Art, Spirit, and Wonder: Finding the Sacred Through Art​

Art History tells the story of humanity. Here we'll look at how Paganism has been viewed in art through the ages; into the ancient past, the Renaissance and other eras, and how artists are exploring Paganism today.

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How Old is Art? And Does it Matter?

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Helena who liked to make drawings. She went off to kindergarten and on the first day of school, each child in her class was given crayons. When the time came for recess, Helena went out into the school yard and saw very large rocks that already had drawings on them. (She did not know yet that this was graffiti). She figured the rocks must be a very good place to make pictures, so she started drawing very large pictures on the rocks with her crayons. She didn’t realize what was happening when her teacher came up and began yelling at her. She was in very big trouble indeed.

As we can see from the perspective of my five year old self, that urge to leave a mark somewhere is fairly basic and perhaps even primal. In this article, I will be exploring how old that urge is and where it might come from.

When I first began putting research together for this article, I found myself getting swept up in looking at where the oldest art on earth was and who might have created it. It seemed to make sense to me to begin there as I considered the most ancient of art. One question that I personally grapple with as an art historian is “How long have humans been making art?” and coupled with that question is “Why were humans making that art and did they even think of it as art?” Given that often times ancient artworks are interpreted as having some sort of sacred purpose, as a Wiccan and High Priestess I must ask myself if in fact the ancient artwork did serve that end. In art history and archeology, and ancient art, it is necessary to keep an open mind as new discoveries are always being found, and often changing the way we think about the ancient impulse to create.

I have long held a personal theory that the oldest art on earth must be in Africa, after all, Africa is home to the oldest humans and is where human life began. However, as I began to do research along these lines, it became clear that although that is highly likely, current research does not back this up – the oldest art on earth is actually a carving on a shell found in Java that is 430,000 years old, and was most likely carved by a Homo Erectus ancestor. From there, the oldest art were cave engravings found in Blombos Cave in South Africa dating back around 100,000 years.

In her book, Homo Aestheticus,  Ellen Dissanyake presents the idea that humans actually evolved to create art – it is hardwired into our DNA, as much as the need to speak is necessary to being human, art is necessary. Humans (or at least our ancestors) began making tools sometime around 3.3 million years ago, the first tools being stones chipped away to create edges that could be used for cutting. From there, humans used tools to create images of the world around them – in the form of red ochre cave paintings, and engravings they etched right into cave and rock walls.

After thinking about why it was so important to me that art must have started in Africa, I realized I needed to think more instead about why early humans made the kinds of things they did and were these things indeed sacred? Let the archeologists fight it out over who created the very first art.

Interestingly, it was not just Homo Erectus beginning to create markings of some kind. In Nerjas Spain, near Malaga, drawings of seals in red ochre were found that may have been created by a Neanderthal 42,000 years ago. And in the Altai region of Siberia, a portion of a rock-carved bracelet was found on the body of a Denisovan woman, about 40,000 years old. Denisovans are sometimes referred to as “the other Neanderthal,” and are another branch on the evolutionary human family tree. The bracelet shows us that the human impulse for adorning one’s self is at least as old as the desire to create. But what do these creations tell us?

Were prehistoric artists merely recording the world around them, or as some art historians have suggested, did their imagery have some shamanic element to it? In Chauvet Cave in France are 32,000 year old cave paintings of a variety of animals, including bison, bears, and horses as well as sea creatures. The famous caves of Lascaux and Altamira, relatively young at around 22,000 years past, have beautiful, naturalistic drawings of bison, reindeer, horses, and other animals. In Northern Africa, in the area of Tassili N’Algier in Algeria are images of animals long extinct from the area such as alligators and giraffes – animals that reflect a more temperate environment than the barren Sahara Desert. At the very least, we can learn about what life was like before the last ice caps receded.

One of the theories about ancient images of animals on rock art is that the purpose for this was “sympathetic magic.” In other words, the artists were hoping that they would be successful in hunting the animals they painted by somehow capturing their spirits in the images.  I believe this is too simplistic an explanation, I think there is something more afoot than wanting to capture animals, even though of course food had to have been incredibly important. Scientists have also pointed out that the bones of animals captured and eaten that are found in the same caves are not necessarily the animals depicted on the walls. One way in which we try to understand ancient cultures is to see if there is a modern day culture with similarities.

Joseph Campbell pointed out that frequently these cave paintings, wherever they appear, are located very far into the caves, where it would have been very dark without the aid of a torch, and very difficult to get into. For this reason, he believes the caves and cave paintings may have been part of some kind of initiatory experience. In Shamanic journeying, it is very common to envision traveling into a cave or some kind of opening in the earth, so this feels very right to me. There is a kind of modern day culture analogous to this kind of initiatory idea.

In contemporary Dogon culture in Mali, West Africa, boys undergoing initiation must paint something on a cliff wall regarding Dogon mythology. The Dogon have lived in this region for over a thousand years and have maintained their traditions, which makes them incredibly fascinating to researchers. They live in a part of Africa that is incredibly difficult to navigate – the Bandiagara Cliffs region – and they use the cliff faces for a variety of purposes, and their priest, the Hogon, lives high on the cliff face, another place that is difficult to reach.

In Australia, rock paintings that go back as far as 50,000 to 75,000 BCE can be found in the outback.  The fascinating thing about these rock paintings is that Aboriginal peoples alive today in Australia have been able to identify the imagery with their current mythology. According to the Aborigines, some figures are identified as “Wandjinas,” which are ancestral creators from the dreamtime, who created the earth and the human race. The Dreamtime is a place that is not an actual dream had while sleeping, but instead a parallel space where one goes during trance. Other figures are “Mimis,” beings that have very long, thin, elongated bodies that are taller than humans, but light enough to be blown away by the wind. Much like in Celtic faerie lore, a Mimi woman might entice a human male to her cave, and if she entices him to eat her food, he can never leave. The Mimis are thought to have taught the Aborigines how to hunt.

As mentioned earlier, in Algeria are rock paintings dating back to the Mesolithic period, around 8000 – 6000 BCE. The rock painting of this period seems to reflect a shift from a nomadic lifestyle to one much more settled, and one that included raising cattle. The rock art often lovingly and beautifully seems to catalogue the cattle owned by these settlers. Today, further west in Africa, the Fulani people say that these images relate to their current state of being cattle raisers and factor into their cosmology.

The lack of a written record guarantees that we will never know exactly how these images were meant to be viewed, and it can be argued that looking at contemporary cultures is no way to interpret ancient cultures long past. However, the great number of connections that modern indigenous people seem to make with ancient rock art suggests that we should not throw the idea out entirely. I am certainly blown away by the talent, skill, and observational powers of these earliest artists, and feel a strange kinship with them. Surely, as with so many artists working today, they were tapping into the energy of the world around, seeing the magic inherent in that beauty.

Looking back in time at my own young self, and that desire to put images on those rocks – and the absolute joy I remember feeling at the time that I did it (later punishment aside) tells me that the desire for self-expression at least exists in all of us, and that by making art, we connect with a higher part of ourselves, if not the divine. I feel certain that prehistoric artists must have felt the same.

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Helena Domenic has been an art history nerd for her entire life, having toured the Sistine Chapel at the age of eighteen months. She never quite recovered from that experience (thankfully) and has been seeking out the sacred and profane in art ever since. She's even a real-life art history professor at a Pennsylvania university. She is also a Tarot nerd, having created her own Tarot deck, the Fellowship of the Fool.


  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Tuesday, 26 May 2015

    Lovely. Thanks for this!

  • Helena
    http:// ​Helena Saturday, 06 June 2015

    Thanks so much Byron - just seeing this now. Yay Mercury Retrograde!

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