MOVIE REVIEW by Ileen Root
Those of us, who are drawn to the practice of ecstatic trance, are keenly aware that a great mystery lives at the heart of our existence. Our bodies hold the awareness of the postures, first shaped by our ancestors so many millennia ago, to entrain our nervous systems with the vibrations of the Spirits. Our conscious mind remains aware, as the rhythm of the rattle grips us, and something miraculous awakens. We resonate with energy, as that something shifts within, and we open to receive. We are then filled with images, as all of our senses enliven to emotions, sights, sounds and scents of that visiting other-of us, but not us, larger than our human-ness, but encompassing us in “All That Is”. We know, with every fiber of our being, that we have been visited by Grace.
Felicitas Goodman first re-opened this ancient pathway to the Spirits for us to travel; in following her lead, we remember some of what was lost, an act of un-forgetting. We have become familiar with certain Spirits, through our intimate trance association, but the deep mystery persists. There is a lacuna, an abyss within collective psyche that yearns to be filled. Some of the most ancient postures recovered, leading to Spirit journeys and initiations of death/rebirth -such as the Venus of Galgenberg Posture found at the Danube River region nearly 32,000 years ago, or the Venus of Laussel Posture from perhaps 25,000 years ago in the Dordogne region of France, or the Lascaux Cave Posture, also found in France, from perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 years ago-remind us that humans were aware of this passageway to Spirit a very, very long time ago. From the earliest glimmerings of human consciousness, it seems, we danced with the Spirits.
Director Werner Herzog’s remarkable film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” brings us physically into this lost Paleolithic world, dating from more than 30,000 years before the present (BP), that we often visit energetically through ecstatic trance. The limestone Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, in the Ardeche Region of Southern France, while only discovered in 1994, presents some of the oldest, most enigmatic and magnificent examples of rock art masterpieces. Chauvet is closed to the public to prevent the destruction wrought by too many visitors, as seen in other ancient caves. Only a very few researchers are allowed in every year. Herzog was given limited access to make his film, affording a rare glimpse into a subterranean realm few have seen in tens of thousands of years. His voice-over captures Herzog’s unvarnished awe as he narrates the challenges of navigating through the still-pristine stalactite/stalagmite studded cavern. Herzog communicates the essence of the experience by alternately crawling through dim, narrow passages, and then standing, with neck craned back, to capture the cathedral-like vistas opening up within the vast underground space.
On one level, Herzog presents a mind-blowing gallery tour through a ghostly menagerie of painted animals, many of whom haven’t existed for millennia. In the gloomy light, exquisitely executed bison, mammoths, ibex, rhinos and horses seem to gallop across the rock-escarpment as if fleeing from the hunt. Images of hair-raisingly realistic predators, that our ancestors faced, including cave lions, panthers, hyenas and bears, seem to slink into the shadows. The dangers in the caves were real, as attested to by the bones, claws and teeth of massive, extinct cave bears found littering the floor of the cavern.
The sophisticated mastery of the artwork at Chauvet, thought to be painted as long ago as 32,000 BP, has pushed back, by perhaps 10,000 years or more, the experts’ understanding of the development of human consciousness. Until this point, the known Paleolithic and Neolithic cave art, so prevalent in the south of France and Spain, bridged the relatively warm inter-glacial period between the last Ice Ages from 25,000 BP to 10,000 BP. Researchers have long thought that humanity’s earliest artistic expressions must have begun on a primitive level to reach the high artistry revealed in the renowned cave at Lascaux, dated to around 20,000 BP, and considered the Sistine Chapel of European rock art. Imagine their surprise to find Chauvet, the astoundingly beautiful game-changer that proved the experts wrong. In perspective, the span of time between Lascaux and Chauvet is roughly twice that of all recorded history-or twice the period between Stonehenge, of some 5,000 years ago, and the first moonwalk.
Not content to merely present the images and the history of Chauvet Cave, Herzog’s film captures this sense of timelessness and wonder implicit in the question, “Why?” What could possibly have prompted human beings to venture into the stygian underground caves over untold millennia to create this enchanted art? This was not an easy undertaking. Yet, footprints of a small child found deep within the cave lend proof that the perilous journey into the earth was not just for hunters and warriors. Handprints on the walls, painted by pressing a palm dipped in charcoal or red ochre, were made by many ancient people of all ages and gender. They mark the self-awareness of I am, and confirm that this was undoubtedly an important pilgrimage undertaken for generation upon generation. Were the first ancestors visiting the Spirits here in the womb of the Earth Mother? Could this be the beginning of worship of the sacred? Certainly a sense of the numinous lives on in the spectacular art renderings at Chauvet.
Perhaps the most profound images in the cave, to support these musings on the nature of Spirit and the human psyche, are of the “Venus” and the “Sorcerer”. In the Salle du Fond, the last and deepest chamber of Chauvet, a limestone outcropping hangs down from the ceiling to around three feet from the floor. It is inaccessible, but can be viewed with robot cameras. Sometime a long time ago, maybe 30,000 years BP, someone painted, at eye-level, the pubic triangle and legs of a human female with black pigment. She’s drawn in what is termed the “classical Venus” style. Her proportions and the stylistic elements are thought to mirror those elements found in engraved and freestanding carved Paleolithic Venuses, such as the Venus of Lascaux and others from Central and Eastern Europe of the Aurignacian and Gravettian periods.
Yet, the Venus-figure was not static. Curiously, thousands of years after first painted, someone incised a white vulva slit into the underlying rock. Paintings of two cave lions, a mammoth and a musk ox surrounding the Venus were also added at a later date. The opinion of some experts is that this linking of the Venus with animals was a deliberate placement. Perhaps this is the beginning of the archetypal iconography of the Great Goddess of the animals that echoes down through the ages.
The intriguing symbolism continues. Sometime later, a man-bison hybrid, dubbed the Sorcerer, was also painted directly above the Venus. Seeming as if he has risen from her belly, this was also thought to be a deliberate compositional choice. So many questions are ignited by these fantastic images. Again, thoughts travel to archetypal imagery of shape-shifters in mythology, as all cultures tell stories of half-human/half-animal deities, or people who change into animals or vice versa. Could this all point to a rite of early Shamanism? Is this the source of the ineffable energies that we meet when we enter into ecstatic trance? We probably never will know the literal answers, but we can intuit meaning, particularly in ecstatic trance.
Winding slowly through the cave’s labyrinths, Herzog ponders similar imaginings. With a pace both measured and meandering, he interviews the researchers who spend time exploring the cave’s secrets, like the circus performer turned anthropologist who dreams of cave lions. It becomes clear that Chauvet cave opens a liminal entry between the worlds for those who venture inside, as well as for those who view the film. For explorers of ecstatic trance, it somehow feels like visiting with old friends.