We all know the famous German film director Werner Herzog is mad as a hatter, in fact he could have been one of the characters in Alice in Wonderland. The English have always welcomed, even celebrated, eccentrics — this is the only reason I have remained in employment for the past 20 years — but even at a gathering of the most eccentric in all of England, our dear Werner would stand out as a prize specimen.. But he is a good film maker [Fitzcarraldo; Grizzly Man]. He recently was allowed to shoot a documentary in a cave complex in southern France at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc where they found the earliest ‘prehistoric’ cave art ever stumbled upon. It is older than those other famous caves in France and Spain where you encounter paintings of animals on the walls.. These older caves contain drawings mostly in charcoal black, with a touch of red, and some faint yellow ochre, and they are 35,000 years old.
These luminous portrayals of animals were drawn deep in a cave where no sunlight ever reaches. Parts of these drawings may be 40,000 years old. Scholars call this time of our human pre-history ‘Paleolithic.’
This film is worth walking miles to see. Its name is– ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams.’
The Chauvet Caves were first discovered in 1994, and Herzog was allowed a brief time in which to go into them with his cameras in 2010. The general public are not allowed in, due to the destructive effect of carbon dioxide.
The black and white line drawings were not sketched on flat cave walls, but on curved and rough rock surfaces, using their rise and fall to make the animal bodies almost three dimensional.
Nothing static, all movement.. So much so, the animals on the rocky cave walls, looming out of the dark, feel alive. They are vibrating with spirit and they have a beauty that no Picasso, or any other artist, has ever captured. It is uncanny. They are spiritually energetic presences, not flat surfaces. Delicacy and sensitivity combine with élan and strength. Intelligence stares out of the eyes at you. They are personal and situated, not universal archetypes in some cosmic space above this world. These animal spirits, these animal beings, are here, in this world, with us.
The animals drawn include: rhinos, elephants, the most marvellous horses I have ever seen [in art or real life], lions, tigers, one [possible] wolf, bears, boars, and buffalo! Yes, huge and beautiful bison.. No birds are depicted, nor any crawling things. It is all 4 leggeds. Deep at the back of the cave, in extreme darkness, there is only one depiction of a human, and this seems a mother figure, though she is also part animal in a way.. No strong demarcation between animal and human as yet..
I have never seen animals like these.
All these animals were living in a verdant valley right next to a huge glacier. The people who drew them were the hunter-gathering nomads of the Ice Age. No settled life growing crops, because it was too cold for that. Our earliest ancestors were nomads before they settled down as farmers. [They were like Abel, not like Cain: the whole point of that story is that God blesses those on the move, the nomadic, and refused to bless those who have stopped moving, the settled. The latter are jealous of the former, because the former have a spirit the latter have lost.]
The cave floor is littered with the debris and footprints of animals who were there, including lots of bears, but no human remains of any kind were ever discovered in ten years of painstaking exploration of every nook and cranny. The cave feels like a sacred place, where ritual, magic, and prayer, occurred, but humans seem never to have intruded otherwise. They did not shelter there, eat there, sleep there. They built no fires and left no smoke crawling up the rock to obscure the drawings. They put the animals on the cave walls, and ceremonially related to them, but that was it.
The cave walls were drawn over, with new drawings added, during thousands of years. No attempt was made to ‘preserve’ the original works. As with Aboriginal cave art, people over generations upon generations just put new marks on the old pictures, adding to them, changing them. Never static, never preserved in aspic, but a tableau always on the move, like all the animals it honoured by the depiction.
The scientists who had carefully studied the caves for 10 years were demonstrably affected by the place more than scientists usually are. One spoke of the silence, and said it was a silence in which you could hear your heart beating. Other observations, trying to get at the nature of early humanity, were offered.. Only one grabbed me, because of its inadvertent accuracy to Shamanism.
Shamanism — this is not the right term for it, but it is humanity’s first religion, or as a student once put it, ‘humanity’s first thought’ — regards animals as spiritual beings, not just material mechanisms, as modern biology asserts. The observation that gripped my attention more than any others captured two qualities in the drawings that are Shamanic.
I forget the man’s precise words, but he said that these animals, first of all, belonged to a world in motion, a world inherently dynamic rather than static, a world subject to ongoing and unending transformation; and he then added, even more interestingly, that in our modern thought ‘a tree is a tree is a tree’ but in the world wherein these animals lived, such fixed boundaries do not exist, because sometimes a human is a human, but other times a human is an animal; sometimes an animal is an animal, but other times an animal is a human. There is a fluidity about the identity of things, they flow into each other, become each other, exchange being with each other.
Being is not so parceled up, like an assembly of discrete ‘things’ laid out on a table, like an orange, an apple, a knife, a plate.
Being has permeable boundaries, and a sea flows through these boundaries, and in this sea, a dolphin can become the human swimming side by side, because spirit transmutes the being of the dolphin into the consciousness of the human and the human’s being is changed and enlarged to admit the dolphin.
A human can go out on a dark night, and become the wolf howling at the pale moon. But conversely, the wolf lurking in shadows where the human fears to go can infiltrate human consciousness, initiating it into the being that is wolf. Henceforth, the human is invisible in shadows, like the wolf. After this change, the human delves shadows unafraid. With wolf eyes, the human gazes into every abyss, unflinching.
Transformation.. No boundaries..
What is the sea flowing through this world? Flowing through all things, moving them together on some fabulous journey, and interpenetrating them all, connecting them, allowing them and us to exchange skins, experiences, beings in this sea of being. What is this world they and we live in? Who are they, watching us, eluding us, helping us? Who are we that we dwell here, with them, and not anywhere else?
Shamanism is concerned with Spirit, and spirits. A Lakota elder once said to me, ‘We walk in one Spirit, and we walk with many spirits.’ There is one sea, it moves everything, and the animals and us are with each other in it, flowing into each other, sharing it and sharing each other in a constantly moving, fluid, flux..
The gods and goddesses of paganism always live above the world, on Mount Olympus, or some other high place. From there they ‘direct’ all humans, and ‘raise’ only a few. This is not Shamanism.
The spirit world is pervasive, and interpenetrates the material world. A thin membrane separates the visible and invisible domains of spirit and matter. Spirit is not ‘way over there’; it is here, with us, the invisible yet always present backdrop; it is with everything, and in it, everything is with everything. The identity we cling to, as an object of possession, is not the true being of ourself, or anything else. The sea runs through all the no boundary beings, and in the sea, they connect, exchange natures, to expand and commune with each other.
It is like breathing in and breathing out. I breathe in, back to a more limited being; I breathe out, and my being is no longer mine but it is permeated by and exchangeable with all beings and the being sustaining them.
The animals and us are here, together, for a reason too profound, and too beautiful, to put in words. It is a sacred no words song.
I do not want to leave the place where the animals, and us, are here, together, in a mystery and power of spirit world and material world intersecting for anything supposedly ‘better.’ You can have your Platonic heaven of archetypes, or your Jewish, Christian, Islamic, heaven populated by ethereal angels. If you want to go there, I wish you God-speed in going.
I do not want to go there.
I want to live in the place where the animals, and we, are here, together.
The animals staring out at me from the cave walls, 35,000 years ago, are here, in this world, with us. This is the world, spiritual and material, sea and land, that I continue to love, hope in, and have no yearning to ever leave, under any circumstances.
Werner Herzog somehow contrives to end the eerie quiet, and tense stillness, of this powerfully moving film with albino alligators turned white by radiation. He is in Alice’s Wonderland. But that is not where these animals are. They are in a world full of ‘strangeness and beauty’, as Black Elk put it, and they are here with us. Have you ever wondered why ‘here’ is with them? The gods and goddesses have animal totems, but they are a sort of Nietzschean super humanity. They are up there, not here, and not with the animals.
Herzog does not know the difference between dream, vision, and spiritual reality. He always falls back into fantasy, but his sheer idiocy saves him. He intrudes a little into his film, yet its presences walk past him, and just are what they are. Nothing can detract from that presence, that energy, that look which digs into us.
Why are you here? Why are you here with us? Why must you and us be together?
Our humanity is here, with the animals, in a world material and spiritual, sharing a life material and spiritual. Our humanity is diminished without them– which is why, away from them, too settled and too fat from our crop growing that stops us moving with them, we are dying.
The Shamanic ancestors did not try to possess these animals, nor amass any wealth off their backs.
Instead, they simply recorded, I came here, and with the animals I lived.
But that is everything, once you awake to where they, and us, really live.