The First Mystics? – Some Recent Accounts of Neolithic Shamanism -part 3

HomeArticlesThe First Mystics? – Some Recent Accounts of Neolithic Shamanism -part 3
Barry Cooper

This is the 3rd of 6 parts. Parts 4-6, which detail Professor Cooper’s new work built on the foundational work recounted in Parts 1-3, will appear later this Fall.

Remember that it is not you who sustain the root;

the root sustains you.Rom. 11:18

Symbolic Relics

“The oldest objects to have been found that were not tools and that therefore raised the question of their cultic purpose,” Archaeologist Marie König wrote, “were spheroids.”  The oldest of these, she said, dated from the end of the Lower Paleolithic, some 300,000 years B.C.


If this dating is accurate, it belongs to the very earliest possible time, according to the fossil record, of human habitation, shortly after the separation of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.


In any event, these spheroids were three or four inches in diameter and so could be held in the palm of the hand. That they were spheroids was of great significance to König. The spheroid, she said, “was the ideal shape (Gestalt) for the as yet undifferentiated fundamental concept (Grundbegriff) because alone it is the perfectly uniform figure” (Figur).


In addition, the visible cosmos, especially as made evident in the nocturnal motion of the planets and stars, made the sky look like a vault. So, König argued, the cosmos could be represented in this primordial way either from the outside, as a sphere, or from the inside, as a vault with the observer at the centre.




The skull, being both spheriod and hollow was highly suitable as a representation of both perspectives. This may be why so many skulls and skull fragments have been preserved. In any event, for one reason or another, skulls have long been treated in a special way.


The undifferentiated cosmos/sphere/vault was, she argued, the primordial and unstructured representation from which developed a more differentiated structure of an above and a below (or nether world), often understood to be lying in water–a spring, for example, could also be an entrance to the netherworld. Likewise a cave is a liminal space that, moreover, can serve as a terrestrial representation of the cosmos as a whole. From the Middle Paleolithic, 150,000 to 50,000 years B.C., or Mousterian (named after a French rock-shelter), spheroids were in continuous use and skulls were treated with care.


Mousterian burial remains, including those of Neanderthals, arranged along an east-west axis, presuppose close observation of the stars and especially of the sun. Such observation of the world axis gave additional structure to the cosmos. This axis, however, cannot be represented by a sphere or a vault, but only by a straight line. Nor can it be derived from a sphere or vault. Even more remarkable, a north-south axis, which also appeared in the Mousterian period, cannot be derived from observation of the rising and setting of the stars but is, so to speak, an act of pure speculation.


By the Middle Paleolithic, therefore, humans used their imagination to develop a cosmic focal point where the two axes intersect. At the same time, humans created the four cardinal directions. Again, this articulation of the cosmos was likely known to Neanderthals who also laid their dead in square burial pits.


Refining Representations of the Cosmos


Without going into detail concerning the lines and scratches, the “cup-marks” and “nets,” some surrounded by circles, some not, to be found in the rock-shelters and caves in the Fontainebleau forest (some of which were visited by Voegelin in the company of König),26  we may simply note that, according to König, the process of distinguishing cultural achievement from natural formations began some 300,000 years ago, possibly prior to the appearance of anatomically modern humans.


Whatever the date assigned to these artifacts, it seem plausible enough that the primordial and universal symbolization of reality was the sphere.


Increased specificity or “differentiation” to use Voegelin’s term, provided a more precise structure of upper and lower, symbolized, for example, as two bowls or cups or even two parts of a clam shell. Then the observation of the bowl of the sky could be structured in terms of lines and points, which in turn created a means of communication that enabled further differentiation of the structure of the cosmos as a grid or a net. Sometimes natural weathering of rock produced such an effect; sometimes it can be observed on sacred animals such as the turtle.


From spheroids, to crossed lines, to grids, representation of the order of the cosmos grew more elaborate in its internal articulation. “The crossed lines,” König wrote, “are part of the commandments of order (Ordnungsgeboten). Its axes make up the imaginary lines of connection between the cardinal points.”27


The point at which the lines crossed was seen as the centre of human existence and the square cultural world put boundaries or limits on space. The fifth cardinal point could divide the cosmos into four squares or four triangles if the lines were drawn diagonally. Sometimes the boundary rectangle was not incised and only the four corners of a diagonal or rectangular cross is today visible in the rock.


If the centre of the world can be symbolized by an intersection of two lines, a third dimension can also be symbolized by a vertical line, thus connecting the sky and the netherworld. Again, these petroglyphs can be bounded or not.  In all such ideograms the focus was at the centre where all the axes intersect, rather like the crosses on the Union Jack.


The Order of Time


König followed the discussion of spatial order in and of the cosmos with a discussion of the order of time, starting with circadian and lunar rhythms. Here the central symbol was not the four cardinal points but the three phases of the moon, which could be symbolized as three lines, a triangle, three cup-marks, dots, and so on.


König argued that the pictorial representation of the “horned moon” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V:1, 245) could be found in the horns of aurochs painted on the walls at Lascaux, for example, but that the later representation, however appealing to modern aesthetic sensibilities, was supplementary. In other words, since both the horns and dots or lines of three represented the phases of the moon, they can be understood as expressing an equivalent meaning.28


König provided a great deal of evidence from Fontainebleau, Lascaux, and later agricultural societies to support her account of the Paleolithic origins of cosmological symbolizations of space and time. She argued that the symbolization of time by way of the moon and then by representational images was subsequently used to symbolize death and rebirth, for example.  Of course, the details can grow complex rather quickly.


Granted that the moon was a heavenly clock and that it could be compared with earthly phenomena, which ones? And if these earthily phenomena then could change from one thing–a pair of auroch’s horns–to another: a triangle, three dots, etc., then “any number of symbolic images that bore no external relationship to one another” might yet be responses to the same experience.29 This was especially true with the new moon and its constituting an “answer” to the anxieties of life and death.


The König Argument


Complexities aside, König’s chief point was that, if we examine the “documents” in caves and rock shelters with this perspective in mind, it becomes clear that the earliest humans had a more differentiated culture than they at first appear to do, especially if we think of human prehistory as a development towards historical and eventually modern and contemporary humanity.


To summarize König’s admittedly speculative argument: the spiritual comprehension of the cosmos began with the creation of a spheroid cosmic image. Subsequently it was differentiated into space and time, which nevertheless remained constituents of the whole. A new problem arose as a consequence of differentiation: how to relate the spatial and temporal “dimensions” of the cosmos to one another in an intelligible representation of reality that is both a primordial unity and a differentiated reality?


Some late Paleolithic examples would be: (the order of space = 4) + (the order of time = 3) = 7. Or: a grid of 3×3=9 lines, cup-marks, dots etc. make a square (nine is also the number of nights for each phase of the moon) that serves as a comprehensive ordering image of the cosmos.


König’s Reception among Archeologists


One further observation: Marie König has all but been ignored by the “professional” archeological community. One obvious reason for this, as will be clear in the next section is that for the most part archeologists have in recent years pursued an entirely different interpretative strategy, one more congenial to the materialist and indeed often self-declared atheist assumptions of contemporary evolutionary scholarship.30 


Such approaches are highly critical of “speculations” such as those carried out by König but are utterly immune to the irony that their own work is deeply informed by speculative assumptions that never rise into their own consciousness of what they are doing or thinking.


About the only exceptions I have been able to discover during the past couple of years of research on this problem are archeologists interested in Paleolithic and Neolithic calendars, such as Alexander Marschack, who was also considered “controversial.”31


König was fully aware of her marginal position. As she told Meixner, “I don’t dig and date; I interpret.”32  There is also, no doubt, a certain disdain for a “layperson” intruding into the clerical orders of esteemed archeologists at the heads of important institutes, not to forget the importance of old-fashioned sexism.


König and Voegelin: Helping Each Other


Voegelin himself may have entertained some highly traditional notions regarding the sexual division of labour, especially as it applied to academic life, but he did not allow his prejudices to get in the way of his ability to appreciate genuine insights by female scholars. Upon hearing her lecture at the Academic Institute of Rome during the fall of 1968, according to König, Voegelin “came up to me straight away and said: ‘we must work together.’”33


They did, in fact, meet several times at her home in Saarbrucken and, as noted above, she escorted him around the caves and rock shelters at Fontainebleau, and, no doubt partly in return for her help, Voegelin assisted her with the publication of Am Anfang der Kultur. Voegelin even deputed two of his students, Tilo Schabert and Klaus Vondung, to assist her in writing some of the material in the first chapter dealing with archeological methods and assumptions. In short, it was a two-way street. As Schabert said to Meixner: “Frau König was also important to him. He wasn’t interested in her for no reason.”34


In a letter to her dated 14 October, 1968, Voegelin explained her importance to him:

Your essay [on prehistoric symbolism] is of great value to me because it shows that an historical picture can indeed be crystallized out of the most diverse specialized prehistorical archeological sciences that goes back at least to the beginnings of Homo sapiens.


You can understand the importance such an account has for me from the fact that the prehistoric symbols are the same as those that are found in the earliest written texts on political symbolism, i.e., in the Egyptian texts of the 3rd millennium B.C.35


Through comparison of these Egyptian texts with the symbolism as you have presented it, the decisive step becomes possible in separating the remnants of tradition from those symbols specific to an imperial civilization. Up to now I have used the term “cosmological” for the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilization. This term can still be used, but it is impossible to separate the cosmological from the imperial elements.


Many thanks, too, for the reference to the Handbuch der Vorgeschichte by Hermann Müller-Karpe. I immediately ordered it for the Institute.


I am happy to say that I can already use the insights that I have gained from you in this semester in my lectures on the philosophy of history (CW 39: 576-7).


In this letter Voegelin was not simply being a courtly Viennese gentleman. He was expressing his genuine gratitude to a fellow scientist. In September, 1970 he wrote Hans Sedlmayr, the respected art historian and his colleague at Munich:

In my Order and History I dealt with the symbols of the ancient Oriental societies in the manner in which they are depicted in the sources. However, this method has proved to be inadequate, since most of these symbols have a prehistory reaching back into the Neolithic, if not into the late Paleolithic. The symbols that appear in the ancient Oriental empires are adaptations of older symbols to the new imperial situation. I am now trying to research pre-imperial symbols as far as they can be followed back into prehistory (CW 30: 664).


Later that year he wrote Manfred Hennignsen about König’s “fantastic collection of photographs” of cave and rock-shelter images and inscriptions. “Once again . . . we see evidence of the presence of the primary experience of the cosmos and its symbolization at least [back] into the Neolithic age, and perhaps even into the Paleolithic” (CW 30: 675).


Despite having also acquired an impressive collection of photographs himself, Voegelin did not manage to integrate this new material into his later publications. In the course of his lectures, however, he would occasionally mention the cave images and petroglyphs in an offhand way that his audiences found somewhat disconcerting, indeed baffling, a response that he both anticipated and clearly enjoyed.36


One conclusion seems obvious: like Eric Voegelin, Marie König looked for a constancy of equivalent meanings in the experience and symbolization of reality starting with the earliest possible evidence.            Vv


This is part 3 of a six part article. Part 4 may be read HERE. Part 1 may be read HERE.



26. I was able to examine several sites in May 2008 and in May 2010 thanks to the support from the Earhart Foundation and to Joe Donner and the Donner Canadian Foundation. The 2010 visit was assisted by the expert guidance of M. Alain Bernard of the Groupe d’Etudes, de Recherches et de Sauveguard de l’Art Rupestre and of M. Guy Blanchard, a local inhabitant with an interest in caves and other rock formations; to them both I am very grateful.

27. Am Anfang, 102.

28. One might make the same argument regarding North American “rock art,” with the racks of bighorn sheep, which are often “exaggerated” serving in the place of European aurochs. See David S. Whitley, Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origins of Creativity and Belief, (Amherst, Prometheus Books, 2009), 93-4; 145.

The notion that the horns on the Lascaux bulls are images of the moon and so of the order of time is supported by the argument of Eduard Hahn, that aurochs were first domesticated not for beef but for “religious purposes” such as sacrifice. Animals were selected and selectively bred, he argues, because the “gigantic curved horns resembled the lunar crescent.” Hahn’s Die Hausteire und ihre Beziehungen zur Wirtschaft des Menschen, (1896) is summarized in Eric Isaac, “On the Domestication of Cattle,” Science, 137 (1962) 195-204.

29.  Am Anfang, 238.

30.  Mary Lecron Foster, “Symbolic Origins and Transitions in the Paleolithic,” in Paul Mellars, ed., The Emergence of Modern Humans: An Archeological Perspective, (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990), 517-39.

31. See his The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation, (New York, McGraw Hill, 1972).

32. Meixner, Auf der Suche, 95.

33. Auf der Suche, 139.

34. Auf der Suche, 141.

35. The English translation substituted “third century” for third millennium (des 3. Jahrtausends) HI, 21:15.

36. I witnessed one such performance in Montreal in 1970. I had little idea what he was talking about, but neither, so far as I could tell, did anyone else. See CW 33: 275-6.

Barry Cooper

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Barry Cooper is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. He is the author, editor, or translator of 30 books and has published over 150 papers and book chapters. He writes a regular column in the Calgary Herald.