Shaman art

Jim Bell (70672.1241@CompuServe.COM)
27 Jan 97 13:28:53 EST

I'm sorry I'm going to have to cut and run on this. I've been busy
getting ready to go out of town, and I'll be gone for several days. But
Dennis asked some cogent questions, and one of them concerns shaman art and
what it means. I want to leave you with some thoughts on this, and maybe we
can pick it all up later.

A recent find in the Ardeche gorges region of Southern France, on the
edge of a national reserve, revealed a vast underground network of caves with
paintings and engravings dating from the late Paleolithic age. The caves are
divided into "galleries," with the art depicting a variety of animals (horses,
rhinoceros, lions, bison, wild ox, bears, a panther, mammoths, ibex, an owl
etc.) but more significantly there are symbols, panels filled with dots and
both positive and stenciled hands.

The nature of these paintings is unlike anything which came before.
What is it? It is "shaman-art", and it is at most 32,000 - 34,000 years old
(though dating is a tricky process, it is unlikely the envelope will be pushed
much further back).

To understand shaman-art, we must begin with the shaman. What is it?
As Joseph Campbell has explained in "The Masks of God" (1959), "The shaman was
to serve as interpreter and intermediary between man and the powers behind the
veil of nature."

The word shaman is derived from a Tungus word meaning "he who knows."
(The Tungus are a people who originated in the Amur River valley and spread
into northeastern Asia). Associated with the shaman is the dance, as Campbell
explains in his interview with Bill Moyers. The shaman dances as a way to
experience another realm of consciousness (see The Power of Myth, Doubleday,
1988 @ pp. 85-87)

This shaman experience depicted in cave art. For example, in the
20,000 year old Sanctuary of Le Trois Freres in Ariege, France, there are
three such depictions. One shows a dancing shaman wearing a buffalo robe and
headdress, another with a combination of buffalo and human features, and a
third of a dancing shaman with a beard and human legs, but with the features
of a number of animals, including reindeer, stag, owl, wolf and horse. (These
drawings are reproduced in Goodman, The Genesis Mystery, Time Books, 1983 @

Such depictions are UNKNOWN before 34,000 years ago or so.

Here are some of the basics of shamanism and shaman art:

1. The shaman sees two realities--ordinary physical, and extraordinary
nonmaterial. The latter is the world of the spirit. This is where the human
soul resides.

2. The shaman sees a unity between man and animal at this spiritual level.
This spiritual level is an "upper world."

3. If one has access to the spirit world, it means the person may possess the
powers of animal spirits. Through a personal animal "guardian," the shaman
draws upon the spiritual power of the animal clan. (the term "guardian spirit"
is common among Native Americans, but you'll find common terms in, e.g.,
Siberian, Mexican and Central American shamanism).

4. Access to the spirit world was accomplished by a trancelike state, induced
by dancing and, some have said, by ingestion of certain substances.

5. Mythical animals are often depicted. For example, in the cave of Lascaux
one can see a strangely marked four legged creature with two straight horns,
like antennae. It is not an animal of this earth (and has been called, rather
incorrectly, l'unicorne). But to the shaman there are no such things as
"mythical" beasts. Beasts from the spirit world are just as real as anything

6. One can also see various depictions of "anthropomorphs," ghost like
creatures with birdlike heads. What they seem to represent are initiates to
shamanism, being prepared to take flight to the spirit world.

7. Often the animals depicted (and we're talking about animals with power,
e.g., buffalo) are shown to be "floating" in the air, as their spirits might
(e.g., the cave at Altamira, Spain).

8. The shaman supplied the "link" for his people between worlds.

What are we to make of all this explosive, recent and utterly
different kind of art? Where you have shaman art, you have fully modern homo
divinus, the spiritual man. But there is NO evidence, anywhere, before modern
man, of what is called the "shamanistic complex":

"Shamanism is as old as fully modern man himself; almost everywhere evidence
of one is found there is evidence for the other. all the elements of the
shamanic complex are present in Cro-Magnon man's legacy of art and
artifcacts." [Goodman, 234]

The same cannot be said of Neanderthal, of course. There is virtually
nothing that can be considered shamanistic, let alone the COMPLEX of artifacts
that is the true mark of shaman culture. It simply doesn't exist outside
modern man.

Look over the essentials of shamanism again, as listed above. Can
anyone really think there is similar capacity outside modern man? The attempt
to link, say, Neanderthal to this type of evidence simply can't work. It
always fails. The experts know this. Shreeve and Leakey are just two of the
more popular and recent examples who admit this. That is why they both refer
to the emergence of the modern as an "enigma" (and my old friend Tattersall is
right along with them on this, of course). Why call it that? Because the
appearance of shaman art is astounding and widespread evidence of a quantum
leap in consciousness. Neanderthal never exhibited anything close to this.

An enigma is something you CAN'T EXPLAIN with current knowledge.
That's what the experts say about all this. And current knowledge, when it is
locked into an evolutionary framework, is certainly not going to be able to
move to what really happened:

"In all evolution there is no transformation, no 'quantum leap,' to
compare with this one. Never before has the life-style of a species, its way
of adapting, changed so utterly and so swiftly. For some fifteen million years
members of the family of man foraged as animals among animals. The pace of
events since then has been instant on the evolutionary time
scale." [Pfeiffer, The Emergence of Society, pp. 28-29]

How to explain this explosion? Special creation. Any other view either
skews the physical evidence, or skews the Bible, or both. I'm not willing to
do either.


Campbell, Joseph, The Masks of God (Penguin, 1976)

Campbell, Joseph & Moyers, Bill, The Power of Myth (Doubleday, 1988)

Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. by Willard
Trask, rev. ed. (1989)

Goodman, Jeffrey, The Genesis Mystery, Time Books, 1983