Saturday, June 10, 2017


Chauvet cave,,
public domain.

On December 3, 2016, I posted a column about an article in the December 2016 issue of Scientific American magazine. Written by Julien d'Huy, and titled The Evolution of Myths, this article traced back the origins of the Greek Polyphemus myth to the Paleolithic of 30,000 to 15,000 years ago. D'Huy illustrated this with the figure from the cave of Les Trois Freres of the "shaman" or buffalo dancer figure surrounded by bison. Intrigued, I wrote the author and asked about the concept of the Pied Piper in mythology, and whether that would fall in the same myth family? I published his answer in my column on April 29, 2017 - he was uncertain but did not believe that the Pied Piper myth had anything close to the necessary depth in time to be pertinent to this cave painting.

Vertical bison,
Chauvet cave,,
public domain.

D'Huy's analysis traced the Polyphemus myth through space as well as time, indicating that it had reached North America in the Paleolithic period and had evolved into an explanation of the coming of the buffalo. He even related a Blackfoot version that involved Trickster Crow hiding a herd of buffalo in a cave, but two hunters outwitted him and freed the buffalo. (d'Huy 2016) For other peoples of North America the trickster who hid the buffalo was Coyote. For the Lakota people, however, the buffalo were brought to the people by Buffalo Woman, or White Buffalo Maiden.

White-Buffalo Woman,,
public domain.

"Centuries ago, the Sioux roamed the Paha Sapa or Black Hills. Legends have grown around the now famous vacation land of America in the State of South Dakota, and to this day the legends are still told.
The wind cave, where Wind Cave National Park is located, was a sacred cave where the buffalo lady dwelt. At first the Sioux feared the cave because they thought a giant lived in it. They thought that the wind which blew in and out of the mouth of the cave was caused by a giant breathing. This giant invoked the providence of the Great Spirit to give him knowledge of the mysterious hidden powers of Mother Nature that lurked in the cave the Indians feared.
One day, a medicine man stood at the mouth of the cave pondering, and suddenly, a vision appeared to him. A young Indian maiden told him she was the immortal buffalo lady from below the earth.
The buffalo lady told the medicine man to tell his people that the cave was one of the sacred places of the Paha Sapa. She said, 'Tell your people to come to this cave and offer gifts and tokens by dropping them into the sacred cave. By your offerings the Great Spirit will provide your temporal wants by providing great herds of buffalo for your livelihood.'" (Wikipedia)

White-Buffalo Woman,,
public domain.

Another version of the story can be found on the website of the American Indian College Fund. It relates that many years ago "the seven sacred council fires of the Lakota Sioux came together and camped during the summer. The people were starving because there was no game. Two young men went out to look for food for their people in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Along the way, a beautiful young woman dressed in white appeared to them, saying, 'Return to your people and tell them I am coming.'  When she presented herself to the Lakota people with the sacred pipe which showed how all things were connected, she taught them the mysteries of the earth. She taught them to pray and follow the proper path while on earth.
Then, before leaving, she rolled upon the earth four times, changing color each time, turning into a white buffalo calf before she disappeared. As she left, great herds of buffalo surrounded the camps. After that day the Lakota honored their pipe and the buffalo were plentiful." (

Deep inside Chauvet Cave there is a painting that seems to illustrate the transformation of a buffalo into a woman and vice versa. It could be possible that this illustrates some variant of the Buffalo Woman myth. Drawn on a downward projecting stalactite is a frontal view of the lower half of a nude woman's figure from the pubic triangle on down. "There are also a couple of good examples of the hybrid figure of a bison-woman, such as the famous image from Chauvet, in France. This black painting features the detailed head of a bison on top of the lower half of a female body (she is nude and her pubic triangle has been emphasized by the artist)." (Von Pezinger 2016:91)

Chauvet Buffalo Woman,,
public domain.

However a closer look reveals that her left leg is the front leg of a buffalo (whose head is right above the woman's pubic triangle). Even more interestingly, the woman's right leg appears to also be the leg of a lion drawn on the stalactite. Whether or not this composition was meant to actually illustrate some Paleolithic version of the Buffalo Woman myth, it certainly does a great job of conveying the idea of animal to human transformation.

NOTE: Images used in this column were retrieved from the Internet with a search that included the phrase Public Domain. If any of these images were not intended to be public domain I apologize for their use, and will be happy to correct my error if so informed.


d'Huy, Julien
2016 The Evolution of Myths, pages 62-69, Scientific American, vol. 315, No. 6, Dec. 2016.

Von Petzinger, Genevieve,
2016 The First Signs, Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols, Atria Books, New York, London

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