Windows on the Past and Some of the Questions they Raise

I Ochre

Today, the southernmost tip of Africa is a long way from anywhere important in world affairs, a continental cul-de-sac where nothing much ever happens. This was not always so.

Seventy-five thousand years ago, the coastline looked much the same as it still does. Cliffs rose above jagged rocks and sandy coves. A thin coastal haze diffused sharp outlines. High on one of the cliffs was a small cave, no more than a rock shelter. All those millennia ago, people sheltered in it from the wind and lived out their daily lives (Fig. 1). They were among the earliest, though not the very first, anatomically fully modern human beings: earlier species of pre-human beings had, by that time, disappeared from Africa, though some survived for longer in other parts of the world, as did the Neanderthals in Western Europe.

In their seaside rock shelter, generations of this comparatively new Homo sapiens species lived comfortably enough.1 The ocean spawned a variety of fish, shellfish and, occasionally, a beached whale or dolphin. Exposed by the daily retreating tides, nutritious food was there for the taking – an alfresco larder replenished daily. But the people did more than eat. They fashioned enigmatic objects that seem to have had no practical purpose.2

Then, about 70,000 years ago, the ice caps at the north and south poles slowly grew in size; as a result the sea-level fell worldwide. The Pleistocene Ice Age was entering a new cold phase. Along the southern African coast there was no ice, but the retreating waves exposed a shelf of rock and sea sand between 10 and 25 km (6 and 16 miles) wide. The winds swept this sand into the cliff-hanging cave and covered the surface on which the occupants had been living. No sign of their presence remained visible, and no one lived there during this period. Probably, the people and generations of their descendants left their rock shelter and followed the slowly retreating sea with its sure food supply. Later, in the long-term rhythm of climate change, the ice caps melted and the sea returned to its present level. People again lived in the cave and sea foods awaited them on the shore below. As their own debris accumulated on top of the wind-blown sand, they were unaware of what lay hidden beneath their floor.

Finally, at the end of the twentieth century, archaeologists, working in what is now known as Blombos Shelter, dug down through the recent occupation layers and on through the sterile, wind-blown sand to the levels sealed and preserved below. Their labours were richly rewarded. They discovered that the early Homo sapiens people living in the Blombos rock shelter 75,000 years ago had sought, found and brought home lumps of ochre, as had their even more ancient forebears throughout Africa. They ground this type of rock to a fine red, often sparkling, powder that they may have used for curing animal skins but, more significantly, for body decoration – that is, for marking themselves according to their position in their social group.3

Confirmation of a conclusion along these lines was soon at hand. Excavators found seashell beads in the same level. Some of the beads had been treated with red ochre.4 The people were not merely rubbing red powder or paint on their bodies. They were also decorating themselves with necklaces and thereby saying something about themselves by means of another, but no doubt complementary, ‘code’.

That discovery, with its implications of early social distinctions, was fascinating enough. But something even more significant was taking place at Stone Age Blombos. Someone, who will forever remain unknown, man or woman, young or old, took a small, flat piece of ochre that easily fitted in the palm of a hand. Then, instead of grinding its large surfaces to produce red powder, he or she concentrated on its narrow (and to us more insignificant) edge. There this person engraved a neat, symmetrical series of crosses with a line through the middle of them. Around them, he or she scratched a containing line. In this respect, the design resembles an ancient Egyptian cartouche. It seems that the whole ‘composition’ was a carefully balanced, bounded unit, not a mix of unrelated marks. The scratched lines hung together in a patterned way (Fig. 2).

1, 2 Blombos Shelter on the southern coast of South Africa looks out over the Indian Ocean. Seventy-five thousand years ago, people living here engraved enigmatic geometric patterns on pieces of ochre (left). Those patterns point to a way of thinking that is unique to Homo sapiens.

Could this pattern have been simply a one-off meaningless doodle? The excavators’ worry was allayed. They found a second piece of ochre, also engraved with crosses. The motif was repeatable. Like a simple utterance that melds a number of different sounds (phonemes) into a single, intelligible entity (a word), the elements of the Blombos motif (crosses and lines) joined together in a complex way to ‘say’ something.

When these finds were made in the late 1990s, there was already a lively debate among archaeologists, palaeontologists and philosophers about the origins of the sort of thinking and behaviour that we today recognize as ‘modern’, as opposed to the simpler sort of thinking and behaviour we would expect to find among pre-human hominids, beings that were almost but not quite ‘there’. Do we have in these Blombos artefacts the earliest evidence for the type of thought, behaviour and (this is important) mental experiences that are the focus of this book? Have researchers turned up indications that point to a mental, rather than an anatomical, Garden of Eden? This biblical metaphor may be deceptive, so I should point out right away that becoming human was not a sudden ‘revolution’ (to take another metaphor) in the sense that there was a time and place where fully modern human behaviour, language and thought suddenly arrived en bloc. Rather, there was a long period during which certain behaviours developed and, in some instances, perhaps disappeared before returning later.5

No one believes that the two Blombos pieces of ochre were the very first such artefacts. The making of patterns probably started somewhat earlier, though no persuasive evidence has – so far – been found to support this presumption. The Blombos pieces therefore remain the oldest evidence that we have for a complex way of thinking. And, if we are rash enough to define ‘art’ rather broadly, they are the world’s oldest objets d’art.

If the twice-repeated (or almost repeated) pattern meant something, what did it mean? Did the series of crosses merely depict, say, a net for fishing or for carrying one’s possessions – in others words, a utilitarian object that everyone would easily recognize? If the people indeed made nets, the retiform pattern would have been familiar to them. This straightforward explanation seems highly unlikely, given the awkward placing of the designs on the narrow edges of the ochre pieces. In any event, why would anyone wish to make a literal depiction of (only part of) a net on a small piece of ochre – a material normally used for obtaining powder that was probably intended to say things about the people on whom it was rubbed? If the pattern did depict a net, there must have been more significance than we now realize to nets and to the substance on which images of them were engraved.

Something that ochre itself could represent, of course, is blood. Many researchers suggest this possibility when they find ochre in other archaeological sites throughout the world, some much older than Blombos. As we shall see, blood leaves an ambivalent, disturbing trail throughout human history. It may well have been a significant substance in the deepest prehistoric times.6 The red colour of ochre may have signified blood, but the bodily substance itself would, in turn, have stood for other far more complex ideas. Life, death or a lineage spring to mind as possible significances because blood can stand for them in our thought today. But in Blombos times blood may have signified ideas and beliefs at which we cannot now even guess. There was probably a set of complex, symbolic meanings. It may have run something like this: blood  ochre  menstruation  birth  death  social relationships  a specific lineage  ancestors  gods  religious experiences  life after death. That is how human symbolic thought works: it leads us through a maze of associations, some obvious, some less so. The complex associations of blood combine to make it an emotionally powerful symbol.

This kind of representation of something – even as abstract as a mood or emotion – by a motif, object or sound that bears no resemblance to it was a huge step in the development of human thinking. Symbolic thought and language were the gateway to all that makes us human. No fully human communication would have been possible without symbolic thought. And the anthropologist Roy Rappaport goes on to argue that ‘religion emerged with language’.7

But why was the pattern twice placed on the narrow edges of pieces of ochre and not on the larger flat surfaces where it could be more readily engraved and seen? Easy visibility does not seem to have been the engravers’ priority. Moreover, the patterns on both pieces neatly fill, and so seem to be in some way related to, the narrow edges of the ochre. I therefore ask: do the patterns refer to something inside the ochre, rather as the title on a book spine refers to what is inside the volume? Perhaps this ‘something’ was released by the grinding of the larger surfaces and then deployed in powder form in an emotionally charged ritual. From hints such as these, slender though they may be, it is beginning to sound as if this ‘something’ may have been some sort of spiritual concept, power or being. Clearly, we are poised on the brink of a daunting question: do we have here at Blombos the earliest evidence not only for symbolic thought but also for the type of thinking and experiencing that would eventually grow into what we now understand by the word ‘religion’ – thinking that goes beyond what is visually evident in the material world and that engages unseen powers and realms? The details may remain forever unknown, but the lineaments of religion were there.

Our next two windows on the past offer glimpses of very different human communities, each of which most definitely had (and, it could be argued, suffered from) a religion.

II Blood

Silent on a peak in Darien, stout Córtez was dumbstruck by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean – at least in legend. What did this unsuspected expanse mean for his monarch’s desire to find a new route to the East? Later, when Spanish Conquistadors came across the tail-end of the Central American Maya civilization, their Christian sensibilities were revolted by the religious rituals they encountered. In keeping with a current trend to ‘respect’ things supposedly spiritual and religious, writers today tend to emphasize the indisputably wonderful architecture, feats of engineering, mathematics, art, mythology and astronomy that the Maya produced and to downplay the bloodletting and cruelty that was so important in their life. How did the blood-centred Maya society come about?

There had been a long period of formation during which the Maya civilization gradually emerged. In its earliest form (known as Preclassic), it lasted from about 1500 BC to about AD 200. What is now known as the Classic Maya civilization lasted from about that time to AD 900, though in some regions the old way of life endured until 1541, the time of the Spanish conquest. This is a long span of time, and we should not expect Maya beliefs, myths and rituals to have remained entirely unchanged. Many aspects of Maya belief did change, though recent discoveries of early wall-paintings show that the fundamentals continued through the entire period. Some components of belief systems are remarkably resistant to the economic and political changes that take place around them, as present-day Judaism and Christianity show. A few Maya codices (folding-screen books made of fig-tree bark) were preserved and a handful of Spaniards recorded Maya beliefs, but the most graphic account of their religion and rituals is inscribed on their own buildings, stele and ceramics. These records remained unintelligible until the second half of the twentieth century, when the code of Maya glyphs was cracked in a remarkable series of breakthroughs.8

As with many belief systems around the world, including the Western tradition with which this book is primarily concerned, Maya cosmology was tiered. There was an Underworld, a Middleworld and an Over-world. The Underworld could be reached by means of caves or large bodies of water – flooded sinkholes in the limestone Yucatan plateau, lakes or the ocean itself. The Middleworld, on which the Maya lived their daily lives, was oriented according to the four compass directions, each having its own complex imagery and symbolism. The Overworld was the sky, especially the night sky, and learned Maya studied the movement of planets across the canopy of fixed stars to foretell the future and to construct their calendar.

In the codices and carved glyphs we meet the pantheon of gods, animals and hybrid beings that inhabited the cosmological tiers. We also see depictions of the religious techniques that the Maya used to pass from one level of their cosmos to another, from one experiential realm to another. As archaeologists and epigraphers continue to decipher Maya glyphs, their painstaking work reveals, to us, utterly alien religious experiences and practices and, at the same time, elements of religion that have disturbing counterparts in the modern Western way of life. Archaeology may be a glass though which we can see only darkly, but in those shadows we can sometimes discern the present prefigured.

We speak of ‘the Maya’, but they were in fact a number of political groups, not a single centralized state. Small polities were frequently at war with one another. Paradoxically, it was war not peace that held the Maya together. The rulers of these polities were like kings and like priests, though some writers prefer the word ‘shaman’. They were politically powerful and they mediated the tiered cosmos both in their person and in the rituals they performed.

Although Maya wars were politically motivated, they also provided opportunities for the taking of captives, the more politically prominent the better. After a victory, captives were led back to the victors’ settlement to be humiliated, tortured and finally despatched. Over the years, the Maya brutalized and sacrificed thousands of captives; no one knows how many. They believed that human beings were created to nourish the gods through sacrifice. Indeed, a primary role of war was to provide a supply of blood and sacrificial victims. The word for sacrifice in the Yukatek Maya language is p’a chi’. It means ‘to open the mouth’ in supplication. In these rituals people literally smeared the blood of sacrificial victims onto the mouths of wood and stone images to feed the gods within.9

Sacrifice was closely associated with the pyramids that have become emblematic of Maya culture (Fig. 3). The oldest date back to at least 600 BC. Rising above the baldachin of the forest, these ‘mountain-pyramids’ were places for accessing supernatural power and, at the same time, tombs. The door to the mountain-pyramid was a constructed cave leading to the heart of the mountain and the supernatural world. Successive rulers built mountain-pyramids on top of and around earlier ones thus making the inner sanctum more and more sacred.

3 At Tikal, a soaring Maya pyramid reaches for the upper level of a tiered cosmos. Beneath it lies a revered ruler, adorned with a hoard of jade, shell and pearl jewelry. Through the pyramid, his spirit ascends to the sky above.

As soon as people create divisions (such as tiers of the cosmos) they create a need to bridge, or mediate, those divisions. If there is no bridge, the divisions can have no practical value. Numerous anthropologists have pointed out that ritual and sacredness often seem to focus on mediators.10 To take only one example, Christianity focuses, especially in ritual, more on Christ, the one who mediated between Heaven and Earth, than on God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. Both people and structures can act as mediators. Maya pyramids and king-priests were both links between the three cosmological tiers, and complex rituals grew up around them.

The stairways that are a prominent feature of Maya pyramids were mediating pathways between divisions of the cosmos. A temple stood on the summit of the mountain-pyramid: the most secret and sacred contact with the gods was, like the throne in Isaiah’s vision, high and lifted up. At the foot of the stairways, the great plazas glistened like the sea. Although the plazas themselves were not thought of as entrances to the Underworld, the sea and other bodies of water were so regarded. The whole layout of a Maya city thus replicated the form of Creation, but it was the mountain-pyramid itself that mediated, joined and held everything together in a visually and overpoweringly emotional way.

Blood was another stairway. Conceptually, it joined the levels of the cosmos and, simultaneously, realms of mental experience. Sacrificial rituals ‘activated’ the cosmology of the mountain-pyramids and were believed to be necessary for the survival of both gods and people. Bloodletting was a climactic element in numerous rituals: the accession of a new ruler, crop-planting, birth, marriage, death, all these and other occasions required the piety of bloodletting. Bishop de Landa, the first Catholic bishop of Yucatan and a fearsomely cruel persecutor of the Maya, described such an occasion in the 1560s, and a great many stele and glyphs on buildings confirm the accuracy of his account. With such explicit evidence at hand, the archaeological glass through which we see the Maya is not nearly as dark as the one through which we see the Blombos pieces of engraved ochre with their hints of complex symbolism.

De Landa reported that huge crowds gathered on the plaza below the mountain-pyramid. On raised platforms and wearing elaborate costumes, troupes of dancers performed frenetically to drums, flutes, whistles and rattles. Groups of people selected to give blood sat in prominent positions: they wore special cloths and bloodletting paper that would show up the blood to good effect. To prepare themselves for their ordeal they had fasted for days and taken steam baths.

At the appropriate moment the king-priest and his wife showed themselves to the crowd. They appeared on the summit of the mountain-pyramid, close to the Overworld. He then cut his penis and she her tongue. To promote the flow of blood and to direct it to the strips of paper, they passed cords, sometimes spliced with thorns, through the holes they had cut in their own bodies. More than that, they became incarnations of not just one but, simultaneously, many gods, such was their power of mediation. Being both human and divine (like Christ), Maya rulers knew that the spirit realm was real and could speak about its ‘many mansions’ with authority because they had been there and seen it.

If, as some today would have us believe, all religions are groping for spiritual truth and should be ‘respected’ as such, what are we to say about the Maya? Some people may respond that, essentially, Maya religion was one of communion with a creator God and a unifying force within society; as such, it produced admirable art and architecture. These optimists would add that the horrifying parts of Maya religion – the torture, bloodletting and human sacrifices – were not part of real Maya religion. But who is to say what is ‘real religion’ and what are aberrations?

Similarly, we cannot say that militant and harshly fundamentalist elements of the religions with which we are today familiar are not part of real religion. The dreadful aspects are as much a part of the religion as the ones which we now find acceptable. All religions have awful as well as more comforting features. My reasons for this apparently hardline judgment will become clear in subsequent chapters.

III Brimstone

As settlements of the time went, Sodom was probably not much different from its smaller neighbour, Gomorrah. And both were probably not much different from any other Bronze or Iron Age Middle Eastern towns. Yet, unlike those other places, Sodom and Gomorrah remain famous thousands of years after their demise, and have entered the mythology of three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Why?

All three religions see Abram, or, as he later became known, Abraham, as the archetypal man of faith. Yet the story of his life has some pretty unedifying episodes. Small wonder, then, that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is usually presented in a highly bowdlerized form. It makes dramatic Sunday school fodder, but only when shorn of its central episode.

Let us take up the biblical version at the point when wealthy Abram was sheltering in Egypt from a famine that was destroying his own land. In Egypt, he passed his beautiful wife Sarai (Sarah) off as his sister. Hiding behind this false identity, she caught the eyes of Pharaoh’s princes, and they commended her to the ruler as a pulchritudinous candidate for a new royal wife. Understandably enough, though to Pharaoh’s irritation, Abram declined to part with his ‘sister’. The Egyptians could hardly be held responsible for this impasse. Nevertheless, as a foretaste (or foreshadowing) of what would happen many years later with Moses, God sent ‘great plagues’ on Pharaoh’s house (GENESIS 12:17). As with the gods in most religious scriptures, the God of the Old Testament does not deal in half-measures. Smitten by these God-sent plagues, Pharaoh allowed Abram to leave with his valuable belongings intact.11

On this first ‘Exodus’ from Egypt, Abram was accompanied by his nephew Lot, another rich man. Soon, as may be expected with nomadic herdsmen, there was a dispute over grazing, and they parted company (GENESIS 13:6–11). After much intertribal warfare and slaughter among the various peoples of the region, Lot settled in Sodom. One night, he invited two angels to sleep over with him, though their heavenly status was unknown to him.12 The people of Sodom were incensed and demanded that Lot give them his two handsome guests. Lot refused but, astoundingly, offered instead to give the mob his two virgin daughters: ‘Let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes’ (GENESIS 19:8). The crowd could, he said, violate them sexually if they so wished but not the two male visitors whom they passionately wished to ‘know’ in the biblical sense of the word. The daughters’ own view of all this is not recorded. It simply did not matter.