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Shamanism and Symbols

posted May 6, 2010, 8:48 PM by Layne Lawless   [ updated May 6, 2010, 8:55 PM ]

A fascinating theory has evolved about the purpose of rock pictures, one that is as old as it is new. Its primary proponents are archaeology professors in South Africa, France, and at UCLA.

The theory suggests that they are “mementoes of shamanic vision quests in which shamans sought to draw on the powers of the world around them by inducing hallucinations. The vision became your spirit helper, which you immortalized with an image.”[13] Clottes and Lewis-Williams draw upon neuropsychological research to explain the trance states of shamans that created the pictographs in caves in Europe and probably the petroglyphs in the New World.

At the beginning of their book, The Shamans of Prehistory--Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves, they show a photo of 2 petroglyphs in North America side by side: a snake and a bird. The snake is symbolic of connecting with the underworld and the spirits, while the bird symbolizes flight into the upper world. (See Appendix C.)

What causes trance states, and what kinds of visions do shamans see? “At all times and in all places [throughout history] people have entered ecstatic or frenzied altered states of consciousness and experienced hallucinations. Indeed, the potential to shift, voluntarily or involuntarily, between states of consciousness is a function of the universal human nervous system.”[14]

“Trance states are caused by a wide range of factors…Including temporal lobe epilepsy, migraines, schizophrenia, ingestion of psychotropic drugs, sensory deprivation, prolonged social isolation, intense pain, vigorous dancing, and insistent, rhythmic sound, such as drumming or chanting.”[15]

“In the first, or lightest, stage of trance people "see" geometric forms, such as dots, zigzags, grids, sets of parallel lines, nested curves, and meandering lines. The forms are brightly colored and flicker, pulsate, enlarge, contract, and blend one with another.”[16] These are the same geometric forms that neuropsychological research has established in laboratory experiments with people from the industrialized world. These experiments used electricity, LSD, and sometimes sensory deprivation to make the subjects hallucinate. These geometric forms are often referred to as entoptics, meaning “within the eye. It’s believed that these patterns derive from the optic system itself…Concentric circles, spirals, and grids are probably generated by neurons firing in the visual cortex and the retina.”[17]

“In the second stage, subjects try to make better sense of the geometric percepts by illusioning them into objects of religious or emotional significance. Shimmering zigzags may be construed as a writhing snake.”[18]

“The third stage is reached via a vortex, or tunnel. Subjects feel themselves drawn into the vortex, at the end of which is a bright light. On the sides of the vortex is a lattice derived from the fometric imagery of Stage One. In the compartments of this lattice are the first true hallucinations of people, animals, and so forth. When subjects emerge from the far end of the tunnel, they find themselves in the bizarre world of trance: monsters, people, and settings are intensely real. With one's eyes open, Stage Three hallucinations are projected onto surrounding surfaces...the surfaces themselves become animated. In Stage Three people feel they can fly and change into birds or animals. One of the frequently reported experiences is transformation into an animal.”[19] (See Appendix D.)

“We emphasize that these 3 stages are universal and wired into the human nervous system, though the meanings given to the geometrics of Stage One, the objects into which they are illusioned in Stage Two, and the hallucinations of Stage Three are all culture-specific; at least in some measure, people hallucinate what they expect to hallucinate.”[20]

“Altered states of consciousness are…interpreted in 1 of 2 ways: spirit-possession or soul-loss. Hunting and gathering societies usually interpret it as soul-loss. All over the world, shamans speak of flying to distant places and to other realms that are inhabited by spirits and monsters. Descent is also part of the shamanic initiation.”[21] Going into a cave most probably was a way of descending into the spirit realm, of touching the Earth Goddess.

Some have suggested that the paintings in the caves in Europe were just “doodling,” or a way of passing the time. Caves were magical—when one went into them, one went on serious business. The people of the Upper Paleolithic were “no longer happy savages with time on their hands. They had to struggle in a hostile world for survival.”[22]

Shamans in hunting and gathering societies enter altered states of consciousness to achieve a variety of ends that include healing the sick, foretelling the future, meeting spirit-animals, changing the weather, and controlling real animals by supernatural means. “The theory of sympathetic magic is based on a relationship or identity postulated between an image and its subject. In acting upon the image, one acts upon the person or animal represented. The more successful the drawing, the more effective the magic.”[23]

The idea that the pictures on the cave walls were for fun or superficial purposes is negated by the portable art found at Enlene and Les Trois-Freres. There were bone objects, spearheads, cone fragments, and teeth, some engraved with diagonal lines, thrust vertically into the floor of the cave. Small bones were found pushed into the cracks in the walls of the cave. Other items found included fossil shell, bear teeth, flints, and a flint-end-scraper. Other areas that were especially difficult to access, where cavities in the rock were filled with clay, were found repeatedly punctured by spears, sticks and fingers.[24]

“It seems as if people were trying to penetrate the surfaces, to reach through the walls…Upper Paleolithic people understandably believed that caves led to the underworld. The walls, ceilings, and floors of the caves were therefore little more than a thin membrane between themselves and the creatures and the happenings of the underworld.”[25]

The way in which the pictographs were created shows a very focused sense of purpose. Animals are drawn out of proportion with their actual size, and exist, floating on the walls, without any natural background or vegetation. After all, “…it was spirit animals that mattered, not the world outside the caves.”[26] The cave's surface was used to create features, e. g., nodules were used for an eyes; some rock reliefs were transformed into faces based on their shapes. Animals sometimes appear to emerge from within the rock, particularly when drawn using a crevice as the point of origin. The animals, for the most part, are unrelated to each other. “These…features are characteristics of the projected hallucinations of the third stage of altered consciousness. The important point here is that the paintings and engravings do not depict real animals that were hunted for food in a real landscape…they are more like visions that were sought in a subterranean spirit realm for their supernatural potency and the help that they could give to shamans.”[27]

Not many of the animals are depicted as being speared or penetrated by arrows (something that would normally indicate hunting magic), and of the few that are, they’re hidden away in secluded areas of the caves where they have a small chance of being seen. Anthropozoomorphic (human/animal) figures suggest images of transformed shamans in stage three hallucination, or they may be manifestations of the Lord or Lady of the animals, what we might call a “beastmaster.”

All around the world, there are pictographs of hands, sometimes done by pressing a hand to the rock and spraying paint around the outline, and at other times by painting the hand and pressing it to the rock. What do these hand paintings mean? Are they more than just a way of saying “I was here?” “It was the act of covering the hand and the immediately adjacent surfaces with (usually red but sometimes black) paint that was important. People were sealing their own or others’ hands into the walls, causing them to disappear beneath what was probably a spiritually powerful and ritually prepared substance…Like the pieces of bone in Enlene [cave], the hands thus reached into the spiritual realm behind the membrane of rock…they established an intimate relationship between the participants and the hidden world of the spirits.”[28]

Imagine what an experience a trance in a cave might have been like if you were alive some 10,000-32,000 years ago (the dates the pictographs were made). It was cold, it was dark, and you were scared, afraid of what you might discover, yet excited to begin. You hoped to meet your spirit guides who would keep you safe on your journey, and you prayed that whoever or whatever you encountered was friendly. Maybe you had a problem and were seeking a solution from your deities. The tiny bit of light you had flickered on the walls, casting eerie shadows. The shapes already drawn or etched on the walls start to undulate and pulsate in the half-light. Your breathing becomes faster, as you anticipate the unknown. Perhaps you have a teacher with you who has done this before, who urges you on, to give in, to relax. As you slow down, time seems to stand still.

Gradually, you see shapes emerge from the darkness…some of them are abstract, geometric. As you go deeper into trance, you see recognizable shapes of everyday things, like your medicine bag, plants, and animals floating by. Then you have a feeling of rushing, leaving your body, while your spirit journeys into the nether realms with your animal guide. You see animals with human heads, and humans with animal heads. You merge with nature, become one with the universe. You are led and shown whatever you need to see by the Goddess, the one who lives in the cave. When it is over, and you have returned to your body, you are sweating and excited. You have the power, you have the answer. You have met your spirit guide and been shown what to do.

Perhaps this is what it may have been like for an ancient shaman in a magical cave. The pictographs in the cave may have been left by other shamans before, or may have been done by her/him, recreating the trance afterward. Descent into the earth is a common shamanic theme, and entry into a cave replicates the stage three sensation of being drawn into the vortex.

Hunting and Other Magic

What about the petroglyphs that don’t fit the model of Clottes and Lewis-Williams? Are the animals in rock pictures merely prey, or are they something else? In the Coso range there are many petroglyphs of bighorn sheep being pierced by arrows, yet out of 10,000 bones found at the site, only 1 was a sheep. The Shoshone ancestors who lived there obviously didn’t eat sheep. “If they were going to make rock art out of what they were eating, there’d be bunnies all over the rock,”[29] UCLA archaeologist Dave Whitley says.

The sheep getting killed is a spirit guide of the shaman who drew him. “Killing the sheep is a metaphor for entering the supernatural through a hallucinogenic trance.”[30]

Many of the petroglyphs show part-man, part-animal figures. In one particular one, a shaman has talons instead of feet. “[They] could be part of a common metaphor for entering supernatural flight. (Many petroglyphs of therianthropes—beings part animal and part human—also have wings in place of arms.) This probably ties in with the feeling of floating up and out of one’s body, as often happens during the third stage of a mind-bending altered state.”[31]

“The humanoid figures that aren’t busy turning into sheep are busy shooting them with bows and arrows. In the mythology of the Native American cultures of the Far West, death is the most prevalent metaphor for entering the supernatural. (At this point, the shaman has become his spirit guide and the two are considered interchangeable.)”[32]

“Not all petroglyphs fit the neuropsychological model of rock art. The Hopi carved clan symbols on rocks during pilgrimages. Northern Plains tribes decorated the landscape with symbolic renderings of their war exploits.”[33]

In Alta, Norway, there are petroglyphs in granite that are between 2,500 and 7,000 years old, located on a site that had been held sacred for more than 4,000 years. The petroglyphs depict hunting and fishing activities and animals: whale, reindeer, halibut, bear and elk. Even though the people ate cod as well, there are no pictures of that fish. Perhaps the hunting magic was needed for prey that was more difficult to catch?

The director of the Alta Museum, Hans Soborg, said this about a bear petroglyph: “Since the bear is shown with tracks, it probably means this image represents a bear emerging in the spring from its hibernation den and leaving tracks in the snow. Its magic meaning could be linked to spring and resurrection. The bear images at Alta were also probably part of a bear cult.”[34] So it appears that the animals which were eaten were also worshipped and perhaps used as spirit guides.

Conclusions


I’d like to put forth a hypothesis: the rock pictures that are more accessible are the least likely ones to have anything to do with shamanic trances. Throughout my reading, I have noticed that the pictographs in the caves, as well as the petroglyphs that seemed most likely to be connected to shamanic trances were hidden in hard-to-reach spots. In The Shamans of Prehistory--Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves, the authors noted that many of the pictographs were difficult to get to, and required constricting oneself in rather tight quarters, climbing a steep rock, going to the far corner of the cave, etc. They suggested that ones in small chambers of the caves were most likely used in personal vision quests. Perhaps the rock pictures that are more accessible were for everyone, not just shamans, and the ones in private, out-of-the-way places were just for the initiated of the tribe.

I would like to see some ground surveying done at petroglyph sites, and some excavation if it is indicated. If any artifacts are recovered, it might be easier to date the petroglyphs. I can’t believe the area surrounding magical symbols wouldn’t be rife with artifacts. I think the archeologists are so in awe of the rock pictures that they have forgotten to look below.

The mana in rock pictures is obvious. Connecting with them in some way, perhaps even just to touch them, is to connect with what they represent, whether it be the power of an animal, a deity, a shaman, or the power of an ancient time and place. For prehistoric peoples, they were a way to stay in touch with the supernatural by picturing it.

Humans are visual creatures, and we are always creating images of the things we hold sacred, as well as the more mundane items in our lives. That is why the prohibition of idolatry in the Bible seems so “off,” so against human nature. We think visually, and having no pictures of what we worship creates a stale, sterile environment devoid of the rich texture of real spirituality.

Shamanism and magic are the only viable explanations for rock pictures that ring true for me. At the time they were created, life was about survival, and using the supernatural to help a tribe survive was part of human nature.

Copyright 2001 by Laine Lawless
All rights reserved--no reproduction without permission
lainelawless@yahoo.com


Bibliography


Asher, Maxine, Ancient Energy—Key to the Universe, 1979, New York
Biemiller, Lawrence, Clambering Up a Cliff to Record the Fading Handiwork of Man. Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/23/01, Vol. 47 Issue 24 pA64
Bruemmer, Fred, Records in the Rock. International Wildlife, Jan/Feb 2001, Vol. 31 Issue 1, p44
Burkholder, Grace, Perceptions of the Past—Solar Phenomena in Southern Nevada, 1994
Clottes and Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory--Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves; 1998, New York: Harry Abrams
Enduring Mystery of Stonehenge, World Timeline, The History Channel, broadcast October 28, 2001
Frobenius and Fox, Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa, 1937, Museum of Modern Art
Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess, 1989, San Francisco: Harper & Row
Grant, Campbell, Rock Drawings of the Coso Range, 1986, Ridgecrest, Maturango Museum
Grove, Peggy, Myths, Glyphs, and Rituals of a Living Goddess Tradition. ReVision, Winter99, Vol. 21 Issue 3, p6
McMann, Jean, Riddles of the Stone Age, 1980, London: Thames and Hudson
Roach, Mary, Ancient Altered States. Discover, Jun98, Vol. 19 Issue 6, p52


[1] Pg. 58, Grant, Campbell, Rock Drawings of the Coso Range, 1986, Ridgecrest, Maturango Museum
[2] Pg. 66, Clottes and Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory--Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves; 1998, New York: Harry Abrams
[3] Pg. 31, Burkholder, Grace, Perceptions of the Past—Solar Phenomena in Southern Nevada, 1994
[4] Pg. 3, Ibid.
[5] Pg. 37, Ibid
[6] Pg. 11, McMann, Jean, Riddles of the Stone Age, 1980, London: Thames and Hudson
[7] Pg. 279, Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess, 1989, San Francisco: Harper & Row
[8] Enduring Mystery of Stonehenge, World Timeline, The History Channel, broadcast October 28, 2001
[9] Pg. 279, Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess, 1989, San Francisco: Harper & Row
[10] Grove, Peggy, Myths, Glyphs, and Rituals of a Living Goddess Tradition. ReVision, Winter99, Vol. 21 Issue 3, p6
[11] Pg. 21, Asher, Maxine, Ancient Energy—Key to the Universe, 1979, New York
[12] Pg. 43-44, Ibid.
[13] Biemiller, Lawrence, Clambering Up a Cliff to Record the Fading Handiwork of Man. Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/23/01, Vol. 47 Issue 24 pA64
[14] Pg. 12, Clottes and Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory--Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves; 1998, New York: Harry Abrams
[15] Pg. 14, Ibid
[16] Pg. 16, Ibid
[17] Roach, Mary, Ancient Altered States. Discover, Jun98, Vol. 19 Issue 6, p52
[18] Pg. 16, Clottes and Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory--Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves; 1998, New York: Harry Abrams
[19] Pg. 17, Ibid
[20] Pg. 19, Ibid
[21] Pg. 26-27, Ibid
[22] Pg. 68, Ibid
[23] Pg. 66, Ibid
[24] Pg. 83, Ibid
[25] Pg. 85, Ibid
[26] Pg. 30, Ibid
[27] Pg. 30, Ibid
[28] Pg 95-6, Ibid
[29] Roach, Mary, Ancient Altered States. Discover, Jun98, Vol. 19 Issue 6, p52
[30] Ibid
[31] Ibid
[32] Ibid
[33] Ibid
[34] Bruemmer, Fred, Records in the Rock. International Wildlife, Jan/Feb 2001, Vol. 31 Issue 1, p4