Art Prehistory

The strange and controversial prehistoric ‘sorcerer’ of the Cave of the Trois Frères

Very close to the French town of Montesquieu-Avantés, in the Midi-Pyrénées region, and to the Tuc d’Audoubert cave with its fantastic prehistoric clay bisons, is the cave of the Trois Frères (Three Brothers).

Both are part of an underground system of three caves formed by the river Volp (the third one is the Enlène cave). The cave of the Trois Frères, 430 metres deep, is the richest in cave art, consisting of paintings and engravings from the Magdalenian period (17000-10000 BC).

Diagram of the cave of the Trois Fréres / photo Association Louis Bégouën

It was discovered by Count Henri Bégouen’s three children (Max, Jacques and Louis, plus two friends) in 1914 (hence its name), who two years earlier had also found Tuc d’Audoubert’s. And like this one, it was studied by the archaeologist and clergyman Henri Breuil, a pioneer in the research of Palaeolithic art and the first professor of prehistory at the Collège de France, between 1920 and 1938.

Breuil identified some of the most singular and significant representations of Palaeolithic art among the paintings and engravings in the cave. Firstly, up to seven anthropomorphic or therianthropic figures (half human-animal). In addition, on a fragment of bison bone, he found the image of a grasshopper, today considered the first known representation of an insect. Moreover, there are several engravings of animals such as lions, owls and bison, a horse covered with claviform symbols, and a strange bear pierced by a kind of spear vomiting blood.

Superimposition of some of Breuil’s drawings on one of the panels of the sanctuary / photo Association Louis Bégouën

Breuil made drawings of all this, which became popular all over the world thanks to the wide circulation of his publications. A more detailed study, accompanied by hundreds of drawings, was published in 1958 by Breuil himself and Bégouen. And in 1967 the first photographic study was carried out. A total of some 350 figures were counted: 84 horses, 170 bison, 20 ibexes, 40 reindeer, 8 bears, 6 felines, 2 mammoths, 1 rhinoceros, 6 birds, 7 anthropomorphic figures, 5 hand prints, and numerous symbols and abstract signs.

Of all the representations, the one that interests us here is the one called The Sorcerer. It is located in one of the small interior cavities known as the sanctuary, whose walls are covered with some 280 (the cavity that contains the most of all) superimposed drawings and engravings of reindeer, bison, horses, goats, bears, mammoths and anthropomorphic figures. Above them, about 4 metres high from the base of the cave and dominating the whole, the Sorcerer appears.

It represents a human figure, but with features of other animals, although its characteristics remain controversial. Let’s see why.

The ‘Sorcerer’ drawn by Breuil / photo Henri Breuil

Breuil studied and drew it during his early research in the 1920s, and its publication soon made it one of the most famous examples of European prehistoric art. In his detailed drawing he depicted an anthropomorphic being, with human legs, bear feet, horsetail, deer antlers, bison beard and owl eyes.

Hypotheses about its meaning soon began to emerge. Some wanted to see in it a sorcerer practicing some kind of ritual (hence the name given to it), others a shaman (Breuil himself was convinced of this), a spirit and even a deity. Something completely unheard of in Palaeolithic mural art.

The problem is that modern photographs show a quite different figure. There’s no trace of the antlers, and the rest of the Sorcerer barely resembles Breuil’s drawing except in silhouette. Some historians believe that Breuil may have confused some cracks and natural marks in the rock by taking them as parts of the figure, while others believe that they are intentionally engraved marks and are part of the whole along with the painting, but they are so fine that they cannot be seen in the photographs, due to the poor light.

On the left the drawing by Breuil, on the right modern photo of the ‘Sorcerer’ / photo Breuil –

Jean Clottes, for instance, one of the most outstanding French prehistorians, states without any doubt that Breuil’s drawing is correct, and points out that he himself has been able to verify it at the cave some 20 times:

Breuil’s drawing is quite honest and admitted by all the specialists who have seen the so-called Sorcerer in the cave (I have seen it myself perhaps 20 times over the years and I can assure you that it is very well preserved and genuine)

Jean Clottes, Cave Art (Phaidon) p.129

What virtually all researchers agree on is that the Sorcerer of Trois Frères is a key figure in understanding prehistoric cave art, and that it must have been a cult object of great importance to the community that used the cave.

Sources: Cavernes du Volp (Sitio Oficial) / Don’s Maps / Trois Freres Cave / The Gates of the year / Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog / Wikipedia.