The image of the so-called Bird Man at Cave Lascaux, France has long been a source of fascination for interpreters of Paleolithic art and of art in general. The image is reproduced in full below but to get a better idea of the dimensions, physical and meta-physical, I turn to Clayton Eshleman, who in Juniper Fuse, makes the case that, among other things, Paleolithic art is the process and the struggle by which Cro-Magnon man separated himself from the world around him. It is worth our time to quote him at length:
"The Shaft "scene' is much more formidable and larger than I had anticipated before actually seeing it in May 1997. Between 8 and 9 feet wide, it possesses its space with dense, aggressive, calligraphic strokes (Franz Klein comes to mind). In reproductions (sometimes undoubtedly due to camera angles"), the "scene" often appears cramped, with the bird-headed man and the bison done in a peurile, "primitive" fashion. In reality, the "scene" struck me as being elegant and as assured as the animals in the Rotunda and Axial Gallery [other parts of Cave Lascaux]. The black manganese glistens; the six dots behind the rhinoceros's anus shine, as if still wet! Below them, I noticed two slight smears that look like fingertips, and in the rubbly surface below the composition, blob like drops of hardened paint.
Of the dozen or so Upper Paleolithic paintings or engravings (both parietal and portable) with credible shamanistic elements, the Shaft "scene" is the most substantial. The fact that the man is bird-headed and ithyphallic argues strongly that he is not a hunter. o hunter with disguise himself partially as a bird - and why would any hunter be represented with an erection? Surely the erection proposes fertility, and since this bird-headed ithyphallic figure is facing a wounded or dead bison, such fertility must be symbolic. It follows that the bird-headed man's diagonal position would also be symbolic (i.e., it does not represent a dead hunter stretched out on the ground), and if symbolic, one of sleep or, more likely given the bird mask, one of trance. The fact is, we don't know if this bird-headed man if falling or ascending but this is not a real interpretative problem, as either motion could take place, symbolically, in shamanic activity: He could be falling into trance or beginning a spiritual ascent" (Eshleman, 183).
As I write this I have a reproduction of the scene as an etching, probably by Brueil. It is strange to my modern mind. In the empty space beneath I wrote, automatically, "'I go up in the daylight; I go down in the dark'. Bird-spirit must travel through the dark at some point ("Birds fly in silence though us" Rilke). These figures emerge from the rock no different than our gods emerge appear to us in our dreams. They never appear to the same to us twice, and the never appear at all to others; each is a private experience dictated by our imaginations which are themselves suffused with our anxieties, our traumas, our fantasies. I see a bird, my wife sees a vulva". How does a mind brought up on the doubt and ennui of postmodernism approach this piece with wonder and openness? Eshleman offers a clue, and as I shall argue, a way of living into a world in decline.
It occurred to me sometime in the past couple years that while looking at Indigenous Southwest rock art (by and large done in the open and not in caves), it was more propitious to "get crazy" while doing so. For me that meant being playful, telling jokes, pretending not to look too hard, imagining things that may or may not be there, et al.
When I saw this petroglyph at the Black Mountain site just east of St. George, Utah, I immediately thought of Freud's via regia, the royal road to the unconscious by way of dreams. That sheep, I imagined, was the soul of someone walking along a high ledge to a place only the dreamer or the dead go (dreamers return, albeit changed. The dead also do return but for them they are trapped in dream). Sheep as psychopomp. Sheep as shaman. Eliade constantly makes the point that one of the primary duties of the shaman is to guide the soul to the underworld. ("Birds fly in silence through us" right?)
Even now, writing that, I cringe because my rational mind wants to simply say it's a desert bighorn sheep walking along a ledge. End of story. Point is, though, it doesn't matter, does it? We'll never be able to access the moment of this panel's creation, at least I won't. Perhaps modern Paiutes may be able to, but I don't think even they have preserved the link to that way of being. What connects this petroglyph in southern Utah to the subterranean painting in France, aside from the divide of twenty thousand some odd years, aside the lithe and wonderful depictions of fauna, is a profound and dynamic sense of movement. Movement indicative of travel. Travel from where to where? If you allow yourself to devolve, to not focus on details so much as to allow each piece to live in a liminal space with your attention so that it begins to have real dynamism, real action, real smells (don't those bison entrails have a horrible smell!), the movement seems clearer to me...it is the movement with the viewer. The bird-headed man and the sheep are templates for me to leave where I am. I think it is not enough to interpret manifold possibilities of narrative arcs in the pieces themselves, I think we have to describe our own movements in concert with each piece. They are portals to the numinous right in front of us waiting to be entered. Is this sounding crazy yet? Good!
I am realizing that through the writing of my book Kestrel Heart, that I am really documenting my own journey across the aeons of Homo imagining, down into the underworld and skyward, beyond the sky and beyond all to the empyrean of Sophia. Without knowing it when I wrote "I go up in the daylight; I go down in the dark" I was describing a shamanic initiatory experience. Those words were written in response to my chasing kestrels during migration season in the brightest of light along the spine of the Wahsatch range. They danced and dove and signed their names in curlicues of the most delicate and perfect cursive as they described the shape of the wind. When I went home and slept, I dreamed often of snakes. The Gnostic symbolism is obvious. (And let's be honest, Gnosticism was itself probably an ossified form of the original fire, the original Fall, the period in which the Homo genus found that it was different from the world and yet still had to live in it). These are the oldest stories, and they are found on rocks, themselves the oldest things we have on the earth. Rocks have given us ourselves, in a sense, because they carry the soul, are soul. What does any of this have to do with living a life now?
I do not advocate removing oneself from the world. However, those of us who do feel deeply that we have had cause to stop in our lives and consider that the world is both immeasurably vast and that our way of life is coming to an end (endless supplies of things to buy, cheap oil, no inflation, plenty of water, plenty of food, the rule of law) have a private world accessible to us that only we'll ever know - the world of our souls. As Jung constantly pointed out, the world of the soul is not exhaustible, there is no end to it and its lands extend infinitely into others.
I've been quoting Rilke here. I think it's time to unveil the full excerpt:
One single space extends through every being:
An inniverse, the whole world's sky within.
Birds fly in silence through us. O, the I
Who wants to grow looks out, and that is when
The tree grows in me....
It is probably clear that shamanism is no response to politics. Shamaning does not engage politics. By traveling along the inniverse I will not change the course of events. But that is precisely the point! The so-called course of events is a chronological fallacy projected by a rational worldview that keeps us enchained. So long as we think history is an arc bending toward some denouement, we are deluded. There is no arc, there is only life, and part of the real vitality of living, the deep, wild, crazy fun of living is to close your eyes and walk in a place of your own imagining, and meet who comes, and go where you'll go. Nothing is too far-fetched. It is all there, the whole shebang of all that's ever been is in your imagination. USE IT!
I am the bird-headed man and that is my staff with the kestrel head, I've eaten the heart to ascend to the light and I'm dead but I'm not. I've become what I know I am. No thing in the world means as much. I am the world when I follow the she kestrel. I am always already the world when I dream. Here, there. It is all the same. In the Fall that is inborn in us all, it is not the woman who eats the fruit, it is the human who can no longer remain ensconced in the world. We left the world to become the world to destroy the world, finally. We are not abnormal, we are a cancerous growth of existence. If we should destroy what we know as life on the planet it will not be abnormal. It will be and existence continues as will our souls, the souls of all things who have been. I am the sheep who walks alone toward myself though you can't see the other me. I do this until the merciful wind rubs me off the rock but even then I will walk forever inside the rock where you can't see me. I am the lesson for you to go toward yourself. Kestrel fly, sheep walk, bear sleep, fish dive. Go there, only you'll know how to get there. There's no skin for you to wear. There are no bones for you to use. There are no equations that make sense. Crack. Now I'm careening over the universes faster than any word. I'll see you soon. Take your own way here.