Following the Trail of the Lord of Animals (Part 1)

November 8, 2011 by Categorized: Fur and Feather, Science & Spirit.

“Our way is the way of the serpent in the underbrush,
Our knowledge is in the eyes of goats and of women.”
~ Jack Parsons


Abbé Henri Breuil sketched diligently by the dim gas-light, in a high alcove deep within a cave system. What he drew there and in other caves, what theories he later published about his discoveries, would help shape not only modern archaeology but also modern Paganism.

The Abbé was a man obsessed, crawling through narrow passages and scaling walls, only to lie upon the floors of caverns humanity had not set foot upon for thousands of years. All to draw the images he found there within. The most ancient of art in European history called to him. Cave art; depictions of bison and horses, lions, disembodied body parts (such a vulvas without the woman) and hand prints. As well as a few images of the human form mingled with that of an animal, the experts call these part-human and part-animal figures therianthropes or anthropomorphs.


“God was born sometime in the Palaeolithic Age, the Old Stone Age, which corresponds historically to the geological ice age.  There are indications of religious cults in altars and burial sites that date back to the time of Neanderthal Man (Homo sapiens neanderthalis) that is, as early as the Middle Palaeolithic (ca. 75,000 B.C.E.). But the first clear pictures we have of male deity are on the walls of the great cave of Cro-Magonon Man (Homo sapiens sapiens) in Europe, Africa, and Asia during the early part of the Upper Palaeolithic (30,000-10,000 B.C.E.) period. The Upper Palaeolithic was marked by the development of bladed stone tools, by some cave dwelling, by hunting and gathering and later fishing, and by the emergence of art in the form of sculpture and painting” ~ God: Myths of the Male Divine by David Adams Leeming and Jake Page


The Trois-Frères cave system was just one of many ancient cave systems Breuil would visit in his lifetime. In fact, it is far from the most famous of caves he worked in. Discovered in southern France, the art in this cave dates back to the mid-Magdalenian period of about 14,000 B.C.E. This cave features some 280 engraved images of bison, horses, stags, reindeer, ibex and mammoths. In a large chamber known as the Sanctuary, at the height of about four meters (about 15 feet) from the cave floor, a therianthrope dominates the scene. Part man and part beast this figure is both engraved and painted. He is not large, a little less than a meter tall in fact, but as the only painted engraving, he stands out from the animals depicted on the walls around him.


Breuil was known to exaggerate his images at times and to attempt to “fill in the blanks”. He also worked in very difficult conditions, often on his back, trying to hold a light and his drawing implements at the same time. He drew this image with antlers, which do not appear in modern photography.  This image is partially carved and at times photography does not do the relief of cave art justice. This may be a trick of light, or of Breuil’s own mind. The experts still do not agree on this point. To this day one of the most commonly found versions of this image is a photograph with Breuil’s artwork superimposed upon it. Below is a written description given by a modern researcher who had the chance to see the Dancing Sorcerer with his own eyes:


“His eyes are two black circles with black, round pupils looking straight ahead. His nose is a single line between them that ends in a small arc. A long, pointed beard that reaches to his chest covers the rest of his face. He even seems to have a thick handlebar moustache that turns up at the ends. He has the ears of a stag. They are pricked up and turned forward as if something has caught his attention. Two stag’s antlers sprout from his head. He has the long body of a horse, outlined with thick stripes of black paint, and a horse’s tail that is also partially painted. His arms are more human than not. He’s holding them together in front of him. They end in what appear to be five long fingers but no thumb. His sizable penis, while not erect, sticks out beneath his tail. He has muscular legs bent at the knee. They, too, are colored in with black paint. He has lifted one foot as of he is walking, prancing, or dancing. He is a moving, bearded man-stag-horse who knows we are here and has suddenly turned to look right at us” ~ The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis


This man-beast was dubbed by Breuil “The Sorcerer” (later referred to as The Dancing Sorcerer) and he theorized that this image was that of a shaman. He felt this supported his theory of “sympathetic magic”; an image of a shaman dressed in the skins of an animal, calling the hunt to him for the survival of his community [1]. Indeed the image itself does seem to be in mid-step, as if forever caught in a shamanic dance.

Margaret Murray read Breuil’s work and combined with her other studies, and with her desire for a revival of Pagan practices, she built upon Breuil’s theories. In her work “The God of the Witches” she called The Dancing Sorcerer “…the earliest known representation of a deity”.  An idea that became so poplar even Breuil himself adopted it. So did many others, including Gerald Gardner. In fact many introductory Pagan books feature an image of The Dancing Sorcerer and speak of the Stag King, the Horned God, or the Lord of Animals to this very day.

Many scholars and non-scholars have adopted the theory that the Dancing Sorcerer is either a shaman or deity or both. Though we must be honest in acknowledging these are educated guesses at best.


 “Because they are uncommon in cave art and also infrequent in mobiliary art, the figures of humans have not yielded much information on their role in the Palaeolithic message. The magic of the hunt, symbols of human fertility side by side on the walls with those of animals, a shaman executing hunting dances, mother goddesses, all these explanatory

themes abound, and are based solely on the reminiscences of western thought.” ~ From The Dawn of European art: an Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting by André Leroi-Gourhan


Another therianthrope can be found within Trois-Frères, surrounded by a seething mass of bison, rhinos and horses. He is bull-like, complete with horns and a furry ridged back. He rises up on his hind feet, one leg bent in stride or dance. A long, thin object protrudes from his mouth (or nostrils) as if he is playing upon a reed pipe or some instrument.


The cave known as Chauvet may feature some of the oldest known cave paintings. This cave was discovered in 1994 in southern France. One interesting image found within Chauvet is that of the lower part of a woman with a bison and a horse above it. The pubic region is clearly and carefully drawn. The shape and style of the thighs and legs (minus feet) is eerily similar to the Venus statuettes found in archaeological digs, such as the Willendorf Venus. Her legs meld with that of the animals; the bison’s head and horns cover where her belly should be. The shape and position of the bison’s head mimic that of the female reproductive organs. Prehistorians refer to this figure as Venus and the Sorcerer. We find this enigmatic image in the deepest chamber of Chauvet; it is nearly 7m (20feet) high. It is drawn using charcoal upon a limestone cone than hangs from the ceiling above. The pubic triangle sits roughly at eye level. Among the numerous and astounding works of art within Chauvet there are many drawings horned animals and disembodied vulvas, though the Venus and the Sorcerer stands out.


Carved in the rock shelter known as Gabillou we find a bison or oxen headed figure. He, like the image in Trois-Frères, also stands erect. Both his legs are bent and he holds his arms out in front of him. It seems as if his lips are turned upwards in a smile. Yet, it is possible he is struck by a spear or lance of some kind.


These are but a few examples of such images found in our most ancient past. Although we do not know the true meaning behind the horned therianthropes found in Stone Age caves throughout Europe, we can still be certain they did have some important and possible even sacred purpose. As Professor Samuel Brandon said about the Dancing Sorcerer in Trois-Frères cave; “…it seems to be generally agreed that this picture of the ‘Dancing Sorcerer’ was a cult object of great significance to the community which used the cave.”


The main competing theories to explain the therianthropes found in cave art is whether we see depicted in them a god or a shaman, or perhaps both.


Çatalhöyük (also called Çatal Hüyük) was a very large settlement in southern Anatolia, occupied from about 7,500 BCE to 5,700 BCE. Çatalhöyük is by far the largest and most well preserved Neolithic archaeological site we have found. The people lived in mud-brick dwellings crammed cheek to jowl. According to the research of the archaeologists who study this site, it seems the people here had begun to domesticate animals, such as sheep and cows, as well as begun grow crops.

The buildings had plaster interiors that were often richly painted and decorated. Amongst the painting, figurines and artwork found at Çatalhöyük the most numerous are images are of women (including the famous Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, possibly a goddess figure), men with erections, hunting scenes, wild cattle and stags. The heads of cattle were mounted on walls.


 “The painting on the walls of the shrines are rough and forceful. They lack the elegance of the earlier Magdalenian phase of the Upper Palaeolithic art or of the near contemporary work of the artist of the Sahara oases. They are powerful however; they give prominence to the bull but for the first time men (or rather figures with human characteristics) are shown as important elements in the scenes portrayed.

This is very different from the practice of the Upper Palaeolithic artists; though the human figures are still relatively small compared with the bull in Çatal Hüyük, and sometimes with the other animals with which they are shown, they have some individuality and independent character. They are represented with considerable vigour whereas the bull is static, though its massiveness makes it seem dangerous and full of menace. The warriors (for this is what they seems to be) who leap around it are clearly young, introducing one of the recurring elements of the bull-cult; the presence of armed boys or youths, which was to be found in all its later manifestations. They brandish their weapons though the bull remains impassive, in the most graphic episode on the shrines’ walls. Some of the bull’s attendants carry torches. This will become another constant element in the cult’s iconography which harks back to the torches carried into the painted caves and forward to the boys or youths in many other later variants of the cults who are depicted lighting the dark interiors of shrines and caves.” ~ From ‘The Power of the Bull’ by Michael Rice

The astrological Age of Taurus (the age of the bull) began over 4,000 years before Christ, some 6,000 plus years ago. After the Taurean age began the Age of Ares (the age of the ram). In the four millennia that these two ages lasted humanity witnessed the rise of bull worshipping practices, and mythology associated with the bull, in Egypt, Minoa, Assyria and Crete. This is where we will return to our search in the next instalment, a time when we left behind hunter gatherer societies, abandoned caves and worked our way into the Bronze Age & Classical antiquity.

[1] It is interesting to note that the theory of sympathetic magic, so popular amongst Pagans today, is the brain child of an abbot.

It should be mentioned here that the theory of sympathetic magic being used in cave art to invoke the hunt has been debunked. The archaeological record tells us the animals most commonly eaten by the cave artists were not the most commonly painted animals and vice versa. Meaning people who painted Mammoths ate the prehistoric ancestors of goats; people who painted horses ate reindeer.

The current accepted theory for the purpose behind cave painting is indeed still shamanic and spiritual in nature however. Many of the non-animal images painted in caves have been found to appear within the mind and before the eyes while a person is experiencing sensory deprivation. People subjected to sensory deprivation also often hallucinated images of great personal meaning and cultural importance. Not much was more important to Stone Age people than animals and there is no place on Earth better suited to sensory deprivation and trance than the dark and silent depths of a cave.

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12 Responses

  1. Fascinating, though tossing in the modern idea of Astrological Ages feels gratuitous.

    • Gratuitous? I just wanted a nice little conclusion and teaser for the next installment.

      • I really enjoyed your post. Cave art and prehistoric humans fascinate me.

        That part about astrology just stuck out to me as not in keeping with the scholarly tone of the rest. You gathered and reported some very interesting material about prehistory without imposing modern ideas on it. Then the end imposes the Greek zodiac from a few centuries B.C. onto the past, as if you had written about the politics of ancient Rome in terms of the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties. It just felt out of place.

        Again, I really like what you wrote.

        • That’s interesting – because you could argue that she’s taking the modern science of archeology and “imposing it on the past” as well. Is there any idea more quintessentially modern than that we can collect evidence and data in the present day and somehow piece together a “factual” account of ancient prehistory? ;)

          Personally, I’m really intrigued by the astrological approach, and I’m looking forward to the next installment!

  2. Thank you for this unusually hyperbole-free discussion of cave art. While I can’t help but find the images arresting, at the same time I think it’s important that we know the facts, as much as possible, and not get too caught up in seeing every figure as a god or shaman. It’s important to note the possible biases or even just mistakes of some of the original interpreters of this art.

    And yet, I don’t think any of that needs to detract from the power of the cave paintings themselves. Obviously these concepts and images had deep significance to the people who painted them, often in the deepest recesses of caves (which have been considered sacred since the beginning of human history, it seems). We may never know for sure their exact meaning, but we can still appreciate them.

  3. I’ve worked with an archetypal being, the Animal Father, as embodied in the first Trois Freres figure. It’s wholly UPG, and it’s a personal way for me to focus the awe and wonder I feel at both viewing the art, as well as appreciating my human heritage. I hadn’t known about the Gabillou one, though; thank you for the new info!

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] of No Unsacred Place, follows the trail of the Lord of Animals: Abbé Henri Breuil sketched diligently by the dim gas-light, in a [...]

  2. [...] note: Part 1 can be found here. Also, I lied; it might take us a while to reach the classical era. Word count limits and history [...]

  3. [...] cases, personalizing his approach to two rather different people. Juniper has a longer piece on the history of the Horned God on No Unsacred Place – it’s the first of a multipart series and is very much worth your time to [...]

  4. […] shaman dressed in the skins of an animal, calling the hunt to him for the survival of his community [1]. Indeed the image itself does seem to be in mid-step, as if forever caught in a shamanic […]