Rock Art and Golems

Thomas R. Hersh
Los Angeles, California
Published in: Rock Art Papers, Volume 9. Edited by Ken Hedges, San Diego Museum Papers No. 28. Copyright © 1992.
San Diego Museum of Man, 1350 E1 Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA 92101. (171-182.)

coverStanding Cow Ruin, Canyon del Muerto, Arizona. Photograph by Ken Hedges.


In this essay I hypothesize about the inner life of Indian rock artists. They often worked on mountains, hills, and rock out-croppings, in relation to caves, fissures, faults, cracks, and canyons. I take rock art as mountain ritual and mountain myth as expressing its underlying beliefs.

In what follows, I sketch the main features of world mountain mythology. Then I outline one of its remote outposts, the Jewish Golem legend. I hypothesize that Indian rock artists tried to make golems, that is, artificial creatures.

If true, rock artists were "magicians," but not with the current negative connotation of the word. In medieval Judaism, magicians were rabbis who entered god-like states of consciousness through mental and ethical exercises.

In Jewish tradition, Abraham, Jeremiah, and Jesus were "magicians" who made golems. If Indian rock artists made artificial creatures, they would have been the Abrahams, Jeremiahs, and Jesus' of their tribes.


The mountain symbol exemplifies what Jung called an "archetype:" A collective symbol, occurring spontaneously, with like meaning, in people all over the world, at all times. Archetypes are to the psyche, what organs are to the body. Ancients had the same body organs as us; So too with the archetypes.

If we accept the concept of "archetype," it is not surprising that there has been a consistent attitude towards mountains. Research shows this to be awe and worship: Mountains are gods or homes of gods (or spirits), and from mountains the gods create.

The Canaanite God El lived in a tent on Mount Hamon, and Canaanite Baal built his palace on Mount Zaphon; Yahweh lived on Sinai ("the place You made to dwell in, O Lord, The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established," Exodus 15:17) and traveled to Zion ("the mountain of the Lord of Hosts the holy mountain," Zechariah 8:3); Zeus and his cohorts lived on Olympus and on many other "Olympoi" on the Greek islands; Zoroastrian Mithra had his dwelling on Mount Haraiti Berezaiti; the Lady Queen of the West lived on China's Kunlun Mountains; the fairy king Gwynn Ap Nudd lived on England's Glastonbury Tor; spirits called mεmul live on Mount Bosavi in New Guinea (thunder is their voices); etc.

"Sky Chief" lives inside Mount Shasta (Benson 1985:136), and Mastamho, the Mohave deity, made Avikwame (Newberry or Dead Mountain) on which he built himself a house (Kroeber, 1925/1976:770-1). See Giddings (1959:15, 67) for the Yaqui belief about a hill called Nohme; Kroeber (1925/1976:472) regarding Mount Diablo, the Marysville Buttes, and Doctor Rock peak; and Gifford (1933:308) on Cocopa mountain deities. Coolidge and Coolidge (1939/1971:259-61, chaps. 8-11) are hopefully reliable on the Seri gods in caves on the mountain, Tiburon.

These myths were not abstract beliefs nor meant as entertaining stories. Apparently they reported actual experiences. Consider the description of Edward Whymper who, in the 1860s, became the first man to climb the Matterhorn.

The superstitious natives in the surrounding valleys...spoke of a ruined city on its summit wherein the spirits dwelt; and if you laughed, they gravely shook their heads; told you to look yourself to see the castles and the walls, and warned one against rash approach, lest the infuriate demons from their impregnable heights might hurl down vengeance for one's derision. [quoted by Clark 1976:57-8)

Similarly for a Yuma medicine man quoted by A. L. Kroeber (1925/1976:783-4):

When a little boy I took a trip to Avikwame Mountain and slept at its base....[After climbing] at last I reached the willow-roof (shade) in front of the dark-house [cave?] there. Kumastamho was within. It was so dark that I could hardly see him. He was naked and very large. Only a few great doctors were in there with him....

For ancient Israelite accounts of experiences of God on His mountains see 1Kings 8, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 11:23, as well as the experience of the Israelite people from the foot of Sinai (Exodus 20:15).

Christ's disciples also emphasized the visual and auditory reality of their experience:

We didn't follow any clever myths > when we told you about the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and His coming. No, with our own eyes we saw His majesty. God the Father...said to Him: 'This is My Son whom I love and am delighted with.' We heard that voice speak to Him from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. [2Peter 1:16-18, Beck's translation, my emphasis]

That these archetypal experiences persist into modern times can be seen in Jung's description of what followed "a serious mountaineering accident" in Switzerland.

After the catastrophe two of the climbers had the collective vision, in broad daylight, of a little hooded man who scrambled out of an inaccessible crevasse in the ice face and passed across the glacier, creating a regular panic in the two beholders. (1969:223) [Jung 1969:223]

Therefore, when ancient Indian rock artists went to mountains, it is likely they were approaching their gods. These archetypal meetings would have been very emotional.

2a. The mountain is the place of Creation.

According to many Jews and Moslems, on top of Mount Zion ("the navel of the world"), there is a big rock on which the world was founded (Vilnay 1973:5ff--the word for "foundation" in Aramaic is Shetiyah which means "weaving"). From beneath this Foundation Stone comes a spring that is the source of all the water of the world (p. 8).

Zoroastrian scripture also has the water of the world coming from inside mountains. So too for the Aztecs: Inside the mountains is "Tlalocan," the paradise of the rain god, "Tlaloc." Out of this paradise comes the springs which form all the rivers, lakes, and seas (Broda 1987:92-4, cf. a Yaqui story in Giddings 1959:67). For the origin of rain clouds on mountains see, for example, Luckert (1977:5, re. the Navajo) and Malotki (1987, re. the Hopi).

That water comes from mountains suggests all life, including human life, comes from and is sustained by mountains. This is implicit in the Nahuatl word for village or community, altepetl which means "mountain of water" or "mountain filled with water," and the corresponding glyph was, in fact, a mountain with its fauces or a cave on its lower part. (Broda 1987:92)

Broda (1987:120 n.151), paraphrasing a chronicler, says, "The pre-Hispanic gods who controlled water, seeds, and fruits lived in caves." From The Historia de los Reynos de Culhuacan y México we learn that mankind got its food from the Tlaloque, the mountain rain gods:

Nanahuatl stole the white, purple, yellow, and red maize from the Tlaloque (the blue, white, yellow, and red Tlaloque), together with beans, amaranth, and sage, that is all the important food staples. By means of the lightning, Nanahuatl split up the "Tonacatepetl" [the Mountain of Sustenance], where all crops were locked up, and he stole them.

After the catastrophe two of the climbers had the collective vision, in broad daylight, of a little hooded man who scrambled out of an inaccessible crevasse in the ice face and passed across the glacier, creating a regular panic in the two beholders. (1969:223) [Broda 1987:98, also 120 n.154, cf. La Barre 1970:165 re. the Quiche of Guatemala]

This corresponds to the Zoroastrian account of 2244 mountains that bound the earth on which was "the sprouting and growth of plants, wherefrom was the nourishment of cattle" (West 1880:174).

Ezekiel 28:13 implies that the Garden of Eden was on Zion, and we also have Psalm 72:3, "Let the mountains produce well-being for the people."

In California, according to Kroeber (1925/1976:771), Mastamho, who as we saw lived on Avikwame, gave the Walapai, Yavapai, Chemehuevi, Yuma, and Kamia their foods and speech. He taught the Mohave to farm, to cook in pottery, to speak and to count. Kroeber (p. 42) describes a Costanoan myth that the animals remaining on mountains after the flood gave people culture and showed them how to get food.

For humans originating on mountains see Quaritch Wales (1953:76) for the Naga tribes of India; Benson (1985:136) for the Modocs; Ewing (1985:13) for a Guaicuran story; Urton (1990:13) for an Inca origin myth; Luckert (1977:51) for a Navajo version; and Eliade (1958:378-9) for other stories including the idea that God made Adam from dust on Mount Zion.

2b. Even the sky came from the mountains.

One of the most interesting motifs, for our purposes, is that the sky, with all its objects, was made by the earth: A Yaqui story says the sun came out of a hole (like that of the badger) at the edge of a river (Giddings 1959:19); A Kiliwa man spoke of Earth-Person who formed the sky from the skin of a mole, drew the sun from his mouth, and drew the moon out of his fingernail and set it on a mountain (Mixco 1983:35-9); In a Navajo story, Earth Mother and Sky Father unite on a mountain top and deposit a little turquoise figure that turns into an immortal mother goddess (mother of the twin gods), and out of turquoise and white shell beads in her breasts come the sun and the moon respectively (Jung 1967:98); and the Ventureño Chumash name for the sun translates as "the radiance of the child born on the winter solstice" (Hudson and Underhay 1978:51-2). It would not be surprising if this "birth" was from a mountain cave.

It is worth mentioning a medieval European alchemical text saying that the earth made the moon (Jung 1963:130), and, as Jung reminds us, "Luna" signifies silver. The moon, therefore, is a piece of silver in the sky.

Though our Judeo-Christian mythology, as well as our modern science, sees it differently, it is easy to find the primitive view in modern dreams. For example, a patient recently told me the fantasy that matter is created in the furthest skies: When people die they pop into existence again as new stars.

Applying this, when Indian rock artists went to mountains, likely they were going to the source. Water, plants, animals, people, and sky come out there.

2c. Other mountain motifs.

God and heaven are on mountains. So too are the entrances to the Underworld and the world of the dead.

Figure1Figure 1. Alligator River Regions, Northern Territory, Australia (Edwards 1979:17, Plate 6, used by permission).

In Mesopotamia the domain of the god Mot (semitic for "Death") is entered through the base of "the two hills that stop up the underworld" (Clifford 1972:79-81); in Jewish legend, the gates to Gehenna (the Underworld) and those to paradise are on Mount Zion. See Eliade (1958:102) for the mountain as stepping off place to the land of the dead; Quaritch Wales (1953:96, 102) for West Javan mountains as the place from which all souls emanate and return after death; Giddings (1959:65) for how Yaquis say that Death lives in "huge rooms" inside different hills; and Wilbert (1974:86-8) for a Yupa story of a man who falls into the Underworld in a burial cave on a mountain.

He had entered a strange world. All day long he searched for some familiar path. In vain! Trees, rivers, animals, all were the same as those at home, and yet everything was strange to him.

Caves, fissures, and canyons were probably potent places — passageways connecting this world to creation inside mountains.

Figure2Figure 2. El Cartucho canyon, Baja California (Crosby 1984:31, used by permission).

Equally suggestive, might have been canyons where eroding water could have freed creatures within mountain walls. Or sites where splitting or moving boulders could have released "new-borns" in or under them. Many rock art sites are associated with such geological features (Figs. 1-5).

Figure3Figure 3. McCain Valley Cave, San Diego County (photograph by Ken Hedges).

Figure4Figure 4. Canebrake Wash rock shelter, San Diego County (photograph by Ken Hedges).

Figure5Figure 5. Inyalak Hill, North Territory, Australia (Edwards 1979:20, Plate 8, used by permission).

I suggest that Indian shamans may have "seen" things coming out of these holes.

Related is the Indian's apparent sexualizing of caves. Ewing (1986b:92), Ewing and Robin (1987), and Rafter (1987:28-9) identify dark caves as earth wombs fertilized by sun's rays. This fits with mountain as source. See Ewing and Robin (1987) and Gough (1987) for sites suggesting this imagery. Also relevant are Ewing's (1986b and 1989) and Bertsch's (1986) discussions of fissures.

Extrapolating, when a rock artist saw light entering a dark cave, he saw a productive union of the gods, a "hierosgamos." (Cf. Idel {1988:168} regarding the sexual union of the cherubim comprising God's throne in the Temple on Mount Zion).


Figure6aFigure 6. Cueva Obscura, Baja California (top), and paintings in the deepest reach of the cave (Crosby 1984:48, used by permission).

Some rock art may not picture static scenes, but "births." Herds of animals or people being born from fissures and caves, from under rocks and boulders, rising and merging into our world (Figures 6-9; see also Moore 1989:41 and Royle 1986:147).

Figure7Figure 7. San Gregorio I, Baja California (Crosby 1984:6, used by permission.)

Figure8Figure 8. San Gregorio II, Baja California (Crosby 1984:79, used by permission).

Figure9Figure 9. San Borjitas, Baja California (Crosby 1984:98, used by permission).

Rock art may have been "motion" pictures of the "new" things the artist saw on the mountain.

Some of the people in Baja murals may be facing towards the rock, watching spirits within (see Ewing 1986b and Moore 1989 for examples). McGowan (1987:162-163) relates the tale of a girl who disappears into the rock, and illustrates the petroglyph which may be her face. The famous footprints at Pueblo Bonito (Figure 10) could be the footsteps of creatures that escaped.

Figure10Figure 10. Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico (photograph by Ken Hedges).


According to Scholem (1974:351), a golem "is a creature, particularly a human being, made in an artificial way by virtue of a magic act, through the use of holy names." The earliest extant use of the word "golem" is in Psalm 139 where it seems to refer to a human embryo in the earth (as womb!).

The earliest golem recipe we have is from thirteenth century northern Europe. It is a mountain motif: To make a golem, mix virgin soil from a mountain with "living" water, knead it, and mold it into a human form. Then pronounce Hebrew syllables over it to infuse life.

These syllables were composed partly of the letters of the divine name, Y-H-V-H. The combinations were said to have been passed down from Abraham in a book called Sefer Yetzirah (Idel 1990:chaps. 5 & 6).

The recipe apparently stems from the Midrash account of God molding Adam from dust from Zion. Then God gave life to His "golem" with breath (Genesis 2:7). God is pictured as uttering Hebrew syllables.

Some of the earliest texts require that the golem maker be perfectly righteous and that his intellect approach the divine intellect. As one text says, the rabbi must become a "Divine Man" (quoted in Idel 1990:106). Another text may imply that, for an instant, the master must become God to make his "Adam" (Idel, chap. 9)!

The connection between golems and the "homunculi" of medieval alchemy is under debate. Alchemists worked in their laboratories, mixing and heating, subliming, condensing, and the like. During these solitary pursuits strange things were experienced.

The homunculus was a tiny human figure seen to appear in the flasks at certain stages of the work. There were also the Red Man, the Black Raven, the White Dove, the white man, the white woman, the red slave, and the like (Jung 1967:92-3).

Jung calls these figures — and they were actually experienced! — "personifications" of the metals as can be seen also "in the folk-tales of imps and goblins, who were often seen in the mines" (p. 93). I hypothesize they were also seen by rock artists on mountains, and we see them in their paintings.

Indians knew of the creation of artificial creatures. There is a Tlingit Indian story (though not a mountain story — Beck, 1989) about a man named Natsilane who was said to be the creator of the blackfish (killer whale).

His fine build, agile movements and dignified manner hinted that he was of high caste. He was a highly skilled carver, and all the hunters sought him out to carve their spears. (Beck:3)

Natsilane wanted revenge against his brothers-in-law, and so he carved a blackfish which he tried to animate to act out his feelings. He failed three times, and then tried a fourth.

Inspiration was surging through him as he began to carve the fourth blackfish, this time from yellow cedar. When it was finished, Natsilane sang the songs of his ancestors and also a song to the sea lions.

This time the blackfish became animated and swam away.

Though there are differences between the golem and blackfish stories, there are striking similarities: In both, a special individual creates a living creature by vocalizing sounds of his ancestors.

Swanton's version of the story (1909) actually gives the sounds Natsilane made to animate the carving. "He whistled four times like the spirit, 'Whu, whu, whu, whu'" (p. 231). This "whu" was a syllable similar to those pronounced by Jewish masters animating golems with Hebrew syllables.

Further, "whu" is said to be made by the spirits. I cannot find the Tlingit word for spirit or the nuances of its meaning. It may very well function like the Hebrew word "ruach" meaning "spirit," but also "wind" and "breath." The Sefer Yetzirah says the "spirit of God" ("ruach Elohim") created the elements of the world.

In vocalizing syllables, rabbis presumably imitated this spirit in a way learned from "Abraham Our Father," just as Natsilane imitated the spirit in pronouncing the syllable taught him by his ancestors.

As another example of a "golem" story, Coolidge and Coolidge (1939/1971:169) say that a Seri man named Jesus Feliz

knows more about the gods than anybody. He can do magic, and goes up to the caves. He can take a broken plate, such as they have in Hermosillo, put it on the fire in the cave, and lead to make bullets will come out of it. When he wants powder he picks up a handful of sand and lets it run between his fingers. That which falls on the broken plate is powder — strong, black powder.

And they add, "he learns these things when he goes to the Holy Cave....he learns these things from a spirit that is in the cave" (p. 175).


We may guess that rock art was not passive recording. The artist was imitating the spirits. He tried to make rain (as did Samuel in 1Samuel 12:16-18); to produce animals; to impregnate earth with next spring's plants (eg., see Rafter 1987:28-9); to make human golems to answer prophetic questions (see Idel {1988:168} for such Hermetic, Neoplatonic, and Jewish rituals); or to install a saviour into existence--like the famous Golem of Prague who saved the Jews from the infamous Blood Libel.

In mountain caves, Indian artists became god-like, and their works came to life. They entered Dreamtime, not just manipulated ordinary reality; They performed miracles, not magic.

According to a Chumash story, when the celestial creators shaped the human hand, they stamped the form onto a flat rock in the sky (Blackburn 1975:95).

I hypothesize that Chumash rock artists imitated their gods (as rabbis imitated theirs) and "stamped" forms on rocks. I guess that they, like rabbis and like Natsilane, vocalized syllables to make the forms live.

The forms may have come alive the moment sun-light struck them (see Idel {1990:158} for the animation of statues by light in Chaldean rituals).

With regard to celestial objects, I guess that men went to caves, neither to witness nor to help the rebirth of a solstice sun, but to make a new sun.

Jung's Hopi friend told him the Hopi made the sun come up every morning. Ancient Hittite kings went to the mountains to perform a ritual to "raise the great sun" (Bittel 1981:65). Could Ewing's (1986a:66) illustration of Cueva Galería in Baja California be the sun being born from a hole in the ground? Could the paintings at Standing Cow Ruin in Canyon del Muerto (Figure 11) be "golem" suns made and sustained by "divine men" who learned Mountain God's ways? To this day, practicing Jews "know," if they disobey laws from Sinai, the universe will collapse.

Figure11Figure 11. Standing Cow Ruin, Canyon del Muerto (photograph by Ken Hedges).

Figure12Figure 12. McKee Spring, Utah (photographs by Ken Hedges).

Figures in 12 may be suns and moons and various miscellany being born from the mountain. (see also Schaafsma 1980:137, 320 for similar concepts). If these paintings are not realistic to us now, it does not matter. What matters is if they came to life, at least for an instant, for the artists.


The mountain is place of enlightenment. East Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Christian sages sought refuge in mountain caves. Even Jesus sought refuge on mountains. "During the day he would teach in the temple, but at night He would go out to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, and stay there for the night" (Luke 21:37).

Kroeber (1931:13) reports Seri men becoming shamans by going to mountain caves (cf. Coolidge and Coolidge 1939/1971:94, 113, 117, 229-30, chap. 9; Mixco 1983:52; Kroeber 1931:15; Brown 1971: chap. 4).

Enlightenment suggests inner transformation. Did rock artists take meeting spirits literally or as something internal? Was their fascination with the union of light and dark in caves taken symbollically?

The rites of the Persian (later Roman) god Mithras were practiced in natural or artificial caves or grottos. These Mithraea (according to Porphyry citing Euboulos) symbolized the cosmos created by the god, "and the things arranged symmetrically within were symbols of the cosmic elements and regions" (quoted in Meyer, 1987:211).

Mithras, the god associated with the sun, was born from a rock (theos ek petras); He was also the god of truth and justice, the illuminator; Correspondingly, his birth from a rock was taken as a symbol of the transformation of the initiate, presumably from a state of rock-like unconsciousness to one of sun-like illumination. This was experienced as a "rebirth," a "re-creation," and as "an ascent of the soul to the realm of the divine" (Meyer 1987:199-201).

This "creation" or "re-creation," extended to the cosmos itself.

Mithraic monuments show that the sacrifice of the bull [by Mithras, and as celebrated in his rite] was a moment of creation and life: Grain sprouted from the bull's tail or even from the wound itself. [Meyer 1987:200)]

Presumably, the appearance of "golem" grain corresponded to the moment the initiates entered the highest divine realm after climbing a ladder through the seven gates of heaven. Psychologically, this corresponds to a rebirth of consciousness along with a burst of inner vitality and a connection to some inner, god-like power.

(Mithraism was the religion of pirates and Roman soldiers, sailors, and officers. Except for secular remnants such as bull-fighting, it was completely integrated and/or replaced by its rival, Christianity {see, for example, Firmicus Maternus and Origen on the pagan religions as quoted in Meyer 1987:207-10}).

The Jewish mystic, Abraham Abulafia (1240-ca. 1292), wrote that, even if physical golems could be made, the important golems were inner — that is, images (Idel 1990:chap. 7).

Lodovico Lazarelli was a Christian kabbalist indirectly influenced by Abulafia. He initiated Ferdinand of Aragon into Kabbalah. Lazarelli said that the king was a golem before his initiation, and the initiation was the "new, spiritual birth of Ferdinand, the king of Aragon....a generation of the intellect of the king...rather than [of] the corporeal activity" (Idel's words, 1990:176).

This is psychological. The practitioner is seen as finding inner images so unfamiliar and awe-inspiring, that they seem outside. The numinous is in the self.

Compare Lazarelli's account with Jung's description of alchemical homunculi, taken literally by many alchemists as tiny human figures they saw in their flasks. Jung says the Philosopher's Stone of the alchemist

consists of body, soul, and spirit, [it] is a living being, a homunculus or "homo." It symbolizes man, or rather, the inner man, and the paradoxical statements about it are really descriptions and definitions of this inner man. [Jung 1967:102]

Possibly there were extroverted rock artists who took it all literally, and introverted ones who analyzed what they saw on mountains as in them.

Both views combine in a story reported by Viñas et al. (1987:147-148, from Lommel). To Australian aborigines, Ungod is a great serpent snake living inside the earth. Ungod finds "wondschina," a personification of rain, "in a creator dream, in the depths of water and also in his soul."

Either way, the dangers of mountain quests was evident to Indians. Here is a Yaqui story (Giddings 1959:69). A man named Cho'oko Baso passed close to a cliff late in the evening and saw a white light in the middle of the cliff. An elderly man told him to take a little stick and touch a rock. When he did this a beautiful girl appeared and told him that the stick would give him money and food in the future. He became very rich but after twenty years he returned, and the young woman appeared again and this time invited him in. "Cho'oko Baso went inside the rock to remain there enchanted, forever. Now when Yaquis pass by that place they turn their heads away" (cf. the Mistresses of the Doves of the Chorote Indians in Wilbert and Simoneau 1985:158-9; also Giddings 31-4).

There were also, of course, male mountain spirits who enchanted women, taking them from normal social life in exchange for secrets helpful to the very society from which they have become alienated.


I wish to express my thanks to Harry Crosby and Robert Edwards for permission to use illustrations from their books, and to Ken Hedges for providing photographs for this paper.


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