Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The dying man and bison,
Lascaux cave, France.

Many years ago (20+) I had the priviledge of attending a lecture by the great Joseph Campbell. Arguably one of the intellectual giants of his age, his encyclopaedic knowledge in the field of mythology was unmatched. At the same time he was often careless in the application of that knowledge. Perhaps it was the case that he was so impressive that others hesitated to question his authority. In any case he threw a very wide net in his pronouncements, and often combined concepts that stretch the credulity of many serious scholars. On this particular occasion he shared with his audience a detailed analysis of the meaning of the well-known dying man composition from Lascaux cave, France. This panel combines the figures of an eviscerated bison with a prone human. The human is noticeably phallic, and is accompanied by what appears to be a stick with a bird on it plus a harpoon and broken pieces of something, perhaps another harpoon. Many viewers place a great significance upon the fact that the head of the prone human is roughly bird formed, like the head of the bird on the stick. At its simplest the panel can be assumed to illustrate a hunting tragedy wherein one or more hunters have attacked a bison and fatally wounded it. The bison has, however, also managed to kill one of his attackers. Someone must have survived to return to the cave and illustrate the incident in commemoration of the tragic event.

Campbell, however, had a very different explanation for this picture. Citing Australian Aboriginal ethnology he explained it as an illustration of a shaman's duel. He believed that the stick with a bird on the end was a shaman's staff and provided the confirmation of his interpretation. One of the shamans had shape-shifted, transformed himself magically into the figure of the bison. As the bison he had attacked and gored his opponent who lay at his feet dying. His opponent's form of attack had been killing by bone pointing (from between his legs). This was a form of murder or execution accomplished with a piece of bone that had been prayed over or otherwise ritually prepared. The executioner would then point this bone at the intended victim who would proceed to die. According to some reports the bone had to be pointed at the intended victim from between the executioner's legs. At this point the target of the spell would begin to sicken and die. The death could take a few days or even sometimes a reported few weeks but was believed to be inevitable. It also was sometimes reported that the victim had to know that this death spell had been cast at him for it to be effective.

That brings us back to Lascaux. Being able to turn oneself into a bison and goreing your opponent would certainly have been an effective tactic for the one shaman. But death by bone pointing does not seem to have worked well for the other shaman. Since it takes so long for the victim to die he had plenty of time to be killed in return by his opponent. And the bison has been eviscerated, his intestines are hanging out of a great abdominal wound. None of the ethnographic accounts mention a result like that.
Joseph Campbell was using his knowledge of world mythology to try to find the best match with the observed imagery. What I see as a phallic human figure he saw as the shaman pointing the killing bone from between his legs. The problem was that the myth and the images come from totally opposite sides of the earth, and are separated by at least 15,000 years in time. The odds against any possible connection between the myth and the imagery would be vanishingly small under those circumstances.

So what do I think it really is? Well, for me as for Joseph Campbell, the bird on the stick is perhaps the telling clue. It is not, however, a shaman's staff. It represents a spear thrower or atlatl and it was the hunter's weapon used to launch the harpoon that has wounded the bison. Numerous examples of spear throwers carved from reindeer antler with a decorative bird end have been found in excavations in the cave deposits of western Europe. I am convinced that the spear thrower and harpoon represent the hunting tools of the fallen hunter on the ground and were used to wound the dying bison. In other words I believe it is just what was originally assumed, a record of a tragic hunting accident. And the hunter's bird like head? No meaning at all, it is a very simple and almost stick-figure like portrayal with a quickly and simply formed head. Any resemblence is simply coincidental. Sometimes we need to be careful not to over-analyze.

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