WOMEN ARTISTS AND RITUALISTS IN THE GREAT CAVES: THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF INDOLENT ASSUMPTIONS by Carol P. Christ


carol-christIn an earlier blog, I suggested that women might have blown red ocher around their hands to leave their marks in prehistoric caves.

At the time I thought this was a rather bold suggestion.

Had I been asked why I thought the images were made by women, I might have said that people have understood caves to be the womb of the Great Mother, the Source of All Life, from time immemorial. I might have added that those who performed rituals in the caves cannot have been performing simple “hunting magic,” but must also have been thanking the Source of Life for making life possible for them and for the great beasts they hunted.  Still I am not certain that I imagined women as the artists in the Paleolithic caves.

handprint peche merle cave

In recent days the news wires have been carrying a story titled “First Cave Artists May Have Been Women, New Study Suggests.”   According to retired anthropological archaeologist Dean Snow, the handprints made by Paleolithic ancestors 40,000-20,000 years ago may have been made primarily by women. Snow spent a decade gathering and analyzing photographs of the handprints left in caves. The scientific fact that women’s first and ring fingers are generally of the same length, while men’s ring fingers are generally longer their index fingers, led him to the conclusion that ¾ of the handprints in the caves were made by women! If women were painting their hands on the caves in larger numbers than men, then isn’t likely that they were also painting the images of the great beasts on the walls of the caves?

This is Snow’s conclusion.  The article states that Snow’s findings contradict the widely held theory that male hunters were the sole creators of the cave paintings of the Paleolithic caves such as Lascaux and Chauvet. Feminist interpreters of the cave paintings have long noted that pregnant animals which no hunter would ever kill are also portrayed on the walls of the caves.

Lascaux-France-Cave-Painting-2-c15000BC

This suggests a wider purpose for cave rituals than hunting magic. Still, comfortable assumptions that support widely held gender stereotypes are not easily dislodged. “Man the hunter” remains the popular image of “cave man,” while the image of “cave woman” being pulled by her hair by “cave man” sticks in the mind.

fred flintstone

Despite decades of feminist theorizing about caves as the womb of the Great Mother, Snow refused to speculate about the meanings “cave women” might have given to the images within the caves. Could it be that he had never even encountered the idea that the cave symbolizes the womb of Mother Earth? Did this idea simply not “make sense” to him? Is the idea of expressing gratitude to the Source of Life alien to him?  Or did he have difficulty imagining that the Source of Life is located in the earth–not in heaven?

Marija Gimbutas has written that progress in archaeology has been hindered by the “indolent assumption” that the worldviews of ancient cultures must have been similar to our own.

Indolent assumptions make it difficult for us to imagine women as the creators of great art.

Indolent assumptions make it difficult for us to imagine women as the initiators of important religious ideas.

Indolent assumptions make it difficult for us to imagine the Source of Life as a great womb.

Indolent assumptions make it difficult for us to imagine women, men, and children gathering together to thank the Great Mother for the gift of life in the depths of caves.

skoteino cave

Indolent assumptions are beginning to change.

Carol P. Christ  has just come back from the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute.  There she gave thanks for the gift of life in the cave wombs of Mother Earth.  It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.



Categories: Ancestors, Archaeology, Art, Earth-based spirituality, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

27 replies

  1. Yes! – I read that article that was going around and I am so glad you have responded. Great read Carol, and yes, indolent assumptions are beginning to change, thanks to all the work great female and male scholars such as your self do to aid in this happening. x

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  2. I hope so Jass. Thanks to this new information you are now justified in understanding that you stand in a long line of women artists stretching back to the great cave artists and beyond! Isn’t that great!!! Speculation is one thing, but bits of proof for our speculations are incredibly empowering, at least they are for me!

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  3. You too stand in a long line of women artists…stretching back to the great cave artists.

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  4. Thanks Carol, I am thrilled to read this post, what an important breakthrough for us all. The generic “she” arrives at last — Hooray!! And there she is, waving hello to us, from deep in her living space — at work, as always, nurturing and caring for her environment. I have a website focusing on prehistoric Japanese Jomon pottery, those gorgeous ceramics with the flamboyant rims. They were all made by women, prehistoric women’s hands, at work in their roost, as was most ancient pottery before the invention of the potter’s wheel. Have a look:
    http://earlywomenmasters.net/masters/jomon/

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  5. Yes! And not that you need it but another affirmation of your visionary scholarship and intuition.

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  6. Hi Carol —

    My daughter is an artist who most recently has been alluding to the ancient handprints in Chauvet and Lascaux in her paintings. I sent her the most recent deductions by Dean Snow, but I will send her the URL for this post as well, because in your responses you told feminist artists like her that they stand in a long line of woman artists stretching back to the great cave artists. This is exactly how young artists in my Women and the Arts class felt after discovering that they had a female lineage.

    Maria Gimbutas may be right that “indolent assumptions” hindered progress for some archaeologists, but I believe that it’s not just laziness, but male privilege and sexism.

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  7. ‘Indolent assumptions’ have limited scholarship, research and recognition for too long. They have also limited our understanding of obviously complex, vibrant cultures. I have a photographic print of the Pech-Merle horses hanging on my wall, next to original contemporary art by women, and both reflect the same deeply spiritual source. Thank you, Carol, for sharing scholarship in this area. It reconnects us to roots that are so familiar yet lost. My Pech-Merle print makes me rather wistful and nostalgic, but also joyous to be part of such an ancient female artistic tradition.

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  8. I have a longer ring finger than index finger, and I am usually described as appearing like a girly girl. All the painting may be made by females, not 3/4 because their is a various in hands in which a minority of females actually have a longer index finger.

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  9. To understand the times is the most difficult of perspectives, one cannot have a messure of what it was like when seen it from a 21st century mentality. First, strip all concepts of modern day society and once you have accomplished that, then inform your self, visit the places, see, observe, contemplate, meditate and then, just you might have a small perception on the times…

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  10. Thank you for this! In good spirit, I’d like to argue for a different kind of indolent assumption. Out of my ignorance, when I was much younger and first saw pictures the cave paintings I imagined women, men, and children hanging out in the caves, with firelight, telling and listening to stories, enjoying each other’s company, children snuggling in furs, and illustrating their lives on the walls, as part memoir, part aide memoire, part pedagogy. I was imagining myself there. Indolence, but a young woman’s indolence imagining herself deep in pre-history. I hadn’t yet been told I couldn’t have been there. Thanks again for this piece.

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  11. I think Gimbutas meant “indolent patriarchal assumptions.” Hee-hee.

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  12. Rejoicing… at what actually sounds very common sense and in future will be an easily accepted notion, that women were more than evenly represented among the shamans who honored Mother and fertility — some of the cave paintings are so breathtaking in their “alive-ness” and beauty, seems natural that they come from hands that nuture life and love all beings.

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  13. Indeed.

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  14. This was an incredibly good article. I heard about it on the internet, and was so excited, and it all makes sense actually. We have such a silly notion of the past, and prehistoric times. It takes great imagination for women to break patriarchal mindbindings, and male scholars are always suspect in my book.

    Pregnant animals should have been a key. I’ve always been deeply drawn to the cave art ever since I first studied it in high school. It was striking and beautiful to me, and was so much more interesting than the so-called cavemen. Then later I read “When God Was a Woman,” by Merlin Stone and that really woke me up.

    Anytime only men dig something up and describe it as all male, we need to just laugh at them.
    It shouldn’t be so surprising that the man who made the “discover” of women’s prehistoric art didn’t imagine the cave as a womb.

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  15. It is really weird to be a feminist these days. For over 30 years, and yet over and over again, women seem to never get a foothold, we always have to fight the same old battles. We can’t even seem to get the past right ever, because the default is male, and it is a curse.

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  16. I found it exciting too Turtle woman, and so have others, did you see the shares on Facebook are nearing 1000? We need our past as women because it is empowering.

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  17. Great article. I am reminded of the practice of applying henna to the hands. I’ve always thought it resonated with the results of assisting at childbirth–a creative expression of the ultimate creativity that women have perpetuated in a beautiful way. I see here that the origins of henna may be a far more ancient tribute to and a memorial of a time when art was (literally) in the hands of women.

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  18. Yes Carol, I did connect with the Facebook page and shared it to my network as well. So many people loved the story and this is how we spread amazing feminist herstory, but this story is huge! It changes the past. It made me realize that in my subconscious is a truth, because I was poetically and powerfully drawn to the cave art at age 13 or so. My 13 year old self felt something. This is the source of true women’s awakening, and I am always open to it.

    We need myth, and truth and literature and analogy and art to break through patriarchal mindbindings. The truth of women’s liberation is not easy. So this is a new window to the past, and I love the way you are actually living in Greece, and telling the ancient stories Carol. It seems more real! I think we didn’t go far enough with the power of the goddess, somehow, I sense all this liberalism and play nice with patriarchy creeping in, but give me the cave art any day!

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  19. This is fascinating, thank you for sharing the article and your thoughts! I can’t wait to do a bit of reading around this.

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