Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Upper Palaeolithic... and me.

I have just finished reading the sixth and final book in Jean M. Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series, The Land of the Painted Caves. This series – for those who don’t know – is set in Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic (or Late Stone Age) period, dating between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. Auel’s books are meant to be set around the 28,000 BCE (30,000 BP) mark. The first book in this series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, came out in 1980 but I didn’t discover and read it until around 1986. That was also the year that the film of the book, starring Daryl Hannah, came out – although I didn’t see it until several years later. I’ve heard that it was voted worst film of that year and I agree, it was not good. The book on which it is based however, is excellent.

Back in 1986 when I was reading Clan of the Cave Bear, inspired by a magazine devoted to rural self-sufficiency called Grass Roots, I had recently moved from the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda (yes the seedy carnivalesque one) to rural Central Victoria. It was the absolute tail-end of the Back to the Earth Movement that had been prominent in the 1970s, and I was really sorry that I’d – apparently – missed it. My boyfriend and I thought we’d do rural self-sufficiency anyway; I was already spinning my own wool, weaving and making clothes in my St Kilda flat. We made a pact to move to the country whether we were ready to or not. When we first arrived in Central Victoria we squatted in an abandoned farmhouse from which we soon got evicted (it wasn’t so abandoned after all) and by the time I discovered Clan of the Cave Bear, maybe a month or so later, I was living in a tiny caravan in a forest on a rural property belonging to the first other witches ever I’d met. (They were friends of the bohemian artist father of my boyfriend’s best friend). One of the witches had turned me onto Auel’s book – she was always good for supplying interesting books of the 80s witchy zeitgeist.... Marion Zimmer Bradley’s
Mists of Avalon, for example.

At this rural retreat there was no electricity, water came from rainwater caught in a dam, and if you wanted it hot it had to be heated over a fire. The heroine of Clan of the Cave Bear, Ayla, was the perfect role model for me at that time. Did I need to make a fire? – Ayla was my role model. If I had to bathe in a chilly dam – Ayla swam in much colder rivers. Making one’s own clothes or building dwellings like Ayla did was all a part of the modern Back to the Earth Movement (Ayla didn’t grow veggies though, but she knew all about recurring seasonal plants for harvesting – oh hunter-gathers, the first affluent society). One of the stand-out things in Clan of the Cave Bear was the description of herbal medicine and we all knew that was a part of [modern] witchcraft. Author Jean M. Auel excelled in the description of herbs and other plants, as well as the characteristics of the landscape. She had researched hunting and butchery, and ancient crafts. It was the perfect headspace for alternative life-stylers.

One of the really interesting things about the Earth’s Children series was the background of what we understood, in a Goddess Movement-Gimbutas kind of way, as an ancient religion of the Great Mother Goddess. The inside flap of Clan of the Cave Bear had a picture of the
Venus of Willendorf, and Ayla’s partner Jondalar (who appeared in book 2, The Valley of the Horses) came from a people who called this goddess Doni. I was already familiar with the forms of witchcraft deriving from British Wicca, as explained by Doreen Valiente and the US Feri/Reclaiming Tradition of Starhawk, with their focus on a Goddess as well as a God, from when I lived in the city. Now, in the country, along with Clan of the Cave Bear I was reading up on Celtic and other mythological systems and the American Goddess Movement. Marija Gimbutas’ books were also available for me to peruse. It all made absolute sense: there was an ancient Great Mother Goddess who had a younger male paramour, and this is where the gods of witchcraft came from. I was deeply intrigued with the tiny bronze Venus of Willendorf pendant that the above-mentioned witch provided for me, and hung it immediately on a leather thong around my neck. Living in the forest, with a fire burning to keep me warm at night and the southern stars whirling above my head, I really felt I could be someone like Ayla.

It didn’t really matter that this was 1986 and we weren’t actually hunting our own food with spear throwers or pit traps. We made clothes, used herbal remedies, believed in a weird religion, attended the
Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering for Beltane and the Down to Earth Confest, an alternative lifestyle festival held on the Murray River in northern Victoria, around Litha – such events seemed exactly like the Summer Meetings that Jean M. Auel described for Ayla’s people in deep prehistory. At the 1989 Confest at Walwa (one of my favourites ever) I even met a woman whose new baby girl was called Ayla. As far as I was concerned I was living the life! I didn’t know much about historical periods, about archaeology... I just wanted to live a dreamy, aesthetically pleasing life, in a utopia of nude swimming, handmade objects, herbalism and magical spells and rituals. To paraphrase a now absolutely cliché bumper sticker, the Goddess was alive and magic was afoot.

Sure, Jean M. Auel’s characters, Ayla and Jondalar, were the Stone Age Barbie and Ken. Yes, Ayla was suspiciously responsible for discovering many things – too many things for one woman; she was a Stone Age “Everywoman”, no, a Superwoman! – but that was good for me. It was empowering to think that women did important things in the past; it meant we could do them again now, and in the future. Yes, the social aspects of real Upper Palaeolithic Europeans may not have been anything like the way Auel described them in her books, they probably weren’t. As I said above however, she had done a lot of research on the environment, flora, fauna, crafts, cave paintings and other characteristics of this period – and these are novels after all, not academic textbooks. Back in the late 80s however, from what I can recall, I think we generally thought of them as “history”. How – why – would we have thought otherwise?

The third instalment in the series, The Mammoth Hunters, was just great (I wasn’t too thrilled with the second one, The Valley of the Horses, it was was necessary) and I think that a reader could be satisfied finishing the series there, with the third book, and never reading another one. I don’t actually recall where I lived when I read this one; it came out in 1985, so maybe I was still in the country. (It was in The Mammoth Hunters that the
Venus of Brasempouy, thought now to be a forgery, featured). After I’d read the third book I think I forgot about the series for a while. It wasn’t until quite a bit later, after I had moved back to Melbourne in the early 90s, that I met someone (in the context of his being interested in the Church of All Worlds, the Australian branch of which I had co-founded with Anthorr and Fiona Nomchong in 1992) who, during our conversation, told me a strange tale about the books. He said that Jean M. Auel had become an alcoholic, that she’d had to give back her most recent advance to the publisher and that there would be no more books in the Earth’s Children series. I couldn’t believe it and hoped it wasn’t true.

I still don’t know whether this story was actually true. I never got confirmation of it. You can imagine my consternation however when, sometime in what must have been the early 2000s, contrary to what this informant had told me I heard of a fourth instalment in the series, The Plains of Passage, that had apparently been out for a while but which I had been oblivious of. I immediately bought and read it to catch up on Ayla’s and Jondalar’s movments (you know how you can get attached to fictional characters...). This was a particularly satisfyingly descriptive instalment of their story, particularly in regards to what Auel does best: the vivid descriptions of flora, fauna, landscape, crafts, hunting, herbalism, the construction of dwellings, and dealing with horses. I read the next book, The Shelters of Stone, in 2002 in the wake of a traumatic birthing experience (which is detailed in Celebrating the Pagan Soul, edited by Laura Wildman, New York: Citadel Press, 2005. 226–230). While I was pleased to be continuing with the story and it distracted me from my ordeal, there may have been a little too much description of caves in the book... yes, it was interesting, but we don’t need to hear about so many.

This was also the point in my life at which I became disillusioned with believing in the Venus of Willendorf and other prehistoric figurines as “goddesses”. As I had discovered (simultaneously, not as a result of) in Ronald Hutton’s The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, we do not know whether such objects depict deities, humans, or what these statuettes were used for. Were they fertility figurines, anti-fertility – or something else entirely? Coincidently however, as a result of my reproductive trauma, Marione, editor of the Goddess magazine The Beltane Papers, sent me a little statue of this very Venus as comfort... It was a kind gesture on her part and I do love it. I’ll always be fascinated, from an aesthetic angle, with ancient art. Another of my absolute favourite Stone Age female figurines is the
Venus of Lespuge; it’s so...‘modern’.

And now it’s 2011, twenty-five years since I started the Earth’s Children books (how time flies!) and I have finally finished the series. And that’s it. Auel isn’t going to write any more, I hear. Maybe 6 books is enough – although I bet fans would welcome more. Yes, the prehistoric society Auel depicted is largely based on the peaceful Earth Mother worshippers soon to be taken over by the patriarchal Kurgans model, so prevalent within the Goddess Movement and criticised by Cynthia Eller in
The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory... Yes, you could read Margaret Elphinstone’s The Gathering Night for a less Ken-and-Barbie inhabited rendition of European prehistory... and I recommend it heartily. You could also watch the French-Belgian movie, Quest for Fire, for a more believable and aesthetically pleasing film adaptation of the Stone Age than the abysmal Daryl Hannah Clan of the Cave Bear film. Yes, there are things to be critical of in Auel’s Earth’s Children series... but there is also something really evocative about this story of a European “Adam and Eve”. Maybe it’s just escapist reverie, but then again, perhaps there is actual value in such a tale of what Cro-Magnons – what we early humans – may have been like.


Lee said...

I loved this series of books, the most recent was something of a disappointment. It just felt like she had tons of notes from visiting sites in Europe and wanted to publish them. It seems to be dominated by all of these descriptions of cave art and the remainder of the story is pretty loosely hung around that.

Caroline Tully said...

Hi Lee, yeah, I thought that both the sixth and the fifth books suffered a bit from _too much_ description of caves and cave art. Yes, they are interesting and important to know about, but I think they went on a bit long. With the last book, I was surprised when, after we'd had really long sections about cave paintings, and the book looked like it was about to finish, there was suddenly all this really important and stressful drama when Ayla finally arrived at the Summer Meeting. I couldn't see how the book would even be able to get to the end, such as the level of darma in what looked like not many pages to go... But as you know, it did. I though thta was abit of a funny place to put that part of the story, so near the end. I still liked the book though. I liked it better than book 5. My faves are probably Books 1, 3, 4.