“The artistic light that emanates from Greece is the light of broad day.
This early light of artistic dawn is less certain… but early morning light is the most dazzling of all.”
– George Bataille (1897 – 1962). Writing about Lascaux Cave.
My first impression is awe. The Lion Man is just stunning.
It’s all well and good to talk about therianthropes appearing at the very beginning of humanity’s artistic efforts.
It really is quite something else to be confronted by one.
And it is stoic in its wisdom. Whatever spirit of god living in this figurine is still teaching us damned dirty apes 30,000 years after first appearing. (Granted, he took a rather long lunch break.)
My second impression is… familiarity. I visit a lot of megalithic sites and their original purpose remains utterly opaque. Whatever the Rollright Stones mean is completely lost on me.
Forty thousand years ago sounds like a long reach of time, but immediately one enters the exhibition at the British Museum time dissolves. Perhaps because we were Paleolithic for such an age, the artworks we see before us are deeply, if strangely, familiar. We peer, and half-remember. It can make one feel a bit homesick.
For some reason, I was genuinely expecting The Neighbours to feel more alien. Perhaps this is because I am inherently suspicious of the motive behind a race of beings suddenly appearing in our head one day and demanding we pay attention to them. Why arrive then? Why come at all? But there is no demanding here. Lion Man’s presence feels devoid of the creepy -and potentially genuinely alien- diktats of much later arrivals in Sumer. Lion Man is a wise companion. For the first time in this honky’s life, I grokk on a visceral level why ‘grandfather’ is such a widespread title for spirits in indigenous cultures.
My next impression, as I look around the exhibit, is what can best be described as curatorial dismay. The objects are stunning, the exhibition is exquisite, but it begins to occur to me there is a strange politics in their grouping which conceals the actual story.
Take this case. It’s a collection of female forms collected from all over Europe between Russia and Germany. The timescale for the ‘female form’ area stretches over 15,000 years. It starts around 25,000 years ago. You see what they did there? They missed the beginning. Isn’t that the entire point of the show?
As you move through the exhibit, the next area you encounter is devoted to animals and hunting. It has an even longer scale.
Can you pick up the implied progression they’re shooting for here? If you start with the female figures and then move into hunting and animals before ending with some ice age high tech (which they did), the casual observer will leave with the false idea of the art progressing from least to most sophisticated. But everything in the exhibit is spread across time and geography.
And you know what? I get it. Grouping by theme rather than location or chronology is fine but spell it out. On the back wall there is a painted paragraph that holds the only reference to the Neolithic Renaissance which happened due to “a changing climate”. It’s the fashionable go-to explanation du jour. Remember how in the early twentieth century when it used to be war? What was going on in the early twentieth century? And what’s going on with the climate today? Oh, right.
I’m not saying the scholarship was shoddy -this is the BM, after all. Indeed, a lot of the speculative analysis was extremely thoughtful. There were two speculobombs that had particular magical resonance:
- The motivation for carving such tiny figurines of snow leopards or mammoth may have been a magical/psychological attempt to ‘make them smaller’, to grasp and thus control an issue outside of our control. What else is a poppet, then? For that matter, what else is a sigil?
- The preponderance of the ibis and the crane -neither of which appear to have been eaten- may have something to do with its ability to move between the three worlds. Think about it… it flies to the upper realm, it walks on land (Midgard), it floats on water/stalks the tidal flats (the Underworld). My mind leapt instantly to Thoth. Thoth who lives on the moon, appears at the beginning of civilisation, gives mankind writing and is present in the hall of Osiris. (The ibis appears several times at Gobekli-Tepe, too… thus bridging the ice age and our current age.) Consider how he syncretised in the classical age, re-emerged in the Renaissance and then again today. Unlike Lion Man, Thoth appears to have worked through his lunch break.
In some ways, I’m okay with their avoidance of the what were the main contributors to the Neolithic Renaissance because we don’t actually know. I mean, I think I do but this is my damned blog. However, it seems like a missed opportunity to at least come clean that we have no fucking idea how all this started. Of course, answering it gets into wizardly territory which the BM seems keen to avoid these days. (All those Golden Dawn curators and volunteers of yore must be spinning in their graves!)
Along the line of how and why, I was on the lookout for depictions of ectopic phenomena. There was less than I expected but then it’s more common in cave paintings rather than artefacts. It’s significant because of the main phases of ball tripping, as shown in this wavy scan from Inside The Neolithic Mind.
Actually, the ornamentation on the artefacts is weirdly familiar to magicians. Some of the wavy lines on the tusks and other pointed objects could potentially be a representation of Stage 2/The Vortex but the card next to them suggested they may be depictions of the swirling eddies of a river. Which may have had spiritual significance or it may just have been a river.
As I read the card and looked back at the tusk, it feels resonantly true. Definitely a river. That is the abiding impression from behind the glass cases. Unlike some Renaissance artefacts which are still active, these ice age ones still work. It’s not like walking past a statue of Venus in the Uffizi that still had Venus installed in it, these objects felt like you could just pick them up and start enchanting with them.
Again, it comes back to that strange sense of familiarity, of approachability. These are my objects. These are your objects. Mathematically, they belong to all of our ancestors. It feels like a validation of that whole idea that magic’s true antiquity lies in the continuity of its practice rather than the handing down of specific concepts or gods. I am indescribably at home among these artefacts despite their lack of personal context.
I stare back in at Lion Man, hoping for a glimmer of that context. But he just stares back with benign patience.
Like a grandfather.