Henging Our Bets

With the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, the history of civilization has received an unexpected prologue. In the view of the archaeologists involved in the excavation, the site can only be religious in nature, indicating that the earliest communal efforts of humans were not for mutual protection or for the benefits of growing crops, but for worship. In an era of angry atheists and nones, this isn’t really welcome news. Many people are ready to flush religion once and for all, claiming that it inspires only terrorists and fanatics to more and more extreme deeds. Well, I suppose Göbekli Tepe can be considered a form of extremism. Massive amounts of energy were required for the building of the site. And it was buried, intentionally, when the builders were finished with it. The news of a new component to the much later Stonehenge complex, the Durrington Walls, has recently been presented. Stonehenge, in England rather than in Turkey, and much closer in time to us than Göbekli Tepe, is a site that has touched the human imagination in a profound way. Still primitive at the time of its construction, Britain was a land already brimming with religious monuments. The new discoveries make it even more intriguing.

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Stonehenge is only a small part of what is now being called the Durrington Walls super-henge. Those who visit Salisbury Plain know that Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow are both impressive in their own right, and not far from the more famous sarsen stones that appear on everything from coffee mugs to tee-shirts and in movies and television shows of all genres. This part of prehistoric England seems to have been a sacred site many hectares in extent, with various “temples” and monuments dedicated to a religion we simply don’t understand. What is clear is that massive human energies were put into the building, expanding, upkeep, and functioning of this site. People have a deep, and very passionate urge to answer the religious longing that even sophisticated engineering can’t placate.

It could be argued, of course, that we’ve outgrown our childhood need for parents in the sky. Science and rational thought have shown us the way forward and although ancient monuments might be a fun diversion, they really mean nothing. I would disagree. Places like the Durrington Walls super-henge indicate what it is to be human. Clearly, given that even Stonehenge fell into disrepair and lay neglected for centuries, it was not a continuity that stretches, uninterrupted to today. Nevertheless, the effort expended to fill a void we feel should tell us something about what being conscious creatures is all about. Life doesn’t always make sense. The rational cannot explain everything. It would be naive to try to make Stonehenge reveal its secrets, but even standing at a distance (which is the only way you can gain admission any more) you have the sense that you are among those who knew what the human spirit required. Even if pagan and illiterate, they have spoken to us through the ages and we can only continue to wonder at what we’ve lost.

Tepe Temple

When a colleague sent me an NPR story on Göbekli Tepe, I was thrown back into the conundrum far older than archaeology itself—how can a site be identified as religious? Most of us hardly realize that when we enter a church or cathedral that the overall plan is based on that of the earliest temples we know. Conventional wisdom associates temples first with the Sumerians, the harbingers of civilization itself. The basic premise was that a niche existed for a cult image (statue of a deity, generally) with an altar before it. Although the concept was widely disseminated, many reformed and rereformed Christian groups tried to distance themselves from it, calling altars “tables” and making them mobile. Probably the most successful are the Pentecostals; last time I attended a service the “sanctuary” felt like a warehouse. Actually, it was a warehouse. In general, however, there has been little need to reinvent the religious wheel, so the standard plan still often applies. Enter Göbekli Tepe.

Göbekli Tepe is located in southeast Turkey, near what was actually Mesopotamia in ancient times. The hill-top site is a Neolithic structure, and that means it was built before agriculture became widespread, during our hunter-gatherer stage. It is the earliest known human religious structure. The article on NPR questions precisely this: is it religious? How do we identify structures in pre-writing cultures as religious? Some archaeologists are guilty of labeling any structure or artifact with no practical function as “religious,” but this is a little cynical. Part of the problem is that religion itself remains ill-defined, being a post-Christian category to describe behavior singled out for God’s benefit. As a child I wondered, if God exists how could anyone not devote all their time to God?—the very speculation that led to my profession. Ancient people, like all animals, felt the urge to eat, rest, seek shelter, reproduce—animal things. It was a full-time job. When agriculture simplified things a bit by giving some measure of control over food supply, other professions began to emerge. Priesthood, as a means of ensuring continuity among the entire system, was one of the coveted jobs. Göbekli Tepe predates the Sumerians by thousands of years. The large structure with reliefs carved into the rock seems temple-like to some, less so to others.

The NPR article points out, correctly, that the distinction between sacred and profane may be premature as applied to Göbekli Tepe. We can test the cases even today: certain human functions are considered profane, chief among them sexual acts. It is clear from the sexuality of ancient religious artifacts that the profanity of sex is not an ancient idea. Ritualized eating is very common and still takes place in highly stylized form among many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups. Work itself was considered to be a divine assignment in ancient times. Our ultimate bosses were the gods. Little room remained for “secular” pursuits. By compartmentalizing life into “religious” and “not religious” we have found a way to pursue our own selfish ends and still wind up in the pews on the weekend, congratulating ourselves for obeying the dictates of divine law. Where is true religion to be found here? Is it not more likely to reside among ancient people, like those of Göbekli Tepe who lived their entire lives in the service of the gods?

Make Mine Myth

As a best-selling non-fiction author, Karen Armstrong needs no introduction. A recognized authority (some of us are mostly unrecognized) on religion in its broad sweep, she is an insightful writer and is worth paying attention to. I just finished reading her A Short History of Myth. The book does bear the marks of a religionist who hasn’t specialized in many of the materials she discusses, but when she reaches the time periods she knows, she comes alive. The book is a little unusual in that Armstrong believes myth began in the Paleolithic Period. I don’t doubt that early hominids who’d developed vocal skills probably told stories, but to be able to guess which ones in this first pre-literate period becomes rather speculative. The same applies to her treatment of the Neolithic. Still pre-literate, the people undoubtedly told religious stories but we will never know which ones.

Her discussion of the Axial Age considers mostly east Asian innovations, after acknowledging that distinct changes had also appeared in the Levant and Greece. It is, however, in her chapters on the Post-Axial Age and the Great Western Transformation that she demonstrates her craft fully. The western world, she argues, has lost something vital with the increasingly complete dismissal of myth. Those who see human history on an upward climb (mostly those who do not read or watch the news) are pleased to watch the demise of the non-rational. As Armstrong makes clear, however, pure reason comes with a very high price. The neurosis of the western world may be labeled “Exhibit 1.” Religions, institutions that evolved to improve the human lot in life, have turned destructive. Roping themselves in with a logic that doesn’t match their myth, they strike out at any who dare point out the inconsistency. Many of us have been on the receiving end of their lash personally.

Myth is where we seek meaning. Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. While science and technology may see us safely to Mars and back, once the colonists start to arrive chapels will appear. We find ourselves lost in a meaningless world. Religions have tended to cast their uneasy lot with rationalism. What is left? Mythology. Mythology was never intended to be a literal account of “what actually happened,” but instead it was to explain what it all means. In these days when religious leaders are as likely to lob a high explosive in your direction – or engage in the Schadenfreude of watching you squirm before an overfed lawyer while being deprived of a livelihood – as they are to offer you a “hale and god-be-with-ye,” maybe what we all need is a stiff shot of mythology.

Care of the Dead

Stretching back before the advent of writing, back before civilization itself began, people have shown reverence for their dead. Paleolithic era grave goods attest to care of the dead residing among the earliest strata of human behavior, and it is a behavior that continues to evolve to reflect the belief structures of the Zeitgeist. The idea of constructing cemeteries in a garden where family and friends might visit their departed is a relatively recent innovation. Increased population and concerns about epidemics led to the landscaped, garden-variety cemetery outside of populated areas in the 18th century. Before that graveyards could be located within the city itself, often near a church or sacred location.

While visiting Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, my niece asked me why people left pennies on gravestones (H. P. Lovecraft’s tombstone had one on it, and others around it). My thoughts went to Wulfila’s recent blog post on the Black Angel tomb in Iowa City and the pennies scattered there. I also recalled La Belle Cemetery in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin where a “haunted statue” was always richly endowed with pennies in her cupped hands. LaBelleThe specific form of penny offerings seems to go back to Benjamin Franklin’s burial, at least in America. A few years back while in Philadelphia, I saw for myself that people still leave pennies on Franklin’s grave in Christ Church Cemetery.

Franklin

Franklin pennies (and a few nickles)

There is no universally accepted reason explaining why Benjamin Franklin should have been the first to have received such treatment — in fact, I would argue that it is much older than Dr. Ben.

Money to accompany the dead has a long history. Pennies on the eyes or under the tongue of the deceased originated in the need to placate the ferryman across the river of — what’s it called? — Oh, yes, the river of forgetfulness. The classical Greek form of this mythic character is Charon, the boatman who punted the dead across Styx. He required payment, and since coinage had been invented, it was a convenient way to pay. (Today the truly devoted might leave a credit card in the casket.) The ferryman must have his pay, as the movie Ghostship warns, but the idea is much older still. The earliest references to being poled across the river go back to ancient Sumer, the earliest known civilization. As soon as people became civilized they began to pay homage to the gloomy captain of souls.

While in Prague just after it opened to western visitors, my wife and I stopped by the famous Jewish cemetery where the tombstones are so tightly packed in that they are barely legible. My wife asked why so many of the tombstones had smaller stones on top, placed there as dedications.JPrague I recalled having seen stones on tombs outside Jerusalem some years back, and I even had a student bring me a stone from Israel to keep as long as I promised to put it on her grave after she died. This practice in its recent form is associated with Judaism, but again, it has ancient roots. The building of cairns, or piles of stones, is often associated with the Celts or the pre-Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles. On our many wandering through the highlands and islands we saw several Neolithic examples in Scotland, particularly in the Orkney Islands. The practice of putting stones atop the dead also goes back to ancient times. One plausible suggestion is that it was intended to keep the dead in their graves. A more prosaic conclusion is that digging deep holes takes more work than hauling over a pile of rocks.

No matter what the origin of the practice may be, one of the surest signs of civilization is care for the welfare of the dead. Today a penny is easily left, costs the bearer little, and creates a memorable image for all who follow.

Feline Angels and Demons

Happy National Cat Day! Well, to you readers in the States in any case. October 29 has been declared National Cat Day, and as a blogger who has frequently posted on ancient cats, I feel a sense of duty to include our feline friends in today’s entry.

Elsewhere on this blog I have extolled the divine nature of cats. The Egyptians revered them to the point that killing a cat was a capital crime, but the evolution of domestication was probably very practical. Domestic cats appear in the archaeological record along with the advent of grain silos, also an Egyptian invention. When the grain attracted rats, the rats attracted cats, and the cats stole Egyptian hearts. Even before the Egyptians, however, archaeology points to associations of cats and humans in Neolithic Jericho, perhaps the oldest city in the world. As early as 9000 years ago, cats were stalking the allies of the city of the moon god. They have been among our most loyal companions.

The domestic cat’s spread into Europe only began in earnest, it seems, when Christianity reached the continent and the cat was no longer considered divine. Perhaps cats had to be profaned before being admitted to the church’s roster of approved animals. Nevertheless, under the influence of a predominantly Christian milieu, in the Middle Ages Europe had come to see cats as the demonic companions of witches and vampires. Did some memory linger of the divine cat of Egypt? Did those dark days of suspected sorcery glance back to the magicians of Egypt and their suspect pets? We will never know the answer as to why cats, long encouraged to join human households, became evil in superstitious Europe. Even my stepfather in the twentieth century America counted to ten after spotting a black cat, and followed the count with a solemn cuss each and every time.

I, for one, cast my vote on the side of the felines. I don’t have cats (allergies and irate landlords, and such), but I enjoy them when I visit those who do. Sure, they rip up furniture and bring unwanted gifts of dead things to you as a kind of feline worship, but with their loving nature I simply can’t see a devil in our everlasting cats.

Swiped from Dr. Jim's Thinking Shop

(Swiped from Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop)

Religion or Death

Researching traditions about death can lead to some occluded avenues shunned by many Ancient Near East scholars (generally anything after about the rise of the Roman Empire is irrelevant). It has long been my contention that death and religion are intricately intertwined, well nigh incapable of being teased apart. I’m also very interested in the research of writers on popular culture. Findings, no matter how erudite, if they don’t reach the public will only fail to impress. Mary Roach, ever masterful, wrote a morbidly fascinating account of the afterlife, so to speak, of corpses. This work (Stiff) was followed shortly by Spook — her foray into the science of ghosts. Anyone who can have you mortified one minute and laughing out loud the next deserves to be read.

Can't have one without the other

Can't have one without the other

I recently finished Matthew Beresford’s From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth (Reaktion, 2008). I was pleasantly surprised that Beresford ambled back to the Neolithic Period in his quest for vampire origins. A number of unexpected facts jumped out at me from his pages — vampires historically have very few traits that last through the folklore about them over the ages. Primarily all they share is being improperly dead. This horrific concept is among the most deeply rooted of human terrors. We prefer the properly dead who stay dead, thank you. Whether revenant or still alive, the vampire somehow threatens the lives of the living and must be dispatched by making him (or her) properly dead.

More rat than bat

More rat than bat

Having been a youngster and woefully unaware of international news at the time, I had never heard of England’s Highgate Vampire of the 1970s. A disjointed and confusing account involving an actual vampire-hunting Catholic priest, a rival vampire-hunting occultist, and ending with the actual staking of a corpse (in 1970! CE!), the tale in Beresford’s book is almost incredible. A little web research demonstrated that the story still has a much wider following than this blog will ever have. Overall, however, it convinced me that my inklings of the danse macabre between religion and death were as accurate as a vampire hunter’s stake.