IX. Eschatology

[Forthcoming 2024/25]

SUMMARY (2016)

Just as the timely changes of the seasons needed to be insured by ritual interventions, the very existence of the ordered cosmos was not taken for granted. One sign of a perceived threat to the world order is the presence of monsters as part of the cave artists’ repertory. As distinct from the oddly hybrid, sometimes scary, but essentially human figures of ancestors, the monsters disregard all reason and organic coherence in their appearances; they appear as malicious agents of distortion. These creatures stand outside the ordinary cycle of decay-death-renewal that rules creation; they present a threat of disruption and ultimate chaos.

Other characters project a more natural hardship or existential threat that is inherently present in the created world. Chief among the detractors that were considered integral to the world since its earliest beginnings was the roughness and inertia of the earth’s very foundation as epitomized by the mountains. This perpetual challenge was represented by the mammoth and, in a more sinister form, by the rhinoceros. With its huge horn, solidly backed by a heavy body-mass, the rhino was the essential image of brute aggression.

Death as the inescapable destiny of all living creatures was personified by the lion, the preeminent killer. One theme in cave decorations even features the lion as guardian of a netherworld realm of the dead. Death was, however, also represented by images of the hunter’s weapons, and because hunting was the chief source of nourishment in the Upper Palaeolithic world, man was, himself, a killer and, thus, somehow related to the lion. Yet the hunter’s humanity had to be retained, less the ferocious urge to kill would take over and erase the difference between man and beast. Some decidedly monstrous images of lions stress that point, as does the fact that images of lions, generally, are confined to the back of the caves or restricted to secluded locations, where they often are accompanied by mammoths or rhinos; the lions are intentionally relegated to desolate corners of the artists’ universe; the artists were cautious not to idolize the lion and conscious not to allow the big cats to dominate a cave’s decorative scheme. Moreover, the artists often showed figures of lions as heavily wounded, whereby the beasts’ ferocity was duly, if only momentarily, checked.

The middle of winter was the time of the year when the continued existence of the world was most seriously threatened, as life was locked down and mobility brought to a near halt. At that point, the symbolic repetition of the original creation was sorely needed in order to inject new energies and purpose into existence. Chief among the rituals that served this end was the ceremonial lighting of a new fire to symbolize a new beginning. Thus, images of stags with branching antlers, emblematic of fire, were called upon to convey the success of the new dispensation of warmth, growth and life. Such figures typically accompany images of the reborn sun, mostly represented by the horse, as it is delivered from confinement and escapes extinctions.

The ultimate display of the universal law of creation-decline-extinction-recreation was the monthly cycle of the moon. Every new moon repeated, in essence, the creation from nothing. The waxing moon displayed new energies, while the full moon showed creation at its peak, and the waning moon told of decay and eventual dissolution. The moon taught that imitation of the primordial creation of the world from nothing remained the sole means of regeneration. The horns of the herbivores proclaimed this fundamental rhythm, notably when drawn in “distorted” perspective, with both horns shown, but curved in opposite direction, one horn referring to the waxing moon, the other horn to the waning moon. The two horns of ibexes and the tusks of mammoths could also be shown frontally, artificially splayed, and curved in opposite, symmetrical arcs, so as to evoke the lesson of the waxing and waning moon. The soft, milky-white calcium layer that covers segments of walls in some caves was evidently collected by artists or other visitors, no doubt due to its lunar quality (it is still called “moon milk”) and its assumed medicinal powers. As the moon knew the formula for life and death, so it knew the secrets of healing.

Like in later cultures, the moon was understood to dictate the rhythm of fertility in the female womb, and images of women acknowledge this connection through rigorous stylization. A great number of female figures are broadly curved, right or left, as the women are shown bent forward (possibly dancing), usually without heads or feet, but with large, rounded buttocks, thus the figures assume an overall shape that fairly resembles the quarter moon. Another conventional rendition–somewhat more abstracted–consists of a straight (or, slightly curved) line that represents the figure’s back, to which a rounded protuberance is affixed. These images recall the moon’s “backbone” (the slender sickle) onto which a fuller “belly” grows, and they often approach the shape of the half-moon. In their images of women, the artists called upon the moon’s influence to secure the balance of life and growth on one side, death and decline on the other.

Numbers that pertain to the moon’s phases were often marked next to paintings and engravings of animal figures, usually as series of dots or short strokes. The moon’s cycle (close to 29 days) was broken down into a variety of numerical entities, many of which are found in the caves. Though no standardized count ever prevailed, we may recognize break-downs into four periods of, for example four periods of 13-2-13-1 days, or three periods of 14-1-14 days, or two periods of 15-14 days. Formulas varied, but the view of the moon as the model of existence was constant and applied equally on a cosmic and an earthly scale.