“Our way is the way of the serpent in the underbrush,
Our knowledge is in the eyes of goats and of women.”
~ Jack Parsons
Abbé Henri Breuil sketched diligently by the dim gas-light, in a high alcove deep within a cave system. What he drew there and in other caves, what theories he later published about his discoveries, would help shape not only modern archaeology but also modern Paganism.
The Abbé was a man obsessed, crawling through narrow passages and scaling walls, only to lie upon the floors of caverns humanity had not set foot upon for thousands of years. All to draw the images he found there within. The most ancient of art in European history called to him. Cave art; depictions of bison and horses, lions, disembodied body parts (such a vulvas without the woman) and hand prints. As well as a few images of the human form mingled with that of an animal, the experts call these part-human and part-animal figures therianthropes or anthropomorphs.
“God was born sometime in the Palaeolithic Age, the Old Stone Age, which corresponds historically to the geological ice age. There are indications of religious cults in altars and burial sites that date back to the time of Neanderthal Man (Homo sapiens neanderthalis) that is, as early as the Middle Palaeolithic (ca. 75,000 B.C.E.). But the first clear pictures we have of male deity are on the walls of the great cave of Cro-Magonon Man (Homo sapiens sapiens) in Europe, Africa, and Asia during the early part of the Upper Palaeolithic (30,000-10,000 B.C.E.) period. The Upper Palaeolithic was marked by the development of bladed stone tools, by some cave dwelling, by hunting and gathering and later fishing, and by the emergence of art in the form of sculpture and painting” ~ God: Myths of the Male Divine by David Adams Leeming and Jake Page
The Trois-Frères cave system was just one of many ancient cave systems Breuil would visit in his lifetime. In fact, it is far from the most famous of caves he worked in. Discovered in southern France, the art in this cave dates back to the mid-Magdalenian period of about 14,000 B.C.E. This cave features some 280 engraved images of bison, horses, stags, reindeer, ibex and mammoths. In a large chamber known as the Sanctuary, at the height of about four meters (about 15 feet) from the cave floor, a therianthrope dominates the scene. Part man and part beast this figure is both engraved and painted. He is not large, a little less than a meter tall in fact, but as the only painted engraving, he stands out from the animals depicted on the walls around him.
Breuil was known to exaggerate his images at times and to attempt to “fill in the blanks”. He also worked in very difficult conditions, often on his back, trying to hold a light and his drawing implements at the same time. He drew this image with antlers, which do not appear in modern photography. This image is partially carved and at times photography does not do the relief of cave art justice. This may be a trick of light, or of Breuil’s own mind. The experts still do not agree on this point. To this day one of the most commonly found versions of this image is a photograph with Breuil’s artwork superimposed upon it. Below is a written description given by a modern researcher who had the chance to see the Dancing Sorcerer with his own eyes:
“His eyes are two black circles with black, round pupils looking straight ahead. His nose is a single line between them that ends in a small arc. A long, pointed beard that reaches to his chest covers the rest of his face. He even seems to have a thick handlebar moustache that turns up at the ends. He has the ears of a stag. They are pricked up and turned forward as if something has caught his attention. Two stag’s antlers sprout from his head. He has the long body of a horse, outlined with thick stripes of black paint, and a horse’s tail that is also partially painted. His arms are more human than not. He’s holding them together in front of him. They end in what appear to be five long fingers but no thumb. His sizable penis, while not erect, sticks out beneath his tail. He has muscular legs bent at the knee. They, too, are colored in with black paint. He has lifted one foot as of he is walking, prancing, or dancing. He is a moving, bearded man-stag-horse who knows we are here and has suddenly turned to look right at us” ~ The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis
This man-beast was dubbed by Breuil “The Sorcerer” (later referred to as The Dancing Sorcerer) and he theorized that this image was that of a shaman. He felt this supported his theory of “sympathetic magic”; an image of a shaman dressed in the skins of an animal, calling the hunt to him for the survival of his community . Indeed the image itself does seem to be in mid-step, as if forever caught in a shamanic dance.
Margaret Murray read Breuil’s work and combined with her other studies, and with her desire for a revival of Pagan practices, she built upon Breuil’s theories. In her work “The God of the Witches” she called The Dancing Sorcerer “…the earliest known representation of a deity”. An idea that became so poplar even Breuil himself adopted it. So did many others, including Gerald Gardner. In fact many introductory Pagan books feature an image of The Dancing Sorcerer and speak of the Stag King, the Horned God, or the Lord of Animals to this very day.
Many scholars and non-scholars have adopted the theory that the Dancing Sorcerer is either a shaman or deity or both. Though we must be honest in acknowledging these are educated guesses at best.
“Because they are uncommon in cave art and also infrequent in mobiliary art, the figures of humans have not yielded much information on their role in the Palaeolithic message. The magic of the hunt, symbols of human fertility side by side on the walls with those of animals, a shaman executing hunting dances, mother goddesses, all these explanatory
themes abound, and are based solely on the reminiscences of western thought.” ~ From The Dawn of European art: an Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting by André Leroi-Gourhan
Another therianthrope can be found within Trois-Frères, surrounded by a seething mass of bison, rhinos and horses. He is bull-like, complete with horns and a furry ridged back. He rises up on his hind feet, one leg bent in stride or dance. A long, thin object protrudes from his mouth (or nostrils) as if he is playing upon a reed pipe or some instrument.
The cave known as Chauvet may feature some of the oldest known cave paintings. This cave was discovered in 1994 in southern France. One interesting image found within Chauvet is that of the lower part of a woman with a bison and a horse above it. The pubic region is clearly and carefully drawn. The shape and style of the thighs and legs (minus feet) is eerily similar to the Venus statuettes found in archaeological digs, such as the Willendorf Venus. Her legs meld with that of the animals; the bison’s head and horns cover where her belly should be. The shape and position of the bison’s head mimic that of the female reproductive organs. Prehistorians refer to this figure as Venus and the Sorcerer. We find this enigmatic image in the deepest chamber of Chauvet; it is nearly 7m (20feet) high. It is drawn using charcoal upon a limestone cone than hangs from the ceiling above. The pubic triangle sits roughly at eye level. Among the numerous and astounding works of art within Chauvet there are many drawings horned animals and disembodied vulvas, though the Venus and the Sorcerer stands out.
Carved in the rock shelter known as Gabillou we find a bison or oxen headed figure. He, like the image in Trois-Frères, also stands erect. Both his legs are bent and he holds his arms out in front of him. It seems as if his lips are turned upwards in a smile. Yet, it is possible he is struck by a spear or lance of some kind.
These are but a few examples of such images found in our most ancient past. Although we do not know the true meaning behind the horned therianthropes found in Stone Age caves throughout Europe, we can still be certain they did have some important and possible even sacred purpose. As Professor Samuel Brandon said about the Dancing Sorcerer in Trois-Frères cave; “…it seems to be generally agreed that this picture of the ‘Dancing Sorcerer’ was a cult object of great significance to the community which used the cave.”
The main competing theories to explain the therianthropes found in cave art is whether we see depicted in them a god or a shaman, or perhaps both.
Çatalhöyük (also called Çatal Hüyük) was a very large settlement in southern Anatolia, occupied from about 7,500 BCE to 5,700 BCE. Çatalhöyük is by far the largest and most well preserved Neolithic archaeological site we have found. The people lived in mud-brick dwellings crammed cheek to jowl. According to the research of the archaeologists who study this site, it seems the people here had begun to domesticate animals, such as sheep and cows, as well as begun grow crops.
The buildings had plaster interiors that were often richly painted and decorated. Amongst the painting, figurines and artwork found at Çatalhöyük the most numerous are images are of women (including the famous Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, possibly a goddess figure), men with erections, hunting scenes, wild cattle and stags. The heads of cattle were mounted on walls.
“The painting on the walls of the shrines are rough and forceful. They lack the elegance of the earlier Magdalenian phase of the Upper Palaeolithic art or of the near contemporary work of the artist of the Sahara oases. They are powerful however; they give prominence to the bull but for the first time men (or rather figures with human characteristics) are shown as important elements in the scenes portrayed.
This is very different from the practice of the Upper Palaeolithic artists; though the human figures are still relatively small compared with the bull in Çatal Hüyük, and sometimes with the other animals with which they are shown, they have some individuality and independent character. They are represented with considerable vigour whereas the bull is static, though its massiveness makes it seem dangerous and full of menace. The warriors (for this is what they seems to be) who leap around it are clearly young, introducing one of the recurring elements of the bull-cult; the presence of armed boys or youths, which was to be found in all its later manifestations. They brandish their weapons though the bull remains impassive, in the most graphic episode on the shrines’ walls. Some of the bull’s attendants carry torches. This will become another constant element in the cult’s iconography which harks back to the torches carried into the painted caves and forward to the boys or youths in many other later variants of the cults who are depicted lighting the dark interiors of shrines and caves.” ~ From ‘The Power of the Bull’ by Michael Rice
“First came the temple, then the city.” ~ Dr. Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute
If the people who created cave art carved, moulded or sculpted the male form, we don’t have much evidence of it. We have found many a little venus statuette. I am sure you are familiar with them, dear readers. A possible masculine representation is Löwenmensch, a statuette of a therianthrope with the head of a lion. The gender of the lion-person is uncertain even amongst the experts. It’s entirely possible that the artist did not intend to portray gender at all.
Why were our ancient ancestors driven to portray part human, part animal images? What Mystery did this art represent to them? Are we looking at ancient recordings of the first forays into the Otherworld? Are they representations of how man felt himself to be part of the animal kingdom, at one with the world? Were these truly their gods?
It was a long road from forager to farmer, much of that road is still shrouded in the mists of time. We find our man-animal again in art of one of our first great monuments.
In what is now south-eastern turkey we find what may be the oldest known religious structure built by man. Göbekli Tepe (which means Potbelly hill in Turkish) is possibly the first piece of architecture constructed by man that was greater than your average nomadic hut. The people who built Göbekli Tepe were still hunter-gatherers; they had not yet invented the written word, agriculture or even the wheel. These people had no beasts of burden, they had only stone tools. Yet somehow they came together to build a complex so large and beautiful that it astonishes archaeologists and has changed how we think the birth of civilization came about.
The complex was inhabited and added to over the course of generations, but the main temple was built approximately 11,600 years ago, seven thousand years before the Great Pyramid of Giza and Stonehenge. It is in fact, older even than the civilization of Sumer and Çatalhöyük.
“Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.” ~ Charles C. Mann
It seems as though people came together to build a massive temple over the course of generations. The people of Göbekli Tepe were still hunter-gatherers, the archaeological record shows little to no sign of the domestication of animals. It does seem however, that the people who built and worked (or worshipped) in and around Göbekli Tepe did create some settlements. While similar sties, such as Çatalhöyük, show us that people were building settlements and giving up a nomadic life following the herds, the people of Göbekli Tepe were among the first to that we know of to construct permanent, massive, stone complexes.
“Other sites with comparable findings are Çayönü, Nevah Cori, Jerf el ahmar, Tell Abr, and Tell Qaramell … Göbekli Tepe is of a similar date, but it very different in comparison with these sites. It is unique not only in its location on top of a hill and in its monumental architecture but also its diverse set of objects of art, ranging from small stone figurines through sculptures and statues of animals to decorated megaliths, all of which set it apart. Göbekli Tepe is not a settlement; it is a mountain sanctuary.” ~ Klaus Schmidt, the Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia: (10,000-323 Bce)
We do not find our horned deity here, though there are some therianthropic images. Many of the pillars seem to be wearing necklaces, belts and loincloths, while also depicting animals such as foxes or snakes. Many of the animals portrayed at Göbekli Tepe seem to have intelligence, as they gaze at us from their stone pillars. In this, they remind us of the painting and engraving found in Old Stone Age caves. Could it be that some kind of man-animal god was worshipped here? Perhaps animals themselves were the focus of the builder’s religious devotion?
After 4,000 years of work and worship at this site, the people of Göbekli Tepe filled the site, burying it in sand and debris and seemingly walked away from it. We cannot guess as to their reasons why.
Looking through the archeological record, we see a strange gap in evidence of Horned Lord symbolism from the late Stone Age into the early Bronze Age.
“Through anthropological research one can trace the line of horned god prototypes back to Paleolithic times … It is into the Bronze Age when the horned figure flourished again among the Indo-European[Aryan] tribes of Egypt, Mesopotamia and India. Horned gods were quite common in Mesopotamia, as in Babylon and Assyria. The copper head found in the gold tombs of Ur is believed to be earlier than the first Egyptian dynasty, displaying an advanced stage of metal working.
When Alexander the Great raised himself above the kings of the earth and declared himself a `god`, he wore a horned head piece as a symbol of his divinity. Polytheism appears to have arisen among the Aryan cultures, East and West, with the amalgamation of tribes, each with its own gods. The horned deities were prevalent throughout Greece and Rome.” ~ Ron McVan writing in his Creed of Iron Wotansvolk Wisdom
Now we are entering into the Classical era and the representations of a Horned Lord, or God of Animals that modern Pagans and Witches are much more familiar with. And so we will end our study here, with more questions than answers.
 It is interesting to note that the theory of sympathetic magic, so popular amongst Pagans today, is the brain child of an abbot.
It should be mentioned here that the theory of sympathetic magic being used in cave art to invoke the hunt has been debunked. The archaeological record tells us the animals most commonly eaten by the cave artists were not the most commonly painted animals and vice versa. Meaning people who painted Mammoths ate the prehistoric ancestors of goats; people who painted horses ate reindeer.
The current accepted theory for the purpose behind cave painting is indeed still shamanic and spiritual in nature however. Many of the non-animal images painted in caves have been found to appear within the mind and before the eyes while a person is experiencing sensory deprivation. People subjected to sensory deprivation also often hallucinated images of great personal meaning and cultural importance. Not much was more important to Stone Age people than animals and there is no place on Earth better suited to sensory deprivation and trance than the dark and silent depths of a cave.
(originally published for No Unsacred Place)