The distant period from 23,000 to 12,000 years ago, during what is today called the Paleolithic Era, saw the development of modern humanity’s immediate ancestors, the Cro-Magnons, into a sophisticated prehistoric culture. This was also the Age of the Cavern Temple, epitomized in the magnificent wall paintings represented by the cave art found at such famous sites as Altimira and Lascaux in Western Europe.
It is believed by many modern prehistorians that these Stone Age cave paintings were more than for art’s sake, that they had a very deep meaning and a purpose behind their production. One researcher who has perhaps done more than anyone else to prove this point is French art expert Andre Leroi-Gourhan.
Beginning in 1947, Leroi-Gourhan decided to take a purely statistical approach to prehistoric cave paintings and began a systematic investigation of 72 groups of pictures in 66 caverns representing practically the whole of European Paleolithic cave art. After years of recording and classifying, the Frenchman had collected a multitude of animal figures, distributed in order of frequency in this manner: 610 horses, 510 bisons, 205 mammoths, 175 rhinos, 9 nondescript monsters, 8 large-horned deer, 8 fish, 6 birds, 3 nondescript beasts of prey, 2 wild boars, and 2 chamois.
Next, Leroi-Gourhan sought to find if there were any correlations between the types of animals and their positions in the cave. What he found was significant: 91% of the bison, 92% of the bovidae, and 86% of the horses are pictured in the central positions—in pictures in the central chambers of the caves. Only 8% of the hinds, 9% of the deer, 20% of the reindeer, 4% of the ibexes, and 8% of the bears, and 11% of the felines are located in the central chambers—the rest were found in the remotest portions.
Leroi-Gourhan also analyzed many of the abstract symbols that appear in cavern art, and the majority of these he found to be male and female signs. Again, he determined where these signs are located—and, again, he discovered a pattern: Over 80% of the female signs are in the center chambers, while only 34% of the male signs are found there.
After several more years of careful study, Leroi-Gourhan uncovered many additional correlations, all of which pointed to a curious division of the animal kingdom into a vast sexual zoogany. Only certain animal types were coupled with either the male or female signs, and found in specific locations in the caves. Eventually, Leroi-Gourhan discovered that there were altogether six, distinct zones to the prehistoric Cavern Temple: the entrance, ambulatory, central chamber, passages, side chambers, and end chamber—each with their own distinct animal types and sex signs, grouped in a complex system of order and arrangement.
The Paleolithic cave temple thus seems analogous to any modern holy place or sanctuary, having a specific route of direction and stations of initiation, always in the same order in respect to the altar and entrance. As Leroi-Gourhan recognized, the cavern art testifies to a religious or philosophical view of the world of a very sophisticated nature.
Setting the Stage for Contact with Lost Mysteries
It is possible to speculate on what it might have been like to enter the Cavern Temple of the Cro-Magnons. It was, apparently, to enter a totally different world—one of both fear and wonder for the prehistoric initiate.
The following—like initiatory rites familiar to us from cultures the world over—is one possible form that such initiations might have taken:
Just in front of the cave entrance was usually located an open-air site with stones, bone, and wood pieces covered with pictures and symbols, which were probably used to teach the initiate and prepare him or her for the subterranean experience. At the cave entrance itself, the candidate about to step in would have been faced with images familiar to fellow seekers of the greater Mysteries for ages to come—a footprint in black and red, sign of the first footfall of the One Prepared to Go Forth, and the figure of two, large, cave lion heads, the Spirit Protectors of the Doorway, prehistoric echoes of the Sphinx guardians of ancient Egypt.
The first stage of initiation within the Cave sanctuary would have been one of cutting off the outer senses. The initiate would, perhaps, have been led blindfolded into the first inner chamber of the cavern system and left alone in the total darkness for a certain period of time, to prepare for what was to come. This, it seems, could have been a great challenge, for the cave possessed an environment completely opposite to that with which he or she was familiar. Because of the constant temperature within, anyone entering in from a summer heat would have felt a sudden chill, while for those coming in from a winter cold, a shock of warmth and dampness.
The outside world was also one of open spaces where nature was in constant change and growth was measured by the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars. In the cavern world all physical space and time would have seemed motionless, with no reference. In the total and unchanging darkness, the path was difficult and uncertain. The initiate would have had to constantly test his or her footing and guard the head against low ceilings, all the while fighting inner fears of being lost or stuck in tight places within this restricted space of tunnels, chambers, and passages.
Likewise, the world outside would have offered a constant reassuring din of life and nature in action. Inside the cave, however, was a world of silence. When a sound was made within, it was a single punctuation in the overwhelming stillness, amplified by echoes from the cavern walls. With no further stimulation, the mind of the initiate could have begun to focus on each water drop, each falling pebble, the squeak of bats overhead, and the muffled sound of feet scraping over rock surfaces.
The outside too was an environment of wind, breezes, and fresh air. But sitting or moving deep within the still and damp air of the cave, breathing would have became heavier, irregular, as the oxygen supply to the brain would have been slowly reduced.
All these factors—temperature shock, fear of confinement, darkness, loss of time, silence, and lack of air—could have been psychological tools for heightening awareness and at the same time triggering changes of perceptions and consciousness that would prepare the initiate’s mind to be open to knowledge of a higher level. Here the foundation could possibly have been laid for otherworld contact.
Into this environment of shock to the senses, perhaps, could have come the prehistoric ‘Master of Initiation,’ who had secretly followed the initiate into the cave and had gone through his or her own preparations. The ‘Master’ now, perhaps, began to slowly add specific sensory input to both further cause the initiate to detach from everyday thinking and left-brain reasoning powers, and begin right-brain feeling and creative learning. Thus could have begun the second stage of Initiation—that of overcoming outer fears and opening to inner wisdom, making way for communication with other dimensions beyond human ken.
At first the initiate’s dark world could have been shattered by flashes of light from a lamp lit and quickly blown out, or moved quickly from one location to another, creating changing shadows that increased disorientations in the initiate’s perceptions of space. The Master as magic performer, now perhaps, began moving out of the blackness and into a suddenly lighted space, often in a distant entranceway, then disappeared again into blackness.
These lights and images could have been followed by sounds offering no apparent source of origin. Instead, they could have surrounded the initiate in a sea of distant voices, flutes, bullroarers, and drums amplified and echoing in intensity. The drum rhythms, ever-increasing, slowly induced trance states in the mind.
With the mind starving for stimulation, this new sensory bombardment of light and sound, carefully controlled by the Master would have became the total focus for the initiate so that every event was one of full attention, of great importance, and was remembered afterwards in vivid detail.
From out of this sea of vibration, next would have come the reassuring voice of the Master Teacher—sometimes distant, sometimes near, instructing the initiate to arise, light his or her own lamp, and begin gazing at the painted images on the cavern walls. This was the new focus of the learning process now begun in this, the third, stage of Initiation.
As the initiate followed along, the voice of the Master Teacher, accompanied by continued light flashes, music, and drumbeats, could have given hints at the multileveled meanings of each picture or scene witnessed. Each image focused on became a device for remembering specific information in specific orders of appearance, with the encoded information speaking directly to the right-brained intuition every time the image was brought to mind.
Since the pictures were of animals and objects seen in everyday prehistoric life, the initiate would have been, for the rest of his or her existence, constantly reminded of the secret wisdom instilled within them in the Cave Temple, when confronted with the same images in everyday reality.
The Prehistoric Cavern Temple as a Sacred Spaceship
On one level the Paleolithic paintings and symbols seem meant to be outer reflections of the inner changes happening inside the initiate himself. On another level the cavern art and experience were perhaps designed to open the initiate’s mind to the guidance and wisdom of unseen worlds. Rather than being like a modern spaceship riding through fixed dimensions of time and space, the Cavern Temple could have acted as a “sacred space ship” that stood still while the dimensions of time and space moved in, around, and through it.
Today, whenever we look at Stone Age paintings shown in books photographed in straight electric lighting, they are not all that impressive. But in the prehistoric days after spending time first in complete darkness, then gazing upon the images in the continually flickering flame of a candle or lamp burning animal fat, suddenly it would have been as if the animal figures had come alive, looking like they are actually breathing, and their hearts beating.
Above, in the light of the glowing, pulsing wall glimmerings, a whole herd of ancient bison appeared to move silently together deeper into the cavern, becoming guides directing the initiate onwards. It seems clear that what was portrayed here was not the picture of the animals themselves but the spiritual power of the animals, as they are a part of the Spirit of All Things mirroring the One Spirit and the cosmic pattern of nature.
How clever the artists must have been in using wonderful ways of getting their point across. Many of the animals are not shown standing or walking but floating in space. Others, while looking very real, are incomplete, as if they were not totally in the physical world. There are certain figures, in fact, that do not have any counterpart in this reality, being fantasy creatures from other worlds.
Still other images appear as distorted from every angle but one, as if the animals are coming in from another dimension for only a moment before leaving again. Others were totally invisible until a light was held up to them at a certain angle and distance, quickly flashing into view and then just as quickly vanishing, as one walked through the cavern.
Along with the animal figures are also strange designs—what are called tectiforms and claviforms by the prehistorian experts of today. They were used to identify the figures and give some hidden meaning to them during the initiate’s preparations, before coming into the cave. The signs served as guides for telling the initiate what was being viewed or what was needed to be experienced.
Strangely enough, while so much detail was given to the animal pictures, we cannot find one, good image anywhere of a human being. The reason for this, to us seems simple—this was a sanctuary not for men or women but for the spirits. Some human-like images are there, but they have only rough outlines looking like ghosts or combined with animal features. Thus, they are not human but are the “otherworld,” spirit beings of the Cave Temple who guided the actions of both the Master Teacher and the initiates.
One picture overlooking the central chamber appears like a dancing magician with human arms and legs, the body of a lion, a bearded human face, owl eyes, and antlers on his head. The Master Teacher when he or she performed symbolically in the Cavern Temple might have worn these different animal skins and horns not as something they made up, but rather, to mirror the actual appearance of the entities and invisible temple guardians. The Masters would have taken on the form as best they could of the spiritual realities, to represent them and work with their powers.
The Cave as an Earth Energy and Oracle Center
The Cavern Sanctuary also, it should not be forgotten, would have been the place where the initiates came in direct contact with the energies of the Earth Mother. These energies were used in ancient societies for personal growth and the heightening of the initiation process. The earth-energy spots were sometimes marked with clay spirals and human-placed stalactites acting like amplifiers. In other locations there appears the skeleton of a snake, or wavy line patterns, painted on the rock walls. These could have shown where the prehistoric initiate could actively experience the energy whirls and patterns coming from the earth.
Where we find the major portraits of animal figures seems always alongside energy centers where the initiate would have sat or stood to view the scene. The energies could have increased his or her mental ability to interpret the hidden meanings of what was being shown to them. The prehistoric artists used only these very specific locations to place their paintings. There are often even-better rock surfaces available nearby, but they were left blank instead, because of the absence of earth powers.
Also, the Cavern Temple could have been used as an oracle, a place where those within were inspired to prophesy or see visions of possible futures ahead. Closer to our age, this was reflected in the cavern oracles of Delphi in Greece, from Dendera in ancient Egypt, the Sibylline seeresses of Rome, the prophetic voices from the Loltun caves of Mayan Yucatan, from beneath the Toltec Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico, and the Dreamtime memories in the ancestral rock shelters of the Native Australians.
For the prehistoric initiate as well, the Cavern Temple of over twelve millennia ago was apparently the place of the Vision Quest, an odyssey beyond everyday life to see both the planetary and cosmic patterns unfolding. What was searched for, it seems, was the individual seeker’s place within the great weaving loom of other dimensions and worlds. When this vision was revealed, the initiate—hand in hand with their Master Teacher—would have walked together out of the cave and out of the womb of the Earth Mother, now possessing the gift of secret wisdom revealed to them.
The above article, by the late Joseph Robert Jochmans, was first published in Atlantis Rising #9, (November, 1996). Books by the author include: Time-capsule: The search for the Lost Hall of Records in Ancient Egypt; Land Where the Light is Anchored: A Maori Initiation through New Zealand; and others, all of which are now out of print and thus, unfortunately, not available through the Atlantis Rising store.
CAPTIONS: The route of initiation with locations of prehistoric art and claviforms. Les Combarelles caverns, France.
Shaman initiator, from paleolithic France, circa 14,000 BC.