Signs of the Times: Towards the Question of Prehistory


Signs of the Times:

Towards the Question of Prehistory

By Jafe Arnold


[Статья доступна на русском языке в 7-ом выпуске альманаха WARHA]

[en español]


Prehistorical research, carried from a plane of disanimate scientistic-archaeological or anthropological positivism to a plane of spiritual synthesis, promises to open new horizons for the true story of civilization…”  – Julius Evola


Even to those who have overcome the hollow dogma of “progress” and the narrow positivist-materialist criteria which have reigned for the past two to three centuries, the tens of thousands of years of so-called “prehistory” still often appear to be a seemingly fathomless, overwhelmingly immense chasm, one before which even the most rigorous scholarship or convincing intuitions fall to their knees in the face of lack of intelligible “documentation” or “evidence” upon which any orientations can be staked without lapsing into fantastical projections or crude reductions. The Paleolithic and Neolithic epochs – the Stone Age – are enveloped in such an entangled veil of scattered, broken artifacts and daunting questions to the point of representing the Gordian knot or, perhaps more subjectively, the “impossible dream” which confronts all contending schools of thought and worldviews on the trajectory of the present cycle of human history – one whose origins have yet to be traced any further back than the Paleolithic. In the sobering words of Richard Rudgley,

The way in which the human story has been written to date is so abridged and poorly edited that it has provided us with an account of ourselves which leaves out most of the contents of the early chapters. Despite the fact that prehistory makes up more than 95 percent of our time on this planet, history, the remaining 5 percent, makes up at least 95 percent of most accounts of the human story. The prehistory of humankind is no mere prelude to history; history is rather a colorful and eventful afterword to the Stone Age.[1]

Indeed, compared to the expanses of the many millennia of prehistory, the past four to five thousand years of “history” could be said to provoke the impression of being so rapid, so compressed, so ambitious, and so overly emphasized so as to be, in the final analysis, misrepresentative, and, perhaps, misleading. Moreover, the fact that there are still to be found across multiple continents numerous so-called “archaic” and “primitive” ethnoi which continue to dwell in the conditions of “prehistory” today (as did many more until altogether recent years) confronts us with the realization that the departure from “prehistory” has by no means been obligatory, uniform, or “complete.”

The most fundamental questions of human Being are at stake in the recognition and deciphering of the ideas, events, beings, and processes which unfolded in none other than this incomparably longer “prelude.” In most generalized and generic terms, whether we have progressed from feces-slinging, club-thumping, hardly-consonant-uttering apelike “savages” deluded by the “enchantment” of natural phenomena and superstitions to become the refined bearers of the Science, Liberalism, and “Human Rights” of the Modern West; whether we have declined from beings with superior consciousness of the rhythms and significations of the cosmos to hardened, tunnel-visioned idiots (in the Ancient Greek sense of the word) oblivious to, or even worse, arrogant towards anything and any-being beyond material shells and the lowest possible denominators of social relations and technological criteria; or, still yet, whether no such singular generalizations can be advanced to encompass the trajectories of human ideas, events, beings, and processes in and since prehistory – these profound questions, or rather narratives of destiny are all dependent upon the constitution of a picture of prehistory. In his The Origin and Goal of History, the German philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) formulated this impression thusly:

If we could know prehistory we should gain an insight into one of the fundamental substances of humanity…What little we know of prehistory, together with the picture that we are able to form with the aid of ethnography, ethnology and history, and of which we make use in visualizing psychologically the primal human impulses, combine to give us a mirror of our inner being…The demand made on our cognition by prehistory is contained in the almost unanswerable questions: Where do we come from? What were we when we started history? What can possibly have gone before history? Through what incisive processes that took place in those times did man become man and capable of having a history? What forgotten depths were there, what ‘primal revelation’, what lucidity that is concealed from us? How did languages arise and myths, that exist complete at the very dawn of history?…Prehistory, sinking into the unfathomable depths of time…exerts over us a power of attraction that seems to give promise of something extraordinary. Prehistory casts a spell from which we can never escape…To try out all these different attitudes to prehistory increases awareness of the immense potentialities that prehistory contains: here something happened which, by giving humanity its characteristic stamp, has, so to speak, decided the whole ensuing course of history in advance…Prehistory is a gigantic reality – for in it man made his appearance – yet it is a reality of which we are fundamentally ignorant. [2]

Or in the more colorful words of one of the preeminent 20th century mythologists, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987):

Fathoming the grottoes of the Cro-Magnon artist-wizards of the Great Hunt; deeper still, the dens of the crouching cannibals of the glacial ages, lapping the brains of their neighbors, raw, from cracked skulls; and still beyond, examining the enigmatic chalky, skeletal remains of what now would seem to have been the chimpanzee-like hunter-pygmies on the open plains of the early Transvaal, we shall be finding clues to the deepest secrets not only of the high cultures of both the Orient and the Occident, but also of our own most inward expectations, spontaneous responses, and obsessive fears. [3]

The question of prehistory, as appreciated by Jaspers, is thus not only the prime question of origins and the “fundamental substances of humanity”, but is equally, or perhaps of even greater significance, the prime question of the patterns and possibilities of the present as well as the future – a point which Jaspers beheld in rather boding terms: “We may feel the threat of becoming Stone Age men once more, because beneath the surface we are so all the time…This mirror shows us what we often prefer to conceal, under certain circumstances forget, and what may then take us by surprise as a reality signifying disaster.”[4] We cannot help but recall on this note the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin’s (1962-) remark in his Mysteries of Eurasia: “Perhaps it was one such mere theoretical subtlety that predetermined the arrangement of forces in the Second World War – a subtlety pertaining to the analysis of Neolithic, prehistoric events of which nothing remains besides two or three fantastic legends, a few dozen bones, shards, and stone axes with swastikas or the solar wheel of Odin.”[5] Such immensely impactful “subtlety” can be iconically seen in the case of the controversy between scholars over whether the Neanderthal skull discovered in the Italian cave of Grotta Guattari at Monte Circeo, surrounded by a circle of stones, boar, aurochs, and deer bones, and exhibiting damage suggesting decapitation and removal of the brain, is to be seen as evidence of a Neanderthal cult ritual, or merely the work of hungry hyenas.[6] Here could be added the numerous interpretations of various megalithic monuments and structures which, for some, are evidence of superior technology, knowledge, and logistics possible only within the scope of highly materially-developed civilizations, for others are testimonies to the spiritual and religious heights of prehistoric cultures and their knowledge of the correspondences of cosmic phenomena which has been lost to us, while for others many of such remain merely the results of geological processes which the people of prehistory could hardly have been intelligent or skilled enough to construct, much less have had any meaningful, complex interactions with at all. Such impressions, questions, and dilemmas charge prehistory with a significance of such gravity that the “question of prehistory” becomes the final step on the precipice of the “question of all”, the leap from which is irrevocable and can entail both the highest view over its expanse and the deepest plunge into one of its dark chasms.

What is this “question of prehistory”, so enchanting, so primordial, so foreboding, at once of the remote past and eternally present, and ever so intuitively detected in flashes of immense historic intensity and in the depths of human consciousness? If prehistory is conceived, initially in the broadest and lowest possible terms, as a “field of research” or “area of knowledge” to be discerned, then we ought to heed what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who sought to formulate and address no less than the question of Being on the most fundamental ontological level, deliberated in the opening considerations of his Being and Time:

Every questioning is a seeking. Every seeking takes its direction beforehand from what is sought. Questioning is a knowing search for beings in their thatness and whatness…As a seeking, questioning needs previous guidance from what it seeks…Fundamental concepts are determinations in which the area of knowledge underlying all the thematic objects of a science attain an understanding that precedes and guides all positive investigation…But since each of these areas arises from the domain of beings themselves, this preliminary research that creates the fundamental concepts amounts to nothing else than interpreting these beings in terms of the basic constitution of their Being…Such laying of foundations is productive logic in the sense that it leaps ahead, so to speak, into a definite realm of Being, discloses it for the first time in its constitutive Being…[7]

From this logic it does not follow, as in the hypothetical and “scientific” claims to reasoning, that the answer to a question is to be sought in the proving or disproving of an initial claim, merely to be revised, refined, and re-buttressed with endless exercises of empirical accumulations and sheddings judged by varying individual pretensions to “objectivity.” Rather, from this pondering on questioning arises the realization that both a question and answer can only be derived upon the “fundamental conceptualization” of the “thatness” and “whatness” of the matrix whose constitution such seeks to penetrate or from which, as Heidegger frequently put it, to “win” an intimation that discloses the domain itself and its possible determinations. The question of prehistory must therefore be formulated in terms of the “thatness” and “whatness” of prehistory, the “constitutive structure” and “fundamental concept” within which Being-in-prehistory and the Being and beings of prehistory can be disclosed. This is not only a matter of hermeneutically or phenomenologically realizing the “worldview of prehistory” in order to explicate and understand such on its own terms, but of grasping the key parameters by which the question of prehistory can be posed in a manner which discloses its very structure for questioning, for seeking. Needless to say, what may appear to be many obstacles stand in the way of this disclosure, but their correct integration into the constitutive structure of the prehistoric world may reveal them to be not obstacles, but the most important signs and landscapes constituting, upon recognition and exploration, a map – that which is sought, and one on which seeking can take place.

If it is to really be of, by, for, and about prehistory, then the formulation of the question of prehistory, the discernment of its “fundamental concept” and “constitutive structure” can only be founded on inquiry into the worldview, framework, language, and map of the Sacred. Prehistory knew no other such structuring axis – nor, for that matter, has most of the “epilogue” of history, until the unreflective doubt, “epistemological racism”, and rejection of such arose several centuries ago in a few provinces of Western Eurasia, with all the castrating implications for the “study of prehistory” whose consequences can still be felt today and which there is no need to perpetuate by belaboring here. Most importantly, the very accounts which emerged out of and reflected upon prehistory, namely, those of a mythical character, nearly unanimously speak of this range as none other than the primordial space and time of the Golden Age of the Sacred.

The Hindu tradition’s ancient Mahabharata and Puranic texts hold the beginning of the present cycle of man, or Manvantara, to have been the Krita-Yuga, i.e., the “Accomplished”, “Created/-ive”, “Good” or “Perfect Age”, also called the Satya-Yuga, or the “True Age.” The latter is described as the epoch of the “eternal sacred order” (Sanātana dharma), of “perfection”, when “virtue knew no deterioration”, “there was neither disease, nor decay of the senses”, “the prime refuge of Yogis, even the Supreme Brahma, was attainable to all”, and “all humans’ acts had reference to Brahma.”[8 ] The men born in the Krita-Yuga are described as of “great wisdom” and “high souls.”[9 ] The Krita or Satya-Yuga is further characterized in the Mahabharata as the age of all “four quarters of righteousness”, and in the Bhagavata Purana is correspondingly symbolized by the white bull of dharma, or cosmic order, standing on all four legs.[10] The French metaphysician René Guénon (1886-1951), who believed the Hindu tradition to be especially close in terms of form and antiquity to what he called the “Primordial Tradition” of distant prehistory, calculated that Hindu chronologies of the Krita or Satya-Yuga take us back approximately 64,800 years, to the Middle Paleolithic, on which Guénon remarked: “and it will be recognized that these numbers are at least within perfectly plausible limits and may very well correspond to the true chronology of present terrestrial humanity.”[11]

The sacred texts of Iran also speak of a superior primordial age: in the Yasna and Vendidad of the Zoroastrian Avesta, we read of the first age of mortals under the reign of Yima, who enjoyed direct revelation from, communication with, and creative powers guided by Ahura Mazda, paradisal conditions of prosperity, and in whose Vara animals and men “lived the happiest life.”[12] The Denkard also tells of a first being, Gayomard, who “attained to the good spiritual lordship of the archangels”, “was fit for the supreme heaven”, and whose offspring wielded “complete mindfulness” from Ahura Mazda and possessed “memory of their original state.”[13]

Well known on the other side of the Indo-European range is the ancient Greek vision of the Golden Age, such as described by Hesiod in his Works and Days, where it is said that the first “golden race of mortals” lived “like gods” under Kronos, in abundance, peace, and “endowed with all things good.”[14] In his Cratylus dialogue Plato had Socrates explain that the men of Hesiod’s Golden Age were “golden” in the sense of “good” and “noble”, but were also “sacred daemons”, “wise and knowing”, representing the prototype of the good man “of great destiny and great honor” whose remembrance as a “daemon” is “a name given to him because it accords with wisdom.” [15] In Plato’s Statesman, the Golden Age of the “earth-born race” is described to the young Socrates as under the “herding” of “divine spirits”, “under the power of Cronus” and enjoying such a qualitative state of peace and abundance that “if the nurslings of Cronus used all these advantages to do philosophy, talking both with animals and with each other, and inquiring from all sorts of creatures whether any one of them had some capacity of its own that enabled it to see better in some way than the rest with respect to the gathering of wisdom, the judgement is easy, that those who lived then were far, far more fortunate than those who live now.”[16] Ancient Hellenic conceptions of the Golden Age and golden men of yore were also closely intertwined with descriptions of Hyperborea, the sacred land in the North associated with gold, Apollo, and the presence of Kronos. The Hyperboreans were said to be peaceful, immortal or of long lifespans, immune to diseases, and in such intimate contact with the Gods that objects from their land were treated as sacred offerings in the most important Mediterranean cults, such as at Delphi and Delos. Emphasizing the sacred quality of Hyperborea and its relation to the Golden Age, Pindar wrote: “Neither on foot nor by sea could you discover the fabulous way to the gathering of the Hyperboreans.”[17]

The ancient Egyptians, for whom Greek authors held so much reverence for their “greater antiquity”, recalled their own Zep Tepi, or “First Time”, under the rule of Ra, when men and the gods, earth and heaven all dwelled together in peace and prosperity as one. Such was described as the age when Truth, Justice and Order (Maat) “came on the shores” and immortal beings enjoyed in their “lives” the prosperity and divine participation which could now be attained by mortal humans only in the netherworld of the afterlife.[18]

In the neighboring Ancient Near East, after the Sumerians with their primordial garden of Dilmun administered by Enki, the Hebrew Bible also placed the original state of man in Paradise, in the Garden of Eden, where the first man and woman enjoyed purity, immortality and abundance in direct contact with God. [19]

In ancient China, the warring states and philosophers were reminded in the Taoist Zhuangzi of the “Age of Perfect Virtue” when “the ancients clearly understood the great Tao” and lived in the harmony of Heaven and Earth:

[I]n the age of perfect virtue men walked along with slow and grave step, and with their looks steadily directed forwards…Yes, in the age of perfect virtue, men lived in common with birds and beasts, and were on terms of equality with all creatures, as forming one family…they did not leave (the path of) their natural virtue; equally free from desires, they were in the state of pure simplicity. In that state of pure simplicity, the nature of the people was what it ought to be… The ancients ruled the world by doing nothing; – simply by this attribute of Heaven….The ancients who had the nourishment of the world wished for nothing and the world had enough; they did nothing and all things were transformed; their stillness was abysmal, and the people were all composed… [20]

In Mesoamerica, the Popol Vuh of the Kʼiche Mayans recounts the supreme consciousness of the first men in direct contact with the divine:

[T]hey were filled with joy, because they had found a beautiful land, full of pleasures, abundant…They talked, conversed, saw and heard, walked, grasped things; they were good and handsome men, and their figure was the figure of a man. They were endowed with intelligence; they saw and instantly they could see far, they succeeded in seeing, they succeeded in knowing all that there is in the world. When they looked, instantly they saw all around them, and they contemplated in turn the arch of heaven and the round face of the earth…Great was their wisdom…They were able to know all.”[21]

Among the many shamanistic peoples of Siberia as well, this “paradisal” view of the distant past as the ubiquity of shamanic ability and the pervasive interconnection of the spiritual worlds is not only widespread but is, as Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) illustrated in his seminal study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, a decisive, implicit dimension of the shamanic experience itself. Eliade explains:

Both metamorphosis into the animal ancestor and the shaman’s ascensional ecstasy represent different but homologizable expressions of one and the same experience – transcendence of the profane condition, re-establishment of a ‘paradisal’ existence lost in the depths of mythical time…By crossing, in ecstasy, the ‘dangerous’ bridge that connects the two worlds and that only the dead can attempt, the shaman…attempts to restore the ‘communicability’ that existed in illo tempore between this world and heaven. For what the shaman can do today in ecstasy could, at the dawn of time, be done by all human beings in concreto; they went up to heaven and came down again without recourse to trance…In this respect, the mystical experience of the ‘primitives’ is a return to origins, a reversion to the mystical age of the lost paradise. [22]

The Koryaks of Kamchatka, for example, remember that “in the mythical days of the hero Great Crow, men could easily go up to the sky and no less easily descend to the underworld” and that all which is now “invisible” (except to the entranced shaman) was once “visible” to all. [23]

In the Elder Edda, the Germanic-Scandinavian presentation of the Golden Age is alluded to with regards to its restoration after the apocalypse of Ragnarök:

Now do I see the earth anew

Rise all green from the waves again;…

And the mighty past they call to mind,

And the ancient runes of the Ruler of Gods.

In wondrous beauty once again

Shall the golden tables stand mid the grass,

Which the gods had owned in the days of old,

Then fields unsowed bear ripened fruit,

All ills grow better, and Baldr comes back;… [24]

This survey could easily be extended and deepened, as numerous such testimonies can be found across the most diverse traditions and cultures, in view of which most significant is their fundamental agreement in placing the qualitatively superior reign of the Sacred in all spheres of life, consciousness, and the cosmos in none other than the distant prehistoric stretch from which they had departed and, most indicatively, felt the need to record, to formulate, to mythologize as an orientation which, representing the highest possible reference for the present, was placed in actuality in the prehistoric past. As Eliade remarked in his comparison of shamanistic and Christian “paradisal experiences”: “At the ‘beginning’ as well as at the ‘end’ of the religious history of Man, we find the same ‘yearning for Paradise’…We have the right to assume that the mystical memory of a blessedness without history haunts man from the moment he becomes aware of his situation in the cosmos. Thus there opens a new perspective for the study of archaic anthropology.”[25]

On the one hand, the seeking of prehistory might, as is permitted to certain extents within the modern sciences, be pursued in the form of tracing the origins and morphologies of these accounts themselves. Most recently in this vein, in his The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, E.J. Michael Witzel has suggested on the basis of a most immense integration of data and analytical frameworks a greater “Laurasian” mythological complex developed by approximately 40,000 BC.[26] This might suggest that the “Sacred experience of prehistory” found across such testimonies is not merely an “idealization” or “mythicization” of the past on the part of much later perspectives, but a direct legacy of the bearers of this “mythical time” of prehistory itself. On the other hand, beyond the diachronic questions of culturo-historical origins and reconstructed morphologies which can only extend and project the data and ideologies of “history” as far back as one is allowed by the moods of prevailing positivisms, there is much to be sought and learned from this “mythical time” accorded to prehistory itself.

If we are to genuinely approach the question of prehistory, then we cannot avoid the posing offered by, to temporarily employ a suggestive paradox, the “histories of prehistory” – Myth. Myth appears as that “genre” of narrations and as that range of thinking, language, and being which emerged out of prehistory “already complete”, as one of those “fundamental substances of humanity” which no human culture has ever since lived without in one form or another, and as an expression of a worldview which firstly and independently asserts that everything came before, is manifest during, and will come again after “history.” Indeed, in this sense, the conventional dating of “history” itself to the appearance of written documents in ancient Mesopotamia is misleading, insofar as the most significant of these records were none other than writings of myths concerned, above all, with the sacred, prehistoric origins of their beliefs and institutions. Myth takes us to the very brink of the “thatness” and “whatness” of prehistory as such. In the final analysis, “mythical ‘time” and “prehistory” as concepts become synonymous. Most penetrative in this regard are the works of the above-cited Mircea Eliade, who identified the “paradisal” theme and “primordial sacred time” as a crucial hermeneutic of Myth. [27] In Eliade’s analysis, Myth is fundamentally distinct from all other forms of “telling”, “accounts”, and “histories” in that its narrative, concerned as it is with the Sacred or the “Supernatural”, abolishes time as a series of successions, and instead re-tells of origins, of the archetypal and eternal, which are re-created, recapitulated, repeated, regenerated, and re-revealed, most often with rite, recitation, and performance. In other words, Myth means re-living the Sacred, whether a particular hierophany (“manifestation of the Sacred”) which a myth has “fossilized” as a “living charter”, as a “paradigm”, or through immersion in the very “timelessness” or “supra-temporality” and primordiality of the Sacred itself. Sacred or Mythical Time, after all, is eternal – “before”, “during”, “above”, and “after” time. In his Patterns in Comparative Religion, Eliade articulated:

Every myth, whatever its nature, recounts an event that took place in illo tempore, and constitutes as a result, a precedent and pattern for all the actions and ‘situations’ later to repeat that event. Every ritual, and every meaningful act that man performs, repeats a mythical archetype…this repetition involves the abolition of profane time and placing of man in a magico-religious time which has no connection with succession in the true sense, but forms the ‘eternal now’ of mythical time…myth makes man once more exist in a timeless period, which is in effect an illud tempus, a time of dawn and of ‘paradise’, outside history. Anyone who performs any rite transcends profane time and space; similarly, anyone who ‘imitates’ a mythological model or even ritually assists at the retelling of a myth (taking part in it), is taken out of profane ‘becoming’, and returns to the Great Time.”[28]

In his Myth and Reality, Eliade elaborated:

In general it can be said that myth, as experienced by archaic societies, (1) constitutes the History of the acts of the Supernaturals; (2) that this History is considered to be absolutely true (because it is concerned with realities) and sacred (because it is the work of the Supernaturals); (3) that myth is always related to a ‘creation’, it tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working were established; this is why myths constitute the paradigms for all significant human acts; (4) that by knowing the myth one knows the ‘origin’ of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will; this is not an ‘external,’ ‘abstract’ knowledge but a knowledge that one ‘experiences’ ritually, either by ceremonially recounting the myth or by performing the ritual for which it is the justification; (5) that in one way or another one ‘lives’ the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or re-enacted.” [29]

In Eliade’s understanding, it is none other than this “paradisal”, “mythical Time” and the urge to constantly maintain and regenerate it, to “dwell within the Sacred”, that profoundly characterizes “archaic”, “primitive”, “prehistoric” cultures and their anthropology: that of Homo religiosus. Proceeding from this, it is no mere coincidence that prehistory is referenced across myths as precisely that “mythical” and “Golden” time of the primordial origins of beings and phenomena, when the Sacred predominated and, as follows, superior consciousness and conditions were experienced within the embrace of Sacred Time, to which the later concept of “historical time” is perceived in myths as the bane of the fall, as the antithesis to authentic existence, as the negative force and trajectory of reality in the wake of the fall from the Golden Age.

It is by way of recognizing this experience of Myth, the testimonies of myths as to the Sacred and Mythical Time of distant prehistory (the “Golden Age”), and the corresponding existential underpinning of the “eternal return” that we can draw ever nearer to understanding that which might appear to us to be the overwhelmingly “long duration” of prehistory, that “qualitative time” which to the people of prehistory was the absolute and only axiom of an eternally re-generating existence. At the same time, it is clear that, on the one hand, myths present us with the range of priorities, the possible and the ideal of the structure of prehistory, with the many cosmogonies and cosmologies, theogonies and theologies, archetypes and symbols, ideologies and languages, and hierophanies and kratophanies which had developed within the particular experience of the Sacred of prehistoric times and, to widely varying extents, the ritual and doctrinal forms developed to contain, transmit, ideologize such. On the other hand, beyond the recognition of Myth as such, can we hope to “dig below the geometrically composed floor of the Neolithic walled town and search the mystery of the Paleolithic cave” [30] without reconstructing those primordial hierophanic instances themselves experienced within the Golden Paleolithic itself? One German scholar has expressed the sense of futility of pursuing this line: “The investigation of the art of the Stone Age hunters cannot deliver the answer sought for. These works carry symbolic, encoded messages; for their understanding we would have to know the myths and rites of Ice Age humans. But these traditions, transmitted in language, song, dance, and gestures, have disappeared forever.” [31] It is at this point that it becomes commonplace for a number of approaches and methodologies to either translate insights from such myths into various mosaics of “primal, perennial impulses” of the most general and abstract order, to rest content with the elucidation of “archetypal forms” or psychological explanations, to cease to read myths mythically and instead, situated in the context of prehistory, to attempt to consistently read them as metaphorical historical or natural events, or to attempt to project back into prehistory those currently or recently surviving forms of mythical participation which seem to be “most ancient” or “most primitive.” It is here that the subtlety of the “two or three fantastic legends, a few dozen bones, shards, and stone axes with swastikas or the solar wheel of Odin” reaches its maximal tension.

Yet what was it at all for the Sacred and Myth to be lived in prehistory without any “fossilization”, without “history”, without “preservational recording”, without later “historical mythicization”, for many millennia upon millennia? This is the question of the Primordial Sacred Fire before its Sanctified Ashes, the wood of which rarely seems to survive – and why.

Addressing what he termed the “semantic opaqueness of prehistoric documents”, in his History of Religious Ideas, Eliade remarked:

But if today there is agreement on the fact that the Paleanthropians had a religion, in practice it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what its content was. The investigators, however, have not cried defeat; for there remain a certain number of testimonial “documents” for the life of the Paleanthropians, and it is hoped that their religious meaning will one day be deciphered. In other words, it is hoped that these ‘documents’ can constitute a ‘language’, just as, thanks to the genius of Freud, the creations of the unconscious, which until his time were regarded as absurd or meaningless – dreams, waking dreams, phantasms, and so on – have revealed the existence of a language that is extremely precious for a knowledge of man. [32]

Further, Eliade wrote:

The semantic opaqueness of these prehistoric documents is not peculiar to them. Every document, even of our own time, is spiritually opaque as long as it has not been successfully deciphered by being integrated into a system of meanings. A tool, be it prehistoric or contemporary, can reveal only its technological intention; all that its producer or its owners thought, felt, dreamed, hoped in relation to it escapes us. But we must at least try to imagine…[33 ]

If, as we have emphasized in the preceding, the question of prehistory is to be really of, by, and for the disclosure of prehistory, if “we must at least try to imagine” the prehistoric world and worldview, and if the millennia of prehistory were the realm of the Sacred from which ensuing forms of myths appear as traces and indications, then it becomes strictly paradoxical to speak of any “semantic opaqueness” on the part of those “documents” which prehistory left us. How can countless millennia of the heights and ubiquity of the Sacred have left anything “semantically opaque”, suddenly to be encapsulated in the most semantically rich myths and languages? Are there not some “documents” of prehistory, succeeded by the myths of antiquity, representing signs of such fundamental concepts, for which other forms were substituted or appended only later?

We do not dare to enter here into cataloguing all the various categories of tangible or suspected artifacts of prehistoric life, from burials, figurines, and rock art to tools, structures, and adornments whose semantics and functions can no doubt be interpreted in diverse ways. We are, after all, interested here only in sensing the ground for approaching the appropriate posing of the question of prehistory. That being said, however, some of the axes of the “thatness” and “whatness” of prehistory which we have discerned as part of the questioning of prehistory may very well and appropriately unfold into the parameters for seeking and answering.

First and foremost, the documents and signs of prehistory are to be sought and conceptualized within the lifeworld of the Sacred. Recovering and reconstructing the structure, contours, and variables of this Sacred, without a doubt, constitutes an enormous, extremely difficult task whose demand most fully expresses the fundamental loss and decline which has accompanied the “progression”, or rather “decline” into history and the inestimable damage which historical entropy and the worldview of Modernity have wreaked upon the 95% of the present cycle of the human experience. Such is also complicated by the diversity and changes in forms of the perception of the Sacred which have arisen in different cultures and times since the “Golden Age.” In this sense, reconstructing the Sacred world in which the people of prehistory lived, died, produced their objects, migrated, thought, spoke, and gathered around their fires means pursuing not so much of a “pre-history” as a “proto-history.” The reconstruction of this proto-history can be accomplished by rigorous conceptualization of the history of religious ideas and forms and identifying their ontological correspondence to linguistic, anthropological, and sociological trajectories whose processes have no other beginning than in the primordial matrix in which they had no other place, form, and dynamic than in the Sacred into which vertical man found himself – and everything – thrown and integral. This seeking is not a mere theoretical postulate on the necessary worldview of prehistory, but the question derived from none other than those accounts from the very dawn of “history”, who already saw their prototypical situation in the lost paradise of the “Golden Age”, against which all forms are measured.

This, in turn, is inseparable from the recounting of Myth. Myth itself is proto-historical, it appears on the very edge of history as an already complete product and account of prehistory, its very matrix of time and Being representing a compressed symbolization of its Sacred proto-historical raison d’être. Myths can offer unparalleled access to dimensions of the prehistoric world, the prehistoric worldview, its happenings, language, and phenomena precisely in still proto-historical form. Yet for many cultures in the present cycle of humanity, Myth is already the last word of prehistory for history, the fossilization of that which was, must be, but is almost or already not in its entirety. The comparative reconstruction of myths undoubtedly poses great potential for reaching ever-older contours of prehistoric experiences, the institutionalization of various forms, and the apperception of their telling. But myths in their integrity cannot always accompany us back to the living dynamism of Paleolithic hierophanies as infinite in forms and situations as the perception of the Sacred itself. Unless one were to hypothesize the existence of a range of specific mythical narratives ancestral to most or all others and to reconstruct their content in correlation with the oldest materials known to us from Paleolithic life, it may be more authentic to take the symbolic quality of the mythological structure itself as indicative of antecedent forms. Of interest here is the thesis of the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) on the primordial equivalence of Myth, language, and symbols. In his Language and Myth, Cassirer articulated that “Language and myth stand in an original and indissoluble correlation with one another, from which they both emerge but gradually as independent elements. They are two diverse shoots from the parent stem, the same impulse of symbolic formulation, springing from the same basic mental activity.” [34] This “basic mental activity” according to Cassirer, is the “hypostatization”, “compression”, “intensification”, and “distillation” of the “sum of all Being” into a charged focal point, whether the word encapsulating the essential experience of a thing, an ideograph (symbol) compressing multiple levels of reality into one image, or, in the same fashion, the concentration of the knowledge, experience, and significance of a phenomenon into a mythical account. Moreover, as Cassirer duly recounts, virtually all traditional mythico-religious systems, from the most ancient cosmogonic myths to magico-ritual practices to artistic mysticisms, hold the Word, language itself, to be an active force of the Sacred. Quoting the words of Hermann Usener (1834-1905) and adding his own, Cassirer sensed that the primordial bond of “mythico-religious conception” and language belongs most fully to deep prehistory:

“Only through devoted preoccupation with the spiritual traces of vanished times, that is to say, through philological research, can we train ourselves to feel with the past”…To know and understand the peculiar nature of mythic-religious conception not only through its results, but through the very principle of its formation, and to see, furthermore, how the growth of linguistic concepts is related to that of religious ideas and in what essential traits they coincide – this requires us, indeed, to reach far back into the past. [35]

In fact, the idea that the significations of prehistory are to be found in “proto-mythico-linguistic” symbols has been articulated by some of the most inspirited theorizers of a “Primordial Tradition.” The Dutch-German pioneer of Geistesurgeschichte, the “Great Unknown Professor” Herman Wirth (1885-1981), argued that many of the world’s historical and contemporary languages, symbols, myths, and traditions are descended from a “primordial sacred language” consisting of a calendric-symbolic, ideographic script. Wirth saw pristine remnants of the prehistoric “proto-language of the Sacred” in Paleolithic rock art, Germanic-Scandinavian runes, and Native American hieroglyphs.[36] Following Wirth’s theory, Alexander Dugin has proposed to “correct” perennialist and Traditionalist views of the Primordial Tradition: instead of a single proto-religion or singular metaphysical dogma, Dugin argues that many of the world’s traditions, myths, and languages vary and descend from a prehistoric Tradition expressed in the form of a common paradigm of symbols, a “sacred cult-symbological complex” and “universal language.” [37] In resonance with numerous mythical accounts in the likes of the above-mentioned Greek Hyperborea, Wirth and Dugin saw the original homeland and “proto-culture” of this “sacred proto-symbolico-linguistic system” in the Far North of Eurasia (potentially originating around the North Pole). Without entering into deliberations on this thesis, it is worth noting that contemporary studies of prehistoric rock art have established that Paleolithic Northern Eurasia was indeed the first site of the emergence of a widespread, consistent system of symbols. According to ongoing research by the Canadian paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, across at least 368 rock art sites dating between 40,800 and 10,000 years ago and ranging from Spain in the South-West to Siberia in the North-East, 32 distinct symbols appear in consistent use.[38] At the risk of committing to a proposal, such ideographs might very well come to be appreciated to be those rich “documents” and “signs of the Time” of prehistory, the “myth-language” whose reconstitution would prove decisive.

Finally, there is something crucial for grasping the posing and profundity of the question of prehistory to be derived from the “signs of the times” themselves. In turning to rediscover prehistory and its significance in the 21st century, we find ourselves confronted with the existential recognition that we are simultaneously further and closer to proto-history than ever before. On the one hand, many contemporary civilizations – and particularly that of the West – have never been so anomalous and inverted in relation to the cultures and forms known to us from prehistory up through the whole current cycle of civilizations, and never have the ideas and practices of prehistory been so alien as to those which reign today. On the other hand, never have the technologies, institutions, databases, and methodological approaches available for the study of prehistory been so developed and extensive as they are now. This paradoxical situation is perfectly relatable to the increasingly widespread recognition that today we find ourselves near the end of the present cycle of civilizations. This, indeed, was “foreseen” and described in those same ancient mythical accounts which handed down to us their memories of prehistory and a first, “Golden Age.” According to the Hindu account, we find ourselves in the depths of the Kali-Yuga, at the end of the present cosmic cycle, in the final “Dark Age” and “Age of Dissolution”, and Greek myth long ago bemoaned the onset of the “Iron Age.” Yet the end of a cycle is associated with proximity to the beginning and return, and it is at the end of an era and paradigm that one can turn back to survey its world. Although being so far removed from the worldview and time of prehistory, we are at once so close, being separated by the relative brevity of several accelerated millennia, still never able to claim to have fully shed the “fundamental substances” or our prehistoric anthropology, and forever intrigued by what happened in the 95% of the experience which yielded the 5% of our present history now at a fateful point of extension, from the position of which we have realized the extent and gravity of our loss of our prehistory. Under the present signs of the times and in seeking those of our proto-history, it is timely to consider the words of René Guénon:

Many vestiges of a forgotten past are coming out of the earth in our age, and perhaps not without reason. Without risking the slightest prediction on what can result from these discoveries, the possible importance of which those who make them are generally incapable of suspecting, we must certainly see in this a ‘sign of the times.’ Must not everything be found again at the end of the Manvantara, to serve as a starting-point for the elaboration of the future cycle? [39] 


[1] Richard Rudgley, The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age (New York: Free Press, 1999), p. 1.

[2] Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), p. 29-33.

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Vol. I: Primitive Mythology (New York: Penguin Compass, 1991), p. 6.

[4] Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, p. 29, 30.

[5] Alexander Dugin, Misterii Evrazii [Mysteries of Eurasia], in Absoliutnaia Rodina [Absolute Homeland] (Moscow: Arktogeia, 1999), p. 599.

[6] Sarunas Milisauskas (ed.), European Prehistory: A Survey (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), p. 62.

[7] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings: Key Selections from Being and Time to The Task of Thinking (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008): Being and Time, p. 45, 51-52.

[8] Mahabharata 3:148

[9] Mahabharata 6:10

[10] Mahabharata 12:340; Bhagavata Purana 1:17

[11] René Guénon, Traditional Forms and Cosmic Cycles (Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2004), p. 8.

[12] Vendidad 2; Hom Yasht 9:4-5.

[13] Denkard 7:1:7, 14. 

[14] Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), p. 60-61: 110-121.

[15] Plato, Complete Works (Cambridge: Hackett, 1997): Cratylus 398.

[16] Ibid, Statesman 270-272.

[17] Pindar, The Complete Odes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): Pythian 10:29-30.

[18] L. Kakosy, “Ideas about the Fallen State of the World in Egyptian Religion: Decline of the Golden Age”, Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 17:2 (1964): pp. 205-216.

[19] “Enki and Ninhursag: A Paradise Myth” in James Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 37-41; Genesis 2. 

[20] The Chuang-tzu 9:2, 12:1, 13:5.

[21] Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950), 166, 168-169.

[22] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (London: Arkana, 1989), p. 171, 486

[23] Ibid., p. 250.

[24] Völuspá 59-62.

[25] Mircea Eliade, “The Yearning for Paradise in Primitive Tradition”, Daedalus 88:2, Myth and Mythmaking (1959), p. 265.

[26] E.J. Michael Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[27] Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Harper, 1959); Myth and Reality (Long Grove: Waveland Press, 1998); Patterns in Comparative Religion (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996); The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harvest/Harcourt, 1987).

[28] Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, p. 430.

[29] Eliade, Myth and Reality, p. 18-19.

[30] Joseph Campbell, The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension (Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2002), p. 125.

[31] Jost Herbig, Nahrung für die Götter: die kulturelle Neuerschaffung der Welt durch den Menschen (1988), quoted in Witzel, Origins of the World’s Mythologies, p. 261.

[32] Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. I: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 5-6. 

[33] Ibid., p. 7.

[34] Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth (New York: Dover, 1953), p. 88.

[35] Ibid, p. 21, 23-24.

[36] Herman Wirth, Der Aufgang der Menschheit: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Religion, Symbolik und Schrift der Atlantisch-Nordischen Rasse (Jena: Eugen Diederich, 1928); Die Heilige Urschrift der Menschheit: Symbolgeschichtliche Untersuchungen diesseits und jenseits des Nordatlantik (Leipzig: Koehler & Amelang, 1936); Um den Ursinn des Menschseins: Die Werdung einer neuen Geisteswissenschaft (Vienna: Volkstum-Verlag, 1960).

[37] Alexander Dugin, Filosofiia traditsionalizma (Moscow: Arktogeia, 2002); Giperboreiskaia teoriia (Moscow: Arktogeia, 1992; Moscow: Veche, 2008). “Herman Wirth: Runes, Great Yule, and the Arctic Homeland”, Eurasianist Internet Archive []; “Herman Wirth and the Sacred Proto-Language of Humanity: In Search of the Holy Grail of Meanings”, Eurasianist Internet Archive []; “Counter-Initiation: Critical Remarks on Some Aspects of the Doctrine of René Guénon (1998)”, Eurasianist Internet Archive [].

[38] Genevieve von Petzinger, The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols (New York: Atria, 2016).

[39] René Guénon, Traditional Forms and Cosmic Cycles (Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2004), p. 26.