Reading the book “Morphology of the fairy tale” (Vladimir Propp, 1929), my attention was prompted by some passages of 20th century European popular literature, in which we can find the same conception of the tripartite universe (or quadripartite) that according to the scholar Dumezil constitutes the cosmological and social foundation of European civilizations at least since the fifth millennium BC.
In the fairy tale of Brunella, for example, the breaking of the cosmic levels puts the community of the living in direct communication with the world of the dead, to whom the function of “helpers from the other world” is recognized. The hand of the deceased mother who stretches out of the grave, the tree planted on the grave, the bird perched on the tree, a well known symbol of the soul of the deceased, express the belief, still alive in the popular tradition, that the deceased could cross the threshold that separates them from the world of the living and enter into communication with their descendants. In Finland, on the day of the dead, each family deposited luminous candles and offers of food on the surface of the rocks, some of which were covered by rock carvings, in the belief that the dead came from the afterlife to meet their relatives. (J. Hautala, Survivals of the Cult of Sacrifice Stones in Finland, Temenos, 1965).
Using an “Archeology of knowing” procedure (see post 6), the data provided by stories and popular traditions are an interesting contribution to the understanding of some prehistoric images. I refer above all to the anthropomorphic figures who, assuming particular postures, take on the role of mediators between man and the regions of the Cosmos.
In the Western tradition are told many stories that speak about sacred spaces, such as the surface of some rocks or a rift in the ground, which Claude Berard calls “chthonian passages”, where there is a link between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the figurative imaginary the work of mediation between man and the underground world, place of the seeds and the dead, is conducted by the Chthonian Man with his arms pointing downwards.
The rituals performed in these places had a dual purpose: on the one hand, through gesture, dance, music, men addressed to the deity a request for prosperity and fertility; on the other, in some cases it was necessary to protect the community from negative entities that, after crossing the threshold, disturbed the life of the community, causing drought, ruin, and poorness. The iconography has provided us with a good number of examples that confirm our hypotheses on the beliefs of prehistoric man. On many engraved rocks of Valcamonica are represented warriors armed with shield and spear (with the cusp facing down to the ground) in a guard position near symbols such as the spiral, the concentric circle, the cup mark, or near a fracture in the rock, elements that indicate the presence of a chthonian passage.
Some stories dating back to the most ancient Western tradition also describe man’s concern for the occurrence – in the most delicate moments of the year, when the time comes to bury the seeds or collect the harvest – of the ascent from the underworld to the human one of spirits good or infernal entities.
The rituals that took place in these sacred spaces, therefore, had a twofold purpose: on the one hand, through gesture, dance, music, men asked the spirits good protection, prosperity, and fertility; on the other, in certain situations it was necessary to protect the community from those infernal entities that, after having crossed the threshold, disturbed the life of the community, causing drought, ruin, and hunger.