The Modern Failure to Recognise the Iconology of the Palaeolithic Female Figures and Figurines, Viewed in the Light of Insanity

by Michael Bland


A search of the internet for ‘the nature of language’ or ‘the nature of consciousness’ reveals a somewhat paradoxical fluency: commonplace concepts of familiar realities are confidently and more-or-less deftly handled, albeit that (apparently) we do not even begin to properly understand the nature of what is conceived of.

The present article allows that language is a double-edged means: it has a communicable effect – naturally – that can cut both ways. And if that’s the case now, then long must it have been so.

I believe, moreover, that the resolution of the paradox of self-deception is a prerequisite for the reconciliation of art and science. The project of this article is to prepare the way, publicly, for both.

Here’s the paradox of self-deception: People may sometimes show an absolute tolerance of inconsistency regarding what they will say, what they actually do, and what they demonstrably know; we may show an absolute indifference to – or obliviousness of – paradoxy, sometimes even en masse. And that looks like bad news for the present project in particular, even before it’s begun.

But the threatened double bind may yet be pre-empted. For as is well noted, there are those in whom the capacity for self-deception is undeveloped: we call them naive, artless, guileless, ingenuous, mere children. We who are older may perhaps gain an insight: we may learn something from them; and on account of our learning that lesson, we also may learn from those who are older but won’t.


 Scarecrow: “I haven’t got a brain – only straw.”
Dorothy: “How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?”
Scarecrow: “I don’t know. But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”
     The Wizard Of Oz 
(multi-authored screenplay adapted from The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, by L. Frank Baum).

What is located in the human head such that the feeling of consciousness or mental awareness should be apparent to us there? Or again, what will most people say who consent to answer that question?

Most modern Westerners, at least, will answer “the brain”. But I also feel awareness in my foot, and my brain isn’t in my foot. And anyway, one learns at school that that large grey organ inside the human skull is completelyinsensate.

So, if not the brain, then what else is there located in the human head such that the feeling of consciousness or mental awareness – or our consciousness of our consciousness, if you like – should be so pre-eminently apparent to us there (especially when one thinks about it)?

And if the correct answer to that question is as simple and obvious as I believe it shows itself to be – that’s in-your-face obvious[1] – then it should be no surprise that I should largely choose merely to allude to the answer I have in mind, rather than fully and openly state it. Or rather, my tactic of merely alluding to this answer should be no surprise for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, so to speak. For most people will fail to acknowledge even the potential veracity of this most obvious answer, even when you point it out to them. (And so to point up the obvious here would be pointless indeed.) Why is this?

Well, clearly, the noun ‘brain’ (singular or plural) has more than one sense: it may properly be used to refer to the bodily organ – that convoluted mass of nervous tissue within the vertebrate (eg. human) skull; or equally properly it may be used to mean the mind, or the intellect, or wit, or nous, and more.[2] And not only may these different senses, with their associated uses, be benignly confused to inspired poetical effect (as in the Scarecrow’s reply to Dorothy’s question), it seems they might just as well be inadvertently confused to pathological effect – with the unwitting conceptual confusion becoming, if not already being, a feature of the pathology itself.

Certainly a common modern tendency to pathologically unwitting conceptual confusion would account for the general modern failure to recognise the correct explanation for the pre-eminent presence, in the waking human head, of the feeling of consciousness or mental awareness; and it would surely also at least begin to account for the evident, and apparently associated, general lack of awareness of or insight into that failure. But this would still leave a lot to be explained. For the tendency is evidently paradoxical: on certain occasions, and especially with regard to certain subject matters, ordinarily intelligent adult humans may become temporarily (and yet highly selectively) quite brainless.[3] And as a function of this paradoxical pathological condition itself, these same ordinarily perceptive humans will tend to have no insight into it whatsoever.[4] Moreover, by virtue of the means of language, not only may the condition be practically maintained (in each individual case), it may also becommunicated; and so it may affect people even en masse. Such is the paradox of human self-deception and delusion; and it stands in need of explanation and resolution.

By and large, however, manifestations of the condition are more or less predictably recurrent. Hence, they can be prompted. And in fact, the question this prologue began with was just such a prompt. And just so long as that in your case the prompt proved unsuccessful, then it might now begin to become apparent that the example here examined is ideally suited to the particular purpose of the present article. For once it is recognised what is the correct explanation for the pre-eminent presence in the waking human head of the feeling of consciousness or mental awareness, then – given a little basic knowledge of human anatomy and physiology (especially knowledge of the fact that the human cerebrum comes in two halves, which have a restricted neurophysiological interconnection) – the potential for the resolution of the paradox of human self-deception, on whatever scale it is effected, is itself unveiled.

Here’s an indication of that potential, specifically concerning something pretty elementary – or at any rate, something less than illustrious – about the nature of human language, thought, and meaning:
 Language and thought are inextricably interwoven, and interact on one another. Words have a history and associations, which for those who use them contribute an important part of the meaning, not least because their effect is unconsciously felt rather than intellectually apprehended.

The above quote is from the classicist W.K.C. Guthrie (Guthrie 1950, 4); the emphases are mine: and keeping one eye, so to speak, on even the deepest known roots of those four words (meanwhile keeping the other eye on the modern meaning), even the Palaeolithic figure featured below seems to partially illuminate the passage quoted – iconically so.

As already indicated, however, most modern Westerners simply will not recognise that the example examined in this prologue could have the significance it might seem to have. And even though most people’s failure to accord the example with any such significance might seem to be an outstanding demonstration of it, still most people (seemingly in a further demonstration of the same) will not recognise this either.

So one seems to be left in a catch-22 par excellence. The present article is intended to show the means to break out of it.

Goddess of Laussel

The Goddess of Laussel (drawn by my nephew Christopher DeMartino, age 23 ¾) click for a larger version

(Above) The figure and the block are inseparably interlocked. In the position selected by the artist for this relief, the block had a slight overhang, so that the figure swelled forward gently. When seen from the side, the curve appears as taut as a strung bow. It swells up to the supreme point, the maternal belly, then falls away at either end and sinks slowly into the rock, in which the feet seem to melt. The upper part of the body curves gently backward, and the head, resting between two rock projections, seems to be reclining as though on a cushion.

– Sigfried Giedion, The Eternal Present, vol. 1, The Beginnings of Art, Bollingen 35, 6.1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962 [p. 470].

Photographs of the 20,000-year-old bas relief can be seen here: 

Not Right: the Modern Failure to Recognise the Iconology of the Palaeolithic Female Figures and Figurines, Viewed in the Light of Insanity

 Language is a mirror in which the whole spiritual development of mankind reflects itself. 
Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language 
– Introduction (Dr. Ernest Klein)

“The female figurines,” wrote mythologist Joseph Campbell, “are the earliest examples of the ‘graven image’ that we possess”. (Campbell 1959, 325)

When exactly it was that they began to appear – from the Golan Heights in southwestern Syria, to Lake Baikal in southern Siberia, to the foothills of the French Pyrenees – is for our purposes here unimportant.[5] Well over a hundred examples of these enigmatic items are known of. And this article is not about some new interpretation of their significance. Rather, it’s an enquiry into the modern failure to remark that a proper understanding of theirprimary symbolic significance had never really needed much interpretation – perhaps anything but.

Try showing the picture of the figure from Laussel to a three-year-old child. (It’s called a figure, rather than a figurine, because it’s a bas-relief.) And pointing to the object held aloft by the figure, in her right hand, ask the child: “What’s she holding?” But first, what do you think the small child will answer?

Small children – just as well as adults – may sometimes see things (or may seem to see things) which are not really there to be seen, of course. But if in response to the above question they tend to come out immediately with the very same answer, and if it is an answer unexpected by most modern adults (especially by those who remain uninspired even by the sight or sound of the magic words ‘something in the sky’), then this should serve to remind us that infants sometimes have an eye for things which their socioculturally-adjusted seniors may completely fail to recognise and acknowledge. It would certainly be worth investigating.

There is one thing which, not uncommonly, small children tend to notice about the picture unprompted: not untypically, they immediately announce their observation that the figure has no feet. And indeed the generalapodality of the Palaeolithic female figures and figurines is well noted by experts, and puzzled over.[6] Certainly it can sometimes seem that the artist had some kind of point to make with this lack: these female forms sometimes appear to be pointedly apodal. (Eg. See Sigfried Giedion’s description of the Laussel figure, shown beneath the picture.) And if this appearance reflects artistic intention, then it’s evidently a point not entirely lost on many a small child.

By referring to the judgement of small children regarding the object in the hand of the figure from Laussel, I will show that the proper explanation of her apodality seems to be quite simple and obvious. And I will thereby demonstrate that the primary symbolic significance of all the Palaeolithic female figures and figurines seems simple and obvious too. Then I will address the main issue: namely, how modern experts (and the rest of us) could have failed to think of something so simple and obvious before.

Also still very much at issue amongst experts is the most appropriate nomenclatural designation for these works of Palaeolithic art. And that ‘Goddess figure’ and ‘Goddess figurine’ are the right and proper Modern English names for the works of this genre is another thing I aim to show.


To the normal modern adult eye, anyway, the Goddess of Laussel holds in her right hand what looks simply like a bison’s horn – vaguely crescent shaped, and with thirteen distinct notches. But does the object really look somewhat crescent shaped, or is that merely my idiosyncratic interpretation? Well, that question seems to be effectively answered by the verdict of small children. For the answer that most three-year-old children will immediately come out with, if asked, is that the object held aloft by the Goddess of Laussel is none other than the moon. So let’s try now to make sense of that.

Perhaps, though, there isn’t much to be made sense of. Perhaps the verdict of small children indicates nothing more than their ready perception of a similarity which is merely happenstance. Yet perhaps not; because if this evident bison’s horn is properly seen also to be a symbolic representation of the moon, then this would very effectively serve to make perfectly good iconological sense of the Goddess of Laussel herself, along with the curious and otherwise unexplained fact of her distinctive apodality.

For clearly, the transcendent moon is indeed held firmly in the grasp – and as we now know, that’s thegravitational grasp – of the Earth, mother Earth. (The simple bodily association between Earth and moon could not but have been as evident to the unaided archaic artist’s eye as it is to our own; and, as noted below, it’s scarcely less obvious that their association involves far more than the mere persistence – albeit periodically interrupted – of apparent spatial contiguity.) Moreover, the possession of feet would naturally tend to imply, for the possessor, the need of something to stand on; whereas, for Palaeolithic people, mother Earth was surely the very ground of life itself.[7]

The apparently aerial object held in her right hand appears to be related, via the evidently pointed placing of theleft hand, to the figure’s swollen belly. (The morphology of the rock having been exploited by the artist, this gravidness is plainly evident when the figure is seen side-on: she’s clearly pregnant.) And indeed, not only does the cycle of illumination from the transcendent moon conspicuously meter the local yearly cycle of fecundity of the Earth, it is also apparently associated – though, I believe, it’s still not understood quite how – with the monthlycycle of fertility of the particular human female.

The horn carries thirteen notches. But there are, of course, between twelve and thirteen lunar months to the year. (This has been noted as a problem for precise calendrical measurement since ancient times.) Yet given that we count moons rather than months – ie. given that we count each celestial appearance of the moon at a particular phase, rather than count cycles of the moon – and given that we start counting from some identifiable point in the cycle of seasons (say, the annual inward migration of some important prey species, such as bison), then there will by and large be precisely thirteen such moons to the year thus measured. (Counting between more-or-less-readily-identifiable summer or winter solstices, there would always be precisely thirteen moons; and indeed, there still are.) For however the moon appears in the sky at around the time of, say, the coming of the bison, then you know that a further twelve such faces of the moon may fairly well be expected to be observed before the imminent return of the bison in the following year. (Counting lunar cycles – thereby counting months, conceptually-abstract periods of time, where you start counting from zero rather than one – is clearly more conceptually and mathematically sophisticated than counting lunar faces.)[8]

She was found carved on a rock overhang, overlooking a valley, in an area surrounded by caves upon whose womb-like walls had been depicted some of the bewildering variety of the forms of life to which Nature had given birth. And evidently, in that particular part of Europe, Upper Palaeolithic people’s effective command of mother Nature’s horn of plenty was indeed dependent upon their firm intellectual grasp of the seasonal pattern of the migration of herd animals – a terrestrial pattern conspicuously metered by the celestial cycles of the moon.[9]

Note further that everything here appears to be all one with the etymology of our words “matter” and “material”.[10] (I suspect the same may be true with regard to the origins of “mammon”, or “Mammon”, which apparently comes from an Aramaic word, “māmōnā́”, perhaps formerly from a Punic word, meaning ‘riches’. Note that “mammon” is morphologically strikingly similar to “mammoth”, which is known to derive from a Yakut word “mamma”, meaning ‘earth’ – apparently on account of the modern remains of mammoths having first been found buried in the frozen Siberian soil, like giant moles in a burrow.) And the role played by human observation of the moon in the firm establishment of the concept of measurement in many, if not all, human cultures seems likely to have been a major one.[11] Certainly our words “moon”, “month”, “menses”, “menstrual”, “mensural”, “metre”, “meter”, and “measure”, all appear to have shot from the same Indo-European root. Similarly, all the English ‘geo-’ words – ie. “geography”, “geometry”, “geology”, “geophysiology” etc. – sprouted from (Attic) Greek “”, ‘earth’, a word of unknown origin (probably pre-Indo-European), whose Homeric form “gaia” was also used as the name of the Greek goddess of the earth: Gaia.

So, if the primary symbolic significance of the Goddess of Laussel is that she is a simple representation of none other than our very own mother Earth, then it looks difficult to argue that the significance of all her Palaeolithic sister figures and figurines could not have at least this basic symbolic simplicity about them too. (For the sake of brevity, when I intend to refer to the figures and figurines collectively I will henceforth write only of the figurines.) For clearly, the basic representation would appear to have a universal human significance. And this may be true of more than just the material artwork; for the Indo-European root *mā-, ‘mother’ (whence Latin “mater” and English “mother”), is apparently a linguistic near-universal found in many of the world’s languages, often in reduplicated form, and (at least among modern-day etymologists) is not uncommonly reckoned to be imitative.[12]

And perhaps now we may say we’re getting close to the heart of the matter in hand, which now seems to pertain to the present at least as much as to the past. For the following questions naturally arise: How come modern experts never spotted so simple and straightforward a possibility? Why on earth did it not occur to experts (and the rest of us) that the figurines might be simple symbolic representations of the very Earth on which we stand? –mother Earth. Why did the idea not occur, even in order that it might be refuted?[13]

Clearly, the figurines must be far more than mere symbolic representations of mother Earth. Indeed there must surely also have been a good body of associated myth. Hence no doubt the figurines are, properly speaking,mytho-symbolic representations of reality. But the primary symbolic significance of the figurines is quite undiminished by any mythic elements which may have been associated with them; and the reality they symbolically represent is no less real on account of any such elements which may tend, with or without our witting, to attach to them still.

And it’s surely the same with our modern-day names “mother Earth” and “mother Nature”. For whatever the mythic elements with which they may or may not be associated in human minds (either in the past or at present), there is still no more a question as to the existence of mother Earth or mother Nature (or Nature, or mother nature) than there is – at least ordinarily – as to the existence of our mother country, our mother tongue, our mother courage, or our mother wit.

Clearly, “mother Earth” and “mother Nature” are names of personifications: respectively, of the living Earth, and of the whole of nature. Well, they’re not names of persons. Or rather, only in mythical terms might they ever properly be said to be names of persons; in terms of straightforward reality, they name reality itself. And I believe the Palaeolithic female figurines are the earliest graphic representations of cosmic reality that we possess.[14]

But it is at this point of distinction where modern expert thinking seems to go into seizure. For in the context of mentioning the Palaeolithic female figurines, the mere mention of the names “mother Earth” or “mother Nature” tends to have an extraordinary mind-flipping effect. The effect upon the expert psyche would be the same if, without mentioning the figurines, you had come straight out and asked them whether they believed in theexistence of mother Earth or mother Nature; and the effect of this, in turn, would be like asking whether they believed in the existence of fairies. (Expert or otherwise, few adults will simply retort: “Why do you ask such an idiot question?”) So what on earth is going on?!

Well, on the other hand, try entering ‘Goddess figurine’ (or ‘Venus figurine’) in a search of the internet: there will be unearthed a whole load of ‘Earth Goddess’ this, ‘Mother Goddess’ that, and ‘Great Goddess’ or ‘Great Mother’ the other. And by and large, it will be a mother-lode of myth. Not that there’s anything wrong with myth as such. But it appears the figurines are mytho-symbolic representations of reality: namely, mother Earth and/or mother Nature. And yet in the context of mentioning the Palaeolithic female figurines, mentioning such names as these to the non-expert psyche tends to have a similarly mind-flipping effect as upon the expert, only in a bizarrely somehow-kind-of-inverse manifestation or form.

A little bird tells me myth is fine. Or at least, one might reasonably say that human myth per se is not unreasonable.[15] But there’s something badly wrong with the thinking whereby down-to-earth reality is surreallymisapprehended as myth; or myth, as reality – as opposed to an allegorical representation thereof. Moreover it appears that these tendencies may manifest two sides to the same pathological coin of thought and emotion. For they appear very much to be reciprocal, complementary, symbiotic. And so, evidently, the real enigma is not the archaic female figurines at all: it is our modern adult selves.

©Michael Bland
 1.   A major exception is the so-called labyrinth, or vestibular system: a tiny structure hidden away within the inner ear, and which inter alia serves our sense of balance.

 2.   No less clearly, the noun ‘head’ has more than one sense too. And one needs a good head for verbal figures in order to think up concise examples that will make the relationships within this family of senses quite explicit. (Though clearly, and not unreasonably, even the question this prologue began with assumes of the reader an implicit knowledge and understanding of the family at issue: eg. that the sense of ‘head’ in that question is materially different from the sense of ‘head’ in the sentence preceding this paranthetical remark.)

So instead, just consider how the application of the word ‘heart’ can vividly illustrate that word’s own particular senses’ potential for semantic overlap – plus, with regard to our comprehension and communication, the associated linguistic potential either for better or worse (and sometimes even verse). For indeed it is an elementary observation that, when one is excited and emotional, the heart – ie. the eminently lopsided bodily organ – quite palpably beats faster! Not without palpably good reason, then, do we lyrically describe the living, pumping heart as the seat of the emotions. (Never mind that he who is said, rightly or wrongly, to be unremittingly cold and unsympathetic is said, more simply, to be heartless.) And not without similarly sensible and observational reason do we call the head on one’s shoulders, no less poetically, the seat of the intellect.

 3.   I’m having difficulty here composing what I judge to be a suitable line using the words “me too”. But since this might well be said to illustrate the point, I guess that one will do.

 4.  But at least I’ve got my eye on that. And forewarned, it’s said, is forearmed.

 5.  By far the oldest example (a mere head and upper torso) was found in 1981, at Berekhat Ram, on the Golan Heights in southwestern Syria. Professor Naama Goren-Inbar, of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote in her initial report: “the Acheulian figurine might be considered the earliest manifestation of a work of art”. (Rudgley 1998, 235) (Perhaps, however, the figurine might more properly be called the earliest known manifestation of a work of representational art – but never mind about that qualification here.) Microscopic analysis has subsequently shown the figure to have been intentionally enhanced; and it is therefore indisputably an art object. It comes from a layer between two flows of basalt firmly dated to about 233,000 and 800,000 BP respectively. Based on its presence in the (Lower Palaeolithic) Late Acheulian layer at the site, its minimum age is apparently not much under a quarter of a million years.

 6.  The following observation suggests an initially plausible explanation of the puzzle: “... frequently they taper to a point without feet, as if they were once fixed upright in the ground for a ritual purpose.” (Baring and Cashford 1991, 6) But clearly, whilst some of the figurines may well have been so used, and whilst this might account for their lack of feet, there could be no such accounting for the apodality of the Laussel figure, abas-relief.

 7.   In any case it’s clear that, all mythological considerations notwithstanding, the perfectly down-to-earth idea of mother Earth is not merely a modern conception:

Mother Earth. When Junius Brutus (after the death of Lucretia) formed one of the deputation to Delphi to ask the oracle which of the three would succeed Tarquin, the response was, “He who should first kiss his mother.” Junius instantly threw himself on the ground, exclaiming, “Thus, then, I kiss thee, Mother Earth”, and he was elected consul.
Brewer’s Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable.

 8.  Note that in the tallying of moons (unlike months), the first tallying marks the beginning of the time-recording process: the time period begins with the recording of moon #1. And since, in tallying months, you’d have to recall (if not graphically record) that face of the moon as your starting-point anyway – ie. moon #1 marks the beginning of month #1 (month #1 being properly tallied only on the advent of moon #2) – the moon-tallying calendrical system which the Goddess of Laussel seems to suggest is surely the more simple and elegant. And for those who used it, doubtless it was fortunate too.

Needless to say, permanently clear skies are not necessary in order to make the required observations. Given an awareness of the lunar cyle and its period (counted in days), occasional glimpses of the moon allow interpolation where necessary, and serve as a check on one’s record-keeping more generally.

Regarding the ‘problem for precise calendrical measurement since ancient times’ (cf. the beginning of the paragraph to which this note refers), see The Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition) entry for ‘lunar’: cf. the final two quotations (dated 1594 and 1835) of section 1.b., which refer to the specialised collocation ‘lunar year’.

 9.  Certainly, many of these species [reindeer, wild horse, and steppe bison, as well as the larger pachyderm species such as mammoth and wooly rhinoceros] are known to have formed large, roaming herds ..., which followed more or less regular migration trails between summer and winter pastures, at regular and largely predictable periods of the year. There can be no doubt that the Upper Palaeolithic communities of Europe were keenly aware of these seasonal migrations and ... frequently located their settlements directly astride these migration trails in order to anticipate and intercept the movement of the animal herds. Under the impact of these highly productive environments it would seem that Upper Palaeolithic communities in some of the more ecologically favourable regions of Europe (such as south-western France, ...) may well have attained population densities which were perhaps not far below those of some of the earliest agricultural communities in the same regions. (Mellars 1994, 44)

 10.  These words derive from the accepted Latin translation of Greek “hyle”, ‘wood, forest, timber, stuff, matter’, whose origin is obscure. But the point here remains effectively intact just because Latin “mater”, ‘mother’, was deemed to be, and established itself as, the equivalent.

 11.   People in the Old Stone Age were obviously aware of the motion of the sun and the moon, and it is the latter of these heavenly bodies that is the most likely to have been the main subject of Palaeolithic time reckoning, because it involves a smaller numerical sequence than that required to record the solar cycle or year. (Rudgley 1998, 97)

 12.  See: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (First Edition) (1985) (ed. Calvert Watkins):

 mā-2 Mother. An imitative root derived from the child’s cry for the breast (a linguistic near-universal found in many of the world’s languages, often in reduplicated form).

Accordingly it would seem that this linguistic near-universal may represent an archaic linguistic form.* For evidently it possesses a phenomenal resistance to socioculturally-mediated change. And the few thousand years’ history of human writing from which the evidence for this derives is but a small fraction of the time that we humans (certainly) and our extraordinary linguistic talent (surely) have been in existence. However, the first part of the definition quoted above – ie. the part not in parentheses – does not appear in the Second Edition(2000) (ed. Calvert Watkins) of the same dictionary:

mā-2 Mother. A linguistic near-universal found in many of the world’s languages, often in reduplicated form.

(Though the description of *mā-, ‘mother’, as being “baby-talk” is retained; cf. entry for *māter-.) And that’s no small retraction to make. But if the original entry was perhaps hasty, this doesn’t mean the retraction wasn’t also hasty; for the original entry may have been misleadingly incomplete. Indeed there remains unanswered the question of why, exactly, the small offspring of proto-lingual hominids should have uttered such a syllable (perhaps in reduplicated form) with regard to the mamma (ambiguity intended) in the first place. For in early linguistic development it’s normally primarily the child that imitates the adult, and not the other way round. (Though clearly that’s not to say adults don’t sometimes imitate the spontaneous vocalisations of children, with effective encouragement to their reciprocation and further development.) So if ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – as is par for the evolutionary course – also in the case of linguistic development, then, in the case of the origin of the Indo-European root *mā-, ‘mother’ (in whatever language, surely a word of foundational significance for the human psyche), we’re clearly missing a key feature from our picture of human linguistic phylogeny: one which will show how this linguistic root – perhaps in reduplicated form – could have been embedded in the ground of everyday proto-lingual hominid reality, so to speak. And I’m thinking now of just such a feature: a specific (and characteristically primatal), mainly visual signal – but partially also a sonicsignal (and with appetitive associations, even in respect of the meaning of its Modern English name) – to which the evolving hominid voice might naturally have come to be added, to dramatically enhanced effect. (This could be the mother of all linguistic roots.)** But since the identification of this element of behaviour isn’t crucial to present purposes, my lips are sealed: I’m keeping mum.

 * It’s already known to be an ancient form:

 That all the ancient dissyllabic ‘breast-mother’ words are [reduplications] seems [probable] in the light of [Sanskrit] ́, mother, and in that of languages other than [Indo-European]; the basic , which has [variants]  or , represents that most fundamental of all sounds, the cry or murmur of a babe for the breast.

 Eric Partridge, Origins: An etymological dictionary of Modern English (entry for ‘mama or mamma’).

 ** It’s something even modern adults do, as a form of encouragement, when spoon-feeding an infant who’s slow to eat. (It’s something more than merely analogous to actually saying: “Mmm! Yum-yum!” For if you watch yourself in the mirror as you say this, what would you call the signal that your lips transmit?) Of course, pre- and proto-lingual hominid parents and elders surely didn’t present pre-chewed pap to their newly-weaned infants using any kind of cutlery. But that only speaks in favour of what I have in mind.

 13.  A single well-attested example unequivocallyshowing well-formed feet would certainly raise a question mark over the idea, if not completely demolish it.* But at least in modern times, it appears the idea itself has never been raised, let alone questioned.** Yet still, modern commentators sometimes momentarily come tantalisingly close to the spirit of the idea, seemingly by virtue of practically walking into it: “Entering one of these caves is like making a journey into another world, one which is inside the body of the goddess.” (Baring and Cashford 1991, 16)

* In Henri Delporte’s L’Image de la Femme dans l’Art Préhistorique (Paris: Picard, 1979), there are drawings of a figurine – front, back, and profile views – showing distinctly doll-like feet. (Cf. “Kostenki 1-IStatuette 3”, illustration no. 168, page 163.) But in Grahame Clark’s The Stone Age Hunters (London: Thames & Hudson, 1967), photographs of what appears must surely be the same figurine – also shown in front, back, and profile – reveal that the drawings, especially the profile view, are very seriously inaccurate; indeed the drawings appear to involve a fabrication. Due to a single slender gap carved between the legs at around the level of the lower calf, it’s true that the figurine seen in the front- and back-view photographs initially appears pigeon-toed. But this two-dimensional appearance is misleading. Indeed, contrary to the side-view drawing, the unequivocal side-view photograph shows neither toes nor heels, and the legs clearly end in a stump. For reasons of copyright, the original drawings and photographs are not shown here. But displayed below are graphic reproductions of both.

 First, drawings of the photographs:


click for larger version

The outlines of the above were traced from photographs in Grahame Clark’s The Stone Age Hunters (London: Thames & Hudson, 1967), page 60, illustrations 46-48: “Mammoth bone female figurine from Site I, Kostienki, South Russia.” (The artist is my sister, Janice Bland.) The actual photographs are available on the internet, here:

 And now, drawings of the drawings:


click for larger version

The outlines of the above were traced from Henri Delporte’s L’Image de la Femme dans l’Art Préhistorique(Paris: Picard, 1979): “Kostenki 1-I Statuette 3”, illustration no. 168, page 163. (The tracing and reproduced shading are the work of my sister, Janice Bland.)

 ** In his book The Great Mother, Erich Neumann does indeed maintain that the figures and figurines are Earth-related and maternally-related representations – but, strangely, not on account of their being careful and deliberate symbolic renderings as such by the Palaeolithic artists! (In chapter nine, he mentions feet as being either ‘broken off’ or ‘frail’; he certainly doesn’t mention them as seemingly being pointedly absent.) Rather, according to Neumann, they should properly be understood to be manifestations of something supposedly existent in the unconscious realm of the human psyche – namely, a so-called archetype, sc. ‘the Great Mother’; and the Earth itself, according to his lights, represents the same.

There are hundreds of images reproduced in Neumann’s book. And they include a single Palaeolithic female figure from Laussel. But it’s not the one referred to in this article – indeed it is a pale shadow. (This other figure too is holding a curved object in her right hand, or possibly she’s wearing it on her hand, but the object is unidentifiable.) And the reason for this, I suggest, is that the Laussel figure referred to in this article seems to show clear evidence of highly refined analytical thought – as opposed to mere mythological thought – on the part of the culture that produced it. (Indeed, since it seems to shows clear and simple evidence of 20,000-year-old numeracy, that lesson should surely have applied even if one didn’t quite fully grasp the precise reason for the precise number of thirteen notches on the horn/moon. And the converse also applies. For what does it say about our own thinking, and our own culture, that we didn’t even ask: “Why don’t we understand, why can’t we work out, the likely significance of the thirteen notches on that gynaecologically-associated crescent-shaped horn?”?) Indeed in chapter one, Neumann writes that early humans – like the child, he reckons – perceive the world “mythologically”. (The scare quotes are his own.) Their world, he writes, is not a world ‘seen by consciousness’, but one ‘experienced by the unconscious.’ (The scare quotes are mine.)

 14.  Strictly speaking, in this case of what is apparently the very matrix of cosmic representation in humans, that’s (mostly) terrestrially immanent cosmic reality. And in consideration of the Goddess of Laussel in particular, the foregoing paranthetical qualification seems inescapable; for the moon in the sky can hardly be said to be terrestrially immanent. And I believe moreover that the Laussel figure serves to graphically illustrate how, from quite pedestrian beginnings (eg. as would be expressed by the most everyday use of such a verb as Latin “trānscendere”, ‘to climb or step over, surmount, surpass’), the initially down-to-earth and even trivial human concept of transcendence eventually, quite naturally, comes to transcend itself. For in respect of its readily recognisable dual expression of transcendency – ie. both spatial and notional (sc. mensural/temporal/numerical/mathematical) together – this Palaeolithic figure illustrates how the moon in the sky (par excellence) and indeed all the heavenly court divine, inviolate and seemingly uninviolable, lend themselves to this conceptual development irresistibly.* (As one might say in a play on meaning proceeding from that conceptual development, the heavens above areself-evidently heavenly.) The figure also shows what are perhaps the early signs of a conceptual development which for the modern-day space ape is all but become second nature: everything over the moon has long since been recognised to lie within the realm of Nature too. And strange to say (but we’ll get over it), transcendency is evidently immanent throughout.

* The spatially-oriented sense of English ‘transcend’ is now strictly speaking obsolete. (In The Oxford English Dictionary, the most recent use quoted for the word in this sense is dated 1695.) But if indeed the aforementioned “dual expression of transcendency” ismore-or-less-readily recognisable as such, this seems to show that the effect of the word’s history and associations is still nonetheless keenly – or even not-so-keenly – felt. (My foregoing use of the word ‘divine’, in contrast, is in a sense that’s still current: cf. The Oxford English Dictionary, a. and sb.1, section A. adj., sense 4.a..)

 15. [Mythic motifs] might be put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends – or by poets to poetical ends – or by madmen to nonsense and disaster.
Joseph Campbell – On Completion of The Masks of God (foreword to later editions of books in the series).


Baring, Anne and Jules Cashford. 1991. The Myth of the Goddess (London: Viking).

Campbell, Joseph. 1959. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York: Viking).

Clark, Grahame. 1967. The Stone Age Hunters (London: Thames & Hudson).

Delporte, Henri. 1979. L’Image de la Femme dans l’Art Préhistorique (Paris: Picard).

Guthrie, W.K.C. 1950. The Greek Philosophers: From Thales To Aristotle (London: Methuen).

Mellars, Paul. 1994. ‘The Upper Palaeolithic Revolution’, in The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe, edited by B. Cunliffe, pp. 42-78 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Rudgley, Richard. 1998. Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age (London: Century).