(BEING CONTINUED FROM 3/12/15)
INSCRIBED TABLETS FOUND IN CRETE
It was probably from an early offshoot of this great family of pictorial signs that the elaborate characters of the Chinese writing were ultimately evolved.” Similar pictographs are found in Scandinavia, Ireland, Brittany, Portugal, Spain, North-West Africa, the Canaries, in the Maritime Alps, the Vosges, Dalmatia, in Transylvania, and on early Trojan artifacts. 1
In addition to the pictographs there also passed from the Palæolithic into the Neolithic and Bronze Ages certain burial customs, decorative designs developed from animal drawings, the custom of shaping figurines of the mother goddess with female characteristics emphasized, and the bell-shaped skirt which found favour in Crete. Palæolithic pottery found in Belgium has Neolithic characteristics. It has also been demonstrated, as stated, that what is known as the Azilian stage of culture links the cultures of the Early and Late Stone Ages. After the close of the Fourth Glacial Period the early pioneers of the Mediterranean race came into contact in Europe with the remnants of the Palæoliths and mingled with them in localities. Among a large number of skulls taken recently from an old Glasgow graveyard, into which an Infirmary extension intruded, were a considerable sprinkling of Palæolithic types. The interments at this part were made during the 18th century and the early part of the 19th century. Apparently there were descendants of the Palæoliths among the makers of modern Glasgow.
Certain beliefs and customs and folk-tales appear also to have survived with the peoples of the Reindeer Period, among whom they were prevalent. And as the culture of that period (the Fourth Glacial Epoch) developed from the cultures of the earlier periods, it is possible that some surviving modes of thought may have obtained for
40,000 years. The Chellean hand-axe of the Second Interglacial Period in France was distributed far and wide; it travelled across the Italian land-bridge to Africa and penetrated as far as Cape Colony; it was imitated in Asia and passed across the Behring Straits land-bridge to America. and reached the utmost southern limits of South America. It never reached Australia. Perhaps Mr. Lang’s “far-travelled tale” was similarly given widespread distribution at a remote period in the history of the human races. The culture of a particular people reached remote corners of the globe to which descendants of its originators may never have penetrated. We are familiar with this phenomenon even at the present day. It should be borne in mind, therefore, that although the mind of man may have in primitive times conceived similar ideas and invented similar tales in various regions widely separated, the masses of humanity on the whole have also been more prone to conserve what they have acquired than to welcome something new. Nothing impresses the student of comparative mythology more than the barrenness of the primitive mind. New ideas are the exception rather than the rule. Changes in religious ideas were forced upon ancient peoples either by intruding aliens or by the influence exercised by physical phenomena in new areas of settlement. Even when a change occurred the past was not entirely cut off. Rather a fusion was effected of the new ideas with the old.
In dealing with a mythology like that of Crete, which has not yet been rendered articulate, for the script has still to be deciphered, we expect to find traces of more than one stage of development in religious ideas, and also of the ideas of settlers on the island of peoples from different cultural centres. Certain relics suggest Egyptian influence and others point to an intimate connection with
archaic Grecian beliefs. No doubt Crete inherited much from Egypt; and certain Greek States in which Cretan colonists settled borrowed much from Crete. It remains to be proved, however, that the Cretans, after settling on their island, developed on the same lines as primitive peoples elsewhere, or even that they previously passed through the different stages of religious culture regarding which evidence has been gleaned from various parts of the world.
It is sometimes assumed that the religious history of the human race is marked by well–defined layers of thought–Naturalism or Naturism, Totemism, Animism, Demonology, Tribal Monotheism which with the fusion of tribes leads to Polytheism, and then ultimately sole Monotheism. All these stages may be traced in a particular area. But we must not expect to find them everywhere. Human thought has not accumulated strata of ideas in regular sequence, like geological or archaeological strata. Sonic peoples, for instance, have never conceived of a personal god, or even of distinctive animistic spirit groups. Mr. Risley has shown that the jungle-dwellers of Chota Nagpur fear and attempt to propitiate “not a person at all in any sense of the word. If one must state the case in positive terms,” he adds, “I should say that the idea which lies at the root of their religion is that of Power, or rather of many Powers. . . . Closer than this he does not seek to define the object to which he offers his victim, or whose symbol he daubs with vermilion at the appointed season. Some sort of Power is there, and that is enough for him. . . . All over Chota Nagpur we find sacred groves, the abode of equally indeterminate things, who are represented by no symbols and of whose form and function no one can give an intelligible account. They have not yet been clothed with individual attributes;
they linger on as survivals of the impersonal stage of religion.” 1 The Australian natives, on the other hand, and even those who are more primitive than the Chota Nagpur jungle-dwellers, have a god whose voice is imitated by the “bull roarer”. Palæolithic man of the Reindeer Age, as has been said, had animal-headed deities and shaped, in ivory, figurines of the mother goddess. In Egypt and Babylonia there were composite deities, half animal and half human, from the earliest times of which we have knowledge. The Chinese have deities also, but have specialized as ancestor-worshippers. Argue as we may regarding well-defined “mental processes”, it must be recognized that religious phenomena all over the world cannot be explained by a single hypothesis, and that we are not justified in assuming that the same stages, or all the recognized stages, of development can be traced everywhere. There may have been Totemic beliefs in Crete and Greece and there may not. Until definite proof is forthcoming that there were, the problem must remain an open one. Similarly, we should hesitate to accept the hypotheses that patriarchal conditions were preceded by matriarchal and that goddesses preceded gods everywhere. In India the gods were prominent in the Vedic period; during the post-Vedic period goddesses ceased to be vague and became outstanding personalities as “Great Mothers”. 2
This brings us to an interesting phase of Cretan religious and social life. From the evidence afforded by idols, pictorial art, symbols, and traditions it would appear that the goddess cult was supreme on the island, Priestesses were as prominent as they were at Dodona. In fact, women appear to have taken a leading part in
religious ceremonies, as Jeremiah found was the case in Jerusalem, where women baked cakes which were offered to the “Queen of Heaven”, the Eastern mother-goddess. “Probably in Minoan Crete”, writes Mr. Hall, “women played a greater part than they did even in Egypt, and it may eventually appear that religious matters, perhaps even the government of the State itself as well, were largely controlled by women. It is certain they must have lived on a footing of greater equality with the men than in any other ancient civilization, and we see in the frescoes of Knossos conclusive indications of an open and easy association of men and women, corresponding to our idea of ‘Society’, at the Minoan Court unparalleled till our own day.” 1 Among the goddess worshippers of Sumeria women enjoyed a high social status also. But among the Semites of the god cult this was not the case. Women were not depicted in Assyria as in Crete. It was when Babylonian influences entered the Assyrian Court that Queen Sammu-ramat–the Semiramis of tradition-rose into prominence. Professor Sayce has drawn attention to the significant fact that when the Semites translated the Sumerian hymns they transposed “women and men” (equivalent to our “ladies and gentlemen”) into “men and women”. The law of descent by the female line which obtained in Egypt and elsewhere among peoples of the Mediterranean race was probably a relic of customs which had a religious significance.
The view has been strongly advocated that in all primitive communities matriarchal conditions preceded patriarchal conditions, and goddess worship the worship of gods. It is not now generally accepted, however: some peoples seem to have been worshippers of male
deities and others of female deities from the earliest times. The fusion of the god and goddess cults in Egypt and Babylonia and elsewhere was probably one of the results of the fusion of peoples. In some countries, where patriarchal peoples formed military aristocracies, they may have ordered succession by the male line. But there is also evidence to show that they adopted the wiser method of marrying the heiresses of estates and thrones to win the allegiance of the masses. “Mother-right” prevailed in Egypt, for instance, until the end. The problem involved is too complex to be accounted for by a single hypothesis.
It would appear that the activities of the Cretan women were chiefly confined to indoor life. As in Egypt, they were depicted by painters with white skins, while the men were, with the exception of princes, given red skins. Women were also more elaborately attired and bejewelled than men.
In dealing with ancient civilizations it is of importance to take note of burial customs. There can be little doubt that these have been ever closely associated with religious beliefs. What are known to archæologists as “ceremonial burials” must have been performed, it is reasonable to suppose, with some degree of ceremony with purpose either to promote the welfare of the deceased or to secure the protection of the living. The Dynastic Egyptians, for instance, mummified their dead because they believed that the soul could not continue to exist in the Otherworld unless the body were preserved intact in the tomb. On the other hand, the Homeric Achæans burned their dead, so that the soul might be transferred by fire to Hades, from which it would never again return. 1 In pre-Dynastic Egypt the
body was laid in a shallow grave in crouched position, with food-vessels, implements, and weapons beside it. A similar custom prevailed in Babylonia and throughout Europe in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Dwellers on the northern sea-coast of Europe set their dead adrift in boats, as was Balder in the Eddic legend and Sceaf in the Beowulf poem. Others buried their dead in caves, threw them to wild beasts, or ate them.
In some cases it would appear that the beliefs connected with burial were suggested by local phenomena. In Upper Egypt bodies are naturally mummified in the hot dry sands. It is possible, therefore, that the custom of embalming the dead may have grown up among that section of the Egyptian people whose religious beliefs were formulated in the area where the corpse was naturally preserved. They may have been horrified to find that bodies did not remain intact in new districts to which they migrated. But the custom of burning the dead cannot be explained in this way.
Burial customs may not always afford us definite clues regarding religious beliefs. It does not follow that the pre-Dynastic Egyptians, the Babylonian Sumerians, and the Neolithic Europeans who favoured crouched burials had all the same ideas regarding the destiny of men, or the same beliefs regarding the Otherworld. Different conceptions might be prevalent in a single country. It is found that in Wales, for instance, ideas about the future state varied considerably. Folk-lore and mediæval poetry have references to an Underworld in which the dead continue to live in organized communities and work and fight as they were accustomed to do upon earth, to happy islands situated far out to sea, to fairy dwellings below rivers and lakes where souls exist like fairies, and to the woods of Caledonia where shades wander about as did
the ancestors of the people who migrated from Caledonia to Wales. In one Welsh poem the Otherworld is referred to as “the cruel prison of the earth, the abode of death, the loveless land”. 1 The Babylonian Hades was similarly gloomy and was similarly dreaded. Ishtar descends to–
The house out of which there is no exit . . .
The house from whose entrance the light is taken,
The place where dust is their (the souls’) nourishment and their food mud.
Its chiefs are like birds covered with feathers.
But in pre-Dynastic Egypt the worshippers of Osiris, like a section of the Welsh folks, believed that the Otherworld was a land of plenty in which corn was sowed and crops reaped in season. A similar Paradise was believed in as far north as Scotland. It is referred to in a Perthshire fairy story. A midwife is taken to a fairy mound to nurse a fairy child, and is given a green fluid with which to anoint the eyes of the little one. The fairy woman moistens the right eye of the midwife with this fluid, and bids her look. “She looked”, the narrative proceeds, and saw several of her friends and acquaintances at work, reaping the corn and gathering the fruit. ‘This’, said the fairy, ‘is the punishment of evil deeds.'” 2 In ancient Egypt the fairy would have said it was “the reward of good deeds”.
Burial customs afford us no exact evidence regarding these varying beliefs, which grew up in localities and were imported from one country to another. In Egypt the adherents of the cults of Osiris and Ra who believed in different Paradises mummified their dead, although, in the one case, happiness in the after state was believed to
be the reward of good conduct n this life, and, in the other, of those who by performing ceremonies obtained knowledge of the formulæ which were the “Open Sesames” required by departed souls to secure admission to the boat of the sun.
Similarly, it does not follow that the cremation custom had the same significance at all periods. In the Iliad the ghost of Patroklos declares that he will never again return from Hades when he has received his meed of fire. Modern Hindus burn their dead, 1 but the soul may either depart to Paradise or continue its round through other existences on this earth. In Sanskrit literature the fire-god, Agni, “the corpse devourer”, conducts souls to the “land of the fathers”. The Persian fire-worshippers do not cremate their dead, although they may have done so at one time, but expose them to be devoured by wild birds. Of special interest is the practice of the Mongolian Buriats. The bodies of those who die in autumn and winter are piled up in a log-house in the midst of a forest. When the cuckoo begins to call, in May, this house is set on fire and the accumulated bodies are cremated together. Persons who die during the summer are burned immediately. 2 That the Aryo-Indians had knowledge at one time of the belief involved is suggested by a reference in the Mahabharata. Describing the heaven of Yama, the sage Narada says that he saw there “all sinners among human beings as also (those) that have died during the winter solstice”. 3 The explanation may be that there were lucky and unlucky hours, days, and months for death as for birth. The
omens at birth which foretold an individual’s fate were supposed to give indication of his manner of death. One of the Scottish midwife prophecies runs:
Omens at death threw light on his fate in the after life. The Buriat custom has evidently a long history behind it. Perhaps it was originally believed that those who died in winter were doomed to exist ever afterwards in cold and darkness. Such a belief imported into India would in time cease to have any significance. The new country had new terrors which supplanted the old, and influenced the development of religious beliefs.
Among certain peoples who did not believe, like the Achæans, the Aryo-Indians, and others, that the soul was transferred to Paradise through the medium of fire, burning was a punishment. Erring wives in ancient Egyptian and Scottish folk-tales are burned at the stake. 2 Similarly, witches were burned alive. Sir Arthur Evans has brought together interesting evidence regarding “the revival of cremation in Europe in mediæval and modern times to get rid of vampires”. 3 Bodies of persons whose ghosts had become vampires, which attacked sleepers and sucked the life-blood from their veins, were taken from tombs and publicly burned. The vampires were thus prevented from doing further harm. Herodotus tells that when Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, caused the mummy of Pharaoh Amasis to be burned, he displeased both the Persians and the Egyptians. “The Persians”, he says, “hold fire to be a god, and never by any chance burn
their dead. Indeed, this practice is unlawful, both with them and with the Egyptians–with them for the reason above mentioned, since they deem it wrong to give the corpse of a man to a god; and with the Egyptians, because they believe fire to be a live animal, which eats whatever it can seize, and then, glutted with the food, dies with the matter which it feeds upon. Now, to give a man’s body to be devoured by beasts is in no wise agreeable to their customs, and, indeed, this is the very reason why they embalm their dead, namely, to prevent them from being eaten in the grave by worms.” 1
The evidence afforded by the Cretan burial customs is of special significance. From the earliest times until the close of the Bronze Age the dead were buried. Then cremation was introduced by invaders, who are believed to have been identical with the Achæans of Homer. The new custom had, in this instance, not only a religious but an ethnic significance.
Like certain of the Palæolithic tribes in western Europe, the early Cretans buried their dead in caves and rock shelters. As caves were dwellings, this was a form of house-burial. House-tombs have been found in Cretan as in Babylonian towns. The custom is referred to in the Ethiopic version of the mythical life of Alexander the Great. That hero was reputed to have “asked one of the Brahmans, saying: ‘Have ye no tombs wherein to bury any man among you who may die?’ And an interpreter made answer to him, saying: ‘Man and woman and child grow up, and arrive at maturity and become old, and when any one (of them) dieth we bury him in the place wherein he lived; thus our graves are our houses. And our God knoweth that we desire this more than the lust for food and meat which all men have; this
is our life and manner of dwelling in the darkness of our tombs.'” 1 This conversation can never have taken place in. India, but it is of interest in so far as it reflects a belief with which the author was familiar.
In Palæolithic times a cave was deserted after the head of the family was buried in it. There were also, however, burial-caves. The Cro-Magnon people, for instance, sometimes deposited whole families, or the members of tribes, in one of these. One cave has yielded no fewer than seventeen skeletons. Caves and rock-shelters were similarly utilized in Crete. It became customary, however, to construct chamber-tombs, which may have been imitations of caves. One at Aghia Triadha, near Phæstos, in south-central Crete, is some 30 feet in diameter. The remains of no fewer than 200 skeletons of men, women, and children were found in it. Other chambers adjoining added fifty to this number. Family tombs of this kind, which were entered by narrow passages, were sometimes circular, and developed into the beehive style of tomb found in Mycenæ and Tiryns. They date back to early Minoan times (C. 2800 B.C.). Others were of rectangular shape, like those found near Knossos. The Cretans also buried their dead in terracotta chests, in which the bodies Jay in crouched position as in the pre-Dynastic graves of Egypt. These larnakes or sarcophagi were probably of Egyptian origin. They have also been found in Sicily and Italy. Sometimes the Cretan sarcophagi were profusely decorated. Like the tombs, they contained vessels, seals, daggers, amulets, &c.
The Cretans were worshippers of the Great Mother goddess who inhabited the abode of the buried dead. She was the Earth Mother. Caves were entrances to the Underworld over which she presided. In Crete,
LIMESTONE SARCOPHAGUS, SHAPED LIKE A CHEST, FOUND AT AGHIA TRIADHA
The thin plaster covering is painted with scenes connected with the cult of the dead. (See pages 289-290)
where no temples were erected, votive offerings were deposited in caves, the most famous of which were those on Mount Dicte and Mount Ida. According to Greek legend, the mother-goddess Rhea gave birth to Zeus in a Cretan cave. The ferocious mother-goddesses of England and Scotland, as is shown (Chapter III), were cave-dwellers. Palæolithic artists drew and painted their magical figures of animals in the depths of great caves.
Demeter of the Grecian Phigalia–the Black Ceres–lived in a cave, which is still regarded as sacred. This deity, who is believed to be a form of the Cretan Great Mother, was also associated with stone circles. Pausanias, writing of the town of Hermione in the Peloponnese, says that near it “there is a circle of huge unhewn stones, and inside this circle they perform the sacred rites of Demeter”. 1
Stone circles, single standing-stones, and groups of stones like those at Carnac in Brittany were erected at burial-places. Offerings were made to the dead whose spirits had become associated with the Earth Mother. These spirits might be summoned from their tombs to make revelations. When Odin visited the Underworld to consult the Vala (witch or prophetess) regarding Balder’s fate–
Folk-memories of the ancient custom of summoning the spirit of the dead still survive in rural districts. An archæologist who recently conducted investigations at a stone circle in northern Scotland asked a ploughman if
he knew anything regarding it. The answer was to this effect: “It is said that if you walk round it three times against the sun at midnight, you will raise the devil.” Our demonology is the last stage of pagan mythology. The summoning of the devil, or the spirits of the Underworld, was a ceremony performed for purposes of divination, or to compel the aid of infernal beings. As only one grave is sometimes found in stone circles, it may be that a circle was erected when a great chief, or great priest or priestess, died, so that the ghost might be propitiated and called up to assist his or her kinsfolk in times of need. A patriarch or teacher would thus be worshipped after death like a god, and especially as a guide to the spirit world. The Babylonian Gilgamesh was a hero who first entered the cave which led to Paradise. So was the Indian Yama; he was the first man to “find the path for many”, and he became god of the dead. Osiris, as Apuatu, was “opener of the ways”, and similarly reigned in Hades. The Cretan Minos is in the Odyssey a lawgiver, like Osiris, of the Underworld. In Greek mythology the guide of travellers, who conducts the soul on his last journey, is Hermes. His name appears to be derived from herma, which signifies a cairn or a standing-stone. The Thracian “square Hermes” was a pillar surmounted by a human head–a form which is evidently a link between a standing-stone and the statue of an anthropomorphic deity. It may be that some of the anthropomorphic deities were simply deified ancestors, priests, or priestesses.
The Great Mother, who was worshipped by the Cretans and other pre-Hellenic peoples in south-eastern Europe, was the goddess of birth and death, of fertility and fate. As the ancestress of mankind she gathered to her abode in the Underworld the ghosts of her progeny.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
By Donald A. Mackenzie
xxxiii:1 Scripta Minoa, pp. 3, 4, 6.
xli:1 Except, as was the case in Rome (Juvenal, XV, 140), the bodies of infants. Those under eighteen months are in India buried head downwards in jars. Mothers who die in childbed are not cremated either, but buried.