IV. The Sky


The preceding chapter presents a belief in the emergence of the earth as the first step out of chaos and toward the formation of an ordered world, but we may keep in mind that myths of creation from around the world perceive the subsequent appearance of the sky as the true beginning of the familiar world, the event that establishes the earth/sky dichotomy; while the emergence of the earth, generally, has priority in creation myths, the establishment of the dual model of earth-and-sky is often hailed as the true beginning of an orderly, livable world. This is a concept that seems particularly appropriate to Ice Age art, given that the basic philosophy of the Upper Paleolithic was profoundly dualistic (cf. Chapter X). The present chapter demonstrates that the artists, indeed, saw the earth/sky duality as a prime demonstration of the basic principle of existence–equally important in their art works as the dual concepts of female/male or winter/summer.

Obeying their prevalent, binary orientation, the artists divided the animal species in their art works according to morphological characteristics. Of particular importance to our topic, the earth and the sky were, in a definitive form, represented by the two species of wild oxen, the bison and the aurochs–closely related, yet totally different: 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.

Part One explains the role of the aurochs as the sky vault. This function is particularly clear from the decoration in certain caves, which have elevated, domed ceilings that 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, the more so if this hall is relatively close to the entrance and, thus, physically related to the sky-world outside; this may generate a noticeable contrast to the typical setting of the bison in the inner, earth-bound cave.

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, the brilliance, and the elevation of the sky, the cows either occupy the lower, less expansive stratum of the celestial vault, or they embody the night sky; the latter is a mythological entity that readily encompasses the subterranean realm of the dead. In Egyptian mythology, the sun-god at night traverses the body of the sky-goddess–who, significantly, also had a cow manifestation (cf. Chapter I), as he travels through a fearsome netherworld. The Palaeolithic sky-cow, already, represented the protective, maternal powers that supported the framework of life, even though death and darkness.

Part Two concerns the mountain goats (ibex and chamois) as sky-related species. Generally, they occur in the art works as the “battle-rams” that guide the major sky-figures–aurochs or horses–through obstructive passages between the depths of the earth and the outer world of the sky. Thus, they (re-)activate primordial creation, establishing the category of the sky in opposition to the earth. In a particular function, the mountain goats are agents of thunder and rain, breaking open the earth to be fertilized by the sky. A body of images bear evidence to a seasonal sacrifice of ibexes.

Part Three deals with various ideograms that pertain to the nature of the sky. Among these is a class of signs that represent clouds and rain, and which illustrate the circulation of moisture, rising from the earth to form clouds, and returning as rain to fertilize the earth. Another category of cosmograms is the (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 connecting the two realms. Numerical signs make up a third class of symbols. The basic principle of these is the distinction between even, earth-related numbers and odd, sky-related numbers. Numerical signs are omni-present, as they articulate the essential principles of creation and re-creation.



As demonstrated above (Chapter Three), the main representatives of the earth—the bison, the mammoth, and the rhinoceros—reveal their terrestrial nature through their massive, earth-bound bodies. Here, we shall pursue the hypothesis that sky-related animal species, by contrast, are light of build and raise their heads noticeably above their backs. Applying terms discussed elsewhere (cf. Chapter X), we may say that while the earth-agents embody the principle of “mass,” the sky-agents represent the principle of “energy.” A comparison of select images from each category illustrates this distinction between the “horizontal” earth creatures on one side (Fig. 1, a – c) and the “vertical” representatives of the sky on the other side (Fig. 1, d – g).

Two species of oxen are predominant in Ice Age Art, namely the aurochs and the bison, and the morphological differences between these two species are pronounced and meaningful to our inquiry. Although they are of comparable size and body weight, the two kinds of bovids differ noticeably in the carriage of the head, as the bison’s head is set below the prominent humps of the back, quite close to the ground, while the aurochs’ head is set above the line of the back, raised towards the sky. The two examples used for illustration (Fig. 1 a, d) are from the same cave (Pech-Merle) and the artists clearly exaggerated the differences in order to articulate a categorical distinction between the two members of the same genus, one earth-bound, the other sky-bound. Each defines its own sphere, but jointly they compose the world.

The aurochs bull and the celestial vault 

The aurochs is not as ubiquitous in Ice Age art as the bison, and the duality of earth and sky is more frequently stated by configurations of the bison and the horse than by bison and aurochs; but wherever the aurochs was a familiar sight, the bison/aurochs configuration was the definitive means of recalling the cosmological significance of the earth/sky dichotomy, and in a handful of major sanctuaries, this is the dominant theme of the decoration. Lascaux, famously, allows a dominant role to the aurochs. Focusing at first on the cave’s painted figures (the outstanding images, more noticeable than the engravings) we count about twenty painted aurochs against only a handful of painted bison, which is a reversal of the numerical superiority of bison that is the common standard in cave art. Furthermore, the topographical distribution of the Lascaux images makes this abnormal representation more pronounced still, as the aurochs occupy the most prominently exposed wall faces, while the bison are relegated to inferior, obscure locations.  Thus, the great Rotunda, close to the opening of the cave (cf. Fig. 2 a), is devoted to the illustrious, monumental frieze of white aurochs bulls that includes the largest painted images of Ice Age art (Fig. 2 b). Four huge bulls (plus two heads) wrap around the curved, dome-like walls, literally absorbing the white wall-face with their extended bodies, to create an unrivalled impression of the brilliant day-sky. The effect is enhanced by countless, glistening crystals in the white wall-coating. The artists (who used scaffolding to create this spectacle) left no doubt that the aurochs bull impersonates the sky. The smaller images of horses and deer that accompany the bulls are explained elsewhere (Chapters V, VI); some smaller, red aurochs cows are discussed below.

The Rotunda holds most of the painted aurochs bulls of Lascaux, but two more are located in the Axial Gallery, the section that directly extends the Rotunda (cf. Fig. 44 in Chapter X). Halfway inside this gallery is the head of yet another white bull that is entirely comparable to the ones in the Rotunda (Fig. 2 e), but lower down in the descending gallery we find the drastically different image of an all-black bull (Fig. 2 c). From the striking contrast between the preceding white figures and this black one, we deduce that the latter is the image of the sky at night. We may even read this figure as an ambitious description of the transition from day to night, as the composition includes four all-yellow heads of aurochs bulls that were painted prior to the black one and were subsequently covered (or nearly so) by the black colorant of its body, leaving only the yellow horns to rise above the larger figure (cf. Fig. 2 c). These traces of yellow may recall the last manifestation of daylight about to be absorbed by darkness. In the same vein, a red patch on the lower body of the large bull (cf. Fig. 18 c) may suggest the last glow of red along the horizon with the passing of dawn. On closer inspection, this red field is the body of a red cow that is largely covered by black colorant; this role of the cow is discussed below. Presently we shall focus on the bulls and their part as the all-powerful representation of the celestial vault.

The presence of a bison (Fig. 2 d) in this section of the Axial Gallery adds an alternative perspective to the above description of nightfall, as this earth-image suggests that the black aurochs bull is part of a creation narrative that involves earth and sky. Lascaux has only a small handful of painted bison images, and these are all located in low settings or in far removed sections, including the low strata of the walls of the Nave and the deep Shaft at the end of the Apse.  In the Axial Gallery, the bison is not only at the lowest point but actually inside the appendix-like Tunnel at the end of the descending gallery (cf. the cross-section, Fig. 2), to the effect that the bison appears to be about to emerge from the narrow, twisting Tunnel—from the bowels of the earth—and, thus, to carry along an association with the realm of primordial chaos (as discussed in Chapter III). In this context, the black aurochs bull (Fig. 2 c) may well refer to the first appearance of the sky, that is, to a very early phase of creation, a moment that saw the first appearance of light out of darkness–a suitable reading, considering the yellow horns protruding above its black body.

The relationship between aurochs and bison, as indicated by the above configuration, prevails throughout the cave, whether the images are mainly painted (as in the outer cave) or mainly engraved (as in the inner sections). Thus, a few aurochs bulls are found among the palimpsest of engravings in the Apse, and in this peripheral location (on the verge of the notorious Shaft) the aurochs are, indeed, eclipsed by two, much larger bison. Entirely in agreement with this complementary dualism, the narrow, irregular chambers that constitute the farthest (southern-most) end of Lascaux contain half-a-dozen bison, whereas the aurochs is entirely absent here. To all appearances, this pattern reflects the role of the bison/earth as the first created element with the sky as a subsequent achievement, and that the artists believed the sky to originate in the bosom of the earth. We recognize a basic relationship with the much later Theogony by Hesiod, according to which the Earth (Gaia)—the first element to appear out of Chaos–begets the Sky (Uranus). In some early historic mythologies, the bulls of wild cattle project the powers of the sky, as in Vedic India, where a “milky white” bull is the mount of Shiva, or in the Near East where the “bull of Heaven” is the preferred vehicle of various “storm-” or “weather” gods (cf. Fig. 32 f).

In Upper Palaeolithic art, the role of the aurochs bull as the sky is particularly recognizable in certain decorated caves that, like Lascaux, display elevated, domed ceilings as natural projections of the celestial vault. We may, especially, look to caves that feature a spacious hall as an ideal setting for a display of the aurochs’ celestial character. Conversely, such readings may be confirmed by images of bison that are appropriately relegated to deeper sections or found in earth-bound panels at floor level.

The cave of Cosquer (to-day entered via a water-logged corridor) is similar to Lascaux in so far as its outer hall is large and lofty (cf. the cross-section, Fig. 3 a), and here too, it is at the highest point of the cave that we find the figure of an aurochs bull with immense horns (Fig. 3 b)—a figure that (by the magnitude of scale) is, again, the largest figure of the entire cave. The parallel with the Rotunda of Lascaux is the more striking as the artists in Cosquer, like their counterparts in Lascaux, worked on a surface that was above the reach of a person standing on the floor. By contrast, the two largest and most noteworthy bison figures of Cosquer (Fig. 3 c) are located further back, where they are executed in the cramped setting of an extremely narrow passage with a steeply inclined floor; a location that, furthermore, is close to the deep, water-filled pit at the end of the cave, which contributes to the character of the inner cave as affiliated with the realm of original chaos.

The cave of Candamo offers another impressive coincidence of an elevated hall and the dominance of aurochs. In fact, this large, oval hall may well count among the most impressive spaces in Ice Age cave sanctuaries, with an arched, roughly dome-shaped ceiling that is roughly fifty feet tall (cf. the cross-section in Fig. 4 a) and with walls that are partly covered by cascading calcite-formations framed by tall stalagmite columns.  This is the site of the great decorated wall (about twenty-five feet long and almost seven feet tall), which occupies a smooth stretch of wall-face. The composition is anchored by two large figures of aurochs bulls (Fig. 4 b), of which the largest, inner-most one measures almost eight feet; it is partly engraved, partly outlined in black. The outer one is only engraved, but it is accompanied by several red-painted heads of aurochs (or just their horns). Furthermore, two smaller bulls are painted in sepia (Fig. 4 b, top right), all of which leaves the impression of a change, going from left to right (from the inner cave toward the exterior), a progression from darkness to light. Additionally, a tiny chamber near the ceiling of the hall (the Camarin, cf. Fig. 4 a) features a curious scene that is topped by the head of an aurochs bull (cf. Fig. 4 c). Visible from below when separately lit, this composition elevates the aurochs to the top of the hall, again exposing the sky-nature of the aurochs. Bison are of secondary importance in this context, and the inclusion of one bison in the just-mentioned part of the great wall (Fig. 4 b, on the right) only illustrates the superiority of the aurochs, as the smaller bison is engraved on the body of a large aurochs bull, to the effect that the aurochs’ head and shoulder rise above the bison’s back; this description also applies to several red aurochs’ heads that are added to the scene. We are apparently witnessing the separation of the sky from the earth, and the subsequent appearance of light—signified by the red and sepia colors–in fulfilment of a myth of creation.

Hornos de la Peña presents us with another clear formulation of this topographical scheme. Following a long, low and irregular passage, the visitor arrives to the cave’s only tall and spacious hall (cf. Fig. 5 a), where the single noticeable decoration is the aurochs bull that is engraved at the top of a vertical, naturally framed panel (Fig. 5 b). The elevated setting within this lofty space perfectly suits the role of the aurochs as an emblem of the sky. Conversely, the twisting and cramped lay-out of the inner cave fits the cave’s significant images of bison (Fig. 5 c, d, e).

La Mouthe observes a quite similar lay-out. Following a several hundred feet long, low and narrow, corridor (cf. Fig. 6 a), the first decorated chamber features a handful of large, engraved aurochs bulls in a circular composition (Fig. 6 b). The bodies of these bulls occupy the arched walls and domed ceiling (topped by a cupola), creating a simile of the sky that is reminiscent of the Lascaux Rotunda. As we move further into La Mouthe, the next chamber has walls that are tightly packed with images of bison (Fig. 6 c), and still further in, we encounter other earth-related images (mammoths), and at the very end, more bison (at Fig. 6 e). The topography of La Mouthe is, thus, largely comparable to that of Hornos de la Peña, both sites promoting the sky-role of the aurochs bull against the depth-bound representatives of the earth.

The decoration of Ebbou is dominated by a handful of aurochs bulls, including one (Fig. 55 b) that is among the largest engravings in Ice Age art and which stands out by its bold use of a natural projection of the rock-wall. Virtually all of the cave’s images are in one chamber, which is located approximately half-way between the outer shelter and the moist, descending inner section, that is, between the structured world and primordial chaos. The cross-section, (Fig. 55 A) shows the entrance to the left and the depths to the right; a circle marks the location of the decorated chamber; the plan (Fig. 55 B) shows the location of the figures in the chamber). Thus, situated mid-way between the chaotic realm of primordial creation and the world of organized elements, the aurochs in the chamber are caught in a process of coming alive and, as emblems of the sky, separating from the earth and assuming a distinct, vigorous identity. In the chamber, this is illustrated by the prominence of the aurochs bulls (Fig. 55 a, b, c) vis-á-vis the bison/mammoths, as the latter adopt inferior positions: low, in niches (Fig. 55 g), and only partly presented, in the back (Fig. 55 h, i). The largest bull (b) as well as the innermost one (c) are characterized as lifeless, their ribs exposed as if they had been flayed, and the one in the back (c) is turned toward the back of the cave. The two major bulls (a and b) are aligned in a frieze-like sequence, with the foremost one (a) close to the front of the chamber and already alive and active, as its head rises above the near-horizontal crack that is a noticeable feature of the rock-face. With that motion, the bull prepares to move past the narrow exit from the chamber, while simultaneously rising above the tiny mammoth here (Fig. 55 f). The effect of invigoration is the stronger, as the preceding, main figure appears immobilized: modelled to match a suggestive projection of the rock-wall—probably, the inspiration for the entire decorative program—this huge figure, with its exposed ribs, epitomizes a state of inertia. Yet, new life seems to sprout from its dead body in the form of two associated, obviously energetic bulls (Fig. 55 b). The effect is reminiscent of the emergence of four yellow heads of bulls above the back of the large, black bull in Lascaux (cf. Fig. 2 c), images of life and light erupting from death and darkness. We notice that one of the small, emerging bulls in Ebbou appears to draw power from the horns of the large prototype (Fig. 55 b, left). The concentration of powers in horns is, indeed, a major theme in archaic arts and rituals around the world. Ebbou, at large, tells of the activation of the sky/bull as it emerges from the depths of the earth.

 Some decorated artifacts with drawings of aurochs bulls appear to convey the same understanding of the male aurochs as seen in the above caves. On an engraved stone from Blanchard (Fig. 7), the blank, arched surface above the aurochs visually characterizes this figure as the embodiment of the celestial vault; a framing that may recall the setting of the aurochs bull in Hornos (Fig. 5 b). On a flat stone from Rocher de l’Impératrice (Fig. 8 a), radiating lines convincingly characterize the bull’s head as shining, evoking the brightness of the sky. A similar effect may be found in association with a picture of an aurochs bull on an object from Parpalló (Fig. 22 e). With different means, the same idea is achieved in the case of two aurochs bulls (Fig. 8 b, c) that are engraved on either side of the blade of a reindeer’s antler, as the radiating points of the blade suggest rays of light.

While the distinction between bison-and-earth/aurochs-and-sky is clear from the above examples, we may find it harder to determine whether configurations of the two species refer to the actual beginnings of the ordered cosmos or to a ritual enactment of/return to those primordial events. In fact, it may not be possible to reach a definitive decision regarding many such compositions, although we often may find noticeable differences between, on one hand, narrative scenes that emphasize the chaos of primordial creation (by a significant presence of rhinoceroses,  a rough natural setting, or tangles of disorderly, “macaroni” tracings) and, on the other hand, scenes that project the relationship of earth- and sky-images as a formal, orderly arrangement. In either case, the concept of “the eternal return” to primordial creation (as discussed in Chapter III) remains the artists’ governing principle.

 A definite reference to the original creation of earth and sky is found in Font-de-Gaume, a cave that is heavily dominated by bison, but which gives a distinct role to a handful of aurochs, whereby the relationship between the two species reflects an early phase in the development of the earth. This episode is described in the very back of the cave, while the subsequent elevation of the sky is acknowledged in the front. In the terminal fissure (cf. the plan, Fig. 9 a) the impact of the rhino on the bison (cf. Fig. 9 b, center and right) illustrates the still-precarious state of the earth (as discussed in Chapters III and IX). At this stage, the five aurochs—all painted black—are either denigrated to the bottom of the panel (two are at floor level), or they are subjugated by the bison and rhino. Only the upper-most aurochs bull confronts the bison in anticipation of the evolving duality of sky and earth. In the Chamber of Small Bison (Fig. 9 c) we find yet another all-black aurochs, which here is entirely engulfed by the body of one among the dozen bison amassed in this tiny Chamber. We have to move on to the front of the cave to find the remaining two aurochs (Fig. 9 d), and at this point their appearance is drastically different: they are placed very high on the wall (about ten feet from the floor) and painted all red. Not only are these two strikingly different from the aurochs in the inner cave, they also are parts of a model landscape, in which the file of bison and mammoths below corresponds to the land, while the aurochs, high above, readily embody the sky. Topographical contrasts set the stage for the experience: the extremely narrow terminal fissure suggests a deep penetration toward the primordial world; the height of the gallery in the front—elevated beyond the reach of the artists’ lamps—suggests the outer world (cf. Fig. 28 a, Chapter III).

The just-described disposition of the Font-de-Gaume decoration resembles the lay-out of the imagery in Lascaux’s Rotunda and Axial Gallery. In the Rotunda, the panoramic frieze of aurochs bulls occupies the white, domed walls, which are separated (by a horizontal ledge) from the rough, dark base of the wall (cf. Fig. 2 b); again, this makes for an obvious sky/earth model. Likewise, the red aurochs in Font-de-Gaume belong to the smooth, tall wall that rises high above the more irregular base, while the latter is occupied by a continuous file of terrestrial bison and mammoths, and here too, a pronounced ledge—the horizon–separates the two tiers (see Fig. 28 a, Chapter III). We also find a clear parallel between the black aurochs in the terminal fissure of Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 9 b) and the one in the low end of the Lascaux Axial Gallery (Fig. 2 c).

In Deux Ouvertures, the innermost gallery, again, features the contrast between a rough base and an arching wall (Fig. 10 a, b), which is matched by the contrasting motifs of a heavy-looking bison and a group of lighter-drawn aurochs (Fig. 10 d, c). The panel of aurochs bulls suggests a stepwise build-up that we may see as the construction of the sky at an early stage of creation. A complex panel in Chauvet presents us with a comparable, schematic demonstration of the dichotomy of earth and sky, as a large bison and an equally large aurochs bull are cast in near-perfect symmetry, the former aiming for the lower cave, the latter moving into the upper cave (Fig. 11 a; see discussion in Chapters III and X). In Chauvet, indeed, painted bison are numerous in the lower cave, where aurochs are absent, whereas the aurochs is the dominant motif above (cf. Fig. 11 c); again, we find that the establishment of the earth is shown to precede the appearance of the sky. A curious detail of the central panel of aurochs bulls lends drama to this sequence of events, as the horns of one bull are superimposed on the small figure of a rhinoceros (Fig. 11 c, d), visually overpowering the one character that most fully retains the forces of a still-chaotic phase in the origins of the earth. This episode finds an echo in Ebbou, where the above-mentioned aurochs bull rises above a tiny mammoth (Fig. 55 a, f). In Chauvet, like in Ebbou (Fig. 55 b) we find the emphasis on the power of the aurochs’ horns.

In Pasiega’s gallery “A,” the clear separation between the narrow end-section and the main gallery (cf. Fig. 12) sets the stage for a narrative of creation—or re-creation–to which the two species of oxen respond with distinct patterns of distribution. Thus, the terminal fissure contains a large bison figure (Fig. 12 a) and a smaller aurochs bull (Fig. 12 b), while the wider, outer gallery reverses this balance with only a single, small bison (Fig. 12 g) but several, larger aurochs bulls (Fig. 12 d, e, f). The orientation of the aurochs is revealing, too, as the single aurochs in the inner chamber is shown in a vertical, down-turned position (Fig. 12 b), while those in the outer gallery occupy overhanging projections of the rock-wall; the former evokes the narrative of an “eternal return”—a concept that, of course, presumes an original, primeval event to be reproduced.

The location of aurochs figures precisely at a transitional point between inner and outer cave sections is also a striking feature of Pileta. A length-wise cross-section of the cave (Fig. 13 a) exposes the significance of the tiny-but-richly-decorated chamber known as the “Sanctuary” (Fig. 13 b), which is, in essence, a low and narrow corridor that is suspended between the inner half and the outer half of the cave.  The location is significant due to the contrasting character of these two halves: the inner cave, with its lakes and terminal pit is a region in contact with primordial depths, and it is decorated with mostly black figures, whereas the outer cave is dominated by red figures. In the main panel of the “Sanctuary” (also decorated in red) two aurochs, a bull and a cow, are shown as emerging out of (that is, up from) the inner cave (Fig. 13 b); thus, they proclaim the establishment of the sky-world. A panel at the edge of the “Sanctuary” (Fig. 13 g) features both a red and a yellow aurochs. Images of aurochs (red), likewise emerge from dramatically descending (respectively, ascending) side-galleries in the outer section (Fig. 13 c, d, e, f), whereas the only aurochs in the inner sections is attached to—and visibly, dwarfed by–the exceptionally large fish image in the terminal chamber (Fig. 13 h).

A panel in Tito Bustillo (Fig. 14 a) graphically conveys the separation of the aurochs/sky from the bison/earth, as the former rises above the latter. In the case of this formal scheme, too, the inherent reference to the events of original creation is brought out by the location of the panel directly across from an actual opening to subterranean waters (Fig. 14 b, bottom). This visible and audible connection to an underground river is the focal point of the great wall of Tito; evidently, this opening was perceived as a point of contact with powers of world renewal. Two heads of aurochs can be seen along with a horse in the red-powdered zone just above the crucial fissure (Fig. 14 b).

Illustrations of the earth/sky model by configurations of mammoths and rhinos with aurochs, as seen in Tito (Fig. 14 a) or Ebbou (Fig. 55 a, f), also occur in Combarelles (Fig. 15), in a scene which, alternatively, may echoes the notion of a mountain (the mammoth) supporting the sky; the two concepts are but variations on the same theme. A daring demonstration of this structural model, of mammoths/mountains holding up the sky, is found in Bernifal, in the back of the cave, where two figures of mammoths (Fig. 16) are painted high on the wall—daringly high up, close to the domed ceiling—in a position where they appear to support a rounded, bright area of the ceiling that is readily perceived as a representation of the sky. C. Desdemaines-Hugon describes this display as follows: “…two mammoths situated about 6 meters high on the ceiling. The surface above is relatively smooth, dome-shaped amid the profusion of pillars and stalactites, and with a natural circular splash of deep-red ocher in its center. The mammoths, simply outlined in black, face away from each other and almost seem to be supporting this central mass of red on their backs…Is it a coincidence that the mammoths frame part of that large red stain with their sloping backs…? Why would anyone go to so much trouble—building scaffolding to get up to that height—for these two relatively modest figures…?” (2010, 185). We may add that this composition is set above another sky-symbol, a red tectiform (Fig. 16) lower right) that is discussed below (cf. Fig. 59 a).

The aurochs cow: dawn, dusk, and the night-sky

The above discussion is centered on the male aurochs, casting the bull as the powerful emblem of the bright and elevated sky; the aurochs cow may, however, also appear as an image of the lucid sky, as seen in Tête du Lion (Fig. 17 a), where a cow (identified by its delicate head and slender horns) dominates a rounded, concave field that is noticeable brighter than the surrounding rock-face, so that the cow–like the bulls in the Lascaux Rotunda—visually absorbs the glare of the wall. This is the only significant panel in Tête du Lion, and the setting is evidently chosen in order to reveal the cow’s celestial nature. In the decorated chamber of Chimeneas, an area of the ceiling forms parallel barrel vaults that are somewhat sky-like; these carry several images of aurochs cows (Fig. 17 b-e).

 Generally, however, images of aurochs cows capture a quite different aspect of the sky than images of the bulls. In agreement with the fundamental dualism of Upper Palaeolithic thought, the aurochs bulls and cows assume contrasting roles in cave iconography. The sharp distinction between the two sexes is noticeable in the frieze of white bulls in the Lascaux Rotunda (Fig. 18 a) where the huge bodies of the bulls—despite their black outlines—absorb the shiny white face of the wall, while some smaller cows are painted all red and are positioned at the lower tier of the vault, just above the horizontal ledge that indicates the horizon. Evidently, the bulls here project the majesty of the day-sky, while the cows rather represent the red of dawn at the emergence of daylight. The low-set head of the first cow on the left may suggest a bison, though other features speak for an aurochs (cf. Aujoulat 2004, 77); the heavy head might refer to the first light at dawn hugging the low tier of the sky.

Lascaux provides half-a-dozen examples of red-painted cows (cf. Fig. 18 b) but, significantly, none that– like the bulls in the Rotunda–fully absorb the white of the walls; this means that none of the cows are associated with the bright, day-time sky. Instead we find, besides the mentioned red cows, some that are all black and, thus, suggest the look of the night-sky. One such figure is the large, all-black figure that dominates the Nave (Fig. 1 in Chapter II). This monumental image is solidly black, though it occupies a vault that is both bright and smoothly arched like the walls of the Rotunda. In the Nave, too, the vault rises above a natural ledge that makes a natural horizon (cf. Fig. 19 b), and further emphasizing this natural separation of sky and earth, the black cow is positioned above several painted bison figures that, in agreement with their earthy character, are located in the rougher areas below (Fig. 19 c, left and right). No doubt, this cow represents the sky, and given the figure’s all-black hue, certainly the sky at night. This reading also applies to the black cow on the right-hand wall of the Axial Gallery (Fig. 18 d), a figure that is shown in the unusual position of jumping (or, falling) in the direction of the low Tunnel at the very end of the gallery, which—as mentioned above–is the location of the only bison in the area (Fig. 2 d). This situation, thus, suggests the waning of the sky, which is compatible with the appearance of the black bull on the facing wall (cf. Fig. 46 b, c); both images suggest the coming of night. Further elaborating this scenario, a noticeable area of red colorant on the body of the black cow (Fig. 18 d) may be seen as the last remains of the red glow of dusk.

In the Rotunda, the white bulls of the day-sky are not just much larger than the red cows of dawn, they also occupy a tier above them (Fig. 18 a), and in the Axial Gallery we find more applications of these vertical layers and color variations, which serve to further articulate the phases of day and night. Thus, the black bull in the gallery (Fig. 2 c) rises above two smaller red cows, partly hiding them with its black body (Fig. 18 c). Evidently, these two cows do not refer to dawn, but rather to dusk, and their red bodies—partly absorbed by the black paint of the main figure—must represent the glow of sunset, as is, consequently, the case with the residual area of red color on the falling black cow on the opposite wall of the gallery (Fig. 18 d). With these nuances in mind, we may read the sequence of aurochs figures in the Axial Gallery as a consistent narrative that, first, unfolds along the left wall (moving inwards and downwards) and then, continues along the right wall (moving back out and upwards); in this reading, we follow the orientation of the figures of horses (as discussed in Chapters V and X). Correspondingly, we recognize the first red cow (Fig. 18 b, left) as taking us from the end of day-time (on leaving the Rotunda) through the interlude of dusk, and we recognize the all-black head of the red figure as a forewarning of night—as is also suggested by the curiously drooping horns, in agreement with the understanding of the horns as symbolic of inherent powers. Proceeding inward/downward, we find the large black bull (Fig. 18 c), which fully displays the fall of night as its body all but covers both the yellow heads (above) and the red figures (below). Subsequently moving on to the opposite wall, we find (closer still to the very end of the gallery) the falling cow (Fig. 18 d) which also is all but entirely black, as it retains but a faint splash of red color. As we move back up through the gallery along the same wall, the first promise of the return of day is the head of a white bull (Fig. 2 e) and, eventually, the red cow in the group at the upper end (Fig. 18 b, right). The latter celebrates dawn—fittingly so, just prior to our re-entry into the Rotunda.

Following the cave’s other extension, moving from the Rotunda toward the farther end of Lascaux (cf. Fig. 44 in Chapter X), we find the last image of a red-painted cow (Fig. 47 c) at the point where the corridor of the Passage enters the Nave. Beyond that location, we find only black cows, namely, some black heads in the Apse ( cf. Fig. 47 a) and the large figure in the Nave (Fig. 19 c). The latter is, for sure, emblematic of the aurochs cow’s role as the night-sky. Elsewhere, we discuss more thoroughly the significance of the horses that pass through the body of this large figure (cf. Fig. 1, in Chapter II), here we may just observe that–as this flow of horses show the course of the sun from dusk (the cow’s front) to dawn (her rear)–the figure of a rearing horse, which occupies the middle section of the cow’s body (Fig. 19 a), logically marks the mid-point of the journey through the cow, that is, mid-way between sunset and sunrise. Engraved on top of the cow—following the execution of the larger figure—this particular horse, is an indicator of the midnight hour, the nadir of the sun’s course through the night–which is also the moment of the shift from decline to revival—hence the vigorously rising posture.

The above visual/narrative transitions between phases of light and darkness display sensitivities that we recognize in much later religious texts. Thus, Hesiod’s “Theogony” relates how primordial Chaos begets Darkness (Erebus) and Night (Nyx), as well as the Earth (Gaia). In turn, Darkness and Night beget Day (Hermera), while the Earth begets the Sky (Ouranos). A second generation of Earth’s offspring (the Titans) generates the Sun (Helios) as well as Dawn (Eos) and Dusk (Aestraeus). In the Rig Veda, Dawn (Ushas) is the sister of Night (Ratri), and a hymn of the Rig Veda tells of the dawn of the world “when the black cow of cosmic night lies with the ruddy cows of morning” (RV 10. 61. 4; Kramrisch 1981). Applying the same imagery, the goddess of dawn, Ushas, rides in a chariot drawn by red cows. The symbolism of these concepts, though not applicable in a strict, literal sense, relates easily to the sequence of images in Lascaux.

Beyond the aspect of natural symbolism, however, the visual/narrative theme of the aurochs cow in Ice Age art reflects profound ideas about cosmic order. Associated equally with the beginning and end of daylight, the aurochs cow belongs to a twilight-zone of transformation. In the foremost sections of Lascaux, the cow assumes a transitional position, as it adheres partly to the lower tier of the sky, partly to the sphere of the earth (cf. Fig. 18 a, b, d). As shown by its descending posture, the black cow at the end of the Axial Gallery assumes an intermediary position between upper and nether realms, the latter made present by the mouth of the Tunnel (cf. Fig. 46 b). This ambiguity is manifest in the case of the innermost aurochs of the cave, namely the black cow of the Nave. In terms of the cave’s topography, this monumental image is placed approximately half-way between the innermost and outermost end-points of the cave (cf. Fig. 4 in Chapter XI); hence, this panel occupies a pivotal spot between the inner cave, which is bison-dominated and close to the depths of the earth, and the outer cave, which is aurochs-dominated and oriented toward the outer world. Significantly, the inner region also carries explicit associations with death as articulated most urgently by the six (engraved) lions in the Chamber of Lions that is located toward the back (whereas the lion is absent from the outer cave).

The panel of the black cow gives us a significant clue to the artists’ fluent perception of the identity of night and netherworld. A key to these ideas may, again, be found in the rearing horse on the cow’s body (cf. Fig. 19 a). As mentioned above, this figure was intentionally positioned at the middle of the large body, which signifies midnight and the nadir of the sun’s trajectory; this is, however, the very moment when the sun’s revival begins, when the relative powers of nether-world and upper-world shift. In this confluence of nature observation and mythology, the scenario agrees with the Egyptian model that sustains our reading of the cow as the ancestor of Nut (cf. Chapters I, II): at midnight—the sixth hour of the night–the sun passes from the lowest point of its journey through the netherworld realm of the dead (Amduat) and begins its ascent to the world of the sky and subsequent revival, as described in the Egyptian “Books of the Afterlife” (Hornung 1999).

A number of caves show the aurochs cow in situations that, likewise, articulate the perceived affinity between the night-sky and the depths of the earth, respectively, the realm of the dead. Thus, the great wall of Pech-Merle (Fig. 20 a) includes four aurochs cows that, jointly, describe a trajectory leading from the level of the earth—the sphere of the two bison in the middle–through the bodies of the mammoths (that is, the mountains) to the depths of the world. Indeed, the second of these figures passes (backwards) through a “gate” of huge mammoth-tusks, and the third one descends vertically, head-first, while the fourth one is, not only placed at floor level, but also pierced by large darts or spears; we are left in no doubt that this is a descent into the realm of death.

In Pasiega “C,” a vertically descending aurochs cow (Fig. 21 a) is located between an opening to the outer world and the semi-enclosed space called the “Crypt,” which borders an area of chaos and dangerous pits. The cow’s passage between the sky-world and the depth of the earth is confirmed by the accompanying sign (Fig. 21 b), a tripartite cosmogram that represents the cave itself as a center where upper- and nether-worlds meet (cf. discussion in Chapter III, Part Four); A variety of caves place aurochs cows in similar situations. In Combarelles, two aurochs cows (Fig. 22 a, b), one in a collapsed posture, the other one in a reclining stance and marked as wounded, are set inside a niche at the end of the very long, decorated gallery, right where the descent into the lower, watery level of the cave begins (cf. Fig. 58 e). In a variation of this theme, the Rotunda in Niaux contains a cow that is drawn in the clay floor, below the famous frieze of black bison, and significantly, this cow is marked with over-size arrows (Fig. 23). In Niaux, again, a rough side-gallery (the “Gallery of Cave-Ins”) contains as its only decoration an aurochs cow that is drawn in the clay floor and marked with a large arrow in the chest (Breuil 1952, 190). Again, these figures recall the descent of the cows in Lascaux (Fig. 46 b) or Pech-Merle (Fig. 20 a).

The salient topographical features of Pileta’s “Sanctuary” (Fig. 13 a) makes this tiny chamber stand out as a point of transition between upper- and lower worlds, and the main panel here shows an aurochs cow at the moment when it rises out of the inner cave and approaches the outer cave (Fig. 13 b). As mentioned above, the scene hints at the creation of the sky, with the head of a bull painted above the cow (Fig. 13 b, center); the artists, however, devoted their attention to the cow, capturing it in suspense between the inner and outer halves of the cave.

Following a different, quite unique approach, a herd of aurochs cows in La Loja (Fig. 24) is engraved in white outlines against a black wall-face, to the effect that the figures stand out against total darkness, as if shrouded by the dark of night. Located far inside the cave, this setting readily suggests the night/underworld. In spite of the quite different technical approach, this is seemingly also the association implied by the crisscrossing coverage of lines—like netting or weaving– across the figure of an aurochs cow in Gouy (Fig. 25 a).

In conclusion, we find that the artists associated the aurochs cow with the night sky, which is to say a realm that was understood to breach the boundary between sky and earth, upper and nether realms. This function was conveniently illustrated by way of topographical features of cave sanctuaries, but we should add that engraved artifacts, as well, may convey the intermediate role of aurochs cows. This is exemplified by a decorated bone from Torre (Fig. 26), where the cow is emerging from an arched, hill-shaped sign of the “earth” type, suggesting a transition from earth to sky.

The aurochs cow and the (re)birth of the sun

As previously mentioned, the great panel of the Lascaux Nave (Fig. 1 in Chapter II) provides a narrative framework for reading the tight bond between the cow and the horse. The cow’s part as mediator between upper and nether worlds in combination with the horse’s role as emblem of the sun (in both its daily and its yearly cycles; cf. Chapter V) makes the cow an image of the maternal womb on a cosmic scale, the female body that restores the life of the sun. In the Nave of Lascaux, the passage of the horses– coming from the depth of the cave and moving toward the outside—caries them through the large black body, where they are absorbed and from which they are reborn. In this narrative, the roles of the cow as night sky, netherworld, and womb are closely intertwined. The profound similarity between the Lascaux composition and Egyptian descriptions (both visual and textual) of the cow-shaped sky-goddess, Nut, is both detailed—the horses enter the body of the black cow at its front end (indeed, it faces the inner cave), to be reborn from its rear end—and on the level of world order: during the night the solar horse travels through its immense, dark body, which is both night-sky and netherworld. We may add that the black, falling cow in the Axial Gallery also is associated with a file of horses that moves from the back (the Tunnel) toward the upper gallery and the Rotunda. In the latter version, the horse is visibly born from the womb of the mountain (cf. Fig. 71 a)— but even this variant of the narrative includes the presence of the black cow (Fig. 71 c).

The Lascaux examples resonate with the above illustrations of aurochs cows from other caves, in the way they, too, include figures of horses.  Thus, the great wall of Pech-Merle, where four cows describe a descent into death and darkness (Fig. 20 a, to the left), the first of the four is juxtaposed with the large horse at the center of the entire composition, and the curious, linear design that is painted across the body of this cow from the forequarters to the rear (cf. Fig. 20 b) appears to track the path of the sun through the body of the celestial cow, the way it is illustrated in the Nave of Lascaux, thus recalling the path of the horse/sun through the black cow, from entrance to re-birth (Fig. 19 a). Alternative readings, albeit, come to mind, such as the myth of the Egyptian Apis bull, which was conceived when a ray of moonlight entered the womb of the maternal cow. In any case, the Pech-Merle panel suggests a connection between the large figure of a horse (Fig. 20 a, center) and the aurochs cow in question, and if so, the composition may tacitly assume the complete narrative, even as the artists focus on episodes of night, descent and death.

The figures of mammoths and bison that surround the horse in the “Black Wall” of Pech-Merle suggest the preponderance of earth-powers over sky-powers, and in particular the critical circumstances of the sun’s journey to the depths of the earth. In the same sense, the vertically descending cow in Pasiega “C” (Fig. 21 a) is painted next to the alcove (the “Crypt”) that encloses the image of a horse along with a triangular sign for “mountain” (Fig. 21 c); though the imagery is somewhat different from Pech-Merle, each ensemble refers to the nightly nether-world journey of the solar horse while alluding to the cow/netherworld/womb implication.

With the same intent, although with different means, several of the above-discussed compositions include figures of horses. Thus, the collapsing aurochs cows in the back of Combarelles (Fig. 22 a, b) are placed where the cave’s long files of horses shift direction from predominantly inward-aimed (along the left-hand wall) to predominantly outward-aimed (following the right-hand wall; cf. discussion in Chapter V). In Gouy, the cow that is covered by a “nether-world” design (Fig. 25 a) is juxtaposed with engraved vulvas that designate her as the womb that gives life to the sun, and the solar horse is, indeed, present and is covered by the same realm-of-the-dead pattern as the cow, accentuated by the rigid, frozen posture of two horses (Fig. 25 b). In the above situations we recognize the contrasting life- and death aspects that are familiar from the great cows of Egyptian myths–both Nut as the womb that gives life to the sun, and Hathor as the goddess of the necropolis, who receives the deceased sun at the gate of the mountain in the west.

The significance of aurochs’ horns

Our thesis of the aurochs as the chief emblem of the sky was, initially, based on morphology of representation, notably, on the elevated carriage of the head of the aurochs (versus the low-set head of the bison); this characteristic entails a heightened attention to the aurochs’ horns as evidence of its celestial power (cf. Fig. 1 d). A review of the above illustrations bears out the significance of the horns as emblematic of the alternating stages of strength or weakness, the cycles of replenishment and depletion of the skies. We find several distinct motifs that pursue this theme. One artistic approach graphically celebrates the force of the horns by elevating them, placing them in the top of compositions, or exaggerating their size. In the panoramic display of Levanzo, the frontal view of an aurochs with symmetrical horns holds a position at the top of an ascending composition (Fig. 64 b) not unlike the upper-register bull of the sequence in Ebbou (Fig. 55 a), or the perfectly framed bull in Hornos (Fig. 5 b). The upper range of the great wall of Candamo is mainly taken up by numerous horns, of which several stand out in red (Fig. 4 b), a reference to celestial brightness that finds a parallel in the arc of rays above the bull in a Parpalló drawing (Fig. 22 e). Huge horns of aurochs bulls command the highest positions within the caves of Lascaux (Fig. 18 a) and Cosquer (Fig. 3 b).

 The contrast between acutely raised horns and horns that droop—a contrast between strength and weakness—is pointedly stated in the mentioned drawing from Parpalló (Fig. 22 c) as the declining horns here belong to the lower figure, which is slanted downward. Another decorated slate from Parpalló (Fig. 22 d) sums up all of the above features, as its three figures describe an ascending progression from lower to higher and from declined to rising—while the horns of each match the steps of advance, culminating in the top corner of the field. Evidently the above displays of horns reflect the concept of the aurochs bull as emblematic of the sky’s powers, and some designs endeavor to make this explicit through narrative scenes as exemplified by the mentioned episode with the rhino from Chauvet (Fig. 11 c, d) or the central scene in Ebbou (Fig. 55 b). In the latter case, superimposition demonstrates the renewal of powers that emanates from the horns of the large, dead aurochs. Another vigorous aurochs just above the central one seems to draw energy from the same source, which generates a scene that recalls the episode of the black bull in the Axial Gallery of Lascaux (Fig. 2 c) with yellow heads of aurochs emerging from the black (dead) body—significantly, only the horns of these yellow heads reach above the large figure. Also in Lascaux, the placement of the “world axis” sign (discussed below) next to the immense horns of the largest bull (Fig. 63 a) may imply the idea that the powers of the sky-bull hold the sky aloft and keep it rotating. The same concept of the aurochs horns as the essence of those energies that move the skies is articulated in a scene in Levanzo that shows the horns superimposed on the body of a horse, notably one that is shown in vigorous motion–as the sun moves across the sky (Fig. 64 c). A central part of the great wall of Tito Bustillo appears to tell of the same transference of the sky’s powers to the solar horse (Fig. 14 b). In the Rotunda of Lascaux, a central segment shows a horse seemingly lifted to the top of the wall by the horns of two facing aurochs bulls (see Aujoulat 2004, 66-67).

The above displays of powerful horns pertain to images of aurochs bulls. The cows may also be shown with erect—albeit, less imposing—horns, as seen in several examples in Lascaux (Fig. 18 a, b, d), Tête-du-Lion (Fig. 17 a), Chimeneas (Fig. 17 b), and Pileta (Fig. 13 b). The cow’s attachment to the lower tier of the sky and to the underground realm of the dead, however, often finds expression in horns that are curved downwards. We have found this to be the case in Lascaux (Fig. 18 b), Combarelles (Fig. 22 b), Pasiega “C” (Fig. 21 a), and Niaux (Fig. 23). In Pech-Merle (Fig. 20 a) the first two cows have no horns at all, while the following two cows have drooping horns to match their descent into death.

In conclusion, we may state that the special attention to horns is familiar from later, familiar imagery that we may consider survivals of Palaeolithic practices. Thus, the use of horns in iconography and in ritual performances is familiar from proto- or early historic sources. Prominently, wild bulls’ horns lend power to images of numerous sky-gods (cf. Fig. 32 d; 32 f) and even to some female divinities, notably, the Egyptian sky-goddess Nut in her typical appearance as a woman with a cow’s horns.

Between sky and earth: thunder and rain 

The concept of a male sky fertilizing a female earth through rain is widespread (albeit not universal) among archaic cultures, and we may suspect this concept to be relevant already in Palaeolithic cave art with its strong dichotomy of sky/earth, male/female. Rain is, obviously, an elusive artistic motif, but a number of caves offer arrangements of dots or striations (“rain-combs”) that we may reasonably identify as images of rain.

 In Pech-Merle, an aurochs bull (Fig. 28 c) is the center of a scene that quite convincingly describes a thunder-storm. The ensemble occupies the ceiling of a large niche (Fig. 28 a) that makes for a fitting model of the sky due to its natural features, notably, numerous rounded projections of this ceiling that give a good impression of clouds (Fig. 28 d). More specifically, they appear to form a cloud-cover that is heavy with rain, and the artists emphasized the perception of rain by painting vertical stripes on a number of the bulging shapes. The bull (incidentally, the only aurochs bull in the cave), thus, becomes the center piece of a tempestuous scene.

Support for the rain theme comes from two more motifs on the left side of the composition, namely a human character and a prominent, associated sign (Fig. 28 e). This person is traditionally read as pierced by numerous arrows, but he may, more generally, be understood as emitting jets of liquid; in either reading he is pierced, and in the latter view he appears as a distant prototype for a familiar character of later (Mesopotamian) mythology, a divinity (sometimes identified as “Aquarius”) whose body is the source from which the world’s sweet waters spring. Another clue to his identity is provided by the abstract sign with which he is directly connected (cf. Fig. 28 e). This sign is quite similar to the representations of clouds as angular, stepped designs, which are common in indigenous iconography of the American South-West (cf. Fig. 78 a, b). Indeed, a comparison with other versions of, essentially, the same sign in other caves supports the interpretation as a cloud. Thus, Cougnac has a panel of half-a-dozen near-identical signs (Fig. 29 a), and in this case, natural features of the rock-wall encourage the suggested reading, because the vertical calcite runners that are interspersed with the painted signs resemble water flowing down over the wall-face. As if to enhance this impression, a schematic fish is drawn between the cloud signs and runners (Fig. 29 a, center), its vertical position connecting the waters above and below. We may add that a neighboring chamber in Cougnac is hung with needle-thin stalactites of the type that may look like a shower of rain (cf. Lorblanchet 2010, 283). Further confirming our reading of the Cougnac panel (and its kinship with Pech-Merle) is the re-occurrence of the above-mentioned “Aquarius” character in Cougnac’s main, panoramic frieze, which is adjacent to the panel with the apparent clouds. Cougnac gives us two versions of that specific motif (Fig. 29 c; 29 g).

Half-a-dozen examples of the Pech-Merle- and Cougnac-type sign occur in the cave of Placard, where they are outfitted with bundles of vertical, scratched lines that corroborate our reading, as they visually evoke falling rain (Fig. 30 a). Signs of this type are not naturalistic representations of specific cloud formations; rather, we may perceive them as sky-related signs that include stylized references to clouds. Some examples (for example, Fig. 29 a, right-hand insert) are, indeed close prototypes for the common Egyptian glyph for “sky” (cf. Fig. 78 c).

Other caves present different, equally stylized, formulations of clouds, in particular a type that simulate clouds by means of added fringes to recall streaming rain. Examples are found in Les Eglises (Fig. 30 b), Buxu (Fig. 30 c), and Cantal (Fig. 30 d). The signs in the French cave of Cantal are virtually identical to some in the north-Spanish cave of Herrerías (Lorblanchet 2010, 395), and quite similar formulations are found as far south as in Pileta (Malaga), signs that are, likewise, composed of parallel lines and series of dots (Fig. 30 e, f, g, k); these signs all suggest clouds and rain. In the same mold, a red-painted sign from the grand, open-air frieze of Angles-sur-l’Anglin is filled with vertical lines of dots (Fig. 31 b) that readily relate to a concept of clouds. The just-mentioned variants in Pileta are, furthermore, closely associated with water-related imagery (Fig. 30. i, j, k), reminiscent of the fish in the Cougnac panel (Fig. 29 a). Although the “rain-comb” in one of the Pileta examples (Fig. 30. k)  ,right) may be a late—even post-Ice Age–addition, it is integral to the composition and has apparent predecessors in older signs like the ones in Gabillou (Fig. 61 c), Fieux (Fig. 61 d), or Mitrot (Fig.62 a). In Lascaux, a variant of the square “earth” signs is outlined with “rain”-fringes (Fig. 41 c), which leaves us with a puzzle: earth-signs or sky symbols?  We face the same uncertainty in certain signs in Marsoulas (Fig. 66 d, e in Chapter III): seeds and roots, or clouds and rain? The ambiguity was, perhaps, intentional—raindrops nourish seeds in the ground.

With the above motifs we may include accumulations of signs that are made of two short double-strokes, which recall the hoof prints of small ungulates—goats, in particular—but which may also suggest paired raindrops. We encounter this motif in association with the cloud- and rain-like signs in Pileta (Fig. 30 e-h), and in Cougnac, such double marks fill those panels of the great frieze that are entirely dominated by ibexes (Fig. 29 d, e; 29 f). In the last-mentioned example the geminal dots are affiliated with other symbols of clouds, rain and thunder (Fig. 29 a; 29 c; 29 g). The first panel in Fontanet includes ibexes and paired, drop-like dots (cf. Fig. 68 a), as does a panel in Nerja (Fig. 74 a).

Rain and thunder are closely related attributes of the sky, but images of lightning are, perhaps, even more difficult to identify than images of rain. A prominent rain symbol in La Mouthe (Fig. 6 d) is accompanied by a zigzag line (upper left) that very well may signify lightning. The above-mentioned cloud sign in Pech-Merle also features a possible lightning design (Fig. 28 e, at the top). A zigzagging line in Chimeneas (Fig. 32 a) may represent a flash of lightning that strikes the earth (the rectangle, below), and similar designs are seen in Kaite and Palomera (Fig. 128 b, d, in Chapter III). As circumstantial evidence, we may add that the Cougnac frieze—adjacent to the mentioned panel of rain clouds (Fig. 29 a)–encompasses a natural formation that was used as a lithophone, a bell-sounding rock (identified by strike-marks; cf. Lorblanchet 2010, 305). Though this remains speculative, it seems likely that it was struck in order to generate ritual/liturgical “thunder.” Along with the rain-signs and the “Aquarius” character in Pech-Merle we also encounter a resonant lithophone (Lorblanchet 2010, 178). In Fieux, the huge block that dominates the decorated chamber carries an engraved rain symbol (Fig. 61 d), while a large stalagmite column that occupies the center of the room is another lithophone (cf. Fig. 215 a, b in Chapter III). The calcite draperies in Nerja, again, connect painted rain symbolism (cf. Fig. 74 a) and sonorous lithophones (Dams 1987, 60).

In Cougnac (Fig. 29 a) we find a vertical fish in the panel of cloud/rain symbols, and again, there is a near-vertical fish in the mentioned Chimeneas panel (Fig. 32 a, to the right); like the vertical water signs in Pileta (cf. Fig. 30 i, j) these fishes may convey the concept of an inter-connection between waters in the sky and waters on earth. Pileta’s last chamber with its terminal pit (cf. Fig. 13 a) provides a different demonstration of that same relationship, as images that pertain to the sky–the aurochs and the “rain-comb” (Fig. 30 k)—are parts of the panel of the huge fish, which is located next to a permanent source-spring (pointed out by a unique sign drawn on a rock directly above; Fig. 30 l). The artists, thus, brought images of waters above the earth and waters in the earth together. It is certainly intentional and meaningful that the panel of rain symbols in Buxu (Fig. 30 c) is painted at the edge of a deep pit that, abruptly, opens in the floor of the narrow gallery. Evidently, the artists gave some thought to the circulation of waters in the troposphere; the waters of the sky were perceived as inter-related with the waters in the depths of the earth. Perhaps for this reason, a panel in Pergouset juxtaposes two vertical lines, one zigzagging, the other undulating (Fig. 160, #4, in Chapter III).

Certain designs that conflate vegetation imagery with zigzags (cf. Fig. 32 b, c) raise the intriguing question: do these designs pertain to the nourishing waters in the ground, or to the rainstorms that replenish the earth’s waters? Images of stags’ antlers may conflate vegetation, lightning, and ground water, as suggested by the mentioned bone from El Valle (Fig. 32 b), or by the staff from L’Hortet that juxtaposes antlers and a zigzag (Fig. 81 a, in Chapter III). In the middle of the frieze of white bulls in the Lascaux Rotunda, the wildly developed antlers of a deer are superimposed on the muzzle of one large aurochs bull in a composition that evokes the symbiosis of lightning and the sky (Fig. 32 e). The stag is all red, and its impossibly branching antlers (cf. the insert in Fig. 32 e) perfectly evoke flashes of lightning bolts. In this scene, the deliberate contact between the flaming-red antlers and the nostrils of the white bull may refer to the familiar theme of the breath-of-life, but more emphatically, the superimposition gives expression to a profound symbiosis of sky and lightning. Associations between the aurochs bull and the spectacle of lightning re-occur in Pech-Merle (Fig. 28 c), and La Mouthe (Fig. 6, b, d).

Antlers are, of course, weapons (in the battles of males), and in his respect they relate to the hunters’ projectile points, another category of symbols pertaining to lightning. In Gabillou, this connection finds expression through the–often strange-looking–representations of weapons, as the artists used images of arrows or spears as visual metaphors for bolts of lightning; that is, as means to capture lightning’s power to strike and penetrate. These projectiles certainly carry multiple associations (they are “pseudo-arrows” in the felicitous phrasing of J. Gaussen, 1964). A good number of these are found in Gabillou, including some that pierce figures of bison (Fig. 27 f; Fig. 69 c) and may well imply the effect of thunderous, celestial discharges that strike the earth. This event is also illustrated by a diagram that shows a square “earth” cosmogram cut by the point of a weapon (Fig. 69 b). In this respect, too, Lascaux offers parallel examples, including a bison in the Nave, which is hit by seven projectiles that we may fairly call “pseudo-arrows,” and in this case the reference to lightning bolts penetrating the earth is the more convincing, as these spear-like signs strike the image vertically from above (Fig. 37, to the right). Conversely, the seven projectiles carried by the stallion in his scene articulate the analogy of the male sex and lightning, as this horse and the mare he pursues are in a pre-mating situation. Again, the sexual association is obvious in Gabillou, as illustrated by the large arrow pointed toward the sex of a bison (Fig. 27 f), another configuration with a close parallel in the Shaft of Lascaux (cf. Fig. 62 a, in Chapter XI). The branching sign painted on a phallic rock projection in Niaux (Fig. 72 b, in Chapter III) caries similar implications, as the roof of the gallery alludes to the sky, so that the formation, in effect, penetrates the female cave space. In the Nave of Lascaux, we also find the two barbed spears—certainly “pseudo-arrows”–that penetrate the square “earth” symbol below the huge, black cow (Fig. 66 b), as well as the vegetation-like arrows hitting a red cow in the Axial Gallery (Fig. 63 b).

Upper Palaeolithic artists were, apparently, familiar with a concept similar to that of the “storm gods” of later ages, in so far as these characters wielded spear-like thunderbolts and released abundant rain that penetrated and fertilized the earth, as exemplified by the Sumerian Iskur, or Adad (Fig. 32 d), whose spear hits the ground and turns into a vegetal symbol (cf. Fig. 32 b, c). These storm-gods personified thunder and had close ties to, and were even addressed as, “wild bulls.”  In our illustration, Baal (Fig. 32 f) is shown standing on a bull (the “bull of the sky”) while launching his thunderbolts, and we may speculate–though this is beyond proof–that the spiked “thunderbolt,” he is hurling, had an early prototype, which is shown in the conspicuous, red sign painted next to the head of one white bull in the Rotunda of Lascaux (compare inserts in Fig. 32 e and f). The complex of thunder, rain, fertility of the earth, vegetal growth, sexual awakening, and seasonal change was manifest in a rich variety of images. The significance of thunder in Ice Age art may have been similar to the sentiment expressed by the Cheyennes in the origin-myth of their New Lodge (“Sundance”) Festival (Quoted in Chapter III): “…when you go forth from this mountain, all of the heavenly bodies will move. The roaring thunder will awaken them, the sun, moon, stars, and the rain will bring forth fruits of all kinds, all the animals will follow you…” (Dorsey 1905, I, 48).



Scenes pertaining to rain and thunder frequently include the image of an ibex (occasionally a chamois, or a saiga). Examples include the thunder-storm scene of Pech-Merle (Fig. 28 a, to the right) and the thematically related frieze of Cougnac (Fig. 29 b-g), as well as the above-mentioned panels in les Eglises (Fig. 30b), Buxu, Cantal (Fig. 30 c-d), Pileta (Fig. 30k), Fieux (Fig. 45 b, insert), and Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Fig 31 a, b). In the Apse of Lascaux, ibexes’ horns cut through a square sign that may suggest a cloud with rain-fringes all around (Fig. 41 c), and in the Nave, an entire frieze of ibexes is set above the bison that is pierced by vertical lines and may allude to the earth struck by lightning (Fig. 37). Gabillou—with similar figures of bison struck by “pseudo-arrows” (cf. Fig. 69 c)—also shows a close association of an ibex and an arrow-/lightning-sign (Fig. 27 c; that this sign also is phallic does not contradict that reading). Most likely, the goat’s affinity with thunder was inspired by the he-goats’ propensity for banging their heads together with crashing sounds that reverberate like thunderclaps from mountain sides and cliffs. As a visual motif we recognize the head-butting ibexes in the Axial Gallery of Lascaux (Fig. 46 a) and elsewhere, including the monumental, sculpted friezes of Roc de Sers (Leroi-Gourhan 1967, 411) and Angles sur l’Anglin (Fig. 31 a; a feasible reading of the group on the left).

The furious battles of he-goats during the rutting season took place around mid-winter, to the effect that their feistiness readily applied—on the level of symbolism–to the crucial shift in the course of the year around the moment of the winter solstice. Indeed, a great number of ibex figures relate to the end of winter and the coming of spring—including images that refer to the significant first thunders of spring, imagery in which the he-goat’s irrepressible belligerence–and the sexual prowess at its roots–were emblematic of vital energy and were used symbolically with reference to seasonal revival of vegetation and animals (a topic to be discussed in Chapter VII). This aspect of goat symbolism may be reflected in later, historic sources, where we recognize the association of goats and thunder in, among other mythologies, the Germanic narrative of the he-goats that pull the chariot of the thunder-god, Thor.

Mountain goats and the passage between nether and upper worlds 

In Ice Age art, the relationship between mountain goats and the other sky-related figures reaches beyond the phenomenon of thunder to encompass events on a cosmic scale. Our chart of sky-related species (Fig. 1) places the relatively small and compact goats below other characters, whose physical profiles make them more demonstratively sky-related. Correspondingly, the key function of mountain goats in cave art is to clear away obstacles for aurochs, horses, and deer, which, in terms of topography, means to make pathways from the inner caves and the depths of the earth to the outer caves and the world of the sky. In the perspective of world creation, the combative spirit of male goats aligned them with the cosmic forces that—in a remote, mythic era–created the karstic cave systems. Add to this the ability of wild goats to climb forbidding mountainsides, which qualified them as path-finders through near-impassable regions in the depths of mountains. Thus, we repeatedly find figures of ibexes located at spots, where natural features of cave topography indicate a break-through from low, inner-cave sections to higher, outer-cave sections, or where narrow, difficult passages may all-but preclude traffic between inner and outer sections; these settings indicate the goats’ role as guides to and from the depths. Partly to enhance this symbolic function, the artists depicted many ibexes with demonstratively large horns, stressing the natural endowment of the males. This tendency is seen in some of the following scenes (for example, Figs. 10 e, 39 a, 44 b, and 51 c).

Some caves provide particularly clear demonstrations of the symbolic function of ibex imagery, as for example Travers de Janoye, where the main figurative decoration is the ibexes’ heads facing each other quasi-symmetrically from either side of the narrow fissure that ends the cave’s single gallery—a fissure that leads to the narrow, descending terminal corridor (see Fig. 154 a, b in Chapter III). This composition strongly suggests that these ibexes were assigned an active role in opening up that crucial fissure. A different, but highly spectacular, illustration of the same theme is seen in the Great Ceiling of Rouffignac, which gathers all the ibexes of the vast sanctuary at one spot, namely, the site of an actual break-through from the lower to the upper cave. In fact, the decoration unfolds directly above the near-vertical descent to the second level of galleries, which in turn, leads to the third level of active, flowing water (cf. Fig. 85 a, b in Chapter III). The notable animation of the ibexes in the Great Ceiling shows them as a dynamic force vis-à-vis the massive inertia of the bison, mammoths and rhinos.

A number of major caves present a similar message, as they relate ibexes to a forced break-through from deeper, water-filled levels of the earth toward upper levels. Much like Travers-de-Janoye, an ibex is the last figure in Casares, and it is seen coming out of the narrow exit from the descending terminal corridor (Cabré Aguilo, 1934). In Marsoulas, an ibex (turned outwards) is located at the top of the final slope of the gallery that is the descent to a subterranean stream (Fritz and Tosello 2010, 42). Ker de Massat, likewise, has a group of three chamois (Fig. 52 b) in the small end-chamber, where they overlook (on one side) a pit and (on the other side) a rough, steeply falling gallery that ends in an underground river. Comparable topographic features characterize the settings of an outward-directed ibex in Arco “B” (Fig. 60 e), situated right at the low entrance to a side-gallery that leads to labyrinth-like, descending corridors (Smith 2002, 76). The two dynamic ibexes in Salèles-Cabardès (Fig. 50) are found in a descending, moist gallery near the end of the cave, just as two painted ibexes in vigorous motion mark the lowest point of Altamira—about fifty feet below the cave entrance—at the end of a steeply descending side-gallery (Freeman and Echegaray 2001, 45). Close associations with subterranean waters occur in in the terminal chamber of Pileta, where an ibex seems to guide the huge, painted fish (cf. Fig. 13). This scene is located near the conclusive pit of the cave, but more telling still, it is expressly associated with the source-spring that gave the cave its name. To clarify the tight connection with the fish/ibex composition, a sign engraved on a neighboring wall graphically describes the source itself as a dynamic outburst of waters through a breach in the solid rock-wall (Fig. 30 l).

As in Rouffignac, the location of goats at a precise point of access to lower-level waters is evident in Buxu, where an ibex dominates the previously mentioned panel of “rain” signs (Fig. 30 c); this ensemble is in the mid-section of Buxu, but it is located directly above a deep pit that opens up in the floor. Likewise, an opening to lower-level waters determined the execution of the Great Wall of Tito Bustillo, and here, right above the crucial fissure that communicates with the river below, we find the engraved head of an ibex (Fig. 14 b, c). Varying this composition, Gargas displays several ibexes in the two panels that mark the entrance to the Camarin–the site of an elaborate description of primordial creation (cf. Fig. 49, and discussion in Chapter III). More immediately, the panel at the entrance relates directly to a small hole in the rock-wall from which, occasionally, a jet of water bursts forth (Fig. 44 a-c); we notice the large horns of the ibex that is closest to this outlet; the configuration recalls the mentioned panel of the large fish in Pileta (cf. Fig. 30 k, l).

Even in cave sections that seem like dead ends, figures of goats may indicate that the artists perceived these sections as significant penetrations toward the depths of the mountain. In the side-gallery of Altxerri, for example, a saiga rises assertively above the rock projection that plugs the end of the gallery, and on this surface, a bison is engraved in a vertical position (Fig. 36 c), a conventional means of indicating a connection with the oceanic depths of the earth. The panel at the very end of the cave of Moros relies, again, on the message conveyed by a vertical bison, a figure that is juxtaposed with a large-sized chamois (Smith 2002, 126). In Deux Ouvertures, a magnificent ibex (Fig. 10 e) is at the very end of the cave, where it seems empowered to confront a bison and a mammoth (Fig. 10 d, f); the latter characters stand for the inertia of matter, the former for the energy that opens the cave as a passage to the outer world. Similar situations occur at two points in Lascaux: in the low end of the Axial Gallery of Lascaux, where the panel of ibexes (Fig. 46) overlooks the mouth of the Tunnel with its single figure of a bison; and, in the back of the Apse of Lascaux, where a group of ibexes (Fig. 41 c) is located directly above the opening to the deep Shaft, which holds the dominating figures of a bison and a rhinoceros (Fig. 66 c). In the latter case, a possible reference to clouds and rain (as mentioned above) lends a wider cosmic dimension to the scenario.

Where narrowing galleries, cat-holes, or tunnels threaten to interrupt the flow of energies released from the inner-most/lowest sections of a cave, figures of mountain goats appear to signal the a secured connection. Thus, the most emphatic presence of ibexes in Combarelles is seen in the panel (Fig. 58 b) that marks the entrance to–or rather, exit from—the “Tunnel,” a crawlspace that constitutes the most difficult segment of the long gallery. In Lascaux, the connection from the middle cave (the Nave) to the outer cave (the Rotunda) happens via the corridor named the “Passage” (cf. Fig. 44 in Chapter X), and ibexes are, indeed, prominent at the point of transition from the Nave to the “Passage” (Fig. 37 and Fig. 47 b). In Trois-Frères, the “Sanctuary” is the lowest part of the cave (twenty feet below the main gallery) and permanent water is reached at the far end of this space (Bégouën and Breuil 1968/1999, 32). While the “Sanctuary” contains numerous images of ibexes, a particularly striking effect is generated by the large figure that meets the visitor who descends the steep stalagmitic cascade leading to the “Sanctuary” (Fig. 43 a); this prominent ibex seems to evoke the very forces that once opened this passageway.

Gabillou demonstrates effectively the perpetual performance of the ibex throughout the cave. Thus, the two innermost ibexes are engaged in a strenuous move out of the tiny end-chamber (Fig. 27 b), and the momentum of this achievement is, subsequently, carried forward by several energetic figures (for example,  Fig. 27 d). Most notably, the perseverance of the ibex is demonstrated at the tight passage (about half-way through the cave) that constitutes the main stricture of the cave; here, an ibex with prominent horns proudly pronounces the clearing of the obstacle (Fig. 69 e). A parallel situation occurs in Pileta, where the ibexes in the terminal chamber leads the concerted move away from the  realm of subterranean waters (cf. Fig. 13 b ), while several ibexes are integral parts of the dramatic panel in the “Sanctuary”—in the restrictive passage at the mid-point of the cave (cf. Fig. 40a). Ker de Massat provides another parallel to this scheme, with the above-mentioned chamois in the back, at the threshold of descending corridors (Fig. 52 b), and with a cluster of ibexes placed where the first decorated chamber is entered (or left) through a low, narrow “cat-hole” (Fig. 52 a).  Pasiega provides us with at least three exhibits of ibexes that are set at constricting passages. In the “A” section of the cave, an ibex is juxtaposed with the tight opening that leads from the narrow inner-cave to the main gallery (Fig. 12 h); in the “B” section, a narrow side-gallery ends in a small chamber with a panel of engravings that include several ibexes (cf. Fig. 51 b, c); in the “C” section, an ibex marks the point where a tight corridor—originating in a forbidding, chaotic segment of the cave–leads into the above mentioned, half-enclosed/half-exposed  “Crypt” (Fig. 21 e).

 In caves that are overall low, narrow, and generally tunnel-like, an ibex may be the very first figure, to the effect that this figure, topographically and visually leads the way through the entire, constricting cave to the outside world. This occurs, for example, in Bayol (Drouot 1953) and in Pergouset (Fig. 33 b). Considering the large number of images crammed into the tight fissure that constitutes the core of Roucadour, we recognize the significance of an engraved ibex that is closely associated with the opening into that space (Lorblanchet 2010, 363, 341). The engraved panel with the energetic ibex in Sainte-Eulalie (Fig. 41 e) is close to the exterior shelter, which is the opening of a long, narrow gallery that, in the back, begins in a water-logged conjunction with lower cave sections; whatever the complex geological processes of faults in the limestone may be, the ibex is credited with the feat of enforcing and establishing the paths through the mountain.

Mountain goat symbolism in cave art is applied with great variety so as to accommodate the many different types of cave spaces; even simple cracks or niches in rock- walls may be marked by figures of wild goats, as in the case of an ibex that appears to emerge from a crack in the wall in the inner part of El Juyo (Smith 2002, 75). As mentioned, the entire, richly decorated gallery of Roucadour is, after all, just one large, walk-in-sized fissure, and the mentioned ibex here is not essentially different from the one we find in the small, alcove-like “Camarin” of Portel (Fig. 67 b) or the one in the niche with the “thunder” scene in Pech-Merle (Fig. 28 a, b). In Hornos de la Peña, the last panel—far back, where the gallery disintegrates into small segments—shows an ibex facing a large cavity (Fig. 5 f), a recess that is filled with meandering lines to indicate the presence of the oceanic forces of primordial chaos. In this situation, the goat appears to open up a connection to the depths, initiating the events unfolding through the cave, leading to the establishment of the sky/aurochs (cf. Fig. 5 b).Even calcite formations that merely suggest a framed opening may contain the figure of an ibex, as seen in the “window” (lucarne) in Pileta (Breuil et al. 1915; Dams 1978, 60) or in a similar setting in Ardales (Duarte 2006, 148, 152). Within the grand frieze of Cougnac, two panels dedicated to ibexes are likewise set between speleothems (Fig. 29 d, e), a three-dimensional framing that suggests the immanent appearance of these ibexes from within the rock-face–all in keeping with the role of the ibex in clearing the way through the cave.

Even a conventional “earth” sign may be shown as pierced by ibexes’ horns, in order to illustrate the sky-related energy that, symbolically, penetrates the mass of the earth. Such action is seen in Lascaux, in the Chamber of Lions (Fig. 38 a, center), and perhaps also in the Apse (Fig. 41 c; the possible reading of this sign as a “cloud,” notwithstanding). Cosquer shows several such configurations (Fig. 39 a, b, d, e). In Ekain, the small ibex above an “earth” sign is another case (Fig. 34 c); like the ibex in Hornos (Fig. 5 f), it appears to overcome–and emerge from–the earth. Outside the realm of cave art, we find the goat-penetrating-the-earth theme illustrated on a bone from Torre, which shows two ibexes energetically emerging above a plain “earth” sign (Fig. 26). On a perforated staff from Gourdan, a file of four chamois’ heads is directed toward the perforation, while the reverse shows three heads pointing away from the perforation (Fig. 76 a, b). Given that perforations of staffs symbolically represent the earth/netherworld, the group of four aims for the depths of the earth, while the group of three re-emerges into the upper world. 

Following a different approach to the same theme, a sign in Pileta shows the tiny head of an ibex within a U-shaped sign that we (cf. discussion in Chapter III) identify as a uterus (Fig. 38 c). Located in a stepwise descending corridor that leads to a chasm, this is, evidently, the uterus of the earth, and the ibex here is a metaphor for the force that penetrates and fertilizes the earth’s womb—like the double-stroke signs/rain-drops that fill the “U.” A number of adjacent signs in Pileta show cloud- or sky-signs that feature the same hoof-print/rain motif (cf. Fig. 30 e-h).

In the present context, we shall only mention that the above symbolism plays out in numerous scenes, in which figures of goats—representing the categorical principle of male energy–visually overcome animals that represent the earth or the mountains—emblematic of the principle of mass. We have mentioned the “Great Ceiling” of Rouffignac, with its dynamic ibexes challenging numbers of bison, mammoths, and rhinos. Other examples involving bison are found in Niaux, (Fig. 42 a; 42 d), Marsulas (Fig. 41 a), or La Mouthe (Fig. 6 c); comparable cases involving mammoths occur in Pair-non-Pair (Fig. 45 a), Gargas (Fig. 44 c), Trois-Frères (Fig. 43 a, c), or Fieux (Fig. 45 b, insert). Essentially, such configurations concern the seasonal (re)creation of the earth, rather than the separation of earth and sky; we shall pursue this theme elsewhere (cf. Chapter VII).

The goat guiding the main sky characters 

Clearing the passage through a cave, the goat acts as the herald for the larger representatives of the sky, notably, aurochs and horses. Beginning with the aurochs, we find numerous compositions that show this species accompanied by ibexes or chamois–configurations that, obviously, do not record a common, natural phenomenon but, indeed, a symbolic association related to the (re-)creation of the sky. As we pursue the association of aurochs and ibexes, we find figures of goats in panels that feature both sexes of aurochs, as in the examples from the Axial Gallery of Lascaux (Fig. 46 a-d) or the “Sanctuary” in Pileta (Fig. 40 a), but most cases concern either bulls or cows. We shall first consider the bulls, the prime representatives of the celestial vault.

To tell from its superior size and force, the ibex at the end of Deux Ouvertures (Fig. 10 e) is demonstrably the agent that counters the earth-powers of the mammoth and the bison (Fig. 10 d, f), and which promotes the formation of the sky, as illustrated by the group of aurochs bulls in the ceiling (Fig. 10 c). Even more directly, the central scene with the huge bull in Ebbou (Fig. 55 b) tells of the vital role of the surrounding ibexes: the bull is lifeless (cf. the visible ribs) but the goats are vivid and obviously engaged in ensuring its revival and mobility, one ibex pushing upwards (out of the ground), the other leading on, above the bull. Evidently, they are successful, as indicated by the subsequent (outermost) figure of a strident bull (Fig. 55 a). Visually, the cosmic perspective is, as previously noted, supported by a pronounced, horizontal streak of the rock-wall, with the inner (larger) bull placed below this line, but the following, outermost one rising above it. Like in Ebbou, the large aurochs in the back of Gabillou (Fig. 27 b) is relegated to the realm of dead, as indicated by the figure of a lion (Fig. 27 a), and in Gabillou, too, two ibexes—one in vigorous motion– are superimposed on the aurochs. The panel of the above-mentioned water-outlet in Gargas (Fig. 44 a) is dominated by an aurochs that, again, is supported by ibexes (Fig. 44 b). It is not clear if this aurochs is male or female, but in either case, the implication of the primordial creation of the sky is quite certain, as the panel is located at the entrance to the Chamber with its bold description of creation out of chaos (cf. discussion in Chapter, III, Part Two). In Chauvet, the group of ibexes that immediately precede–and visibly guide– the aurochs bulls (Fig. 11 b, c) also seem to empower these bulls to conquer the restraining force of the rhinoceros (cf. Fig 11 d). In Pech-Merle, the bull is at the center of the above-discussed storm scene, but an ibex is included as if to announce the tempestuous powers of the sky (Fig. 28 a, b). Two ibexes accompany a bull at the end of Pileta (Fig. 13 f), where the terminal pit, the above-mentioned source-spring, and the large figure of a fish speak of an earth-bound, watery realm. In this scene, the yellow bull’s head is the first manifestation of light and of the sky, and again (as in the above-mentioned Pech-Merle scene) the “rain” sign juxtaposed with the ibex recalls the stormy aspect of the goats.

With the above imagery we may include the frieze in Cougnac, which tells a similar story; although here, the protagonist is not the aurochs bull but the male of the megaceros, the extinct, giant deer, the role of the ibexes remains the same. The long frieze of Cougnac begins (in the back) with images of mammoths that visually overpower the image of an ibex that is reduced to its horns (Fig. 29 g). In the middle segment, however, the ibexes are all-dominant (Fig. 29 d, e), leading right up to the front section and the triumphant images of the megaceros (Fig. 29 b, c). With its size, height, and truly enormous spread of antlers, this animal was a fitting stand-in for the aurochs bull as emblem of the sky vault. The tiny figures of an ibex and an (isolated) antler of a megaceros (Fig. 29 b, top) provide us with a short-hand statement of the relationship between the goat and the large deer.  At this place, we shall not pursue the motif of the megaceros, except to recall that the closely related cave of Pech-Merle (with its single aurochs bull) also features the image of a megaceros in a small cupola–smoothed and prepared by regular finger-tracings– a setting that suggests the luminous dome of the sky (Fig. 75). The giant stag here carries aloft a circle, which may well represent the sun; a configuration that we may compare to the image of a horse carried high by the horns of aurochs bulls in the Rotunda of Lascaux (see Aujoulat 2004, 67 and title page).

The cow of the aurochs, too, is quite frequently juxtaposed with ibexes, whereby the latter appear to support the cow’s oscillations between the lower tier of the sky and the subterranean realm of the dead, the transitions from evening to night and from night to morning. In Lascaux this transformation occurs at four occasions, each time with the participation of the ibex: in the Axial Gallery where two ibexes–one black, the other yellow—are close to the falling, black cow (Fig. 71 b, c); in the Apse, where a black cow faces an ibex that is framed by a square (earth-related) sign (Fig. 47 a); in the Passage, where several engraved ibexes accompany the red head of a cow, a figure that, as mentioned above, marks the border between inner and outer cave sections (Fig. 47 b, c); and finally, in the Nave, where the frieze of seven ibexes’ heads (Fig. 37) is at the periphery of the great, panoramic panel of the black cow, the image of the netherworld/night. In Niaux we encounter the ibex/cow configuration at two separate–but equally low-key– locations: one, a remote, narrow side-gallery (Fig. 34 a, b), where the figures straddle the border of a low, dark zone of the wall; the other, an inconspicuous clay floor (Fig. 23); in the latter case, the cow is demonstratively marked as dead. This may also be the meaning of the cross engraved across the head of a cow in Candamo, a remote figure that is accompanied by a large chamois (Fig. 48 a, b). Pergouset shows an ibex escorting an aurochs towards the opening of the cave (Fig. 33 a). In Tête du Lion, the two ibexes are placed at the natural “horizon,” on which the cow stands, suggesting that the former helped raise the latter into the sky (Fig. 17 a). The ibex seen bursting into a cryptic section of Pasiega “C” (Fig. 21 e) may be entering in order to support the adjacent, vertically descending cow in her nether-world mission (Fig. 21 a). In Chimeneas (Fig. 17 b-e), a couple of ibexes join several cows on a low-hanging ceiling/sky. Outside the world of caves, we recognize the supporting role of a chamois and an ibex on the mentioned artifact from Torre, which shows the cow emerging from a graphic “earth” sign (Fig. 26, left).

 In each of the above compositions, the ibex seems to participate in a re-enactment of the primordial creation of the cosmos, and more particularly, in the emergence of the sky vault (in the case of the aurochs bull) and the establishment of a link between day and night (in the case of the cow). This cosmic perspective also applies to the mountain goat’s role with respect to the horse. As the most splendid manifestation of the sky-world, the solar horse is integral to many of the above illustrations of the re-creation of the sky. The recreational phases of the sun’s daily and/or yearly cycles are, ultimately, re-enactments of the first creation of the sun. In this perspective, those ibexes that are juxtaposed with horses are called upon to open the passage for the sun, pushing aside obstacles to the emergence and unfolding of light.

 Gabillou provides an explicit illustration of this narrative (Fig. 27 a, b) with the parallels between, first, the ibex’ black head and the lowered head of one horse (both turned inwards) and then, between the outward-motion of the second ibex and the raised, red-painted head of the  other horse (both outward-bound). In this transformation, the ibex is clearly leading the way, as the first ibex shows the moment of breaking out, with its gaze still turned to the back and the body already moving forward. In Ebbou (Fig. 55 d) a wounded ibex is shown ascending vertically, while horses in a neighboring panel are shown turned both downward and upward (Chabredier 1975, nos. 40 – 45); again, the goat seems to journey into death and then, to return to life—certainly to promote the emergence, equally, of the sky/aurochs and the solar horse (cf. Fig. 55 a-d). Numerous compositions pursue the theme of ibexes guiding the solar animal. Several examples are seen in Lascaux. In the Chamber of Lions, far back in the cave, the horse appears in a state of immobilization, in a unique display of strictly frontal perspective (Fig. 38 a, b). The bison above and the lions below this image tell us that the horse is stuck in a nether-world realm of death. In this situation, the ibexes are acting on behalf of the solar character, as their horns pierce a black sign of the “earth” type (Fig. 38 a), opening a path to the upperworld. In the Nave, the symbiotic relationship of the two species is explicitly stated, as the red heads of ibexes are correlated with the male horse, the black heads ibexes with the female horse (Fig. 37). In the Passage, a horse is lead along by the superimposed figure of an ibex (Fig. 47 b); the latter guiding the former towards the outer cave. At the end of the Axial Gallery, the situation is very particular, not just because the ibexes are close to the emerging horse at the Tunnel (Fig. 71 a, b), but more so, because a tiny horse—repeating the rising motion of the larger one–is painted across the back of the yellow ibex, literally emerging out of the goat’s body (Fig. 71 b ).

Numerous caves show scenes that suggest the horse’s dependance on the guidance of the goat. Examples include Salèles-Cabardes (Fig. 50), Tuc d’Audoubert (Fig. 51), Ker de Massat (Fig. 52 a), Tito Bustillo (Fig. 14 b), Ekain (Fig. 34 c), Cosquer (Fig. 56 b; Fig. 39 d), Niaux (Fig. 42 a; 42 d- e), Combarelles (Fig. 58 b), Marsoulas (Fig. 41 a), Portel (Fig. 67 b), Pileta (Fig. 40 a-c), Pasiega “B” (Fig. 51 c), Gabillou (Fig. 69 e), and Fontanet Fig. 68 b). In Casares, an ibex emerges from the terminal cleft of the gallery to join the innermost figure of a horse (Cabré Aguiló 1934), and other caves are equally clear about the primordial events to which the above scenes allude. Thus, Gargas expressly refers to the first appearance of the sun in the description of a horse with its guiding ibexes, as they are surrounded by large, meandering traits that we have identified as a representation of the primordial water-filled realm (Fig. 49). Even in the panoramic frieze of Cougnac–a cave with virtually no representations of horses–we find an ibex erupting from a stalactite obstruction, to bring along what we may call an absolutely minimal representation of a horse, namely, the mere suggestion of a horse’s mane (Fig. 29 c, located at the hump of the megaceros); here, the robust goat enables the cave’s one—however ephemeral–image of a horse.

An enlightening, highly schematic formulation of the horse/ibex relationship is drawn on a stone from Parpalló (Fig. 54), where a descending ibex marks the horse’s hindquarters—which signify night, or winter, as also implied by the inclusion of a deadly predator–while an ascending ibex marks the forequarters—signifying morning or spring. The similarity to a painting in Niaux is not to be missed (Fig. 42 d); in this case, a small ibex with powerful horns marks the horse’s shoulder (and a descending bison marks the rear). We may find a parallel to these formal compositions in a carved artifact from Mas d”Azil, which has a vertical ibex on one side and a horizontal ibex on the other side (Fig. 53 a, b). This unique item is carved from the tooth of a whale, with the conceptual implication that the vertical figure rises toward the upper world, while the horizontal figure is captured in a nether world that approaches a chaotic, oceanic abyss.

The ritual ibex sacrifice 

In the above scenes, the mountain goats are surprisingly often marked as killed, a tendency that stands out in some caves. In the main panel of Artmintxe, which encompasses scores of images, an ibex is the only one marked by an arrow (González Sainz and López Quintana 2018), just as the entire cave of Ker de Massat has only a single figure marked as killed—again an ibex (cf. Fig. 52 a). In Niaux, the tiny ibex in the first panel of the great frieze is heavily marked as killed in contrast to the many bison, though the latter are the far more attractive game (Fig. 42 b). Also in the Rotunda of Niaux, a panel on the floor below the frieze makes the ibex the sole target (Fig. 42 a), while yet another scene in a different part of this cave again shows only the ibex hit by an arrow (Fig. 34 a). In Pergouset, the first ibex is both hit by an arrow and caught (with its right front-leg) in a trap (Fig. 33 b). One goat in Cosquer is struck by a truly enormous spear or arrow in a demonstrative act of killing (Fig. 39 f). To these examples we may add images of goats that are marked with black paint, such as the innermost ibex in Gabillou with its black head that is unique in the cave (Fig. 27 b). Lascaux has three such examples: the all-black ibex facing the all-yellow one (Fig. 71 b); the four black heads set against the three red ones (Fig. 37); and, the black “earth” sign across the engraved ibexes in the Chamber of Lions (Fig. 38 a).

The emphasis on images of killed ibexes does not resonate with a known preference on the part of the Palaeolithic hunters; rather, this proclivity points to the existence of some ritual practice focused on mountain goats. The formal line-up of seven ibex protomes in Lascaux (Fig. 37) may, indeed, suggest a ritual event, the more so, as we meet this quite particular configuration on the mentioned staff from Gourdan, where the four chamois (accompanied by the tiny head of a beast of prey) are aimed toward the perforation—a symbol of death and the depths (Fig. 76 a), while the file of three heads (accompanied by a stag and a horse) return to the sky-world (Fig. 76 b). The two identical heads below the aurochs in Tête du Lion may carry similar connotations (Fig. 17 a). In Tito Bustillo, the head of a goat is apparently shown as decapitated, hence sacrificed (Fig. 14 c). Seemingly, the above situations pertained to the ritual killing of mountain goats, and following this realization, it appears that this sacrificial act was perceived as a means to assist the goats in their symbolic role of empowering the sky– represented by aurochs and horses—and perhaps even of invigorating the cosmos at large. For example, the tiny, killed ibex in the first panel of the Black Bison frieze in Niaux (Fig. 42 b) may present the tiny ibex as a sacrificial offer destined to invigorate the earth, the more so as the stiff poses of these bison suggest lifelessness.

The regular, seasonal offering of an ibex as a theme in Ice Age art was first recognized by Alexander Marshack. In The Roots of Civilization (1974/1991, 174, 401) Marshack identified a distinct motif in the form of ibexes—often just their heads—that were crossed by a line to suggest that they were somehow “cancelled out,” which would indicate a ritual killing rather than an episode of the hunt. Marshack’s examples are all engraved on artifacts and follow a convention of the Magdalenian age, whereby ibexes may be shown in frontal perspective and their horns drawn as symmetrically opposed arcs (see Fig. 35 a-h). Such figures occur in the caves, too, as seen in Trois-Frères (Fig. 43 c), Niaux (34 a, b), or Ekain (Fig. 33 c), and they have roots in older (mainly Solutrean) ensembles, including Lascaux (Fig. 41 b), Cosquer (Fig. 39 d, e), Chimeneas (Fig. 17 c), and Pasiega “B” (Fig. 51 b).

Indeed, the frontal view of all these figures speaks to the thesis of a ritual sacrifice, because frontality in Ice Age cave art inherently signals stillness or paralysis, even death. A figure shown en face disrupts the almost totally prevailing convention of animals in profile view, that is, oriented either left or right; a frontal figure intercepts directionality and may bring any motion to a halt. Among a thousand figures in Lascaux, for example, this exceptional pose occurs only twice: with the above-mentioned horse in the Chamber of Lions (Fig. 38) and with one ibex in the Apse (Fig. 41 b). In fact, the appearance of this particular display of an ibex tells us with all clarity that the frontal presentation of the goats’ horns was read as a distinct, abstract sign in its own right, because the artists twice echoed the shape of the horns below the engraved ibex exceptionally using red ocher (Fig. 41 b, bottom), thus showing us that the frontal design of goats’ horns was, indeed, understood as a pseudo-abstract sign that carried a definite meaning—likely with reference to the supposed sacrifice. Elsewhere, we discuss the roots of this sign in an older version (cf. Fig. 39 a, b, c in Chapter X) that—also with an underlying reference to stylized horns–curves symmetrically left-and-right. In any case, the perfect symmetry of the frontal horns motivated their use as a distinct sign that visually projects a doubleness , an ambiguous balance between a move toward life and a move toward death projecting a concept that is intrinsic to any sacrifice. This is, particularly pertinent in the case of a ritual killing that is meant to restore life, thus employing destruction as a means of re-creation. Once again, we are reminded of the oft-quoted dictum of the “eternal return,” according to which the symbolic recapitulation of primordial creation is the only means of reviving creation; the belief that a symbolic return to chaos (the formal killing) must precede the renewal of the world or any of its live parts.

 Some variations on the frontal-horns motif further clarify the symbolic, death-into-life aspect of the goat sacrifice. One such variant shows the goats horns seen en face but the body moving forward, as seen in a Niaux scene (Fig. 34 b) and on the Torre bone (Fig. 26). Another variation shows the goat with its head turned backwards but its body directed forward. Again, these contradictory signals challenge the norm of animals in strict profile, which in the caves means figures directed either toward the depths or toward the outer world. In distinction to the purely frontal images, however, these mixed signals promise an end to the state of paralysis and hint at renewed mobility. In the case of the innermost ibex in Gabillou (Fig. 27 b), the head—demonstratively painted black—looks back toward the terminal alcove of the cave, while its body already moves outward; it is, thus, caught in transition between death/netherworld and life/outer-world; indeed, the following ibex already jumps vigorously ahead. Comparable sequences occur in Altxerri (Fig. 36 a, b), Sainte Eulalie (Fig. 41 e, f), and Pileta (Fig. 40 a, to the right).

In the just-mentioned situations, both aspects of the sacrifice are present, as the mountain goat is shown both in a pose that suggests death–that is, as sacrificially killed–and in a contrasting pose that spells life—as revived and restored. Carrying essentially the same message, some figures of goats manage to exhibit the ambiguity of death/life, in so far as they are marked by noticeable signs of killing in spite of being shown as moving precipitously forward and/or upward; examples are seen in Tuc d’Audoubert (Fig. 51 a), Ebbou (Fig. 55 d), Niaux (Fig. 34 a, b), and on the Torre artifact (Fig. 26).

 Marshack relates his examples of sacrificed goats (Fig. 35 a-h) to ritual evocations of spring and the contexts he analyzes concern seasonal indicators (sprouting plants, fishes and seals, etc.). The symmetry of the opposed horns of the two ibexes in the Axial Gallery of Lascaux (Fig. 46 a) invariably relates to the symbolism of the frontal horns, while the striking contrast of a black and a yellow figure eloquently states the implied ambiguity of a sacrificial offer. In this case, the tiny figure of a horse that appears to emerge directly out of the body of the yellow ibex (Fig. 71 b) illustrates the effect of the ibex-sacrifice with respect to the revival of the solar horse. This theme is also articulated through the curious relationship between goats—one turned up, the other down–and a horse on an engraved bone from Parpalló (Fig. 54). Ultimately, we may speculate that an intentional sacrifice is the implicit reference for most, if not all, examples of horses and goats rendered above. This is also true of the very close relationship between ibexes—including the mentioned rising-yet-wounded figure–and the aurochs bulls in Ebbou (Fig. 55 a-d) and between goats and the aurochs cow on the Torre engraving (Fig. 26); these explicit formulations only accentuate what is implied in the scores of scenes discussed above in which goats lead the way for the revival of the sun (horses) and the sky (aurochs).

Among Marshack’s examples of ritually killed goats, is a staff from Montgaudier that includes a feasible cosmogram, namely an “X” across the forehead of an ibex (Fig. 35 e). We may theorize (pending discussion in Chapter IX) that the “X” stands for the point in time and space at which creation began (respectively, ended). Thus, we find two “X” signs in the very first, innermost panels of Lascaux, where the gallery narrows into an impassable slit (Fig. 66 a), clearly the locus of beginning—of the cave and of the cosmos. The sign occurs at half-a-dozen spots in Lascaux, and in several of these cases, its cosmic significance is evident. In the back of the Apse, within the tiny recess that gives access to the Shaft, we find two large “X” signs obviously marking the location of the small entrance, which is another point of transition between realms—incidentally, one that also is acknowledged by the above-mentioned group of ibexes (Fig. 41 c). In the Chamber of Lions, an “X” marks the opening in the thick, black arch that encloses the ibexes; moreover, this sign pinpoints the spot at which the goats’ horns break through a barrier between netherworld/death and upperworld/life (Fig. 38 a). As in Lascaux, we find the “X” sign in the very back of Candamo ( Fig. 17 b ). From all of the above, we may conclude that the mountain goats in Ice Age art are connected with a turning point in the process of creation, and that a ritual sacrifice make them a preordained agent on the side of sky-related forces.

Elusive altars

A particular argument for the ritual ibex sacrifice—albeit, based on inconclusive evidence—may be found in designs that suggest altars. Some of these are physical structures, but most are complex ideograms that accompany pertinent images of goats. In the context of bloody animal sacrifices among historically documented peoples, altars or altar-like designs have served to place the ritual killing in a cosmic perspective and, notably, present it as the means of a symbolic world renewal. Monographs on Ice Age sanctuaries offer few descriptions of potential altars such as table-like rock formations; but among likely candidates we find two that, indeed, are associated with images of ibexes. Thus, Cougnac contains a regularly shaped rock that was brought into the cave from the outside (Lorblanchet 2010, 272) and deposited at the base of the above-mentioned, painted frieze; more precisely, it was positioned at the foot of a panel that is entirely devoted to ibexes (Fig. 29 e). The large rock that fills up much of the hall in Fieux (Fig. 45 b) was recognized as an earth/mountain emblem (and outfitted with a sketchy trunk), but the deeply incised figure of an ibex—with a delicate rain-sign (Fig. 45 b, insert)—may suggest that the formation also was perceived as an altar, if possibly on as a symbolic/ideal model of an actual altar. The stunning rock in Chauvet (Fig. 11 e)—discovered with a bear skull positioned on its table-like top—is located in the region of the mentioned panel of engraved ibexes that are leading the way for the large aurochs bulls (Fig. 11 b, c). This was certainly an altar, albeit one that was dedicated to a cult of the bear.

A different, mound-like type of altar has been discovered in the cave of El Juyo. It is possibly identified as a sacrificial altar by the orderly deposit of select bones of deer in the shallow, concave bottom portion of the structure. Above this, the mound was built up by carefully placed horizontal layers of dirt, alternating with clay, whereby the dirt was placed in distinct patterns by the use of small cylindrical containers, so that these layers, when seen from above, were composed of rosettes, each consisting of a central circle surrounded by six, regularly spaced circles. In some instances, differences of color (faded, but still evident) created the appearance of petals around the center of a flower-like shape, as this is described by the explorers:  “… a central black rosette is surrounded by red ‘petals’ separated from one another by black rays. In others, the central rosette is one colour and the surrounding ones are alternately red and yellow, or red, yellow, and green.” (Freeman and Gonzáles Echegaray 1981, 8). The flower-like signs suggest an altar dedicated to the earth as sustainer of vegetation, but the colored rays may also refer to the sun as the ultimate source of light and colors, as described in the birth-of-the-sun scene in the Nave of Lascaux (Fig. 56 a; cf. discussion in Chapter V). In fact, the Juyo mound is capped by a large, flat stone (resting on solid supports) that may evoke the sky. This cosmic design was apparently an altar, and it bears mentioning that the figure of an ibex–admittedly not directly associated with this structure–is among the few images in the cave (Smith 2002, 75).

The above survey confirms that altars did exist, but it does not show that any were dedicated to the sacrifice of goats. The altar stone in Chauvet apparently served a cult centered on the bear (cf. Chapter VIII), but neither this stone nor the other two examples cited above served the killing of ibexes. In Altxerri, a polished rock projection in the very back of the side-gallery may be seen as an altar (Fig. 36 c); though not actually table-like, it may be seen as the symbol of a functional altar. The head of a chamois is emerging from this formation, and we may find this spectacle to resonate with the simultaneous transformation of the ibex: on one side, the subdued figure, which is placed beneath a bison and is turned back, toward the depths (Fig. 36 a), on the other side, the vigorous one that is jumping ahead, upwards/outwards (Fig. 36 b). Here too, we see the re-vitalization of the sacrificial goat as a vehicle for the restoration of world order, or at least, for the re-setting of orderly time, as indicated by the configuration of a reindeer and an arctic fox (Fig. 36 a)—the ascending summer-half and the descending winter-half of the year—a re-setting of orderly time.

Given the meager evidence of actual structures for ritual sacrifices, we may instead look to a good number of mandala-like ideograms that feasibly stand for physical altars, and quite likely so, when they accompany images of apparently sacrificed ibexes. In any case, these signs were graphic means of exposing the world structure—an endeavor they share with many historically known altars (the Vedic fire altars, for example). While we do not have the means of reconstructing the actual performance of the sacrificial rite, artistic compositions that include mandala-like designs and references to the sacrifice of ibexes may, still, clarify the connection between cosmology and ritual killing.

In the large panel toward the back of Gabillou (Fig. 27 b) a string of events evidently stems from the rectangular sign toward which the ibex with the black head turns to look, and with which the animal is directly connected through a vertical line. This sign is painted yellow in striking contrast to the ibex’ black head, which is a meaningful contrast. The use of colorants is sparse and deliberate in Gabillou, and the yellow ocher translates into luminosity, warmth (perhaps fire) and life. As mentioned above, the backward-turned head is in conflict with the body that is turned forward/outward, and the following ibex already bounces forward in a release of energy that, subsequently, is taken up by a third, highly dynamic ibex figure (Fig. 27 d). We gain the strong impression that this stepwise progression from death to revival originates with the square, yellow sign, and that this abstract symbol activates and defines the ibex sacrifice. As such, it elicits the transformation of the cosmic figures involved: the aurochs/sky (cf. Fig. 27 e, f), the bison/earth (Fig. 27 g), and the solar horse (Fig. 27 b). The energy gained from the sacrifice is also reflected in the vigorous motion displayed by half-a-dozen reindeer gathered in this (inner) section (cf. discussion in Chapter VII).

We may speculate that the square sign in the back of Gabillou stands for a kind of physical altar. If so, the yellow ocher may represent fire, just as fire is an integral part of many, much later, sacrificial rites. Of course, we ignore the details of the material object feasibly represented by this design (it could be an angular structure made of four flat stones, like a fireplace); we are left with the two-dimensional ideogram and the evidence of the visual context. The design is of the kind we, elsewhere, have explained as cosmograms (cf. Chapters III and X), symbolic representations of the ordering of time and space, reflecting (vertically) the tiered cosmos, and (horizontally) the four corners of the solar extreme positions that define the seasons. Whether they were abstract designs or representations of physical altars, signs like the one in Gabillou recur in numerous scenes with indications of the ibex sacrifice.

Among the many square (or rectangular), subdivided, signs of Lascaux a number are associated with ibexes. In the Axial Gallery, the two ibexes–one black and the other yellow, one dead and the other full of life—are placed symmetrically on either side of a typical grid-like sign (Fig. 71 b) in an arrangement that evokes the two phases of the sacrificial rite. The group is associated with the revival of the aurochs (both bulls and cows; cf. Fig. 46) and of the horse, the latter shown both as emerging from the Tunnel (Fig. 71 a) and as rising out of the body of the re-generated ibex (Fig. 71 b)—an explicit exposition of the ibex sacrifice as the source-spring of cosmic regeneration. In the Apse, a large aurochs cow’s head is associated with an engraved ibex that is framed by a square sign (Fig. 47 a). As mentioned above, this figure is shown with the horns symmetrically arched in opposite directions, and though the head is not shown in strictly frontal view like the above images of sacrificed ibexes, the divergent horns clearly signal conflicting forces (like waxing and waning moon sickles), and they are reiterated below, painted in red, as an abstract sign—possibly to confirm the transformative effect of the sacrifice. Also in the Apse, another example of ibexes attached to a square ideogram (Fig. 41 c) is located right above the descent into the Shaft, which is a sector of gloom that holds the cave’s single rhinoceros. Against this backdrop, the fringe-like rays around the mandala-like sign may signify rays of light, reminiscent of the yellow color of the above-discussed Gabillou sign (or the fringes may refer to thunderstorms, another manifestation of the sky). Finally, the tiny, remote Chamber of Lions features a square grit next to a group of ibexes’ heads (Fig. 38 a) and in this case the red sign added at the top of the grit suggests fire rising from an altar-like structure. The conflict of life and death, chaos and order is certainly strong in this panel, which confronts the frontal, paralyzed horse and the ferocious lions.

Among other presentations of mountain goats that connect with potentially altar-like ideograms we may summarily refer to the following sites:  Tito Bustillo (Fig. 14 b), Arco “B” (Fig.  60 e), Pasiega “A” (Fig. 12 c, h), Pasiega “C” (Fig. 21 e), Pileta (Fig. 40 a, b, c), Marsoulas (Fig. 41 a), and Cosquer (Fig. 39 a, b, c, d). In Sainte Eulalie, a divided, square sign is superimposed on the head of an ibex (Fig. 41 f), and this apparent reference to a sacrificial kill is, in turn, followed by the dynamic ibex that aims for the outside world while leading along an equally energized reindeer (Fig. 41 e); like in the above-mentioned ensembles in Gabillou and Altxerri, the achievement of the sacrifice is here established with a reference to the migration of reindeer—a seasonal event, but also a measure of world renewal.

More in the likeness of the El Juyo structure, another type of altar-like design assumes a mound-like form that suggests an altar dedicated to the recreation of the earth. An example is seen in the Chamber of Lions in Lascaux, where it takes the form of a convex arch drawn with a broad, black stroke (Fig. 38 a) evoking an earthen hill, in the semblance of an “earth” sign (cf. Chapter III, Part One). The ibexes’ horns cut through the black paint in a gesture that suggests revival and release following death and confinement, while the lions and the bison of the panel speak of a nether-world realm of death, and the horse in frontal view (Fig. 38 b) shows that the sacrificial rite concerns the life and death of the sky-world. As mentioned above, this chamber also contains an engraved, grid-type design that is topped by a red, flame-like addition, which may suggest a fire-altar (Fig. 38 a, to the left). If so, we may be dealing with an altar to the sky next to an altar to the earth, which would be a rather advanced concept; we may, however, notice that the amazing file of ibexes in the Nave is broken up into two groups, of which one has three red ibexes, dedicated to the sky, while the other group has four black ones, dedicated to the earth (Fig. 37). To the mound-like type of feasible altar-designs we might count the rock formation that is part of the end-wall in the side-gallery in Altxerri (Fig. 36 c), a segment of the wall that has been scraped smooth and decorated with engraved images of vertical bison (thus, connected with the nether-world); the saiga emerging above this field—as if coming right out of the stone–recalls the just-mentioned scenes of ibexes emerging from earth-symbols.

Previously, we have demonstrated that simplified renditions of the back of bison figures often were used as pseudo-abstract signs for “the earth.” Some of the above juxtapositions of ibexes and purely abstract “earth” signs (cf. Fig. 34 c, Fig.  5 f, or Fig. 26) are hardly distinguishable from a number of compositions that show figures of goats at (or, directly on) the backs of bison figures; in fact, such configurations are readily understood as representations of sacrificial animals placed on a perceived altar to the earth. The ambiguity of such compositions is illustrated by the ibex perched on the back of a bison in La Mouthe (Fig. 6 c)—a scene followed (closer to the opening of the cave) by a display of the creation or establishment of the sky (Fig. 6 b). In Marsoulas (Fig. 41 a, top), the ibex rises above a large bison and, at the same instance, above a hand-shaped sign that may spell “fire” (cf. Chapter VI). The same panel includes the configuration of an ibex and a rectangular sign (Fig. 41 a, bottom). In Niaux , a composition drawn in the clay floor (Fig. 42 a) may well show a killed ibex above a bison/altar. The large frieze of the “Black Bison” traces a stepwise progression of the goat vis-á-vis the bison: from dominated, even destroyed (Fig. 42 b), via gradually shifting positions (Fig. 42 c), to victorious (Fig. 42 d); indeed, the assumption of a sacrifice appears to be confirmed by the parallel progression of the horse (cf. Fig. 42 e). In the “Sanctuary” of Trois-Frères, we find a small wounded ibex among a number of bison (Fig. 43 b) as well as an ibex (with symmetrical horns) poised at the back of a bison (Fig. 43 c); again, we may suspect the sacrifice on an earthen altar, a reading that seems to be confirmed by the spectacle of the large ibex (Fig. 43 a) heading for the outer galleries. Incidentally, this large ibex hovers above the figure of a mammoth (Fig. 43 a, bottom), which suggests that a goat positioned above a mammoth may carry the same connotations as an ibex above a bison. This seems relevant to, for example the ibex perched on the back of a mammoth in Pair-non-Pair ( Fig. 45 a) or Fieux ( Fig. 45 b).

In conclusion, we find that the ibex performed a significant part within a well-defined field of cosmic themes. The ibex is a sky-related motif although not emblematic of the sky to the same degree as the aurochs or the horse; as the sacrificial object, however, the ibex momentarily assumes cosmic scope and represents the created world at large, to the effect that the ritual killing becomes a symbolic destruction of the entire cosmos, while the full performance of the rite—possibly involving the construction of an altar, and certainly including the drawing of a cosmogram–symbolically restores all of creation. Associated representations of bison (earth) and aurochs (sky) show that the sacrificial event is an imitation of the primordial formation of the world. The two sexes of the aurochs function differently within this cosmology, and the participation of the mountain goat reflects this: with the bulls, it is the battle-ram that clears the way for the release of the sky’s power and loftiness; with the cow, it opens the passage through the womb of the earth and enables the mysterious re-birth of the sun. Ultimately, guiding the solar horse is the task by which the ibex unites the earth and the sky and sets the scope of space and time.


In addition to the above animal motifs that symbolically represent the sky, the cave artists relied on a fund of abstract signs that relate, explicitly or implicitly, to the sky. As discussed above, such signs often incorporate elements that also implicate the earth so as to make true cosmograms. These mandala-like signs illustrate, not just the structured duality of earth and sky, but also the underlying philosophy of complementary shifts in the relative powers of the two elements. Specifically, these signs often refer to a numerical symbolism that accounts for the manifestation of fundamental principles at primordial creation. 

Grid-like cosmograms

Lascaux contains several dozens of the rectangular, regularly divided grids that we, elsewhere, have exposed as ideograms for time and space. One example, in the Nave’s panorama of the great black cow, illustrates the complexity of these symbols (cf. Fig. 56 a). This ideogram is positioned in the lower, earth-bound segment of the wall, but significantly, it is also right at the border to the upper, sky-oriented stratum, and hence, in a transitional position; this situation is recognized by the double-sign—short twin strokes–placed at the center of the upper frame (Fig. 56 a, insert; Fig. 66 b). The twin mark (an expression of the numerical “2” as discussed below) articulates the intermediate location of the grid, indicating an opening to the upper world. Comparison with a similar cosmogram in Gabillou (Fig. 69 b) clarifies this aspect of the double mark: the Gabillou grid is forcibly cut open by a sharp point. Furthermore, the Lascaux design is embraced by the body of a horse that, for its part, is also transgressing the physical borderline between lower and upper levels (an episode in the re-birth of the solar horse), whereby the configuration of sign and figure acknowledges a general principle of morphology: the hindquarters belong to the netherworld as well as to night and/or fall, while the forequarters belong to the upper-world, respectively to day and/or spring. As discussed elsewhere, the wide range of colors in this ideogram (and the two accompanying ones) range from the black of night to a broad specter of the colors of daylight (cf. Fig. 46 a – c, in Chapter X, and discussion in Chapter V); their exuberance is a paean to the glory of the sun and the sky.

We recognize elements of the Lascaux configuration of horse and sign in some panels of Cosquer (Fig. 56 b, c). The involvement of an ibex in the former case (cf. Fig. 39 d) suggests that the design might refer to the sacrifice of an ibex at an altar, but more than that, this rectangle is an image of the earth, and (as argued in Chapter III, Part Four) a reflection on the earth’s creation out of primordial waters. Rising above this design, the horse confirms the duality of earth and sky. A variant formulation is seen in Pasiega “A,” where a colorful horse–the only polychrome image in the cave–presides over a rectangle painted in yellow ocher (Fig. 56 d), a configuration that, again, shows the triumph of the sun as the towering achievement of creation, the event that makes the earth come alive in a warm glow. We are reminded of the above-mentioned panel in Gabillou (Fig. 27 b), which features an all-yellow, altar-like rectangle that epitomizes the shift of poses and the appearance of color (red) in the associated horses. Like a number of other types of ideograms, the rectangular variants are prone to be composites, including elements that signify the sky.

Cosmic dwellings 

Presentations of the cosmos as a structural design are perhaps most evident in the hut-like designs of late cave art. These have predecessors in earlier periods, such as the sequence of abstract signs in Pasiega “A” (discussed at length in Chapter III) that passes through a stage in which vertical signs support a horizontal, roof-like element at the top (Fig. 57 a)—not unlike the above-described; this construction recalls the elaborate earth-mound in La Juyo, where vertical elements support a sky-like stone cover. In Pasiega , the upper, horizontal element has a small-but-clear peak extension that we encounter in many other signs that project a division of earth and sky into horizontal tiers; examples may be seen in Pasiega “A” (Fig. 57 b), or in Arco “B” (Fig. 60 e). A curious hut-like design on an artifact from Parpalló (Fig. 57 c) may be read as the combination of a square earth and a triangular, peaked sky, and if so, this image predates the classical “tectiforms.”

The genuine huts of later (Magdalenian) art typically show a dwelling in cross-section, with a horizontal floor that represents the earth, a pitched roof that evokes the sky, and in the center (that is, at the earth’s “navel”) a supporting pole that connects the two realms. With the rectangular signs and other composite ideograms, the huts share the symbiosis of horizontal and vertical elements that provide structure to the fluid process of creation, initially enabling the formation of the earth in the horizontal dimension and, eventually, settling the horizontal dimension with the elevation of the sky. In Combarelles, a hut sign is engraved at the precise location of the only significant stricture within the long gallery, the aptly named “Tunnel” (Fig. 58 c). This cave also features variant forms of the hut symbol, which, again, are associated with  critical areas of transition between realms: in one case, preceding the “Tunnel” (Fig. 58 f); in another case, preceding the descent to the terminal, lower-level stream (Fig. 58 d). The latter examples do not display a central pole; the better-preserved one, however, does have a pointed roof. Two of these signs (Fig. 58 d, f) are painted in red, and as the only red images in the richly decorated cave they make a strong statement about structural principles and creative forces believed to be active at primordial creation. We notice the connection of these signs with three scenes of cosmogonic scope, namely the aurochs bull/sky that is elevated above a mammoth/mountain (Fig. 58 a), the aurochs cow that is associated with the netherworld (Fig. 58 e), and, the horse/sun that is being guided by ibexes (Fig. 58 b). The last-mentioned panel alludes to the sacrifice of an ibex and to the ritual recreation of the world.

The association of hut signs and scenes describing the organization of the elements that constitute the world is also evident in Rouffignac. In one panel, a towering mammoth/rhino image and a low-set bison image jointly illustrate the structure of the earth, while the large hut that is part of the scene adds the notion of the sky (Fig. 60 c). This function is more evident, still, in another panel in Rouffignac which shows the sketchy image of a mammoth supporting a multi-level hut-design (Fig. 60 b), an illustration of the raising of the sky above the structural foundation of the earth. This complex of ideas is also on display in Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 60 a), noticeably, in the astonishingly close match between an (engraved) mammoth and a (painted) hut. Bernifal offers comparable examples (Fig. 59 b), as well as the vision of two mammoths lifting a bright, sky-like field of wall-face–an image of the sky (Fig. 16). The latter panel is located at the top of a tall wall, which at a lower level displays a large, red hut sign that is unusually elaborate, and which, apparently, illustrates certain ideas about the atmosphere: a horizontal line across the central space seems to separate areas that belong to the earth and to the sky, and a number of rounded forms—seemingly hanging from the roof/sky part—may well be clouds, whereas similar forms—but resting on the floor/earth—may be earthen hills; a line of dots above the top of the roof may  represent smoke escaping through a smoke-hole. We may find an echo of the idea that the mammoth/mountain holds up the sky in the decoration of Arco “B,” where a mammoth with extremely long legs—possibly, to better support the sky—is related to a cosmogram with a pointed sky feature (Fig. 60 d, e).

The notch at the top of the just-mentioned Arco “B” sign is a feature that we meet in many, otherwise quite different, cosmograms (for example, Fig. 57 a, b; Fig. 58 c; Fig. 59 b; Fig. 60 b), and we may assume that it reflects a persistent concept about the peak of the sky, perhaps an idea about a hole at the zenith of the visible sky). This is the more likely as the notch, when seen in traditional hut designs (as in Fig. 59 b), relates to the notion of a center pole supporting the roof/sky. We find he top notch in a panel that occupies the tiny Apse in the Gargas “Camarin” (Fig. 61 a), a composition that unites a bison and a horse—earth and sky—and two abstract signs, a rectangle (with the bison) and a vertical pole with an umbrella-like sky design (with the horse). This sky element is quite similar to a sign in the rear of Lascaux (Fig. 61 b), which also is associated with figures of horses and which, again, suggests the celestial pole holding up the sky. A vertical world-pole and a horizontal sky element also appear in the mentioned “rain” sign in Gabillou (Fig. 61 c). Though we are left guessing about the true nature of the latter design (rain fringes, or radiant light?), its structural implications find support in a neighboring cosmogram that appears to show the separation of earth and sky by four corner-posts (Fig. 69 b).

The wings of the sky

The elevation and wide spread of the sky may elicit a variety of associations, including some that relate to birds. Thus, we may see the main decoration in Mitrot (Fig. 62 a) as the sky unfolding like the wings of a giant bird. The position of the design above an opening into—or, exit from—the inner part of the cave adds to the impression that the narrow, confining interior gives way to the expansiveness of the outer world. Significantly, the motif occurs already in Chauvet (Fig. 62 b, c) in a location that signals the transition between the inner/earth-bound parts of the cave and outer/sky-bound parts. Furthermore, M. Lorblanchet (2010, 275-78) may be right to see stylized birds in some of the cloud-like signs in Cougnac and elsewhere (cf. Fig. 28 e, Fig. 29 a, and Fig. 30 a). Again, we may turn to Indigeous American lore and recall that many North American tribes associated the eagle with the sky, in general, as well as with thunder, specifically. Within literary traditions, we may recall the Egyptians’ use of a stylized, winged sun that, notably, spreads its wings above temple gates (Fig. 62 d)–a practice which remotely echoes the situation in Mitrot (Fig. 62 a).

Two of the mentioned wing-like signs in Chauvet (Fig. 62 c) are painted on a hanging rock, which associates them with the ceiling and, thus, the sky. Furthermore, two protruding ridges on this pendant are marked with vertical red lines, which remind us that in cave art, the bulk of signs pertaining to the sky may be the vertical strokes or vertical lines of dots that mark natural pillars (stalactites, stalagmites, or stone columns and pilasters) in a great number of cave sanctuaries (Candamo, Nerja, etc.).

The sky in motion

To the above symbols that signify “the sky,” we may add a small group of signs that apparently spell “motion” and, in particular, indicate the perpetual rotation of the sky as the perennial source of the cycles of life. These signs differ from the large body of astronomical observations in the caves (mainly constellations, as discussed in Chapter XI) although they touch on astronomy. In addition to the above-mentioned world pole that reaches from the center of the earth to the local zenith (cf. Fig. 61 a, b), we also encounter a rotational axis that points to the celestial north pole; the latter is the one around which the sky rotates. Elsewhere we argue that this slanted axis is associated with the bird-headed person in the Shaft of Lascaux (impersonating Cygnus and the Milky Way; cf. Fig. 62 a, b, in Chapter XI). In this scene, we find both the vertical staff with the bird; Fig. 66 c, center), which points to the local zenith, and the slanted axis (Fig. 66 c, bottom right); both end in an “X” to indicate their location at the geographical center. Like the latter symbol, a black sign in the Rotunda–closely associated with the largest of the aurochs bulls (Fig. 63 a, top right)–also represents this idea of the inclined world-axis. The “rain” sign in Fieux (Fig. 61 d) possibly rests on a slanting upright that, again, may recall the world axis; seemingly this is also the case with one of the sky/rain designs in Pileta (Fig. 30 g).

In Lascaux, we also find two quite specific motifs that appear to relate to the motion of the sky. The first one, which possibly is particular to this cave, consists of a vertical line with a break at the middle, from which projects a short stroke. It is associated with the aurochs: in the Rotunda, with a bull that carries this sign on its shoulder (Fig. 63 a, left), and in the Axial Gallery, with a red cow that has the sign on its hip joint (Fig. 63 b, right). Our reason for reading this symbol as “rotation” (or a similar word for motion) is the placement on the major joints of these aurochs, that is, the superior-size joints, which by their rotating movement propel the bodies ahead. In the frieze of the Rotunda, the sweeping spectacle of the sky amply justifies such an emphasis on rotational movement. In the Axial Gallery, the sign rather accentuates the dynamics that make the cow and the horses move in opposite directions as the sun/daylight gains momentum: the file of horses moves toward a door-like sign at the entrance to the Rotunda (Fig. 63 b, right), but the red cow of dawn begins its contrary move move toward the netherworld–as evinced by the black cow at the other end of the gallery (Fig. 46 e, b).

A variant sign has two parallel verticals that, again, break at the middle, at which point a short stroke is projecting (Fig. 63 b, to the left; Fig. 63 c, top). In this form, the symbol pertains to the (out-bound) files of horses, as they move from the Axial Gallery into the Rotunda (Fig. 63 b, center), respectively from the Nave toward the Passage (Fig. 63 c). The meaning may still relate to motion, but rather with the implication of moving through a critical passage (an implication to be discussed in Chapter VII).

 The “rotation” signs on the aurochs of Lascaux may remind us of the constellation in the form of an ox shank that is a focal point in a number of Egyptian zodiacs (Rappenglück 1999, 151-55), a central point for the revolutions of the stars. We may also find support—though no textual confirmation—for our reading in proto-historic ceramic imagery, as exemplified by the vases of Iberian, pre-Roman Celts, which show wild oxen (apparently sacrificed) with swastikas or whirling rosettes on the large joints of their limbs (cf. Fig. 63 d)–almost certainly these signs refer to the revolutions of celestial cycles.

A still more elusive symbol for the motion of the skies may be seen in the use of a pair of human legs (without the upper body) as a signifier for something in motion. In Levanzo, we find just a pair of legs—flexed, swastika-like—closely juxtaposed with the large head of an aurochs (Fig. 64 c); as part of this group, an energetic horse reinforces the theme of dynamic motion. A somewhat similar scene is seen in Gabillou, where a hybrid image, part human/part aurochs faces a person who is, again, reduced to a pair of walking legs, albeit with an added arm that carries a spear (Fig. 64 d). While a fearsome lion’s head, here, suggests death and paralysis, the walking person introduces a contrary note of motion. In Cougnac, superimposed on a large megaceros, we find a human figure that is reduced to the legs and lower body (Fig. 29 c), and in this case we recognize him as a reduced version of the character who is seen with the mammoths at the other end of the frieze (Fig. 29 g). We have identified this character as a mythical source of waters, and we may associate him with the effort to overcome the stasis of winter (the mountains/mammoths) and revive the flow of waters. Thus, his association with the large deer (in the front, close to the panel of rain-clouds, Fig. 29 a) promotes the renewed growth of vegetation and the spring migration of deer. The impulse presented by these legs-without-bodies seems comparable to the Egyptian written sign that shows just a pair of walking legs, and which functions as a determinative for words that imply movement (cf. Fig. 64 e).

Numerical signs for the sky 

In our discussion of conceptual thought in Ice Age art (Chapter X) we identify the use of even and odd numbers to characterize the two categorical principles of female/earth/night etc. versus male/sky/day etc.  We have termed these two fundamental categories “mass” and “energy” as conceptual parallels to the notorious Taoist principles of yin and yang. Already in Chauvet we find articulate displays of this numerical system and its application to cosmic phenomena, notably the creation/re-creation of the sky and the sun. In the outer part of Chauvet we find a panel (Fig. 65 a) that combines several heads of horses—including the only all-yellow figures in the cave– with large signs, which are obviously numerical, as they consist of uniform marks, painted in bold red, and carefully arranged in measured groups of basic numbers; certainly, they are evidence of a numerical symbolism, a system in which odd and even numbers, though they carry distinct meanings, are yet interconnected as a way of making meaningful statements about fundamental laws of the universe.  As the numerical “3” accompanies a yellow horse, we may suspect that this number relates to the powers of the sun and the brightness of the sky.  

We find this thesis confirmed in Lascaux. With its hundreds of horses and large aurochs spreading across magnificent vaults, Lascaux is dedicated to the sun and the sky, and the numerical “3” is, significantly, applied throughout the cave: From the “III” in the innermost panel (Fig. 66 a), over the three multi-colored squares (Fig. 231 a-c, in Chapter III) and three red ibexes (Fig. 37) in the Nave, to the “III” at the face of one large bull in the Rotunda (Fig. 32 e). In many instances, the “3” is combined with other basic numbers, as argued below.

In the preceding chapter we discuss the even, earth-related numbers, including the “4” that pertains to the dimension of space, epitomized in the perceived appearance of the earth as a square or rectangle. As the prime numerical sky-symbol, the “3” may be combined with the “4” in order to articulate the inherent duality of the earth/sky structure, casting it as a composite of the original elements that jointly generate creation and remain unified-yet-distinct. In Lascaux, the subdivided rectangle (mostly, a square) is the most prominent abstract symbol, and it is typically constructed from four vertical lines that, in between them, delineate three vertical spaces (for example, Fig. 66 b, Fig. 71 b, or Fig. 37, left).  As discussed elsewhere (cf. Chapter XI), the four corners of the earth in Upper Palaeolithic cosmology were not our conventional cardinal directions, but rather the extreme horizon positions of the sun in the course of the year; thus, the spatial ordering of the earth and the temporal cycle of the sun are correlated in these designs. We find a reflection of this concept in the painted sign that is juxtaposed with the black, descending cow at the end of the Axial Gallery (Fig. 71 c). In this particular setting, the asymmetrical arrangement of columns— the “3” of the sun/sky-world above the “4” of the earth’s realm—articulates, in the first place, the notion of the sky-cow’s descent to the terrestrial underworld, and in the second place, the narrative of the sun born from the womb of the earth—the latter illustrated by the figure of a vertical horse (Fig. 71 a) emerging from the Tunnel. The most visually striking formulation of the “3 + 4” symbol is seen in the Nave, where the frieze of ibexes is divided into two distinct groups, one of three red heads and another of four black heads (Fig. 37). The implication of this numerical scheme is the more evident as the horses, just below, demonstrate a corresponding dimorphism:  the three red heads are placed directly above the stallion; the four heads are directly above the mare. The numerically meaningful grouping of the seven ibexes also offers a comment on the scene that precedes the just-mentioned pre-mating display of two horses, namely, the separation of a horse and a bison (Fig. 37, center right).  While their hindquarters still overlap, the horse and the bison are moving in opposite directions, to the effect that the horse, as representative of the sun and the sky, emerges from the solid body of the terrestrial bison. The panel of the Nave may also suggest to us that the artists could perceive the seven arrows across the bodies of both the stallion and the bison as the sum of “4” and “3.”  This understanding of the numerical “7” may possibly explain the seven red strokes that are the innermost element in the decoration of the Terminal Cleft of Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 9 a)—preceding even the following scene with its description of the pending separation of earth and sky (cf. Fig. 9 b).

The similarity of the frieze of seven ibexes’ heads in Lascaux (Fig. 37) and the seven chamois’ heads on a staff from Gourdan has been mentioned above, notably with respect to the division into four and three heads (Fig. 76 a, b). The numerical symbolism is also similarly applied: to the black color of four heads answers the orientation of four heads toward the perforation; to the red of three heads parallels the orientation of three heads turning away from the perforation. In each case, we may read the composition in various ways: as evidence of two sets of sacrifices, that is, of four animals dedicated to the earth, and three animals dedicated to the sky (possibly at different seasons of the year); or, as one comprehensive sacrifice of seven animals. Alternatively, the seven heads may just be a way of demonstrating the two sides of a (single) sacrificial act—the killing/destruction and the revival/recreation.

In Gabillou we find formulations of the “3 + 4” symbolism that are highly similar to the just-mentioned ones in Lascaux, including several four-square signs that combine four lines and three spaces (Fig. 69 b). A quite explicit panel shows a large bison that is framed by two groups of straight lines, one of three, the other of four lines; significantly, the three lines are vertical, that is sky oriented, while the four lines are horizontal, that is earth-oriented (Fig. 69 c). An intentional association with lightning, as it strikes the earth, is made with the vertical arrow (or, “pseudo-arrow”) striking the terrestrial bison, a sign that is studiously parallel to the three vertical (celestial) lines (Fig. 69 c)—again, this motif recalls Lascaux and the seven arrows (“3” + “4”) piercing the bison of the Lascaux Nave (Fig. 37). To these similarities we may add that Gabillou also features the theme of the earth/sky separation, comparable to the just-mentioned scenes in Lascaux). In Gabillou, the narrative involves two scenes on facing walls: one showing a small horse engulfed by the mass of the bison (Fig. 69 c), the other showing a horse rising up vertically to escape the dominion of the bison (Fig. 69 d). The two caves use the same numerical symbols to explain the separation of earth and sky as illustrated by figures of bison and horses.  

The great panel of Candamo presents a “3 + 4” sign as a fan-shaped configuration of lines in the context of a composition that shows aurochs bulls, representing the sky, rising above a bison, representing the earth (Fig. 72). Other caves that exhibit the “3 + 4” symbolism include Tête du Lion with its parallel lines of three and four dots on the body of an aurochs cow (Fig. 17 a), and in this case, two heads of ibexes (below) refer to the ibex-sacrifice that enables the sky-cow’s transition between lower- and upper realms. Parallel lines of three and four dots also occur in Fontanet (Fig. 68 c), where they are painted at the brink of the descent into the inner/lower cave, that is, at the borderline between upper and nether realms, the sky-world and the earth-world. In Niaux, the “3 + 4” motif is found in the “Panel of Signs” (Fig. 73 b, e, f) at the entrance to the Rotunda, a region of the cave that, with its mount of clay and its exceedingly tall ceiling, was a found model of earth-and-sky.

As discussed (in Chapter III) the even number “2” indicates the opening up of a solid mass, be it by piercing the body of  game (a wound), by the sexual act of penetrating a female sex organ, or by moving through a critical passage between sections or levels of a cave (for example, a tunnel, or a “cat hole”); the double-mark may even refer to the lightning and rain that penetrate the earth, a theme illustrated in Pileta (cf. Fig. 30 e, h; Fig. 38 c).  A striking example of the “2” symbol in the context of cave topography is found in the “Sanctuary” of Pileta, where the geminal sign is profusely applied to the main characters of the crowded panel (Fig. 40 a) in response to the precarious setting between the inner and outer halves of the cave (cf. Fig. 13 b). The “2” sign readily associates with figures of mountain goats, as these are the prime agents enforcing paths of transition through under-ground regions. The many twin-signs in the frieze of Cougnac (Fig. 29 d, e; 29 f) cluster around the ibexes that mediate between the mammoth/earth-connected end-section of the frieze (Fig. 29 g) and the megaceros/sky-related outer section (Fig. 29 b, c). As previously mentioned, some of the punctual versions of the double-mark relate to the display of rain, whereas other—more elongated–formulations rather belong with a class of signs that signal the opening of a passage (cf. Chapter VII). Examples of both types may be seen in the “Sanctuary” of Pileta (Fig. 40 a).

With these implications of the numerical “2” in mind, we may understand combinations of “3” and “2” as a means to bring out the temporal dimension of the earth/sky duality (as different from the spatial dimension of “3” and “4” combinations). Specifically, the “3” and “2” configurations may recall the crucial moment of creation, when the two polar opposites engaged in the process of amalgamation that brought creation to life.  This momentous episode is signaled by the characteristic sign showing two sets of three marks (or, three sets of two, which is the same), a symbol that the artists, evidently, treated with special veneration. We find the “2 x 3” sign explicitly stated in the very old cave of Chauvet (Fig. 65 a), where its association with the above-mentioned yellow horses marks a crowning moment in the long narrative sequence that began in the back of the lower cave (cf. Chapters V and X). In Chauvet, the “2 x 3” also characterizes a display of a bear that is shown emerging from hibernation (Fig. 65 b), a moment of transition that on a physical level, implies a change from winter to spring, and which, on a metaphysical level, means a shift from inertia to motion, from dominance of the earth and the principle of mass to prevalence of the sky and the release of energy.

In Lascaux, we recognize the “2 x 3” symbol in three situations. The first (innermost) presentation of this significant symbol is painted at the very end of the cave in the form of three pairs of red dots (Fig. 66 a), a sign that stands out among the engravings at this location; no doubt, this image makes a bold statement about the beginnings of the created world. Directly following this symbol is the intentionally faint and partial engraving of a horse—just the forehead of the animal, that is, the part that signifies the very beginning of time with the first appearance of the sun. An engraved bison on the facing wall (Fig. 66 a) testifies to the early existence of the earth (“awakened” by a vertical arrow/bolt of lightning), while the juxtaposed “X” appears to mark the locus of creation. Just beyond this, we find two (black) symbols: an “X” and a “III” (numerical “3”); these two signs jointly proclaim the emergence of the sun and the first manifestation of the powers of the sky.  Moving to the middle of the cave and the sweeping panel of the black aurochs cow, we find the “2 x 3” symbol in the form of two plant-like elements that each has three leaves (or, “pseudo-arrows” with three barbs). These symbols are embedded in a square sign—one of three painted squares—and superimposed on a horse in the lower register (Fig. 66 b). While the first “2 x 3” sign–at the end of the cave–refers to the creation of the sun/sky, the two signs in the Nave rather pertain to the daily cycle of the sun, as it is absorbed and reborn by the cow—the personified night- sky/nether-world. Connected with the hindquarters of the black cow (cf. Fig. 56 a), the horse and the sign it carries celebrates the glory of the daily emergence of the sun. Behind the repeated appearances, however, remains the initial event at the dawn of time. The third “2 x 3” sign of the cave is found in the remote section at the bottom of the deep Shaft (Fig. 66 c). Here we encounter yet another tumultuous episode in the story of creation, a threat to the cosmic order as expressed by the presence of the only rhinoceros in Lascaux; in fact, the “2 x 3” dots here separate the fleeing rhino from the rest of the decoration. Adjacent to this configuration we find the human character (Fig. 66 c, to the right) who represents the constellation Cygnus in the Milky Way, and whom we associate with the (re)setting of the polar axis of the sky (cf. Chapter XI, Part Three). The theme of destruction/re-creation of the cosmic order is, then, the likely context for the prominent numerical symbol.

The figure of a cow at the center of the great wall of Pech-Merle (Fig. 20 a) features some markings that include a line of three double-strokes, in short our “2 x 3” sign (Fig. 20 b). Other markings trace a path through the cow’s body, which appear to suggest fertilization. We may compare this design to the myth of the Egyptian Apis bull that was born to a cow made pregnant by a ray of moon-shine entering the body via the vagina; if so, the offspring must be the above-mentioned red bull—the only aurochs bull in the cave—which is the sky-image at the center of a scene of thunder and rain (cf. Fig. 28). In any case, the “2 x 3” symbol on the Pech-Merle cow is (like the “2 x 3” with the black cow of Lascaux) an invocation of the renewed life of a character from the sky-world–be it aurochs or horse–through a return to the netherworld and the chaos surrounding it.

In Trois-Frères, a series of dots including the numerical groups of “3” as well as “2 x 3” are painted at the precise point where a terminal, impassable gallery opens up into the main cave (Fig. 70 a). We notice a striking similarity to the terminal (impassable) section of Lascaux (cf. Fig. 66 a). Likewise, the artists of Tito Bustillo placed a “2 x 3” sign at the very end of the cave’s long gallery, where they painted it on a large, vertical stone that also carries a scatter of “2” marks (Fig. 70 b). At this remote location, a yawning shaft (at the foot of the panel) makes the message optimally clear: numerical signs were powerful means of (re)activating the elementary principles of creation. Other caves present different-but-related choices. In Portel, three sets of twin-marks (Fig. 67 a) are engraved right at the entrance to the tiny Camarin, a cramped space with a painted panel that invokes the separation of sky and earth, as the sky-directed horse hovers above the earth-tied bison (Fig. 67 b). In Fontanet, the “2 x 3” symbol (Fig. 68 a) is placed on the periphery of the densely decorated niche that is characterized as the realm of the earth by the tightly packed engravings of bison (our Fig. 68 b shows only part of the composition). The three double-marks of Fontanet are expressly associated with two ibexes (cf. Fig. 68 a) and, consequently, with the penetration of the earth by the ibex, as shown in the niche (Fig. 68 b). Beyond the seasonal theme of rain-awakening-the-earth , the composition evokes a repetition of creation, as the energetic ibex appears to clear a path for the solar horse through the massing of earthy bison (Fig. 68 b, bottom right)–among all the engraved figures, this horse stands out, because it is covered by red ocher; thus, it announces the eventual emergence of the sun and the light of the sky.

In the single-gallery cave of Gabillou, at the (outer) end of a particularly narrow passage, we find the engraved head of an ibex with two sets of three cupules marked on its massive horns (Fig. 69 e). This image of the path-breaking ibex accompanies a horse that is turned toward the opening of the cave. Moreover, this is the segment of the cave, where we also find the above-mentioned panel that shows a rearing horse about to escape from the confining sphere of a bison (Fig. 69 d)—again, a reference to the separation of earth and sky. The juxtaposition of an ibex’ horns and a “2 x 3” sign is also found in a panel of the Cougnac frieze, which shows the large horns of an ibex accompanied by three double-marks, as well as by two sets of three strokes (Fig. 29 f, bottom right and upper left); significantly, this panel is painted at the edge of a low and narrow niche with nether-world connotations (Fig. 29 f, g). Moreover, the location of the horns and numerical signs is the more important as they mediate between the innermost panel, dominated by the earth-bound mammoth (Fig. 29 g), and the outer panels, devoted to the powers of the sky-related megaceros (Fig. 29 b, c); the location reveals the artists’ idea of causality. In a telling detail, the frieze of Cougnac makes a fleeting reference to the solar horse (otherwise absent from the cave) by way of the mane –nothing more—superimposed on the hump of a megaceros (Fig. 29 c); thus, we are assured that the “2 x 3” mark toward the back prepares for the triumph of the sky and the sun.

The symbolism of basic numerals in Upper Palaeolithic art finds an echo in the interplay of elementary numerals in the Taoist system of “Trigrams.” Although the latter is a more elaborate system, we recognize the use of three parallel strokes (the equivalent of “3”) to denote “heaven” and of three strokes cut through the middle (the equivalent of “2 x 3”) to signify “earth”; these are key expressions of the cosmic polarities of the yin/yang philosophy. As such they are, however, embedded in a possibly more complex and certainly more rigid system of numerical symbolism than what we find in Ice Age notations. The latter was, apparently, an open, rather freely expanding body of variations on a basic formula.  Thus, the numerals “3” and “2” occur in combinations other than the pseudo-canonical “2 x 3.” A striking example in Niaux is the well-known bison that is drawn in the floor and makes use of several cupules caused by dripping water (Fig. 73 b). One cupule was conveniently used for the bison’s eye, but the true inspiration for the image was, obviously, the three cupules on a line, evenly spaced, which present a nature-given “3” sign that (like the belt of Orion in the sky) is hard to  ignore, and it was, in fact, produced through a meaningful function of the cave space itself: the raindrops from the sky-like ceiling making their mark on the earth-like clay floor. It only remained for the artists to bring out the analogy between rain penetrating the earth and arrows piercing the bison’s body. To this, they added two small strokes (wound marks) to add the numerical “2”—a variation on the formula pursued above. Other configurations of “2” and “3” are seen elsewhere in Niaux (Fig. 73 b, c, d), and for example, in Cougnac (Fig. 29 g), or Nerja (Fig. 74 b). 

Regarding the sexual dualism of odd and even numbers, the speculations of early Greek philosophers resonate with certain practices of the cave artists. Thus, Walter Burkert quotes Plutarch as follows: “The even number, he says, has at its middle an empty space, capable of reception, whereas the odd number has a middle member with procreative power.” (Burkert, 1972, 34). The masculine “middle member” in a set of three marks is evident from the above-mentioned, ambiguous signs in Gabillou (Fig. 27 c) and Lascaux (Fig. 77 b), and we notice the juxtaposition of this sign with a set of three parallel lines (numerical “3”) at two places in Gabillou (Fig. 69 c; and Fig. 77 a). Beyond such pointed formulations, we find a number of more subtle arrangements of strictly numerical marks that recognize the notion of the “empty” feminine space and the corresponding “male member.” In the case of a decorated stalagmite in Nerja (Fig. 74 b), the formation itself is obviously phallic, and the arrangement of the cupules very precisely places the middle cupule of the set of three so that it lines up with the central (“empty”) space of the set of two. The same pattern is seen in the red dots that top the “Signal Panel” of Niaux (Fig. 73 d), above the conspicuous niche in the Cougnac frieze (Fig. 29 g), and above the similar fissure in Trois-Frères (Fig. 70 a). In the end-chamber of Gabillou, a set of three vertical lines joins a rectangle with two spaces in a configuration that seemingly articulates the same concept (Fig. 69 a).

A comparable scheme for combining the even “4” and the odd “3” was also used in Ice Age art (and perhaps, more frequently than the just-mentioned “2 + 3” version). The dots on the body of the cow at Tête du Lion (Fig. 17) are perfectly composed with the middle of the “3” lined up with the middle of the “4.” The same formula occurs in Fontanet (Fig. 68 c), whereas an example in Pindal clarifies the meaning by way of color differentiation: three black dots versus four red ones (Fig. 73 g). The just-mentioned panel in Niaux has three black dots interacting with four red ones in an irregular pattern (Fig. 73 e), but also a formally perfect version (Fig. 73 f) in which three red dots occupy the spaces between four black lines, with the central dot in the middle space. The last-mentioned formulation may clarify the Lascaux artists’ preference for the square, grid-like signs that are found throughout the cave: the four vertical lines that typically define these symbols leave an “empty” space in the middle, and this space is, precisely, the central one of the three columns inherently outlined by the design (for example, Figs. 37 ; 38 a;  56 a; or,  71 b) . That these three spaces were perceived as actual entities is evident from certain examples, in which one or more space is graphically set off with drawn or painted infilling (cf. Fig. 38 a; Fig. 56 a). The significance of the central column is, indeed, brought out repeatedly by the insertion of paired strokes at the top–given the above-mentioned implications of this symbol, the sexual associations are self-evident (cf. Figs. 37; 38 a; 56 a; or, 66 b).

In popular Greek thinking, the numerical “5”–understood as the union of “2” and “3”–is emblematic of “marriage” (Burkert 1972, 34). We may find a statement of that concept in the end-chamber of Gabillou, where the mentioned version of “2 + 3” (cf. Fig. 69 a) accompanies the sexually charged association of a male bison-dancer and a prostrate woman (cf. Fig. 204 b, c, in Chapter III). The numerical “5” is common in cave art, too, but mostly in relation to the five fingers of the human hand (cf. Chapters V and VIII). The “7” (male “3” plus female “4”) may be more commonly used to imply marriage or mating. This notion is clear enough in the scene in the Nave of Lascaux, where the three red ibexes are associated with an agitated stallion, while the four black ones are aligned with a mare in heat (Fig. 37). Apparently, a line of seven red dots on the opposite wall of the Nave (Fig. 77 b) is intentionally composed, again, in groups of “4” and “3.”

The elements of Ice Age numerology pursued above are not the only ones used by the artists, although they were crucial to speculations about creation, cosmology, and world renewal. Another class of symbolic numbers were systematically applied to illustrations of luni-solar calendars, including standardized numbers for the days of lunar phases, the months of the seasons, the discrepancies between days (respectively, months) of lunar and solar years, etc. This body of conventional numbers are discussed elsewhere (Chapter XI, Addendum). That these two systems occasionally would overlap is demonstrated by a carved artifact from Mas d’Azil (Fig. 53). The signs that accompany the vertical ibex (Fig. 53 a) may be seen as a rendition of the “2 x 3” symbol with implications of creation and the elevation of the sky. The signs with the horizontal ibex (Fig. 53 b) are, however, more readily seen as referring to a calendrical count, namely, the twelve months of the average solar year; more specifically, they represent the year divided into the six months of the spring half and the six months of the fall half. On the one hand, beliefs about creation were, possibly, invoked by the fact that the object was carved from the tooth of a sperm whale, and thus, associated with concepts of an oceanic, primordial chaos. On the other hand, the field of calendars was, likely, implicated by the astronomical role of the ibex as the image of the goat constellation, Capricornus (cf. Chapter XI).