I discovered the wonders of Ice Age cave art while writing Eyes of the Wild and I visited one of few painted caves that are still open to the public – Pech Merle, in the Lot Valley in Southern France. If you look closely at these horses painted on the walls of Pech Merle, you can see the outline of a horse’s head in the curve of the rock at the end of the wall. The artist’s work grew out of that moment of recognition, making an abstrct play with the differnt forms that is around 26,000 years old.
Early scholars of cave art speculated that the paintings on the walls of Ice Age caves were a form of “hunting magic” – a way of drawing the animals to the hunter. More recent researchers have discovered that the animals that were hunted and eaten were not always the animals that were painted. Cave art scholars now suggest that these magnificent works of art were made within shamanic rituals of connection with the animal spirits and the other worlds.
These horses were painted some thirty-three thousand years ago on the walls of Chauvet cave, in southern France, the oldest of all the Paleolithic painted caves. This is among the first paintings made by human hands. And what a masterpiece!
The horses of Chauvet are so sharply observed, and have been depicted with such consummate skill, that you feel the artists must have known them as individuals and walked among the wild horse herds without causing them disturbnce or fear.
TChauvet also contains the earliest known images of bears, beautifully drawn in fluid, red chalk lines. Deep inside Chauvet, there is a circular chamber, with a fallen rock resembling an altar at the center. The massive skull of a cave bear, an extinct relative of today’s brown bear, sits on the rock itself and thirty-six other bear skulls lie inside the chamber. The bear skull has lain undisturbed on that rock for some thirty thousand years; indicating that some of humanities earliest sacred rituals were held in communion with the spirit of the bear.
In the bleak, bare time of winter, Paleolithic artists saw bears enter these caves and sink into a death-like sleep. While the Earth lies dormant, the bear lies still and takes in no food or water. The bear does not resist winter’s cold and hunger or fight to stay active and awake; it goes into the Earth and rests inside it.
The bear mother gestates her cubs while sleeping in her winter den, as though from the dream of shaping and making that she shares with the Earth. She gives birth to her tiny, helpless cubs and nurtures them while half-asleep; and when life flowers in spring, the bear too, is re-born, and she brings the new life in her cubs from the winter darkness and the depths of sleep. In the bear – particularly the bear mother – birth and death, sleeping and waking, rest and action are united in the creative fusion of opposites that brings renewal.
This mystery of renewal through alternating cycles of light and dark has made bears profoundly worthy of contemplation and respect in many different cultures. In the spiritual traditions of Native America, each creature has power according to the level of spiritual reality that its life reflects. The bear is revered as an ancestor, healer and teacher because its life reflects such a profound teaching – that life endures through continuous cycles of death and transformation.
For this reason, bears are the guardians of many initiation rites – the ceremonies of symbolic death and rebirth which take the individual from one stage of life, or one level of knowledge and wisdom, to another. Through finding inner relationship with the bear, a man or woman facing points of critical change is helped to die to the past – let go completely of old forms of thinking and acting – and move into new life.
Among the Ojibwa people of the Great Lakes region, healers working with the wisdom of the bear are said to follow the bear’s path.
“The bear is the wisest of animals as far as medicines are concerned.” Lakota healer John Lame Deer said in the 1970s. ”The bear is the only animal that one can see in a dream acting like a medicine man, giving herbs to people.”