Nature’s course through the cycle of the year was a key theme of cave art, not surprisingly so, as the subsistence of the population depended on nature taking its course. The process explored by the artists was, however, perceived as less automatic and reliable than suggested by the modern word “nature.” In particular, the shift from winter to spring was approached with both anticipation and anxiety, and a great number of images concern this time of the year. This transition was eagerly anticipated as vindication of the basic philosophical system of the age: the manifestation of the category of energy (“yang”-like)/spring to break the grip of winter and overcome the category of mass (“yin”-like) at the height of its power. Even the plain and simple movement of animal figures may refer to the awakening of nature in spring: files of running horses evoked the rapid advancement of the sun around the vernal equinox; the moves of migrating birds, fishes, and animals–reindeer above all–were used to signal the irrepresible coming of spring, as were images of bears emerging from hibernation.
The due course of events was, evidently, not taken for granted but called for human participation, which in its simplest form could be elementary gestures, such as red hand prints that promoted the heat of the sun, or accumulations of red dots that activated the seeds in the womb of the earth. When juxtaposed with images of bison or mammoths, these signs told about the warming of the frozen earth. In this perspective we may also see the insertion of stone and bone points into cracks in cave walls or the use of red ocher to highlight fissures and niches. Furthermore, visitors commonly scratched and scored soft (clay or calcium covered) wall faces, seeking to release primordial powers embedded in the solid rock, just as archaic people worldwide have carved innumerable cup- and groove-shapes into solid rocks in order to activate fertilizing powers. The cave artists evoked vital energies in general; more specifically, they sought to strengthen the sun.
The sacrifice of an ibex (a ritual focused on decapitated heads or isolated horns) was apparently characteristic of spring and was principally dedicated to the warming of the earth. The mountain goat’s notorious, loudly crashing, head-on battles among males during the rut established an audible relationship between ibex and thunder. As the commotion of the rut took place in late winter, the natural event specifically addressed by the ibex sacrifice was the spring season’s first thunder, the majestic phenomenon that announced the end of frost and the first rains of the year. Correspondingly, clusters of small paired strokes may double as footprints of ibexes and as raindrops. The ritual killing of an ibex was dedicated to the animation of the earth, and in numerous compositions we find the sacrificed ibex depicted among somber, static bison figures in order to illustrate the ibex’ mission: to stimulate and awaken the frozen earth.
The female deer played a central part in the story of the changing seasons, a role that anticipated the familiar narrative of the mysteries at Eleusis. In the Greek myth, Kore (“the girl”), daughter of the grain-goddess Demeter, is abducted by the ruler of the underworld, Hades, and in response, Demeter causes all nourishment to fail on earth. Eventually an arrangement is reached, whereby Kore, as queen of the netherworld, remains down below for the winter portion of the year but returns to earth for the summer portion. Like Kore, the young doe embodies the blessings of the warm seasons and fertility, notably the fertility of young women in the reproductive age. We find echoes of this association in the “hind game” of pagan Europe, which introduced young girls to sex and marriage (and we are reminded that “biche” in French means both doe and girl). Like the Greek girl, Kore, the doe is violently abducted to the netherworld, causing growth and fertility to wither from the surface of the earth, until her return, which in the Palaeolithic version takes the form of a doe emerging from the cave depths, typically accompanied by the horse, that is, along with the reborn sun.
In cave art we find compositions that, violating natural laws, show large does overpowering groups of smaller bison, scenes that recall the story of Kore as queen of the netherworld, and in these situations, the doe may furthermore be facing a male bison, the latter apparently the personified ruler of the underground world. Another phase of the story is illustrated by the frequent motif of a doe that is positioned, quite intentionally, directly above, or partly covering, the back of a bison, and because the bison’s back signifies the surface of the earth, this configuration either shows the doe’s crucial return from the depths of the earth, or it illustrates her precarious situation between two realms. This is, for sure, a key theme in cave art.
The abduction and rape of the girl, be it in the form of a human female, like Kore, or symbolized by the doe, spawned another extraordinarily durable motif, namely that of a male dancer wearing a bison’s robe (with its head attached). This ritual performer is often associated with human females or with symbols of the female sex, and we may assume that his ceremonial dance enacted a myth that concerned both the course of the seasons and the mystery of death, sex, and fertility.