The Source Goddess of the Chauvet Caves
by Katinka Soetens
What a delight it was to find Cheryl’s article on the Goddess of the caves in GA12, a subject close to my heart, and an article mentioning one of my favourite caves with mysterious Palaeolithic art in France; Cave Chauvet. Since first learning about its discovery, through a National Geographic article some years ago, I’ve felt incredibly drawn to this place in the Ardeche. I have been doing some research of my own and meditation into the meaning of the paintings and sculptures, and the deeply symbolic resonance I experience when seeing one image in particular that our ancestors made there, deep in the body of Mother Earth.
We cannot know for certain the meaning or intention of our ancestors when they made these images, nor understand the mythology or world view represented in and by their art. However an intuitive and Goddess based starting point in exploring their meaning and mystery is as good a one to have as any other traditionally deployed, when attempting to interpret the underlying language and mythologies.
Having been fortunate enough to visit one of the few remaining caves open to the public at Les-Eyziers-de-Tayac last year, the spiritual, ceremonial and shamanic relevance of these cave images appeared overwhelmingly obvious to me.
It was an eerie and amazing experience to see painted bison come to life in the ‘special effect’ flickering light, as rock, light, image and shadow blurred and became a flowing energetic presence. The life-force of this deeply impressed and stayed in my mind and dreams long after we’d climbed back into the sunlit French countryside.
It is widely accepted now that the paintings and sculptures of the caves had ritual and shamanic significance. J.D. Lewis-Williams explains in his paper Harnessing the brain, shamanism in upper Palaeolithic Western Europe:
“These images are born of shifting chiaroscuro. On the one hand, the creators of the image hold it in his or her power, a movement of the light source can cause the image to appear, another movement makes it disappear back into the dark. The creators are masters of the image. On the other hand, the image holds its creators in its thrall: if the creators (or subsequent viewers) wish for the image to remain visible, he or she is obliged to maintain a posture that keeps the light source in a certain position. Furthermore, all the intimate and complex relationships between images and rock surfaces described, together with the placing of these images in subterranean locations, are understandable in the light of ethnographically known practices of Vision Quest. Upper Paleolithic evidence suggests that parts of the caves, especially the deep passages and small, hidden diverticules, were places where vision quests took place.”
Jean Clotte, leading archeologist of the 1998 excavation of Chauvet, interpreted the way the cave art appears as such a deliberate integral part of the cave, as having great spiritual significance:
“To these people’s way of thinking, those animal spirits were in the walls .... painting them allowed the power within to seep into the real world.” [Clottes, Jean. 2002]. I would like to suggest that there may also have been a deep need or experience of being or becoming one with the Goddess, as embodied and symbolized by Her creatures, behind the creation of the cave art. Keeping this in mind, what vision do we quest for when looking inside our remembering and taking a closer look at the amazing Chauvet cave? Cave Chauvet, discovered in 1994, at Pont-d’Arc, in the Ardeche, has been excavated since 1998 and, with paintings 32,000 years old, holds some of the world’s oldest known art. The cave is a complex 1,700 feet (400 m) long system of chambers, richly decorated with a multitude of life-like paintings and engravings of deer, mammoth, auroch, horse, bear, lion, bison, and even owl and leopard. The majority of animals depicted were found to be predatory rather then the more usual prey animals, and the people creating these images used the natural shapes of the rock and cave to make their art come alive.
There is an ongoing debate about the actual dating of the art in Chauvet. The oldest (mainly red) paintings are believed by some to be from the Aurignacian culture, which pre-dates the Magdalenian peoples who made the other paintings at Chauvet. [Le Guillou Y. 2001]. The Aurignacian culture is distinguished from those that came before them by new flint knapping techniques, diversification of tool types and significant innovations such as body ornamentation and monumental cave art using shading and perspective.
From whichever archaeological time period these images originate, foot-print evidence as well as handprints painted on some of the images suggests that they were made by women as well as men [Chauvet et al, 1995]; our ancestors who have left their sacred art at Chauvet resonating with power and beauty to now be re-interpreted and experienced by us.
In the deepest part of the cave, in the end chamber completely covered in paintings, where the ceiling vaults are too high to be accessible, a vertical limestone outcrop, a cone of rock comes down from the ceiling to about a metre above the floor. On this outcrop is painted what archaeologists call the ‘sorcerer’, or ‘Venus of Chauvet’. She has mesmerised me since I first saw an image of Her and I long to visit Her. I remember all the hair on my neck standing on end, goose bumps on my arms and my spine tingling as I turned that page of the National Geographic, and there She was: this Goddess of the cave.
A woman’s vulva, legs and illusion of pregnant belly given by the contour of the rock is the oldest part of this painting. The pubic triangle was shaded in and then the vulva slit cut through the paint and yellow rock surface so that it appears white. The bison body, with her leg becoming his and his eye placed where her belly button would be, was painted after, and the lioness’s head to the left of this Goddess [seen on the 3rd picture] is believed to have been added later still. She appears to me not to be shape shifting, nor is she cloaked in the bison, but rather this Goddess and the bison are one. It is my belief that this ‘Venus of Chauvet’ is an image of the Source Goddess.
The association of woman/Goddess and bison is deep. Again and again they are found, in different forms, together, often both pregnant. If we look at the gestation time of women and bison, we find that they both have a 10 lunar month pregnancy. Like the Horse and Bear, the Bison is an animal with great mythical importance. We tend to think of the bull cults of Minoan Crete or Çatal Höyük, or the horned Goddesses of Egypt, but the bison/bull is of course also one of the most often depicted animals in Palaeolithic art, and so must have held great significance much further back in history as well. In fact, like the clay bear statue described in GA12, there also exists an exquisite clay bison sculpture from the same period. A bull and cow bison about to mate, the cow ready and the bull scenting the air, can still be seen deep in the cave of Tuc D’Audoubert. [photo right].
Leaning against the rock that supports them, at 2 foot long, 18 inches high, they form what seems easy to describe as an altar deep in a cave otherwise undecorated by our ancestors.
The association of Goddess/woman and bison in Palaeolithic art is a particularly strong symbolic image of the shamanistic concept of life and death and suggests lunar mythology of transformation and gestation. [Marija Gimbutas, 1989]. There are many examples of this mythic importance of the bison; Laussel’s goddess being perhaps the most famous, holding her pregnant belly and the 13 lunar month-notched bison horn [left].
But there are many lesser known examples like the sculpted reclining pregnant Goddess right next to a painted bison, also pregnant, in La Madeleine cave, and the carvings of 3 pregnant Goddesses mentioned in Cheryl’s article of Angles-sur-L’Anglin rock outcrop where one rests her foot on a bison. There is also the calcite Goddess figure found at Tursac, of a woman/goddess in birthing position, found near a cave wall 35 cm away from two bison bones ‘placed in intentional association’ [Delporte, Henri, 1968].
We can assume that ritual and actual birth giving took place in the sacred settings where the woman/bison images were made, so that these caves were possible birthing (and dying) places as well as places where ‘birth’ was energetically represented as initiations.
In the final Magdalenian period, the bison head is associated with plants, seeds and nuts; the head of the bison is the regenerating womb of the Goddess. Marija Gimbutas, in The Language of the Goddess suggests that the likeness of the female uterus and fallopian tubes to the head and horns of a bison/bull, associates the bison with the Goddess and is a symbol of ‘becoming’. Its intimacy with the uterus explains further the bull/bison association with symbols of regeneration and becoming such as the moon, water, eggs, seeds and plants. The bison is incarnate with the regenerative force of the Goddess.
Does the bison appear so often on the main panels in the centre of the caves in Palaeolithic art because of this intimate relationship between bison and Goddess, because they were seen as being one entity? In this worldview, pregnancy of the Goddess and the bison (or other animals) are interrelated, connected, influence each other and perhaps all life. As the Goddess is all things (plant, animal, season, nature), is the source, the interconnectiveness and sacredness of life in all Her forms, so women, as co-creatrixes, life-bringers, are the embodiment of Goddess and perhaps were also associated with particular animals and their symbolic meanings, for their tribes.
Andre Leroi-Gouran, French archaeologist who studied cave art and analysed the animals as symbolising male and female entities in his book, The dawn of European Art: an introduction toPalaeolithicCave Painting, considered the bison (and other cattle) to be a female symbol. If women already are the Goddess embodied, and bison hold this symbolism, then perhaps it explains why the depictures of men/shaman in Palaeolithic art is mainly of them dressed in animal skins, often bison skins, and in a state of ‘regeneration/ life-force (erection)’. Perhaps, so cloaked in Her energy, they become Her, or experience that intimate ecstatic connection of the Divine in their bodies as well?
In ‘the myth of the Goddess’ Anne Baring talks about how this inclusive vision of the whole is the depiction of: ‘the ecstatic reunion of human and animal/nature in deep layers of the psyche and on a very real and essential level as well, as these chosen animals (bear, bison, horse) embodied the unseen powers (the Goddess) of life’ [inserts mine]. Goddess and bison as one, the source of life and regeneration. A vision of the whole, a way for us to rediscover the Goddess originally seen as She who gives birth to the forms of life that are Herself, and who was also Death-giver, Transformer and Renewer; She who is part of us and to whom we belong.
In the case of Chauvet, is this dance of birth and death, of transformation, of the rhythmic changing of creation and destruction, physically represented and depicted deep in a cave surrounded by herds of animals and packs of lions? Has this image been waiting for us to re-awaken a deep ancestral memory and to propel us on a quest for the vision of oneness with Goddess that our hearts, minds, bodies and societies so desperately need and long for? Perhaps the Source Goddess coming to life deep in the cave by the flickering light of torches once more, is there to remind us of the interconnectiveness of all things and calls us to re-embrace our ecstatic connection with Her. By remembering our Source, we may, like the bison, incarnate Her regenerative life energy and help birth Her back into the collective consciousness of our species.
Lewis-Williams, J.D: “Harnessing the brain, shamanism in upper Palaeolithic Western Europe” (1997)
Clottes, Jean: "Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000 B.C.)". In Timeline of Art History (2002)
Le Guillou Y: The Pont-d’Arc Venus – La vénus du Pont-d’Arc. (INORA 2001)
Chauvet, J.M. et al : ’Cave Chauvet’ (1995)
Marija Gimbutas: The Language of the Goddess (1989)
Delporte, Henri: ‘The shelter at Tursac Factor: study (1968)
Leroi-Gouran, Andre: The dawn of European art: an introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting (1982)
Baring, Anne & Jules Cashford: “Myth of the Goddess” (1996)