Saturday, July 9, 2011

THE “S-WORD”, SHAMANISM – OR, THE DYING MAN IN LASCAUX REVISITED:

The Dying Hunter, Lascaux, France.

On April 29, 2009, I published a posting about the famous panel of the wounded bison and the dying man in Lascaux Cave and how it was interpreted by the great Joseph Campbell. He believed that it represented a Shaman’s Duel based upon Australian aboriginal mythology. I took exception to his analysis, questioning the applicability of an Australian myth to a rock art panel separated from it by 12,000 miles in space and tens of thousands of years in time. Following the principal of Occam ’s razor I assume that it is most likely to represent just exactly what it seems to represent - a hunting accident.

In his 2002 book The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis-Williams revisited the shamanism argument for the dying man panel. Lewis-Williams originally swept the rock art community with his early analysis of much of South African rock art in light of San (bushman) religious practices that he defined as Shamanism. He eventually served as director of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand from which he retired in 2000. He has since published many important books and reached a position of respect world-wide. He has a great ability to organize and analyze data and search for clues and patterns.

As might be expected, considering his focus and early success on the interpretation of South African rock art in light of shamanic influences, he tends to find shamanism behind pretty much anything he looks at. At this point I must confess that I believe that the use of shamanism as an explanation of rock art is hugely overdone. I have gotten to the point where I think of shamanism as the “S”-word. It has reached the position where anyone who cannot come up with a better explanation for rock art just calls it shamanic. A few decades ago pretty much all rock art of animals was dismissed as “hunting magic” and much of the early respect afforded Lewis-Williams came from the fact that he very convincingly gave us an alternative to that overused term. We need to be very careful that we now do not just automatically substitute the “S- word” for “hunting magic” and continue to make the same mistake.

Self portrait by Samantha, 1998.

A number of years ago on a field trip an enthusiastic rock art fan explained to me that all human figures in rock art that have their arms stretched out straight represent shaman figures. Upon return from that trip to the museum where I worked as exhibits curator at the time I was confronted by the illustration above. It turned out that the picture had been done by a young girl named Samantha who had run out of space on the page when signing her name. The resulting picture had been posted on a lobby wall by the institution’s education curator.

I kept a copy of the picture because at that time its innocent childishness seemed to sum up so perfectly the statement that “all figures in rock art that have their arms outstretched straight represent shaman figures”; why she even spelled shaman almost correctly. At the very least it represents scientific proof as definitive as some of Lewis-Williams’.

It is a natural human impulse to assign answers to unexplained phenomena, but that does not make them correct.

2 comments:

  1. You are so right about the " s word " LOL ! This and Samantha's drawing brought a big s for smile across my face, thanks!!!!

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  2. I really like this post because the art on rocks is looking great.Thanks for sharing this blog.

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