X. Philosophy: Systematic Thought in Upper Palaeolithic Cave Art

(2014/ 2019)

A dualistic mindset is common among archaic cultures, and it is not surprising to find dualism to be pervasive in the world view of the Ice Age artists, ruling everything from the opposites of winter/ summer, to the co-existence of the two sexes, or the cosmic dichotomy of earth/sky. The following analysis of some major cave sanctuaries shows, however, that beyond this tendency to think in terms of simple polarization, the artists achieved a subtle complexity that we might fairly characterize as complementary dualism. Rather than unmitigated contrasts between, for example, summer and winter, the cave decorations present us with elaborate descriptions of transitions between the two seasonal extremes, demonstrating a nuanced approach to polarity, in which one given principle decreases as its opposite increases, and vice versa.

The multifaceted relationship between bison and horses in the caves (discussed in Chapter V) exemplifies this dichotomy, as the increasingly forceful presence of the former (tied to the earth) coincides with the decreasing power of the latter (tied to the sun), and vice versa. Adhering to this concept of correlated expansion and contraction, the thinking of Upper Palaeolithic artists is best described–however odd that may seem–as a predecessor of the much later Taoist philosophy of yin and yang.

Part One demonstrates the application of complementary dualism in the organization of a few caves with substantial decorations (notably, the early cave of Chauvet).

Part Two analyzes the abstract signs used by the artists to clarify the philosophical implications of the animal figures.


Many scholars recognize evidence of meaning in Ice Age art, but few may be prepared to acknowledge an elaborate philosophical structure behind the images. Generally, cultural anthropology sides with a line of thought succinctly articulated by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy (1982): comprehensive, systematic thinking was not feasible before the invention of writing. The theory is seductive, for it is true that in an oral culture any idea will be lost unless it is incessantly passed down from one generation to the next. Yet, Ong’s position is ultimately wrong, and not the least so because he, and the history of ideas at large, ignore Upper Palaeolithic cave art with its evidence of a tradition that lasted roughly 25,000 years. How could visual conventions retain currency for that long if they were not associated with lasting ideas? And, how could those ideas remain valid over such a long span of time if not part of some consistent thought?

Statistical analyses (Sauvet and Wlodarczyk 1995, and 2000-2001) show that the cave artists were selective in choosing and combining their subjects; the images carried meaning. The above analyses (Chapters III – IX) support this view. Given the evidence that the artists assigned specific ideas to their select motifs and themes, we must consider the possibility that their thinking was, indeed, systematic, and that Walter Ong is only partly right in assuming that images are too imprecise–“unfixed” (1982, 86)–to compare with true writing. It appears that the concepts behind the images were broadly understood, both by the artists themselves and by the communities that authorized and supported their work; the artists could express their thoughts in images, and the viewers could read the messages. In this perspective, the major decorated caves are depositories for a body of cogent ideas, organized by genuine programs for the decoration.

The following discussion of Chauvet, an early cave with a complex decoration, identifies the formal organization of the imagery in accordance with a prevalent, dualistic scheme. A number of distinct ideas, articulated by images of particular animal species, trace the gradual unfolding of a narrative in agreement with the over-riding principle of complementary dualism.

The black and the red: categorical dualism in Chauvet

Chauvet is one of a mere handful of major cave sanctuaries for which a substantial portion of the imagery can be dated back more than thirty thousand years; as such, it provides an opportunity to study very early manifestations of conceptual thinking. Chauvet is also the most richly decorated among the very old caves, and its repertory of several hundred animal figures, hundreds of signs, and numerous ritual vestiges, offers a substantial body of materials for iconographic analysis. On a practical note, Chauvet is exceptionally well documented, and the following discussion need not be cluttered by numerous source references, as the data, unless otherwise stated, may be found in the comprehensive monograph by the Chauvet team (Clottes 2001).

The first explorers of Chauvet already noticed the most obvious indicator of a plan behind the decoration, namely that virtually all of the painted figures in the innermost half of the cave are black, while virtually all those painted in the outermost half are red. The former are painted with charcoal, the latter with ocher (Chauvet, et al. 1996, 66). This color distinction is surely meaningful. Even if we were to speculate that some of the red images possibly were painted long before the black ones, the earlier artists apparently had ideas about a division of the cave space, just as the later artists obviously had the older red images vividly present when adding their own black (and occasionally red) ones. Indeed, other caves, from different ages and regions, show similar divisions into two parts, one with mainly red images, the other with predominantly black ones. Examples include the caves of Pech-Merle and Castillo (both with a “red” northern half against a “black” southern half), as well as, La Pileta (with a “red” outer half and a “black” inner half) and Altamira (with a red and reddish-brown outer cave and a black inner cave).

Anthropologist Joëlle Robert-Lamblin recognizes the red/black division of Chauvet as intentional and meaningful (2003, 202). She pinpoints the dividing line between the two halves to a natural feature that, in fact, falls quite near the middle of the cave. This location, named the “Threshold” (Le Seuil), is marked by a denivelation of the floor at a narrow passage between two large halls (Fig. 1a). More significant still, Robert-Lamblin pays attention to the coincidence of this color duality and the distribution of certain motifs, noting that the cave’s approximately fifteen bears are (almost) all in the front part of the cave and are correspondingly painted red. Likewise, the important motif of handprints is specific to the front part and is overwhelmingly in red. From the perspective of comparative, cross-cultural studies, Robert-Lamblin sees the dual division of Chauvet as the outcome of a “primordial dichotomy,” a universal tendency for archaic cultures to think about the world in terms of binary principles, such as male/female, earth/sky, land/sea, summer/winter (2003, 204).

Duality is, indeed, a pervasive feature at Chauvet, and a number of examples may be added to the ones mentioned by Robert-Lamblin. Thus the two cave halves have quite different morphological characters, not the least because the Descending Gallery, the downward-sloping corridor in the back, largely defines the nature of the inner cave. During its course it drops more than thirty feet and ends in chambers that mark the low points of the cave (Fig. 1b). By contrast, the outer section is characterized by spacious areas, including Brunel Hall, which is adjacent to the entrance (Fig. 1a). The imagery is correlated with these topographical differences, to the effect that the innermost and lowest section of the Descending Gallery assembles the essential “black” themes, dominated by lions and rhinoceroses, while at the opposite end, Brunel Hall gathers a fair number of “red” themes, including bears.

In the chamber at the bottom of its steep slope, the Descending Gallery presents a panoramic frieze with scores of lions and rhinos, a uniquely vehement spectacle that profoundly shocked the first modern-day explorers. Containing by far most of the cave’s lions (about fifty of some seventy-five lions) and rhinos (about forty-five of sixty-five), this segment is undoubtedly the epicenter of inner-cave motifs. Bison, too, are characteristic of the innermost cave (about twenty-five out of thirty bison). These figures are almost exclusively painted in black, as is the single bear to be found in this area of the cave (Fig. 40b, bottom right).

At the other end of the spectrum, Brunel Hall is unmistakably the main zone for outer-cave motifs, all of which are painted red. These include a few bears, and most conspicuously, four panels crowded with a total of nearly five hundred large dots. These dots are actually prints of human hands made by coloring the palms–but not the fingers–with red ocher and pressing them against the rock wall. Whole fields of such red hands/dots are particular to Brunel Hall, where, in contrast to the situation at the other end of the cave, we find neither rhinoceroses nor bison and–as the exception that confirms the rule–just a single (black) lion (Chauvet et al. 1996; Clottes 2003; Clottes and Azéma 2005; Gély and Azéma 2006).

Chauvet’s dichotomy of animal species, expressed through different patterns of distribution, is too pronounced to be accidental; the more so, as we find parallels in other caves. Though the numbers of lions and rhinos in the back of Chauvet is quite unique, the close connection between images of lions and the innermost parts of caves is also seen at other sites (for example, in Pech-Merle, Lascaux, Montespan, Marsoulas, Pergouset, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles). Also, the peculiar association of lions and rhinos is noticeable elsewhere (for example, in Baume-Latrone, Aldène, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles).

Complementary dualism in Chauvet

As described above, the binary pattern of Chauvet seems to fit within Robert-Lamblin’s category of “primordial dichotomy,” and yet there is more to the cave’s decorative program than the separation of figures according to two contrasting principles. Closer scrutiny of the artistic program provides clues to a more comprehensive system that amounts to an ambitious, highly refined version of the dualistic mind-set.

In the first place, it is a puzzling fact that even where one of the two contrasting agencies, the “black” or the “red,” is most forcefully present, we still find a faint statement, just a trace, of the opposite agency. Thus, while red images are almost negligible in the Descending Gallery and the depths, even these, most remote, areas contain a few samples of red among all the black, including some, relatively inconspicuous, groups of red dots, as well as a single, black representation of the characteristic (“red”) outer-cave motif, the bear. Conversely, at the other end of the cave, in Brunel Hall, the accumulation of red images and the near-absence of the characteristic back-cave motifs still allows for a couple of black figures including the above-mentioned, token lion. From these discreet facts we may deduce that we are dealing not just with two opposite, mutually exclusive categories of motifs, but with two complementary principles that alternate in strength and predominance without ever completely eliminating each other.

In the second place, the sections of the cave situated between the two extreme, outermost, regions trace a gradual transition whereby, starting from the end of the Descending Gallery and passing through Hillaire Hall, the agency of the “black” decreases relative to the agency of the “red,” until a state of equilibrium is reached around the Threshold, the midpoint of the cave. Hereafter the balance tilts in favor of the “red” side, which reaches its peak in Brunel Hall. This graded progression points to the subtle concept of two complementary forces replacing each other in measured steps according to an over-arching scheme. It behooves us to describe this gradual transformation in greater detail and in a descriptive, non-interpretive manner.

Going from the chambers in the depths toward the entrance, the transition is first noticed at the point where the Descending Gallery starts ascending back up (cf. Fig. 1 a). The change is marked, partly, by a less massive presence of lions and rhinos, and partly, by the quite sudden appearance of a very different–less brutal and threatening–animal species, the megaceros (or, giant deer) which vies with the rhino for dominance during the climb toward the hall above. The decisive change in the character of the imagery is, however, reserved for the Hillaire Hall where a new paradigm becomes manifest in the greatly reduced presence of those species that characterize the innermost cave, as well as in the greatly increased prominence of several other species that are barely, or not at all, present below.

In Hillaire Hall, the lion, the rhino, and the bison no longer dominate the stage. They are outnumbered by the deer (red deer and reindeer), the aurochs, and the horse, the species that are prominently featured on the central panels of the hall. These animals project a noticeably less hostile ambience than the one generated by the lions and rhinos in the panoramic panel on the lower level; we may say that they signal a reduction of the “black” forces associated with the cave depths. This reversal of powers is succinctly expressed by the changed relationship between the horse, on one side, and the inner-cave animals, on the other side. Thus, juxtapositions of horse and lion shift character dramatically, from the scene in the deep, remote “Sacristy,” where a grand lion totally dominates two tiny horses (Fig. 2), to a scene in Hillaire Hall where lions and horses are of matching sizes, suggesting (in a symbolic/metaphoric reading) a near-equal balance of powers (Fig. 3). Furthermore, the impact of the (four) lions painted in the hall is somewhat reduced, because they all are confined to an alcove-like niche, while the main panels of horses (Fig. 4) and deer (Fig. 7) are plainly exposed–in itself, a reversal from the lower gallery, where the single, isolated horse is confined to a niche within the lion-panel. The same dynamics apply to the relationship between horses and rhinoceroses. In the panorama of the Descending Gallery, the stampede of rhinos join the pack of lions to surround the niche with the single horse, whereas Hillaire Hall reverses this spectacle, as its main panel shows a troupe of large horses rising above the last of the black rhinos (Fig. 4). These horses also tower over the last of the black bison, a tiny figure (Chauvet et al. 1996, 63)–reversing the episode in the lower cave, where a single horse is in a niche that is bordered by a dozen bison (idem, 106-7).

The transitory process also spawns specific motifs that are unique to Hillaire Hall. Thus the suddenly prominent aurochs acknowledges the changed environment in the Hall. While absent in the Descending Gallery, the aurochs comes to the fore here, and significantly so, in panels that reflect the diminished role of both the rhinoceros (Fig. 5) and the lion (Fig. 6). We also observe a change of guard between the bison and the aurochs, the two species of wild oxen. This shift takes place in a panel that is right next to the exit from the Descending Gallery (Fig. 7): to the left is the first of the aurochs in Hillaire Hall (and the first one in the cave, when reading the decoration from the depths going upward), to the right is one of only three painted, black bison that remain in the hall (one is in the mentioned alcove with the lions).

Like aurochs, deer become conspicuous in Hillaire Hall, which is, again, significant because the cave depths contain only two images of deer, both completely overpowered by lions and rhinos. As a first step, the robust megaceroses gain momentum. Ascending from below up through the Descending Gallery, they become prominent at the top of the climb. At that point they are succeeded by half a dozen smaller deer–reindeer and red deer–which immediately gain notoriety in the same panel of Hillaire Hall that hosts the mentioned first aurochs (Fig. 7). The deer are, thus, representative of the move from the lower cave into Hillaire Hall, and this transitional function is clear from the symmetrical lay-out of the panel, with aurochs and bison on either side of the composition and deer moving in contrasting directions between them. Notably, the deer project the shift, as one follows the bison aiming back–inward/downward, while another deer crosses the first one, reversing the direction; eventually, two more deer follow the aurochs as it aims outward (Fig. 7).

This development is dramatically accentuated, as we progress beyond the Threshold into the outer cave (cf. Fig. 1a). Here, still close to the Threshold, we find an extensive panel of mostly red images, including a last gathering of lions and rhinos–but now painted all red (Fig. 8). Beginning at this point, the force of the “red” prevails, overriding the essentially somber, black” character of the two species. The red coloration produces a friendlier, softer and warmer, appearance than the grim, dark and cold, look of the black lions and rhinos in the innermost cave. The change of color signals an over-riding shift of balance between the agencies of “black” and “red.”

Concurrent with this more benign outlook, images of the human hand make their appearance. They are specific to the area that lies just outside the ” Threshold.” These hands–both positive prints and negative stencils, all red–are juxtaposed with the red lions and rhinos, and visibly relate to the apparent transformation that is indicated by the warm, red hue of the ensemble, and by the way in which these red lions and rhinos are grouped around a cluster of hands (Fig. 8), suggesting a connection between cause and effect, between the act of printing these hands and the mellowing of the violent creatures. Thus, we witness the civilized aura of the human hand overcoming the raw force of claws, hoofs and horns.

As we leave the inner cave and move a little farther into the outer cave, we also witness the increased presence of the bear, and conversely, the phasing-out of the lion. This reversal of roles is captured in the all-red display of a large bear flanked by two smaller lions (Fig. 9). Another panel in the same area shows a large bear above a smaller lion (both figures covered with red dots). These two panels prepare for the assured prevalence of the bear in the front part of the cave. In Brunel Hall the process of change has left only one partial lion and no rhinos. Thus, our return from visiting the innermost cave has brought us around almost full circle.

In addition to the motifs discussed above, which are located in the cave according to their “black” or “red” essence, the three species of mammoth, ibex, and horse are more broadly distributed topographically; each individual figure, nevertheless, reflects the specific character of its location so that they still observe the dualistic program. The mammoth is an inner-cave motif, in so far as the majority of mammoths (about sixty-five of some seventy-five) are found on the far side of the “Threshold” and are painted black (or engraved). Just outside the “Threshold” in the panel of the red lions and rhinos, we find a transitory figure in the form of a black mammoth with a red handprint superimposed on its body, and immediately following this one, we have the first all-red mammoth. Thus, the mellowing effect of the “red” agency–represented by the hand–almost tangibly asserts itself. A few more red mammoths are located in the very front of the cave, including one that is entirely covered with large red dots (Chapter III, Fig. 216 c). The ibex is an outer-cave motif that, like the mammoth, observes the complementary principle described above: the Descending Gallery has a single, black ibex, and the outer half of the cave has several red figures, while half a dozen engraved figures in Hillaire Hall may be seen as transitory.

The horse is a special case, as we may expect from its central place in cave art, generally (cf. Chapter V). Thus, the sequence of horses, from the depths to the front, trace a continuous development that mirrors the step-wise transformations of the above motifs, providing a condensed summary of the cave’s program at large. While figures of horses first become prominent in Hillaire Hall, they are actually distributed throughout the cave, and it is primarily their changing appearances that reveal how profoundly the horses reflect the progression of the overall narrative. In the cave depths, horses are over-powered by lions, bison and rhinos ( Fig. 2); in Hillaire Hall they ascend to prominence by size and numbers (cf. Fig. 3, Fig. 4, and Fig. 7), and once beyond the “Threshold,” a horse appears carrying a red handprint on its, still black, body (Fig. 11). Painted next to the just-mentioned black mammoth that is equally marked by a red handprint, this horse is also on the verge of a transformation into its “red” identity. Finally, in Brunel Hall, we find two yellow horse’s heads accompanied by red dots; these are exceptional as the only yellow images in the cave, which makes for a strong contrast with the all-dark figures in the back (Fig. 12) Thus, the progression of the cave’s narrative program is closely correlated with the transformation of the horses from back to front.

The above survey, based on a formal analysis with minimal interpretation, demonstrates that the decoration of Chauvet is, indeed, ruled by the concept of complementary dualism. Only a fraction of the cave’s figures is mentioned here, but the main features of the imagery are well established, and we can confidently state that the decoration exhibits a series of correlated changes, whereby one of two agents, the “black” or the “red,” gains momentum to the same degree that the other one loses it–although neither one ever totally conquers the other. This pattern is inherently cyclic because we, of necessity, must visit the cave coming from the outside, thereby tracing the decline of the “red” and growth of the “black” to the end, before we can return, now following the regression of the “black” and the progression of the “red.”

Mass/energy (“yin/yang”) at Chauvet

The complementary dualism traced above is strikingly similar to the well-known, East Asian concept of yin and yang. Though Ice Age art ignores the familiar (historically late) yin-yang symbol of a circle divided by an “S” into interlocked black and white fields (Fig. 14), we may use that ingenious design as a template against which to plot the individual sections of the cave, each with its distinct decoration (albeit, using black-and-red rather than black-and-white). The parallels between the program of the cave and the cycle described by the circular symbol are as follows (initially moving from the inner cave toward the outside): the somber end-section of the Descending Gallery (black lions and rhinos) agrees with the full swelling of the black (yin) field, just as the declining role of the inner-cave motifs in Hillaire Hall matches the subsequent narrowing of the black field; conversely, the progressive increase in outer-cave motifs (deer and aurochs) matches the first swelling of the white field (yang). At the Threshold, in the middle of the cave, the equilibrium of inner-cave motifs (all red rhinos and lions) and outer-cave motifs (large, red dots and handprints) corresponds to the point at which black and white fields (yin and yang) are equal in size. Then, in the outer cave, the proliferation of “red” motifs (bears and fields of dots) parallels the fullness of the white field (yang).

Moving in the opposite direction, from the outside toward the inner cave, we trace the complementary unfolding of the yin/yang sign, from the fullness of the white, back to the fullness of black. At the risk of carrying the search for parallels too far, we may even consider the single bear in the innermost cave as the equivalent of the white dot in the black field, and the single lion in the very front as an echo of the black dot in the white field–the two dots in the emblematic design (Fig. 14) that are core representations of each principle; that is, the cell that survives the full expansion of the opposite principle, and from which the all-but-eliminated agency will eventually regenerate.

Finding this intricate scheme in the context of early cave art is the more surprising, as the yin-yang philosophy is closely associated with thoughts and beliefs of the Far East, where it has ancient roots. The concept may be traced back to funeral imagery of Neolithic China in which the tiger/yin is pitched against the dragon/yang (Cheng-Yih and Zezong 1993). From early Taoist texts we learn about the more developed form of the system and its application to a great variety of human activities and natural phenomena, the accomplishment for which the system eventually evolved to claim the status of a genuine philosophy (Granet 1975; Kim 2000). The following survey of binary themes in the cave of Chauvet identifies certain themes that relate to particular concepts about life, nature, and world order, all of which speak for a deliberate effort to formulate a comprehensive system of thought based on the interplay of two fundamental, categorical principles. As articulated in Chauvet, already, this system achieves an accomplished level, commensurate with the yin/yang philosophy.

The select topics to be considered below focus on five themes that also are focal in Taoist texts. One of these–already encountered above–is color-polarity; the other four topics are seasons (winter/summer, fall/spring), sexuality (female/male, concave/convex), cosmology (earth/sky, valleys/peaks), and numerology (even /odd). These are all essential applications of the yin-yang concept and explicitly recognized as cornerstones of early Taoist texts. The Chinese words “yin” and “yang” were, quite certainly, not used in the European Palaeolithic; in fact, we entirely ignore what terms were used, and we shall therefore use the two modern terms “mass” and “energy” to convey essentially the same concepts as yin and yang. In our use of these terms mass, thus, designates the category that encompasses darkness, shade, winter, female, hollow, earth, and, even numbers, while energy stands for the category of brightness, sun, summer, male, solid, sky, and odd numbers. As discussed above (Chapters III and VII) the term mass is a suitable, general term for the earth and the mountains as solid, static bodies and for winter as the season of rigid, unyielding ice, while energy adequately designates the forces that transforms the frozen earth and brings about the shift from winter to spring. This terminology may be the closest we can get to articulate a strikingly similar concept in two, widely separate cultures–a correlation for which we have no perfectly fitting words.

Dichotomy of colors: black/red, dark/light

In Taoist texts, the distinction between the shaded and the sunny sides of a mountain is one of the basic references for yin and yang, and generally, dark colors are yin and bright colors are yang (Granet 1975, 145). In the age of Chauvet, black readily associated with the long, dark winter nights. Incidentally, the artists’ black paint was often based on charcoal, that is, burned-out wood as opposed to firewood. Conversely, red colorant readily associates with fire, as the element that made existence possible in the frigid climate of Ice Age Europe. Red probably also related to warm blood (the use of red ocher in funeral settings reaches back to the Neanderthals). Far from a superficial quality in cave art, color distinctions reflect the profound realities in the life of the artists.

Dark versus light is but a variant of the color dichotomy, as is well illustrated by the appearance of the horses from the back to the front in Chauvet. In the lower gallery and still in Hillaire Hall, they are black, but just past the “Threshold,” a red hand-print demonstratively marks a black horse (Fig. 11), and, in the outer cave, we have the above-mentioned two horses that are, uniquely, painted in yellow ocher (Fig. 12). Extremes of the sun’s powers are certainly implied by these contrasts.

Seasonal duality: winter/summer, fall/spring

The yearly sequence of the seasons, exposed as the interplay of yin and yang, was always an essential topic in Taoism (Granet 1975, 129), fall and winter being yin, spring and summer yang (Kim 200, Table 4.1). The decorative scheme of Chauvet points toward a narrative of seasonal transitions from the deepest “black,” or winter, to the fullness of “red,” or summer, suggesting a trajectory, in which winter and summer pursue complementary courses, the power of one season waxing as the other one wanes, one reaching its climax as the other one is reduced to a minimal presence. The contrast of winter and summer is, indeed, evident throughout Chauvet, as the narrative unfolds through a succession of animal figures with pronounced and diverse seasonal connotations. Thus, the woolly rhinoceros and the mammoth–of which the first one, particularly, is emblematic of the inner cave– were exceptionally well adjusted to the cold of the northern steppes and tundra and therefore inherently associated with winter. The same is largely true of the bison, notably so by comparison with the aurochs, as the latter was much less tolerant of harsh winters. Consequently, the reversal of roles in Hillaire Hall, where aurochs demonstrably replace bison, evokes the seasonal change from winter to spring. This exchange is the very subject of the large panel that, significantly, is located right next to the opening of the Descending Gallery, and which shows a bison and an aurochs judiciously arranged in counterpoise, with the former turned toward the descent, the latter toward the hall–symbolically, the bison heads back toward winter, the aurochs forward toward spring (Fig. 7). In this same panel, reindeer and red deer first make their appearances (although a single reindeer is found already in the lower cave). The panel in question has two reindeer, the smaller of which joins the aurochs, while the larger, truly impressive one sides with the bison. In a contrary move, the much less hardy red deer display the opposite trend: the first one follows the bison, but then the direction changes, as two deer cross each other in the middle (Fig. 7 ), and the others eventually follow the aurochs. Again, this separation recalls the transition from winter to spring, because the north-bound migration of the reindeer was a very early harbinger of spring, while the move of the more sensitive red deer came as a later arrival from southern, sheltered regions. The great panel captures the seasonal transition, as it weighs the hesitant moves announcing the end of winter against the bolder moves acknowledging spring, thus, balancing the side of winter and mass (reindeer and bison) against the side of spring and energy (red deer and aurochs). That these elements are perfectly balanced in the composition (as indicated by the stippled, vertical line in Fig. 7) corresponds with the time of the spring equinox as the moment when the waning forces of winter/mass are perfectly even with the waxing forces of summer/energy–we may say, when “‘yin”‘ and “yang” are in balance.

The bear, the predominant animal of the foremost cave, conveys the notion of spring as the time when this animal emerges from hibernation. The images of bears are apparently placed in the front part of the cave to suggest the impatient animals’ readiness to exit with the end of winter (mostly they are painted in recesses that suggest the dens from which they are, then, seen to emerge). The warm red color of these figures announces the end of the icy season. Physical traces of actual, hibernating bears abound in the cave, with bones and skulls strewn across the floors, hundreds of hibernation pits, and innumerable claw marks dug into large areas of walls. These conspicuous marks are evidence of the animals’ re-awakening and restless activity toward winter’s end. We may see the enclosing cave, itself, as mass/”yin,” and the bears’ scratches on its confining walls as evidence of newly stirring energy/”yang.”

Early Chinese texts proclaim that the yang of spring is manifest when hibernating animals begin to stir, whereas the yin of fall is felt as animals go into hibernation (Granet 1975, 129). This agency of bears is familiar, for example, from the calendars of archaic cultures that name months and seasons after animals or plants that mark the progression of the year, an example being a circular, carved calendar from the Komi territory of northern Russia (Konakov 1994), which has the image of a bear as emblem of early spring (approximately March-April); this agrees well with the observed images. What we may add with respect to Chauvet is that both the characteristic animal behavior and the climatic change were understood as two manifestations of the one categorical principle of energy (“yang”).

Even the red impressions of hands that appear, along with the figures of bears, just outside the Threshold, are relevant to the change of seasons. Though they are not distinctly time-factored, they evoke the sun, as they visibly imitate its rays with the fan-shape of the fingers (cf. Lacalle Rodriguez 1996, 274). This reading is commensurate with the location of the panels of red hands at the point where we pass from the “black” part of the cave into the “red” part; leaving the realm of winter/mass, we enter the sphere of summer/energy.

Most persistently, the development of the horses through Chauvet mirrors the course of the sun through the year. As demonstrated previously (Chapter V), the year is the actual life-story of the solar horse. That story begins at the deepest point of he cave, in the Sacristy, where two black horses are held captive by a huge lion (Fig. 2), in a scene that shows the sun at the winter solstice, when energy/”yang” is altogether suppressed by mass/ “yin.” However, the lowest point of the year, is also the turning point at which the cycle of complementary dualism asserts itself, a crucial moment that the scene captures through the contrasting appearances of the two horses: the lower, drooping horse is turned toward the back of the cave and portrays the demise of the weak winter-sun and the old year; the upper, more animated horse is turned outward and hints at a renewal. The progressive steps leading on from here (detailed in Chapter V) end in the concluding images of the just-mentioned yellow horses as well as in a scene, close to the cave’s entrance, showing a mare and a stallion in a sexual encounter that suggests the mating season in spring/early summer.

Female/male, concave/convex

Elsewhere we argue that, in the minds of the cave artists, the inner parts of the caves as well as pronounced fissures and niches were closely related to the female sex (cf. Chapter III). This association is meaningful in the light of Taoist texts, according to which the depths and recesses of caves are concave, womb-like, female, and yin. In Chauvet, these associations are acknowledged by half a dozen, drawn or painted, vulvae that are located in the Descending and Lower Galleries (for example, Fig. 40b, top; cf. Fig. 153 in Chapter III) and only in these, quintessentially ‘”yin”-like, sections.

Furthermore, the quasi-biological identification of cave and womb was pursued to its logical conclusion in Chauvet like in numerous other decorated caves, as the artists equated suitable segments as, respectively the uterus, the vagina, and the vulva of the cave. By this analogy, the cave’s uterus is the innermost chamber, the “Sacristy,” where the rebirth of the solar horse at midwinter is acknowledged (cf. Fig. 2); the vagina/birth canal is the narrow passage leading out of the “Sacristy”; and, the vulva is the opening of this corridor, at which a horse–the reborn sun–is seen to emerge (in the background of Fig. 10). This spot, in the back of the Descending Gallery, is a focal point of the cave, because the lower part of a woman’s body, with the vulva strongly accentuated, is painted here, immediately above the opening of the corridor (Fig. 10 , front).

As concave spaces are “yin”-like, so convex forms, like stalactites and stalagmites, are “yang”-like. This is explicit in the just-mentioned location of Chauvet, where the convex rock pendant assumes a distinctly phallic shape and appears to be thrust into the, inherently concave and female, space of the lower gallery (Fig. 10. As if to confirm this reading, the obtrusive pendant carries–besides the just-mentioned female image–an apparent dancer wearing a bison mask, a decidedly male motif and a staple of the cave art tradition; the two figures are, evidently, interlocked in a sexually explicit scene.

In the same hall, likewise across from the panoramic frieze of lions and rhinos, a free-standing column, reaching from ceiling to floor, is decorated with a vertical line of red dots, which, again, calls attention to its character of a male intrusion into the female space (cf. Clottes and Azéma 2014, fig. 6). Of course, many caves have concretions that may be readily perceived as phallic, and many are actually marked with paint to show that the artists saw them as such (notable examples are discussed in Chapter III). Undoubtedly, the artists perceived cave topography as sexualized.

People in the era of Chauvet obviously understood the unification of female and male to be the main–if not the only–source of new life, and the above observations suggest that they, furthermore, explained the life-generating power of the sexual act as, ultimately, residing in the unification of the dual principles of mass and energy. This understanding found expression in the ritual practice of inserting stone or bone points into cracks or small niches in cave walls (Lorblanchet 1995, 185), to the extent that the penetrating object may be seen as male and the opening in the wall as female, the artists participated symbolically in the play of dual forces, imitating the union of the two categorical principles. Though not frequent, this symbolic gesture is documented already in Chauvet (cf. Clottes, ed. 2001, 58).

Following the thinking of Taoism, East Asian authors developed a significant branch of yin/yang philosophy that pertained to the balance of the dual powers in landscape settings. These principles of geomancy characteristically served to locate a cave that was felt to concentrate the energies present in a scenery of hills or mountains, open land, and flowing water (Hong-key 2006). Elusive as this may seem, the entrances of decorated Ice Age caves often appear to assume a similar function as a center of energies within their natural settings. As Chauvet overlooks the abandoned loop of the Ardèche (the “Cirque d’Estre”) and the famous Pont d’Arc formation at the head of the deep canyon of the Ardèche, the cave certainly assumes a striking similarity to the “geomancy cave” and its setting within “auspicious mountains and watercourses” as reproduced by Hong-key (2006, fig. 5.3). This cave concentrated the power of the land, and the blessings flowing from here were compared to “a woman giving birth” (2006, 80).

Earth/sky, high/low

The duality of earth and sky is a near-universal concept of imponderable age, one that, however, rises to the level of an all-defining principle in the written sources on yin-yang philosophy (Yung Sik 2000, chapter 9). In Chauvet, as in Ice Age art generally, the theme is represented by the two species of oxen in cave art, with the bison representing the earth and the aurochs the sky (cf. Chapter IV), distinct roles that are logical reflections of morphological differences: the bison’s large hump lowers its head toward the earth; by contrast, the aurochs head is raised toward the sky (Christensen 1996). We recognize this distinction at Chauvet by comparing an aurochs (Fig. 6) and a bison (Fig. 7), both painted in Hillaire Hall. In fact, the cosmic attributions of earth and sky imply another, broadly applied set of dual categories: low, as opposed to high.

The distinction between the bison as earth and the aurochs as sky is further expounded in the above-mentioned, first panel in Hillaire Hall (Fig. 7). Here the figure of the bison and that of the aurochs are clearly conceived as a pair, because they are of equal size and are positioned symmetrically on either side of the panel; because the two oxen are shown moving in opposite directions, they are also polarized. The specific location of the panel echoes the cosmological implications, for it is painted precisely where the Descending Gallery opens up into the lofty hall. Returning from the inner-earth depths, a visitor would here enter the sky-related realm of the upper cave; the experience amounts to a microcosmic re-enactment of the primordial separation of the two elements that constitute the macrocosmic world, the earth and the sky. It is, then, fitting that the bison here turns toward the Descending Gallery, that is, toward the depths of the earth, while the aurochs aims for the Hall and, eventually, the outer world–mass/”yin” separating from energy/”yang.”

Numbers: even/odd

Numerology plays a significant role in Chinese yin-yang theory, always based on the rule that even numbers are yin, odd numbers are yang. In the “trigram” scheme, three unbroken, parallel lines (“Quian”) stand for pure yang energy. At Chauvet, in a panel of the outer cave, short strokes or dots with obvious numerical significance are juxtaposed with the, above-mentioned, two yellow horses (Fig. 12). They observe the basic principle of Chinese numerology in so far as three red bars accompany one yellow horse that, as the image of the spring-summer sun in its brightest manifestation, is surely “yang”-like. Likewise, three red strokes mark an emerging red bear (Fig. 9), another eminently “yang”-like figure.

In effect, not just one group of three strokes, but two such groups of three accompany this bear, and in this it, again, resembles the panel of the yellow horses (Fig. 12); in each case we have a conspicuous sign that is made up of two sets of three dots (the “2 x 3” symbol discussed in Chapter III). The significance of this symbol throughout the period of cave art stems from the fact that the marks in this arrangement combine odd and even: they are organized in sets of three, and therefore odd and “yang”, but they are also paired and are therefore even and “yin.” Thus, the “2 x 3” sign unites the numerical emblems of the dual principles in one characteristic sign and evokes the completion of all of creation. This is pertinent to the yellow horses, which signify the fullness of the solar year, and it fits the theme of revival represented by the red bear; the “2 x 3” sign acknowledges the union of the binary opposites as the source of new life. This concept of the sources of universal blessings agrees with the above-mentioned unification of the female and male sexes in the imagery of the inner cave (cf. Fig. 10), as well as with the interlocked figures of a male and a female horse in Brunel Hall (Fig. 13).

Lascaux and the persistence of complementary dualism

The philosophical scheme employed in Chauvet was clear and efficient enough to remain in use for the extended life of Palaeolithic cave art, and more than ten thousand years after Chauvet we recognize the same complementary dualism in the decoration of Lascaux. Although the imagery of Lascaux differs much from that of Chauvet, the older cave’s conceptual base remains valid. Lascaux does not have the mammoths, reindeer, megaceroses, and bears characteristic of Chauvet; instead, the younger cave has a great number of red deer, as well as many more horses and more conspicuous aurochs than the old cave; a different selection of motifs that reflects both a milder climate and a brighter outlook on the world, but which does not change the underlying philosophy. This is evident from the following, brief survey of Lascaux, which checks for the same visual manifestations of the system that we observed for Chauvet.

The color symbolism in the younger cave may be more subtle than the black/red scheme of Chauvet, but we recognize a pronounced duality of colors in Lascaux, as well. Most conspicuously, the aurochs–a prominent motif by the huge size of the figures–project a clear duality by the distribution of bright-versus-dark figures: half-a-dozen bulls with shiny-white bodies and an equal number of all-red cows dominate the very front of the cave (the large Rotunda), whereas a single black bull and a handful of black cows are relegated to the inner cave, namely, to the back of the Axial Gallery, to the Nave, and to the Apse (cf. discussion in Chapter IV). As in Chauvet, we also find transitional images, notably at the end of the Axial Gallery, where two red cows and four yellow bulls are partly covered by black paint by way of the large, all-black body of one bull (cf. Chapter IV), and where a mostly black cow carries a substantial red spot on her body (Aujoulat 2004, 107-08, 116-17). These gradations of color reflect the system of complementary dualism: bright colors breaking through the prevailing, dark hues as steps toward the dominance of light colors in the outer cave.

The dichotomy of summer and winter is strongly articulated in Lascaux. The geographical layout of the cave predisposed the decorative program for a clear distinction between the outer cave/summer and the inner cave/winter, the more so as the Rotunda opens toward the north-west, in direct line with the midsummer sun at its setting on the longest day of the year, while the terminal “Tunnel” of the descending Axial Gallery is in the south-east, which is the direction of the midwinter sun (cf. Chapter XI, Fig. 4). This distinction is reminiscent of Chauvet (although there, it is associated with an upper level versus a lower level, not with solstice alignments) and, significantly, the polarities of the seasons find expression through the same categorical division of animal species as in the older cave: the aurochs dominate the spacious front of the cave, where neither bison nor lions are present, while lions and bison prevail in the constricted, inner-most (southern) sections, where the aurochs are absent. Even the location of Lascaux’ s only rhinoceros, which is in the depth of the notorious “Shaft” (the pit at the end of the Apse), echoes Chauvet’s massive accumulation of rhinos in the lower cave.

The above distinctions carry the implication of dual seasons, and in Lascaux, as in Chauvet, the seasonal changes are articulated by the shifting appearances of horses, from black or dark-brown figures in the innermost cave to bright (even yellow) figures in the outer sections (cf. Chapter V); the development matches Chauvet’s, even as the horse is a far greater presence in the younger cave. Several hundred figures of horses allowed the artists of Lascaux to trace a continual transition from the low and narrow sections that are the domain of fall/winter, to the wide and lofty regions that belong to spring/summer. Traversing Lascaux we, thus, follow episodes in the story of the year articulated in compositions that we recognize from Chauvet. These include the plight of the weak horse/sun surrounded by large lions in the Chamber of Felines, significantly located at the far end of Lascaux (cf. Chapter XI, Fig. 17). We also encounter the emergence of the revived horse rising from the mouth of the “Tunnel” at the end of the Axial Gallery (Fig. 152 a, b, ), a fitting parallel to the horse that emerges from the corridor, out of the “Sacristy,” in Chauvet (Fig. 10).

The bright yellow horse painted where the Axial Gallery joins the Rotunda is, by itself, an image of the warm season, recognizable by its summer-coat and by the vegetation signs that it carries (cf. Fig. 49 a ). We may add that two large horses, one red and the other yellow, occupy the cupola of the Apse, high above the “Shaft” with its rhino and bison (Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979, 283, 286-87), and finally, that a horse hovers majestically above the horns of two enormous aurochs in the Rotunda (Aujoulat 2004, 66-67).

Sexual connotations of cave spaces are repeatedly recognized in the decoration of Lascaux, and here too, with the understanding that the innermost, narrow spaces have pronounced female associations. The distribution of the two sexes of aurochs signals the sexual dichotomy of the cave at large, because the bulls dominate the Rotunda, in the front, and the cows dominate the spaces farther inside (Axial Gallery, Apse, Nave)–thus, the males are turned to the sky, while the females are associated with passages to the netherworld (cf. discussion in Chapter IV). The latter function is monumentally displayed in the panoramic illustration of the rebirth of the solar horse from the womb of the black cow (cf. Chapter I, Fig. 2): a file of nearly twenty horses pass through this huge figure, as they proceed toward the outer cave; in so doing, they leave behind the narrow, vagina-like opening of the corridor that leads to the Chamber of Felines (Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979, 61), a passage that we, again, may characterize as the cave’s “birth canal.” Thus, the birth of the solar horse from the womb of the cave and from the body of the cow are but two aspects of the same event.

The formal similarity of female genitalia and narrow closures or fissures at the end of galleries is also recognized at the mouth of the “Tunnel” in the low end of the Axial Gallery (cf. Fig. 152 a, b, in Chapter III), where the vertically rising horse shows the rebirth of the sun at mid-winter. In this situation, the parallels with the just-mentioned scene in the depth of Chauvet include the function of a male rock formation, namely the semi-detached pillar that carries the vertical horse of Lascaux and which recalls the pendant with the woman and the bison bull-dancer of Chauvet (Fig. 10); both rock formations were obviously perceived as male members inserted into the female cave-space.

The duality of sky and earth is a major theme at Lascaux, one that is inspired by the striking topography of the natural cave with its sky-like, domed and vaulted ceilings, separated by a marked horizontal line from the rough, earth-like base of the walls (Christensen 1996). This feature is brought out by the contrast between, on the one side, the aurochs–the white bulls and the red or black cows–that occupy the sky-world of the ceilings, and on the other side, the bison which occupy the earth-like areas, low on the walls, or are removed to the inner, constricted cave sections. The earth/sky polarity at Lascaux is also present in the contrasting elevation of cave sections, reminiscent of the contrast between the Descending Gallery and Hillaire Hall of Chauvet. In Lascaux we have, on one side, the deep “Shaft,” dominated by the dark figures of a rhino and a bison; on another side, we have the lofty Rotunda, with the frieze of white aurochs bulls spread out across the vault (cf. Chapter XI, Fig. 60 a, b ). The rhino in the “Shaft”–as mentioned, the only specimen in Lascaux–certainly harks back to the age of Chauvet, echoing the raucous display of rhinos at the bottom of the Descending Gallery. The upward trajectory returning from the location of this single rhino likewise recalls Chauvet: the visitor to the “Shaft,” using a ladder to regain the upper level, eventually exited into the Rotunda through an opening directly below the frieze of white bulls; this may well recall the scheme of Chauvet, where the visitor would emerge from the Descending Gallery right next to the panel with the first aurochs bull (Fig. 7). Hillaire Hall’s prominent panel of aurochs bulls (Fig. 5) also pre-figures–albeit, on a smaller scale–the frieze of giant bulls in the Rotunda. Across 10-15,000 years, artists at the two sites projected their cosmic symbolism in very similar images.

Distinct numerical symbolism is evident in Lascaux. As in Chauvet, we find the even “two” (pertaining to mass/”yin”) combined with the odd “three” (characteristic of energy/”yang”); in fact, it occurs several times in the younger cave, including in the “Shaft” (cf. Chapter XI, Fig. 59a), as well as at the farthest (southern-most) end of the cave (Fig. 243 b, in Chapter III). It is certainly noteworthy that both Chauvet and Lascaux show the number “three” as well as the “2 x 3” sign in juxtaposition with the–significantly, quite unusual–all-yellow head of a horse. In Lascaux this occurs in the Nave, and in this case the “three” is demonstratively male, obviously adopting a phallic shape (cf. chapter XI, Fig. 20 g ), while the “2 x 3” sign is found on the facing wall of the Nave, below the large black cow, where this numerical symbol takes the form of two vertical lines, each with three barbs that make for a “2 x 3” sign (see photo in Aujoulat 2004, 176). This pair of vegetation-like lines is part of a group of engraved and painted square signs (Fig. 46 c ), which in itself projects a composite of odd (“3”) and even (“4”) numbers, as there are three squares, each with four corners.

Placed at the hoofs of the black cow (at her rear end, which gives birth to the sun) these signs fuse numerical exponents of energy and mass with the primordial cosmic event of the sun’s emergence from the womb of the night sky/netherworld. The association of the numerical “three” and “four,” odd and even, is repeated in the neighboring panel of the Nave, where a prominent frieze of seven ibexes’ heads is divided into two groups (cf. Chapter XI, Fig. 15): one of four black heads, and one of three red heads; that is, a group that is even/ dark/ “yin,” and a group that is odd/ light/ “yang.”

Palaeolithic philosophy in historical perspective

Complementary dualism plays a mostly ephemeral role as an under-current in the history of Western philosophy. Dynastic Egypt still maintained a rudimentary concept of the unity of contrasts in the institution of the “Two Lands,” dramatized by the perpetual struggle of the incomparable deities, Seth and Horus. Thus, dualism permeated speculations and rituals that remained central to Egyptian religion at large (McCarter 2011, 21). In European thought, elements of a genuine binary system survived in some Pythagorean schemes, notably in Empedocles’ cosmic balance of “love” and “hate,” but in these systems the contrast between light and dark tended toward the absolutes of ethical imperatives rather than the mutable phases of decay and regeneration manifest in seasonal cycles (Miller 2011, 125; McCarter 2011, 20). Perhaps the most recognizable exhibit of prehistoric concepts was the Pythagoreans’ numerology, according to which even numbers were “unlimited” (that is, chaotic) and female, while odd numbers were “limited” (that is, ordered) and male (Burkert 1972, 34, 51, 468-75). Prehistoric symbolism may still echo in the Alchemists’ imaginary transition from “nigredo” (black) and death to “rubedo” (red) and life (Eliade 1962, 162).

More authentic residues of Upper Palaeolithic dualism might be found in folklore from the geographical region of the Ice Age caves. Indigenous farming cultures, with their mock battles between “Winter” and “Summer,” their bonfires, May-Poles, fertility rocks, and so forth, possibly preserved beliefs from well before the “Neolithic Revolution.” Thus the Basque province of La Soule maintains a spring masquerade with performances by two troupes, one called “black” (les Noirs), the other “red” (les Rouges), the former representing rude chaos, the latter civility and order. In this context, the participation of a bear in the traditional parade seems to vouch for the deep roots of the rite (Violet 1928). In most cases, however, ethnographic comparisons do not yield convincing parallels to the cogent system of ideas represented at Chauvet. Binary principles may be near-universal among archaic cultures, yet nowhere do they appear to be applied with the persistent rigor of the caves’ programs. For example, the Khanty of western Siberia perceived the seasonal rhythm as a conflict between two competing forces: during summer, the earth was dominated by the “Spirits of the Above,” during winter, by the “Spirits of the Below” (Golovnev 1994, 63-64); the concept is dualistic, but apparently not complementary. Native peoples of the North American prairies united geography, calendar, cosmology, and social structures in schemes like the Sioux’ and Osages’ ceremonial camp circles that were divided into half-circles to reflect the polarities of sky and earth, summer and winter, as well as the duality of the tribal moieties (Müller 1962, 570). Even so, such schemes project rigid divisions rather than the subtly balanced transitions that characterize the Oriental yin-yang system and, as demonstrated above, the decoration of Chauvet.

Strange as it may seem, the conceptual system of Ice Age art may be closer to the yin-yang philosophy of the Far East than to any recorded European tradition. Theoretically, the diffusion of this conceptional system could have predated the settlement of homo sapiens in southern and western Europe (about fifty thousand years ago) in the course of the exodus “out of Africa.” Alternatively, a later migration of peoples and ideas across Eurasia, from west to east, could account for the puzzling connection. We are not yet prepared to resolve this issue.

We may sum up our investigation of cogent ideas in cave art with the statement that the cave artists, at least since Chauvet, charted the progressive events of a seasonal narrative with the help of an over-arching philosophical principle. Such a level of complexity would hardly be comprehensible without an appreciation of images and visual signs and a recognition of their potential for shaping and maintaining thoughts within a pre-literate culture. Of course, a script–even a pictographic one–may allow for developments that are otherwise not feasible, and the lack of writing probably explains why the people of Lascaux still relied on an artistic tradition that was explicitly stated already in the age of Chauvet, more than ten thousand years earlier. Though less specific than a writing system, the visual language of Palaeolithic art still allowed the artists to keep their works focused on those basic concepts that animated a communal treasury of shared lore. Thus, the image of a horse would be universally understood as a representation of the solar year and a manifest exponent of the conceptual category of energy/”yang.” Moreover, the portrayal of any given horse would, inherently, carry visual cues to beliefs, stories and rituals that were widely shared.; The figure of a horse could be seasonally or sexually determined, animated or immobile, horizontal or slanted, exuberant or modest–each detail carried a message that would be comprehensible and would locate the individual case within a wide framework.

We must credit the artists of the caves with the ability to form abstract ideas, and to articulate them visually, and furthermore, to adjust ideas and images to match long-term changes in climate and fauna. They maintained the basic principles of a yin/yang-type philosophy while scrutinizing natural phenomena and adjusting their functional classifications. If measured against strict scientific criteria, their approach may be deemed arbitrary–a relevant critique of historical yin/yang doctrines, as well–but in the context of Upper Palaeolithic cultures, it was a, possibly crucial, step towards a genuine synthesis of knowledge. We may, in any case, recognize a rudimentary proto-scientific mind-set in the application of this philosophical system in the area of calendrical, cartographic and astronomical explorations (as demonstrated in Chapter XI).


Part One of this study recognizes the Ice Age artists’ complementary dualism as a mind-set that permeates cave decorations at large, unfolding through a sequence of narrative scenes. As this pattern of thought apparently embraced all aspects of human life and thought–sexuality, seasonality, cosmology, numerology, even astronomy (cf. Chapter XI)–we may assume that the artists also stated their philosophical concepts in less cumbersome, more cursory, ways than through elaborate programs for entire cave sanctuaries; we may, on one hand, find compositions with just two contrasting animal characters that present a compressed, short-hand statement of the two grand principles; or we may, on the other hand, find purely abstract signs that attempt to articulate the theoretical aspect of philosophical thoughts. Though the artists lacked writing, they possessed a comprehensive visual sign language, and some of the numerous non-figurative ideograms in the caves were quite likely vehicles for conceptual statements–interpretive thinking in graphic form. Although the Palaeolithic brand of dualism appears to be profoundly similar to the yin/yang concept of some East Asian schools of philosophy, we do not find Palaeolithic ideograms that specifically resemble the universally recognized yin-yang symbol of an “S” inscribed in a circle (Fig. 14). This Taoist symbol is a relatively recent design, possibly rooted in the inter-locking swirls on Neolithic ceramics but certainly post-dating the Palaeolithic era. In Ice Age art we find only such approximations as a painted sign in the Spanish cave of Courdón (Fig. 15), an oval produced by two symmetrical halves, of which one is red, the other black. While this scheme does suggest two contrasting principles united in cyclic rotation (suggestive of the waning and waxing moon sickles), this sign lacks the sophistication of the historical Chinese ideogram, which not only demonstrates the reciprocal swelling and deflation of the black and the white sides, but which also articulates the concept of one agency inserted as a seed in the bosom of the other one (the white dot in the black field and vice-versa).

Figuration and abstraction

The sophisticated Taoist symbol is the end result of a long history of tentative yin-yang schemes, and earlier steps in this development may provide more fitting parallels for Palaeolithic practices. Going back to Far Eastern, proto-historic sources, the evidence includes both figurative animal symbolism and intricate diagrams, the latter combined with numerical marks. Apparently, the earliest certain illustration of the yin-yang principle is found in a Chinese Neolithic tomb in Xishuipo (grave “M 45”) and shows the two contrasting characters of the tiger (yin) and the dragon (yang) symmetrically flanking the buried person.

Such a use of paired-but-opposed animal figures to represent the idea of dualism reverberates with a common procedure in Ice Age art, where animal motifs of contrasting nature were repeatedly placed in opposition to each other in bold, tightly knit compositions that often approach the clarity of heraldic designs. The bison/horse theme is, for sure, the most common provider of such configurations, with the bison on the earth side and the horse on the sky side. Also quite common are configurations of bison and female deer, a contrast of heavy and bulky versus light and slim, which is a frequent motif in cave panels (cf. Fig. 4 a-k , in Chapter II), but which also is recognizable on artifacts, for example, by the formal, strictly parallel arrangement of the two sides of a bone blade from La Vache (Fig. 38). A comparable configuration occurs in Chauvet, where a fragile reindeer strives to escape a herd of large, heavy rhinos (Fig. 80 a, Chapter III). Another standard theme–equally expressive of the contrast between mass and energy–is the display of a stag rising above an earthy bison, as seen, for example, in Gabillou (Chapter III, Fig. 73 b) or Tuc d’Audoubert (Chapter III, Fig. 74 c).

In Altxerri (Fig. 16), the strict composition of a fox, turned inward/downward, and a reindeer, directed outward/upward, designates the arctic fox as emblematic of winter, death, and nether-world, while the migrant reindeer recalls summer, life, and upper-world. We find a comparable group in Lascaux (Fig. 55 a), here opposing a small lion and a large deer. This visual trope was readily perceived even on small-scale objects, as exemplified by an engraved bone from Lorthet (Fig. 17). Several near-identical formulations from different locations (cf. Graziosi 1960, plate 90) suggest that the theme was familiar and even popular. Combining such visual entities, chosen from a limited repertory, the artists were able to illustrate the contrasts, shifting balances, and transitional phases assumed by the concept of complementary dualism. The procedure is evident even in the case of rare motifs, such as the confrontation of two engraved birds in Margot: face to face, they are a crow and a swan, a dark, resident bird versus a white, migrant one, with obvious implications of seasonal contrasts and different ambient characters (Pigeaud and Hinguant 2007, 51).

For an example of the complexity that could be achieved with just a few thematic contrasts, we may consider the above-mentioned panel in the Hillaire Hall of Chauvet (Fig. 7) in which three standard themes produce a nuanced description of seasonal change. In the first place, the bison/aurochs trope (Fig. 7, right and left) recalls the creation of the cosmos with the separation of earth and sky. In the second place, the bison/horse theme (Fig. 7, right and top) shows that the dominance of earth and darkness is yielding to the dominance of sun and light. In the third place, a handful of red deer add movement and urgency to the change of seasons: as they cross each other (Fig. 7, center), we see then in a moment of equivocation–pending the shift of balance between mass and energy–preceding their decision to follow the aurochs and move toward summer (while two hardier reindeer still turn toward winter and “yin”).

Ideograms of space and time

The Chauvet panel describes a quite subtle development by means of iconographic tropes, but without extensive recourse to abstraction. In other situations, however, artists needed non-figurative signs to address even more complex issues (this is also true of the artists of Chauvet, as discussed below). As a form of visualized theory, a class of mandala-like ideograms allowed the artists to articulate the philosophical principles behind decorative programs and, in particular, to describe the numinous powers they perceived in the depths of caves. These concerns are evident, particularly, in cases where these–often elaborate–abstract signs are accumulated at locations that approach the innermost reaches of caves: at niches, alcoves and similar recesses, as well as in low areas of cave systems, or at the very end of galleries.

Ideograms of this category have been called “geometric” because of their regular, shapely outlines and their inner subdivisions by well-defined lines, but they are more appropriately viewed as various types of mandalas. Though they may contain lines of dots or short strokes that suggest numerical symbolism, their focus is on cosmology, and their regular features illuminate the process by which a primordial, timeless chaos gave way to orderly shapes and regular periodicities. Previously (in Chapter III, Part Four), we have discussed this body of signs as related to the creation of space, the earth in particular, with a center (the omphalos, or focal point of creation) and symmetrical segments (expansions of land). In addition to being a model of space, a mandala may, however, also project a model of time, just as the beginning of space and matter is also the beginning of time. At this place, we shall pursue the time-dimension of the ideograms, with special attention to the dual –waxing and waning–rhythm of the moon and the binary, seasonal patterns of the solar year.

The large ideograms in the Castillo cave

Several decorated caves in Mount Castillo (notably the caves of Castillo and Pasiega) contain large concentrations of mandala-like signs. The Castillo cave itself holds two significant groups of red signs, both located in a low-lying section of the cave, with he most stunning accumulation focused on a small alcove-like recess called the Corner of Tectiforms, an area dedicated to more than a dozen sizeable specimens (partially shown in Fig. 19 a, b). Elsewhere, we have discussed this large gathering in spatial terms, as emblems of individual cave sanctuaries and parts of a geographical map of central Cantabria (cf. Chapter III), while others have been exposed as elements of a luni-solar calendar (cf. Chapter XI, Addendum). Here we shall focus on one conspicuous sign (Fig. 18 a) that, though slightly on the periphery of this gathering, seems to summarize the overall message, partly due to this sign’s superior size, partly because of its appearance as the center-piece of a panel that entirely dominates the stretch of sparingly decorated corridor just beyond the alcove (at A on the plan, Fig. 20a; the major accumulation of signs is at B).

The large, non-figurative sign (Fig. 18 a) is flanked by two horses, which obviously relate to the sign (these are the only major figures here) and, thus, offer a clue to the meaning of the panel due to the well-documented role of the horse as the image of the solar year (cf. Chapter V). Significantly, the arrangement of the two horses casts them as antithetic, even as a study in contrasts, which is to say, as two opposite halves of the year. Three features indicate that the horse on the right (Fig. 18 a) stands for the sun in the fall half of the year: partly because it is turned inward, toward the back of the gallery; partly because the figure adopts a sloping position and is at the very bottom of the wall, with its neck lowered and the muzzle directly at floor level (even the ears are shown as drooping); and partly because the animal’s body is marked with three large, quite visible wounds (just as blood flows from the nostrils), emphasizing the association with winter and the demise of the solar year. By contrast, the left-hand horse suggests the spring half of the year for the direct opposite reasons: it is turned outward, toward the front of the cave; its pose is strident; and it is situated high up, on a section of the wall that is suspended from the ceiling. Because the large red sign constitutes the pivotal axis between these two images of winter and summer, we may fairly hypothesize that it conveys a message about seasonal change, articulating a principle that rules seasonal transformation. In fact, the sign makes a striking presence that may well agree with such a normative function. Located in a low, rough and inhospitable corridor (obstructed, at the far end, by an ancient collapse), the large and lucid sign with its neatly drawn, quasi-geometric appearance stands out as a striking testimony to a concept of order that we may call specifically human, a principle that is essentially different from the natural disorder of the cave-world as presented by the roughness of the low, collapsing and impassable corridor. The sign also differs essentially from the associated figurative art, that is, from the images of animals with their circumstantial, biological characteristics; these, too, reflect an underlying order, but only the abstract sign endeavors to explain the distinct, inner workings of that order.

For a beginning, the Castillo sign establishes the relationship between the particular topographic setting and the cave at large through the orientation of the symmetrical wings that flank the sign’s central section, as the left one extends toward the innermost cave, the right one toward the opening and the outside world; thus, the sign evokes the span of time between the by-gone, under-world of chaos and the present, upper-world of order. In seasonal terms, the testimony of the two horses also speaks for the reading of the two wings of the ideogram as winter (innermost, left) and summer (outermost, right). This, in turn, may explain why each segment is bordered (toward the center) by a vertical band that is sectioned into six spaces, quite likely standing for the number of months in each half-year. We may, then, assume that the sign’s middle section relates to spring and/or fall, depending on the direction in which it is read (Fig. 18 b). Thus, time and space unite in the design of this mandala.

By its curved and pointed outline, the horned sign also evokes the moon, with the innermost, left-hand horn relating to the waning moon (convex toward the left) and the outermost, right-hand horn affiliated with the waxing moon (convex to the right). The count of six months, which is the number of spaces in each of the two vertical columns, also argues for the relevance of the moon and its cycles in the context of the solar year and its seasons (the more so, as another sign in the very back of the Corner of Tectiforms represents a specific, very precise luni-solar calendar (cf. Chapter XI, Addendum). We may add that yet another mandala-like sign in the Castillo cave (Fig. 18 c) represents quite explicit lunar shapes: waning and waxing (outer) phases and fullness (center). These signs refer to the moon as the celestial model of the universal law of waning and waxing, which is relevant to the solar horse and the year as well. Of course, the lunar rhythm also carries a wider significance as ruler of fertility at large, and the female womb, particularly, a general theme that might be implied by the presence of a doe in the panel (Fig. 18 a, left), as discussed elsewhere (cf. Chapter VII).

By itself, alternating phases of growth and decline involves no more than a display of categorical opposites (like in the sign from Courdón,  Fig. 15), but the Castillo ideogram (Fig. 18b) subtly adds the median phases of the lunar cycle in the form of the middle segment that serves as a field of transition, where, according to the concept of complementary dualism, the two agencies momentarily arrive at a stage of balance even as their phases of relative dominance shifts. We may, therefore, read the lunar aspect of our sign by analogy with the solar narrative: the outer horns show the waxing, respectively, waning stages, the upper peak of the middle segment signals the fullness of the moon, that of the lowest dip marks the dark, new moon.

A similar middle segment, dividing the sign into three parts, characterizes most of the mandalas around the Corner of Tectiforms, and it is this triple form that allowed the artists to visually represent the intricate concept of a complementary alternation of binary agents. Although their formulation lacks the fluid transition from one principle to the other, as captured by the historical yin-yang sign (Fig. 14), the tripartite design made it possible to pinpoint a fixed area wherein the dual principles, both in transition, achieve a state of balance. Albeit, the central section of the Castillo mandala (Fig. 18 a) is not actually divided into an upper and a lower part, but such a separation into an upper and a lower segment by means of a longitudinal line is, indeed, made in similar signs in the Corner of Tectiforms (cf. Fig. 19 a), from which we may deduct that this division was generally implied. We may conclude that the artists intended our ideogram to expose basic laws of time, including the waxing and waning of the moon, the inter-relation between moon and sun (by twelve regular months), and the continuum of inter-locking winter-halves and summer-halves, with spring and fall as transitional phases. The special function of a mandala is to gather many, incongruent aspects of reality in one common image.

The Castillo sign is a genuine cosmogram that reflects the organization of both time and space, whereby the features that indicate units of time also echo the organization of space, because each element manifests itself through the contrasts of the two all-governing principles of mass/”yin” and energy/”yang.” Thus, the expansive halves of the year/month–from winter solstice to summer solstice/first quarter to last quarter–are correlated with the upper tier of the sky and, vice versa, the contracting halves of the year/month agree match the lower tier of the earth (cf. Fig. 18 b). Again, these agreements are reflected in the positions of the two horses that flank the sign: one positioned low and earth-bound, the other set high and sky-bound. In short, the outer wing of the sign (to the right in Fig. 18 a and b) projects the principle of energy–sky, growth, warming–while the left wing belongs to the category of mass–earth, waning, frost. In terms of space, the central segment of our sign is evidently the center of the world, the location where primordial creation originated; here the peak of the sky and the depth of the earth are counter-posed in equal measure. In a previous discussion, we have identified this segment as the location of the sanctuary itself, the earth’s navel (the site of the omphalos; cf. Chapter III, Part Four), that is, the point from which the newly created world expanded in opposite directions.

The basic elements of the just-mentioned sign recur, albeit with variations, in the adjacent cluster of mandalas at the Corner of Tectiforms (Fig. 19 a), where they are tied to vertical, streaming bands of painted dots. In the preceding discussion we have identified these signs as emblems of cave sanctuaries located at rivers (flowing from the Cantabrian Mountains toward the sea). In these cases, then, we may understand the orientation of the signs as determined by the rivers, and the wings of their tripartite forms as representing an up-stream/sky/”yang” side versus a down-stream/ocean/”yin” side which is a common expression of binary orientation among archaic peoples. The largest of these signs (Fig. 19 a, left) appears to be emblematic of the cave of Castillo, itself (situated at the Pas River), just as another sign of this type, located in the twin cave of Pasiega ( Fig. 26, B) may be seen as emblematic of Pasiega, with the bands of dots, again, indicating the Pas.

Some of the just-mentioned signs tend toward a basically rectangular form rather than a moon-like shape, which suggests that they might be focused on issues of space, more so than on time; still, they retain a vague allusion to the moon’s sickle-shape (a slight curvature prevails) and may also have numerical references to units of time (for example, the two columns of six spaces/months in Fig. 19 b). An elaborate group of similar mandalas in Altamira (Fig. 30) confirms the lunar sub-text of this entire category of signs. Notably, the three signs collated on the left (Fig. 30, at the top) jointly convey the appearances of the moon in its waxing, full, and waning phases. The central sign is not sickle-shaped at all (it is symmetrical along two axes), but the ones on either side are shaped as half-moons and are turned in opposite directions to evoke waxing (right) and waning (left). These three signs convene into a tight unit that certainly recalls the above Castillo sign (Fig. 18c); like in Castillo, the waxing entity is toward the outside cave (to the right), the waning form is toward the inner narrowing of the terminal corridor (to the left).

As for their basic components, Castillo’s triple-sectioned cosmograms compare well with much later yin/yang symbols, even as they use different graphic schemes than the East Asian “S”-curved design (Fig. 14). Both types are, in the final analysis, mandalas that prescribe integral cycles of dual opposites. In at least one version from Mount Castillo, the mentioned sign in Pasiega (at B in Fig. 26), we find a feature that reflects the same kind of thinking as the notorious black-dot/white-dot feature of the historical symbol, because the upper and the lower of the sign’s three sections each contains half of a small, schematic animal figure: the lower section (likely related to earth, winter, down-stream, and “yin”) holds the forequarters of a schematic animal figure, suggesting the emergence of life, while the upper section (likely the area of sky, summer, up-stream, and “yang”) holds the rear half of an equally schematic animal, suggesting the disappearance of life.

Division into three segments is a characteristic of mandala-like signs devoted to complementary dualism, but details vary enough to accommodate individual episodes of a story of creation, including the establishment of a world center, the lay-out of space in the horizontal and the vertical dimensions, and the regulation of time according to the solar/lunar schedule. From the concentration of such signs in the Corner of Tectiforms of Castillo (as well as those in the back-cave niche of Altamira) we get the impression that the artists, beyond the desire to visualize their abstract thinking, also wanted to confirm and promote the two categorical principles at the root of all creation by accumulating such signs as a kind of artistic ritual. In the Corner of Tectiforms, the body of painted signs, in fact, starts in the ceiling toward the back of the large niche, at a point where the artists had to lie on their backs to paint, and from there the ensemble extends outward with a concentration on the wall that is partly inside/partly outside the niche (at A in Fig. 20a). A bit further out in the corridor we find the large, curved sign (at B). Finally, a smaller cluster of comparable signs (including our Fig. 20 b) is located on the way out of, and up from, the low corridor (at D in Fig. 20a ). From this pattern of distribution we deduce that the niche in the Corner of Tectiforms, was perceived as the epicenter of the forces that the artists sought to release; located at a low level of the cave system, this niche was perceived as a cleavage into the bosom of the earth, a point of contact with primordial powers that gave the location the ambience of a sacristy or apsidiole–the natural setting for symbols of ultimate powers.

The effect that the artists promoted with these symbolical/ritual works can be traced in the narrative development that unfolds from this location toward the outer cave, notably as told through images of horses and deer, as shall be briefly summarized here. Beyond the low gallery’s scene of the death and revival of the horse/solar year (Fig. 18a ), the artists traced the release of powers in subsequent decorations along the path to the outside world. Moving toward the exit and climbing up the modern stairs leading to the vestibule, we pass (at F in Fig. 20 a) an exceptionally large, red painting of a horse (Fig. 21b). Its size, color, and energetic posture–combining upward- and outward-directed movements–makes this image a fit demonstration of the ascending spring/summer sun. Preceding the horse, a bit lower (Fig. 21b , left), a bison is shown in a vertical position with its head downwards, so that the opposite directions of these two figures, key proponents of energy and mass, argue for a shift in balance, whereby the earth-/netherworld-principle of the bison recedes, yielding supremacy to the sky-/sun-principle of the horse. By the same token, the female deer’s sojourn to the netherworld (cf. Fig. 18a, top left) ends with the display further out (at E in Fig. 20a) of two red does rising above the back of a black bison, on the brink of returning to the upper world (Fig. 21a). In sum, the artists made the accumulation of mandalas at a significant juncture the ultimate impetus for the ensuing triumph of life.

The cosmograms of Pasiega

The four major cave sanctuaries of Mount Castillo jointly feature an impressive array of distinct ideograms, and Pasiega, while sharing some designs with the Castillo cave, presents several ensembles of mandalas of its own type. In the narrow corridor at the end of Pasiega’s main gallery (at A on the plan, Fig. 23 a) we find a long frieze that astonishes by the fact that the innermost half of the frieze is composed entirely of abstract signs. We shall not reiterate our discussion (cf. Chapter III) of he stepwise creation of the earth described here–from an un-differentiated mass, to the establishment of a center, to the separation of earth and sky (Fig. 22 b-e )–but point out that this process coincides with the beginning of time and, notably, with the formulation of the luni-solar year. This is concisely stated by one sign (Fig. 22 d) that recalls the lunar symbol of Courdón (Fig. 15), and which can be read as a mnemonic demonstration of a basic lunar count: one side has 29 spaces, the other has only one, so that, it is possible to read it, in perpetual motion, as alternatingly 29 and 30–like the days of actual months. The sequence, subsequently, entails juxtapositions of (four) lunar signs and a horse that represents the solar year ( Fig. 22 e). The frieze ends with an accomplished tripartite sign of the same family as the ones in the Castillo cave, a mandala-like symbol that, again, conveys the complementary dualism ruling all of creation (Fig. 22 f ). This sign is, furthermore, combined with a sickle-shape (on the left), to the effect that it readily recalls the mentioned sign in Altamira (Fig. 30, at the top), that is, the one flanked by two crescent-shaped signs; even the attached net-like design recalls the central Altamira sign’s knitted or woven texture ; in both cases, we may see this feature as a general metaphor for creation (the waxing of the moon, specifically). In each case, the mandalas celebrate the dual powers that jointly structure the world, as illustrated by the figures of a horse and a bison in a formal juxtaposition.

As the Pasiega frieze expands, the revival of the world’s life comes into focus. The horse–the first large figure–is still embedded in the train of signs (Fig. 22 e), its tail tied to the first moon-like sign, while a mandala on its body carries notions of the establishment of thee world-center and the lifting of the sky (the arched top and the three projecting verticals). Facing a bison of equal size (Fig. 22 a), the horse and the newly created energies of the sky-realm are matched by the restrictive mass of the earth. The three-part sign above the bison is, however, there to tell us of the perpetual tribulations of this contrast and the inherent logic ruling it. The actual shift of the balance between the dual principles is recognized in the form of a painted mandala which is located right above the gate-like passage to the main, outer part of Gallery A (at C, Fig. 23 a), a sign that perfectly fits the arch of the opening itself (Fig. 23 b, left), to the effect that sign and location, jointly, suggest the symbolic act of opening up the passage–a gesture that the adjacent horse (Fig. 23b , right) is ready to heed. The ultimate stage in this development is reached in the main gallery, where an exquisitely crafted horse (the only polychrome figure in the cave) is juxtaposed with an all-yellow square–an image of the earth in its most accomplished and lucid form (Fig. 25).

To the list of shared elements in the neighboring caves of Pasiega and Castillo, we may add the role of the female deer as a token image of life renewal. In Pasiega the wall facing the frieze of signs (at B, Fig. 23 a) shows a large horse aiming for the gate-like passage to the outer cave while carrying along a small doe (Fig. 23 b, right), a configuration that unmistakably recalls the horse-and-doe group in the inner depths of the Castillo cave (Fig. 18a ). The ensuing release of the doe from the inner chamber of Pasiega takes quite dramatic forms, by way of a downward-turned doe in a corner niche (Fig. 24 a)–its neck trapped in a symbol that is not a mandala but a plain “earth” sign (cf. Chapter III). The eventual escape from the realm of the earth occurs in the outer gallery (at E, Fig. 23 a), as a vigorously bouncing doe (Fig. 24 e) escapes confinement to join the group of does gathering around the mentioned, glorified image of a horse (Fig. 25). Significantly, a sequence of mandalas are deployed to help the doe that is confined in the–almost inaccessibly tight–corner-niche (Fig. 24 b, c ), to the effect the last of all these grand signs ends up as the visible clue to the doe’s final emergence into the outer gallery ( Fig. 24 e), where it emerges as a token of the workings, and ultimate blessings of the mass/”yin” – energy/”yang” framework.

At the opposite end of the complex cave of Pasiega we find a second gathering of mandalas, all in a secluded, crypt-like alcove, a space that is set off from the Gallery, by a virtual colonnade of actual columns and large stalactites which allows the visitor to peek into the capricious chamber by way of several narrow gaps (one or two allowing for passage). This strange “Crypt” fascinated the artists, who painted several mandalas here (Fig. 26, B, C, D), to which they, again, added a confrontation of bison (the man with a bison’s head, at E in Fig. 26) and horse (at A in Fig. 26). The main ensemble is reminiscent of the mentioned groupings of horses and does in both Pasiega’s Gallery A (Fig. 23 b) and in the Castillo cave (Fig. 18 a), and here too, the does signify the renewal of life, while the crucial event is the renewal of the solar year (the horse) and the month (the moon sickle composed of dots), and thus, the establishment of time (Fig. 26, A). The “Crypt” is an earth-related setting with narrow openings to the Gallery itself, and the subdivided mandalas (Fig. 26, B, C, and D), address those passages between the depths and the outer world.

The triple-sectioned sign of the Castillo Cave type ( Fig. 26, B) pursues the double purpose of stating a conceptual scheme of universal scope while glorifying one powerful spot in the specific, local cave sanctuary. In the case of the sacred mountain of Castillo, which was home to several major, decorated cave systems, the artists were certainly conscious of this confluence of the universal and the particular, and we should not be surprised to find mixed feelings of awe and pride expressed in several visual references to the mountain itself. Thus, the two triangular signs in the main panel of the Pasiega “Crypt” (Fig. 26, A, top right) seem to be a sort of archaic landscape with the conical Mount Castillo and the adjacent mountain range as seen from the north (cf. Fig. 27, a and b). A similar sign is found in the Castillo cave (Fig. 27 c), in the vicinity of the above-discussed scene of two horses and a large mandala. Although the mandala-like signs in each of the four large, decorated caves of Mount Castillo differ in style and belong to different eras, they still share basic features and functions. They recall the dual powers at the root of creation, and they present themselves as world centers and portals through which numinous powers of the holy site are channeled for the benefits of the tribal community.

Spring and “maximal yang”

In terms of cosmology, the situations reviewed above revolve around the creation of the world, but in seasonal terms, they focus on its troubled re-creation every spring; the artists promoted both aspects of emergence with their mandalas. The concept of complementary dualism may theoretically designate summer as the peak moment of sky-related powers, but in reality, the artists clearly considered the incipient release of “yang” powers in spring to be the optimal and crucial display of sky-related powers, more so than the saturation of summer. Typically, artists would focus their images on the drama of fresh energies erupting victoriously at the end of winter. We find an echo of this attitude in an early Taoist tradition that applies the term “maximal,” or “greater” yang to the moment of spring, the time of first thunders and breaking of the ice (Granet 1975, 134-35). In this spirit, the cave artists, too, gave heightened attention to spring, which they typically celebrated as the break-through moment, when the sky-related principle reasserted itself. With reference to our discussion of Chauvet (Part One, above), we can rest assured that the artists who decorated that cave were quite aware that the season of spring would not empower aurochs bulls and horses to physically overpower lions and rhinos, as they are shown doing in the images of Hillaire Hall (cf. Fig. 6; Fig. 3; Fig. 5; Fig. 4). Yet, in these episodes the artists represented, in their own terms, the essential reality of the particular moment of the year when the balance of powers shifts and everything sky-related becomes irresistible, while everything earth-related must yield as if by magic. Hence, spring prevails, however entrenched winter may seem.

The role of the stag in several of the discussed scenes is a prime exhibit of this predisposition. Female deer, too, may be images of life-renewal in spring (relative to to the earth-bound bison, notably), but the male of the species are the preeminent personifications of the renewal of sky-related energy (cf. Chapter VI). Of course, the ever-renewed growth of antlers is the key to this role, and in this respect, too, we find a precursor to a Taoist tradition, which holds wood to be one of the prime elements, and the growth of new wood to be a basic manifestation of yang and of spring. Conceptually, wood and antlers are thoroughly related concepts, and in visual compositions, the association between mandalas and figures of stags are informative about the seasonal implications of the former.

Thus, the stag takes on a significant role in the above-discussed ensemble around the niche in the back of Pasiega’s Gallery A. Inside the niche (at D, Fig. 23 a) the doe is forcibly retained by the closed-up earth sign (Fig. 24 a), but just outside the niche, the stag defiantly thrusts its antlers through a similar sign (Fig. 24 d), showing it as the quintessential upper-world agent that breaks the grip of the earth, spearheading the move to advance spring; it is “maximum yang.” As the antlers cut through the upper side of the closed “earth” sign (Fig. 24 d ) they, in effect, break it open in the likeness of the ideograms of Pasiega that are divided into a closed earth-side and an open sky-side (cf. Fig. 22 d, e; Fig. 24 c, e).

This capability–an effect of the hypertrophic growth of antlers–is a recurrent feature in portrayals of stags. A quite similar assembly of visual elements, including mandala-like signs, is found in Tito Bustillo. At one end of the cave’s great panel, where the presence of a netherworld is strongly felt through a fissure that communicates–loudly–with a subterranean river, the female deer at the bottom of the wall, is painted with its neck “stuck” in the gaping fissure. Underscoring the similarity with the just-mentioned scene in Pasiega, a subdivided sign is engraved immediately above the deer (Fig. 33, bottom). Stylistically, this sign differs from those at Mount Castillo, but obviously, its functions like those in the Pasiega composition. Thus, the line of lozenges across the bottom section of the Tito sign speaks to the prevalence of the netherworld realm. Above the female deer, a male emerges in a striking counter-pose with its antlers rising above another ideogram (Fig. 33, top), and again the analogy with the Pasiega composition is striking, as the stag virtually breaks open the sign; we may even see the short line that intersects the upper edge of the sign as related to the short points that project from the sky-side of some Pasiega signs (Fig. 24 c, for example). The composition, thus, points to spring as the break-through moment and casts the stag as the agent of the sky-force in the struggle to re-set the cosmic balance. At Tito Bustillo, the success of the effort is manifest in the grand panel’s presentation of half-a-dozen large, impressive horses.

Returning to the Castillo Mountain, we find that the cave of Chimeneas emphatically demonstrates the stellar role of the stag in vindicating upper-world forces over netherworld encroachment. In the southern-most end of the cave, an odd, circular corridor runs right through the hard mass of rock and makes a half-circle before returning to the hall (cf. the plan, Fig. 28 a). The full significance of this curious phenomenon is brought out by half a dozen stags (Fig. 28 b, c, d) that are painted inside this corridor, as if they were blazing a trail through the rocky mass. The prevailing direction of their energetic movement is from right to left (west to east), and it ends with the return of the last stag (Fig. 28 d), which brings along the solar horse (Fig. 28 e)–apparently returning the sun from a journey through the netherworld. Significantly, these events take place under the auspices of a highly visible, poster board-like panel of painted ideograms. One of these is a rectangle with an elaborate frame, that recalls the all-yellow rectangle of Pasiega (Fig. 25 ), and seems to likewise glorify the (re)created earth: in Pasiega, the large horse demonstratively touches the earth symbol; in Chimeneas, three lines cross it ( Fig. 28 g), the numerical “3” signifying the sky and the sun; both signs convey the beneficial harmony of earth and sky.

Two of the Chimeneas signs (Fig. 28 f) are of the triple-section type, with two outer wings and a markedly different central portion, the latter with a slightly raised top part at the very center. In the case of the lower specimen, particularly, this raised part breaks the uniform outline of the sign, opening it up, even suggesting the appearance of a door-way, which makes sense in so far as this sign is situated right above the exit from the circular corridor; in this respect, the sign and its setting make for a striking counter-part to the mentioned Pasiega signs that is set above a significant gate-way (Fig. 23). The parallels between the actual, physical openings and the ruptured frames of these signs agree with our reading of the central section of tri-partite signs as openings through which primordial forces of the depths are released to the upper world. Importantly, this function concurs with the attribution of the upper center of these signs to the season of spring (cf. the diagram, Fig. 18 b). In the Chimeneas panel, yet another rectangle (Fig. 28 h) may be read as a reference to spring and to the powers of the sky that dramatically open up the earth by way of lightning, which is represented as a zig-zag line from above; the concept of a male sky-power penetrating the female earth with the first thunder of spring finds many parallels in later, historic lore, including Taoist traditions.

Early Chinese textual sources name the contrast between what is “closed” and what is “open” as one of the basic distinctions between yin and yang, on a par with the more familiar cosmic, sexual, and seasonal dualities (Granet 1975, 121-22, 140), and the just-mentioned signs are, indeed, emblematic of the concept that the sky-world is open while the earth-world is closed. The progression traced by Pasiega’s frieze of signs (Fig. 22 d, e) devotes much attention to the development of the protruding element at the top of the central section, and to its function as the opening that channels primordial powers of creation. As such, this feature assures the harmonious process whereby the energy of the sky is liberated from the encroachment of the earth, notably in spring. when life-sustaining forces become available to the world.

Energy in flux

The mandalas were, evidently, more than abstract symbols, and their application at locations that suggest contact with the depths of the earth suggests a ritual function. Considering the association with images of the earth’s creation or the renewal of the life it supports, we may conclude that these signs were conceived as means of actively conduct numinous energies between the netherworld and the upper-world; as such, they would aim to participate in the seasonal mutations of the earth and would apply to the year at large, as this was understood as the life-cycle of creation. Thus, they would relate, not just to the spring, but also to the fall, when vital energies are drawn into the earth-related sphere, be it as seeds in the ground, as embryos in the uterus, or as hibernating creatures in caves. Still, the process would be most emphatically important in the spring, when energy is released to the upper world, be it as sprouting seeds, as young being born, or as creatures emerging from hibernation. This fluctuation of energies finds expression in configurations of mandalas with designs that emphasize fluidity, notably through dots or short strokes arranged in lines or as ribbons–abstract renditions of the flow of energies. As these motifs are discussed elsewhere (in Chapters III and VII), we shall restrict the following to a brief summary.

In the panel of mandalas in Castillo’s Corner of Tectiforms (Fig. 19 a), the streaming bands of dots suggest rivers flowing down the wall-face, and the rectangular frame at the top (likewise composed of dots) may indicate the accumulation of ice in the mountains that feeds the rivers in spring. This reading agrees with the contrast between the enclosing form of the icy reservoir and the free flow of the bands–expressive of the mentioned yin/yang-like opposites of “closed” and “open.” To this category, we may add another explicit analogy culled from early Chinese texts: to yin belong waters that are frozen, or are gathered in underground reservoirs, or are stagnant as in swamps; to yang, by contrast, belong rivers that rush with the breaking of the ice, or source springs that emerge from hillsides, or ditches that drain marshes (Hart 1976). The mandala-like signs almost certainly represent actual cave sanctuaries placed along the rivers, but this factual, cartographic reading (as expounded in Chapter III) is just one manifestation of the wider, ritual role of these signs as agents of world-renewal. Ultimately, the mandala, in its dual capacity of  cosmogram and sanctuary was part of primordial origins. I cosmic terms, the sanctuary was located at the navel of the earth and, thus, the focus of the natural features of its region; as a ritual center, it served to replenish the life of the land and to regulate the course of seasonal events and balance the contrary forces of frost and thaw.

This also applies to Altamira, where an alcove-like recess is reserved for an ensemble of painted signs that resembles the just-mentioned one in the Castillo cave; in Altamira, too, the only elements of decoration are four moon-shaped ideograms of the three-part type and rows of flowing ribbons (Fig. 29). The ribbon-like bands contain short strokes that we may compare to the dots in the above-mentioned rows or streamers, a reading that is born of the disposition of the ribbons, as they literally flow toward the opening of the alcove like a stream that gains force on advancing: beginning with a mere trickle (a single vertically rising course in the back; Fig. 29, to the right), growing into five concurrent ribbons–a veritable torrent in the front. The four curved signs hovering above this display (Fig. 29, top) reveal, with their three divisions and their reference to lunar waning and waxing, that the surge below is tied to the cycle of the year and, specifically, to the spring-time rush of energies overcoming the winter-long freeze. A ribbon, like those in Altamira, occurs in the great panel of Tito Bustillo (Fig. 33), where it is juxtaposed with two complex ideograms. In this case, the association with flowing water is self-evident, as the streamer rises vertically from a fissure at the foot of the panel, through which a lower-level, rushing stream is plainly audible.

Complementary dualism is a holistic concept that may relate to myriad inter-related phenomena, so that the metaphor of frost/thaw is but one of several feasible ways to read the fluid design in the Altamira alcove (Fig. 29). Other relevant associations may be the rising sap in plants or the generative juices in animals and humans–both activated in spring and feasible references for the flowing and branching streamers. We may illustrate this greater potential for interpretation with an engraved ivory object from Mas d’Azil (Fig. 31 a), which features ribbons that are quite similar to the ones at Altamira–marked internally with short, regular strokes–are, and which carries explicit sexual implications, as the artifact is carved in the shape of a phallus. Here, the obvious association must be with semen, given that the decorative bands follow the length of the shaft of the phallus, so that the dotted ribbons simulate a flow of sperm.

The staff from Mas d’Azil also alludes both to moving water and to still water, the latter represented as tightly massed, rippled lines around the base of the object (Fig. 31 a, bottom). More is involved, however, as the dotted ribbons along the shaft of the phallus–suggesting the flow of semen–spread out in a way that evoke vegetal growth, with opposed branches departing from a common stem. In that perspective, the flow of liquid may rather suggest sap rising in a stylized plant. Each of the three readings is valid–and quite logically so, as the swelling of rivers upon the breaking of the ice, the rush of bodily fluids with warming weather, and the rise of sap in plants with the revival of vegetation all are valid manifestations of the energy/”yang” principle as it asserts itself in spring.

A comparable object from Bruniquel (Fig. 31 b) indicates flowing water by a zigzag line as well as by fishes, but sexuality is, again, indicated by the phallic shape of the object. Plant designs are not included, but due to the fact that the staff is carved from the woods of a deer, vegetation symbolism is inherently present. The same elements, in a highly compressed form, are engraved on a stone from Romanelli (Fig. 31 c), again a phallic form (a lingam). Parallel zigzag lines may show water, but may also stand for semen, and the design filled by the rising liquids is distinctly plant-like (and antler-like, as well).

The Bruniquel object (Fig. 31 b) is a perforated staff, a distinct class of objects made from antlers in which a drilled or carved hole performs essentially the same symbolic function as the innermost depths and recesses fulfill in the decorated caves. Drilled at the point of the stem from which the antler originally grew, the perforation taps into the growth potential manifest in the antler itself (cf. discussion in Chapters VI, VII). In this respect, a perforated staff emulates a cave’s recesses and pits as these connect with primordial subterranean resources. As the opposite end, these staffs assume a pointed–often expressly phallic–shape, to the effect that the objects inherently represent the binary concept. An abundantly decorated staff from Gourdan (or, L’Hortet) provides an explicit illustration of the role of perforations as pathways to numinous energies (Fig. 32) because the perforation is surrounded by parallel lines that, quite convincingly, represent a cave, or rather, the opening of the cave symbolized by the perforation itself (Fig. 32, bottom). From this design we may deduce that energies released by the perforation of the staff were perceived as–at least symbolically–originating in the abysmal netherworld that may be approached only in the depths of caves. On the staff, the release of these forces is indicated by a flow of water (respectively, semen, sap, blood, or other vital essences) as indicated by a zigzag line circling the staff ( Fig, 32, in the middle) and by two fishes (mating salmon, suggesting a spring run; Fig. 32, top). By contrast, a field of rippling lines at the bottom of the staff appears to be a marsh-like body of stagnant water. Like the scenes with stags in the above-mentioned caves (cf. Fig. 24 d; Fig. 33), this staff also has the dynamic figure of a stag (Fig. 32, bottom), that breaks out of the swamp-like area–static, earth- and mass-related–liberating the flow of fluids–moving, sky- and energy-related.

Caves, mandalas, and the flow of vital energies

As shown above, collections of mandalas are integral parts of the visual program of Pasiega, and a brief review will show the role of these signs as ritual tools, regulating the flow of waters in the local river (Pas) as well as the uterine fluids of the female womb and the semen in the male sex. release of fluids in spring, also affect the themes of sexual revival (human and animal) and the growth of plants. In Pasiega’s Gallery “C,” the flow of dots around the large mandala (B in Fig. 26) may signify waters, but the female genital triangle below the mandala (B, bottom) suggests that we also read the dots as fertile sperm. This view is the more likely as the bison-mask with the huge phallus is located just on the other side of the screen wall of the “Crypt” (at E in Fig. 26). Inside the “Crypt,” the mythic/ritual theme of the female deer and the bison bull is not to be missed, as the central panel of the does (A in Fig. 26) faces the panel of the bison-man; thus, sexuality and vegetation are evoked here, too. In the central panel (A, to the left, in Fig. 26) red dots are arranged in a concave sickle-shape that evokes the moon and its role as ruler of vital juices (including uterine fluids) and of the growth/decay (waxing/waning) of plants. Besides the tripartite sign just mentioned, several other Pasiega-type mandalas appear to control the passages to/from the Crypt, and thus, to influence this mysterious chamber that we may consider an auspicious womb of the earth, a veritable uterine chamber of growth. In the alcove of Altamira, the flowing ribbons (Fig. 29) may, as discussed above, equally well relate to water, semen, or sap. We do, indeed, find all of these themes to be included in the decoration of the cave at large. The theme of waters being released is not exclusive to the large alcove, but one that is amply represented on the polychrome ceiling, in the innermost and lowest part of the ceiling, by way of scores of fan-shaped signs (Freeman & Echegaray 2001, 41-42). Each of these engraved signs consists of a wedge-shaped bundle of lines, all of them starting from one common point, each one effectively representing liquid squirting out from a small opening (cf. discussion in Chapter VII). All these signs may, of course, imply the waters actually present in the depths of the cave, but they may as well refer to the ejaculation of semen–not an unlikely association, as a number of human males with pronounced erections are engraved between the polychrome figures (Freeman and Echegaray 2001, 38). The pivotal theme of Altamira is the relationship between the doe and the bison bull, which is an intensely erotic topic, but one that in the broadest sense concerns all life on earth, human, animal, and vegetal. In the front part of the cave, the stunning polychromy of the bison illustrates the transformative powers of spring, with the bison’s warm colors showing the generosity and nourishing potential of the revived earth. Here, we fully realize that the winter-/darkness-side of the earth-force (“yin”) has yielded to the forces of the sun and the sky (“yang”). In a striking illustration of this reversal, the doe assumes the dominant role in the relationship with the bison, as is definitively acknowledged in the figure of a doe–the largest of all the painted figures–that towers over a tiny black bison (Fig. 30 b). The revival of vegetation is hardly separable from the theme of the warming of the earth in spring, and this connection is, here too, acknowledged by a doe that is superimposed on a bison (Fig. 30 c) again, the bison’s back is the surface of the earth, and the doe is emblematic of growth and prosperity on earth. As demonstrated by the above-mentioned object from La Vache (Fig. 38), the bison/earth retains the seeds of growth, the doe releases the sprouting plants and brings out the flowering. Reconsidering Altamira in its entirety, we find that the spectacle of released energies in the alcove (Fig. 29) is prepared already in the narrow, twisting tunnel at the very end of the cave, the site of an impressive gathering of mandalas (Fig. 30 a). Situated at the opening of a niche in the rock wall, the group of signs reflects the artists’ desire to elicit powers retained deep inside the mountain, and the perceived success of their effort may be traced throughout the narrative program of the cave. For a beginning, in the terminal tunnel, the solar horse is subservient to the earthy bison. One horse even shows the animal marked by several large “V” shaped arrows or wounds and bleeding from the nostrils (Freeman and Echegaray 2001, 40). Progressing to the front of the cave–past the large alcove with its display of erupting spring energies–we find that the outer part of the painted ceiling (the area where daylight from the cave’s entrance was once noticeable) displays several lively, red horses, joyfully celebrating the arrival of summer (idem, 39-40). In all situations considered above, the complex, three-partite signs are found at cave locations where the winter-related forces of the earth prevail, but where that prevalence is being challenged. Everywhere in the caves, emblems of the two great principles are competing for dominance, and repeatedly sub-divided ideograms are called upon to effectuate a harmonious outcome.

The hut-shaped mandala/cosmogram of Marsoulas

The above discussion concerns caves of northern Spain, but complex ideograms as means of articulating complementary dualism was common to Upper Palaeolithic cultures, although the types and styles vary significant from the early caves to the most recent ones. For each major period, we find mandala-like signs that show a mixture of local origins and inter-regional diffusion. Overall, from early o late caves, we can trace a development toward increasingly solid, structural designs, but even the late signs always retain a combination of ideal abstraction and references to physical realities. A study of this duplexity may help us understand how the artists perceived the mandalas in their mind’s eye.

Located in the French Pyrenees, the cave of Marsoulas has specimens that closely resemble the above-mentioned, Spanish examples , but deviates from these by showing recognizable elements of built structures such as tents or huts. The house-like aspect is particularly obvious in the case of the very last sign in the cave (Fig. 34 a), which stands out in red paint against a panel of engraved figures (cf. Fig. 34 b). This ensemble covers the right-hand wall as it traces the slippery descent to the active stream at the end of the sanctuary (at A on the cross-section, Fig. 35 a). This precarious situation is suitably dominated by earth-related motifs, which are predominantly bison, but which include even a grim lion looming at the top. Against this earth-bound setting, the red sign conveys the vision of a whole-world-structure, a cosmic building that harmoniously embraces the principles of both earth and sky, with the earth represented by the floor and the sky by the upper, roof-like part, which is suitably arched upwards (Fig. 34 a). At the top center, we find an aperture from which several short strokes emerge, a feature that recalls the smoke-hole of a hut, while still reminding us of some of the above ideograms that are characterized by a sky-related side, which is open or protruding upwards, and an earth-related side, which is closed. As in the above-discussed mandalas, this division embraces various dimensions of the fundamental dualism. Thus, the upper portion of the sign is connected with a horse, the prime image of the sun and the sky-world (Fig. 34 a, top), while the bottom segment (Fig. 34 a, lower third) is associated with the unusual figure of an owl that is engraved directly below, and which establishes a tie between the floor of the structure and the netherworld of the dead, the near-universal association of owls (cf. Chapter VIII). The dualistic principle may also be implied by the numerical series counting thirteen regular strokes (Fig. 34 a, center), which relates to the moon’s waxing and waning phases. In short, the Marsoulas sign is both a concrete structure and a genuine cosmogram.

A second mandala in the back of the cave is more in line with the above, Spanish specimens, although it, again, has features that suggest an actual structure. This sign is a red, compartmentalized ideogram (Fig. 35 b), divided into horizontal layers that establish a world model consisting of netherworld, surface of the earth, and sky. With the emphasis on the top center and the rectangular shape, the overall appearance of this sign recalls the mentioned Spanish examples, and yet, we recognize features of a hut that, in this case, had a rectangular floor plan and apparently four corner posts (rendered in a flattened perspective) as well as a center-post and an opening for smoke. We may understand the mixed references as an intentional reconciliation of the–supposedly older–compartmentalized prototype and the–supposedly later–hut-like model.

As demonstrated above, the Spanish mandalas were ritual means for implementing a narrative of (re)creation, and the two mandalas in the back of Marsoulas likewise set the stage for a development that encompasses the sanctuary at large. The one at the top of the terminal slope (at B in Fig. 35 a) is superimposed on the black bison in such a way that the top of the sign just crosses the backline, as if breaking open the closed, confining earth. This agrees with the overall development, from the brink of the subterranean stream to the threshold of the entrance ( Fig. 35 a, A – E), as the dominance of bison in the back gives way to the prevalence of horses in the front (Fig. 36 c). The principle of complementary dualism also finds expression in the parallel development of vegetation, as illustrated by the fields of seed-like dots and large plant symbols that are characteristic of Marsoulas.

The first plant design occurs at the top of the terminal slope, vis-à-vis the black bison with the red mandala/hut sign (Fig.35 b). This is a winter-to-spring moment that corresponds with the stirring of vegetation, also articulated by another bison here, which is partially covered with lines of red dots (Fig. 35 c) signifying the awakening of seeds in the ground. Further out, the great panel of the cave (at C in Fig. 35 a) displays the apotheosis of red vegetation signs. In the center, the horse–still surrounded by large bison–carries along a huge vegetation symbol, as if dragging it up from below (Fig. 36 a), a fitting metaphor for the simultaneous rise of the solar year and plant life. Furthermore, a niche at floor-level (at D, Fig. 35 a) contains a genuine plant image, one that seemingly is rooted in–or, nourished by–rows of red dots (Fig. 36 b), the latter recalling both the theme of seeds sprouting and of life-sustaining waters released in spring. In the same vein, another bison (in front of the large horse) is entirely covered with hundreds of red dots (Fritz and Tosello 2010, 22-23). Finally, we notice that the body of the largest bison (Fig. 36 a, left) is painted a light, delicate shade of brown–quite different from the black of the innermost bison–to illustrate, simultaneously, the change of the winter-coat and the warming of the earth. Accompanying the horse at the center of the panel we find the last of the cave’s sub-divided ideograms (Fig. 36 a), which we may see as the artists’ final gesture to reset the course of the seasons and the harmony of earth and sky, as well as impose the role of the sanctuary itself as the source-spring of creation at the center of the world.

The hut-shaped mandala and the tectiforms of Combarelles

Close contacts between individual cave regions toward the end of the Upper Palaeolithic are well documented (though the chronology remains elusive), and we can, for example, not fail to notice that one ideogram in the Dordogne cave of Combarelles (Fig. 37 a) is quite similar to the just-mentioned symbol in the Pyrenean cave of Marsoulas (Fig. 34 a). We may not be certain about the chronology, but we may find a clue in the fact that the Combarelles sign is associated with several engraved tectiforms (Fig. 235 b, in Chpt. III), tectiforms of the strict, schematic type with a floor-line, a roof, and a central pole These signs–familiar, also, from Font-de-Gaume and Bernifal–belong to a fairly late phase of central French caves. The red sign in question is, actually, quite similar to some tectiforms in, for example, Rouffignac (Fig. 234 c, in Chapter III). All of this suggests that the hut-like features of the red Combarelles sign were a genuine part of the development around Les Eyzies, and that it was prior to the one in Marsoulas, which is part of a late Magdalenian ensemble. In any case, each was seen as an actual dwelling.

At the same time, however, each was understood as a smoke-hole as the feature that makes the “open” sky-side different from the “closed” earth-side. The place of these two signs within the topography of the two caves is also remarkably similar, as each is located at the very end of the cave (both sites have basic, single-corridor plans), at a point where the, otherwise horizontal, floor abruptly drops to meet a subterranean stream (at A in Fig. 35 a; at Y in Fig. 37 b); we may add that both signs are painted red to stand out from the surrounding engravings.

The function of the Combarelles sign with respect to the narrative program of the cave is also very close to the above-described function of the Marsoulas sign. Both are ritual statements that endeavor to reset the balance between the seasons of winter and summer at a critical juncture of the year. The narrative program of Combarelles marks the chosen location of the hut-shaped ideogram as the turning point for the long file of hundreds of horses that is the main motif of the cave. Entering the cave and reading the left-hand wall, from the beginning of the decoration all the way to this remote location, the visitor moves in the same direction as the majority of the horses and, particularly, of the largest ones, as they persistently aim inward, that is, toward winter. Reaching the ideogram at the end, and then returning while reading the opposite (right-hand) wall, the visitor again joins the prevalent orientation of the horses, moving outward, which means toward summer (cf. discussion in Chapter V). From the correlation between the ideogram and the drastic change of direction of the solar horse, we conclude that the red mandala was instrumental in ending the decline of the year and resetting the balance between the seasons; the artists apparently saw the structure (the hut-shape) of the sign as emblematic of the powers lodged in the cave sanctuary itself.

While the openly hut-shaped mandalas are late Magdalenian, those of the rectangular type date back to the Solutrean (Cosquer, Lascaux, Gabillou, Chimeneas) as do some of the tripartite, curved signs (Pasiega, Cstillo). The sequence may, however, be more complex, as some of the older types already display certain features that could be seen as elements of dwellings. Among such suggestions of actual structures, two stand out: one is the door-like designs in the central sections of some signs, like the one in Chimeneas (Fig. 28 f) and which we also encounter in a comparable sign in Lascaux ( Fig. 52, top); the other is the presence of certain crossing lines that may indicate supporting or framing elements of wood–for ex. in Chimeneas (Fig. 28 f) and Cosquer (Fig. 227 h, in Chpt. III)–features that reoccur in later tectiforms–for ex. in Combarelles (Fig. 234 b, in Chapter III) and Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 236 a, c, in Chapter III). Almost certainly, there was a long tradition for some connection between the abstract mandalas/cosmograms and physical structures (real or imagined). The two versions in Marsoulas –though certainly contemporary–seem to intentionally evoke both an older, oblong form (cf. Fig. 35 b) and a more recent, centralized form (cf. Fig. 34 a).

The double-arc signs of Chauvet

While the above discussion reveal a long-lasting and gradually increasing tendency to associate the complex mandalas with dwellings, the earliest mandala-like signs in cave art–going back to the Gravettian–are not yet showing a relationship with built structures. Among the painted ideograms of Pasiega are some (Fig. 39 a) that look like simplified versions of the large, sectioned mandala of Castillo discussed above (Fig. 18 a a). Similar signs, also solidly colored and without internal divisions, are found among the older symbols on the painted ceiling of Altamira (Fig. 39 b). In this simpler version of the mandalas, the dualistic principle is already noticeable in the form of the two “horns” of the signs, just as a transitional, central part is still–even if discreetly–suggested by the pointed center. Also, the allusion to the sickle-shape of the moon already evokes the waxing and waning of temporary cycles.

Though the paths of diffusion are nebulous, there is a clear affinity between these signs and a sign that plays a significant role already in Chauvet, the much older cave in south-eastern France (Fig. 39 c). The double-arc sign is seen several places in Chauvet, and as with the above-mentioned ideograms (in Pasiega, Altamira, Marsoulas, or Combarelles), the first occurrences are in the innermost or deepest areas of the cave. As discussed extensively in Part One, this area of Chauvet represents the apogee of earth-powers, as well as the period around mid-winter when the frost was tightening its grip, all demonstrated by the ferocious display of scores of lions and equal numbers of rhinos, organized in aggressive herds. The first double-arc sign (engraved over a painted mammoth; Fig. 40 a) is placed at the far end of the narrow passage–a veritable birth-canal–connecting the innermost chamber (the “Sacristy”) and the large Inner Gallery (cf. Fig. 1 a). This is the passage from which the re-born sun/horse is seen tentatively emerging (cf. Fig. 10, in the back). As the artists applied this conspicuous sign, with its universal principle of transitional dualism, they acknowledged the momentous event, when the solar horse was released from the “uterus” of the earth’s bosom, the momentous event that opened up of the earth and ending the reign of mass, allowing the unfolding of the sky and reviving the powers of energy.

It would be a mistake to conclude, based on this image (Fig. 40 a), that the Chauvet sign is a mere stylization of the mammoth’s tusks. In fact, this figure is one of a few mammoths in Chauvet, with tusks of this shape among more than fifty figures. This particular image was initially painted with tusks that resembled the sign, and it was subsequently over-engraved so as to highlight the similarity by exaggeration–this mammoth recalls the ideogram, not the other way round. Indeed, the Chauvet sign also occurs in abstract form, without any reference to mammoths; as such it could be multiplied for greater effect. This is the case in a panel in the inner gallery (Fig. 40 b, to the right), which is located on the right-hand wall of the gallery, at the bottom of the descent from the upper galleries, so that it, too, is at a low point of the year’s journey into winter. Indeed, this panel shows the victory of earth-related powers to be all but total, a message conveyed by the composition that shows a female genital triangle (Fig. 40 b, top center) at the center–the ultimate metaphor for life-renewal as it originates in the netherworld–and surrounding it, large, fearsome lions and rhinos. The cluster of signs obviously relates to this aspect of the yearly cycle, but the opposite force is not absent, either, as one figure is at odds with the grim spectacle, namely the bear (Fig. 40 b, lower right). The bear is the signature character of the front half of the cave, where figures of bears all are red and all relate to the end of hibernation in spring; even though this figure is the only bear in the depths of the cave and is black (not red), it still represents a faint trace of the sky-related side of complementary dualism. As argued in Part One, we may compare its presence in the inner gallery to the Taoist yin-yang sign’s proverbial white dot in a field of solid black. In this situation, the accumulation of double-arched signs (Fig. 40 b, upper right) becomes an act of ritual exegesis, a demonstration of faith in the flailing sky-forces. Of course, the concept of complementary dualism also embraces the role of the earth/netherworld as the womb in which all life is (re)generated and from which all must be (re)born, and this aspect of the conceptual hierarchy is implied by the design of the Chauvet-type ideogram, as its duplicity serves to re-assert the sky principle.

Another group of engraved double-arc ideograms appear in Hillaire Hall, where they are situated on a rock drapery overhanging a substantial suction-pit in the floor (Azéma and Clottes 2008a, 4). The pit (though, in the age of the artists, not as wide as to-day) was apparently perceived as a potential netherworld resurgence, threatening the Hall’s general message of transformation from winter to spring. The image of an ominous owl at this location (Chauvet et al. 1996, 49) confirms this perception.

Advancing beyond the moment of incipient spring, as detailed in the Hillaire Hall, moving further outward, past the Threshold (cf. Fig. 1 a), we leave far behind the deadly display of the inner gallery and enter a zone of relative settlement, equality of the principles of mass/netherworld/winter and energy/upperworld/summer. The pivotal area of the Threshold, notably, is the site of the most visible of the double-arched ideograms of Chauvet (Fig. 39 c), one that assumes the status of a concluding gesture. The red mandala holds a prominent place in the upper tier of the large panel where the lions and rhinos appear transformed and pacified, partly due to their all-red color and their juxtaposition with red handprints and dots (cf. Fig. 8), and partly because of their changed behavior. Distinct from the inner gallery, the lions are no longer a hunting pack and the rhinos no longer an earth-shaking herd. Notably, one group of rhinoceroses simply displays a peaceful family of a male, a baby, and a female (Fig. 39 c); the heavy brutes are “domesticated.” and the conquering momentum of the earth-related powers is broken. Visibly, the imposing presence of the large, red ideogram seals the achievement, which amounts to a resetting of the cosmic balance in favor of the sky-related principle.

Beyond the references to horns or tusks, the double-horned signs of Chauvet have no apparent physicality. These signs are, however, not to be perceived as entirely abstract, either, but more likely, as inherently associated with the cave, itself, or rather with the rocky hill or mountain within which the cave is enshrined. We may deduce this from the connection with the mammoth (cf. Fig. 40 a), which is the preeminent symbol of the mountains, and we may find support for this conclusion from later images that more directly associate mammoth, mountain, and hut-like mandalas (cf. Fig. 239 a-c).

Lascaux and its square mandalas

Lascaux has probably the largest number of mandala-like signs among Palaeolithic caves. By appearance, they are essentially square, and thus, different from the ones discussed above (except, perhaps, certain examples from Tito Bustillo and Chimeneas; Fig. 33, and Fig. 28). They are characteristic of Solutrean Dordogne, and we find similar signs in Gabillou, in the same region. Ideograms in moon-sickle shape are not unknown in Lascaux, but they are exceptional. A sign of the Chauvet-type occurs in the Apse of Lascaux (Fig. 42 a), and like in Chauvet, it is associated with animal horns (though here with horns of an ibex instead of a mammoth). As in Chauvet, however, this sign is not derived from the animal’s horns, but to the contrary, the horns are emblematic of the sign. The ibex in question (Fig. 42 a) is, indeed, the only one among the cave’s many ibexes that is portrayed with horns in the characteristic symmetrical/frontal perspective used here.

Overwhelmingly, the Lascaux mandalas employ right angles and straight lines. Yet, without recourse to sickle-shapes, internal subdivisions designate opposite sections of the square forms as waning and waxing. In some cases, juxtapositions with animal figures help us read the signs. Thus, Lascaux offers a parallel to the scene of the moon-like mandala in Castillo (Fig. 18 a), in the form of a square sign in the Apse (Fig. 41 a) that is the centerpiece around which two horses move in contrary directions, one inward and downward (in fact, directly down toward the Shaft), the other one outward. In Lascaux as in Castillo, the familiar role of the horse and the solar year allows us to see the innermost (left-hand) section of the sign as winter- and earth-related, the outermost (right) one as summer- and sky-related; they represent the principles of waning/mass/”yin,” and waxing/energy/”yang.” The same Castillo scene also finds an echo in one engraved panel in the back of Lascaux’ sister cave, Gabillou (Fig. 42 b). Here a square mandala hovers above two antithetic horse figures: one is turned inwards and its head is lowered to the ground; the other is directed outwards and its lifted head is enhanced by red ocher (the color accent is significant, as colors are used sparingly in Gabillou). The horse that is turned toward the depths and winter shows the old year, the one that is turned to the outside and summer represents the new year. The mandala itself is painted a conspicuous yellow and is designed with a rectangular center field–perhaps the earth–an inner (winter) side and an outer (summer) side, as well as lower and upper sections (suggesting earth and sky); it has the characteristics of a complete cosmogram. Another Spanish configuration with a matching counterpart in Lascaux is the square sign with a superimposed stag in Tito Bustillo (Fig. 33). A similar composition in the Apse of Lascaux (Fig. 41 b) devotes special attention to the center portion of the sign (covered with fine striations), a feature of the Tito Bustillo sign, as noted above. We may assume that the middle section of the Lascaux sign–like the center of the Spanish one–refers to spring and to the release of new energies, as is also indicated by the soaring antlers.

The angular mandalas of Lascaux and Gabillou are not standardized but, to the contrary, adapted to a variety of situations (cf. Fig. 43, a – k): divided into dual halves (a); with pillars of the world’s four corners (b, c, j); with emphasis on the earth/netherworld (d), or on the sky/upper-world (e); with the numerical symbolism of “three” for the sky and “four” for the earth (f); with open, sky- and spring-related, top center (g, k); with multiple divisions along the time dimension (by vertical lines, h) and in the space dimension (by horizontal lines, i). In spite of the variety, we notice that some outstanding displays in Lascaux (such as the multi-colored group in the Nave, Fig. 46 c) adopt a regularized version that apparently was perceived as basic: a square divided into three horizontal and three vertical sections, generating nine fields. Though only a general guideline for the artists, this model provides us with a theoretical basis for reading the angular mandalas (cf. Fig. 43 l). As the signs are always level and plumb, the assignment of the lower and upper tiers to earth and sky is a given. The sides (right and left) belong to the seasons according to the actual orientation of the rock wall: the summer side is the one that is turned outward; the winter side is the one turned inward. The double-mark that repeatedly notches the top of the sign in the center (Fig. 43 l) is a counterpart to the protruding peaks or strokes that mark many of the above-discussed mandalas, and we may read it as indicating the season of spring (reading horizontally) and as announcing a world that is open to the sky (vertically); typically, we may see this feature as announcing the release of new life forces with the end of winter. In short, we shall proceed to read the square signs essentially like we have read the Castillo model (Fig. 18 b).

As mentioned (in Chapter III), the Lascaux mandalas may be thought of as having a three-dimensional component, which is indicated by slanted perpendiculars at the ends (left and right) of some specimens in the Apse (cf. Fig. 52, center). Unfortunately, this aspect can not be verified presently due to the closure of Lascaux, which precludes a re-examination of A. Glory’s original copies; still, this concept may help us understand the physical nature of interactions between figures and signs in many scenes throughout the cave.

Lascaux provides an exceptional opportunity to study a great number of mandalas in the context of an artistic program that was carefully thought out and meticulously executed. While these ideograms accompany the decoration in most parts of the cave, selective distribution is clearly significant, both regarding areas without any mandalas, and with respect to spots with amassment of mandalas. Notably, mandala-type signs are absent from the Rotunda. The most exuberant part of the cave, located closest to the entrance (cf. the plan, Fig. 44), and roofed over by a grand celestial dome, the Rotunda is overwhelmingly sky-related, or “yang.” It is the location with the most intense concentration of motifs that are decidedly sky-related, including huge aurochs bulls (but no clear presence of bison), as well as dynamic stags; this is the area of the cave that was least in need of ritual support to counter-balance those earth-related powers that dominate the inner cave regions. Conversely, the innermost cave, with its strong presence of bison and lions, and most of all the Shaft with its obtrusive bison and rhinoceros, are set off by strong concentrations of the ideograms. The overall pattern of distribution, thus, agrees with our thesis, that the mandalas primarily were a ritual means that served a shift of modality from the rule of netherworld powers and winter to the prevalence of upper-world and summer. In the Rotunda, spring has conquered all; in the depths winter reigns.

The Chamber of Lions: breaking stasis

As we trace the use of the grid-like mandalas from the back to the front, we are generally following the progressive narrative of the horse. With its hundreds of horses, Lascaux is dedicated to the theme of the sun and the solar year (cf. discussions in Chapters V and XI). Because Lascaux is not a single-gallery cave, the story advances in stops and starts; yet, the general arc of the narrative carries from winter in the back to spring/summer in the front. Beginning in the southernmost end-section of the cave (refer to the plan, Fig. 44), we are in a rough area characterized by irregular, tight spaces (even a gaping pit toward the end). Not surprisingly, we find several bison figures (images of the earth), but no aurochs (images of the sky), and only a single, inconspicuous stag as a pale emblem of the sky-world. In a section completely dominated by the earth-principle, the solar horses are correspondingly subdued, dark, and static, and one engraved horse (Fig. 45 a, to the right) is even shown in a truly unique frontal view–that is, unable to move, neither inward nor outward–pressed between two of the six lions in the small chamber. The cave’s first (innermost) mandalas are found here (Fig. 45 a, to the left). The conceptual framework of complementary dualism preordains an incipient move–however faint–toward the return of sky-related energies to occur at the lowest point in the cycle of the year, and indeed, a first stirring of the upper-world principle happens even here, as a group of ibexes thrust their horns through an enclosing arch that is painted with a thick, black stroke (Fig. 45 a, c). In Palaeolithic art, generally, male ibexes are often the instigators of a move to break the grip of winter (cf. Chapters IV and VII), and here they seem about to attempt just that. The numerical “three,” which is quintessentially sky-related, is marked at the base of the arch, and a cross at the opening of the black barrier amplifies the breach announcing a crossing of paths. The two large mandalas overlooking this scene (at A on the plan, Fig. 44) participate in this initiative, and they appear to represent a progression from the first to the second sign. The first, innermost, sign (Fig. 45 b, left) reflects the earth-bound environment by the solidly closed circumference. A ritual gesture towards a shift of modality is, however, made with the scraping of the left, winter-related side of the ideogram which is noticeable as a highlighting; we may view this as an exorcism of the forces of winter. Correspondingly, the second, outer sign (Fig. 45 b, right) projects a cosmos with an assertive presence of sky-related features. Significantly, this mandala has a double-stroke at the top, which indicates an opening being made for the release of sky-bound energies of spring. By comparison with the first mandala, the emphasis has now shifted to the right, the summer-oriented side, where two elements in reddish ocher are added to the engraved square. The lower of these signs is a three-pronged plant-form (the numerical equivalent of solar energy), and while we already found a vegetation symbol engraved below the left corner of first mandala, this (second) one has moved higher in the ground and is warming up (the red color means that much); these are steps toward the awakening of the earth’s life in spring/summer. Finally, the upper red sign, which is a frequently recurring symbol in Lascaux, carries distinct associations to vegetation (opposed leaves on a stem; cf. Fig. 49 a; Fig. 54 b) but also to expansion and growth in general (cf. the example on the belly of a full mare in Fig. 47). Jointly, the two painted signs (Fig. 45 b, to the right) speak of life stirring in the realm of the earth and, eventually, bursting out into the realm of the sky, the forces of summer overcoming those of winter. In this process, the growth of vegetation may be only a metaphor for the impending awakening of sky-related energies (those of the adjacent ibexes, for example). The “growth” sign bursting out at the top of the outer sign recalls the above-descriptions of vital energies released by mandala-like signs.

The Nave: the birth of the sun

The mandalas in the back predict the escape of the horse/sun from imprisonment in the Lion Chamber, and this event is realized with monumental splendor in the description of the birth of the sun from the bosom of the black cow, the main panel of the Nave (at B in Fig. 44). Here, around the middle of the cave, the topography changes into the characteristic profile of the outer cave; that is, with a horizontal ledge separating a sky-like vault above from an earth-like foundation below. The panoramic decoration reflects this transition, as horses come up from below (Fig. 46 a, right and center) and then continue above the “horizon” separating vault and base. The three multi-colored mandalas (Fig. 46, a and c) are placed here, to (ritually) assist and to (aesthetically) celebrate the event. The (re)birth of the solar horse from the huge, all-black body of the cow–that is, the night sky–is a milestone in the reconstitution of sky-related powers, the victory of light over darkness. This achievement is duly proclaimed (on the opposing wall, at D in Fig. 44) by a monumental frieze of five large stags, rising above the rocky clay bank to lift a tiny yellow horse’s head aloft on their antlers (Aujoulat 2004, 180-81).

The three mandalas (Fig. 46 c) participate in this celebration with their exceptional coloration (rendered in colors, idem. 176). In fact, they represent all the colors available to the artists of Lascaux, even including a purplish shade of red used nowhere else in the cave and rarely elsewhere (possibly a mixture of some hematite and oxidized manganese; Lima 2012, 13, 87). We should not be surprised to find black generously included along with vibrant colors, for the particular logic of complementary dualism saw harmony as encompassing both, making the mystery of darkness and of the confining womb (like the womb of the black cow) inseparable from the light and expansiveness of creation. Chinese philosophers considered dark colors to be yin and bright colors to be yang, and they recommended uniting them–as in the rainbow–on the occasion of festivals (Granet 1975, 145). As shown in the Nave, the birth of the sun is, indeed, a festive event. In observation of the cosmic scheme of the mandalas, the sky-cow’s feet and tail reach into the three squares from above, while the horse/sun, rising out of the earth, passes through one sign from below. The latter is possible because the mandalas straddle the ledge–that is the horizon, appearing with the advent of light–mediating between sky-vault and earth-base (Fig. 46 a, center). The position of the just-mentioned horse–the image of the rising sun–perfectly illustrates the function of the signs as cosmograms (cf. Fig. 46 b). In terms of space, the horse’s head and neck rise above the sky-section (the top tier) of the square, while simultaneously crossing from the physical earth bank into the vaulted ceiling. Meanwhile, the horse’s back stays below the sky tier, and so, remains at the surface of the earth. Articulating this in terms of time, the forequarters are to the left of the mandala (Fig. 46 b), because the front of the solar horse is the beginning of time (be it the morning of the day, or the spring season of the year). The horses tail is, however, below and behind the sign, because the tail is the tie to winter (cf. the similar Pasiega scene; Fig. 22 e). The top central segment of the ideogram in question is marked with the two short strokes that signal the opening of the ideogram with the consequent outburst of sky-related energies, as is amply illustrated in the scene at large. In this same ideogram (Fig. 46 b) we also notice that the two verticals that delineate the center field has little appendices like upward pointing arrows or, alternatively, stylized vegetation. Significantly, each stem carries six leaves for a total of twelve, which may signify a year of twelve months (like certain ideograms in Castillo; cf. Fig. 18 b, and Fig. 19 b). In sum, the three mandalas embrace all of the world, its time, space, and life, all of which get their beauty from the sun. These signs are visual hymns to the sun.

The follow-up to this spectacle, as shown toward the end of the Nave (at C, Fig. 44), advances the progress of the year into early summer. The balance of earth-related and sky-related forces, then, shifts decisively toward the latter (Fig. 47). The bison (or, mass) and the horse (or, energy) are here shown in the act of separating, as one horse’s hindquarters (the winter-related part of the animal) disengages from the body of the bison (Fig. 47, to the right), while other horses continue toward the outside and summer, and the bison returns toward the interior and winter. The image of an agitated stallion pursuing a mare (Fig. 47, center) suggests the time of early summer, in which case the fullness of the mare may just signify fertility in a general sense (the mare foaled in late spring). This, in any case, seems to be the message of the large “growth” sign, demonstratively engraved on the mare’s body. Striking a quite deliberate pose, the mare stretches out a front leg toward the painted mandala that closes the frieze (Fig. 47, left). This is a square sign that has both an earth tier indicated and the double-mark of “opening” on the sky side, and it, thus, demonstrates the essential meaning of the panel: the impregnation of the earth by the sun and the resulting renewal of the world. The horse’s gesture of actually pointing to the mandala is the more interesting, as it joins an abstract ideogram with an acting animal as parts of the same virtual reality. From Egyptian art we are familiar with written characters and symbols (the “ankh” sign, for example) as physical participants in figurative scenes (an “ankh” sign with two legs, or a stream of “ankh” signs poured from a vase, etc.) We may see the Lascaux mandala in this perspective: the pregnant horse, embodying growth (and carrying a “growth” sign) points to the mandala as both explanation and cause of the blessings bestowed on the world.

The Axial Gallery: the circle of the year

Because the plan of Lascaux is complex, its narrative program is non-linear and includes two elliptic episodes, one in the Axial Gallery, the other in the Apse. The Axial Gallery (cf. Fig. 44) prolongs the Rotunda, but on a less grandiose scale, and with a floor that falls steadily toward the back, to end, at its lowest point, with the entrance of the narrow, twisting “Tunnel”; inside the “Tunnel” is the only bison image in this part of the cave (at H on the plan, Fig. 44). The decoration of the Axial Gallery (as discussed in Chapter V) goes from the Rotunda/summer following the left-hand wall (on entering), and from the “Tunnel”/winter following the opposite wall (on leaving). The horses on the left-hand wall move inward and downward, while they change from bright summer colors to dark winter coats; on the right-hand wall they move outward and upward, changing from dark hues to bright ones in the process. Significantly, a conspicuous mandala marks the low point at which the horse/year turns direction (Fig. 48). The low end of the Axial Gallery is also the point in the cave that is geographically farthest towards the south-east–the direction of the rising sun at winter solstice–and the emergence of a horse, rising vertically out of the mouth of the “Tunnel” (Fig. 48, left) dramatically shows the return of the sun at the lowest moment of the year (cf. discussion in Chapters V and XI). Within this scenario, the large mandala, painted right above the “Tunnel,” plays a crucial, clearly defined role. This ideogram (Fig. 48, center) is vertically divided into three fields, of which the left-hand one is oriented toward winter, the right-hand one toward summer. The low section, set off by a horizontal line, is obviously associated with the earth-region of the “Tunnel” just below. The significance of the mandala is, again, brought out by its inclusion in the animated scene, as it is symmetrically flanked by two large, antithetic ibexes: adjacent to the winter-side of the mandala is the innermost ibex, which is all black; connected to the summer-side of the sign is the outermost ibex, which is all yellow. Both the black ibex and the yellow ibex are unique figures in the cave, and their striking color contrast shows with graphic clarity that the function of the mandala is tied to the transition from winter to summer; more precisely the ideogram is instrumental in the transformation. Strategically placed at the nadir of the year, the divided sign confirms the philosophical principle that moves the world beyond the pull of the earth and winter, energizing the return of the sky-world and summer. In agreement with this reading, the yellow ibex is surrounded by horses that move outward, toward summer. In further pursuit of the cosmology implied by the above complex, a second mandala (at I in Fig. 44) is focused on the dimension of space. This ideogram (Fig. 43 f) is divided horizontally in two halves that differ by the number of internal divisions: “four” for the earth below; “three” for the sky above. Thus, the first mandala (the one framed by two ibexes) is devoted to the horizontal dimension and the expanse of time after mid-winter; the second mandala acknowledges the co-existence of earth and sky as the condition of world renewal.

The subsequent ascent of the year is described through a file of horses that move upward and outward, toward the Rotunda (from I to J, Fig. 44), and in the process, these figures also grow in size while changing their appearances from dark brown and black to yellow and bright white; that is, from winter coats to summer coats. Above the most luminous of these horses we find the cave’s last mandala-type sign (Fig. 49 a). Considering the location, near the threshold to the Rotunda, it seems significant that the artist who painted this red sign chose to set off the top section of this square sign–the sky-side–as a separate section while ignoring the earth-bound bottom section, which is the part that is, typically, acknowledged in the mandalas (from the Chamber of Lions to the back of the Axial Gallery). At the risk of over-interpreting, we may see the sole purpose of this sign as the one of celebrating the eventual triumph of the sky and summer. Juxtaposed with this final mandala is a white and yellow horse–the epitome of summer–which carries along vegetation signs that are both seasonal indicators and promises of further blessings (Fig. 49 a). Thus, the sign on the horse’s belly has nine leaves, possibly relating to the nine months of human pregnancies (not the gestation of the horse, which lasts fully eleven months). Ahead of the just-mentioned horse, at the point where the Axial Gallery joins the Rotunda (at K in Fig. 44) we come upon a rectangular sign (Fig. 49 b) that is neither a mandala nor an earth sign, but which, on closer inspection, appears to be a door, with one vertical side (the right) slightly extended above and below the horizontals, while the other vertical meets them at perfect angles. The design is a close match for many depictions of open doors in proto-historic/early historic art. Above this sign a baying stag seems to call the horses out of the depth, guiding them toward the outer world (as mentioned above, a standard role of stags). While we, admittedly, have no extant Palaeolithic doors with which to compare this design, it behooves us to remember that this panel marks the end of a journey that began in the southernmost (winter-related) end of the cave, where the horse/sun had to pass through a “gate” composed of facing lions (Fig. 45 a). Throughout Lascaux, we see the solar horse pass through confining bodies (the earth-bison, the sky cow, even square mandalas) and cross over boundaries (the ledge/horizon, the entrance to the Apse, the mouth of the Tunnel); so, we should not be surprised to see a doorway leading to the final destination of the Rotunda. With the Rotunda’s monumental frieze of white aurochs bulls, the sky-world was solidly established and no further mandalas were deemed necessary in order to hold the world of darkness at bay. Still, the logic of complementary dualism demanded that the principle of the earth/winter be present even at the peak manifestation of the sky/summer principle, and in the Rotunda (at L in Fig. 44) the requisite note of “calamity” is the grotesque carnival figure, who is facing inward, and who is physically pushing the horse (and the solar year) back into the cave, back toward winter (Fig. 50 a). As discussed elsewhere (cf. Chapter XI), he represents frost and the dark season and he is a participant in a mock, ritual battle between winter and summer. He is, of course, doomed to defeat, as he faces the file of three absolutely enormous white bulls (one of which is shown in Fig. 50 b). They represent the sky-related principle writ large, while he stands for the weakened earth-related principle (the flattened ovals on his hide recall a common sign for the earth; see a selection of these in Mingo Alvarez 2009). He is, so to speak, the black dot in the white field of the yin/yang symbol.

The Apse: epicenter of mandalas

By far the greatest concentration of mandala-like signs in Lascaux is found in the Apse, which contains about forty of the square grid type. The cause for this accumulation is obvious, given that most of the signs are crowded in the back of the Apse and, in particular, densely clustered in the recess at the very end, the tiny chamber (or, Apsidiole) that enshrines the descent to the Shaft (at F in Fig. 44). The vertical Shaft itself, with the gallery twenty feet below, is designated as the most ominous location of Lascaux by the striking fact that it features the only rhinoceros among the cave’s many hundred figures. This sinister character–part of the famous panel of the wounded bison–is the prime exponent of unpredictable and destructive impulses (cf. Chapter IX), and we may suspect a connection between this emblem of chaotic disorder and the extraordinary collection of mandalas, with their message of cosmic order–not just winter and deprivation is at stake, but a threat of universal destruction. The decoration of the Apse evolves–like that of the Axial Gallery–as a boustrophedon, starting on the left-hand wall going in, and returning on the right-hand wall coming out (E and G in Fig. 44). Following the lead of the solar horses, the narrative progresses from fall to winter on the left, and from spring to summer on the right.

The first two mandala-type signs on the left-hand wall address the demise of the horse/year; visibly so, as they are placed directly above two horses that not only are set low on the wall, even at floor level (Fig. 51, bottom right), but which, furthermore, are painted all black to evoke the decline and extinction of the solar year, and the anxiety this spectacle may provoke calls for the reassuring induction of the mandalas. The first mandala holds the added interest of including two red ideograms of the Chauvet-type (Fig. 51, top left; cf. Fig. 42 a) and the exceptional presence of symmetrical ibex’ horns, that may signal the shifting balance of summer and winter and, in particular, the equilibrium around the fall equinox (regarding the astronomical role of ibexes, cf. Chapter XI). The second mandala is engraved on the body of a horse that is wounded by long spears (Fig. 51, top right). In a telling reversal, this configuration of horse and ideogram, with the horse turned toward the depths and winter, is a mirror-wise rendition of the above-mentioned group in the Nave (Fig. 46 b) where the horse was turned toward the outside and summer. We may understand the function of the two ideograms in the Apse as reassuring, even protective: in a comment on abrupt decline of the solar horse, these mandalas confirm the deeper meaning of the move into winter, namely that it is part of a larger scheme.

Figures of stags are far more numerous in the Apse than in the rest of the cave. Only male deer are present; some are large and elaborate; a good number are represented only by the antlers. They are critical to an understanding of the Apse at large, and they fare differently on the two walls: on the left wall they strike a note of death and decline that amplifies the description of the failing horse/solar year; on the right wall they are a study in vigor. On the left-hand wall, the so-called “stag of thirteen arrows,” a wounded and collapsing animal, catches the eye on entering the Apse (Glory, in Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979, 281). Further along the wall, another stag is painted black (idem, 272) and a large (incomplete) figure of a stag is, most unusually, shown on its back with its legs in the air (idem, Pl. xiv). This development culminates on the left wall of the Apsidiole, where a frieze of stags, painted black and marked with arrows, is positioned at floor level, right next to the narrow entrance to the Shaft (Fig. 52, bottom). At this point, the plight of the stags, like the parallel demise of the horses, tells us that growth has ceased and vital energies are depleted. Obviously addressing this crisis, a veritable web of elaborate, partly overlapping mandalas crowd the tight space. These ideograms seem to specifically adhere to the antlers of the stags (cf. Fig. 52, center), and we may assume that the re-generation of their growth potential is the objective of the intricate display of ideograms. At the top of this panel, an elaborate build-up of square signs–partially painted in shades of red–takes on the appearance of a continuous, rectangular ideogram (Fig. 52, top), an apogee of mandalas that is closely associated, both with the dying stags below and with two large horses immediately above. The latter are partly covered by, the mega-sign, and by a careful manipulation of their joint outline, they appear as one “shared” body, with two heads: one turned inward, the other outward, a Janus-headed figure that illustrates the year at a crucial turning point, suspended between the end of one year and the beginning of another. We may, then, understand the highly elaborate, composite mandala as the artists’ effort to articulate–and ritually confirm–their sincere thoughts and ardent beliefs about the prospect for a continuation of the year and the world. That they assumed their ideograms to be efficient becomes clear when we shift over from the end of the left wall to the beginning of the right one (still in the Apsidiole, where the two walls are merely separated by a narrow, vertical fissure).

This small move is, actually, the passage from the end of one era to the beginning of another, and already on the right-hand wall of the Apsidiole we witness the recovery, again by way of parallel trajectories of horses and stags. Half a dozen figures of horses (Fig. 53) describe the renewal of the sun/year, beginning with ambiguous movements at the bottom of the panel, but gaining in certainty at the top, where several engraved manes of horses evoke the rays of the energized sun (Fig. 53, top). Several square mandalas interact with these figures. Placed low, just above the Shaft, one square sign separates one horse that is turned both inward and downward from another horse turned up and out, which tells us of the very direct impact of the ideogram (and the philosophy for which it stands) and of its efficiency in assuring the desired change. A carefully engraved square is juxtaposed with a large, fully recovered, horse in the middle of the panel (Fig. 53, center), and at the top, another (basically) square sign is spreading out into a fan-shape, suggesting a sunburst, in apparent conformity with the bristling manes around it (Fig. 53, top). This mandala–like the colored ones in the Nave–interacts with surrounding figures like in a show of virtual reality, participating in the celebration of the revived sun. Above the wall, in the tiny cupola that tops the Apsidiole, a horse is seen emerging from a mandala (Fig. 41 b) in which the central field has been graphically emphasized, to point out the spring as the season when the just-described events are happening. The group in the cupola also includes a stag (Fig. 41 b) that rises above the mandala, the position of its antlers suggesting the eruption of renewed energies with spring (in agreement with the theme of “maximal yang” discussed above). We may read the composition as sequential: the stag bursts out from the center field of the mandala, which pertains to spring; this opens the way for the horse to move forward through the outer section, or summer. Between the two large panels of the Apsidiole occurs the crucial change that moves all of creation out of a world that is closed and earth-related into one that is open and sky-related. The transition is formally recognized by way of two bracket-shaped signs, both painted red, that conspicuously face each other across the dividing fissure (Fig. 52, and Fig. 53). Both look like gateways, and it does not seem far fetched to relate them to the tiny, floor-level descent into the Shaft, just below; both are passageways to the numinous netherworld. Two short strokes on top of the right-hand sign–but not on the left-hand one), suggest that the latter is a closed passage, the former an open one (cf. the double-strokes on mandalas of the Nave; Fig. 46 c, and Fig. 47). If so, this signals that the closure imposed by winter (the situation on the left-hand wall) is broken through with the end of winter (as seen on the right-hand wall). The antlers of stags seem to play a role in this event, which, in turn, leads to the replenishment of vital energies (cf. discussion , Chapter VI).

The Apse holds most of Lascaux’s (about sixty) stags, and the right-hand wall, notably, is alive with their, often wildly branching, antlers. This exuberance is evident already in the Apsidiole, where antlers rise like soaring flames to the top of the panel (Fig. 53). In the unfolding of the spring-to-summer narrative of the right-hand wall (G in Fig. 44) the stags play a prominent role, one that is increasingly associated with the introduction of vegetation symbols. This symbiosis of antlers and plants culminates near the exit from the Apse, an area in which images of horses and stags are connected to a unique assortment of plant-like images (Fig. 54, a and b). One long, finely engraved, vegetation sign (possibly fern-like) winds itself around a head of antlers that, in itself, is truly remarkable for its solid stem–so thick and heavy, it seems, that the animal is brought to its knees by the weight (Fig. 54 a). This ostentatious plant design (as fabulous as the vegetation imagery of Marsoulas) appears to grow out of the last of the square signs in the Apse. An adjacent mandala, at the front legs of the mentioned stag (Fig. 54 a, bottom) is quite elaborate and presents the new and interesting detail that the outer, right-hand field– the summer-related side–here is emphasized by dense striation. We have, thus, come around full circle from the very first mandala, in the Lion Chamber, with its emphasis on the winter-related side (cf. Fig. 45 b). At this point, the cosmic ideograms had fulfilled their purpose of controlling the earth-related forces and promoting the sky-related side of creation; they had secured the renewal of the world’s energies, growth, and life.

Exorcism: the lions of the Apse. The decoration of Lascaux, with its many horses, aurochs and stags, is generally sunny and bright, and the use of mandalas in the cave works to sustain the predominance of the summer/sky-related side of totality as much as to repress the winter/earth-bound side. Momentarily, the ritual function of the ideograms may, however, confront the netherworld powers directly, and in dealing with the lions in the Apse, the approach is openly confrontational. On the right-hand wall, the presence of half a dozen small figures of lions–truly monstrous agents of death–can only be perceived as a persistent threat to the blessings just described. These lions occupy a horizontal streak of the wall, below the main figures (Fig. 55 b). They are, thus, kept somewhat marginal, and they are, furthermore, all directed back toward the Shaft–demonstratively, in the opposite direction of the horses and stags. It appears that what repels these beasts, driving them back towards the lower cave, is a number of square signs that intrusively surround them. This function is, notably, illustrated by the configuration in the very back (Fig. 55 a), where the innermost lion (also shown in Fig. 55 b, to the left) appears to be ejected from a square sign (significantly, from the bottom of the winter-oriented section), plunging head first into the steep descent to the Shaft; the impression is that the mandala itself excites the power that returns the lion to the realm of death and chaos. The dynamics of the dualistic scheme makes the mandala a tool for ritual banishment of evil. The stag that, simultaneously, rises its head above this ideogram shows that the defeat of the netherworld side of creation entails the victory of the upper-world side. In the larger group of lions and square ideograms (Fig. 55 b ), the configurations suggest a veritable expulsion of lions. In this perspective we may also see the strange trapping of several lion’s tails in square grids (Fig. 55 b, center), probably in reference to a myth about the origins of fire, originally lodged in the lion’s tail (cf. Chapter VIII). In the case of the curiously twisted lion attached to a mandala (Fig. 55 b, at the bottom), the position of the tuft of the tail at the middle of the square seems significant, giving this detail a place at the dead center of the cosmos. The contorted posture of this, last-mentioned lion (Fig. 56 a) is a unique invention without ready parallels in other Palaeolithic art; it appears to be a predecessor of proto-historic cylinder seals from the Near East showing lions, bulls (or half-human versions) engaged in struggles that twist them into S-shapes. The Lascaux figure is comprehensible as the result of two contrary motions: the lion’s head points one way, that is outward, but its body is pulled the other way, inward. In other words, the animal aims outward, but it is drawn back. We may, then, assign to the mandala itself the power to “seize” the beast and direct its savagery away from the freshly renewed world (all the while wrestling away the lion’s primordial ownership of fire). However, we read this curious figure, the “S”-shaped curve it describes (cf. Fig. 56 b) is perhaps the Ice Age artists’ closest approximation to the inscribed “S” of the oriental yin-yang sign.