VI. Fire

[Forthcoming 2024]


Fire was crucial to survival in the frigid climate of the Upper Palaeolithic era, and references to the element of fire are everywhere in Ice Age art. The ever-shifting shape of flames, however, makes fire an elusive subject for artists of any age, and direct, flame-like images are much less frequent in cave art than indirect, general symbols of heat. In particular, fire is visualized by images of deer, or more precisely, by the antlers of deer. The close affinity between antlers and vegetal growth (cf. Chapter III) is but an extension of this principle: the vital saps that course through the branches of trees–like the hot blood through the veins and arteries of animals–are but manifestations of the general conceptual category of energy (“yang”-like) that finds expression, ultimately, in the element of fire. Once again, morphology facilitated function, as the artists efficiently rendered the tines and points of antlers in the likeness of “fingers,” “tongues,” or “spikes” of flames. Stags with their entire head of antlers shown wildly branching, even shaped as blazing torches or soaring flames, abound in cave art.

The tree-like nature of antlers, their branching shapes and seasonal growth pattern, providesone clue to the deeper meaning of the symbolism of antlers: wood sustains fire, because fire is lodged in wood. It is, then, logical that fire is generated by friction between two pieces of wood–a common method of starting fires.

In the wider sense of body heat–the “spark” of life– fire is an essential presence in all living beings, as illustrated by the hot breath from the nostrils, which is a ubiquitous motif in Palaeolithic art; sometimes it is difficult to distinguish this from a spray of blood in the case of an animal wounded in the chest, but blood too is hot, and its red color reveals the presence of the element of fire. The equivalence of heat as fire and heat as an inherent condition of life is well documented in early and archaic lore. The Vedic god Agni, fire personified, is present in flames, in lightning, in the sun, and in firewood. Some indigenous North Americans draw a parallel between the branching network of arteries in the body and flames.

In Palaeolithic art, numerous configurations of horses and stags (or female reindeer, also equipped with antlers) testify to the close relationship of sun and fire. Variations abound, including the figures of a horse and a stag sharing a common body, a stag’s antlers superimposed on a horse, or, tiny horses carried along by large antlers. Repeatedly, antlers touch the nostrils of horses, visibly infusing the living sun with vital heat. In a common episode from the seasonal narrative, a stag with a prominent head of antlers leads the horse/sun out of the somber, wintry depths of a cave sanctuary.

Among the many types of mobile objects that the Ice Age artists decorated with signs and images,  a special place is reserved for the characteristic perforated staffs made from the bottom stem of antlers (the so-called “commando staffs”). While they arguably may have served various practical needs, they are often exuberantly ornamented and strongly suggest powerful ritual objects. The large perforation at the base of the stem is an obvious female symbol, typically framed by a diamond-shape, while the upper end is bluntly male and often carved into a phallus. Significantly, the images on these staffs pertain to the heating-up of the world in spring/summer, including displays of migrating animals, birds, and fishes, scenes of pre-mating, foaling and calving, even descriptions of budding vegetation. The key to all of this imagery is  evidently the defining perforation, or rather the actual drilling of this hole through an activity that alluded to fire-drilling, and which released the forces of growth and heat embedded in the antlers.

Among the many signs in the cave artists’ repertory that allude specifically to fire are numerous crosses or cross-shaped designs that visibly recall the two pieces of wood (one female, the other male)  used in fire-drilling.  More ambiguous are the many flame-like or torch-like signs that, indiscriminately, suggest fire, vegetation, and/or antlers. Very often, references to the element of fire take abstracted forms, whereby the symbolically charged color of red plays an outstanding role. As is well known, the use of red ocher in funeral rites goes back to the Middle Palaeolithic, and we may assume that the association of red and the warmth of life was self-evident long before the era of cave art. Red painted figures are, thus, “hot” and alive, and fields of red dots are seeds of life (vegetal seeds, or sperm). Red ocher spread over wall faces or around vaginal fissures in walls belong to the common grounds between visual art and applied cult.

While fire evidently was one of the primordial elements of creation, a number of images seem to refer to myths of man’s acquisition of fire through a Promethean theft. Fire was, apparently, once kept and guarded by the lion, perhaps in its tufted tail, which was likened to a torch; but a firebrand was stolen and (in accordance with the mythologem of the “fire-theft”) deposited in wood and in the antlers of deer.