Two Texts by Clayton Eshleman: (1) Orpheus in Lascaux


The Lascaux Pit’s visionary scene is much more formidable & larger than I had anticipated before climbing down a narrow 16 foot ladder to it in May 1997. Around 6 and a half feet in length the scene possesses its wall space with black, aggressive, calligraphic strokes. In reproductions it often appears cramped,with a bird-headed man, a wounded bison, & a rhinoceros done in a puerile,primitive” fashion. As I stood before them, these figures struck me as commanding as the images of bison & horses in the Rotunda & Axial Galleries above. The manganese glistens; the six dots right behind the incomplete rhinoceros’s anus shine, as if still wet!

The bird-headed man, his bird-topped staff, & these six dots were possibly the original figures on the Pit’s wall. This naked figure with an erection & outstretched handless four-fingered arms appears to be in a trance & I propose that he may be the first indication of the presence of Orpheus in our world. The bird perched on the staff right below his right arm is staring at (given their placement) the six turds, probably the first marks made in one of the terminal areas of Lascaux (another, also marked by six dots, being at the end of the Chamber of the Felines, the area farthest from the cave’s entrance). The Pit’s turd dots are directly over an inverted V-like fissure in the wall that widens into a small but gaping hole going nowhere.

The Greek poet Simonides wrote that “above Orpheus’s head flutter innumerable birds.” One European root for “Orpheus” offers “or-n” or “erne” from old English earn, or eagle. A second suffixed form is the Greek “ornis,” the stem of “ornith,” bird (ornithology).

It should also be noted that one of the two sorcerer-like figures engraved on the wall of the Apse indirectly over the Pit appears to be a human figure inside a dried grass costume, whose head area contains two eyes & a one-eyed bird’s head. This figure also seems to be wearing a witch-like hat! Thus there appear to be two bird shamans in this area of Lascaux.

The historical Orpheus appears to have been conceived in a Thracian cave during the 6th century BC. As the son of Apollo, he enchanted animals as well as birds, & as one of the Argonauts, his lute was “strung with poets’ sinews.” After the Bacchae tore him to pieces, his shamanic head, which Philostratus wrote ended up in Lesbos, continued to deliver spells & incantations. Pythagoras wrote that the poet must not tear apart this god within himself. Orpheus’s relationship to the underworld was confirmed when he descended into Hades, that unfathomed mine of souls, in an attempt to bring Eurydice back to earth.

The bison above and to the right of the Orphic bird-man is the most difficult figure to contextualize in this visionary scene.  Its head is unnaturally lowered with both of its horns pointing at the man’s elongated torso, & its front legs have been pulled back to the extent that it could not stand; its beard, neck and withers appear to be unconnected to its head (which can also be seen as a horse head facing in the opposite direction). A spear laid across its anus points diagonally to the left crossing the animal’s distended belly in front of its disgorged intestines. Some of these peculiar aspects may be intended to emphasize that the bison is dead. Unlike the quite alive rhinoceros’s flipped backward tail, the bison’s tail is flipped forward—another indication of its death?

Based on the number of engravings in the Apse & Apsidole (indirectly above the Pit), & the number of lamps & tools found on the Pit’s floor (more than in any other area of the cave), these two areas may have been the most visited & sacred for those who decorated Lascaux.  These places quite possibly hosted workshops where tools inspired by images on the walls were fashioned.


Note: in all writings on Lascaux that I have read, the Pit is referred to as the Shaft. Since a shaft is usually identified as a passage through the floors of a building, as in an elevator shaft, I have preferred to identify this deep enclosed area as a pit.


A further text by Clayton Eshleman, “Orphic Ontologies 2” will be posted tomorrow here on NOMADICS.

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1 Response

  1. Emily Perkins says:

    Impressive, well reseached, and very timely – esp. etymology of Orpheus

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