IV. The Sky

[Forthcoming 2023]


While the emergence of the earth has priority in myths of creation from around the world, the establishment of the dual model of earth-and-skyis often hailed as the true beginning of a livable world. In Upper Palaeolithic thought, as well, the creation of the sky introduces the dichotomy that lends structure to the cosmos, generates time and space, and rules all manifestations of life. Obeying a general, all-pervasive dualism of thought all beings or things have both an earth- and a sky-aspect (legs versus head, hindquarters versus forequarters, valley versus peaks). More precisely, the earth and the sky are represented in Ice Age art by two animal species of the same family, namely, the two wild oxen, the bison and the aurochs–different, yet related. Like these two species, the earth and the sky were perceived as elements of the same order, jointly framing the created world. The pronounced morphological differences between the two oxen determined their opposite roles: the bison is bound to the earth, as the hump of its back fixes its head close to the ground; the aurochs relates to the sky, with its head held higher, above the line of its back. These were distinctions that the artists would emphasize and occasionally exaggerate.

The role of the aurochs as the sky vault is particularly clear from the decoration in certain caves that are characterized by elevated, domed ceilings, and thus project a ready model of the cosmos. Within this structure, the aurochs dominate the ceilings (that is, the sky) or bright, smooth and arched panels on tall walls, while the bison are relegated to low sections or set close to the floor (that is, the earth). In a decorated cave, a spacious hall is the ideal setting for displaying the celestial character of the aurochs, particularly if this hall is close to the entrance, that is, close to the sky-world outside, removed from the typical setting of the bison in the inner, earth-bound cave.

The sky-related functions of the aurochs differ according to sex, as the roles of the bull and the cow are almost like day and night. The aurochs bull embodies the sky in its capacity of an elementary male force that fertilizes the earth through rain, notably in early spring. In this, the Palaeolithic concept is reminiscent of familiar “storm gods” of later ages, who typically have ties to–or, are addressed as–wild bulls. Compositions that involve aurochs and bison may explicitly render the relationship between the bull of the sky and the earth by way of signs that signify lightning: zigzags, arrow- and spear-like signs, or spiked “thunderbolts.” These signs are often directed downwards and may be shown penetrating a bison’s body, that is, impregnating the earth.

Other ideograms that suggest clouds and rain include designs with rain-like fringes. Some of these signs further clarify the inter-connection between the waters above and the waters below the earth’s surface, because they are, pointedly, placed where passages inside caves connect to subterranean waters; such displays demonstrate that the artists gave some thought to the circulation of moisture between earthly and celestial realms. Apparently Upper Palaeolithic ideas resembled later Asian concepts of dragons or the indigenous North Americans’ “horned serpents,” creatures that dwell in deep lakes as well as in storm clouds. In Palaeolithic cave art, as in petroglyphs worldwide,  serpentine lines, even real snakes, are frequently depicted verticaly, thus revealing the inter-dependence of  waters above and below. Through their settings in the caves or through their pictorial contexts, the Ice Age signs reflect a cosmic model in which moisture circulates, through the world, rising from the abyss, forming clouds, and returning as rain to fertilize the earth.

In response to the pronounced sexual dualism of cave art, the role of the female aurochs differs from that of the male. While the bulls stand for the powers, brilliance, and elevation of the sky, the cows occupy the lower, less expansive stratum of the celestial vault, embodying the softer glow of the morning or evening skies and even representing the darkness of the night sky. As images of dawn or dusk the cows are fittingly painted red. When they personify the night sky they are correspondingly black. In her capacity of the night sky, the black cow blurs the border between sky and earth. Egyptian mythology teaches, in one tradition, that the sun-god at night traverses the body of the sky-goddess–who is also a cow–and, in another tradition, that he travels through a fearsome netherworld. Likewise, the Palaeolithic sky-cow mysteriously embraces both the night sky and the underground realm of the dead. Thus, the protective, maternal powers of the aurochs cow upholds the duality of the ordered world, even in the face of death and darkness.

Among the frequent cosmograms that display the relationship between earth and sky, we find the classical (Magdalenian) “tectiforms,” which are genuine huts shown in cross-section with a horizontal base line that represents the earth, a pitched roof that is the sky, and in the center, at the earth’s “navel,” a supporting pole that connects the two realms. This symbiosis of horizontal and vertical is a persistent principle in panels of composite ideograms. The creation of the sky, following the establishment of the earth, introduced the vertical dimension of the cosmos, complementing the horizontality of the earth.