Megalithic Religion: Prehistoric Evidence

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In Neolithic western Europe, large stones, or megaliths (from the Greek megas, "great," and lithos, "stone"), were used for construction of tombs, temples, rings, alignments, and stelae. The largest number of some fifty thousand megalithic monuments are in Spain and Portugal, France, Britain, southern Sweden, and northern Germany. The terms megalithic culture and megalithic religion have been applied to the massive stone monuments. However, neither a separate megalithic culture nor isolated megalithic religion existed. The culture that produced megalithic monuments was a part of the western European Neolithic and Aeneolithic (a transitional period between the Neolithic and Bronze ages). It consisted of a number of regional culture groups whose religion can be understood in the context of the gynecocentric Old European (i. e., pre-Indo-European) religion inherited from Upper Paleolithic times. Huge stones were used wherever they were readily available. Monumental architecture, motivated by religious ideas, emerged synchronically with the rise of a sedentary way of life.

Carbon-14 dating has established that western European megaliths were built over a span of at least three thousand years, from the fifth to the second millennium bce. They were constructed earlier than the Egyptian pyramids and do not descend from forms in the Near East; the majority of archaeologists now believe that their development was indigenous. If there was any diffusion of ideas, it occurred along the seaboard and from the Atlantic coast toward the interior.

Megalithic structures fall into four main categories. The first is the temple, found in the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo. Maltese temples have solid walls of very large stone slabs, and their floor plan has apses that recall the shape of a seated or standing goddess. The second and largest category of megalithic structures is the burial chamber, which is subdivided into dolmens (monuments of two or more upright stones supporting a horizontal slab), passage graves, court tombs, and gallery graves. Some passage graves are monumental buildings whose chambers have corbeled vaults; for example, Newgrange in the Boyne River valley, Ireland, which dates from 3200 to 3000 bce, rises twenty feet above the ground. The third category is the single upright stone, or menhir (the word comes from the Welsh maen, "a stone," and hir, "long"). Some of the menhirs found in Brittany are as high as six meters. A special kind of menhir, called a statue menhir, is sculpted to represent a divinity. The fourth category consists of grouped standing stones, placed either in rows or in elliptical rings.

Archaeologists once assumed that these megalithic monuments had evolved from simple to more complex forms, but the new chronology shows that some very elaborate buildings predate the simple gallery graves.

Temples and tombs were built in the likeness of the Mother of the Dead or Mother Earth's pregnant belly or womb; this is the key to understanding megalithic structures and their floor plans. The idea that caves and caverns are natural manifestations of the primordial womb of the goddess is not Neolithic in origin; it goes back to the Paleolithic, when a cave's narrow passages, oval-shaped areas, clefts, and small cavities were marked or painted entirely in red, a color that must have symbolized the color of the mother's generative organs. The rock-cut tombs and hypogea of Malta, Sicily, and Sardinia are usually uterine, egg-shaped, or roughly anthropomorphic. Red soil is found under each temple of Malta.

In western Europe, the body of the goddess is magnificently realized as the megalithic tomb. The so-called cruciform and double-oval tombs, as well as Maltese temples, are unmistakably human in shape. Some monuments replicate the ample contours of figurines of the pregnant goddess.

The earliest form of the grandiose chamber tombs is the passage grave, which consists of a corridor and principal chamber. The natural cave, with its connotations of the goddess's womb (vagina and uterus), was probably the inspiration for the aboveground monumental structures that were erected later. The basic form of the passage gravea shorter or longer passage and a round, corbel-roofed chamberdates from the fifth millennium bce in Portugal, Spain, and Brittany.

The interior structures of many Neolithic court tombs found in Ireland are outlined in a clearly anthropomorphic form. In addition to a large abdomen and head, some structures have legs and even eyes. The term court cairns or court tombs comes from the semicircular entrance, built with large stones, that characterize these structures. In many instances, the court and one or more chambers attached to the middle of the edifice are all that remain of the cairn (De Valera, 1960, pls. ii-xxx). However, better-preserved examples show that the court marks the inner contour of the anthropomorphic figure's open legs; the chambers or a corridorlike structure next to it, which leads into the very center of the mound, represents the vagina and uterus. The same symbolism is manifested in different areas and periods. The Sardinian tombe di giganti of the third and second millennia bce, consisting of a long chamber entered through the center of a semicircular facade, do not differ in symbolism from the Irish court tombs.

The other type of grave is a long barrow whose shape resembles that of a bone, a symbol of death. Like the court tombs, this type of grave has an entrance at the front that leads into an anthropomorphic or uterus-shaped chamber.

Megalithic monuments were built to be seen. Careful excavations and reconstructions have shown that much attention was paid to their outer walls and facades. For example, a reconstruction of a monument at Barnenez, Brittany, dating from the fifth millennium bce (Giot, 1980), revealed a concentric series of walls with the upper parts of the internal walls visible. Another great structure, dating from the first half of the third millennium bce, was reconstructed at Silbury, Wiltshire, in southwestern England (Dames, 1976). Later excavations revealed that there were once wooden structures on top and beside the megalithic monuments that were just as important as the monuments. Postholes (indicating the presence of structures) have been observed in low barrows in Brittany, Britain, and Denmark. Traces of a timber facade, a porch at the front end of the barrow, and palisade enclosures have also been discovered (Madsen, 1979). The exquisite decoration in bas-relief on stones at entrances (as at Newgrange) implies that ceremonies took place in front of the cairns. Settlement debris in Irish court cairns has led some scholars to believe that chambered tombs and long barrows should be considered not burial places but shrines. However, excavations of megalithic chambers over the past two centuries have revealed skeletons, suggesting that the monuments served as repositories and were used collectively by the community. Some tombs have yielded as many as 350 disarticulated skeletons; others contain only 5 to 20 skeletons, discovered in compartments where they were placed after the flesh had decayed. In a few instances, skulls were found stacked carefully in corners.

Long cairns in Britain have yielded so-called mortuary houses, which were constructed of timber or stone and had plank floors. The rectangular mortuary houses found at Lochhill and Slewcairn contained three pits; the central one had two posts while the end pits held large split tree trunks (Masters, in Renfrew, 1981, p. 103). Mortuary houses are also known from Denmark (Becker, in Daniel and Kjaerum, 1973, pp. 7580; Madsen, 1979). These mortuary buildings yielded deposits of charcoal, dark soil, cremated bone, an occasional child's skull, and flint tools, indicative of rituals including sacrifices. It seems that megalithic structures and long barrows, not unlike Christian cathedrals and churches, served as shrines and ossuaries. No doubt the large monuments, exquisitely built and engraved with symbols on curbstones and on inner walls, such as those at Knowth and Newgrange (O'Kelly, 1983), Ireland, and Gavrinis, Brittany, were sacred places where funeral, calendrical, and initiation rites took place. These monuments should be called not "tombs" but rather "tomb-shrines." The egg-shaped mound that covers the tomb-shrine of Newgrange is sprinkled with white quartz and looks like a huge egg-shaped dome. Probably it was meant to represent a gigantic cosmic egg, the womb of the world.

It is very likely that not all rituals were connected with death of humans and of all nature; some may have been initiation rites. Typically, the entrances to the tombs are narrow, resembling vulvas. One enters the mortuary house by either crawling or crouching along a narrow passage of stone. A wall of large curbstones, forming a forecourt, supports the mouth of the passage entrance on both sides. The structure may be a replica of the narrow and difficult entry into the mother goddess's womb.

In megalithic gallery graves of France, Switzerland, and the Funnel-necked Beaker culture in Germany, partition walls sometimes have round holes. Their meaning is apparent if the still-extant veneration of stones with holes is considered; belief in the miraculous power of holed stones is still found in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, and in many other European countries. Trees with holes play a related role. By crawling through the aperture of a stone or tree, a person is symbolically crawling into Mother Earth's womb and giving oneself to her. Strengthened by the goddess's powers, he or she is reborn. The crawling constitutes an initiation rite and is similar to sleeping in a cave, that is, "sleeping with the mother," which means to die and to be resurrected. Well-known sculptures of sleeping women from the Hal Saflieni hypogeum in Malta, dating from approximately 3000 bce, most likely represent such an initiation rite.

The pregnant mother's (or earth mother's) generative potential is emphasized by the symbol of a mound and omphalos (navel), which is found engraved or in bas-relief on stone slabs. For example, relief engravings completely cover the surface of twenty-three erect slabs within the passage grave of Gavrinis, rendering an overall impression of symbolic unity. This sanctuary, one of the richest megalithic monuments in Brittany, is situated on a small island in the Gulf of Morbihan. The extensive use of wavy and concentric arc motifs is in harmony with the monument's aqueous environment. The dominant symbol found in this sanctuary is the concentric semicircle, interconnected with or surrounded by multiple wavy lines and serpentine forms. Several slabs are decorated with concentric arcs, piled one on top of the other in vertical columns. The arcs in the center are larger than the rest and have an omphalos-like protrusion. In my opinion, this image is a glyph of the goddess's rising generative force. Emphasis is on the anthropomorphic vulva or cervix sign in the center. (For other illustrations, see Twohig, 1981, pp. 172175.)

Symbolically related to the passage grave of Gavrinis is the roughly triangular backstone of a passage grave from La Table des Marchands in Brittany. It has a vulva at its center, flanked by energy signsfour rows of hooksmeant to stimulate the life source. This symbolism is similar to that found on ancient Greek vases, in which the young goddess (Semele, Gaia) is depicted within an artificial mound surrounded by satyrs, goatmen, and Dionysos, who stimulate her generative powers. On other passage-grave slabs, the symbol of an artificial mound surmounted by a knob is surrounded by axes, another energy symbol, or in association with serpentine lines or snakes and footprints. Still other engravings of the same image (called a "buckler" in the archaeological literature, where it has been seriously misunderstood) show wavy lines emanating from the upper part, which may signify the resurgence of plant life. The beehive-shaped chamber, topped with a flat stone, found in passage graves appears to be a pregnant belly and an omphalos. The so-called buckler sign replicates the same idea in an engraving.

In his analysis of the Silbury Hill monument, Michael Dames shows that in Neolithic Britain the hill functioned as a metaphor for the goddess's pregnant belly (Dames, 1976). The entire structure forms an image of the goddess: the hill is her belly, the ditch forms the rest of her body in a seated or squatting position. The circular summit of Silbury Hill is the goddess's navel, or omphalos, in which her life-producing power is concentrated. Veneration of sacred hills was found in Europe until the twentieth century. Worship of the earth mother was celebrated on mountain summits crowned with large stones.

The second deity associated with the symbolism of the megalithic monuments is the goddess of death and regeneration in the guise of a bird of prey, usually an owl. Her image is engraved or modeled on statue menhirs, slabs of passage and gallery graves, and on walls of subterranean tombs. She herself, her eyes, or her signs appear also on schist plaques, phalanges (bones of toes or fingers), and stone cylinders laid in graves.

The characteristic features of the owlround eyes and hooked beakcan be seen on the statue menhirs of southern France and Iberia, as well as in reliefs and charcoal drawings in the hypogea of the Paris Basin. The face is frequently schematized as a T shape or depicted with only eyes and brows or with a square head, surrounded by chevrons, in the center of the forehead. On the slabs of gallery graves of Brittany, only breasts and necklaces are shown in relief as pars pro toto of the owl goddess. The images of the owl goddess on schist plaques in the passage graves of Portugal have a prominent nose or beak, schematized arms, three horizontal lines or bands across the cheeks, occasional indications of a vulva, and a chevron design on the back. The goddess's owl face appears on a very fine sculpture discovered at Knowth West, Ireland. Her visage is immersed in a labyrinthine design probably symbolic of the life source or life-giving waters; a vulva is in the center. Images of the owl goddess on vases from Almería in Spain are at times associated with a honeycomb designa maze of Vs, triangles, and lozenges.

The symbols associated with the owl goddesswavy lines, hatched or zigzag band, net, labyrinth, meander, honeycomb, tri-line, hook, axall seem to be life-source, energy, or life-stimulating signs. Their association with the owl goddess emphasizes regeneration as an essential component of her personality. The agony of death is nowhere perceptible in this symbolism.

The round eyes of the owl goddess stare from bone phalanges and stone cylinders deposited in megalithic tombs in Spain and Portugal. The eyes and brows are incised in the upper part of the bone or stone cylinder and are surrounded by chevrons, triangles, zigzags, and nets. Again, the symbols of death (bones, light-colored stone) are combined with aquatic, life-source symbolism.

The goddess's impressive, divine eyes gave rise to one of her names, which came into use after the publication of The Eye Goddess by O. G. S. Crawford in 1957. The goddess of the title was said to have originated in the Near East, her cult then diffusing across the Mediterranean to western Europe. Indeed, the resemblance of figurines from the temple of Tell Brak, eastern Syria (c. 3500 bce), with their staring eyes and brows joined over the beak, to the stone idols of Spain and Portugal with their oculi motif is astonishing. The similarity, however, most probably resulted from a universally held symbolic concept of divine eyes, from which western variants developed. The western European eye goddess dates from the fifth and fourth millennia bce (in Crawford's day considered to be the third and second millennia bce). She has close parallels in southeastern Europe and certainly cannot be an imported goddess.

Small stone hourglass figurines, sometimes with triangular heads, are frequently found in Iberian megalithic tombs of the Los Millares type, dating from the end of the fourth or early third millennium bce. Hourglass figures also are painted on Neolithic cave walls in Spain and are engraved on stones of Irish passage graves. The shape may have originated as a doubling of the pubic triangle (vulva) sign, connected at the tip. In Sardinian hypogea, vulva and hourglass signs are interchanged. Engraved triangles and hourglass shapes also appear to be associated on Irish megaliths. Not infrequently, hourglass symbols are engraved in triunes or next to three encircled round holes, as on Curbstone 52 from Newgrange. The number three may reflect the triple nature of the goddess. In vase painting, the hourglass sign appears in association with nets, serpentiforms, and snake meanders, which link this symbol with the life source and water of life symbolism. Bird feet or claws that appear attached to some hourglass figures on vases of the Cucuteni culture (northeastern Romania and western Ukraine) and of the Sardinian Ozieri culture speak for the association with the bird-of-prey goddess. The hourglass shape itself may symbolize an incipient form of life in which the goddess of death and regeneration emerges from graves or caves. This sign is related to the butterfly, a horizontal hourglass and symbol of new life. The origins of the goddess's image as a bird of prey are rooted in the Paleolithic, as is documented by portrayals of owls in Upper Paleolithic caves and by the large birds and wing bones of large fowl found in Paleolithic graves.

Disarticulated skeletons and skulls in megalithic tombs are proof that excarnation was practiced. Corpses were offered to the goddess, who was embodied in birds of prey. This practice is illustrated in frescoes of vulture shrines of Çatal Hüyük, central Anatolia. Large birds were also buried in megalithic tombs, probably as sacrifices to the goddess. Excavations have uncovered a large deposit in a chambered tomb at Isbister in Orkney, Scotland. The greatest number of bones came from the white-tailed eagle. Others were from short-eared owls, great black-backed gulls, rooks or crows, and ravens (Hedges, 1983). All these birds feed on carrion.

Geometric engravings on Irish megalithscrescents, circles, and concentric circles; serpentiforms or zigzags with thirteen to seventeen turnings (the number of the moon's waxing days); subdivisions into four, six, or eight and twelvesuggest a preoccupation with the cycles of time. The involvement of the goddess in configurations of cycles of nature and human life is certain. She must have been the overseer and controller of life and moon cycles.

Many western European tomb-shrines have been constructed so that the entrances align with the winter solstice. The alignment of tomb entrances according to the moon's position at the winter solstice suggests the importance of lunar influences on burial customs and suggests the association with the lunar goddess, who was a cosmic regenerator. These monuments were not built to serve as lunar or solar observatories, as claimed by A. Thom (1979) and other scientists writing on the importance of megalithic astronomy. Rather, their orientation according to lunar and solar phases served essentially for the regeneration of life. Rebirth was in the power of the goddess. In megalithic symbolic art we see the link between the time-measuring symbols and the symbols of her regenerative power, between sundials and divine eyes, and between the gnomon and the cupmark, symbols of the life source and rebirth. Other associated symbols are expressions of regenerative aquatic or plant forces.

Ceremonial ships are engraved on inner tomb walls in megalithic tombs in Brittany and Ireland. All depictions of ships are highly abstracted; some are just a row of vertical lines connected by a bar at the bottom. However, frequently there is a zoomorphic or spiral head, probably that of a serpent, on the keel. Sometimes an abstracted image of the goddess is shown being pulled by what may be a snake or ship. If the ship and serpent are interchangeable symbols (as they are on Egyptian artifacts and on Scandinavian rocks from the Bronze Age), then many winding serpents engraved on tomb walls are life-renewal symbols. Perhaps it is not accidental that some of the winding snakes a and zigzags in Knowth and Newgrange are joined to a triangle or lozenge (two triangles joined at their bases), the special signs of the goddess of death and regeneration, just as the feet of the birds of prey are attached to the prow of the ship on Cycladic platters dating from the middle of the third millennium bce.

Folk stories associate megalithic tombs with fearsome goddesses, such as the goddess Gráinne, the Old Hag of Celtic myths (Burl, 1981, p. 66). The original meaning of Gráinne is "ugliness." Some cairns are said to be composed of stones dropped from the apron of the Old Hag. At least forty chambered tombs in Ireland are nicknamed "Diarmaid and Gráinne's Bed." The passage grave at Knockmany, County Tyrone, is called "Annia's Cave," a reference to the home of the hag Anu, guardian of the dead. Breast-shaped hills in County Kerry, Ireland, are still called the "Paps of Anu." Anu is related to the Breton goddess Ankou ("death") and to other death goddesses with similar names (such as the Slavic Yaga, from *Enga ; the Proto-Samoyed *Nga ; the Near Eastern Anat, etc.). Thus the lunar goddess represented in figurines as the White Lady, or Death, is still alive in folk memories.

In sum, the art of the megalithic monuments reveals the association with the two aspects of the prehistoric Great Goddess, the chthonic and the lunar. The underlying idea of the ground plan and shape of the monuments was the belief in the self-creating Mother Earth who was also the Mother of the Dead. The sculptures (figurines and stelae), bas-reliefs, and engravings represent the lunar goddess in an anthropomorphic shape as White Lady (Old Hag) and in the guise of a bird of prey, usually the owl. This second aspect is the other side (the side associated with necrosis, night, and winter) of the life giver in anthropomorphic or water-bird shape.

See Also

Feminine Sacrality; Goddess Worship; Prehistoric Religions, article on Old Europe; Stones.


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