The gesture of Cosmic Man


orante oggi
Since there are various dispositions of the body, the preferred one consists in raising the hands and raising the eyes, because in this way the body introduces into the prayer the qualities that belong to the soul “(Origene, Peri Euchès).

Analyzing the typology of the archaic gesture, I have been able to identify the three basic gestures to which correspond three specific ways of cosmological approach: the gesture of Cosmic Man, that of Universal Man and of Chthonic Man. These are gestural archetypes that can be found (with a small number of exceptions) in every human culture, in every time and in every place. During the Christian mass even today the priest raises his arms towards the sky repeating the gesture of the Cosmic Man. The image of Cosmic Man is represented throughout the time frame that goes back from the Middle Ages to Antiquity and Prehistory, up to the oldest anthropomorphic representations of Upper Paleolithic (16,000 years BC). Assuming this position, the man identifies himself with the axis-mundi; while his feet touch the earth and his arms rise to heaven he exercises the function of cosmic mediator, in order to draw on the energy of the universe to make it available, through the rite, to the various needs of man.

St Porchaire Poitiers
Church of Saint Porchaire, (Amiens, 11th century). Psalm 62, 5 says: “So I will bless you as long as I live, in your name I will lift up my hands”. This gesture is a sign of prayer, supplication, intercession, openness, availability. For many centuries, the people joined the priest in the same gesture.

According to Arturo Schwarz, the gesture of the Cosmic Man is the allegorical expression of the reconciliation between the masculine (heaven) and feminine (the earth) principle. It is also the mediator of their contradictions and translates into figurative terms the universal aspiration to immortality, evoked by the recurring solar and lunar cycle (Schwarz, 1979). Even in the Vedic culture, when the shaman reaches the top of the sacrificial pole, the cosmic axis that connects heaven and earth, he raises his arms and shouts: “I have reached the sky, I am immortal” (Eliade) In the archaic tradition the man who assumes this position abandons his limited nature and his attitude of dependence on the gods and turns into an autonomous, immortal entity, capable of exerting a magical and direct control over natural events.

luine foto
Bronze age Adorant from rock nr. 49 of Luine ( Valcamonica). “Assuming the position of the odorant, the individual identifies himself with the axis mundi.” His feet touch the ground, his arms are raised to the sky, he turns into a mediator of their opposition (A. Schwarz).

In a more recent phase in the history of spirituality, sacred texts and myths tell stories in which the gesture of the Cosmic Man has lost his autonomy and turns into a prayer addressed to the spirits and superior deities who occupy a high position , for example the heights or the sky, in order to request their intervention in the mediation with the natural world. Two interesting examples are provided by the Bible. In Isaiah, 1:15, God, offended by the errors of the people, says: “When you lift your hands, I look away, you multiply your prayers, I do not listen”. In another case (Exodus, 17) God offers exceptional help to man: “Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

In Egyptian religion, the gesture of adorant is part of the cosmogonic tale. “In the classic scene of the creation of the world, the god of the atmosphere Shu separates Nut, the goddess of the sky, from the reclining figure of Geb, god of the earth and Nut’s brother-groom. Shu supports Nut with his arms raised and performs its function of axis-mundi separating and connecting at the same time the Sky and the Earth. The Kha, like the ipsilon, has here the function and meaning of support of the sky “.


The warrior, in front of and profile


naquane r50

On the rock nr. 50 of the National Park of Naquane (Capodiponte, CCSP relief) two warriors armed with short sword and small shield, adorned with ritual skirt and fringed helmet, dance around (or fight in front of) to another warrior who has his arms up and he is holding a long battle sword and a round shield in his hands  assuming an attitude of jubilation. In Iron Age rock art (VII-IV / III century BC) there are thousands pairs of warriors facing each other in a duel, but only in a limited number of cases between the two warriors, or near them, is represented a further element (anthropomorph, aquatic bird, cup ring or something else) that indicates in figurative terms the cosmological relationship existing between the image and the support that hosts it. The rhythmical and bloodless behavior of the warriors confirms that there is no battle going on, so much so that in the entire Camunian repertoire only a very small number of warriors is reached by sword shots. The rock scene 50 offers interesting hints to ponder. In the first place we find here the confirmation of a general rule: in each phase of the Iron Age the warriors facing each other are without exception portraits in profile. On the contrary, the central character is raised (as if suspended in the air) with respect to the support surface of the dancers and every body detail (head, arms, torso, lower limbs) expresses a frontal view, which inserts this figure into a category of super-human beings. Following an intuition by Silvio Ferri (Ferri, 1972), a few years ago I presented a hypothesis (G. Ragazzi, 1994), according to which the warrior at the center of the scene is the hero killed in the battle attending the funeral ritual held in his honor. We are facing what Berard calls the scene of “Anodos”, the ascent from the inferior world through a “chthonic passage” (C. Bérard, Anodoi, Essai sur l’imagerie des passages chthoniens, 1974) which links the “below “and the” above “.

uomo ctonio
Naquane. Anthropomorphic with arms facing down, of which only the upper part of the body is visible. Applying Claude Berard’s hypothesis to the Valcamonica’s iconographic repertoire, the anthropomorph of which only the upper part is visible is a spirit of the earth caught in a moment of its vertical movement of ascent on the earth (anodos) or descent into the inferior world (cathodos).

In Prehistory the rock represents a sacred space, a passage connecting the inferior world with the surface of the earth. The rock engravings constitute the formalized corpus of the relative cosmological knowledge. In the case of rock 50, the warrior has not only completed the passage, but is flying in the air. J. David Lewis Williams, a scholar of the Kalahari Bushmen (San People) rock art, also says that we must not understand the surface of the rock, or other types of sacral support, as a silent support that is limited to receiving a form. Rather, as he himself discovered by questioning the last Bushmen artists, the surface of the rock is conceived as a veil, a thin film that separates the human world from the underlying world, home of the spirits of the earth. According to the South African anthropologist, it is not possible to understand the rock paintings of the San people if it is not taken into account that the Bushman artist, translating the conceptions of his people into images, worked in full awareness that the support was a threshold that separates the two worlds. Some snakes, for example, are represented at the turn of the upper and lower reality, with some visible coils, because on this side of the veil, and others not represented because conceived by the artist still inside the rock.

Dos of Mirichì, Valcamonica, medium-late Iron Age (from Anati). Two warriors face each other in a ritual duel, not bloody. They are in fact armed with short swords and small shields (peltès) which, as happens in the Salii rite, were probably clashed against each other to produce sounds or noises. Between the two warriors, there is a small anthropomorph with arms bent at right angles and facing down where the seeds and the dead are deposited.

Some important iconographic studies (particularly Vernant, The death in the eyes, 1985) have remarked how even in the imaginary of ancient Greece the frontality indicates that man is placed face to face with an entity of divine nature, for example the mortal gaze of Medusa, and this makes the radical otherness of death perceptible. In this sense, the frontality expresses in a surprising way this position of transition and perhaps also the tragic ambivalence of the glorious death that takes the warrior away from humanity (Frontisi-Ducroux, 1986). On the basis of these premises the warrior represented in frontal position is the hero killed in battle, represented in the precise moment in which, after rising from the world of the dead, he attends the funeral games organized in his honor.

If the scenes of armed dance engraved on the Camunian rocks are an expression of the deep bond with the earth, this does not depend only on the context of the funeral ritual, as documented by the image engraved on the rock 50 of Naquane. In fact, other Camunian scenes show how the earth is not considered exclusively as a place where the dead are placed, but also that in which the seeds are planted. On a rock engraved by Seradina (Capodiponte) we can see a scene of plowing in which, together with the plow and the plow followed by a group of diggers, two anthropomorphs also participate in the act: a warrior armed with lance and shield which defends the seed just inserted into the earth, and an anthropomorph with the arms turned downwards that addresses a prayer to the earth. Since the two anthropomorphs are represented in a frontal position, we must conclude that their function is completely “metaphysical”.

aratura e uomo cosmico
Seradina, Capodiponte, rock nr. 12: In the plowing scene, in addition to the human figure driving the plow followed by the diggers,  were also represented two symbolic actions: the warrior who exercises his function as defender of the earth from all possible threats and the anthropomorph with his arms pointing to the earth who prays the spirits to protect the future harvest.

Also the dance of the Curetes sword described in the Cretan myth of the birth of Zeus, expresses a link with the earth very similar to that of the ancient Camuni. The myth says that after the birth of Jupiter, the Curetes, the warrior spirits in the service of Rhea, wife of Cronus, staged a sword dance during which the beating of the shields was crucial to cover the cry of Jupiter and save the newborn from the murderous rage of his father. What is striking about this myth is the surprising analogy with the history transmitted by popular tradition, according to which the newborn son of Rhea and Cronus, whose cry is covered by the noise produced by the shields, embodies the spirit of the vegetation in its budding stage that must be protected from the inclemency of natural events.

Sword dance of the Curetes, (Campanian terracotta found in Cerveteri, II-I century BC, British Museum, London). As also in the Camunian representations the shield is almost always opposed to another shield, their beat and the consequent noise could have had the same function of scaring and keeping the spirits away from the cultivated fields.


Pythagoras, the lyre and the harmony of the Cosmos.


medio evo cinese
The human body inscribed in the square (the earth) and in the circle (the sky) expresses one of the highest forms of harmony, that between the gesture of cosmic mediation, which man performs in the course of religious ceremonies, and the whole universe (China, Middle Ages).

If we consider geometry, music, and cosmology exclusively as scientific disciplines, it is difficult to understand the reasons for their possible use as the only discipline available to the ethnoanthropological investigation, i.e. for the understanding of some key aspect of prehistoric symbolism. Pythagoras (575ca.- 490 ca. a.C.) was the first among the ancient philosophers to affirm that “the number governs the forms and the ideas” and he was the first to use the term kósmos for indicating the harmony and symmetry that regulate the Universe. He also wonders about the nature of sounds, whose mutual relation is numerical, just like that of celestial bodies. Even the movement of the planets orbiting the Earth produces a range of sounds, a celestial music that our ears are no longer able to hear because they have always been used to hearing it. The harmony that we perceive in music and we feel in the motion of the planets is based on the magic power of numbers.
Pythagoras came to discover the close relationship between music and number listening to the sound that casually came out from a forge where some smiths were beating with their hammers a piece of iron on the anvil, producing sounds partly fully consonant with each other, partly dissonant. Experiencing the nature of the sounds with his monochord, Pythagoras came to the conclusion that a vibrating string produces a sound whose “height” is inversely proportional to the length of the string itself. In this way, he proceeded to associate each emitted note with a number. For example, he attributed the number 1 to the note produced by a 1 -meter long string, the number 2 to that produced by a half meter long string, etc. With the aid of this method, each note is distinguished by a number that is, in fact, proportional to its frequency.

The first monochord is the musical bow. If the interpretation of the Sorcier scene in the Cave of Trois Frères was true, the hypothesis could be taken that, even before its use as a hunting weapon, the bow was used as a tool for producing sounds.

trois freres 1
Cave of Trois Frères France (17000-15000 years ago). Scene “of enchantment”, during which an anthropomorphic, disguised as a bison, plays a musical bow using the mouth as a sound box. The action involves an unknown number of animals (bison, reindeer, horses). A bison is portrayed as it turns its head towards the place from which the sound stimulus comes, indicating the radical neurological effect that music produces on a great variety of living species.

anfora di Milo

The decoration of the amphora of Milo on one side provides a literal description of the meeting between Apollo and Artemis, an event narrated by the myth known to all Greeks; on the other, those geometric elements are interpreted as a figurative expression of an ancient esoteric language, known only by a small circle of initiates, according to which the meeting of the sun (Apollo) and the moon (Artemis) is the formulation in hermetic terms of a truly cosmic event: an eclipse of the sun.
“Apollo – says Ferrero – does not drive his horses while holding the reins, but through the mediation of the lira to which the reins are tied. If in everyday life playing the harp and driving the horses are two separate acts, in the symbolic life they are united, so that the trajectory and the speed of the chariot that leads the sun into the sky is drawn by the sound of the zither, so that the ratio between the various speeds supported by the cart is identical to that of a musical interval “.

The gesture of prehistoric man and his linguistic code.


Paphos Souskiou
Paphos / Souskiou (Cyprus, 2nd millennium BC) Small female cruciform Idol with bent knees. Note the expressiveness of the gesture: the position of the fingers informs us that the palm of the right hand is facing upwards while the palm in the left is pointing upwards. This is the same gestural pose used by Dervish when he rotates on itself during its dance (from: M. Lucas, 2013).

In every period of post-paleolithic art the anthropomorph is the most represented subject. In the logic of archaic religion, the ordinary movements performed by the man in daily life are not object of representation. Sacred iconography highlights only the most significant aspects of human behavior, those that in archaic belief possess magical efficacy and ability to interact with the cosmos. The opportunity to understand the reasons why gesture and dance are one of the most recurring themes in prehistoric iconography, despite the figurative technique is not able to fully convey the idea of movement, rhythm, musical accompaniment, singing, was offered to me by an important text of the anthropologist Maurice Bloch: “Symbols, Songs, Dance and Features of Articulation” published in Arch. Européennes de Sociologie, XV, 1975). Before Bloch’s essay, some scholars such as Bettelheim (1962) and Turner (1967) had analyzed the symbols of the ritual using the Saussurian signifier / signified model, so as to isolate the symbols from the ritual process of which they are part and to interpret them as units containing meaning. On the contrary in Bloch’s analysis, “which is concerned with the theories of such writers as McCawley, Fillmore, and G. Lakoff, who have stressed the identity of syntax and semantics”, the meaning is primarily transmitted by the way lexical units can be combined in utterances (p. 20). Starting from this premise we can see that, in the first place it is not possible to understand the symbols of a ritual if you do not study the means of communication in which they are involved before. Secondly, the logical potency of language depends on the creativity of syntax, and, as long as the syntax is creative and can operate freely, it can convey any content. Thanks to the survey conducted on the circumcision ritual of the Merina people of Madagascar, Bloch comes to the conclusion that in ritual language the syntax can no longer freely regulate the parts of the speech. This fact produces a strong reduction in its ability to argue and the force of its locutions is transformed.
Thus, in a free communicative situation, that is not conditioned by extra-linguistic factors (for example a legal or religious norm), an act “A” can be followed by a wide and discretional number of acts “B” (Open Code). On the contrary, if proper forms of language, that is to say formalized, are introduced into communication, as it happens when we are dealing with a sacred communication, some communicative potentials fall off and with it, syntactic freedom, individuality, and creativity quickly vanish. In this way – says Bloch – by placing a linguistic act “A”, the resulting acts will form a code whose rules will be pre-determined and whose acceptance will influence the structure of the new language (Closed Code).
We can already say that the figurative technique used in the creation of Prehistoric Rock art is configured as a closed code.
Moreover, the typological differences between Open Code and Closed Code, if applied to the gestural context, particularly clarify the function and the sense of gesture and dance in the repertoire of prehistoric iconography. If we want to understand the meaning of gesture and prehistoric dance we must therefore preliminarily conduct an investigation on the linguistic structure of images, through which the substantial difference between daily act and sacred act becomes perceptible.

tabella codici gest english

“Music does not come to terms with matter” (Goethe), but about this prehistoric man knew a lot more.


The oldest forms of art are documented in Europe by paintings preserved in the decorated caves of the Franco-Cantabrian area (Upper Palaeolithic, about 40000 years ago) The images and artefacts found in those caves inform us of the existence of special men specifically trained to paint, sculpt, lead dance and make music. In certain environmental conditions, such as those of the caves, the images have been preserved up to our time, and the discoverers found these environments in the same condition in which they were left by the last prehistoric visitor. While a rock painting can be seen in its original conditions even after thousands of years, the same thing can not happen for a dance or a musical sound that live only when they are performed. The only elements that provide evidence of prehistoric musical experience are the artifacts used to produce sounds found in archaeological excavations: flutes, pipes or whistles, bullroarers, drums. We can not completely reconstruct the nature of sound, the rhythm, the melody of prehistoric music. It is however possible, at least in part, to make sense of those sounds never heard by following four lines of inquiry: 1- the study of the musical forms and beliefs of primitive peoples who lived in an archaic dimension until a few decades ago; 2 – the study of the western traditional music, whose basic elements are part of a only archaic musical model; 3 – The sound instruments found in archaeological excavations; 4 – the identification of cognitive aspects that allow us to distinguish the knowledge of modern man from the archaic one.

stalatt caverne

Prehistoric man has been able to take advantage of the resonance properties of the cavities of the painted caves. In fact, the stalactites and stalagmites of many caves show the signs of repeated percussions probably occurred in order to produce sounds. Even today, the advantage offered by these limestone columns is that many of them, if beaten, produce the same extraordinary sounds, the same powerful bass gongs, the same subtle and crystalline sounds, performed 15,000 years ago.


When Cocopelli, god of happiness and fertility, walks on the land of the Navajo people playing his flute, the sun rises in the sky, the snow melts, the earth is covered with green, the birds sing songs of joy and all living creatures gather to hear his stories. (Anazasi rock engraving, New Mexico)

Suna de Mars

“Sunà de Mars” is a  very common archaic ritual  performed by the communities of the Alps. At the beginning of March, the inhabitants of many Alpine valleys go in procession through the pastures and ring horns and bells to awaken the grass. The inhabitants of Ardesio (upper Seriana Valley, Lombardy) on January 31st turn winter away with a ritual (“Scasada del Zenerù”) during which cowbells, horns and everything with which you can make a row produce a big noise to awaken nature from long winter sleep .


The magic jump

At the end of the 1800s, when Crete was under Ottoman rule, three friends Stratis, Patasmos and Fanourios, are in front of the corpse of Manousakas, the deceased friend, and toast the health of living and dead, as tradition dictates.
“- What do you say – tells Fanourios showing the deceased – we jump him?
– Why not? – Stratis and Patasmos say as one man. They arrange the kilt to the belt so as not to stumble with their feet, raise the coffin and carry the dead man in front of the courtyard door to get more space.
“I’m the first to jump,” said Fanourios. “I’m his brother.” He ran to the front door and got up and jumped. He jumped so hard that his head hit the door lintel. But he did not notice and ended the race in the middle of the common room.
-” I skipped it” – he said fiercely – “It ‘s your turn Stratis”. Stratis took the momentum and his thin body overcame the obstacle lightly, without touching it; then he fell easily on his toes. “To you, Patasmos,” he said. But Patasmos suddenly lost his courage. He looked at the scaffolding. Where had they recovered such tall trepieces? “No, I do not jump,” he said, trembling.
– “Are not you ashamed of Captain Patasmos”? – said Fanourios – “are you Cretan or not? jump”. -” I tell you I do not jump. I play the lyre”.
– “You do not respect death then, miserable? It is a real offense. Is this your friendship for Manousakas here? Jump!” Patasmos scratched his bald head, remembered the great affection he felt for Manousakas, and regained his pride. So he decided to jump and started hop-making hop to be brave. He took the momentum and rushed to the dead, but as he was jumping, the obstacle seemed to him as high as the ceiling. His knees buckled, he stumbled over the coffin, the coffin turned, the body of the dead man rolled on the ground and Patasmos fell on him.
“You have dishonored us,” said Fanourios. “Go fuck yourself”. And kicked him away.
– “Come Stratis, help me”.
They lifted the body, wrapped it in his shroud, put it back in the coffin and placed the image of Christ in his hands.
“It matters nothing, old brother, you did not feel bad because you died,” said Fanourios, stroking Manousakas’s hair and beard. He lowered himself, took the bottle and divided the last drops of raki. Then they sat down again around the dead man and started to look at him. And as they looked at him, they closed their eyes, their heads slipped on their chests and fell asleep.” (N. Kazantzakis, Freedom or Death, 1958, pp. 224-226).

ballo delle vedove argia1
Two widows jump the sick in order to heal him. The Danza delle vedove, the widows’ dance is a therapeutic ritual of Barbagia (Sardinia), built on the idea that dance and some particular actions performed by women will induce in the patient a positive reaction in order to free him from the pain and anguish of the disease. In the ritual we can clearly distinguish three significant acts: the circular dance accompanied by the singing of a solo voice and the choir of women; the exit from the circle of the dance of some women in order to provoke a smile to the patient; a jump made by a woman or several women together that bypasses the sick (from the film “La danza delle vedove”, directed by Giuseppe Ferrara, 1962).
salto mave 3
Sotetorp, Sweden (6th century BC). The image represents three anthropomorphs that leap over a ship with all its occupants. K. Sachs states that in the ritual jump “liberation from the bonds of matter is achieved by force” (SACHS, 1966, 44). 

A Cretan anthem of the III century B.C. addresses to a young “very powerful” boy, who is the personification of Zeus, the prayer to appear every year and jump vigorously and repeatedly on the herds, on the fruits, on the city community, on ships. This ritual leap had the purpose of transmitting the divine energy to men in order to produce the conditions of procreation and fertilization.

The Bullroarer and the sound of the origins


Bullroarers used by kids of Friuli, northern Italy (from Battaglia, 1921).

The bullroarer is a small wooden board, shaped flat, of various size, often decorated with abstract marks, with a hole to which a short rope (made of vegetable fibres or animal hairs) is fastened. The whirling movement that the hand, through the rope, transmits to the bullroarer, produces a deep, dull and intermittent sound. In the primitive cultures this instrument has a magical and initiatory function. For this reason it is not accessible to women or young boys until the moment of the initiation rites. The Maori bullroarer (purerehua) is traditionally used during the healing rituals or with the aim of getting rain and to direct the evil spirits towards other worlds. So it is the “most ancient, most widespread and most sacred known religious instrument” (Haddon).

In 1893 Giuseppe Pitré, in his essay on Sicilian games, describes a toy shaped like a rhomb called lapuni (big bee). A study of 1921 carried out by Battaglia points out the presence of the bullroarer among the ancient games of Friulan children. Its presence is attested in the Alpine culture through the late ’60s. In many parts of Scotland the bullroarer was thought to protect from spells and from lightning.


The rotation produced by the arm on the rope that holds the bullroarer, makes it circle around itself until it makes a very grave humming.

The bullroarer is widespread in ancient Egypt and in Mesopotamia. In classical Greece bullroarer is used in the rituals performed by the Thracians and mentioned by Aeschylus. In the primitive world the Bullroarer is a ceremonial instrument whose sound is the voice of a spirit, a deity or an ancestor. For this reason it is considered a symbol of fertility. Still today it has an important role in the rites of passage in many parts of the world. In the cultures of south-eastern Australia, the sound of the bullroarer is the voice of the god Daramulan. An effective bullroarer can be cut only from a tree that contains its spirit. Bullroarers are used in the initiation ceremonies of men, and the sound they produce is used in some indigenous cultures to repeat the sound of the Rainbow Snake, a creature of the Time of Dreams, linked to the Earth, to Water, to Life, to social relationships and to fertility.


Bullroarers of Australian aborigines. The sound produced by this instrument according to the aborigines is “the voice of the ancestors”.


Caption. Paleolithic bullroarer of La Roche Lalinde (Dordogne, 15,000 bce).