The Neolithic Revolution

In the previous post we looked at Gobekli Tepe, the world’s first monumental stone temple, built during the early Neolithic period. The shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming, also known as the “Neolithic Revolution”, was one of the most momentous changes in history leading to the first settlements, and transformations in culture and religion.

Catalhoyuk after the first excavations photo: Omar Hoftun
Catalhoyuk after the first excavations
photo: Omar Hoftun

The earliest Neolithic settlements such as Jericho in the Levant, and Catalhoyuk in central Turkey show evidence of pottery, weaving, carpentry, polished stone tools, as well as religious architecture–the ingredients of early civilization.

Some experts speculate the move from hunter-gatherer to  agricultural societies may have been forced by climate change and rising populations. French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin offers a different theory: a symbolic revolution took place first. He writes: “the great civilizing changes of the Neolithic were first anticipated and played out within religious and ritual contexts”, as we saw at Gobekli Tepe. Cauvin insists the development of the human imagination and its expression in symbols, myths and religion were decisive in awakening the peoples of the early Neolithic to a “new type of expansiveness”, enabling them to live in a “self-regulating world”. Archaeologist Trevor Watkins writes that the Neolithic Revolution led to the rapid development of the first comprehensive world-view involving religious ideas, ideology, cosmology and artistic symbolism.  For the first time humans were able to conceive of controlling nature—resulting in agriculture, domestication of animals, and permanent settlements.

These advances led to increasingly populated, hierarchically organized societies and eventually class divisions. Shamans were likely absorbed into a new class of religious specialists–priestesses and priests. Their role was to lead communal religious rituals and provide symbols and myths by which an ordered cosmos and spirit-world populated by gods and supernatural beings could be envisioned. Like earlier shamans they mediated between the human community and the spirit-world, seeking its collaboration in sustaining the spiritual and material needs of the community.

Skull plastered and inset with with cowry shells. Jericho, Palestine 7,000BCE
Skull plastered and inset with cowry shells. Jericho, Palestine 7,000BCE

In Neolithic religion ancestor worship reflected the high social status of elders who assumed the role of family and community leadership. Burial practices of the time suggest belief in the elders continuing spiritual presence and authority after death. At Catalhoyuk, human remains were found buried beneath the floors, hearths and beds of houses, in fact underneath the floor of one building sixty-two bodies were found interred. Often the corpses were flexed into a fetal position as if awaiting rebirth in the womb of the earth.

In some cases skulls were removed from skeletons, plastered, and painted with ochre. At Jericho and other nearby settlements, skulls were plastered over with cowry shells placed in the eye sockets. It is likely the soul was believed to inhabit the head, and skulls were used by shamans for communing with the spirits of the ancestors. Archaeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Catalhoyuk writes: “The ability of the shaman or ritual leader to go beyond death and return…would be especially important in a society in which the ancestors had so much social importance. By going down into a deep room in which the dead were buried, the ritual leaders could travel to the ancestors through the walls, niches and floors”.

Reconstruction of Catalhoyuk mural of hunting scene. photo: Omar Hoftun
Reconstruction of Catalhoyuk mural of hunting scene.
photo: Omar Hoftun

Animals continue to exert a mythic presence in the artwork of the Neolithic. Murals of hunting scenes with wild animals such as bulls and deer are prevalent at Catalhoyuk. As well, skulls of vultures and bulls are found plastered into the walls of rooms which appear to be shrines.

Artist's conception of Bull Shrine at Catalhoyuk, 7,500-5,700 BCE
Artist’s conception of Bull Shrine at Catalhoyuk, 7,500-5,700 BCE

Anthropologist David Lewis-Williams proposes these can be understood in shamanic terms as the movement of animal spirits from the underworld through the walls and into the house. These shrines, reminiscent of Paleolithic caves with their animal murals, suggest a continuity of shamanic beliefs from the past.

Vulture shrine mural with headless corpses.
Vulture shrine mural with headless corpses.

Paintings of crane dancers, as well as wings of cranes have been found at Catalhoyuk, suggesting they were used as costumes to mimic crane’s dances in ceremonies. Cranes with their dramatic mating dances were associated with fertility in Neolithic societies. Vultures also played a prominent role in religious symbolism. Murals at Catalhoyuk show vultures with human legs, reminiscent of the carving of the “vulture-shaman” at Gobekli Tepi, discussed in the previous post. Other paintings at Catalhoyuk show vultures devouring human corpses placed on towers–an early example of “excarnation” or “sky-burial” in which flesh was stripped from the bones by predatory birds prior to burial. Vultures seem to have been associated not only with death, but also rebirth. Some are depicted with human infants inside their bellies, suggesting they were also seen as bringers of life, similar to storks in European folklore.

“Seated Woman” sculpture, baked clay, Catalhoyuk–6000BCE

Sculptures of women found at Catalhoyuk may be connected with fertility magic, such as the figurine of a corpulent and possibly pregnant woman enthroned between two leopards. The motif of the pregnant woman is reminiscent of the Venus figurines of the Upper Paleolithic, again suggesting persistence of archaic beliefs. Historian Walter Burkert insists that such images are the origin of later goddess iconography in Asia Minor in which the “great mother” is depicted in the company of leopards or lions. He writes that it is “…overwhelmingly clear proof of religious continuity over more than five millennia…”

Statue of goddess Cybele enthroned between lions.
Statue of goddess Cybele enthroned between lions.

Echoes of Neolithic religious beliefs, mythology, artistic iconography and magical practices persisted in later historical civilizations. Goddesses such as Inanna and Ishtar of Mesopotamia, as well as Cybele from Asia Minor are often represented accompanied by pairs of lions. Crane dances would endure for millennia—such as during the marriage ceremony of Theseus and Ariadne described in a Greek myth. Vulture symbolism was inherited by Egyptian goddesses such as Mut and Neith. Ancestor worship continued to be practiced, for example in the funerary cults of Egyptian pharaohs and in megalithic tombs of Neolithic Europe such as Stonehenge.

The use of skulls for oracular purposes can be found in the myth of Orpheus, whose severed head was said to utter prophesies, and Odin who consulted skulls for divination–as well as Siberian shamans who used human skulls as oracles. Roger Bacon, the medieval scholar was reputed to own an oracular skull. Indeed the magical arts are among the most conservative of traditions, and the use of human skulls for magical purposes can be found in the 18th century magic book the Grimoirum Verum.


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