VIII: Making The Virgin a Mother

To those who may be receiving one of these post-notifications for the first time: This is not a blog; it’s actually part of a book, and will make little sense to you without knowledge of what has come before—which you can easily obtain, along with a goodly amount of satirical theatre as matters progress, by simply entering into your web browser, opening the menu, and starting at page one. J.J.

Scene 18

And when the world finally begins to show some signs of spring again—the hibernating groundhog simply popped its head up through the melting snow one morning—Gaim becomes more aroused, and indeed agitated than anyone can recall having ever seen him before.

“‘Tis the season of the Virgin,” he announces with great excitement, “—the most important one of all, since now she shall conceive whatever the season of the Mother would bring!”

Then he directs everyone to build a fire and throw all of the surrounding trash from the past season into the flames; while along toward evening, he also has them take up a burning torch and run all over the countryside chasing away all the abandoned, lonely spirits—with special emphasis on the Wicked One.

Only then—with their newfangled ‘spring cleaning’ out of the way and the earth thus purified, or essentially returned to its pristine state—does he finally allow them to pass the rest of the night celebrating the beginning of the new seasonal round by dancing and singing chants to the Divine Mother around their huge bonfire: literally, a fire of old bones.

Scene 19

And then next morning, after sending everyone off to pick some pretty spring flowers as suitable adornments for the Virgin’s statue, Gaim himself goes to welcome her before that cave where he’d once seen the bear.

Of course, he doesn’t dare enter the place himself, but from a respectful distance simply calls out, “Should you be able to hear me in there, O Divine One, we people have come to greet you upon your glorious return from death!

“Also, please note that while you were gone, we had to consume most of the cattle hereabouts—until now, the herds are just about depleted. I mean, we’ll definitely need some more this summer.

“Thank you, then—and all praise be to your Divine Womb!”

* * *

However, by late-spring, only a few such animals have appeared among the herds.

Which might simply mean that she hadn’t been able to hear him, Gaim reasons. Or maybe she’d been offended by his temerity at approaching her!

Or of course—bear sighting or not—her Realm could be nowhere near that cave.

He wishes that he dared look inside. But as the end of summer draws near, with no sign of a meaningful increase of the herds, about the best idea that he can come up with is to find a big, reasonably smooth rock near the cave; inscribe a modest vulva on it, along with a deer, goat, cow, and horse—all animals on which people now routinely feed—and hope that she’d get the message.

Scene 20

But that doesn’t seem to work either.

And so the following spring, after a particularly difficult fall, Gaim returns to the cave with a blazing torch and a big lump in his throat, announces his presence in a loud, firm voice despite his shaking knees, and asks for an audience with the Virgin.

And then he waits.

But no reply is forthcoming—either way, he notes. Which might be a good sign—at least he hasn’t been told to stay out.

His heart is pounding as he subsequently enters the cave, waits for his eyes to adjust to the shadows, and looks around. The cave is almost twice his height, at least as wide, and appears to wind away into the darkness. Exactly how far back it goes, he has no idea, but it’s certainly the biggest cave that he’s ever seen—while the farther in he goes, he realizes, the greater the danger that he won’t be able to find his way out again, should anything happen to his torch!

On the other hand, he knows—just knows—that since his intentions are good, the Virgin won’t let anything bad happen to him.

And as if to reassure him of that, the biggest bear that he’s ever seen suddenly appears in his path, rises up to its full height before his torch, sways briefly as it looks over the situation, and with a loud growl, drops back to all fours and rushes pell-mell past him for the exit.

Obviously, the Virgin has told the bear to let him pass!

The rest is relatively easy—if physically challenging. As he proceeds, the cavern gradually grows lower and narrower, to the point where he soon finds himself slithering through narrow, twisting crevices and even crawling along on his belly when the passageway becomes little more than knee high—until finally, he arrives at what appears to be the very end of the cavern.

But there’s still no sign of her Realm!

Or is there? For overhead, the ceiling is now covered with moist, dripping mounds that certainly seem to suggest to him some kind of living growth!

Oh, this is most certainly it, he nods to himself as he gazes upon all these and dares to reach up and touch a few—believing that he’s somehow stumbled upon the Holy of Holies itself, or very womb of the Virgin!

* * *

And returning there next day bearing not only his torch, but some crude red paint and a few hide swabs, studies the ceiling carefully, and begins to outline people’s needs there on the mounds in that color!

Oh, he’s virtually made the Virgin a mother there, he muses later that day as he puts the finishing touches on one last goat and quietly withdraws from the scene—but then, only to everyone’s satisfaction.

Scene 21

And that summer, it appears to have worked better than he’d dare dream!

So well, in fact, that he begins to get the idea that all he has to do is depict something in the cavern—anything, really—and the Virgin will make it happen.

For instance, one day when he happens to encounter a quarrelsome lion in there, he simply paints an effigy of the lion bringing down a deer—confident that it would subsequently have a successful hunt, acknowledge his role in the matter, and accordingly leave him alone.

And when one of his own companions happens to turn against him and challenge his leadership one day, he soon finds a hidden niche in the cavern—a niche that no one else is likely to stumble upon, because he realizes that what he’s about to do might be construed as an abuse of his power—and there depicts the man being gored by a bull.

Now then, back in 1868, a Spanish nobleman named Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola had a modest estate some two kilometers southwest of the modern village of Santillana del Mar, on the northern slope of the long, east-west Cantabrian Range as it runs along northern Spain’s Biscayne coast.

It had been known for some time that there were caves on Don Marcelino’s property, but no one had ever paid much attention to them until one day that year, a local hunter went looking for his lost dog; and after awhile, he heard it barking behind some big rocks—which soon proved to mask a hitherto unknown cave entrance, which he immediately reported to Don Marcelino.

Seven years went by, during which Don Marcelino—normally a jurist by profession—developed an interest in the new study of archaeology; which eventually, in 1875, brought him to dig in the soil at the mouth of this new cave—where he soon turned up some old bones and flint implements.

A few more trips to the cave over the next four years yielded more such artifacts; until one Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1879, he returned there once again—and this time, was persuaded by his eight year old daughter Maria to let her tag along.

And a good thing; because while he was busy digging in the soil, she ventured several feet into the cave itself, looked around and suddenly screamed with great excitement, “Papa, look—toros!” Bulls!

Hurrying inside, Don Marcelino found himself in a small vestibule area that almost immediately gave way to a larger room some twenty-five feet wide and sixty feet long—but less than four feet in height.

That’s where Maria was—and she was pointing with delight at the ceiling. It was full of painted animals—more than a hundred of them—mostly reddish depictions of a long-extinct bison species, in which the painters had taken full advantage of the ceiling’s natural calcium bulges and random contours to make the animals seem three-dimensional.

1. What Maria saw

But then, rendered when? And by whom—perhaps the Roman soldiers that had occupied that part of the Iberian Peninsula some two thousand years before?

Most people who heard about Maria’s discovery thought so; while many of the rest tended to believe that Don Marcelino was either trying to perpetrate some kind of hoax aimed at increasing his standing as an amatuer archaeologist or hoping to increase the value of his property.

Don Marcelino himself suspected that the paintings were much older than Spain’s Roman occupation; but realizing that he was still very much a hobbyist, rather than a trained archaeologist, he decided to contact his close friend and mentor, archeology professor Juan Vilanova y Piera at the University of Madrid, and ask him to come examine his find.

It took awhile for the two men to explore the whole cave—which turned out to be some nine hundred feet in length, with several twists and bends and a few diverted areas or ‘rooms’ on either side.

Most of the paintings were in the room that Maria had wandered into; but there also turned out to be others, along with a number of animal engravings—mainly along the walls—all the way to the very end of the place.

Besides the hundred or so bison, there were also many red horses, a life-size red doe, several smaller does, a stag, and a few wild boar. Twenty-five of the wall paintings were life-size.

2. Wall paintings
3. Red deer

There were also eight, scattered pictographs depicting animals with human heads and humans with animal heads; plus there were countless outlines of human hands and some fluted finger-marks, especially as one approached the very end of the cave, as though people had been anxious to leave some evidence of their daring advance to that point; along with, in the same area, some indecipherable symbols.

After carefully examining everything and devoting a great deal of thought to the matter, Vilanova concluded that the paintings were indeed more than two or three thousand years old—more like ten or fifteen thousand, was his opinion.

And the following year, he repeated that estimate to his scientific brethren convened in Lisbon for the 1880 Prehistorical Congress.

“Poppycock!” was the immediate reaction of most. Why, not two centuries before, in Dublin, one of the Christian world’s most respected scholars and beloved mentors, Bishop James Ussher, had worked out that God had finished creating the world precisely on Saturday, October 23rd, 4004 B.C. So obviously, the paintings couldn’t be older than that!

Two of France’s leading archaeologists, Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac, in particular ridiculed Vilanova’s figure and went so far as to pronounce the paintings forgeries—believing as they did that even the artists of Roman times couldn’t have produced such accurate, lifelike drawings.

And there the matter remained—with the reputations of both Vilanova and Don Marcelino largely ruined—until in 1902, fourteen years after the death of Don Marcelino and nine after that of Vilanova, when the archaeology establishment finally admitted its mistake and acknowledged the authenticity of the cave’s paintings; soon followed by Emile Cartailhac’s personal, published mea culpa.

Subsequent investigations using various twentieth century dating methods have established that,

  • The earliest known painting in the cave, some kind of symbol, was executed at least 36,000 years ago.
  • The at least is because the Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) method used to date it can’t yield an exact date, but only a minimum!
  • When applied throughout the whole cave, the U/Th method revealed that most of the paintings were executed during a ten thousand year period, beginning about 35,000 years ago.
  • The most recent paintings dated to only 14,000 years ago. So altogether, they spanned at least twenty-two thousand years—or slightly more than a thousand generations!

Of course, we’re talking about the cave that we modern folks have come to know as Altamira—which in 1985, following the work of such scientific luminaries as the French Jesuit anthropologist Henri Brueil and French paleontologists Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Annette Laming and Jean Clottes to bring the wonders of Maria’s discovery to the world at large, was officially declared by UNESCO to be a World Heritage site.

So—are there any more Altamiras?

Oh, indeed; about four hundred or so have been turned up to date—spanning all Europe, from the Franco-Cantabrian region of the Iberian peninsula all the way to to the Russian Urals; with all of their paintings and engravings—would you believe, tens of thousands of them—dating from the same, thousand generation-long time frame as Altamira. Altamira was simply the first to be discovered in modern times.

Most of those in western Europe are concentrated in three areas: in the aforementioned Cantabrian Mountains along northern Spain’s Biscayne coast; on the French side of the Pyrennes Mountains, which separate Spain from France at the eastern end of the Cantabrian Range; and within a twenty mile radius of the tiny village of Les Eyzies, in southwestern France.

So now let’s examine a few of the more interesting ones, in no particular order.

4. Entrance, Niaux cavern

For instance, two thousand feet up in the French Pyrennes is a cave called Niaux, discovered in 1906. Its entrance alone—a hundred sixty-feet high, and almost as wide—is impressive; but the fact that it runs almost nine miles into the mountain, with about a mile and a quarter devoted to animal depictions, is truly stunning!

As is the fact that for the first five hundred yards or so, there’s no artwork whatsoever; and for the next hundred after that, there are only a few groups of some kind of indecipherable sign painted with red ochre.

Then, more than half a mile from the entrance, one comes upon a broad crossroads area where one may turn left, right, or simply continue on.

If one chooses to continue along the main corridor, one will find animal depictions throughout the entire rest of the cave—a wonder in itself—but then, if one turns left and walks a quarter-mile or so up this side alley, one will come upon the cavern’s main ‘gallery’: a cavernous chamber some twenty-five yards wide, where the walls are packed with bison, horses, ibex, and other such animals. All edible animals.

5. Bison, ibex, Niaux
6. Horses, bison, deer, Niaux
7. Ibex, Niaux

Yet, as with every other painted cave save Altamira—where people are found to have lived at the very entrance—there’s absolutely no evidence that the artists ever inhabited this vast place; rather, they left clear traces of having lived in a nearby, deep rock shelter known today as Grotte de la Roche.

And then there’s Rouffignac, again in France. Discovered in 1956, this cave is ‘only’ five miles long; but it contains depictions of no less than one hundred twenty-eight wooly mammoths, twenty-five bison, twenty-two ibex, fifteen horses, ten wooly rhinoceros, and a lone bear.

8. Wooly mammoth, ibex, Rouffignac
9. Woolly rhinoceros, Rouffignac
10. Horse, Rouffignac

And Pech-Merle, discovered in 1922; about a mile and a quarter; features seventy animals, including twenty-eight mammoths, some spotted horses, and another bear.

11. Wooly mammoth, Pech-Merle
12. Spotted horses, Pech-Merle
13. Handprints, Pech-Merle

And Les Combarelles, discovered in 1901. About a half-mile long, with some eight hundred paintings and engravings of reindeer, mammoths, bears, and numerous indecipherable signs.

14. Running bison, Les Combarelles
15. Deer engraving, Les Combarelles
16. Lion engraving, Les Combarelles

And Lascaux, discovered in 1940. A mere hundred sixty-seven yards in length, but fully sixty-six feet wide and seventeen high, and crammed with something like six hundred paintings and fifteen hundred engravings featuring over nine hundred food animals—mainly horses, but also stags, and bulls, including one seventeen feet long!

17. Cattle, horses deer, Lascaux
18. Reindeer, Lascaux
19. Ceiling paintings too, Lascaux
20. Swimming deer, Lascaux
21. Hunting scene, Lascaux
22. Bull goring bird-faced man (priest?), Lascaux

And Cougnac, discovered in 1962. Contains three different galleries of paintings, with the longest and most important one being three hundred thirty feet long, about twenty-seven wide, and ten to twenty feel high. The main chamber, where most of the paintings are, lies at the very end of the cave and contains some sixty drawings of mammoths, goats, and deer—all in red.

23. Ibexes, Cougnac
24. Three megaloceros and Ibex, Cougnac
25. Ibex, Cougnac

And Font-de-Gaume, discovered in 1901. Main gallery a hundred forty-two yards; contains over two hundred paintings, including some eighty bison, forty horses, more than twenty mammoths, plus a wooly rhinoceros, some reindeer and ibex, a bear—and a lion. Many people are still found to eat bear—but a lion?

26. Horses, cattle, Font-de-Gaume
27. Bison, Font-de-Gaume
28. Wooly mammoth, Font-de-Gaume

On to Chauvet, discovered in 1994; more than four hundred yards filled with hundreds of paintings, but while many are of the usual food animals, this cave also depicts a whole pack or ‘pride’ of lions.

29. Panel of lions, Chauvet
30. Bear, Chauvet
31. Rhinoceros, Chauvet
32. Horses, Chauvet
33. Megaloceros, Chauvet
34. Miscellaneous animals, Chauvet

And La Pasiega, 1911. A hundred thirty-nine yards; main gallery eighty yards, plus several secondary galleries; some seven hundred paintings of deer, ibex, horses, reindeer, and mammoths.

35. Horse, La Pasiega
36. Horses, La Pasiega
37. Horse, La Pasiega

And La Pileta, discovered in 1905. Longest gallery, three hundred eighy-two yards; four hundred paintings and engravings, including abstract signs, horses, ibexes, bulls, aurochs, goats—and at the very end of the cave, a five foot long fish, possibly a halibut!

38. Horse, La Pileta
39. Fish, La Pileta

And finally here, El Castillo, 1903; slightly more than half a mile in length, contains about two hundred fifty paintings, reportedly including the world oldest cave art found as of this writing—a mysterious, big red dot.

40. Bison, El Castillo
41: Burros, El Castillo
42. Wall scene, El Castillo
43. Indecipherable signs, El Castillo

So what are all those paintings doing in all those caves? Some theorize that they were intended as a kind of art gallery, where they were meant to be viewed by Paleolithic art lovers.

Yet in almost all cases, the paintings are situated so far back in the cave that they can’t even be found, except by torch-light!

And why did the artists depict only animals? Surely they could have drawn a flower, a tree, a mountain—indeed, anything they wanted. But they didn’t.

And in the caves, they also included a few depictions of Her—perhaps the most famous being the eighteen inch bas relief shown here again below.

44. From cave wall, Laussel

From a rock shelter called Abri de Laussel, in southwestern France, she’s depicted naked, with a bison horn in one hand while her other calls attention to her abdomen, or womb. Her large breasts are prominently displayed, as is her vulva; while her head—faceless—is turned toward the bison horn.

And once again, as with so many portable representations of her from that age and region, her figure bears traces of red ochre.

Indeed, at Abri Castanet, La Ferraisse, and a few other sites along the Vezere and Dordogne Rivers in southern France, some artists didn’t even bother depicting her full figure, but simply reduced it to its barest essential: her vulva, or birthing organ—often incised so deeply into the wall that it almost seem to have been sculpted out of it.

45. Engraved vulva, La Ferrassie, France
46. Engraved vulvas, La Ferraisse, France
47. Engraved vulva, Abri Castanet, France
48. Engraved vulvas, Abri Castanet, France
49. Engraved vulvas, Abri Blanchard, France
50. Engraved vulva, Roc-aux-Sorciers, France

Photo Credits

1: Ice Age Europe

2: My Modern Met

3: Bradshaw Foundation

4: Decouvertes

5: Frommer’s

6: Don’s Maps

7: Mountains and Rivers

8: Day of Archaeology

9: Bradford Foundation

10: Don’s Maps

11: Art History Worlds

12: : Bradford Foundation

13: La Voz de Coahuila

14: Allwood Courier

15: Hominidés

16: Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art

17: Pinterest

18: ResearchGate

19: Paleolithic and Neolithic History

20: ResearchGate

21: Pinterest

22: Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art

23: Grottes Prehistoriques de Cougnac

24: Don’s Maps

25: Don’s Maps

26: Pinterest

27: DordogneMaison:

28: Pinterest

29: Pinterest

30: Bradshaw Foundation

31: Pinterest

32: Pinterest

33: Bradshaw Foundation

34: National Public Radio

35: Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art

36: Song of the Caves

37: Song of the Caves

38: Disputación de Málaga

39: The Outline

40: BBC:

41: Pinterest

42: Wikipedia

43: Don’s Maps

44: Wikipedia

45: Don’s Maps

46: Wikipedia

47: Live Science

48: Don’s Maps

49: Don’s Maps

50: Don’s Maps

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