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Neolithic Religion


NEOLITHIC RELIGION comprises the religious concepts, cults, and rituals of the early farming communities that sprang up throughout the world in the Early Holocene period (80003000 bce). Unlike the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods of prehistory, the Neolithic period was characterized by climatic conditions, very similar to those of the present, that directed human activity chiefly to the soil and its fruits. Attention that previously had been focused on stone now shifted to earth, which became not only the basic raw material but a multivalent symbol. These preoccupations gave rise to a specific ideology, to sedentary ways of life and the construction of permanent settlements, to the domestication of plants and animals, and to important technological inventions such as pottery makingdevelopments identified as the basic achievements of the "Neolithic Revolution."

The association of complex ideas and numerous activities with earth was not, however, a process completed rapidly. It took Neolithic communities centuries to learn to use earth as a new material and to find it more necessary, more valuable, and more meaningful than stone. Since, in the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods, not only everyday activities but complex religious beliefs, cults, rituals, and probably myths were also associated with stone, this "Neolithic Revolution" may be defined, from the point of view of the history of religions, as a gradual process of the desacralization of stone and the sacralization of earth.

Because the basic achievements of the Neolithic period were attained neither simultaneously nor in a particular area only, the chronological and territorial boundaries of the Neolithic world are very flexible. Its beginnings date from the eighth millennium bce at the earliest, but only in a few comparatively limited and mutually distant territories (in Asia: Palestine, northern Mesopotamia, Thailand, and Japan; in Europe: Crete, Thessaly, and the central Danubian region). It was only in the period between 6500 and 5000 bce that the Neolithic cultures established themselves and began to expand and influence one another (in the Near East, northern China, southeastern Europe, and the western Mediterranean). The period between 5000 and 3000 bce was a particularly dynamic one; while Neolithic cultures in the Near East and southeastern Europe began to disintegrate, others began to emerge and take root in northern Africa, southwestern Europe, India, Mesoamerica, and Peru.

Neolithic cultures differed not only in their chronology but, much more important for the study of religion, in their basic content: their methods of production, technological skills, social relations, and achievements in art. The earliest ware was produced in Japan by the Jomon culture during the eighth millennium bce, long before communities of that region had mastered the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals. Finds from the Spirit Cave in northern Thailand, however, suggest that the beginnings of the Neolithic period in southeastern Asia (the Hoa Binh culture of the ninth and eighth millennia bce) was characterized by the cultivation of leguminous plants; pottery was made only from the end of the seventh millennium, and general farming was practiced beginning in the fourth millennium. In northern Mesopotamia, the beginnings of the Neolithic period were marked by the domestication of sheep (as evident at Zawi Chemi during the Shanidar phase, c. 8000 bce), and in Palestine (Jericho, eighth millennium bce) and Anatolia (Hacilar, seventh millennium bce), by the cultivation of grain. In the Iron Gate region of Europe (the Lepenski Vir culture), dogs and pigs were domesticated and grain was cultivated as early as the seventh millennium bce. These two basic achievements of the "Neolithic Revolution" were fully utilized only in the middle of the sixth millennium bce.

The Neolithic world was not uniform but, as these diverse developments indicate, varied and very dynamic. It is therefore necessary to modify the general assessment of the period as one in which the economy was limited to farming, social relations were limited to tribal organization and the matriarchate, and religion was confined to a fertility cult and the worship of a supreme female deity (Magna Mater, Mother Earth, and the like). One cannot really speak of a Neolithic religion, but only of Neolithic religions. Lack of evidence that might enable people to define each of these religions does not justify generalization or neglect.

Archaeological artifacts, which constitute the main sources for the study of Neolithic religions, for the most part still lie buried; those that are known are usually fragmented and ambiguous. The material at our disposal documents chiefly the places and objects used for cult and ritual purposes within these religions, rather than the words and gestures that were their most essential and explicit expressions. Two other major obstacles preclude a fuller reconstruction of Neolithic religions: large areas of the world (parts of Australia, South America, and the Pacific islands) are still archaeologically unexplored, and evidence concerning the other spheres of Neolithic life with which religion was closely associated, such as the economy, social relations, and art, is fragmentary.

Attempts have been made to compensate for these limitations and to use, as clues to the meaning of Neolithic religious concepts, cults, and rituals, ethnographic materials related to the psychology and behavior of farmers, the mythology of ancient civilizations, and the scientific reconstruction of the earliest known Indo-European and Semitic languages. Although the usefulness of these approaches should not be denied, the most reliable method is to study the religion of Neolithic communities on the basis of what has been discovered in their settlements and graves. The most relevant of these finds are cultic places and objects, ritual instruments, remains of sacrifices, and various symbols. However, these material expressions of the religious consciousness of Neolithic communities have not been discovered in all Neolithic cultures; in some, they have been documented only sporadically. Accordingly, this narrows down even more the chronological and territorial boundaries within which it is possible to study the origin, distinctive traits, and evolution of Neolithic religious conceptions.

The fullest evidence for the study of Neolithic religion comes from Asia Minor and Europe, the two regions that have been best explored. Within this large territory, which extends from the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea to Denmark and the British Isles, three religious spheres can be distinguished: the Near East, southeastern Europe, and the western Mediterranean with northwestern Europe. The remaining regions of Europe either were under the direct influence of these spheres or, as in northeastern Europe, were inhabited by hunting-gathering communities that held on to the traditional religious concepts of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods. The latter was also true of communities inhabiting the forest zone of northern Asia, primarily Siberia.

In spite of the scarcity of relevant archaeological finds, three religious spheres can also be distinguished in southern and eastern Asia: the Malay archipelago, northern China and Manchuria, and the Japanese islands with Korea. The inhabited regions of central Asia probably did not constitute a separate religious zone. In Africa, only two Neolithic religious spheres can be distinguished, one in northern Africa and the other in the Nile Valley. Nothing is known of developments south of the Sahara. The situation is similar in the New World, where only one sphere of Neolithic religion, comprising Middle America and the coastal zone of Peru, is known.

Of the nine religious spheres that may be distinguished on the map of the Neolithic world, those in Asia Minor and southeastern Europe were the earliest, the most long-lived, and the most influential. Future investigations will probably show that Neolithic religions in southeastern and eastern Asia were much more specific and influential than present evidence suggests. In the western Mediterranean area and in northwestern Europe, religion acquired specific traits at an early date but began to radiate far and wide only in the Late Neolithic. The other Neolithic religions appeared comparatively late and were mainly of brief duration and local importance.

The Near East

The Neolithic religion of the Near East originated between 8300 and 6500 bce in the zone of the so-called Fertile Crescent (Palestine, Syria, northern Iraq, and Iran). It flourished between 6500 and 5000 bce in Anatolia, and disintegrated between 5000 and 3000 bce in the lowlands of Mesopotamia.

Evidence of a sedentary way of life, a basic trait of the Neolithic period, is clearly discerned in the Natufian culture, which developed in Palestine and Syria between 10,000 and 8300 bce. Excavations of Natufian settlements have yielded indirect evidence of the use and cultivation of grain (for example, stone mortars, pestles, and sickles). Such evidence, together with the remains of dogs, marks the Natufian as the dawn of Neolithic culture in the Near East (the so-called Proto-Neolithic). Although no objects of an undoubtedly sacred character have been discovered at Natufian sites, it is nevertheless possible to form some idea, on the basis of surviving houses, graves, and art objects, of the religious concepts, cults, and rituals extant in this period.

No cult places have been found in Natufian settlements, with the possible exception of the remains of a large oval structure discovered in Jericho. Its isolated location on virgin soil beside a spring indicates that this may have been a cult site visited at certain times of the year.

That all of the figural representations belonging to this culture were carved from pebbles suggests beliefs associated with water and its creative potential. These representations include schematized human heads from Ain Mallaha and Al-Oued and an "erotic" statuette from Ain Sakhri showing an embracing couple, perhaps illustrating the concept of the "holy marriage." Sexual attributes are not marked on any of the figures, and the relationship of the sexes is expressed in an allusive way: the large stone mortars with circular recipients in their middles probably represent the female principle, as the phallus-shaped stone pestles probably represent the male principle.

These mortars, used for the grinding of grain, were sometimes sunk into the floor of circular houses, next to the hearth (as at Ain Mallaha). They were also frequently associated with burials and used either as grave markers (Wadi Fallah) or as altars around which graves were arranged in a semicircle (Al-Oued). Frequent burial of the dead in pits used for the storage of grain, and the occasional building of hearths above graves (Ain Mallaha) or in cemeteries (Nahal Oren), emphasizes a close connection between the dead and the processes of providing, keeping, and preparing grain food. There is also evidence to suggest some link between certain animals, the dead, and the underworld: for example, a grave in Ain Mallaha contained a human skull framed with the horns of a gazelle; another grave at the same site contained the skeleton of a dog; and seven human skulls, each accompanied by an equid's tooth, were found in Erq el-Ahmar. These finds may indicate that the Natufians believed that ancestors provided all the basic sources of food, that they looked after plants and animals and caused them to multiply.

Evidence of a cult of ancestors is also found in the complex funeral customs of the Natufians, especially in their burial of detached skulls, sometimes grouped in fives or nines. At Ain Mallaha, two graves lay beneath a circle of stone with a diameter of two and one-half meters; upon it a quadrangular hearth was built. A skull and two uppermost vertebrae lay on the hearth, an indication perhaps of human sacrifice. This structure and a hearth in the cemetery at Nahal Oren, with a deposit of ashes one-half meter thick, present reliable evidence of a chthonic cult. Here were altars on which sacrifices were offered to the heroic dead or to the forces governing the underworld. There is, however, no evidence of a transition from the chthonic to an agrarian cult in the Proto-Neolithic period.

Throughout the entire zone of the Fertile Crescent, the period between 8300 and 6500 bce saw the appearance of villages in which cereals were cultivated and animals domesticated, as is now known through the discovery of remains of barley, wheat, sheep, goats, and pigs at scattered sites. Pottery was very rare, and therefore this period has been termed the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. The number of finds associated with religion is comparatively large, but they were discovered chiefly in Palestine, Syria, and northern Mesopotamia.

The traditional cult of ancestors, manifested primarily in the detachment and special treatment of skulls, developed further, culminating between 7500 and 6500 bce. Complete burials or detached skulls, sometimes placed in special structures, were discovered beneath the floors of houses in almost all sites from this period. In Mureybet, skulls were placed on clay benches along the walls of the houses, so that they were always within reach. In Jericho, a skull might be covered with a kind of plaster, and then a face, sometimes with individualized features, was modeled upon it. Evidence of the same practice exists at Beisamoun and Tell Ramad (both in Syria), where each plastered skull was placed on a clay support in the form of a seated human figure.

Cult centers discovered in Palestine (Jericho and Beida), in the upper Euphrates Valley (Mureybet), and in western Iran (Ganjadareh) provide more detailed evidence for the religion of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. In Jericho, two rooms and a structure are supposed to have served cult purposes, primarily because of their unusual shapes: a room with a niche in which a block of volcanic rock stood on a stone support was discovered in a house; a pit filled with ashes was found in the middle of another house, which suggests that some ritual was performed in that place; finally, figurines representing oxen, goats, and, perhaps, pigs were found in a large structure with wooden posts placed in an unusual arrangement. In Beida, a group of three enigmatic oval structures, located some fifty meters distant from the settlement and approached by a paved path, were explored. In the middle of the central structure, a large block of sandstone was set upright; a large slab with a parapet built around the edge lay against the southern wall, and a triangular basin, made of a large slab and partly filled with ashes, soot, and charred animal bones (probably the remains of a sacrifice or a ritual feast), was found outside the wall. In Ganjadareh a room with a niche containing fixed, superimposed rams' skulls was found in the middle of the Neolithic village, and in Mureybet rooms were discovered in which horns of wild oxen, perhaps bucrania (sometimes flanked by the shoulder blades of oxen or asses), were embedded in the walls.

These rooms were mostly house shrines, for they were directly linked with dwelling rooms. Only the group of three oval structures in Beida and the building with wooden posts in Jericho might have been communal shrines. The cult objects from these shrines suggest that the powers venerated in them had not yet acquired an anthropomorphic shape and that their presence was expressed by aniconic forms, mostly by upright stones or the heads of bulls or rams. Two finds only, dating from the very end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, might be associated with anthropomorphic deities. These are the remains of three plastered human statues from Jericho and the deposit of at least ten human statues, 80 to 90 centimeters high, and twelve busts, 30 to 45 centimeters high, found in Ain Ghazal (Palestine). The Jericho statues make up a group representing a man, a woman, and a child, possibly a divine triad. The Ain Ghazal statues have stylized bodies but individualized heads; one of them represents a man, and the others have female breasts.

The meaning of these statues, and of the busts that were found surrounding them, is difficult to decipher. Since miniature clay figurines of pregnant women, often deliberately damaged, were also found in Ain Ghazal, we may surmise that the small anthropomorphic figurines were used in fertility rites or in some chthonic-agrarian cult; the larger statues may have been representations of particular deities and therefore objects of the greatest veneration.

The cults performed in individual households became clearly distinct from those in the care of the broader community or of persons specially chosen by the community (priests and priestesses) only in the period of the full consolidation of the Neolithic culture, between 6500 and 5000 bce. A gap between the sacred and the profane opened during this time, as is evidenced by the very limited number of sacred objects, mainly fragmented anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines, found in villages from this period, in conjunction with their high concentration in some settlements; this causes people to speak of religious centers.

The best example of such a center is Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia, where fourteen building horizons, dating from 6300 to 5400 bce, were discovered. Each of these levels consists of dwelling rooms linked with storage spaces and shrines, of varying size, that contain sacred representations (reliefs and frescoes), stone and clay figurines, and graves of privileged members of the community, possibly priests and priestesses. A certain consistency in the arrangement of representations on walls suggests the existence of a coherent religious concept or myth in which the character and mutual relationship of superior powers were clearly defined. We may assume that the reliefs depicted the divine powers, the frescoes described the sacred activities (religious ceremonies, sacrifices, and ritual scenes), and the statuettes represented the chief actors in the myth. Scenes associated with the world of the dead were always shown on the northern and eastern walls of the shrines, scenes related to the giving of birth were depicted on the western walls, and representations of the goddess and the bull appeared on all of the walls. The most common motifs used in the reliefs were bulls heads and the so-called "twin goddesses," whereas most of the frescoes depicted bulls and vultures. In addition, there were various other symbols, such as representations of the human head, the boar's head, and the female breast. Viewed as a whole, these complex motifs represent the confrontation between the creative powers (the bulls, the twin goddesses) and the destructive forces (the boars, the vultures), and the opposition of birth and death or light and darkness. The statuettes express a similar opposition: they are representations of the great female deity (sometimes in her positive and sometimes in her negative aspect) and of the goddess's son or male consort.

Representations of the same female deity were discovered in the Neolithic settlement of Hacilar (southwestern Anatolia), dating from around 5500 bce. Statuettes, modeled in a naturalistic way and frequently colored, represent a young or mature woman, naked or clothed, in a standing, seated, or reclining position, sometimes with a child or an animal in her lap or arms. Plastered bulls' heads, as well as stone amulets in the shape of bulls' heads, were also found, but there were no shrines. Some houses, however, had niches with stone slabs, a type of which had a human face with large eyes incised on it. These may have been figures of ancestors, household spirits, the guardians of the family. The later settlements of Hacilar, dating from 5400 to 5000 bce, yielded two shrines associated with the cult of the dead, standardized feminine statuettes, almost violin-shaped masculine figurines, and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic ritual vessels. Over the following two millennia, the number of figurines decreased, but painted pottery became very common, and its decoration frequently incorporated basic religious concepts.

At the beginning of the fifth millennium bce, Anatolia lost its importance, and the centers of culture and spiritual life were transferred to Mesopotamia, Khuzestan, and the Transcaspian lowlands. The intensive migratory movements, exploitation of new materials (copper and gold), and increased exchange of goods transformed the traditional religion in almost all of the regions of the Near East and led, at the end of the fourth millennium bce, to the disintegration of all Neolithic cultures. Although a number of distinct and frequently unrelated cultures emerged in the period between 5000 and 3000 bce, the religion of this period was characterized by three general features: the separation of the world of the living from the world of the dead, as manifested in the increasing practice of burying the dead in special cemeteries outside the settlements; the separation of cult centers from dwellings and the establishment of communal shrines; and the abandonment of figural representations of deities and the tendency to suggest their potency and activity by means of abstract symbols, signs, and ornaments.

All these traits already are evidenced clearly in the cultures from the first half of the fifth millennium bce. In northern Mesopotamia (the Halaf-Hassuna-Samarra cultures), the dead were buried mainly outside the settlements, and only children were interred beneath the floors of houses or shrines. Anthropomorphic figurines either disappeared or underwent a change in significance. The number of feminine figurines was comparatively large in the Samarra and Halaf cultures, and costly materials (for example, alabaster) were frequently used for their manufacture, but they were usually placed in graves. Shrines from this period can be identified by their special position in the settlement rather than by their decoration or by the objects found in them. In Eridu (southern Mesopotamia), the shrine formed the nucleus around which the settlement was built; in Pessejik and Dashliji (Transcaspian lowlands), shrines were distinguished not only by their size and rich decoration but also by their position.

In the cultures of the second half of the fifth and the fourth millennium bce, the processes manifested earlier developed further. In the Al-Ubayyid culture, there is evidence of monumental temples on platforms and of cult places separated from settlements. Some temples (for example, the temple from Layer VIII in Eridu) already resembled ziggurats. No statues or figurines of deities were found in these temples, but there were altars around which rites, probably similar to those shown on the seals of the Gawra type (processions, ritual dances, the adorning of altars, and the like), were performed. Burials were made in cemeteries separated from settlements (Tell Arpachiya, Eridu, Al-Ubayyid), and grave goods included both feminine and masculine figurines as well as a type of figurine representing a woman with a child in her arms. These figurines did not represent deities; rather, they were instruments used in funerary rites. It is obvious that deities became remote and abstract toward the end of the Neolithic period. The religion of the Al-Ubayyid culture, as well as that of other contemporaneous cultures of the Near East, was basically transcendental. In this respect, it anticipates the religion of the early urban civilization of Mesopotamia.

Southeastern Europe

The Neolithic religion of southeastern Europe was based on local traditions and the religion of the Epi-Paleolithic hunting-gathering communities, the presence of which is attested on numerous sites from Peloponnese to the northern fringe of the Pannonian plain, and from the western shores of the Black Sea to the Alps and the eastern coast of the Adriatic. As early as the twelfth millennium bce, this extensive territory was incorporated into the sphere of the Mediterranean Gravettian culture, in whose religion the most important artifacts were pebbles colored with red ocher and engraved objects of bone and antler. When the climate became gradually warmer at the end of the ninth millennium bce, the Tardi-Gravettian culture began to disintegrate. This disintegration had different consequences in different regions: in the southwestern part of the Balkan Peninsula, the traditional culture was impoverished and gradually became extinct; in the Aegean and, particularly, in the Danubian region, it became richer, developing, between 7000 and 6500 bce, into the culture of the first farming communities.

As in the Near East, the beginning of the Neolithic culture in the Danubian region and the Aegean was marked by a sedentary way of life. The first permanent open-space settlements appeared at the beginning of the eighth millennium bce, in the central part of the Danubian valley, on low river terraces near large whirlpools abounding in fish. The local Epi-Paleolithic culture began to change rapidly and, at the end of the same millennium, evolved into the Proto-Neolithic Lepenski Vir culture. The shrines of this culture were associated not only with the earliest monumental sculptures in Europe but also with the first achievements in the domestication of plants and animals.

The earliest settlements of the Lepenski Vir culture were small. No places used for cult purposes were discovered in them, but finds did include ritual instruments and pebbles colored with red ocher. Later settlements, dating from the beginning of the seventh millennium bce, yielded varied material. Some contained a number of specialized implements and a great quantity of bones of fish and game animals, whereas others (for example, Lepenski Vir and Hajdučka Vodenica) had shrines, sculptures made of very large boulders, and graves containing evidence of complex funerary rites. This turning of human faculties toward different goals led, on the one hand, to the transition from a gathering economy to a food-producing one, and, on the other hand, to the appearance of monumental sculptures and the cults and myths associated with them.

A total of 147 dwelling places were discovered at Lepenski Vir, the religious center for the entire central Danubian region between 7000 and 6500 bce. About fifty of them had small shrines, each consisting of a rectangular hearth surrounded by large stone slabs embedded in a floor made of limestone mortar, an altar with a circular or ellipsoid recipient, and anywhere from one to five sculptures made of large boulders. Directly against the stones surrounding the hearth, one to fifteen triangular openings were sunk into the floor, framed with small slabs of red stone and, sometimes, with human mandibles.

All of these dwelling places with shrines had a uniform ground plan in the form of a truncated sector of a circle, with an angle of about sixty degrees. Skeletons of infants (from one to five) were found beneath the floors, and secondary or partial burials (consisting mainly of skulls) were made within the shrines. In each shrine, the hearth structure and the altar lay on an axis extending from east to west, whereas the dead and the sculptures had a north-south orientation. This fixed orientation implies a clear division of the world. The shrines probably reproduced the world's structure, and the sculptures, both abstract and figural, probably illustrated the myth of its creation. Abstract sculptures were more numerous, and the intertwining on their surfaces of rounded, "female" signs with open, "male" ones suggests the idea of continuous fertilization. The figural sculptures probably represent only what was born out of that intertwining: hybrid, fishlike beings, water spirits, lords of the great river, and primeval ancestors. Regardless of how we interpret these stone figures, their close association with the hearth (on which food was prepared for the living and where sacrifices were offered to the dead) shows that the religion of the Lepenski Vir culture was based on the cult of the domestic hearth.

In the period when religion and art in this region reached their apogee, two major advances were made in the sphere of economy: the cultivation of some sorts of grain and the domestication or selection of some animals (dogs, pigs, deer) were mastered, so that the Lepenski Vir culture assumed the traits of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. The uniform character of its shrines and sculptures shows that all ancestral knowledge was combined into an integral system and incorporated into cult, myth, and ritual.

In the middle of the seventh millennium bce, in the period when the cultivation of plants and the keeping of animals were taken out of the ritual context, the Lepenski Vir culture lost its specific traits and developed into the culture of the earliest Danubian farmers, the so-called Starčevo-Körös-Cris culture. Concurrently or a few centuries later, Early Neolithic cultures appeared, either autonomously or as a result of acculturation, in other regions of southeastern Europe as well. However they came into being, an almost uniform sacred world, centered again on the domestic hearth, established itself throughout the whole of southeastern Europe as early as around 6000 bce.

The sixth millennium was a period of stabilization for Neolithic cultures in southeastern Europe. The most creative regions were Thessaly-Macedonia (the Proto-Sesklo and Sesklo cultures), the Danubian region (the Starčevo culture) and the Maritsa Valley (the Karanovo culture). No shrines have been discovered in any of these regions; the only possible exception is a building in Nea Nikomedeia (Aegean Macedonia), which, because of its large dimensions, was probably a shrine. Some houses in northwestern Macedonia (in Porodin, Madzare, and Zelenikovo) had stoves next to which stood richly decorated clay tables (perhaps altars) and sometimes also clay models of houses with head-shaped chimneys or breast-shaped roofs. These finds, as well as the considerably more modest models of houses from Thessaly and the Danubian region, suggest that the entire house was considered to be under the protection of a household deity.

Anthropomorphic figurines, mostly representing pregnant women, were common only in Thessaly, Macedonia, and the Danubian region, usually at places where utensils for everyday use were also found. Feminine figurines were the more numerous, but they are not earlier than masculine ones. Zoomorphic figurines (mostly representations of oxen and deer) were produced in great numbers, as were amulets, each in the shape of a stylized bull's head. Types of sacrifices can be deduced on the basis of several finds in Crete and Thessaly, where narrow, deep pits filled with ashes, animal bones, and occasional anthropomorphic figurines have been found. These were probably places where sacrifices were offered to chthonic deities, and the figurines were probably placed there as substitutes for human sacrifice, indications of which are evident only in the hilly and marginal areas of southeastern Europe. The cult of the dead was not particularly important. The deceased were buried in contracted position in various placesin the settlements, outside them, or in caves. They were buried without rich gifts and without any fixed orientation. The idea of death apparently did not play an important role in the life of the Neolithic communities of southeastern Europe.

The fifth millennium bce was the period of the flowering of Neolithic cultures in southeastern Europe, especially in the inland regions of the Balkan Peninsula and in the Pannonian plain, where the Vinča culture was dominant. There were no essential innovations in the religious sphere, but the traditional elements of religious life became more clearly defined and more numerous. There is no evidence of shrines; cultic life was still associated with households, especially with the rooms for the storage and grinding of grain or for the preparation of food. Rooms with bucrania on the walls and an abundance of cult objects have been found on several sites of the Vinča culture. The geographical distribution of these sites shows that in the entire territory of the Vinča culture, covering some 120,000 square kilometers, there were only five or six large settlements that were major religious centers. Vinča itself was certainly one of them, for each change in the sacred objects produced in it was reflected in the surrounding territory up to about one hundred kilometers in diameter. Several thousand anthropomorphic figurines and hundreds of ritual vases, amulets, and various cult instruments have been found at Vinča.

The anthropomorphic figurines were very varied and included naked and clothed human figures, figures in flexed, kneeling, or seated positions, two-headed figures, figures of musicians, and masked figures. Some scholars have seen in them representations of particular deities, such as the Great Goddess, the Bird and Snake Goddess, the Pregnant Vegetation Goddess, and the Year God. But these figurines were not found in ritual contexts, and the differences in their appearances probably resulted from aesthetic rather than religious considerations. Only about five percent of them are clearly defined as feminine or masculine. All examples whose place of discovery is known have been associated with various elements of the household (for instance, the stove, the hearth, the guern, the weaving loom, and the storage pit) or with particular domestic activities. A number of figurines have been found in graves but these are exceptions confined to some local cultures (for example, the Hamangia culture in Dobruja). The fact that they were commonly found together with objects of everyday use, and that they had frequently been fragmented and discarded, suggests that they lost their value once the ritual had been performed and the desired end achieved. These figurines were probably held to incorporate the powers presiding over the household, granary, flocks, or farmed land. The relationship between these powers and the community seems to have been direct, so that the religion of this period was, in fact, a popular one. It was manifested in the performance of rites associated with rain, sowing, reaping, the seasons of the year, birth, sickness, and death, rather than with the veneration of particular deities.

The discovery of copper and gold in the Carpathian Mountains at the end of the fifth millennium bce, and the later inroads of nomads from the southern Russian steppes, caused a crisis in the old values and goals; as a result, traditional shrines lost some of their importance. In the fourth millennium bce, the centers of sacred life were transferred to the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula (the Boian-Gumelnita culture) and to Moldavia and the southwestern Ukraine (the Cucuteni-Tripol'e culture). It was only in this period of crisis that special attention was devoted to the deadseparation of cemeteries from settlements, fixed orientation of burials, exceptionally rich funerary giftsand that special rooms in the houses were set apart for cult purposes. The cult of the bull continued to be practiced (shrines with bucrania, amulets in the form of bulls' heads) as did the cult of the household hearth (concentration of sacred objects, especially of anthropomorphic figurines, around a stove used for baking bread).

At Căscuiareke (Romania), however, a shrine was found that contained evidence of the cult of the sacred pillar and, possibly, of the sun. A group of miniature clay objects (altars, stools, figurines in positions of adoration, and ritual vessels) with painted decoration (concentric circles, triangles, and spirals) representing the sun and other celestial bodies was discovered at Ovcharevo (Bulgaria). Similar ornaments found on painted ware suggest that religious thought was primarily directed to the sky and was concerned with cosmogony. These ornaments consist of ideograms for the sun, moon, four sides of the world, heavenly spheres, earth, air, fire, and the like. Later they came to include human, animal, and fantastic figures (giants with two pairs of arms, winged dogs, and so on); one may thus surmise that a special mythology was being evolved in southeastern Europe during the fourth millennium bce. This mythology could not be fully developed: in the middle of the fourth millennium bce, southeastern Europe was overrun by nomadic horsemen who destroyed the shrines of local farming communities and paralyzed their creativity.

Other Regions

The separate religious spheres of the Neolithic world were the western Mediterranean with northwestern Europe; the Sahara; the Nile Valley; China; Japan; and Middle America. The hunting-gathering communities of Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, and the adjacent islands became acquainted with the main achievements of the "Neolithic Revolution" at the end of the seventh millennium bce, but they mostly continued to live in caves and rock shelters and to hold on to ancient customs. In coastal districts and the adjacent hinterlands the preoccupation with earth was first established through pottery making rather than farming. Something of the spiritual life of these communities is reflected in the ornaments on their pottery, which includes such motifs as wavy lines, flamelike patterns, and crescents. These motifs may have symbolized objects of the greatest venerationthe moon, sun, and seaand may be taken as evidence of the cult of waters and celestial bodies.

In the fifth millennium bce, influences from the Aegean began to modify the culture of the Apennine Peninsula, while the Iberian peninsula saw the beginning of processes that in time led to the emergence, throughout western and northwestern Europe, of cultures characterized by megalithic tombs for collective burial (such as dolmens, passage graves, and gallery graves) and by sacred architecture consisting of large stone uprights (menhirs) set in parallel alignments or in circles (cromlechs). These were the basic forms, but some other types of sacred stone structures were built in other regions, for example, shrines with a U-shaped plan in Denmark and temples with niches and a central courtyard in Malta. The dominant cult was that of ancestors. Highly stylized idols with large eyes in the form of rosettes (the "all-seeing goddess") have been found in megalithic graves in Spain and Portugal. Special places for sacrificial offerings have also been discovered at certain sites, such as the cemetery in Los Millares, Spain. Gravestones were frequently decorated with abstract engravings and reliefs, more rarely, with representations of snakes, oxen, or double-edged axes. At the end of the Neolithic period, some upright gravestones were modeled in the form of human figures (statue menhirs).

All these megalithic shrines were surrounded by the graves of ancestors; since they were placed far apart, it is certain that they marked sites at which large groups of farming communities gathered on special occasions. The gigantic cromlech Stonehenge (southern England), as well as the alignment of stone monuments in Carnac (Brittany, France), must have attracted thousands of believers who gathered to establish contact with ancestral or divine powers. Malta, with its numerous temples, was probably a holy island (isola sacra ) to which believers came from all parts of the world to be initiated into the mysteries of the Great Goddess, whose colossal fragmented statue has been discovered under one of the temples. Each Maltese temple has a ground plan in the form of a uterus or the silhouette of the Great Goddess. Figurines with deformed bodies and representations of the so-called sleeping ladies found in these temples suggest that they were also healing places and oracles where believers could, through a period of sojourn (incubation), obtain cures for the body or soul. The very act of walking through these uterus-shaped temples, between alignments, or through the circles of cromlechs had the significance of an initiation.

The religion of the Neolithic populations of Africa was based on quite different concepts and cults. The predominantly pastoral communities of the Sahara left rock paintings and drawings that usually represent oxen or human figures in the position of adoration. Farther east, in Egypt, the first farming communities paid greatest attention to their dead and to the Nile. The earliest Neolithic graves (middle of the fifth millennium bce) already had a fixed orientation. The dead were buried facing east, with grains of wheat in their mouths (the Merimde culture). In some cases, models of boats and anthropomorphic figurines made of clay or ivory were placed in graves (the Badari culture). Vases from the second half of the fourth millennium bce (the Naqada II culture) show processions of decorated boats, probably depicting the rite of offering sacrifice to the Nile.

The Neolithic religion in the countries of the Far East also had distinct features. The Yang-shao culture of China seems to have fostered the cult of ancestors and fertility. Judging from motifs on painted ware, an important role was also accorded to the cult of evergreen trees (fir and cypress) and, perhaps, mountaintops. A significant role was accorded as well to the dynamic forces of the universe and cosmic radiation, which influence nature and the destiny of man. The Neolithic population of Japan, which had long remained in complete isolation, also left some traces of its religion. They include enigmatic stone circlesthe so-called sundials, with a radius of up to forty-five metersand figurines with large protruding eyes and stone phalli, sometimes of large dimensions. These represent mere fragments of a Neolithic religion based on the worship of stone, the sun, and the phallus.

The Neolithic religions of the Malay archipelago and of Mesoamerica must have been equally specific, since the development of a Neolithic culture in these regions was specific and autonomous. The archaeological evidence is, however, so slender that it does not permit poeple to form any definite conclusions about the religious ideas of Neolithic communities in these areas.

See Also

Agriculture; Ancestors; Earth; Goddess Worship; Hieros Gamos; Megalithic Religion; Metals and Metallurgy; Prehistoric Religions.


No comprehensive account of Neolithic religion has yet been written. The general surveys of prehistoric religion devote comparatively little space to Neolithic religion and present only the material from the Neolithic sites in Europe and the Near East; see, for example, E. O. James's Prehistoric Religion (London, 1957), Johannes Maringer's The Gods of Prehistoric Man (New York, 1960), and Étienne Patte's Les hommes préhistoriques et la religion (Paris, 1960). Some new and stimulating ideas concerning Neolithic religion have been introduced by Karl J. Narr in the chapter "Kunst und Religion der Steinzeit und Steinkupferzeit," in his Handbuch der Urgeschichte, vol. 2 (Bern, 1975), pp. 655670, and by Mircea Eliade in A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1978), pp. 2952 and 114124.

A rich and systematic collection of documents for the study of Neolithic religion is provided by Hermann Müller-Karpe in his Handbuch der Vorgeschichte, vol. 2 (Munich, 1968). Several books discuss, in a rather uncritical way, the problem of the meaning of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines in the Neolithic world: Olaf Höckmann's Die menschengestaltige Figuralplastik der südosteuropäischen Jungsteinzeit und Steinkupferzeit, 2 vols. (Hildesheim, 1968); Marija Gimbutas's The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 65003500 b.c., rev. ed. (London, 1982); Elena V. Antonova's Antropomorfnaia skul'ptura drevnikh zemledel'tsev Perednei i Srednei Azii (Moscow, 1977); and Nándor Kalicz's Clay Gods (Budapest, 1980). A correct methodological approach to these problems is demonstrated by Peter J. Ucko in "The Interpretation of Prehistoric Anthropomorphic Figurines," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 92 (January-June 1962): 3854, and in his Anthropomorphic Figurines from Egypt and Neolithic Crete with Comparative Material from Prehistoric Near East and Mainland Greece (London, 1968).

The great spiritual centers of the Neolithic world are outlined in detail in Kathleen M. Kenyon's Digging Up Jericho (London, 1957), James Mellaart's Çatal Hüyük (London, 1967), Jacques Cauvin's Religions néolithiques de Syro-Palestine (Paris, 1972), and my own book Europe's First Monumental Sculpture: New Discoveries at Lepenski Vir (London, 1972). A. Rybakov's "Kosmogoniia i mifologiia zemledel'tsev eneolita," Sovetskaia arkheologiia 1 (1965): 2447 and 2 (1965): 1333, is an important contribution to understanding the semantics of pottery decoration. The Neolithic shrines of southeastern Europe are discussed by Vladimir Dumitrescu in "Édifice destiné au culte découvert dans la couche Boian-Spantov de la station-tell de Căsciorele," Dacia (Bucharest) 15 (1970): 524; by Henrieta Todorova in "Kultszene und Hausmodell aus Ovčarevo," Thracia (Sofia) 3 (1974): 3946; and by Marija Gimbutas in "The Temples of Old Europe," Archaeology 33 (November-December 1980): 4150. Megalithic monuments have been the subject of many recent monographs and papers; however, they discuss the problems of the systematization, distribution, and chronology of these monuments rather than their religious meaning. There are no comprehensive studies of Neolithic religion in eastern and southeastern Asia, although some attention has been devoted to the significance of ornamentation on the pottery of the Yang-shao culture and of figurines from the Jomon period.

New Sources

Cauvin, Jacques. The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. Cambridge, 2000.

Gimbutas, Marija Alseikaite, and Miriam Robbins Dexter. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley, 1999.

North, John David. Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos. London, 1996.

Dragoslav SrejoviĆ (1987)

Translated from Serbo-Croatian by Veselin Kostić
Revised Bibliography

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