Encounters within the Aurochs’ Gaze

“Ten thousand years ago, a wounded prey is running away from its hunters. Three arrows of a material that is not yet flint are stuck on its side. The beast stumbles, gasps for air and closes its eyes one last time as the frigid waters of the lake claim it. The hunters pass it by, the prey forgotten.

After a violent pause and millennia of silence, a bunch of bones are unearthed and reassembled on top of a wooden dais surrounded by glass and unfamiliar air. On the other side, a stranger stands, lingers for a moment, and walks by.”

Very often, we think of cultural encounters as a clash of civilizations and colliding world-views. These encounters bring to the fore differences and complexities through the alien familiarity and the uncomfortable closeness of the other. We see on those who are not us the quality that brings us closer to them, and as a result, a vast array of at first irreconcilable and often inconceivable differences is laid before us like an insolvable abyss.

Very often, too, we disregard such encounters happening around us, specially when those encounters happen within the eyes of the dead.

The Aurochs of Vig was uncovered in 1905 in a turf digging nine thousand years after its death. Its remains, rescued and rearranged in the most natural of ways, now rests within the Prehistoric Period section of the National Museum of Denmark. Poised in a casual resting position, it seems as if the aurochs head was to turn and look at you at any moment, waving perhaps the remnants of an invisible tail, or scratching the echo of a disappeared ground with its exposed hooves.

It is the eyes, though, and the markings on the side where the arrows hit ten thousand years ago that raise the questions. What is the last thing the aurochs saw? Who pulled the string of the bow that fired the arrow? Who made the arrow that hit the beast? How did they learn to make them?

When the almost perfectly preserved bones of the aurochs were discovered at Vig, those who found the remnants of the beast uncovered with it a cultural encounter that began ten thousand years ago. Such encounter realizes itself every time a visitor stares into the hollow eyes of the aurochs and wonders about its impossible journey through time, the markings of arrows on its side, and all the little things still unknown about the beast and the hunter’s chase.

In this encounter, however, there is none of the friction, conflict or even violence that arises from the meeting of living and dynamic world-views. In this encounter, there is no dialogue but reflection.

When we stare into the aurochs’ gaze, we find only ourselves staring back.


The Aurochs of Vig

This was a blog entry I wrote in 2018 for my MA in English and Cultural Encounters in Denmark, when the sun still shone and one was allowed to go out and bask in its life-giving radiance. It was a risky gambit, written in a hurry, referring to no other academic sources or bibliography. The professor loved it.

The Ice

The day David turned ten, his father took him to hunt for the first time. The Frozen Wastes had always unsettled the child and his father knew it, as he knew that one day he wouldn’t be there to provide for him. That morning, James woke David up when the clouds were still dark and took him to the workshop. They prepared for the journey in silence, the stillness of the cave broken only by James’s occasional questions and David’s curt answers. As he checked the integrity of the thick furs that were to keep them alive in the frozen hell that were the Wastes, David had the feeling that he was being tested. It was not the first time he went through the preparations with his father, in fact he knew the process by heart now, but the way James looked at his hands go over all the familiar motions as they felt the weathered smoothness of the leather that made up most of the laminar armour, David could feel the weight of a lifetime of expectations looming in his father’s gaze.

Without a word, James handed his spear to his son with a solemn motion, and David took it between his small hands. Unlike the times he had held it while his father taught him how to move with it, how to thrust with it, how to kill with it, the spear felt real and solid, its head tipped by all the preys that had fallen before it in the hands of his father and the hands of his father before that. Contemplating the imperfections that ran along the weapon’s shaft, counting the small dents on the spear tip, David recalled each and every one of its stories as his father had told them to him, weaving the tale of the clan through years, back to a time in which the spear had been newly cast and its shaft as smooth as the cave walls. Then and there, it was difficult for David to imagine a time in which weapons were only a sporting rarity and people didn’t have to sleep huddled together to prevent the creeping cold of the Wastes from taking them. A time before the ice.

As father and son made their way out of the common chamber, David glanced back one last time trying to find Janira amongst the familiar mass of bodily heat and oblivious respirations that came from a clan still asleep. When his eyes couldn’t find her, he followed his father towards the cold light of the Wastes, where the ice waited patiently, and no comfort could ever be found.

In the lonely dark, amongst the warmth of her sleeping family, a mother wept silently for the fate of her child like many others had done before her, as she wondered how such small shoulders, which had only ever known the comfort of the cave, could ever hold the weight of their entire world.