Cave Paintings and Our Relationship with Other Animals
“I Am Not an Animal!”
February 24 – 25, 2017
Third in a series of short video backgrounders for the upcoming “I Am Not an Animal” symposium.
The Cave at Chauvet: Thirty thousand years ago, deep in a cave in Southern France, an artist (or a team of them) painted some of the greatest portrayals of animals ever. They include lions, panthers, bears, horses, cows, bulls, hyenas, and owls, and they give us some idea of how our ancestors saw their relationship with their fellow animals, and how this relationship changed over the millennia.
We may never know what these paintings meant or signified to the people who painted them. But we can say, just by looking at them, that even as the people who lived there were developing greater hunting skills and weapons, they had a level of respect for every animal, not just as a food source but as an individual and an equal, with whom the people felt intimately connected through the web of nature.
The Temple at Gobekli Tepe: Fast forward now 20,000 years to a period about 11,000 years ago, and to an archeological site known as Gobekli Tepe in what is now Turkey. One thing that stands out is the contrast in the portrayals of the humans and the other animals. The large T-shaped pillars (that you see in the video above) clearly represent humans, and the portrayal of the other animals, with their small size and low positioning, suggests a relationship that is no longer one of equality.
Archeologists have also found lots of human skulls that appear to have been buried and then dug up, indicating perhaps a growing preoccupation with death, and suggesting that this is the world’s oldest-known temple.
The Symbolic Art of Ancient Egypt: Fast forward again, now to Ancient Egypt, several thousand years later, and you see a very different portrayal of our fellow animals – now increasingly stylized. By now they’re no longer even portrayed as real, living beings, but rather as symbols: the cow as a mother figure; the dog as a god who judges people when they die; the cat goddess who brings good fortune; the crocodile as a symbol of the pharaoh’s strength and military prowess; and the hippopotamus as a symbol of fertility. (See them all in the video above.)
While the Egyptians viewed these animals as deities, these were deities who were being tamed, while the pharaoh, and through him the people, saw themselves as becoming gods themselves as they sought to bring nature and the cycles of life and death under their control.
What happened over those thousands of years to change the original relationship?
Creation Stories and Mythologies
Creation stories and mythologies from all around the world tell of a time, way back, when people lived in harmony with the rest of nature, and of a “fall” through which this benign relationship was torn apart by something about us humans that brought suffering and death into the world.
The Cheyenne people speak of a time when humans were naked and innocent before they received a gift of knowledge that led to war, famine and other disasters. Ancient Mayan texts tell of a time when humans began behaving as though they might become as gods; and African myths that describe a time when people understood the language of animals and lived at peace with them.
At that time, we’re told, the people also lived forever. Since this could not literally be true, perhaps the stories refer to a time when fear of death was not an existential angst, as it is today, and when our ancestors were living more in the present rather than being obsessed with the past and the future, as we are today.
The Gift that Became a Curse: Greek mythology tells of Prometheus coming down to Earth with the gift of fire, representing enlightenment and self-awareness. Then he realizes that his gift to humankind is actually a curse since it has enabled people to foresee their own death. As a result, they have developed great anxiety.
To make up for this, he gives them a second gift – the gift of “blind hope” – which will enable them to go into denial over their mortality. In the Aeschylus drama Prometheus Bound, he explains how he’s tried to make up for enabling to be able to reflect on their own mortality:
Prometheus: I prevented mortals from foreseeing their death.
Chorus: By finding what remedy for this malady?
Prometheus: I caused blind hopes to dwell within them.
Chorus: In this you gave a mighty benefit to mortals!
The Two Voices in the Garden of Eden: But perhaps the story of our descent into existential angst is best told in the biblical tale of the Garden of Eden, a dramatic picture of what happened as we humans developed greater self-awareness.
The man and woman are, at first, “naked and untouched by shame,” living in harmony with the animals around them. Then they hear two voices: one warning them not to eat of the “tree of knowing good and bad” lest they be “touched by death”; the other telling them that if they go forward and become self-aware, they will become “as gods.”
Both voices are, of course, true. The growth of self-awareness brings with it the duality of a god-like self-awareness and potential to create our own world, together with the painful, ungod-like shameful awareness of our animal nature as naked, sexual, physical beings who are doomed to die.
As Ernest Becker puts it in his book The Denial of Death, we discover that we are “gods with anuses.”
So catastrophic is this fall from innocence, that within a few brief generations, according to the story of Noah and the flood, humankind has brought about the near-destruction of the entire planet.
Echoing Down Through History
Those two voices from the Garden of Eden still echo down through history: one telling us that more human progress will free us from the fear of death and even make us into gods; the other warning us to go back, even though it’s just to some hopelessly-distorted version of our lost innocence.
It all plays out in the endless dualities of our competing political systems, our conflicting religions and belief, our ethnic wars, and our economic and global systems.
But there’s no going back to the innocence of another time, any more than we can go back to the innocence of our own childhood. And as for going forward, no amount of so-called “progress” has yet succeeded in freeing us from the existential angst of our own mortality. Either way, it’s all just different ways of denying who and what we are, and the paradox of our own dual nature.
So we continue down the road of telling ourselves that we’re superior beings, somehow not subject to mortality like the other animals, and that we can prove this by taking dominion over them.
We tell ourselves that all creation exists for our own exclusive benefit, and even, these days, that if we succeed in destroying Planet Earth to the point where it’s uninhabitable, we can just take off in space ships and go somewhere else.
But that’s not going to happen. The only thing we’ve really launched is a mass extinction that’s on course to take our own species down at the same time.
So where do we go from here? That’s what we’ll look at in the next, and final, video in this series.
Next video in this series: King Oedipus and the End of the World.