It started around 5000 BC, when seasonal gatherings began at the headlands of the Alta Fjord on the northern coast of Norway. Here, the hunter-gatherers held rituals and ceremonies and most likely called to their gods and goddesses, looking to remain in favor at a time when humans did not believe they dominated the natural world around them. Then the rock carving commenced. For 4000 years, through vast displays of rock art, the people recorded their life events and their deep connections with a greater cosmos.
Alta is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. More rock carvings are concentrated in this place than anywhere else in northern Europe. I visited Alta this month, in my Norway wanderings. I spent a day considering the figures etched into stone, there along the shores of the Alta Fjord.
The carvers viewed the rock surface itself as a micro landscape, possibly a miniature reflection of the greater surrounds. Ridges, cracks, and hollows on the stone panels were transformed into landscape features, so that etchings show reindeer grazing by rivers that run through rock crevices, bears emerging from dens in stone hollows, and fish dipping into tiny pools in rock depressions. Hunters spear reindeer and men in great boats catch fish. The etched figures seem to move across this micro landscape, animating the material world and the subsistence life of the prehistoric people.
Yet, more than that physical reality exists in the carvings. Over a hunter is a shaman’s necklace, levitating in the heavens above. Below the fishermen, a bear walks through the underworld, standing next to a fish as big as the bruin – a halibut connected by a very long fishing line to a small boat with tiny humans enmeshed in the middle world. Elsewhere, bears emerge from dens to walk not only into the midst of the hunters, but also upwards, where only a spirit bear might go.
The people of Alta recorded their lives in the rock. They also etched into memory a time when the upper world and the under world connected to everyday existence – the middle world. There on the rocks of Alta, the land of human life merged with a greater cosmos.
The Alta rock carvings were on my mind this morning as I took my morning hike up the Side Hill. Contemplating a life where the material world interlaced with a spiritual realm, I moved upward into the mist cloaking the ridge top. Hooves thudded the ground, and in the fog a herd of elk appeared – a great bull, his antlers waving, followed his harem into the shadowy woods beyond. The beasts moved into the gray, slipping into nothingness, disappearing as if they belonged to another world. No sign, but still the hoofbeats, echoing out of no place, no where. A ringing bugle drifting in from … above? Below? I stood completely outside my own worldly place.
All was within the realm of our daily existence – elk on the hill running into the dense fog, bugling in this time of rut. But it did not feel so.
Leaving me to wonder what it was like to live at a time when the middle world of our daily existence linked to the upper heavens and the lower depths, when sacred and secular were not divided, and all that lay in the landscape was alive with a great spirit – what was it like to walk through a landscape with that knowing? And would the prehistoric people of Alta recognize the realm where those elk had gone, a spiritual domain the ancient artists had knowingly etched into the rocks in the far off north of Norway.