Prehistoric Religion

It would appear that religion in some form or other has been an essential element in the life and culture of humankind throughout the ages, going back far beyond the threshold of history. Moreover, many of the beliefs and practices of the later and higher religions, both ancient and modern, are rooted in their prehistoric prototypes of the Old Stone Age, a period lasting roughly from about 500,000 BC to 10,000 BC. This phase therefore has its place and significance in any study of the religions of the world, past or present. The difficulty, however, about such an inquiry is that nearly all the available data are confined to those concrete survivals like graves, sacred places and their contents, sculptures, bas-reliefs, engravings and paintings that have escaped the ravages of time. Their interpretation must be to some extent conjectural, but much of the material has survived, little changed, in everyday occurrence among the peoples who live today under conditions very similar to those of early humans. If employed with proper caution such evidence can afford useful and illuminating clues to the purpose and meaning of prehistoric religion.

Since of all mysterious events the most prominent, puzzling, disturbing and arresting is that of death, it is not surprising that the earliest traces of religious belief and practice have clustered round the burial of the dead, centred on what was to become a highly developed cult. Various forms of this seem to go back in China to a very early period in the Old Stone Age, estimated by Professor Zeuner as being in the region of 500,000 years ago. Thus, in the caves near Peking, indications have been found of the cutting off and preserving of the heads of some of those interred, either to keep them as trophies or to abstract their contents to be eaten in order to obtain the vitality of the deceased. And this is by no means an isolated instance, skulls having been treated in a similar way in Europe before the arrival of the species homo sapiens, towards the end of the fourth phase of the Pleistocene Ice Age, about 70,000 BC.

Skulls found in the Placard cave in Charente in France had been made into drinking cups, which suggests that they were used for sacramental purposes. Similar vessels have been found in the Dor-dogne, near the village of Les Eyzies, now well known as a centre for decorated caves, and again at Puentc Vicsgo not far from Santander in Spain, in a cave called Castillo, full of paintings.

In this phase of the Old Stone Age the corpse was often laid in a grave containing red ochreous powder, sometimes with quantities of shells and other objects in bone and ivory. The ochre represented blood, the life-giving agent, and there were often shells, like cowries, in the grave, shaped in the form of the portal through which the child enters the world. These emblems were associated with the female principle, and were widely used as fertility charms and givers of life. Therefore, if the dead were to live again in their own bodies, to colour the bodies red was an attempt to revivify them and make them serviceable to their occupants in the hereafter.

Near Nordlingen in Bavaria, nests of skulls have been found, twenty-seven in each of two caves, and six in another. The heads had been intentionally cut off the trunk with flint knives after death, and then, dried and ceremonially preserved in the nest with the faces looking westward. Some were crushed, and had apparently been added later.

It was not only the skull which received this ritual mortuary treatment however. A number of skeletons have been discovered, ceremonially interred with very great care and supplied with grave goods. At Le Moustier in the Dordogne, a great centre of mid-Palaeolithic culture, the skeleton of a youth was laid to rest on its right side with the forearm under the head and the cranium resting on a pillow of flint chips. Near the left hand was a fine oval axe, and a scraper was placed not far away with the burnt bones of a prehistoric ox above the skull, suggesting a funeral feast.

In a low-roofed cave close to the village of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in the Department of Correze, a well-preserved Neanderthal skeleton was deposited with its face to the west in a pit dug in the middle of the marly floor, and wedged into position by several stones. The legs were folded, and near the hand was the foot of an ox, with the vertebral column of a reindeer at the back. Surrounding it were quantities of flint implements; remains of the broken bones of contemporary animals, including the bison and the woolly rhinoceros, were nearby.

It is hardly likely that early people would have gone to all this trouble in the disposal of the dead, which often involved reburial, providing them with what they were thought to need after death, unless survival, whether temporary or permanent, was the intention.

Forms of Burial

The prevalent practice of interment in the contracted position, with I lie limbs drawn up in the attitude of sleep and sometimes tightly Hexed before rigor mortis had set in, has been regarded as typifying (he foetus in the womb of its mother, indicating the hope of rebirth .liter death. But this conjecture presupposes a knowledge of embryology and powers of symbolic representation, quite beyond the information and capacity of Neanderthal peoples, or oven of their immediate homo sapiens successors. Apart from the motive being that of economy of space in the grave, the practice may have been adopted sometimes as an attempt to prevent the deceased returning to molest the living by paying off old scores, or avenging any neglect in the performance of the funeral ritual. This is more likely in the case of the firm trussing of the corpse in an unnatural posture immediately after death, as, for instance, in that of a woman, thought possibly to have negroid features, in the cave named Grottes des Enfants at Grimaldi on the Italian Riviera. The same treatment was found in a flexed burial at Chancelade in the Dordogne.

On the other hand, bodies preserved as trophies may have been more in the nature of a cenotaph commemorating outstanding members of the group. This is suggested by a skull found in a grotto at Monte Circeo in the Tyrrhenian Pontine marshes in Italy. The skull was placed in a small chamber within a circle of stones; the brain had apparently been extracted from it, doubtless for sacramental purposes, and it had then been erected in a position suggestive of veneration, probably to promote and conserve life.

Throughout the ages the deepest emotions, wants, hopes and fears of a preliterate society have always arisen chiefly from the corporate life of the community, and centred on propagation, nutrition and survival while living and after death. As J.G. Frazer said in The Golden Bough: 'To live and to cause to live, to eat food and to beget children, these were the primary wants of man in the past, and they will be the primary wants in the future so long as the world lasts' (vol. IV pt i p5). Under the precarious conditions in which the human species emerged, food, children and an orderly corporate life were essential for survival. Therefore, it was around these basic needs that prehistoric religion grew and developed, concentrating upon the mysterious life-giving forces.

Stone Age Artists

This is clear in the cave art, sculptures, paintings and engravings of the Upper Palaeolithic Age, from about 40,000 to 12,000 BC, especially in the decorated caves in France and Spain. These were executed by the earlier representatives of homo sapiens, and not infrequently they occur on the walls of deep and tortuous limestone caverns, often in nooks and crannies and obscure positions none too easy to reach.

To make a first-hand study of this very important aspect of prehistoric religion the best centre is Les Eyzies on the banks of the Vezere in the Dordogne, within easy reach of which are a number of the principal examples, such as that known as Font-de-Gaume, less than a kilometre and a half from the village. A little further along the Sarlat road in the valley of the Beune is a long subterranean tunnel called Les Combarelles with a number of engravings. Not far away at Laussel a rock-shelter contained a frieze depicting an obese nude female carved on a block of stone, apparently in an advanced stage of pregnancy and holding in her right hand what seems to be the horn of a bison. The figure had been covered with red ochre to increase- its life-giving properties and female potency. Some 48 kilometres up-stream from Lez Eyzies the recently discovered cave at Lascaux near Montignac, about which more will be said later. important are the regions of Ariege in the Pyrenees and San-tander in northern Spain.

In several of the more popular decorated caves the installation of electric lighting has made it possible to get a better view of the remarkable polychrome paintings and the less accessible figures than ever before, but with disastrous effects upon them at Lascaux. Moreover, it has destroyed the numinous atmosphere, the aura of awe and wonder, and the conditions in which they were originally fashioned, obscuring their purpose and significance. Thus, at Font-de-Gaume in a sacred chamber beyond a stalactite barrier at the end of the cave there is the figure of a woolly rhinoceros in red ochre high up on a narrow crevice, together with engravings of a lion and horses. It would appear that the prehistoric artist could only have done these while standing on the shoulders of an assistant, having only a flickering lamp burning marrow or fat with a wick of moss. It is inconceivable that this was done merely for aesthetic reasons as 'art for art's sake' on an almost vertical wall 3 metres (10 feet) above the floor.

Magic for Good Hunting

Or, again, in the vast Pyrenean cavern of Niaux near Tarascon-sur-Ariege south of Toulouse, the paintings are 5.4-6.4 metres (6-7 yards) from the entrance, and separated from it by a depression full of water. Among them are three small cup-like hollows under an overhanging wall skilfully included in the design to depict wounds in red ochre on the flank of a bison, by drawing round them its outline with its legs in the contracted position. In front of the expiring bison are club-shaped designs to indicate missiles. Similar spear-markings have frequently been placed near the heart in a number of Illustration page 28 paintings, as, for instance, in those in the gallery of a cavern at Montespan in Haute Garonne near the chateau of the celebrated marquise, mistress of Louis XIV.

This was so inaccessible that M. Casteret could only re-enter it in 1923 by swimming for a kilometre and a half through a subterranean stream. There, in addition to animals engraved on the walls, a number of clay models of wounded felines have been brought to light. On a platform in the centre there is the figure of a small headless bear in a crouching posture covered with javelin wounds. Against the walls three clay statues had been broken in pieces, apparently in a magical ceremony. On the floor is the figure of a horse with the marks of spear thrusts on its neck. At Marsoulas, also in the Haute Garonne, a series of polychrome paintings have spear designs painted one over the other which shows that it was constantly renewed for magico-religious purposes to effect a kill in the chase.

Scenes of this kind could be multiplied almost indefinitely, showing that the ritual experts of the Stone Age penetrated into the inner depths of these sacred caverns (which incidentally were never lived in) to control the chase by casting spells on the animals hunted.

This, however, was not the only intention of the cult practised in them. The food supply had to be maintained as well as procured. Therefore the species on which early man depended for his subsistence had to be made prolific. An important find was made in a very inaccessible chamber in a cave known as the Tuc d'Audoubert in the foot-hills of the Pyrenees. When it was first re-entered in 1912, a boat had to be rowed up the subterranean River Volp, and the explorers had to scramble through stalactites. The skilfully modelled figures of a male bison followed by a female were discovered leaning against a boulder. In front of a small clay hillock nearby were heel-marks, thought to have been made during a fertility dance to make the species increase and multiply, the scene portraying propagation. It would seem then that in the rituals at Niaux the animals required for food were symbolically captured and killed, whereas at Tuc d'Audoubert they were rendered more prolific.

'The Sorcerer'

The three dauntless sons of the Count Begouen first brought to light these clay bison, now realistically displayed in a tableau in the Natural History Museum at Toulouse. Two years later they crawled through a small vertical shaft, not much bigger than a rabbit-hole, at the end of a little cave called Enlene near the entrance of the Tuc d'Audoubert. There was a small chamber within the cave, now aptly named Les Trois Freres. On a wall beside a sort of window they found the partly painted, partly engraved figure of a man known as 'the Sorcerer', with a human face and long beard, the eyes of an owl, the claws of a lion and the tail of a horse.

It would seem, in fact, to have been the representation of a sorcerer or 'shaman', engaged in a sacred dance, portrayed in an aperture serving the purpose of a window at which the ritual expert stood to perform his rites in the presence of the cult-image. Whether or not he was an arch-sorcerer embodying the attributes and exercising the functions of all the creatures he depicted, or, as the Abbe Breuil conjectured, an embryonic deity controlling the multiplying of the animals embraced in the figure, a ceremony is indicated that brought together men and animals in a mystic fellowship in a joint effort to conserve and promote the food supply.

This motive recurs in the scene of a ritual dance in a rock-shelter at Cogul near Lerida in Catalonia, on the eastern side of the Spanish Pyrenees. There a group of nine narrow-waisted women, wearing skirts reaching to the knees in present-day fashion but devoid of facial features, are represented dancing round a small naked male figure. He may have been a later addition to the scene, which appears to have been employed by a succession of ritual experts for fertility purposes.

It was this aspect of prehistoric religion in and after Palaeolithic times which found expression in a number of female figurines commonly called 'Venuses', with the maternal attributes strongly emphasized. They were introduced into Europe about 30,000 BC from the Don in the middle of Russia and from Siberia, where it would seem the worship of the mother-goddess arose.

Whether or not this was the earliest manifestation of the concept of deity, as has been suggested, the symbolism was a very early, prominent and persistent feature in the archaeological evidence. It was not, however, until agriculture and herding were adopted in the Middle East that the female principle was personified as the Great Mother. In the Old Stone Age its life-giving powers and functions were symbolized by these feminine statuettes, endowed with pro-creative attributes. As the mother of the race, woman was regarded essentially as the life-producer before her male partner was recognized as the begetter. This deeply laid belief was demonstrated in the Palaeolithic sculptures, reliefs, engravings, cowrie shells and fertility scenes and dances extended to the renewal of life beyond the grave

The Bison of Lascaux

As long as primitive man led a precarious existence eked out by hunting, fishing and finding edible berries and fruit, fertility and the propagation of the animal and vegetable species which formed the staple diet maintained a sacred character and significance. This involved a variety of rites and motives and recourse to the cavern sanctuaries and the ritual techniques, ranging from hunting magic and rites of increase to the hazards of the chase. Thus, the great sanctuary of Lascaux, accidentally discovered by some boys in 1940 must have been a cult-centre for several thousand years as every form of the Palaeolithic art of Perigord is represented in it.

In Lascaux, in addition to the numerous representations of mythical animals, there is, in the most secluded recess, a sort of crypt entered by a drop of some 7.5 metres (25 feet) below the level of the floor a scene portraying a man killed by a bison with its flank transfixed by a spear exposing its entrails. To the left is a woolly rhinoceros painted in a different style, which seems to be slowly moving away a Her having ripped up the bison. In front of the man is a bird on a pole.

Hreuil interprets this problematical scene as a votive painting to a deceased hunter whom he thinks may have been buried in the cave Another possible explanation would be that it had a more sinister motive, having been executed with malicious intent to bring about I he destruction of the hunter. In any case, in view of its position it must have been regarded as having great potency for good or evil by those who painted it in this very difficult and dangerous part of the cave. More accessible is a mythical animal of a unicorn type, unless it is a masked sorcerer in a spotted skin rather like that in Les Trois Freres, impersonating perhaps some ancestral spirit believed to be responsible for fertility and success in hunting.

The Mystery of the Caves

While the motives underlying Palaeolithic art were many and various no one who, like myself, has visited a great many of the decorated caves over a number of years, especially before the more famous of them became commercialized and illuminated by electricity, can be in doubt that primarily they were prehistoric sanctuaries with an intensely awe-inspiring atmosphere. In them rites and sometimes sacred dances were held by ritual experts to control and maintain the always precarious food supply on which subsistence depended, arousing the deepest emotions because upon them their hopes and fears were concentrated.

They are, therefore, the outward expression of one of the most vital aspects of prehistoric religion. Having little understanding of natural processes and their laws beyond their own observations, early people felt the need of establishing friendly and beneficial relations with the ultimate reality behind the mysterious phenomena around them, however this may have been interpreted. In all probability it constituted their conception of divine providence, the transcendent universal good, greater than themselves and the source of all bounty and beneficence, controlling their destiny. This concept of deity at once above and within the world was not very far removed from what in our idiom could be described as both transcendent and immanent.

Whether it involved any idea of a theistic supreme being, as has been conjectured, is very difficult to determine. It is true that among preliterate primitive peoples today there is a widespread belief in a high god in association with lesser spiritual beings such as totems, culture heroes, ancestors and localized gods. He stands head and shoulders above them as a shadowy otiose figure, but as he is not intimately concerned with everyday affairs it is mainly from the lesser divinities that supernatural aid is sought.

It has to be remembered, moreover, that the primitive mind had a very limited capacity, and could hardly conceive of the higher attributes of gods and spirits. Natural processes could not have been personified and interpreted in theistic and animistic terms, until conceptual thought emerged in the way that Tylor and Frazer, and the evolutionary school, contended when they declared that in their judgment the 'minimum definition of religion' was 'the belief in spiritual beings'.

From this beginning animism was alleged to have developed into polytheism when, as Frazer affirmed, the innumerable spirits in 'every tree and flower, every brook and river, every breeze that blew and every cloud that flecked with silvery white the blue expanse of heaven' were conceived of as departmental gods. Then the spirits in all the trees were personified as a Silvanus, or god of the woods in general, or an Aeolus, the single god of the winds. By a further generalization and abstraction 'the instinctive craving of the mind after simplification and unification of its ideas' caused the many localized and departmentalized gods to be deposed in favour of one supreme creator and controller of all things. In this way polytheism evolved into monotheism with a single sovereign lord of heaven and earth (Frazer, The Worship of Nature, 1926, p.9f)

The Concept of Deity

This speculation was in line with the evolutionary thought of the period in which it arose, but it has now become apparent that it was too neat and tidy, too specialized and intellectualized an approach to explain accurately the origin and development of religion and of the concept of deity.

The starting point of religion must be sought in something more comprehensive: in a belief in a sacred power which transcends the universe, and is its ground and support. This may not have been personified, and so it would seem to have been a vague conception of providence as a creative and recreative power operating in the food quest, sex, fertility, birth, death and the sequence of the seasons. When the idea of this potency acquired an independent life of its own in its various aspects and functions, it found expression in spiritual beings, ghosts of the dead and departmentalized divinities. These had many different shapes and forms, and characteristic features and functions of their own, emerging from a common providential source, incalculable, strong and good, determining the operations of nature and the destinies of humanity, at once above and within the world of time and space.

The recurrence of this conception of deity in all states of culture and phases of religious development from prehistoric times onwards suggests that it arose spontaneously.

It was the expression of some inborn thought and feeling, rather than a developed kind of knowledge about the universe and natural phenomena. Its highest expression undoubtedly has been in its monotheistic idea of god as the sole creator and sustainer of all things. So far from polytheism passing into monotheism, speculation about the cosmos and its processes led to the peopling of the natural order with a multitude of spirits and gods, making the supreme being a very vague and inoperative figure obscured in the mist of animism and polytheism, unless it became a pantheistic impersonal absolute as in I Hinduism in India and elsewhere in the Far East. In the other higher religions, to be considered later in this volume, a genuine monotheism was firmly established, notably in Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Under Palaeolithic conditions the notion of providence was much more within the capacity of this stage of prehistoric mentality than speculation about the animation of nature in relation lo spiritual beings and departmentalized divinities organized on a personalized hierarchal basis, or of one wholly exclusive living god like the Aten in Egypt, Ahura Mazdah in Iran, Yahweh in Israel and Allah in the Islamic world, or the Trinity in unity in Christendom.

Early Mother-Goddesses

Whether or not the mother-goddess was actually the earliest attempt to give expression to the concept of deity, as we have seen, her symbolism was the most prominent feature in this aspect of prehistoric religion in the Upper Palaeolithic Age with its sculptured 'Venuses' and other emblems in the decorated caves. Subsequently, this life-symbol became the central feature in the cult of the Great Mother in the Ancient Near East, the Aegean, Crete and Western Asia, and when the king was identified with the sky as the source of transcendental vitality and beneficence, the queen was equated with the earth as the immanent principle essential to the bestowal of providential bounty. Therefore, as he was reborn as the gods he embodied by his consecration, so his consort became the mother-goddess in one or other of her several capacities as the creatrix, having been the dominant figure in the earlier cult.

As the Great Mother became more clearly defined, and consciousness of the duality of male and female in procreation was recognized increasingly, from being the Unmarried Mother personifying the divine principle in maternity she became associated with the young god as her son and consort. Then, while she remained the crucial figure, the goddess cult assumed a twofold aspect in the ancient seasonal drama in which both the partners in generation played their respective roles of creative energy, the one female and receptive, the other male and active. From Neolithic times onward phallic emblems were increasingly prevalent, though maternal imagery was predominant in Western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, where in the first instance the male god was subordinate to the goddess.

The Struggle for Life

In the primeval and perennial struggle between the two opposed forces in the seasonal sequence, manifest in the creative powers of spring and the autumnal decline, the goddess was always supreme because she was the source of life, and her male partner was only secondarily her spouse. In short, the creative powers were secondary and dependent upon forces over which man had but a limited measure of control. All life was born unto death, and even the Great Mother became a tragic figure, as many myths portray her pursuing her search for her lover-son amid lamentation and woe.

But behind this pessimistic view of the world and the natural order lay the earlier conception, going back to the Old Stone Age, of the control of the cosmic forces by a transcendent providence which sustained the universe and its operations, as these were observed and understood, and was felt to be responsive to human needs by means of religion or magic. It was not, however, only to secure the means of subsistence and to advance with hope and confidence on life's journey that supernatural aid was sought by prehistoric people. Already they had begun to look forward to a continuous existence beyond the grave, and to make provision for the requirements of the afterlife.