In 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.