(noun) the tendency to perceive a meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. Common examples include animal shapes in clouds, the Man in the Moon, and faces on keyboards or cars.
Die Entdeckung / The Discovery
The oldest known zoomorphic statue was first discovered in 1939, inside a mountain cave in Germany known as the Hohlenstein-Stadel. The figure is typically referred to as the Lion-Man in English or der Löwenmensch, Lion-Person, in German.
We like to speak of history as a series of grand, definitive moments where the whole world turns on a dime. The murder of Franz Ferdinand started World War I, etc. For the Lion-Man, and indeed much of archaeology’s most prized discoveries, there is no one such eureka moment. Its existence instead is a process of fragmentation and assembly, discovery and then more discovery, remembering and forgetting.
The original dig at Hohlenstein-Stadel was abandoned after only a few weeks to make way for the start of the Second World War. The handfuls of carved mammoth tusk sat piecemeal in storage for years, meaningless in their individuality, lost in their separateness. New teams returned to the dig site throughout the sixties and seventies. The men who led the original expedition died; other men, mostly men, eventually a few women, took over and unearthed more fragments of carved ivory. They picked and tapped and dusted the earth of ages away, fit and refit the pieces together in ways that made most sense to them, these men, mostly men. Eventually, a figure emerged. Potentially a man, or perhaps an animal.
In German, the compound word reigns supreme. A German speaker has the freedom to smash three or four words together to get their meaning and intention across if the existing words don’t serve. These are called Bandwurmwörter, itself a compound word, meaning tapeworm words, words that uncoil, unspool with necessity out of your guts, your mouth. This linguistic quirk lends itself well to the humor of specificity, our modern lives so sensual and complex at once: What’s the German word for the overwhelming desire to quit your job when it’s nice outside? What’s the German word for the bundle of napkins you shove underneath a rickety table at a café to make it lean true? There is something special about creating a new word from old fragments. A lovely little surprise of recognition in the unfamiliar. We roll the same old fragments around in our mouths like marbles and dribble out something new, every time, any time we need.
As a child, I loved animals. I coveted any facsimile of wildness I could hold in my hands: cheap plastic figurines arranged on my bedside table; horseback riding lessons in exchange for Sunday mornings mucking stalls; stacks and stacks of books that almost exclusively featured talking animals. Watership Down, Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, Redwall, Doctor Doolittle, Charlotte’s Web. I would occasionally read more normal stories about little girls and manners and schoolhouse mysteries, but I always returned to the anthropomorphic world that felt so pleasurable to me then, so alluring, more real than human.
The Lion-Man is currently carbon-dated at around 40,000 years old. In addition to being the oldest zoomorphic statue (one with animal qualities), this also makes it one of the oldest examples of anthropomorphism in art, a non-human being imbued with human qualities such as speech, soul, or bipedal ability. It is also the oldest piece of figurative art, meaning art that looks like something, rather than an abstract squiggle or square. The lines resolve, connect, and assemble to become something else.
Die Figur / The Figure
The Lion-Man is approximately 12 inches tall. The lion’s head is smooth, with large jowls and small, upright ears. The figure stands on two legs with arms held stiffly at its sides like an awkward politician. It has an inconceivably long torso, marked with what might be a belly button. On one arm is a series of parallel slashes that suggest shamanistic or ritualistic use.
Anthropomorphism is ubiquitous in culture; it shows up in our earliest mythology, in countless morality tales, fables, schoolhouse rhymes, and, of course, children’s literature. Children seem to grok walking, talking animals on a level that seems fundamental. One theory is that children, much like prehistoric humans, are off the charts egotistical. Their analytical frameworks are limited to the scope of their own bodies, their own minds. If they have thoughts and feelings and questions, then everything they see, from the oak tree on the front lawn to the family cat, must as well. Children are masters of projection. They simply cannot imagine a lonely world.
My dad tells a funny story from my childhood. One day I came home from school and told him all about how the other kids and I had played a game of train robbery on the jungle gym. All the dramatic derring-do, making guns out of our little thumbs and forefingers, the clear binary of good versus evil. “And I,” I proudly exclaimed, “was the guard dog!”
Therianthropy (noun): the process by which a human becomes animal. Therion, meaning beast or wild animal, bleeds into anthropos, our favorite, meaning human. Think werewolves. Think of trading our most human traits for the wild abandon of the animal kingdom. How we envy its lack of rules, how it plays fast and loose with ethics. It almost always comes at a price. In Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, the daunting and evil Mr. Hyde is often depicted in images that suggest the beastly—he’s hairier in chest and limb than our darling Dr. Jeckyll, he slobbers, he bares his newly pointed teeth, his sexual appetite cannot be quelled.
As a child I was guileless and round, immersed in books and fantasy and quizzes and homework. I remained ignorant of the body, at least my own body, which seemed useless and weak, no conduit for great adventures. I couldn’t do a somersault or haul myself across monkey bars. I never play-acted at kissing or chasing objects of affection around the playground. Boyish boys and girly girls terrified me in equal measure. All that assertion of bodily differences that children don and foist on each other, the innuendo, the accusations. Too much. But in my books, never enough. Consider the writing of Jack London, author of Call of the Wild and White Fang. Those books are practically pornographic in their descriptions of blood bubbling up behind soft throats, the warm taste of flesh, muscles supple and electric. London’s writing offers a rich vocabulary of the splatter and panting of life, blood, fur, hair, fighting, fucking, crisis, survival (I would call it die Blutvokabeln, perhaps).
London’s writing is also full of what is bluntly coded as the masculine will to survive. In Call of the Wild, the domesticated female dog dies first; the only human-woman character is a useless sack of potatoes who weakly kicks, whines, then dies under the ice.
I did have a word for myself at that age: tomboy. I didn’t play sports or get all rough-and-tumble with the guys, but tomboy is what the language offered so I took it. Tomboy itself is another Bandwurmwort of rather murky origin. Both parts, tom and boy, would seem to suggest the masculine. Yet somehow the two words together mean femininity, albeit one gone southward, crooked, strange.
Digs at the Hohlenstein-Stadel have continued steadily throughout the last few decades. Currently, there are around 300 distinct pieces thought to belong to the Lion-man statue. In service of this constant re-discovery, every so often the figurine gets taken apart. The chalk and beeswax holding it together is dissolved and the disparate fragments looked at with fresh eyes and contemporary imaging software. We want to see if our assumptions hold true over time, if we found not just An Answer, but the Right Answer. Reconstruction requires a certain amount of chance and guesswork. It requires us to acknowledge the potential for human error—that we didn’t do it right the first time.
Die Bedeutung / The Meaning
Paleontologist Elisabeth Schmidt was the head-brain behind the revelation that the statue was an anthropomorphized lion-headed man, over forty years after the initial dig at Hohlenstein-Stadel. She was also the first researcher to question the statue’s assumed gender. Were we looking at a Lion-man or a Lion-woman (die Löwenfrau)? The characteristics of the head are thought to be consistent with that of a female European cave lion of the Upper Paleolithic. The body, though broken, is fairly neutral. But perhaps more damning than evidence, Frau Schmidt had the flaw of pareidolia on her side. She thought, just because we saw a man there first, doesn’t mean a man is there. Put more clearly, and kindly: Of course we saw a man there first. Now let’s dig a little deeper.
From the end of high school through college graduation, I went through a time of what was for me extreme femininity. My body was growing in the right ways, men were available and willing, the allure of the performance was clear for the first time. And why not? It’s what was most readily available for someone who hadn’t given much thought to gender, who had in fact kept it at arm’s length as long as puberty would allow. I wish sometimes it had been harder, that I had been forced to question my assumptions as an earlier age, but it was actually the easiest thing in the world.
In German, the word mensch is a gender-neutral term for person. It is a masculine noun (der Mensch), but it is a gender-neutral word. One might say that it means “man” in the sense of “mankind,” which of course doesn’t really help clear things up.
About a quarter of the world’s languages have grammatical gender, the arbitrary assignation of gender to people, places, and things. Arbitrary because it can be totally unrelated from or directly contradict the definition of a noun. Manliness could hypothetically be a feminine noun. Childbirth could be masculine. You can only tell by the pronouns. Grammatical gender is different from natural gender, the way that stewardess by definition means something female and king something male. Tomboy means female, even though nothing about the word would suggest it.
In German, der is masculine, die is feminine, and das is neuter, or neutral, which is the third grammatical gender available in die Sprache. All words in German fall under one of those three categories.
Anthropomorphism accepts two seemingly opposing facts: that people are the same as animals (and thus can be blended), and that people are different from animals (and thus require blending to help us achieve greater understanding of either). It’s a cyclical process. We identify an other—animal, cloud, computer screen. We don’t understand it and thus fear it. We project our human traits onto it so that it becomes familiar, can be pulled into our orbit of understanding and sympathy. We sigh with relief before comfortably pushing it away again.
Of the currently 15,000 known African cave paintings, less than 20% have “identifiable and clear” gender markers. Whatever that means.
My adult brain, now more educated in sex and bodies and power, still likes the word tomboy. I know it’s somewhat pejorative, and maybe that’s part of the appeal. Tomboy feels slippery, wry, almost a joke. The wink of tomboy contrasts well with the blunt truth of my body, the obviousness of 30GG breasts, waist nipped in at just the right point, hips that, as my husband says, go on for days. Assemble fragments quickly, arrive at obvious conclusion of intense femaleness, ricochet yourself back into world of playground insults and simple divisions. But that would not necessarily be the only conclusion at your disposal. It would be simply the first that comes to mind.
Die Ausstellung / The Exhibit, or, The Display
The Lion-man statue currently resides in the main museum of Ulm, a tiny town in southern Germany.
During the most recent reconstruction of der Löwenmensch in 2013, researchers discovered a triangular plate in the crotch that appeared to be carved separately from the rest. It looks to be a “stylized male sex part” (stilisiertes männliches Geschlechtsteil). At least, that is the conclusion that is “most likely.”
At some point, the process must become play. If I do the things that feel best to me—lately, to grow out my body hair, wear boyish clothes, eschew makeup, etc.—is the assumption always that those acts would make me more masculine? With a mind that could imagine anything, I might instead score myself on proximity to childhood pre-self, depth of wildness, my true and lasting place along the axis of animal.
What’s the German word for a body taken apart and reconstructed to see the truth of its lines and curves and slashes?
The Venus of Hohle-Fels was discovered in the same area as the Lion-man. She is also carved from mammoth ivory and thought to be of similar age. She is also clearly a she, identifiable and clear: indescribably large breasts, bountiful stomach, drooping labia. Her interpretation varies. Some think she is a symbol of fertility. Some perceive her as a goddess of the harvest. Others believe she could be the very first instance of pornography. Besides the Lion-man, Venus is the oldest representation of a human, male or female or any other gender, that we know.
Some dictionaries tell me that the German word for tomboy is der Wildfang (Bandwurmwort again, this one masculine: wild-catch). A suggestion of the animalistic; almost too good to be true. When I seek corroboration from my German friend, he tells me that he’s only ever used the word when speaking of hunting or fishing, though he’s familiar with the dictionary’s suggested use. Fine, I say, then give me for the word for tomboy in die Umgangssprache (colloquial speech). He shrugs and tells me he would say it plain: The girl dresses like a boy.
That’s not what I am asking, of course. It’s not his fault. I am trying to conduct the entire conversation with him in German, my adopted tongue, the one I might never truly understand. The words tumble and kick of their own accord as I try to wrestle them back into my mouth. Allow me to rephrase. I try to see a pattern in the mess, I sift with my tweezers and field guide through the complex taxonomies littering my desk. It must exist, the word I want, suspended in that unknowable grayscale between the familiar and the strange. Let me put it this way. I try not to take it so seriously. I can always begin again.
This essay is a monster to me, in a good way. As a serial reviser of my work, “Pareidolia” was an experiment with jagged edges, a challenge to myself to remain open to sprawling structure. Anthropomorphism is a huge topic to tackle, and so I was on the lookout for a central figure from which I could create a constellation of ideas. I came upon the Lion-Man statue because I was curious about one nebulous question: how long have humans been projecting our thoughts and feelings onto animals? Turns out, about as long as we’ve been human. That struck me as immensely profound. Each idea in turn—language and gender, anthropomorphism, childhood—connects back to the Lion-Man. Whenever I was stuck or struggled with a weak link, he (or she!) got the essay back on track.
The biggest risk I took was the structure, utilizing collage as well as these funny little headers nicked from the Lion-Man’s website. The headers were initially simply a guide and a prompt; I always intended to take them out. As the essay neared completion, however, I realized that those headers actually offered a crucial parallel narrative connecting anthropomorphism, gender play, and identity-making. We discover, embody, make meaning from, and display our bodies, and we crave symbols and language to help us suss out that process. The title, pareidolia (which gave me one of those classic “they have a word for that!” moments) solidified it: a theme of assembling and projection, of disparate parts and the creation— and recreation—of meaning over time. Nothing more human than that.
For more information on this topic, you can find the works Laura Citino consulted for "Pareidolia" here.
Laura Citino is a fiction writer and essayist living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her MFA in fiction in 2013 from Eastern Washington University. Her work has appeared in numerous journals in print and online, including Passages North, cream city review, Sou'wester, Pembroke, and others. She currently teaches in a program for academically talented youth and serves as Managing Editor for Sundog Lit.