I begin the New Year with a post about our earliest art and spirituality…
As we enter into winter’s deepest weeks here in the northern hemisphere, when the light is growing but the cold and snow drive us inside, it is a good time to enter into the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” as Werner Herzog calls the cave in France that gives his film, just out on DVD, its title. The film, which had only a very limited theatrical release, shows rare footage of the art in the cave, some dating to 30,000 BC, as well as what little information exists about what may have happened there.
Most of the paintings are of animals running, fighting, hunting, resting and walking — things Paleolithic humans would have observed animals doing. The only figure that appears to be human is of a woman’s lower half that resembles the Willendorf statue figure.
As the scientists in the film explain, we really cannot know what went on in the cave or, assuming that the paintings had a spiritual function, what Paleolithic spirituality was like. However, we can express what we, as humans, experience in the presence of this art, whether in person or, when that isn’t possible, through media like this film.
When I look at the figure of the half-woman, I see the power of creation surrounded by the life-giving as well as life-taking power of nature in the dynamic yet precise animal drawings. Thinking back to the environment of those times, the animals were both what provided life for women and their families as well as perhaps the greatest danger as people were killed or injured hunting or getting in the way of stampedes or animals on the prowl for food.
What I love most about the cave paintings is both their intense beauty as well as the proximity of the power of the female figure to that of the animals. The female figure is close to the animals that original creators must have greatly feared at times. Her power is also deeply embedded in the power of the animals as if both were elements of the same spiritual power. Whatever the paintings meant to the original artists, when I see them, I feel tremendous courage in facing and putting oneself in the midst of one’s fears as well as acknowledging and celebrating one’s own spiritual power.
How would this translate to our own time? To our own lives? Can we use our own spiritual power as life-givers, as humans, to face the most dangerous aspects of ourselves and transform them into beauty, into life-affirming power? So many of us do this each day when we use anger at injustice to effect change, when we turn back cruelty with kindness towards its victims, when we name those prejudices that have gone unchallenged for too long for what they are.
The lives of those who created these paintings are so different from ours that we can never know whether our experience of them is anything at all like that of their original creators. Yet, at the same time, I do believe that some experiences are universally human. As I was thinking about this post, I got two automated calls from our local police department. One reported a little boy missing in our neighborhood and asked for help in keeping an eye out for him, then the other told us that he was home safe. In the cave are the footprints of a child about the same age, most likely made shortly before an avalanche closed off the cave, preserving it for us to find millennia later. No human remains are in the cave, so presumably the child found the way out again. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to me that perhaps that child’s wanderings created the same sense of community concern and relief if the child returned home safely.
Perhaps, too, some of the emotions evoked by the cave’s paintings are also universally human. Perhaps the women who saw their own bodies in the drawings in the cave would be proud of the courage and life-affirming acts of women 30,000 years in the future who were inspired by the paintings to contemplate their meaning.
If you have not seen “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” you might wish to think about finding a copy of the DVD and watching it. Winter is a good time not only because it is traditionally when stories from ancient times were told, but also because it is when our environment may be closest to those of the original Paleolithic people who made the paintings. Europe was much colder then and the people would likely have felt more at home in the chill of winter looking out at barren and snowy landscapes than in the steamy heat of summer. Maybe if you watch it, you will also see yourself on the cave walls.