The Cosmogonic Primordial Bison as Ecological Metaphor
Making the World-Making Bison : A Cave Painter myth
The short video here shows me making an Earth pigment rock art bison with ochres purchased from Provence and from the Forest of Dean.
For me, the act of creating a rock art image of a bison is rich with intriguing associations, as this very process may once have been seen as the model for and the re-enactment of a myth of how the first bison came into being, a myth akin to Australian myths of the spilling of ochre blood in the Dreamtime, the South African San myth of the creation of the first eland, and the widespread Proto-Indo-European myth of the first bovine that became the first sacrifice and from whose bodily effluxes the world, plants and animals was made.
So, ochre pigment found in the landscape may have been seen as the anciently-spilled blood of the primordial bison. The Lascaux painters may even have seen the ochre from the same Luberon source as that which I used here as this blood. This ochre may also have been mixed with bison fat, conceived of as still having some of the creative potency in it of that first bison. And so the first bison died, but from its body came the substances that were used to paint new bison and other animals into being.
Not Plucked Out of Thin Air
How have I come to this theory of an ancient cave painter first bison myth? It started with my Lascaux Leaning Man theory, itself an astronomical reinforcement of Mary Settegast’s theory that the Leaning Man and Bison scene in the Lascaux caves shows an early version of the old and widespread Indo-European myth of the first twins and the primordial bull.
This theory still excites me and it has created quite a bit of interest among other writers and researchers: David Warner Mathisen (Star Myths of the World) called it “utterly astounding” amongst other accolades and has made it a key part of his own theories; Adrian Gilbert (The Orion Mystery) in an unsolicited personal email to me called it “very interesting and plausible”; Graham Hancock (Fingerprints of the Gods), again in a personal email, said he thought it might be “revolutionary”; Mary Settegast (Plato, Prehistorian) called it “a delightful theory” and Barbara Hand-Clow (The Pleiadian Agenda) in a handwritten letter faxed to me called it “very hot”. My theory has been quoted at length in the paper No Bull – Taurus in the Lascaux Caves by Damien Mackey. It’s also mentioned in a paper by Dr Rappenglück who is less happy about it – it conflicts with his own earlier (and in my view singularly unconvincing) Summer Triangle theory – so he sees me as an “astromaniac” – the feeling’s mutual. To be honest, I think there’s vastly more evidential support for my theory, but enough bitchiness. (If it’s any consolation to Dr Rappenglück, I like his Northern Crown theory.) You can have a read and make your own mind up. I was also contacted by Red Ice Radio a few years back to see if I’d like to do an interview. I hadn’t heard of them, and I went ahead and did the interview, during which I outlined this theory. I had no idea at that time that this station was going to go on in more recent years to go down an Alt Right path; I’m not aligned with that type of ideology myself, I hasten to add.
Further down I’ll focus more specifically on why bison are a keystone species, but first I’m going to take you through this Lascaux theory here, because it’s not unfitting for this Rock Art 4 Rewilding site: the process of understanding this Lascaux painting turns out to be a journey through nature, and we’ll need to know about things like the activities of territorial rhinos and the feeding habits of yellow wagtails. As well as comprising a fascinating trail of clues to track – and for me when we talk of rewilding ourselves, we really mean getting in touch with our Inner Hunter Gatherer, who loves nothing more than following trails of clues – as well as that trail, this exploration gives us a window onto the wild world of Pleistocene Europe, where mega herbivores grazed and browsed in a landscape more like an African plain than anything; it gives Europe its Dreamtime.
The Rhino that Pooped the World, the Primordial Bison that gave substance to the animals and the Yellow Wagtail that perched on the Pole of the Sky to sing up the Sun in the First Time
Further down there’s a lengthy video on my Lascaux Leaning Man theory, but since it was made quite a few new details in support of the theory have emerged, and while there’s some extra stuff in the video that I’ve cut out in the below to make things more succinct, I’ve also included this new material that’s not in the video for the first time in the following text:-
There is a widespread Indo-European mythological theme, found in places as far apart as India, Persia and Scandinavia, of the first mortal man, or the first man and woman couple who were twins, plus the first bovine, telling how this bovine was killed and from the substances that flowed from its body a multitude of other beings were created, and how one of the twins was the first human to die and pass to the Afterlife realm. It was as far as I know Mary Settegast who first suggested that an early version of this might be shown in the Leaning Man painting of Lascaux.
In this painting, shown here, there’s a bison, a man, and a rhino. The mystery of this painting is the human figure. Quite apart from the fact that human figures are rare in Palaeolithic cave art (and this is the only one at Lascaux), and leaving aside for the moment his bird head, the big question is why he’s shown in this way. As the rhino shows, these artists were more than capable of showing things in a pretty well proportioned way. So why is this figure so elongated? Why is he a stick figure made out of two long parallel lines? And most of all, why does he lean over at that angle? The idea that he has fallen on the ground and is shown lying on the ground as if seen from above doesn’t make sense because there are no other cave art images showing things in plan view.
The rhino has lifted its tail and is ejecting faecal pellets, which is what they do when in an aggressive, territorial mood, because creating mounds of dung is a key part of how they mark their territory. These dung mounds are known as middens. More on them later.
The bison’s stomach appears to have been gored, with intestines or lines representing bodily fluids coming out. This suggests that the bison has been gored by the rhino, as in Africa inter-species attacks by rhinos in territorial mood on other large herbivores are not unknown; they’ll use their horns to gore the sides of those that are stubborn enough to take them on, such as buffalos.
As the grass stopped growing in the colder months of Old Europe there would have been increasing competition, and so the woolly rhinos may have become increasingly territorial at this time. However, while this wasn’t great for the individual bison who has been gored by the rhino, the death of a large bison would have been a godsend for many other creatures who could scavenge the carcass, and this may have been one of the elements that contributed to the mythic idea of the sacrifice of the first bull leading to the creation of the other animals. (This idea may then have been reinforced and re-enacted in the use of paint made using bison fat as the medium, where the paint was used to create images of various animals – so the bodily substance of the bison engendered the other creatures. I explore this idea more further down.)
The Starry Bull and the Starry Twins
Settegat’s theory was an interesting one, but there could never be further evidence to support it. Or could there…? I became intrigued when I noticed that actually there is something with supports Settegast’s proposition rather strongly, and it’s something which is fascinating in its own right. This comes from a dovetailing of two separate observations.
In many of the versions of the Indo-European myth, the man has a name meaning “twin”, such as Norse Ymir with his first cow, Persian Yima with his Primordial Bull and Hindu Yama who with his twin sister Yami had a black buffalo. These stories have shared themes of the bovine being the first to be sacrificed and providing the first meat, and of the world being made from its body, as well as funerary cult associations with the male twin leading the way to the Afterlife in the sky. The names Ymir/Yima and Yama are etymologically connected, and so is the word gemini – “twins”, just as in some versions of this story the first man was one of a pair of twins, such as the Hindu Yama and Yami. That the man called Twin and the first cow appear after a period of ice in the Norse version sounds like a seasonal event – could it be about the skies? In the Persian myth, the soul of the primordial bull associated with Yima (“Twin”), ascends into the sky, and so does Yama in the Indian story, both of which sound like the rising of constellations. Could the Twin be Gemini and the attendant bovine be the neighbouring constellation of Taurus?
Taurus in the Lascaux Caves
The other part of the dovetailing is the suggestion that the Taurus and Pleiades constellations seem to be represented in the Lascaux caves. In this image, the dots hanging over the shoulder of the bull look like and are in the position of the Pleiades star cluster. This was first observed by Luz Antequera Congregado in her doctoral thesis in 1992.
Lascaux Leaning Man as Gemini
So I wondered if the bison in the Leaning Man image might also be Taurus, because the Gemini constellation is located to the left of Taurus and is formed of two long parallel lines leaning over at the same angle with respect to Taurus as the Leaning Man, whose image is likewise made of two long parallel lines.
I then noticed a number of other interesting things which either support this, or else are amazing coincidences. Firstly, the back end of the rhino maps well in terms of both form and location onto the Leo constellation.
The Bird on the Pole Beneath Gemini in Egypt
The next connections, surprisingly, come from Egypt as well as from India.
First we need to consider the role of Yama in the old Indian traditions, where he was connected to funerary cult as the one who had lead the way into the Afterlife. So we find that it was said to the spirit of the deceased person:
Yama was the first to find the way for us, this pasture that shall not be taken away. Where our ancient fathers passed beyond, there everyone who is born follows, each on his own path.
[To the dead man:] Go forth, go forth upon those ancient paths on which our ancient fathers passed beyond, rejoicing in the sacrificial drink.
Unite with the fathers, with Yama, with the rewards of your sacrifices and good deeds, in the highest heaven. Leaving behind all imperfections, go back home again; merge with a glorious body.
The fathers have prepared a place for him. Yama gives him a resting place adorned by days, and waters, and nights.
In the story of the twins Yama and Yami, Yama after he died went to live in an afterlife paradise where it was always neither too hot nor too cold, where there were always blooming flowers and fruitful trees and refreshing waters, and here, with the help of various record keepers, he became Lord (and judge) of the Dead. This is very much like the Egyptian concept of the Afterlife, where if all was well you crossed over the celestial river to the Field of Reeds.
This sets the context of our figure as one who ascends into the afterlife, leading the way to the realm of the dead. The earliest Egyptian religious texts are also funerary, namely the Pyramid Texts, and they too are concerned with the deceased following the established path to the realm of the dead, and in one part of these it is said to the spirit of the deceased pharaoh:
You ascend with the head of a hawk and all your members are those of the Twins of Atum.
Now then, Atum is a creator god in Egyptian tradition, and his twin children are a direct equivalent of Indian Yama and Yami, the first couple. He gave birth to the girl and boy twins in the “First Time”. If we consider the Lascaux Leaning Man figure as Gemini, we can see that this Egyptian text gives an excellent description: being a constellation, he has ascended into the sky, and his head is indeed that of a bird – it could be a hawk – and his other members/limbs – the arms and legs – are formed from the constellation of the Twins. Hence, it’s all there: You ascend with the head of a hawk and all your members are those of the Twins of Atum. It fits perfectly.
How could these traditions have become so widespread? Our beliefs about the Afterlife are often those to which we hold most tightly. This may have contributed to the continuity and wide dispersal.
Of course, what I’ve mentioned so far could be coincidence, but something else from Egypt really blew my socks offs, and it concerns a feature of the Lascaux image that I haven’t mentioned yet, namely the bird on a pole beneath the Leaning Man figure.
As background, consider that this same creator god, Atum, the father of the Twins, took the form of a bird who flew over the primeval waters of creation and alighted on the first perch to rise above those waters. This was at dawn and timed with the rising of the Sun, and was equated with flush of light on the top of a gilded obelisk, many obelisks being gilded in this way in the Egyptian Old Kingdom.
With this in mind, we proceed to the temple in Dendera in Egypt which contains much constellation imagery, including the famous Dendera Zodiac. Firstly here we can note that the male and female twins representing Gemini shown in the constellation figures of this Egyptian Zodiac run contrary to the Greek idea that the Twins are two male brothers; this is because in Egyptian tradition they are the twin male and female children of Atum, namely Shu and Tefnut.
And now to the amazing thing: both on the Denderah Zodiac itself, and repeated in at least one other image from the temple, there is a constellation of a bird wearing the same crown that Atum wears standing on a perch that looks like a papyrus reed pole, and it is located in the same location as the bird on the pole in the Lascaux scheme, as I have interpreted it: below Gemini (the male and female pair holding hands), to the left of Taurus (the bull top right in the image below), and to the right of Leo (the Lion), as shown here.
Bird on Pole beneath Gemini in Dendera and Lascaux
I then noticed that the back of the rhino with its raised tail maps very well onto the pattern made by the stars of the Leo constellation, while the rhino is also in the Leo location relative to the other figures, as shown here:
The bird on the pole here wears the “double crown”, which was worn by the god Atum, so the bird may indeed be Atum as the Benu bird on his perch. Looking at the position of the Bird on the Perch in the Lascaux painting as it maps to the skies, it can only really be Canis Minor, which is formed from two stars, the bright Procyon and the less bright Gomeisa. The pole in the Egyptian images looks like a reed or papyrus stalk, fitting with the myth of the first plants that grew on the mound that emerged from the waters, the island upon which Atum placed the Twins.
When we look at how the Lascaux Leaning Man maps onto the sky, his feet turn out to be Orion’s Belt. His feet curl slightly upwards, as does Orion’s Belt. In Ancient Egypt one of the stars of Orion’s Belt was known as “Toes Star”, which fits very well. Also, it makes sense that this would have been seen as the giant’s feet, for in 15,000 BC the stars were lower in the sky, and at the latitude of Lascaux at this time, Orion’s Belt never rose very high above the horizon. So this was the part of the giant that walked along the ground – logically his feet.
Yima’s feet (Orion’s Belt) are fittingly on the ground
So, the feet of Yima are Orion’s Belt, and below them in the Lascaux painting there is what appears to be an arrow, as if lying on the ground. Below Orion’s Belt in the sky is Orion’s Sword, and Orion’s Sword has indeed been seen as an arrow that fell to the ground, namely by the indigenous Nama people of Namibia in Southern Africa. So again, this is intriguing as it fits perfectly. Orion’s Sword was visible briefly when due south at the Lascaux latitude in 15000 BC, as shown here.
Left: the arrow below the foot of Yima; Right: the arrow that fell to the ground below Orion’s Belt
Below is a second image from the same Dendera temple which again shows the bird with the double crown on its papyriform perch, and again it is next to the Orion constellation, and we also see the Twins Shu and Tefnut to the right (with feather and sundisk headdresses respectively.)
Now, this temple is from quite late on in the timeline of Ancient Egypt, but there is an inscription in the temple saying it was rebuilt based on a plan written on an old animal skin parchment dating from the time of the Shemsu Hor. These Shemsu Hor – the Followers of Horus – were held to have arrived in Egypt from a distant shore in a very ancient time. The Egyptian King Lists have the gods ruling Egypt first, starting with Ra (equated with Atum) and followed by Geb, the god of the first land that emerged, and ending with Hor. Following Hor (and in that sense, those that followed Hor – the Shemsu Hor) were these Followers of Horus, starting – according to the chronology in the list – from around 13,000 years before the beginning of Dynastic Egypt – 13,000 + 5,000 = 18,000 = back in the time of the Lascaux cave painters, in other words. A bird on a pole is present in early Egyptian rock art and 2004 research by Dirk Huyge revealed very early Egyptian rock art showing bulls in what he describes as the Franco-Cantabrian (i.e. Lascaux) style. This rock art is scientifically dated to between 8,000 and 10,000 B.C. This fits the narrative well, and while of course I can’t prove that this is more than coincidence, I like to imagine these Shemsu Hor were people of the old Cave Painter culture who perhaps came to Egypt as a haven of better weather during the shock onset of the last mini ice age, the very time when the cave art suddenly stops.
I do not, however, see this as confirming any kind of alt right / white supremacist notions of how the Egyptians couldn’t have achieved their glories without help from Europeans. For a start, the Paleolithic European hunter gatherers were dark skinned. Secondly, the glories of Egypt came thousands of years later. Thirdly, I see this type of culture – the cave painter culture – as having its origins in pre-exodus Africa, and being directly equivalent to other rock art cultures, such as that of aboriginal Australia. I’m interested in giving Europe back its Dreamtime so that its song can become part of a global symphony of such indigenous cultures – more like the colonists being colonised by the culture of the colonised than the other way round.
To recap, in the creation myth from Heliopolis in Egypt the creator god Atum emerged from the primordial darkness in the form of the Benu bird, and flew over these waters before coming to a site in Heliopolis where there was perch (the Benben) on the first mound to rise out of the waters – (Tatenen). The bird uttered a cry and this was an act of creation. That Atum took the form of the Benu bird was mentioned as far back as the Pyramid Texts.
At this early time the sign used for the Benu bird was not the heron of later times, but a smaller song bird; it has been suggested that it looks like a yellow wagtail. A counter theory says that a later occurrence of this same sign shows blue paint, and that therefore it can’t be a yellow wagtail, but might be a kingfisher. However, there is a type of yellow wagtail that has some blue feathers, with its head in particular being blue. The bird with the crown standing on the reed perch in the Dendera temple has been given a form similar to Egyptian depictions of hawks (fairly standard for depictions of Egyptian solar gods), but (and this may just be coincidental, but it’s nice how it fits) it also has a blue head and the pattern on its wing does not match that of hawks, but does look like the wagtail’s wing, and wagtails are very light and could easily sit on a papyrus stalk, whereas a hawk is a heavier bird.
Left: the blue-headed bird with the double crown of Atum next to Orion in the Dendera temple; Right: a blue-headed yellow wagtail
And wagtails do like to stand on such perches from which to look out for insects to catch. Here below we see one standing on a tulip stalk and another two examples on reeds, plus one on a vertical twig and yet another on a wooden post. The obelisk shown with a bird at the top is from Heliopolis and is the oldest obelisk still standing in Egypt.
The bright yellow plumage of the yellow wagtail also fits perfectly with the association with the flush of sunlight at dawn catching hold of the gilded top of an obelisk.
The reason I’m going into this wagtail stuff in some depth is because I find it intriguing to ponder whether the identity of the bird on the perch had been brought from the Lascaux culture. The yellow wagtail certainly makes good sense in the context of the myth of the primordial bison. Yellow wagtails are a migratory bird, and they come to Europe around April time and stay for the Summer. They come to grasslands near rivers, particularly where there are cattle, and they often hop around near the muzzles of grazing cows catching the insects that are disturbed by the grazing – an example of how large herbivores benefit biodiversity. Or these wagtails may find a suitable perch and sally out to catch insects on the wing.
Wagtails catching insects disturbed by a grazing cow
The Xhosa people of South Africa, partial descendants of the San hunter gatherers, call the wagtail “the bird of the cattle” and see it as a bringer of good fortune. Something similar could easily have been the case with the hunter gatherers of the Lascaux area, 17,000 years ago, with this migratory bird being an indicator of more favourable season. As the weather warmed up, the grass started to grow and the herds returned to the pastures, as did the yellow wagtails. The ‘bird on the pole’ in the Lascaux painting shown near to the bison could indeed be a yellow wagtail on its chosen perch near the bison, catching insects in the Summer. Such a scene – with grazing animals in lush pasture next to a river and the brightly coloured wagtails catching insects – it’s easy to see how this could have become a model for the idea of the paradise of the Afterlife, the place to which Yima passed on.
And seasonal considerations allow us to piece together a narrative connected to the skies. In 15,000 BC, (17,000 years ago – the age of the Lascaux painters) what I have proposed as the woolly rhino stars (i.e. those of the Leo constellation) dominated the night sky to the South at sunset in midwinter.
The Rhino (Leo) dominates the evening sky to the South at sunset at the Lascaux latitude in early January 15,000 BC
In later periods in traditions related to the Yima complex of myths such as Mithraism, the death god Ahriman continued to be associated with Leo. The aggressive, dangerous rhino could easily have been seen as an aspect of the god of death/Winter. In the cold months, the yellow wagtails flew south to overwinter Africa, the grass stopped growing, the rhinos became more aggressively defensive of their territories and the bison herds dispersed into the wooded areas to browse.
Then in April the Wagtail star (Procyon) was visible neither in the evening nor the morning for a time because it rose with the Sun.
However, by early May, the Wagtail star rose shortly before the Sun. And at this moment, the bull (Taurus) and the Twins (Gemini / Yima) were hovering above in the pre-dawn sky. This fits with the Norse myth where Ymir (“Twin”) and the first cow appeared when the primordial ice melted, and with the Egyptian myth of the Benu bird that arrives, lands and sings up the Sun and thus kicks off a new round of creation, and with Yima leading the animals out of the underground Var after the cold period in the Persian mythology, as well as with Yama ascending into a flowery pasture that is not too hot and not too cold in the Hindu tradition.
The rise of the Procyon-Bird at the Lascaux latitude just before the Sun in early May 15,000 BC
This re-appearance of a star just before the Sun is what is known as the Heliacal Rise, and it is naturally associated with the idea of a return after an absence. So just as the wagtails were returning, the weather warmed up, the grass grew and the herds came to the grassy plains, leaving their Winter forage sites in the forest. Now was the happy time when the meadows were filled with bison and wagtails. The World was made anew. It’s easy to see how an association could have formed between the reappearing star and the reappearing bird – the bird who brings the Sun.
This annual recreation of nature could easily then have been seen as a re-enactment of the original, primordial creation of the world, with the creator god being associated with the bright yellow wagtail who brings the warm sunshine to the World. The helical rise of a star as the return of the Bennu actually fits with a passage in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, quoted by Wallis Budge: “I go in like the Hawk, and I come forth like the Bennu, the Morning Star of Ra [Ra being the Sun] ; I am the Bennu which is in Heliopolis.” The Greek historian Herodotus’s account of the Phoenix dying and being reborn in the temple of Heliopolis is thought to have been based on the traditions of this Bennu bird. The Phoenix rises from its ashes. This actually fits the idea of the heliacal rise of the yellow wagtail bird star too: it disappears when obliterated by the light of a great fire – the Sun – as if burnt up by it, but then it is reborn anew as it rises just before dawn as a Morning Star: “I come forth like the Benu, the Morning Star of Ra.”
The Midden of the Meridian
In the reading thus far, the Rhino seems like a bit of a bad guy – the death principle – but actually I think it was more nuanced than that, and the rhino did some good stuff, just as rhino have important ecological impacts in the African plains. At the time when all the constellations that make up this Lascaux scene – ranging from Leo to Taurus – were visible at once in the night sky, the bird (Canis Minor) was at the Meridian, the imaginary line that runs due North-South, bisecting the sky into East and West, and running directly through the pole of the sky. So, is the pole on which the bird is perched representative of the extended pole of the sky??
The Procyon-Bird on the Pole at the Meridian when the full scene was visible in the sky
There’s more to this. Egyptians had this idea of the first risen land, the Primordial Mound, on which the Benu bird’s perch was located, upon which the bird alighted, and this had its equivalent in the sky, for the stars climb as they rise on the eastern side of the sky heading westward, reach their highest point when culminating due south at the meridian, and then descend towards the West from that point. So the pole of the sky in this sense is planted right on the summit of the celestial Primordial Mound.
And there’s something else that comes out of this which in a weird way is rather wonderful. The Leo-Rhino in this scene has its hindquarters pointing towards this place at the base of the pole on which the bird is perched. If you watch a rhino building its territorial midden, you’ll see that first it poops (copiously) and then kicks this dung back with its hind legs, and this forms the low dung mound. So in our Lascaux scene, the rhino is building its mound right where the Primordial Mound should be.
This actually fits well with Egyptian Tradition, because there is reason to see the Egyptian mound as being made of dung, because the scarab dung beetle was closely associated with primordial creation and the Egyptian primordial mound, and in particular the birth of the Sun from out of this mound. The birth of Khepri as the scarab beetle god was seen as a spontaneous creation based on the idea that baby dung beetles emerge out of dung balls, and the birth of the rising Sun was seen in the same way. The realisation that the Egyptian primordial mound must itself have been a fertile dung heap is actually unavoidable. And where do dung heaps come from? They get pooped out of large herbivores. So in the Lascaux myth that we’re uncovering, the primordial mound was a rhino midden! This was the Rhino-that-Pooped-the-World. Surely you’ve heard of him?
Rhino as Geoformer
That the rhino becomes the World-creator is fitting, because rhinos are very much a keystone species. They have been shaping the ecological landscape in a particular way for millions of years, which means the rest of nature has adapted itself to fit around that niche, which also means that if they go, that niche will be lost. Their impact on the landscape is so great that they are described as “geoformers”, which fits with the mythic idea that they formed the World by pooping it into being as the first midden mound.
Summary of the Cave Painter Myth
In the beginning all was ice and there was no land to be seen but the Rhino then created the first mound by creating a midden. The first plant grew on this mound of dung, and on this stalk the creator god in the form of a yellow wagtail alighted and perched, and let out a call that call forth the warm light of the Sun. There were no other animals yet except the primordial bison, but then the rhino gored the bison and it died but from the fluids that drained from its body all the other animals were created. The first man was Yima, and as the first to be born he was also he first to die. His soul and that of the first bison ascended into the sky, where they found their way into the Afterlife paradise where it is never too hot and never too cold, where flowers perpetually bloom and trees are fruitful. Here Yima is Lord and the bison grazes in lush pastures next to the celestial river, the Field of Reeds.
Blood Paint – the Rock Artist’s Myth
So, that’s the theory. OK, towards the end it got a little more speculative with that stuff about the rhino pooping out the primordial mound, bit it’s all good fun. I wanted to present this theory both as an opportunity to add in some of my new ideas on the subject and so as to emphasise the strength of the connection between the Lascaux painting and the Indo-European primordial bull myth.
Now it’s time to draw out the particular aspect of that theory that allows me to return to the point I was making at the opening of this piece. In the Persian, Mithraic and Nordic versions of the Yima myth, the substances resulting from the primordial sacrifice form the World, the land, the rivers, the sky, the animals. This is reminiscent of the South African San myths where the first eland was killed but from a mixture of its blood and fat, new eland and other types of animal were created (as I explore here), and the darkness of the night was made from the gall that came out when its call bladder was burst, and the Moon was made from eland leather. The blood and fat mixture matches ingredients used along with ochre by San rock artists, so it sounds like the animals were painted into being using a paint made with eland substance. In many Australian totemic myths, the ochre in the landscape is itself seen as the blood of the great first ancestor animal beings that was spilled during the events back in the Dreamtine and then when this paint is used to create animals in rock art, they are seen as having Dreamtine potency because because they are made from this ochre blood.
It is my strong suspicion that this is a myth-type that predated the African exodus of anatomically modern humans and that it was carried around the world with those rock artists. Another example is the Sandawe (a people for Tanzania) rituals and myths whereby the fat of a sacrificed animal was used with ochre to create paint, and where the myth of the creation of the first people and animals talks of a hollow rock where a cow was sacrificed and where these first beings walked out of the rock, while cows are still sacrificed at the old rock shelter art sites. Hence, it sounds like the cow was sacrificed, the ochre paint was made using its fat, the figures were then painted onto the rock wall in the rock shelter by the creator, who them called them out of this place and into the World.
My suggestion then is that the Indo-European myth is about the same thing: the bison was sacrificed and its substance was used along with ochre in the paint that was used to create more bison and other animals in the cave galleries; from here the creator called them out into the World. And conveniently this then works as a metaphor for the bison as keystone species – more on that further down.
There’s more San mythology that may be relevant here. The Tsodilo Hills in Botswana are covered in animal rock art, and it has been believed by the locals that the creator god painted some of these. It’s said that this is the place where he made the first animals, and then they walked down off the hills. A myth from this region says that the first animal he made was the large, cow-like antelope, the eland, and that he made this out of red clay he obtained from the ground, and following this other animals were made from white and black mud. This mirrors the fact that red ochre, mixed with animal fat, was used in this region to make paint, and there are many red ochre animal images on the Tsodilo Hills, including some notable images of eland. The San also see themselves as the red people, saying that they came first, with black and white people being made later, and they say that the first man – the first of the red people and of all modern people – was also placed on these hills. This indicates that the act of creation both of the first people and the first game animals was seen as an act of painting, using red ochre paint. For a more racially inclusive version, the San of the Darkensberg region created polychrome eland rock art images using white, red and black – a equivalent story would then allow the eland to be a totem for all races – I like that version.
So we have a mythic complex here with similar themes: like the Yima stories, it links to the creation of the first man, and it also links to the theme of an animal which dies but where other animals are made from its bodily fluids.
I won’t go into more detail, because the point here is that this gives us an intriguing way to interpret those Yima stories as having been, originally, a reflection of the process of creating paint and then creating rock art images of animals using that paint. When a bison was hunted and then its fat was mixed with red ochre and this was used to create cave paintings, this was like a sacred re-enactment of the myth of how the first bison dies but then other animals were made from its blood and fat, especially if, as I suspect, the red ochre was itself mythologised as the spilled blood of the primordial bison.
Some of the Persian stories about Yima tell how in a cold period he created a vast underground place called a var which he filled with all sorts of animals. This sounds like those French and Spanish cave complexes filled with animal rock art, including Lascaux, where we have indeed found Yima.
The Yima myth survived the shift to agriculture, partly – I suspect – because it was so firmly enshrined in funerary cult and important beliefs about the Afterlife, and also perhaps because bovines continued to be so important, now being a source not just of meat and clothing, but also of milk and power full pulling the plough. So there was a continuing sense in which the bovine created the things of the World. The myth adapted to survive, you might say.
The World-Making Bison: An Ecological Perspective
And what excites me at the moment is that the myth can now undergo another adapt-to-survive moment, and can continue to stay with us, because it is a great ecological metaphor. The creation of the other animals from the substance of the bison becomes a metaphor for the way the bison leads to the generation of the other animals because it is an important feature of the ecological landscape.
This way in which a particular animal that has a continued to have large impact through evolutionary time as a part of the ecological landscape is an idea which has a very strong resonance, as far as I see it, with the totemic culture model, where stories are told about how the bodies of great Dreamtime animals became this and that feature of the landscape. The metaphor works just by seeing this Dreamtime landscape as a metaphor for the ecological landscape. The Dreamtime is a period of deep time, which we may easily equate with evolutionary time for the purposes of an effective metaphor. And totemists believe that during the Dreamtime an order emerged which is the right way of doing things, and that as long as that order is maintained, nature will continue to be abundant, and continuing to honour those Dreamtime beings in the landscape is of vital importance. Rock art is, incidentally, one of the main ways they invoke the Dreamtime in particular locations. The metaphor may even stretch that far, because art can be an impetus for conservation and its modern incarnation – rewilding – because it can bring our values to a sharp point of focus.
As regards the bison, a study in the USA compared three areas of grassland prairie, and found that the one where bison were reintroduced had twice as much biodiversity as the one without large herbivores. This is a very significant alteration. In the third area of prairie, cattle were allowed to graze. This area didn’t have as much biodiversity as the bison-grazed area, but it did still have more than the area that wasn’t grazed at all. Another interesting observation was that the increase in biodiversity in the bison-grazed area made the grasslands significantly more resistant to drought, and the other thing to be mentioned is that the increased plant diversity also leads in turn to more insects, birds, reptiles and other mammals. The bison leads to the generation of the other animals, just like the myth of the primordial bison. With its hump being hill shaped, it’s easy to imagine how the bison might have gone into the land and become a landscape feature in the Dreamtime.
The European bison has been brought back from the brink of extinction by a number of rewilding projects. Might it have similar beneficial impacts on ecosystems in this area as the effects the American bison is having across the pond? Given that it was both part of the ecosystem for a long time in Europe and also had a big impact on that ecosystem, it is highly likely that allowing it to return could lead to increased biodiversity here too. While in the US there are areas of restored prairie now where bison roam and where controlled burning is used to keep trees away so it stays as grassland, in Europe bison have been released into forests, which are of course quite different. This may have been influenced by the fact that it was within forests that the last few European bison remained, but this might have been more because it was a refuge for them rather than because it’s their preferred habit. In fact, it seems bison like to move around between woodland and grassland, having both available, so perhaps it would be better to allow some trees to grow on the US prairies and at the same time to allow European bison access to grasslands adjacent to the forests. Time will tell what the best approach is.
So to sum up, as with the wildebeest, the bison is a keystone species, an ecosystem engineer, or as I call it, a landscape feature creature, and just like that primordial bison of the old cave painter myth, this animal brings about the creation of a host of other organisms.
Here below is the video I did a while back about the Leaning Man theory. As I’ve said, it has some stuff not covered above, but lacks some of the more recent insights.