It started with a cave and the stars. I’ve always been fascinated by prehistoric art and astronomy, and how the two mingle through myth and cultural meaning (studied often through archeoastronomy). It’s a large part of what “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space” painting is about. This painting, “Nourishing the Ancient Tree” focuses more on the mythology aspect of that same idea.
But neither the cave nor the stars are going to jump out at any viewer first. The super obvious, central tree is. Our myths, our stories, religions, philosophies, unite us as human beings even as they often divide us. We shape our memories through the story of ourselves, not just as rote facts. I believe that we also shape ourselves as a human race through this incredibly rich history of story.
That said, the progression of mythology through history is the same as that of world cultures: it’s wildly varied and rarely the same. Even when there are some similar characteristics, everything about the story is influenced by the culture who created it. Still, the deeper we reach backwards, the more common the ancestor, right?
This brings us back to the cave and the stars. The most ancient examples of art we have are splashed across the walls of caves and etched into rock faces. Are these paintings the mere depiction of animals observed, or is there (as much of the evidence would suggest) much more to it then that. What mythologies, religions, rituals surrounded these paintings and were any of the elements of them carried down through the ages to our stories now like strands of ancient DNA in our bones? Early cultures looked up at the stars with wonder and saw before them the wisdom of the ages written in the sky. To me, the wonder of laying in the grass as a kid and looking up at the stars feels like it must be similar to crawling by flickering candlelight into a cave and lying back to observe man-made heavens spread in red ochre and charcoal on the ceiling above.
Whenever we read the stories of others whether that’s the mythology of ancient peoples, the legends of those hundreds of years ago, or novels of today, we are connected into this ancient tapestry of story. To me, it is the richest heritage we have been offered by the generations before us. And it is global!
The books and myths I chose to use are representative of that. I wanted to reach back as far as I could and pluck out the oldest version of the oldest stories. For some places (North America, part of Africa) the oldest written version of a story isn’t very old even if the tale itself is an ancient one. For that, I added amongst the books some collected works of various people’s whose traditions remained oral much longer than others.
What’s on the tree are the oldest versions of those ancient stories that I could find. Really, the research for this piece took a lot longer than actually painting it, ha! For those of you who are curious about which myths they are, I’ve made a key found below including links with more information about each.
Myths of the Tree
- Venetus A Folio – Iliad
- Persius myth – medieval text
- Rhydderch Mabinogion
- Poetic Edda
- Irk Bitig
- Persian illustrated version of the Panchatantra
- Codex Regius – Prose Edda
- Codex Wormianus – Prose Edda
- Papyri with Homer’s Odyssey
- Epic of Gilgamesh “Flood Tablet”
- La Venta Stela 19, Quetzcoatl
- Heracles Papyrus
- Debate between a Bird and a Fish tablet
- Earliest fragment of Zoroastrian text
- Homer’s Iliad papyrus (Chicago II)
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Oracle Bone Tablet
- Book of the Dead – Osiris Myth
- Merseburg Incantations
- Fragment of Incan myth in Quechua in Spanish priest’s letter
- Madrid Codex – Mayan book
- Samguk Yusa – Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms
The animals shown have significance as well. Ravens feature in many legends and myths. I was specifically thinking of Odin’s two, Huginn and Muninn (thought and memory). The red squirrel is Ratatosk who runs up and down Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in Norse mythology. An eagle with a serpent in its talons feature in myths and legends the world over as good and bad omens. One of the most prominent being the mythology surrounding the Aztec’s founding of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City) where an eagle with a snake in its clutches was perched on a cactus signifying that this place was destined to be the great city. The spider in the center is Anansi. Known by many names and important throughout much of African and Carribean culture, Anansi (who is considered to be a spirit of knowledge of all stories) belongs amongst the scrolls and books in the heart of the tree. Finally, bees are everywhere. They are in nearly every culture’s mythology and folklore at some point. Their importance is nearly universal. I’ll have to focus in a little more on bees sometime. There’s too much here already to want to overload with those details.
Finally, looking once again on the stars and the cave. The artwork in the cave where the roots of the ancient tree reach down to is all from Lascaux painted around 20,000 years ago. Although it isn’t the oldest, I chose this particular cave because of a shaft deep within it where a depiction of a possibly slain man with the face of a bird lying next to a bison and rhino can be found. To me, this is not simply the literal story of a shaman who was killed, but must have some symbolic significance, so it makes sense to have it beneath a tree rich with symbolism.
In the sky are the constellations Orion and Gemini. The moon is tinted ever so barely green with the shadows slightly darkened to enhance the sense of a rabbit with a mortar and pestle as in the tales of the moon rabbit which exists in many places, I was surprised to find!
“Nourishing the Ancient Tree” is not the end of this series. I’m not really sure what will be. There’s much more to explore in this line of thinking. It’s like crawling through a cave and suddenly discovering it continues on and on down meandering shafts and into grand chambers. For now, I know this much: it’s exciting work to be focusing on. And that’s enough.