V. The Sun and the Year

[Forthcoming 2024]

SUMMARY (2016)

Considering the frigid climate during most of the period of the Ice Age art, it is not surprising that the most frequent and ubiquitous motif of this art, the horse, represents the sun. Most decorated caves have at least one image of a horse, and a number of sites are entirely dominated by horses. Life then seemed hardly feasible without the blessing of the sun.

Obviously, the horse’s mane, often shown as stiff “rays” of hair, was one factor in establishing the animal’s solar nature. The long, gracious neck, which was frequently featured, also associated the animal with the elevated sphere of the sky. The near-circular foot print may have been yet another indicator of a solar nature. The mare’s period of gestation, which lasts close to a full year, was probably significant as well, for the solar identity of the horse pertained not only to the appearance of the sun’s disk or to the sun’s daily rising and setting but more broadly to the life of the sun, that is, the solar year. In this respect, we are reminded of the ancient Vedas that declare the sacrificed horse to signify both the sun and the year, even pronouncing the front part of the horse to be both the morning sun and the season of the spring (and vice versa for the hindquarters as evening sun, respectively the fall season). This understanding applies perfectly to the horses in Ice Age art.

Visual conventions that convey the horse’s role as the solar year include horses with twelve lunar signs (meaning “months”) on, or next to, their bodies, and figures of horses that are demonstratively divided into two halves, of which the front half may carry images that spell spring/summer, while the rear half bears images of fall/winter. Frequently, two superimposed horses form a symmetrical composition with the two figures being of equal size but turned in opposite directions, in which case one horse may signify summer and the other one winter, while their combined figuration may refer to the balance of the seasons at the spring or fall equinoxes. Another configuration, with a small horse turned one way and a large horse turned the opposite way may, rather, relate to one of the turning points of the year around the solstices.

Numerous panels in decorated caves trace the cycle of the year, either as a whole or in part, often concentrating on the transition from winter to summer. Typically, this is achieved by the shifting appearances of the caves’ horses, whereby the seasonal progression may be marked by a variety of visual indicators, including color changes from black or dark hues for winter to bright ones for summer, shifts of direction with movement into, or out of, the cave, vertical orientations that suggest the sun’s rising or setting, respectively the year’s spring expansion or fall contraction, and, increasing or decreasing vigor as signaled by changes in the numbers, sizes, and energies of the horses. The story of the horse/sun provides drama and continuity to the cave artists’ seasonal narratives.

Occasionally, this function reaches beyond the sanctuary proper. Where daylight reaches into a cave, or where it is feasible to recognize geographical directions even far inside, the cave sections farthest toward either north-east or north-west may show horses that are correlated with midsummer, while horses in the locations farthest toward south-east or south-west may relate to midwinter.

The association of bison and horse, long recognized as a key theme in Ice Age art, derives its significance from the crucial relationship between earth and sun. Like the dichotomy of aurochs and bison–and far more frequently–the horse-and-bison theme reflects the duality of sky and earth. Because the warm sun is more directly and persistently important to the human condition than the remote vault of the sky, the sun/horse is far more prevalent in the art than the sky/aurochs.

As dual, opposite forces, sun and earth maintain a constantly changing relationship throughout the yearly cycle of expansions and contractions. During the spring half of the year the powers of the sky-world steadily increase, and during the fall half, as they equally decrease, the powers of the earth are gradually gaining strength. In summer the expansiveness of the sky dominates; in winter, the static matter of the earth prevails. With variations depending on the natural lay-out of individual caves, sanctuaries may be divided into a sky-oriented part, ruled by aurochs and horses, and an earth-oriented part, where bison and mammoths reign. Correspondingly, the former part is characterized by warm red colors and is devoted to themes of rain, thaw and growth, while the latter part features dark hues and narratives of confinement and survival in the womb of the earth. In certain caves with quite simple, directional floor plans–ideally, a single, straight gallery–we find a plain, step-wise progression from the back, where bison overpower horses by size and numbers, to the front, where the roles are reversed. Graphically, this transformation may be illustrated by superimpositions: in the back, figures of horses enter the bodies of larger bison; in transitional areas, horses begin to emerge from the bison figures; in the front, bison and horses separate and the horses gain power and come into their own.

Images that show the horse escaping from its underworld confinement convey the promise of a cosmic renewal and a new dispensation of vital energies, a new spring. Significantly, these renditions of the sun/horse returning from the depths of the caves are persistently associated with representations of vulvas and other references to pregnancy and birth.

Apparently as a way to ritually participate in the process and stimulate the revival of the sun, the artists commonly deposited objects of stone or bone in fissures of the rock walls, typically in the inner sections of caves or at openings to lower cave levels, as ceremonial gestures that prompted the earth to release the sun from its fetters. Further engaging themselves in the drama of the earth and the sun, the artists employed a variety of graphic symbols, principal among them a selection of arrow-like signs that imply both killing and sexual penetration/impregnation, for which reason they are often explicitly phallic. In bison-horse configurations, specifically, the arrows also suggest rays of the sun, penetrating the earth and fertilizing the womb from which the sun, itself, will eventually be reborn.

The human hand in cave art, a stable motif with obvious ritual implications, is also inherently a solar sign. When printed on the wall with fingers spread fan-like, it evokes the sun and its rays. This effect is most impressive in the frequent practice of stenciling the hand on a light-colored wall face, with the sprayed-on paint forming a nimbus or halo around the fingers that, thus outlined, appear like rays of light. One function of these signs was, surely, to invigorate the sun and reinstate its cycle.

Numerical symbolism is important too, with a special place for the number “three” as representative of the sky-world in general, and the sun in particular. The odd number “three” thus stands against the even numerals that convey aspects of the earth’s realm: “two” (conception and birth) and “four” (the corners of the earth). The artists easily invented signs that, while they clearly refer to the numerical “three,” simultaneously suggest phallic, arrow-like, and branch-like shapes. Combined with even numerals, these ideograms refer to the dualism of earth/waters and sky/sun, established at the origins of creation.