Ancient Religions: Palaeolithic Art and Religion

Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams write an interesting and concise account of Palaeolithic art and religion in A Handbook of Ancient Religions [Edited by John R. Hinnells].

The interest lies in the roots of the so-called prehistoric ur-religion—the beliefs and practices that precede our present-day notion of religion—and how we can come to apprehend this enigmatic subject.

Altamira cave painting

Altamira cave painting

In this text, the prehistoric way of life is examined by its various periods and contextualised as such. Art and religion are described as embedded within the social fabric, as opposed to how the contemporary Western society denotes it. The various sources of knowledge are elaborated on, hence emphasising the absence of a written and oral tradition and acknowledging the reconstruction of ur-religion as necessarily hypothetical. These sources for the study of ur-religion include: material remains; the art of the caves and shelters; human activities in the caves; ethnography and analogy.

Furthermore, former understandings and theories of ur-religion are outlined. The first theory to be discussed is the argument that prehistoric finds, and especially Upper Palaeolithic portable art, were merely “art for art’s sake” and had no religious sentiments whatsoever. This theory was abandoned as a global explanation for Palaeolithic art at the beginning of the twentieth century.

‘Sympathetic magic’ is the second theory to be discussed. The notion of ‘hunting magic’ and ‘fertility magic’, as a means of manipulating the physical world through tampering with representations thereof, became a popular theory for explaining prehistoric cave art towards the end of the nineteenth century. However some of the arguments for sympathetic magic still holds sway, it was later abandoned because of a number of contradictions that had been pointed out.

‘Totemism’ was favoured by many researchers as a model for an ‘elementary form of religious life,’ but, as with the theory of ‘sympathetic magic,’ many anthropologists regarded totemism as far more complex than this and hence highly problematic as a theory for Paloaelithic art.

In the 1960s Structuralism seized the imagination of many social scientists who sought to explain Palaeolithic cave art in terms of binary and analogical thinking. The empirical content and the temporal component of the structuralist theory were, however, severely criticized.

Clottes and Lewis-Williams then point to a previous and undeveloped explanation of Upper Palaeolithic religion as fundamentally shamanistic. A clear definition and account of shamanism, as confined to how it is practised in hunter-gatherer societies, is provided. It is suggested through comparative methods that there were very likely types of shamanism in the Upper Palaeolithic.

[...to be continued]

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