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Coso Rock Art | finding meaning / the sheep cult / the shaman's art
finding meaning The shaman's art

The archeology of the 1960s raised awareness and interest in the resources of the Coso Complex, leading to several more projects during the following decades. By the 1990s, new evidence raised questions about the 1960s' "bighorn cult" theory.

For instance, one key piece of evidence archeologists expected to find most prevalently was the remains of butchered bighorn sheep at occupational sites and villages. They found the remains of other ungulates—hooved mammals—as well as those of smaller mammals and birds. Such few sheep remains called into question their importance as a major food resource. Clearly, something else was behind their symbolic significance.

Other questions were raised by the unexplained prevalence of the bizarrely arrayed anthropomorphic figures. Who were these creatures, and in what way were they significant enough to appear in numbers second only to bighorns? more >>


(photo) Shoshone shaman poses with ritual bighorn headdress, bow and arrows.  © The Denver Public Library.


Coso shamanism was a very private ritual with very public results. Coso shamans often lived alone at the periphery of their villages, and were viewed with some fear by their group members, since their power could be used for good, and potentially, for evil.

The ritual usually began with some stress-inducing activity, such as several days of hunger, extreme exertion, or time in a sweat lodge. The weakened shaman would retire with his apprentices to his medicine cache, often a rock shelter or cave. There, he smoked or ate a powerful local tobacco which rendered him unconscious and induced his trance, or "dream."

The "dream" generally began with the shaman encountering a spirit animal who helped him enter the spirit world by finding a door-like "opening" in the rock. Entering the door, he would find himself in a tunnel, with a light at the end marking the entrance to the helper spirit's chamber.

Once inside, the shaman was invited to feast, and then taken to another room filled with riches, symbolizing the powers that could be given to him. After convincing the spirit to help him, he and the spirit would "merge", in effect becoming one with each other in order to share the power sought. Most often, this involved securing the help of bighorn sheep spirits to bring rain.

Regaining consciousness, the shaman was required to create a record of the encounter; failure to record the dream accurately could ruin the hoped-for magic. Rock art is the result: a tableau of images recording centuries of shamans' dreams, each an expression of the desperate need for water in this extraordinarily dry place.

(photo) Petroglyph panel featuring abstract, curving shapes.  By Maturango Museum.


What Coso Indians thought of in metaphysical terms, scientists seek to explain in physical terms. The dream state bears a remarkable likeness to properties of hallucinatory experiences. Coso rock art reads almost like a textbook on the physical and mental sensations of hallucination.

In the earliest stages of hallucination, people experience rapidly flashing, pulsating, and rotating lights, often described as grids, dots, circles, loops, zigzags, and other geometric forms. Scientists call these "entoptics", because they occur in the eye & optic system itself.

Next, the brain tries to make sense of the images by shaping them into iconic forms. For example, a series of dots, lines, and grids may begin to look like a medicine pouch. While the initial entoptic images are entirely the result of the eye's design, and thus, are experienced the same by any person, the iconic images are the result of culture. A person begins to see iconic forms that are important in his own world: where one may see a medicine bag, another may see a chessboard.

In the final stages, iconic imagery takes on a more "real" aspect: as the brain struggles to interpret the imagery, the viewer senses that what he sees is not "like" the object from life, but is the actual object. Images often overlay entoptics, split into component parts, join together in various ways, or become numerous copies of the same object.

(photo) Petroglyph of a shaman, lizard and snake.  By TOMOL.


Shamanic petroglyphs combine aspects of the ritual dream to demonstrate the ability to enter the spirit world, merge and become one with the spirits and objects that bring power, and return with those powers at the shaman's service.

Images of shamans underscore the central idea that the shaman, his power objects, the spirit helpers, and the ritual itself merge to become inseparable.

Shamans wore headdresses made of bighorn sheep skin with horns and ears intact, or made with the topknot feather from a quail (pictured here). Petroglyphs also show shamans wearing "arrow" headdresses, though these may have been symbolic of death, rather than drawings of actual headdresses.

The hallucinatory experience is often described as a feeling of being caught up in a whirlwind. This whirling effect is equated with flying, a metaphor for leaving the everyday world for the spirit world. The result is shaman imagery featuring a "whirlwind" head of swirling circles.

Shamans are often shown with a hunting device: a bow and arrow, or an atlatl and dart, in this case. The shamanic trance was seen as a ritual death, a dying to the everyday world. Likewise, the hunting and killing of a bighorn was a metaphor for the "merging" of the shaman with the sheep spirit, and his "borrowing" of the sheep spirit's power to bring rain.

A medicine bag body is symbolic of the merging of the shaman and his ritual objects. Through the shaman's trance, he becomes or contains the power transferred to him by his spirit helper through the ritual objects.

Bird feet are another symbol for the flying feeling that occurs during the trance, marking the ability to leave the everyday world and enter into the spirit world.

Other common symbols for transformation include hands and feet with extra digits.


(photo) Petroglyph panel with several simple  sheep and lizard figures.  Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc.


Coso petroglyph makers used a number of animals in their rock art. Most were common, but not necessarily those that were most materially important to people. For instance, archeologists have discovered numerous sites with remains of butchered rabbits—a major food source—but rabbits are not depicted in petroglyphs.

Instead, archeologists find images of such animals as snakes, lizards, and centipedes. These animals make their homes in rocky places, and have the uncanny ability to appear and disappear into and out of the rock. For people who hold the rock sacred, and view it as the membrane between our world and that of the spirits, it's natural to think of these animals as potential messengers between worlds.

Likewise, each of these animals holds some perceived power of their own—the power to inflict poisonous bites, replace lost limbs, or to sting. This combination of power and elusiveness makes them potent symbols for shamanic rituals, as well as a subtle reminder of the shaman's power.

(photo) Coso bighorn petroglyph. ŠTOMOL. (photo) Bighorn sheep on ridgeline. ŠJohn Blaustein.


The tens of thousands of sheep images at Coso indicate that people viewed them as being supremely important to their lives and well-being. Archeologists have found that sheep were never a major food source, but were associated with rain. While the importance of rain to people living on scant desert vegetation is self-evident, what is not clear is what bighorn sheep have to do with it. There is no widely accepted theory concerning the hunting of sheep and their association with rain, but certain facts provide food for thought.

Bighorns exhibit many of the attributes associated with other animals prominent in petroglyphs: they are clearly creatures of the rock; they climb cliff-like slopes with amazing speed and sure-footedness; they can leap dozens of feet from one ledge to another as small as two inches wide. Their incredible agility seems positively magical, almost as though they can fly.

The bighorns' brownish-gray coat blends perfectly into the rocky background rendering them almost invisible. In fact, they are most easily seen as they stand scanning for danger atop a ridgeline, silhouetted against the sky. Bighorn sheep leave their high, rocky environments for lower, more protected zones in the autumn. As they gather in valleys and meadows, they form groups and begin the rut.

Males, of course, are famous for their extended, violent head-butting contests; the loud report thundering off the rocky slopes can be heard for miles. This is the season when people head up to similar heights to gather pine nuts for the coming winter.

It is also the time of the year when the parching heat abates, and the winter rains are not far behind. The seasonal association between sheep and the essential rain may have added to the significance of the bighorns.