A Psychological Approach to Rock Art: Some General Remarks

Published in Rock Art Papers,Volume 8. Ken Hedges, Editor. San Diego Museum Papers 27,1991 (131-140)

Thomas R. Hersh

Los Angeles, California

A Psychological Approach to Rock Art

Everything, including rock art, looks different when experienced from the point of view of the practicing psychologist. The psychologist spends his (or her) working days listening to the dreams and fantasies of patients (and examining their spontaneous artistic productions), and so it is almost inevitable that he would tend to view all products of the human psyche (including rock art) as if they came from patients.

Given this orientation, it may seem that he would tend to see all manifestations of the psyche as symptoms of mental illness, but this is an over-simplification. The fact is that every patient who enters the doctor's office is problematic from the point of view of diagnosis and prognosis. What appears to the layman as a severe neurosis or even a psychosis, is always enigmatic for the doctor who can only intuit whether the presenting "problem" is a harmless, though painful, phase of psychological growth, or a stage of an illness, with its disintegration of the unity of consciousness into the complex of alternating opposites characteristic of unconsciousness.

As an example from my practice, I once saw a Jewish man who had been a graduate student in an applied science when he developed a psychosis requiring hospitalization. The second time I met with him he confided in me that the previous night he had had a dream in which he was involved in a "cosmic conflict" and that he heard himself calling out, "Jesus, Jesus." My research area is early Jewish mystical thought, and I assured him that his experience was not unique and that many Jews before him had found themselves involved in similar conflicts. He became very agitated and said that he did not want to talk further about any of this, because this subject always made him tense and paranoid and could easily lead to a rehospitalization. I asked if he wanted an explanation of why he called out for Jesus, but he said "No!" quite emphatically and definitively, and I dropped the subject then and there, without even asking for the details of this "cosmic" conflict.

I could not help but be impressed by the intensity of this man's fear, simply of speaking about his archetypal imagery (to use C. G. Jung's term). This can be understood as a terror stemming from the breaking of a psychological taboo: This man stepped over the inner line, from ordinary consciousness into the taboo "cosmic" world and did not have the tools to handle it. If he is a true schizophrenic he will never be able to handle this "otherworldly" material, and the best he can hope for is to repress the "cosmic" conflict back into the unconscious and to be spared any further eruptions.

On the other hand, in this case, I could not avoid the impression that the man was a bit of a psychological coward and that it was this very cowardice that stood in the way of his being healed. If he were willing to face the terrible conflict and the "temptation" of Jesus he might have come up with a solution, not only for his own personal illness, but also, perhaps, for others suffering from like conflicts as well. He was repressing the "cosmic" conflict exactly as the neurotics, discussed by Freud, repressed their personal (that is, sexual-aggressive) conflicts.

This case reminded me of the really quite terrifying journey that the novice shaman in primitive cultures must undertake in order to become a professional. It is abundantly clear from the literature (e.g.s, Buhrmann 1984, Takiguchi 1984; or Grim 1983:chap. 2) that the candidate for shamanism rarely chose his profession but was "chosen" for it. Often the person was of an unstable or sickly nature to begin with, or else some tragic life event precipitated a despair that led to an alienation from the ordinary people of his (or her) society. If the person was lucky, he met a teacher who liked him and adopted him as a student and helped him to understand and accept the experiences he was suffering and to navigate through them. Even then, however, the outcome was far from assured. Courage, intelligence, persistence, and a great deal of common sense and good luck were required for the student to pass through the horns of the "cosmic" dilemma and return to his society as a useful member. Even then there was always a danger of relapse. Also, apparently, there were many aborted shamanic apprenticeships, and these could result in sickness or death for the apprentice. It seems that he who did not go through to the end found himself worse off than he who never started out.

Far from being an idyllic profession, shamanism must have been, from the psychological point of view, one of the most difficult. Even the awe in which the shaman was apparently held would not have been a blessing for the shaman, since the other side of the coin was the reserve with which he was treated, a reserve that, at times, degenerated into suspicion and even into open, and sometimes lethal, hostility.

A Kiliwa man gave Mixco (1983:67) a description of a shaman gone bad that explains this reserve: "The Taraiso-Clan shaman was metamorphosed into a [fearsome monster]!" Perhaps this metamorphosis would now be referred to as a paranoid psychosis (I recently heard loving parents describe their psychotic child as "wonderful, but every once in a while she becomes a monster").

Returning to my patient, the problems for the doctor in evaluating my patient's situation may now be restated; in a primitive society he would certainly have been a candidate for treatment by a shaman: Would he have also been a candidate for becoming a shaman, and, if so, would becoming a shaman have been his prescribed cure? In short, does my patient have problems because he is a born shaman (or its modern equivalent) who refuses to follow his calling?

His dream was not an ordinary dream about the conflicts of waking life but an archetypal revelation, typical of a shaman or a prophet (cf. the images of heavenly wars in Revelation 12:7 and in the American Indian myth quoted in Smith 1985:44-5). His terror, which is characteristic of, and even definitive for schizophrenia, is equally typical of any person's confrontation with the collective unconscious (the "other" world), especially in the modern age where any excursion into the archetypal world is considered madness and where health is measured by possessions, personal popularity, rationality, and power.

The shaman, who must always have been an enigmatic figure with alternating evaluations applied to him, if he existed in modern culture, would hardly even be able to find a purely descriptive label by which to call himself (perhaps genius is the closest contemporary equivalent).1

The fact that the archetypal world has been repressed, first in the name of Christian dogma, and later in the name of science and rationality, means that the work of recognizing and describing the shaman, as well as evaluating his profession, has fallen under the auspices of the unconscious whose judgments are characterized by subjectivity and a sense of drama. For example, Spanish missionaries are known to have referred to Indian shamans as "witches."

My patient, even in days when shamanism was a recognized profession, would have had a difficult time in front of him; but in today's world, even if he were cured, he would face the prospects of being viewed with pure contempt if he ever talked about his inner experiences. From the point of view of dogmatic Christianity, the work of becoming a shaman is the work of the Devil; from the point of view of science, it is an act of irrational superstition.

In short, if my patient were to face the "cosmic" conflict and go through with the cure (and perhaps become a modern equivalent of a shaman), he would risk being labeled a "witch" or a "devil worshipper" by fundamentalist Christians or an "odd-ball" or a "kook" by scientists and scientifically oriented lay-people, and this prospect offers no comfort and certainly does not make an already "impossible" process any easier for him to contemplate.

What's more, from the point of view of the doctor, in the modern world, simply to investigate or treat these phenomena scientifically, is to open oneself also to the twin charges of heresy and irrationality.

It seems, however, that the situation is changing. The archetypal world is being rediscovered and reevaluated by researchers in all fields, perhaps in response to the collective, global problems that can no longer be denied. Jung, who was a pioneer in this rediscovery, came to believe that, coming into proper relation with archetypal images, with their accompanying numinosity, was the only lasting cure for a person suffering from neurosis. For example, he wrote to a colleague,

The primary interest of my work is not treating neuroses but approaching the numinous. It is nevertheless the case that access to the numinous is the true therapy, and to the extent that one attains experience of the numinous, one is freed of the curse of illness. The illness itself takes on a numinous quality. (in Wehr 1989:100)

As I said above, schizophrenia — the falling into the numinous — presents an exception to this rule, and the possibility of an underlying psychosis in his patients is an ever present worry for the psychologist.

Jung studied the works and ideas of "primitive" peoples, and found them to parallel his own. He met and remained friends with Ochwiay Biano, a Hopi medicine man; he discussed his views on dreams with an African medicine man who he met on a pioneering safari to the Mount Elgon region of Kenya; and, in his old age, he described himself as an old African medicine man with his dreams.

On the other hand, he warned over and over again about the dangers of trying to give up the western attitude and adopt, in whole cloth, the views of another people who we can never fully understand. We have to look back to our own roots in our not so distant primitive past and understand our own development. No matter how much Jung might have envied the "wholeness" of the Hopi belief that they were responsible for the rising of the sun, Jung felt that the "split" or conflict in the psyche of western man is the data with which we must begin our investigation. Any cure must come from understanding and healing our own inner split and not in running from it. The modern "shaman" has a new and different and perhaps more difficult task than his ancient colleagues. Regarding the European craze for Eastern religion, Jung wrote,

Spiritual Europe will not be helped by a mere sensation, a new thrill. Rather we have to learn to earn in order to possess. What the East has to give us can only be of help in a labor that is still before us. What good is the wisdom of the Upanishads, what good are the insights of Chinese yoga, if we forsake our own foundations as though they were mistakes we had outlived and rapaciously settle on a foreign coast like homeless pirates?....What we need at present is European wisdom concerning ourselves. Our way begins with the European reality and not with yoga exercises intended to blind us to our own reality. (quoted by Wehr, 1989:84)

The Americans may be a slightly different breed, however. In an argument with Freud during their trip to the U.S., Jung took the position that what was wrong with America stemmed from the way the Indians had been mistreated. He also expressed the idea that the collective unconscious of European Americans is Indian (and Black). I quote this interesting passage in full.

Thus the Americans present us with a strange picture: a European with the style of a black and the soul of an Indian. He shares the destiny of all usurpers of foreign soil. Certain Australian aborigines claim that it is impossible to take possession of foreign territory, because in the foreign territory live foreign ancestral spirits, and these ancestral spirits will incarnate in new-born children. There is a great psychological truth in this. The foreign country assimilates the conqueror....It is the nature of virgin soil everywhere that, if nothing more, the unconscious of the conquerors sinks to the level of the autochthonous inhabitants. Thus in Americans there is a gap between conscious and unconscious that is not to be met with in Europeans, a tension between conscious advanced culture and an unconscious primitivity. (quoted by Wehr 1989:64)

If this is true, the reason would seem to me to be that European Americans must function in the same physical environment that confronted the Indians and that we must develop our own "mythology" in relation to it.

It is very hard for an American psychologist of European heritage, whose main contacts with Indian religion (including the rock art) has been through books, to speculate on the meaning of the images found in rock art. It is hard, not only because of the separation in time (if not place) from the artists, but also because of the tendency to see all products of the unconscious from the point of view of his private practice where the emphasis is on the individual and his or her personal development.

There is, in short, a tendency to wonder about the personalities of those who made the art and the individual circumstances that led to each image. If rock art was shamanic, was it produced by experienced shamans or by novices or, at times, by charlatans? Was it ever part of a treatment of a patient, and, if so, was it drawn by the patient or the doctor, and for what exact reasons?

Generally, were the images ritually prescribed; or were they pictorial representations or notations of natural events; or were they used theurgically; or were they pictures of collective mythic motifs; or were they portrayals of spontaneous events in the unconscious of an individual — like dreams or visions? Were they none of these, some of these, or all of these at different times and at different places?

Did the artists conceptualize what they were doing or did their activities remain unconscious and on an instinctual level? A modern example of the latter is a patient who had a mystical experience on a mountain and who absentmindedly (instinctually) brought back with him to L.A. a pine cone and a stone from that mountain. In a corner of his living room he made a circle and placed the pine cone and the stone in the middle. He would sit in the circle and meditate on these two "fetishes" and try to "get back into" his mountain experience.

Were the designs created and used alone or with others? Were they used to remember ones own experiences or to stimulate experiences in others? Did the artists feel that they were expressing "messages" from the other world? Do some of the unfinished designs represent unfinished shamanic apprenticeships? Did the apparently disrespectful overlay of one style on another represent a new religious orientation purposefully erasing the credo of a previous one (as early Christians built churches on pagan temples)? Are any of the designs signals or maps or markers or even words?

The answers to these and other questions may never be known for sure (or the answers may already exist without my knowledge), and we are left with our own personal reactions. The feeling is much like looking at a Rorschach card.

As a psychologist, however, I cannot help but make the following, temporary, assumption, purely for heuristic purposes. For a moment please allow me to suppose the impossible, that all the rock art all over the West coast was all created by one single man. Let us assume that he was an experienced shaman though not necessarily a major innovator or a religious "legend." Let us say that he was good in his profession and committed to the exploration of the "other" world, but, as a man, he also had a personal life in this world with all its problems and worries and joys. Let us say further that he worried, not only about himself and his family, but also about the fate of his people and their land. We may assume that others thought that he was overly sensitive and that he worried too much. He had had many "strange" experiences that others respected and feared but most did not understand.

Let us say further that this man decided to express the images and insights from his dreams and numinous experiences on rock and that the rock art we see is this expression. These images do not represent stories that he heard, but things he actually experienced, and not in "dead" ordinary consciousness, but in "living" visionary consciousness. These images (as with images from contemporary dreams and visions) expressed all levels of his concern, from the most personal and material (like the needs for food and sex) to the highest and most spiritual. Some represented attempts to influence the "other" world for the material benefit of his society. Some were fantastically elaborated markers for numinous astronomical events ("fantastic" in the positive sense of the word) (e.g.s, Hedges 1986, Ewing and Robin 1989). Some, perhaps, were examples of pure artistic delight. Others were portraits of ghosts or spirits from the "other" world. Like the dream world itself, new images were drawn over older ones, dreams overlapping dreams, over time.

Not all the images of our shaman would have been of equal importance, and not all would have been momentous. Some, we may assume, were fragmented and unfinished. Some were personal and idiosyncratic. Others were clearly recognizable to any of his contemporaries. Some, perhaps, expressed personal anguish and confusion and conflict, but some marked rare, beatific moments in his inner journey.

1Figure 1. Grant's sketch of figures from Painted Cave (Grant 1965), modified to show only the mandalas.

Perhaps one such unifying moment is represented at Painted Cave, the Chumash site near Santa Barbara, by the sun-circles (see Figure 1 in which, for emphasis, I have whited out all but the circles). Even if our artist meant these to be the sun (Hudson and Underhay 1978:chap. 5), their elaboration seems to be something internal and archetypal. These figures "emerged" on the cave wall as mandalas, like the ones that can be found in the dreams and art of every people on earth, from all times and all places, including our own (e.g.s, Figures 2-8).

2Figure 2. "The King, attended, sacrifices to the sun-god." Stele of King Nabupaliddina, Babylon, 870 B.C. (Jung 1956).

3Figure 3. Plan of Phrygian tomb, 8th (?) Century B.C.E. (Perrot 1892).

4Figure 4. "Mercurius turning the eight-spoked wheel which symbolizes the [alchemic] process...." Speculum veritatis (ms., 17th century) (Jung 1953)

5Figure 5. "The New Jerusalem (Revelation, Ch. 21)." Engraving from the Merian Bible, 1650 (Jung 1956).

6Figure 6. "Tibetan World Wheel (sidpe-korlo)" (Jung 1953)

7Figure 7. "Circle of gods, Bali" (Jung 1956).

8aFigure 8a. Peyote (Bauml 1989).

8bFigure 8b. Huichol yarn painting of peyote (Bernstein 1989:front cover).

Typical of mandalas, most of the circles from Painted Cave are divided into 4 parts (one is divided into 8 = 4 + 4), the number 4 being, according to Jung's research, an archetypal number symbolizing totality and wholeness. Jung wrote a lot about the mandala (most particularly, see Jung 1953) as a symbol of the whole self (a word borrowed from Buddhism and meant to include the collective unconscious as well as the ordinary self).2 He found, with respect to his patients, that mandalas were spontaneously produced at critical points in their analyses, when some major event occurred that made the person confront more of the self (including its numinous aspects) and integrate this alien material into consciousness.

9Figure 9. Design for a flying saucer. The outer circles are yellow inside and green outside except for the extruding one, which is red inside, yellow outside, and green in the middle. The inner tripartite circle is yellow. The 12 half-circles are purple, and the circle surrounding the central contents seems to be a mixture of read and purple (original 9.5" x 11").

Figure 9 shows a lopsided mandala of a schizophrenic man I once saw that indicates an attempt to integrate some psychic content; there is a psychic imbalance, perhaps stemming from a brain dysfunction.

Figure 10. Paintings by a patient (originals 12" x 18"). 

10aFigure 10a: Predominantly brown, with blue, yellow, red, and black.

10bFigure 10b. Mostly pink, light blue, and yellow, with some light brown and light gray.

10cFigure 10c. Red with some yellow.

10dFigure 10d. mostly red, with some brown, gray, blue, and a touch of yellow.

10eFigure 10e. The central mandala is red, the mandalas at 4, 7, 10, and 12 o'clock are brown over yellow, those at 2, 5, 8, and 11 o'clock are blue, and the long lines are yellow over blue.

10fFigure 10f. The circle and lines of the mandala and the outer rectangle are orange over blue, the two lines on the left and right are predominantly yellow.

And Figure 10 shows a series of paintings, culminating in a mandala, painted by a schizophrenic man (not an artist), one week before he was diagnosed as having terminal lung cancer. He indicated to me that he was gripped by the paintings and that he only felt satisfied when he had completed the last one (the correct order of Figures 10b and 10c is problematic).

It is pure speculation, but I guess that some of the beautiful mandalas near Santa Barbara may represent the moment that an Indian shaman became able to handle a fuller awareness of the whole self: When the dizzying, meaningless chaos of conscious and unconscious (the result of the breakdown of the old self-structure) spontaneously reorganized itself — everything reintegrated, ordered, and oriented around a new center. Later, perhaps, for others, these mandalas became formal symbols within the religion.

I also allow myself the hope that one day my patient will experience a mandala that will unify the two halves of the "cosmic" conflict dividing him. (It is likely that this conflict represents more than his own personal problem and that it is something in the contemporary collective experience — e.g., a woman I treat dreamed of a war in the sky between light and dark forces).

It also will be remembered that, as a practicing Jew, my patient had no conscious inclination towards Christianity, the dominant and, for him, an oppressive religion. The calling out the name of an alien god (Jesus), even in a dream, would have been quite shocking and blasphemous to him. Our imaginary Indian shaman may have suffered a similar shock when he too was confronted with (or intuited a future confrontation with) the same force, Christianity.

The lack of effectiveness of both the old and the new religions in handling the "cosmic" conflicts of today's world (e.g., our twin impulses towards civilization and nature), is, I believe, one of the fundamental problems with which all sensitive and sensible people are being forced to grapple. It seems that, at the present moment, these conflicts are ripping my patient apart, but, perhaps, one day he will begin conscious work on them. If he does, his work may not only lead to a personal cure, but also, by helping himself, it may actually have a healing effect on the "cosmic" conflict itself.

This is not a metaphysical suggestion, because psychologists routinely observe that unconscious conflicts within the self are projected out and experienced as numinous battles in the outer world. Therefore, at least in one sense, healing oneself can bring peace to the world, and even to the "cosmic" world.


Acknowledgements. Figure 1 is reprinted by permission of Campbell Grant, Figures 2 and 4-7 by permission of Princeton University Press, Figure 8a by permission of James A. Bauml, Figure 8b by permission of the San Diego Museum of Man, and Figures 9 and 10 by permission of two patients.

End Notes

End Notes

1. The Oxford English Dictionary, in its first and second definitions of genius, connects its meaning with the tutelary gods or genii who rule both people and places. This suggests that genii are in the same category as the familiars of Indian shamans.

2. Jung found the cross, also a mandala, to represent the union of opposites or, in alchemical terms, the mysterium coniunctionis, the mystical union. On the other hand, the Christian priests who found the cross in Indian art (such as the mandalas we are discussing) apparently saw this as the Devil's work. The history of the image of the Devil in Judaism and Christianity is both intricate and fascinating, but the discussion of this relevant topic is beyond the scope of this paper.

References Cited


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