I’m currently most of the way through The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis, a new paperback release talking about the history of the study of paleolithic cave paintings in France such as Lascaux and Les Trois Freres. It’s given me a lot to think about, because it presents a lot of alternative theories to the ones I was most familiar with in regards to these works. For example, I had been enamored of the hunting magic theory that Henri Breuil put forth in the first half of the twentieth century and which Joseph Campbell elaborated upon; I hadn’t realized these theories had been seriously questioned later on. There are some pretty convincing arguments against them, though the jury’s still out (and probably always will be since we can never know for sure what the artists believed or why they created the paintings in the first place).
However, the thing that really struck me was when I read in one chapter about Curtis’ examination of the Sorcerer of Les Trois Freres, the painting of the deity that I call the Animal Father. Numerous people have attempted to decipher what animals his various limbs and features are reminiscent of. Just some of the ones that have been cited have been stag, bear, lion, wolf, horse, lion, and owl. Curtis himself saw the figure as primarily staglike, with some equine features besides. Looking at a reproduction of Breuil’s own tracing of the Sorcerer, I could see what he was saying, and the more I looked, the more I came to see that he really wasn’t any particular set of species, but a being all to himself.
This puzzled me. I had formerly seen him as a stag-lion-wolf-bear hybrid of sorts, as these were the animals he’d given me to associate with the equinoxes and solstices. However, now I wasn’t so sure. What was happening?
I decided the best thing to do was to go to the source, my usual answer to this sort of conundrum. So I asked the Animal Father what he had to say about it. “I am myself, that is all. I gave you those animals because you seemed to want to work along a four directions worldview. If that doesn’t work for you, let’s try something else until we find something that does”. Here, then, is one of the benefits and perils of creating your own cosmology and working largely with Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). You have a lot more flexibility, and you can tweak things to make them make more sense to you. However, what do you do when you end up finding that research indicates that your UPG can’t be objectively proven?
I’m not about to say “Well, this ended up being wrong, so the rest of it must be wrong, so let’s just throw everything out, and quit”. Baby, bath water, does that ring a bell? However, it’s okay to admit when something doesn’t work quite right. This is, after all, a path I’m creating for myself. Therefore, I get to decide the parameters. One of my guidelines is that non-religious sources are quite acceptable as source material, including archaeology, anthropology, and other “ologies”. So I find that some things that I had initially assumed were true, to include Breuil’s hunting magic theory, may not stand on as strong a foundation as I thought.
It’s a delicate balance to maintain. On the one hand, if all I ever did was take these studies at face value, I’d have little to believe in. Even the more neopagan flavored things, such as my perspectives on totemism, have been created in recent decades, though they at least have the consensus of a number of people. However, I also don’t want to go down the road of the Irish potato goddess–UPG needs to be at least given a reality check.
And there is value in UPG. I’m not going to suddenly decide the Animal Father no longer exists; I’ve already have experiences that prove his objective existence, if only to me. But I am going to continue to consider the results of my meditations, journeys and other inspired experiences. As I have found in the past, sometimes it’s better to simply allow myself to believe something, rather than try to rationalize it to death.
In the end, flexibility is key. This is something that I am going to continue to develop over the years, a living, evolving path. That means that sometimes I’m going to have to scrap some things and start over when presented with new evidence. However, I’m in good company. Even the hardest of sciences ends up with new theories that overcome the old “truths”. It’s only when we stubbornly hang onto our dogma that stagnation sets in, and what may once have been a growing, evolving things turns to stone.