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Taurid Tracker

The cave art/prehistoric astronomy paper I co-authored has been receiving coverage for about two weeks now:

BBC World Service:

Voice of America:

Science Alert:
The Australian:
India Today:

Science Daily:

The Telegraph: sONpjauNIehvmUpJWufFM9fN87LoubJvTtqdpfTcD9VxT0RSFjWZW2I


The Times:

A good one, here:

There’s probably many others.

Most reports focus on cave art as constellations, which is not a novelty, except perhaps to the wider public. Science Alert, however, raised a keynote of the paper in our rejection of a purely shamanic reading – which, today, has become a Frazerian fertility answer-to-all – in reframing the outer world versus inner world entanglement in the mindset of the cave artists:

If anything, these findings show we might need to move on from strictly shamanistic interpretations, to see art as integral to marking time based on a bold feature of the environment we often overlook in our modern world – the night sky.

Similarly, the Bradshaw Foundation picked up the thread regarding the importance of solstice and equinox markers (rather than the depiction of constellations for the sake of it) and the significance of Marshack’s deciphering of notches and artworks on bone plaques:

… keeping track of time and the changing seasons during the Ice Age by watching how stars slowly move in the sky as the year progresses is plausible, as revealed in Alexander Marshack’s publication ‘The Roots of Civilization’.

Centre stage, certainly in a graphic sense, was the Lascaux Shaft scene and the identity of the bison with Capricornus.

Although a relatively inconspicuous constellation, the image of a horned animal (stone-buck, ibex, ‘sea-goat’) has been assigned to Capricornus since ancient times and the constellation has possessed an exalted status in star mythologies.  To Neoplatonic philosophers, it was The Gate of the Gods where souls ascended to heaven; their descent and return to incarnation being through the Cancer constellation. In Greek mythology, the constellation was identified as Aegocerus (‘goat-horn’) whom descends from Aegipan (‘goat-pan’). From these accounts, the reason Aegocerus was horned was because he fought together with Zeus against the Titans on Mount Ida. His weapon was the shell-trumpet called Panicus (‘panic’) which caused the Titans to flee and which he found at the bottom of the ocean (Condos,1997). This explains the image of the sea-goat. However, the constellation-figure was also identified as a goat-fish hybrid to the Babylonians. In his renowned gathering of ancient starlore anecdotes, Hinkley-Allen (1899) suggests that Berossos is reported by Seneca to have learned from the old books of Sargon that the world would be destroyed by a great conflagration when all the planets met in this sign. Furthermore:

Jensen says that “the amphibious Ia Oannes of the Persian Gulf was connected with the constellation Capricornus; Sayce, that a cuneiform inscription designates it as the Father of Light – a title which, astronomically considered, could not have been correct except about 15000 years ago, when the sun was here at the summer solstice … So that, although we do not know when Capricornus came into the zodiac, we may be confident that it was millenniums ago, perhaps in prehistoric days(1899:139).

Capricornus occupied the summer solstice at the time when the Lascaux Shaft was in use and marked the maximum intensity of the Taurid shower, a far more eruptive spectacle at that time than it is today. Regardless of the tenuous reliability of the descriptions of cosmic panics and conflagrations of Greek and Babylonian antiquity, the fact they were assigned to this indistinct constellation, and the latter identified as a horned beast at all, is intriguing at the very least.

Despite their distance in time, the Shaft scene bears an analogous technique of recording celestial information as the Tauroctony of Mithraism. This is the cryptic scene repeated on many cult reliefs depicting a man plunging a dagger into the neck of a bull; both man and bull are enshrouded in an otherwise inscrutable iconography of people, symbolic animals and artefacts. Mithraic rituals were also performed in grottoes or cave-imitating environments. Rather than accurate star maps, both the Shaft scene and the Tauroctony use an ensemble of figures from different regions of the sky which characterise their own respective solstice and equinox orientations of the periods and events they record.

The history of the Tauroctony and the astronomical understanding it encrypts is documented and proposed by David Ulansey in his The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (1989). The differences between the Roman cult and its Palaeolithic counterpart is a big topic but concerns how we understand language. The Tauroctony is expressed in esoteric symbology as an alternative to known writing-systems (at a time when gods were still nevertheless responsible for astronomical activity) whereas the Lascaux people expressed “scientific” or environmental information in figurative terms. Visitors to the Shaft would encounter the event the figures on the walls collectively told in a process deconstructed by Marshack:

Within this context we do not have to rely on such categories of story as “magic,” “animism,” or “totemism” to begin to understand the cognitive processes involved. Instead we can begin with an analysis of those basic psychological equations and strategies which use symbols and symbolic relations to indicate story and process and which always make the participant, artist, dancer, viewer, or dreamer a part of the story (1972:280).

Likely narrated by persons in animal antlers, masks and robes, the telling, or teaching, of this event at significant times of the year in its combination of realistic, symbolic and mythological elements would constitute a religious mystery.