the following lunation start almost twenty days after completion of the sun’s cycle. With the next, second year, the gap would have grown to the point where inserting an extra month merely would shift the problem around (from the moon being behind the sun to its being ahead of it). But with the third year, the original–first-year–excess of roughly one third of a month would have grown quite close to a full month, so that an additional–intercalated–month would become a functional option.
If the early sky-watchers accordingly tried out a simple three-year calendar, intercalating a month at the end of the three years, the alignment of sun and moon would, however, still be off by a good three days (3 x 365.25 = 1,095.75 days for the sun; 37 x 29.53 = 1,092.61 days for the moon). After just two such three-year cycles, the attempted calendar would therefore be off by six days, which certainly would make it useless, even for a hunter-gatherer culture. A satisfying solution is, however, possible by a slight adjustment in the application of intercalations: to add them every two-and-a-half years instead of every three years. It so happens, as an empirical fact, that after eight years of following this procedure the gap in the luni-solar alignment will be reduced to just one whole day (8 x 365.25 = 2,921.9 days for the sun; 99 x 29.53 = 2,923.47 days for the moon)–certainly a satisfying fit.
Following this eight-year solution (suggested by cognition), three intercalated months are generated per cycle, falling at regular intervals of two and a half years. The process would, then, follow the easily memorable scheme of one intercalation every thirty months, and it would extend for the manageable duration of three such units. A cycle would end after eight years, and the procedure would then resume. While the significance of half-years in this calendrical scheme may seem somewhat arbitrary to a modern view, it was entirely acceptable, even self-evident, within the dualistic mind-set that governed the cave artists’ thinking about natural phenomena, a logical application of the binary approach that was basic to Palaeolithic philosophy (cf. Chapter X). Both the year and the month were perceived as manifestations of dual forces, and both were persistently divided into a rising and a falling half, subject to the complementary forces of waxing and waning.
It bears mentioning that the just-described approach to a calendar was used in Celtic Europe even in historical times. This fact is proven by the Coligny calendar, a large metal plate with holes for a movable peg and daily slots for a full five-year count; it uses Roman numerals and Latin lettering, but is written in Celtic (Gaulish) language with Celtic names for days, months, and festivals. The Coligny calendar’s operating principle for aligning lunar and solar cycles is precisely the one outlined above: its five years provide for two intercalated months, that is, one for every two and a half years. It thus embraces two units of thirty-one months (thirty regular months plus one intercalated month) for a total of sixty-two months. Significantly, this calendar, which postdates the Roman conquest, still divides the year and the month, both, into two distinct halves, each with its appropriate designations for “ascending” and “descending” (Olmsted 1992).
The five years of the Coligny plate is not, in itself, a good model for an extended time frame because its five-year span leaves the lunar/solar calendar out of sync by as much as four or five days (in solar time, 5 x 365.25 = 1,827.25 days; in lunar time, 29.53 x 62 = 1,830.86 days). While we can only speculate about the actual, long-term application of the Coligny device (either used within an eight-year cycle or pursued for the nineteen years of Meton’s cycle), we can readily compare its basic principle of intercalation to the collection of approximately a hundred “month” signs at Tuc d’Audoubert and the duration of close to eight years that they suggest. We know that eight full years offer a close alignment of sun and moon with a discrepancy in the order of just one day, and we may assume that this level of imprecision would be congruent with the needs of an illiterate culture that neglected arithmetic exactitude and lacked a central agency to enforce standard measurements or consistent observational practices.
The scheme against which we shall test the notations in Tuc d’Audoubert’s Chapel of Months may be graphically represented as a serpentine time-line that advances through eight undulations, that is, waxing and waning halves of years (Fig. 14). To help visualize the application we may assume (merely as a working hypothesis) that the first year begins with a new moon coincident with the winter solstice (Fig. 14, at a), and that six months later another new moon–the sixth–will occur about five days before the summer solstice (at b). At the start of the second year, the new moon will have appeared about ten days before the winter solstice (at c). After another year the time gap will be at its worst (twenty-one or twenty-two days), but another half-year later the discrepancy will have reached the point where the end of a lunation precedes the summer solstice by nearly one full month, which signals the opportune moment for the first intercalation, one that (partially) re-aligns sun and moon (at d). Another thirty-plus-one months later (Fig. 14, at e) the calendar has formally returned to its starting point with a new moon near the winter solstice (this matches the end of the Coligny item). The fit is, nevertheless, only approximate considering that the synchronization is off by four-to-five days, which remains too much for closure at this point in time. However, another thirty-plus-one months unit–that is, two and a half years plus a third intercalation–brings the two cycles close together (at f; after seven and a half years), close enough that the difference will be adequately reduced during the following half year, which is needed to finish the full–eighth–year (at g) and to round it off almost where the calendar cycle began, with a new moon at midwinter.
The eight-year calendar at Tuc d’Audoubert
To begin with, we notice that the ninety-nine months consumed by the eight-year calendrical cycle is a reasonable match for the approximately one hundred “month” signs in the Chapel of Months at Tuc. A perfectly exact, conclusive tally may not be possible given the nature of the evidence; after all, the execution of the signs was not fastidious (the shape of the buckles vary greatly, as do the length of the stems), and the irregular rhythm in some stretches of the files suggests that the artist was struggling to keep count of the many, repetitive signs. More significant than the exact number, however, is the spatial projection of the divisions inherent in the eight-year calendar with its three core segments of thirty-plus-one months (cf. Fig. 14). Here the artist’s intention becomes clear. In the first place, it is evident in the distribution of the signs into three series to match the given space: two on the walls of the vaulted gallery and one on the dome of the rotunda (Fig. 1). In the second place, it is hardly accidental that each series approximates thirty-one “month” signs.
The deliberate division of the numerous signs is most clear in the file on the right-hand wall of the tunnel-like gallery (Fig. 2, “C”; notice that the perspective view in our Figs. 1 and 2 is from below, so that right and left appear reversed). In this file, most of the “P” signs are smaller, more tightly spaced, and also more uniformly drawn than what is typical of the other two series (Fig. 1). Even though the right-hand wall (Fig. 2, “C”) butts up to the walls of the rotunda, this file is readily perceived as a purposely separated entity. The line-up on the opposing, left-hand wall (Fig. 2, “B”) is more complex, as one end extends across the ceiling at the point where the arch of the gallery vault joins the lowest stratum of the circular dome (cf. Fig. 1). The several “P” signs that mitigate this smooth transition stand out by their strongly tilted stems. At the opposite end, this file also picks up two signs that actually are drawn directly inside a corridor which branches off where the gallery stops (Fig. 1,bottom right), something that, however, does not cause a real disruption. The third series (Fig. 2, “A”) is obviously arranged around the horse that occupies the top of the dome; the continuity of this series is, however, challenged, because it appears to also include five “P” signs in the short gallery that, like a balcony, opens onto the rotunda (Fig. 1,top left corner). In the dome itself, the circular series ends with six vertical strokes that form a seamless prolongation of the file of “P” signs, but are only “stems” without the bulging parts (Fig. 1; Fig. 2, “D”). We may speculate that these lines stand for the six months needed to conclude the eight-year cycle following completion of the three sequential intercalations (cf. Fig. 14, from f to g).
Based on the above analysis of the Chapel, we can ascertain that the artist, who perhaps was not used to handling large numbers, chose to lay out the eight-year calendar in manageable segments of thirty-one “month” signs, rather than in one continual ninety-nine count. The working procedure agrees with that approach: within each section there is a passage in which the space needed for a stretch of “P” signs was first marked off by drawing only the vertical stems of the signs; subsequently the artist returned to add the buckles (which are often squeezed and always executed after the stems). In a couple of places the artist apparently started out a segment using overly large signs, to the effect that following ones had to be noticeably compressed. Everything considered, the intentional design of the three series is overwhelmingly clear. Except for the off-center position of the five “P” signs in the alcove (to be discussed below), the ensemble makes sense as a visual demonstration of the eight-year calendar.
Fortunately, we find strong support for this conclusion in another small chamber of Tuc d’Auboubert, the Chamber of Heels; here too, the decoration testifies to the artists’ fascination with measured time and calendrical schemes. The location in question is found near the end of the very long, quite strenuous gallery that is terminated by the famous sculptures of two bison (Fig. 19, at i). Clay for forming these amazing works was taken from a chamber that opens to the side of the gallery (Fig. 19, at h), an area that is remarkable for its perfectly smooth and level floor of fine-grained clay. The name of the space comes from the fact that the artists here walked on their heels, so as not to leave, ostensibly irreverent, footprints on the undisturbed clay surface. While the two sculpted bison in the gallery imply a narrative about the creation of the earth, several designs drawn on the pristine clay floor of the Heel chamber specifically relate to time, to its origins and to its structure.
Among the designs on the clay surface are four “P” signs, one of which (shown in Fig. 4 b) is accompanied by a numerical set of six dots to express the growth potential of the new moon. The remaining “P” signs form a group of three (Fig. 15 a), which invariably directs our attention to the three intercalated months that characterize the eight-year calendar. In fact, next to this group we find an unusual configuration of two parallel, serpentine lines that looks convincingly like a projection of just that calendar. The two segments of this composite sign trace, respectively, five and three undulations, for a total of eight (Fig. 15 a). The lay-out is, indeed, a good illustration of the unfolding of the eight-year cycle. The longer segment of five oscillations/years is closed with a loop (at the right-hand end), just as the first five years of the calendar constitute a rounded-off, symmetrical unit, which ends–at the very season where it began–with an intercalation (the second) that approximately resets luni-solar time (cf. Fig. 14, from a to e). The shorter segment of three undulations/years (Fig. 15 a) matches the three-year addition that is formally less satisfying in so far as it abruptly ends half a year after the last intercalation (the third)–not in order to achieve formal closure, but in response to the de facto, observed re-alignment of sun and moon at this point in time (cf. Fig. 14, from e to g). This unique design (about nine feet long) makes almost as good an argument for the Ice Age Octaëteris as the entire composition of the Chapel of Months.
Though the remote Chamber of Heels, unlike the Chapel, does not present us with scores of “month” signs, it is evident that the theme of the decoration here, too, is the organization of time. As if to confirm this understanding, an image that is superimposed on the undulating calendar design and which resembles a branch lined with curled leaves (Fig. 15 a and b) certainly represents the luni-solar year as twelve opposing crescents–waxing and waning lunations–along a central time-line (cf similar signs at Lascaux, Fig. 7, and la Vache, Fig. 9). In sum, the signs on the clay floor of the Chamber of Heels at Tuc (Fig. 15) fit together conceptually, uniting graphic renditions of the moon and the sun with their rhythms, and the calendar with its basic rule of three intercalations and its eight-year cycle. The presence of two quite explicit illustrations of this calendrical scheme in the same cave makes a solid case for the Palaeolithic Octaëteris.
The calendar beyond the Pyrenees
The full demonstrations of the Octaëteris in Tuc are exceptional in cave art, but less complete displays may still allow us to detect familiarity with the concept at other sites. The two ensembles in the Chapel of Months and the Chamber of Heels both show the conspicuous presence of three “P” signs grouped together (Fig. 1, top left; Fig. 15 a), which suggests that this configuration may function as a distinct sign in its own right. It appears that the three months thus indicated specifically refer to the three intercalated months that are the signature element of the eight-year calendar. Three “month” signs together may, thus, be a conventional, short-hand representation of that calendar at large. In the Spanish cave of Armintxe, a panel of engravings that comprises dozens of animal figures also includes a unified group of three large “P” signs (Rios-Garaizar 2016). These may well document the artists’ familiarity with precisely the calendar we detect in caves of southern France. This assumption is the more likely as the great ensemble of Armintxe also features a couple of lions, a motif that is extraordinarily rare in Spanish caves but is represented in both Tuc and Trois-Frères.
“P” signs are found in a few other Spanish caves, and among these we may look for evidence that the Octaëteris was, indeed, known and used. In this search, the cave of El Pindal jumps to attention, because its central panel features a group of large, red “P” signs (Fig. 16, a), which is associated with a field of numerous, red dots (Fig. 16, at f) that possibly could be a calendrical count. These red motifs entirely dominate the panel (the huge bison, Fig. 16, to the left, is not actually noticeable as it is merely engraved). Besides the six prominent “P” signs we find a number of numerical marks that recall calendrical indicators of Tuc and Trois-Frères, including a set of two (originally three?) black “P” signs (Fig. 16, b) and, below these, three engraved circles (Fig. 16, c) that almost certainly signify three lunations–again, with the likely implication of the three intercalary months of the Octaëteris. A bison with lines of red dots below its body (Fig. 16, d) is also reminiscent of Pyrenean imagery (cf. Fig. 8 and Fig. 9). In the Pindal version (Fig. 16, d), one line has six dots that suggest the months of a half-year and/or the days of the first quarter moon, while the other line has eight dots and possibly signals the eight years of the calendar.The number eight is also indicated by a separate group of dots (Fig. 16, e). We may add that the artists’ attention to the sun/moon relationship also finds expression in an image painted toward the back of the cave, which represents the year as a branch-like sign (Fig. 18): an up-then-down curving line, divided evenly into twelve sections.
While the just-mentioned images, admittedly, provide only circumstantial evidence of a calendar, the large field of red dots may be more conclusive. In and of themselves, dots can mean anything, but if we hypothetically assume that the Pindal dots signal months, we may find both the number and the arrangement of the dots to be commensurate with the principles of the calendar. The actual count of the dots depends on inclusion versus omission of a few marks that seem poorly preserved or ill-defined (Fig. 17 a). The recent monograph on Pindal (González-Pumeriega Solís 2011, 60) settles for ninety-four (twenty along the top plus seventy-four in the center), but photos suggest that some of these are debatable (idem, 132-34). Anyway, the count remains tantalizingly close to the ninety-three months for three subsets of the Octaëteris (cf. Fig. 14).
The critical issue is, then, the extent to which the organization of the field reflects three sets of thirty-one dots. The arrangement is, admittedly, less neat and systematic than the three files of “P” signs in Tuc d’Audoubert, but the Pindal ensemble still shows various orderly alignments (Fig. 17 b). A ridge that borders the top of the field guides several horizontal rows, setting off one section (“A” in Fig. 17 b). Below these, a convex area on the right gathers an assembly of vertical alignments (“B”), while a narrow, concave area of the wall-face (in the middle) helps define a third section on the left (“C”). Each of the three segments holds about thirty-one dots, which may argue for the eight-year formula, even though the application lacks rigor. A not insignificant detail is the discreet group of three dots (Fig. 17 a, upper right corner), which we have come to see as a signpost for the eight-year calendar. Finally, the six large “P” signs (Fig. 16, a) may well stand for the last six months that bring the cycle to its successful end following the final intercalation (months ninety-four through ninety-nine; cf. Fig. 14, from f to g). The over-all impression to be gained from the above is that the artists of Pindal were familiar with the Octaëteris, but that they possibly alluded to it more for expressive effect than for accuracy.
Knowledge of the proto-Octaëteris was hardly confined to the geographical/chronological sphere explored above, nor were artistic presentations necessarily tied to the use of “P” signs for months. We shall, however, stay within this horizon, and merely consider a single extraneous case of a visual ensemble that may indicate familiarity with this calendar in the caves of central France. We shall consider what looks like a rather plain version of the eight-year calendar in Lascaux (Dordogne).
Engraved in the Apse of Lascaux is an atypical gathering of signs that seems to embrace just the core imagery of the Tuc d’Audoubert version of the Octaëteris. First we find a cluster of three “month” signs of which two have the buckle turned to the left, and one, turned to the right (Leroi-Gourhan & Allain 1979, 364). Secondly we find two long, parallel lines each with close to a hundred dots (each dot composed of several tiny strokes). A. Glory, who single-handed traced the engravings of the Apse, ventured a count of ninety-four for the top line and, presumably, about the same for the bottom one. However, his rendition (idem, Plate 14) shows a significant number of these dots to be crowded so tightly that a definitive count may not ever be feasible. We can only observe that, including the three “month” signs, the number is, at the least, in the proximity of the ninety-nine months of the Octaëteris. We are also left guessing why the artist marked off two cycles of eight years: perhaps for the display to be more visible?
The presence of this imagery at Lascaux is puzzling, because most of the cave’s decoration (which is Solutrean) predates Tuc and Trois-Frères by thousands of years; therefore, the “month” signs in the Apse are most likely a late (Magdalenian) addition. If so, a feasible model for the Lascaux design may be found in Trois-Frères’ Gallery of Dots. Here, two parallel lines of black dots follow a horizontal ledge, as do the two lines of dots at Lascaux, and here we find similar numbers: the combined numbers of the two lines in Trois-Frères is close to ninety-nine, to which comes a third, longer, line–above the two parallel ones–again with a count of ninety-some dots. A recent monograph on the cave (R. Bégouën et al. 2012, 97) gives the number as ninety-eight for the two parallel lines, but accompanying photos appear ambiguous. Finally, the Trois-Frères ensemble has a short, separate line of three dots that, here too, may stand for the three crucial intercalated months of the Octaëteris. As in Lascaux, the display of two cycles (sixteen years) seems motivated simply by the desire for a visually impressive exposition.
Similarities between the specimens of Trois-Frères and Lascaux notwithstanding, we would be rash to discard the alternative option, that the eight-year calendar actually was developed long before the Magdalenian era. We may not exclude even the possibility that the “P” sign was an integral element from the beginning, given that the early cave of Chauvet contains a red-painted sign of the stem-and-buckle type and that, furthermore, this specimen is located not far from a panel of ninety-three red dots (Clottes 2001, 69, 165). Of course, this coincidence could be purely accidental.
In a historical perspective, the post-Magdalenian diffusion of the eight-year calendar is quite elusive as well, although we do know that the concept persisted to eventually become the Octaëteris, seemingly the earliest documented Greek calendar, and we know that the Celts retained the calendrical scheme of an intercalation every thirtieth month. As mentioned, the five-years of the historic Coligny artefact makes for an inadequate calendar, one that in practice must have been used within the framework of eight or nineteen years. It remains possible, however, that its five year unit once–in a prehistoric past–also was the nucleus of a more elaborate “great cycle” of thirty years (composed of six five-year units) as argued by G. Olmsted (1992, 61-64).
Such a “great cycle” would have been too cumbersome for practical purposes, yet it would have been highly accurate, and more important, it would have possessed an impressive internal logic, being produced entirely with the numbers “five” and “six.” In ordinary use, either eight or nineteen years would have been practical alternatives, but both solutions would be lacking in theoretical consistency, whereas the grand scheme of a thirty-year calendar would be an intellectually perfect solution to the riddle of time (an achievement that the Celts’ Neolithic ancestors apparently monumentalized in the thirty pillars of Stonehenge). In any case, the penchant for structured time–even elaborate “great cycles”–is recognizable as a motivating impulse in the nebulous zone between proto-scientific search and religious/philosophical imagination, and we may be closest to understanding the motivation for the Tuc calendar by assuming that it was treasured–and proudly displayed in the cave sanctuary–primarily as the formally-correct solution to a theoretical challenge. This does not exclude a possible use of the calendar as a functional tool (for example, to keep track of peoples’ age, or to time ceremonial events), but we must recognize that illustrations of calendrical principles in the recessed chambers of a cave was not commensurate with practicality. In one respect, anyhow, the representations in the Chapel of Months and the Chamber of Heels almost certainly served a definite purpose: combined with images pertaining to ancestral cult, displays of the long-term calendar lent authenticity to time-honored territorial claims by the tribe that owned the cave sanctuary. Control of time is, after all, integral to genealogy in cultures across the world.
The place of the calendar in myths of creation
Palaeolithic cultures pursued their luni-solar calendar–as they did their zodiac–in an attempt to integrate time in their mythical universe; theirs was a partly proto-scientific partly philosophical/religious effort to comprehend the origin, essence, and limits of time. We can tell that the artists of the Chapel of Months at Tuc believed the calendar to be among the earliest manifestations of primordial creation because they performed a gestural re-enactment of the appearance of time out of chaos: the artists engraved their orderly files of “P” signs on top of the pre-existing images of original disorder in the form of shapeless “macaroni,” that is, meandering lines (drawn with a three- or four-pronged tool) that wander about aimlessly, occasionally crossing each other without ever generating regular patterns or structured designs (Bégouën et al. 2009, 150; for clarity, the “macaroni” are not included in our Fig. 1). The rows of “month” signs, thus, literally override the unruly flutings, thereby demonstrating, both physically and conceptually, the concept that structured time replaced irregular disorder as the world was created.
Cave art had a wide repertory of visual motifs with which to articulate ideas about the creation of orderly time out of chaotic timelessness. One approach was the use of numerical symbolism to convey the organizing principles active at the first creation. An example is the august symbol of “two-times-three,” the fusion of “two” (even and female) and “three” (odd and male), used to capture the essence of creation. In Trois-Frères, this symbol accompanies a “P” sign (Fig. 4 d), which, significantly, is located at the suddenly narrowing end of a terminal tunnel, and thus, at the threshold of the created world.
The act of painting or drawing a calendrical sign in a barely accessible spot inside a cave was, in effect, a way of suggesting that the origins of the calendar had to be found at the very limits of the known world. We meet this idea again in Tuc’s Chapel of Months, where the first “P” sign of one calendrical segment is placed in the very back of a small recess (Fig. 1, top left), inside which the artist had to lie on his back to draw the image.
The importance of genealogy in cave sanctuaries explains a third way for the artists to tell about the roots of the calendar, namely by juxtaposing calendrical signs with images of ancestors. Next to the just-mentioned “P” sign in the Chapel of Tuc we find a stylized human hand (Fig. 1, top left; Fig. 12 a), which here, as elsewhere in cave art (cf. Chapter VIII), signals an act by a tribal ancestor. We may assume that this anonymous character lived in the mythical age when the cycles of sun and moon were fixed, and that he-or-she therefore was one of the first people to understand about time and, presumably, was the one who passed on–literally, handed down–knowledge of the calendar to the tribe of Tuc. We find the same felicitous juxtaposition of a quarter-moon sign and a conventional human hand prominently displayed at the center of the great panel of Marsoulas (Fig. 13), a cave in which an inner section features about a dozen odd portraits that we may see as ancestral beings (Plénier 1971).
Tuc, as well, shows the likeness of a human ancestor, and significantly, one who is juxtaposed with a “P” sign (Fig. 12 b). This configuration, which is located in the opposite end of the cave from the Chapel of Months (Fig. 19, at b), identifies the ancestral being by two circular eyes that are drawn on a roughly triangular face, which on closer inspection is also the standard image of a woman’s vulva, This character is, then, a likely “great grandmother” of the tribe, and her association with the “month” sign (Fig. 12 b) conveys the belief that the relationship between women and the moon (the menstrual cycle) was as old as the dawn of time. This vital connection was also acknowledged in certain images that juxtapose “P” signs with the numerical “nine”–almost certainly a reference to the duration of human pregnancy measured in lunations (cf. Fig. 4 b and d).
The calendar and the cycles of creation
Not just the embryo in the womb but everything that partakes of the cycles of life was perceived as intimately tied to the synchronized pulsations of the lunar and solar cycles, and therefore ruled by the calendar, the dynamics of which were understood to encompass both the “waxing” and the “waning” of existence. By its example, the moon demonstrates the dual law of waxing and waning, growth and decline, and the cave artists gave expression to this duality in a matching duplicity of the “month” signs themselves, as these take on two contrasting forms: “waxing,” with the arched part toward the right (like a “P”); “waning,” turned opposite (like a “q”). The great majority of such signs are “waxing” (just as cave art is generally life-confirming), but a not insignificant number are “waning” and were clearly related to the weakening of life forces that was recognized as an unavoidable aspect of creation.
The mentioned Trois-Frères horse with the many superimposed “month” signs clarifies the different implications of these two types (Fig. 6). Twelve “waxing” signs cover the horse’s front legs and forequarters as well as most of its body, all of which articulates the idea of a new solar year that is charged with enough energy for a full twelve months, a message that is re-enforced by the exuberant sexual potency of this horse. Conversely, the single “waning” sign on the horse’s hind-quarters must stand for the retreat of powers during the declining part of the year. This division obeys an obvious visual logic, for the front part of the horse/year is spring/summer, and the hind part is fall/winter. Moreover, as the thirteenth item in a row, the “waning” sign also refers to the intercalation in a year of thirteen months. Apparently, the last month–the one at the end of a thirty-month unit–was considered weaker than normal months, or rather, seen as indicative of a weakening in the ordinary progression of time toward the end of a cycle. In Tuc as well, we find examples of “waning” (“q”) signs situated at the rear end of horses (Fig. 10; Fig. 19, at a), and keeping in mind the importance of the calendar in this cave, we may well see these “waning” signs as indicating challenges or threats, not just to a year, but to the flow of measured time.
The two, perhaps three, “waning” signs in the Chapel of Months appear to signal the weakening of the calendar or, more precisely, its sub-sets of years, by the situation of each sign within the ensemble. Among the nearly one hundred “month” signs in the Chapel, the few “waning” samples seem to specifically mark the very end of each of the three thirty-one-month sections. A close look at the tail end of each section confirms this impression (Fig. 1, and Fig. 3 a, b, c). The most obvious case is file “B” (cf. Fig. 2), in which the last sign (Fig. 3 b, number 31) reaches below all the others to mark its position as the very last one. In section “C” (Fig. 2), the stem of the weak “month” sign was greatly extended, possibly to likewise mark off its place as the last one (Fig. 3 c, number 31), a position that, however, depends on the reading of another, perhaps questionable, last “P” (Fig. 3 c, number 32). In section “A,” the last of the signs to be equipped with a buckle appears to be “waning” (Fig. 3 a, number 31), although the reproduction in the definitive monograph (Bégouën et al. 2009) is ambiguous. Certain disputable marks notwithstanding, we may infer that the artists perceived a decline of the moon at the end of each thirty-month cycle, and that they perhaps saw the last, intercalated month of each sub-cycle in the light of this weakening. For sure, the energies released with the start of each new month, as with each new section of the calendar, were felt to be exhausted toward the end.
Through regular re-adjustments of time (intercalated months) the calendar became the model example of a law that was considered applicable to all of creation (cf. Chapter IX): the strength of the original creative impulse would wear down over time, eventually to dissipate; at this point a ritual repetition of the first creation–the “eternal return” familiar from comparative religious studies–was necessary in order to enact a revival. Renewal and growth were the parts of the cycle that were most popular with the artists and, therefore, the themes most visible in the decorated caves; but the other side, the aspect of decline and death, was not ignored, even though it was toned down in the decorative programs of many caves. We shall briefly review both artistic modalities and notice the implication of the calendar in each case. We shall begin with examples on the positive side.
In one chamber of Tuc d’Audoubert we find the upbeat, expansive aspect of the calendrical cycle demonstrated by the liberal presence of waxing-type “month” signs on-and-around two juxtaposed figures: the one, a horse whose vertically rising position signifies the vigorous, luxuriant part of the year; the other, a reindeer whose large antlers are the very emblem of growth (Fig. 10). This combination is far from accidental, and we may point to a few comparable scenes. In Portel, for example, a tiny alcove (the “Camarin”) contains a large, central “P” sign (Fig. 4 c), associated with the painting of a horse (at the top of the panel) and a head of deer antlers (Leroi-Gourhan 1967, 450). Similarly, the great wall of calendrical imagery at Pindal (Fig. 16) features a vertically ascending horse (again, at the top of the wall) along with a head of antlers (Fig. 16, g and h). In sum, these are compelling demonstrations of the calendar as a factor in assuring the renewal of the year and the revival of nature.
In the Sanctuary of Trois-Frères this same configuration–”P” signs, ascending horse, and antlers–takes on an extraordinary significance due to the context, as the mentioned horses carrying “P” signs (Fig. 6, and Fig. 11 a) are positioned at the top of the steeply rising path that leads to the famous figure of a dancing god–whose crown of reindeer antlers proclaims his power to generate growth (Fig. 11 b). The two horses carry (literally, on their bodies) a statement about the renewal of time, a message that, by virtue of their closeness to the divine character, resonates with the message of his dance, which–reminiscent of the dance of Shiva–animates all of existence.
Together with this significant figure, the two horses and their “month” signs assume a commanding position in the Sanctuary, high above the multitudes of animals below. The latter are predominantly bison, for Trois-Frères (like Tuc) is definitely a “bison cave,” dedicated to this species and its axiomatic role as the earth that supports and sustains all life. We can, therefore, safely assume that the extensive calendrical imagery in both caves recognizes a close relationship between the fixed rhythms of sun and moon and the perpetual oscillations of earthly life. The same associations are noticeable in Pindal, where several large bison are integral elements in the panel of calendar signs (Fig. 16). Significantly, one of the bison adopts signs and numerical counts that pertain to luni-solar periodicity (Fig. 16, d).
Turning to the negative side of the existential cycle–decline and death–visitors to Tuc d’Audoubert encounter the gloomy down-side of the cycle in the long and difficult path that leads to the Chamber of Heels (Fig. 19, at h). To arrive there, we have to pass through a small chamber (at g) where we come face to face with half a dozen sinister monsters (Bégouën et al. 2009, 227) that, through their imposing presence, impose a close encounter with the forces of degeneration and deformation. A subsequent chamber along this path features an entire wall covered with “macaroni” (idem, 245), aimless lines that evoke the chaotic, featureless abyss, conquered at creation but always threatening to return and bring along the collapse of time and space. Thus, the passage places decline and destruction in our minds, preparing us to see the bison sculptures at the end as images of the earth, emerging freshly re-created, overcoming decay and annihilation (Fig. 19, at i). In the same vein we may understand the calendrical designs in the side-chamber–in the primordial clay floor with the heel marks–as demonstrating the renewal of temporal order, recreated on the model of original creation (Fig. 15 a).
In Trois-Frères, the above-mentioned calendar in the Gallery of Dots is accompanied by an ugly, red-eyed, reptilian monster (Bégouën et al. 2009, 96), which, like the mentioned monsters of Tuc, appears as a blatant exponent of the negative forces that the calendar was made to face. The engraved head of a bison at the end of this gallery (idem, 99), here too, connects the renewal of time with the re-creation of the earth.
The above-discussed linear calendar in the Apse of Lascaux is situated above the Shaft, the deep and narrow location which contains a famous image of a severely wounded bison–that is, a representation of the destroyed earth (Fig. 62 a)–as well as the cave’s only image of a rhinoceros. In Ice Age art at large, the rhino is the ultimate image of destructive power (cf. Chapter IX), to the effect that the setting of these images could not be more explicit regarding the conflict between, above the Shaft, the orderly world of the calendar, and, in the Shaft, the primeval chaos of the rhinoceros. Of course, as in Tuc and Trois-Frères, chaos is not allowed to prevail, and the victory of order is amply represented, partly through the Apse’s many images of stags with truly fantastic antlers , partly through the calendrical signs above the descent into the Shaft, and last but not least, through the prominent numerical “two-times-three” sign that is painted in the Shaft, right behind the rhino, literally causing the sinister creature to flee (Fig. 62a).
Quite similar imagery recurs in Trois-Frères, where the cave’s only noticeable rhinoceros is placed vertically below the feet of the dancing god in the Sanctuary (Fig. 11 b). Here, the many bison below–level with the rhino–are all marked with innumerable arrows and wounds, and thus, utterly “destroyed.” Again, we face a paradox, for these bison are also very much alive, all agitated and in motion (Bégouën et al. 2012, 132-33; Bégouën & Breuil 1958/1999, 41), and again, the explanation of the contradiction is obvious: the demise of the bison/earth is overcome because the measured steps of the dancer’s feet and the steady beat of the “waxing” calendrical signs (Fig. 6, and Fig. 11 a) join to proclaim a new lease on life and a new surge of time.
The calendar at the heart of Tuc d’Audoubert
We are now prepared to evaluate the place of the eight-year calendar within the wider artistic program for the cave of Tuc. As is often the case in the caves, even where bison or other species dominate, the line of the narrative follows the horse, and in Tuc as well, calendrical signs adhere to and reflect on images of horses, as these perform the seasonal drama of the solar year. Beyond that, however, the story embraces the larger perspective of the world’s creation, decline, and recovery, with a focus on the orderly dimensions of space and time.
The lay-out of the cave is determined by the course of the river Volp, and the galleries are entered only via the accessible bed of the subterranean stream (Fig. 19). The Volp flows underground from the south-east toward the north-west, and the artists paid attention to the cosmic geography projected by this trajectory. The progress of the narrative follows the flow of the river, beginning at the farthest south-eastern point of the cave, which corresponds to an extreme station of the solar year, namely, the direction of the rising sun around midwinter. Indeed, the first image here (Fig. 19, at a) matches the dead season, as it shows a horse that is tilted down-ward, with its head low (actually, overhanging a steep drop to the river); adding to the grim spectacle, its body is marked by large projectiles and wounds. We are obviously witnessing the demise of a year, and the “waning” moon sign above the horse’s hind quarters further tells us that this also may be the end of a longer cycle of time, perhaps even warning us that structured time itself is imperiled.
Provided that the cycles of time evolve as intended, the lowest moment of the year is also a turning point (the spring-half of the year begins precisely at winter solstice). In fact, the small gallery also provides the very first sign of a recovery in the form of a single “waxing” month sign placed further back in the corridor (Fig. 19, at b). We are given to believe that this new sign is brought forth from an inscrutable mythical past by the helpful interference of a tribal ancestor (Fig. 12 b).
From the remote, southern-most gallery we move a good stretch downstream–that is, ahead in the unfolding of the year–to a decorated area where the outstanding figure is an all-red horse (Fig. 19, at c). This image, painted in a red wash, is the only significant red figure in the cave, and it is, for sure, strikingly different from the just-mentioned, first (killed) horse. Its red hue evidently celebrates the rebirth of the sun following the nadir of winter. Nevertheless, in a niche, close by the red horse, we find a group of eight “month” signs that are all of the “waning” type (Fig. 19, at d). The number of these signs likely refers to the eight-year calendar, and their weak form indicates that ordered time is, as yet, profoundly weakened. At this point, still in the southern-most end of the main cave space, we have arrived only at the end of winter, we are not yet into spring/summer.
The full recovery of the year and of time happens farther on, in the northern-most area, that is, in the Chapel of Months (Fig. 19, at f), the location that celebrates the calendar in all its glory. The solar horse at the top of the Chapel’s dome tells us that the horse/sun, too, has regained its powers and is carried along by the avalanche of “waxing” moons that constitute the re-established calendar of eight years (Fig. 1).
The strongest possible contrast to the destroyed horse/sun at the far south-eastern point of the cave is, subsequently, to be found at the opposite, north-western end; here the protagonist is aligned with the diametrically opposite position, that of the setting sun at midsummer (Fig. 19, at e). At this location, the vertical horse, proclaiming the ascending half of the solar year, rises triumphantly, surrounded by a surge of “waxing” month-signs (Fig. 10). Evidently this horse, along with the attending reindeer, confirm the new dispensation of energies and of restructured time, just as they assure the spatial expansion of the world: the horse/sun marking its northernmost reaches; the reindeer ready for the north-bound spring migration. In this chamber, it is hardly possible to separate the ascendance of the horse, the revival of the year, and the recovery of all creation, from the surge of “P” signs and the empowered calendar.
Even here, we are, all the same, made aware of the cyclical nature of the year, as a single “waning” sign is placed level with the hind-quarters of the horse, appropriately situated for a reminder of the fall/winter side of the year, which is entirely meaningful because the summer solstice is the precise moment for the down-turn of the year. This allusion remains, anyhow, a faint touch of negativity, one that is overwhelmed by the artists’ insistence on the “waxing” themes. Indeed, we may pause here to consider the striking contrast between the massive accumulation of “P” signs in the northern cave space and the small group of “q” signs in the southern section (Fig. 19, at d). The story-line is, over-all, affirmative, pro-summer, anti-winter.
Somewhat apart from the above-described story of the yearly drama, the Chamber of Heels (Fig. 19, at h), farthest inside the mountain, is devoted to the very first creation of space and time. As mentioned, we experience the intrusion of monstrosity and disorder on the way there (Fig. 19, at g), just as the long and winding path itself leads us away from the familiar, orderly world, toward the innermost earth and the ageless world that preceded the beginning of time. The innermost location was evidently perceived as the center of the world and the very point of original creation. To show that much, the artists made a perfect omphalos–a navel of the cosmos–in the form of a conical hill of clay, placed right in the center of the Chamber and decorated with lines going toward the four cardinal directions. They took the clay for the modelled bison from the floor right next to this reverential marker (Bégouën et al 2009, 282). Again observing the concept of a center, they placed their sculpted bison couple in the middle of the Chamber of the Bison (Fig. 19, at i), leaning them against a free-standing rock that is the focal point of the room and a nature-given omphalos (idem, 293). We are to understand that the first creation happened at this place, and that the venerable pool of clay in the Chamber of Heels was the primordial substance, both of the first earth and of its artistic replica, the sculpted bison. On the unblemished surface of this floor, the artists drew the ciphers of the calendar (Fig. 15 a), honoring what they saw as a necessary and essential principle of the life of the earth.