Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Birth of the Religion of the Black God (No ‘Goddess Religion’ in the Ancient World)

Wesley Muhammad, PhD © 2011 Wesley Muhammad

(Excerpt from Black Arabia and the African Origin of Islam)

I. The Neolithic and the Birth of a New Religion   

 In 1994 French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin published what I consider to be a profoundly important monograph, Naissance des divinités, Naissance de l’agriculture: La Révolution des Symboles au Néolithique (“Birth of the Gods, Birth of Agriculture: The Symbolic Revolution in the Neolithic”).[1] In it Cauvin cogently argued that the Neolithic revolution ca 10,000 BCE was preceded by a ‘revolution of symbols.’ That is to say, even before the change in subsistence strategies that defined the neolithisation of the Near East, there occurred an equally dramatic and consequential change in the collective ‘psycho-culture’ of the still hunter-gatherers of the Epipaleolithic, a change evidenced most clearly in a new symbolism as reflected in the art forms. The former symbolic art of the Epipaleolithic was primarily zoomorphic, with animals represented ‘democratically,’ if you will: no hierarchical organization is evident and no animal personality is made prominent. Thus, while selection of animals depicted may reflect a sense of ‘religious awe’ on the part of our primitive artists, no animal species stands out as an ‘animal god’ or a theriomorphic representation of ‘God’.[2]  This all changed on the eve of the Neolithic.[3] For some reason a new and rather coherent symbolic system, or as Cauvin calls it ‘a new religion’, emerged wherein the divine is represented through two primary symbols: a bull and a woman. Originating in the Levant – the area where some say Semitism originated – this new religion and its two symbols will dominate theological expression in the Near East throughout the whole Neolithic and Bronze Age periods:

The Woman and the Bull of the Neolithic appeared in the Levant as divinities whose emergence in the tenth millennium (BCE) is followed by their diffusion throughout the ancient Near East. The Goddess, flanked by her male partner assimilated by the bull, will be the keystone of a whole religious system…[4]     

 This symbolic/theological revolution was accompanied by a geometrical/architectural change: the change from circular (or oval) semi-subterranean houses (pits) to above-surface rectangular homes. Speaking on the ‘language of geomorphic shapes,’ Cauvin observes:

In the universal language of simple forms, the circle (or the sphere) signifies both that which transcends man and remains beyond his reach (the sun, the cosmic totality, ‘God’)…On the contrary, the rectangle, examples of which are rare in our everyday observations of nature, requires human initiative for its existence: the stone is not cubic or rectangular unless so fashioned. The square and the rectangle denote then the manifest, the concrete, that which has been realized…the ‘square house,’ generally built on the surface, is witness to a different mental attitude (emphasis mine-WM).[5] 

The work of classical scholar and antiquarian Richard Payne Knight further illuminates this ‘geometrical revolution.’ In his important work, The Symbolic Language of Ancient Art and Mythology, Knight points out that in the traditions of antiquity fire and water are the primary symbols of the active and passive productive powers of the universe. Fire, the active power, was masculine and represented by a circle, while water was the feminine passive power represented by the square or rectangle.[6]  The ancients understood that productivity resulted from the interaction of the two, the solar and the aquatic, and this interaction was hieroglyphically represented as a circle (or asterisk) within a square. This is the origin of the designation for the goddess as ‘the Place of the Gods’ or the House of God[7]: the solar has indwelled within the aquatic. This ‘geometrical revolution’ of the Neolithic therefore, in as much as it is related to the symbolic/theological revolution, seems to have signaled a theological refocusing: from the transcendent to the immanent aspects of deity. The anthropomorphic (woman) and theriomorphic (bull) symbolism signaled the same. It is not at all clear what social, economic or cultural changes might have stimulated this psychological and, indeed, paradigm shift, but it was of profound and lasting consequence for the history of religion from that point till today.  How does the Bull and the Woman of this Epipaleolithic/Neolithic ‘new religion’ signal divine immanence?

I.A. The Goddess

In the History of Religions water, that amorphous cosmic material from which life emerges, often assumes a feminine character.[8] Thus, as Marjia Gimbutas amply demonstrates, the primary symbolism of the goddess is aquatic – water, zig-zags, M’s, aquatic birds, ect. – associating her with the cosmic waters which are her element and her sphere.[9] As the cosmic womb of life she is depicted as a cow and black.[10] This black goddess represents divine imminence. As Gimbutas states: “The goddess is immanent rather than transcendent and therefore physically manifest.”[11] The role of the Woman in this ancient mythic scheme was eloquently elaborated by François Lenormant in 1874 in hisMagie chez les Chaldéens et les origines accadiennes (“The Chaldean Magi and Akkadian Origins”). Discussing the Mesopotamian and Levantine religious tradition, or “Kushito-Semitic” tradition, Lenormant affirms that these religions “show the same fundamental ideas, and have the names of the great majority of the gods in common”.[12]

The idea of the Divine Being one, and universal, who mingles himself with the material world, which has emanated from his substance and not been created by him, is met with everywhere at the basis of belief…Cause and proto-type of the visible world, a nature-god has necessarily a double essence; he possesses the two principles of all terrestrial generation, the active principle and the passive principle, male and female; it is a duality in unity, a concept which, in accordance with the doubling of the symbols, has given birth to the idea of female divinities. The goddess, in the religions of the Euphratico-Syrian [Kushito-Semitic] group is entitled the ‘manifestation’ [‘reflection’ rather] of the male god to whom she corresponds. She does not differ from him essentially…Thus is Chaldea and Babylonia, as in Syria and Phoenicia, every god is necessarily accompanied by a goddess who corresponds to him. These divine personages are not imagined separately, but in couples; and each of these couples forms a complete unity, a reflection of the unity. When the god has a solar character, the goddess has a lunar nature; if the one presides over the day, the other presides over the night; if one personifies the elements regarded as active, fire, and air, the other personifies the passive elements, water and earth (emphasis mine-WM).[13]

I.B. The Bull

As the “fecundator par excellence, indeed the proto-type of male fertility,”[14] the Bull is the paramount ‘attribute animal’ of the Creator God in the ancient world.[15] This Divine Bull, that is to say the bull used to represent the all-powerful male creator-god, was a black bull, in particular the now extinct (sic) Bos primigenius or aurochs bull.[16] Standing two meters to the shoulders, weighing upwards of a ton, with a meter-wide spread of horns, the Bos primigenius was an immense beast, a contemporary of the other megaforms: the mammoth and huge Irish elk. This bull had powerfully developed and coordinated flesh, muscle and bone, making him the paragon of power and nobility. As Michael Rice writes in his study of the ancient and wide-spread bull-cult:

The essential and distinctive elements in the bull’s status in antiquity are the recognition of his nobility as a lordly beast…and his concentrated, highly coordinated power…the bull is the epitome of cheiftaincy, hence of kingship…The bull is always portrayed in all his vigour, potency and beauty.[17]

The beauty of the aurochs bull has much to do with its distinctive dense black coat with a white stripe running down its spine and white curly tuft between its horns. In the ancient bull-cult this black bull-hide is associated with the black primordial waters and signals the black skin of the creator-god who emerged out of those waters and produced therefrom an earthly body.[18] According to this ‘Myth of the Black God’ the creator-deity emerged from these waters as a so-called ‘sun-god,’ initially possessing a body of brilliant white or golden light, but later chose to cloak this fiery, transcendentbody with a more accessible, tolerable (for his creatures) black body, made out of the matter of the primordial waters.[19] It is this aquatic black body that is represented by the black bull. In geometrical terms, the ‘sun-god’ with his transcendent luminous body is analogous to the circle,[20] while the immanence of the rectangle is analogous to the aquatic black body, theriomorphically represented by the black bull and anthropomorphically represented by the Black Goddess. In other words, both the black bull and the black goddess represent the physical immanence of the creator-god in the world. What then is the relation between these two symbols?

Rice noted “the curious combination of the Goddess cult…with the cult of the bull,” for which he could find no explanation. [21]  But I believe he hit on the explanation of this relationship when he points out that, according to the myth associated with the ancient bull-cult “The bull…is a creature of the Mother,”[22] i.e. the black body is the product of the primordial aquatic matter, symbolically personified in the Woman. In a very real sense, the ‘new religion’ was about Corpus dei, the Body of God. The Goddess is the matrix. The aquatic black body of the creator-deity derives from the primordial black waters, personified in and symbolized by the black Mother Goddess. This is why the Mother Goddess is usually depicted with the youthful male god on her lap or emerging from her womb (Figures 18 and 20).[23] To fully comprehend this theme, we must disentangle the motif of the Cosmic Mother as both wife (primarily) and mother (secondarily) of the creator-god. Jack Randolph Conrad notes:

In Egyptian theology, Ra, the sun, the Bull of Heaven, reproduced himself…by copulating with his mother. He is described as the “bull of his mother, who rejoices in the cow, the husband impregnating with his phallus”…Such gods were called Kamutef, or “bull of his mother”.[24]  

The mythic motif behind these expressions is as follows: in the form of a luminous divine man (sun-god) the creator-god emerges out of the primordial waters, the latter personified as a cow and described as his ‘mother’.[25] Because the sun-god ‘went back into’ his mother, the primordial waters, to produce a new body – the black body – he is said to have ‘copulated’ with her, who is now also described as his ‘wife’. This copulation, however, produced him all over again, reborn through her but now as the immanent Black God, with a black body from the primordial black mater. Edmund Leach, in his essay “The Mother’s Brother in Ancient Egypt,” explains this theological concept:

Total deity is conceived as a bisexual triad – God the Father, God the Son, and God the ‘Mother of God’ – but the theology insists that God is consubstantial-coeternal from the beginning, (so) the system by which God the Father ‘begets’ God the Son through the body of the Mother of God replicates itself indefinitely, so that the Mother of God is also the Spouse of God, the Sister of God, and even the Daughter of God.[26]

II. No ‘Goddess’ Religion    

The ‘new religion’ is not a “female monotheism”[27] or a “Goddess-centered religion,” as has been claimed.[28] As archaeologist and feminist Lynn Meskell has demonstrated, this claim of Gimbutas and others of a ‘Goddess cult’ is simply wishful thinking, “hopeful and idealistic creations reflecting the contemporary search for a social utopia” which is not supported by the archaeological evidence.[29] Cynthia Eller, Associate Professor of Religion and Women’s Studies at Montclair State University, demonstrated the same in her important work, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future:

matriarchal myth fails completely on historical grounds. Evidence from prehistoric times is comparatively sparse, and hard to interpret conclusively. However, even taking these difficulties into account, what evidence we do have does not support the thesis that prehistory was matriarchal and goddess-worshipping…The myth of matriarchal history is an impressive…house of cards. The cards of which it is built are not totally flimsy. Some are plausible interpretations of historical and artefactual data. But others are patently absurd. They are either bad interpretations of the available data, or assertions based on no data at all. Taken together, the entire structure is unstable, and if there were not things stronger than archaeological or historical evidence holding them up-things like passionate hope and religious faith-it would be in imminent danger of collapse.[30]    

The problem is Gimbutas and other advocates of a pan-Goddess religion and civilization over-interpret, finding ‘symbols of the feminine’ in every and strange places, and they overlook and thus fail to integrate the ‘symbols of the masculine’ into their scheme.[31] Renowned English archaeologist Peter J. Ucko, in his “Review of the Mother Goddess Interpretation of the Anthropomorphic Figurines,” observes:

It is…necessary to both isolate the assumptions on which the Mother Goddess interpretation is based and to consider how the evidence of the figurines themselves…correspond to the observations of those who favour the Mother Goddess interpretation. First, those who have supported the Mother Goddess interpretation have either treated the male figurines as exceptions, directly ignored them or postulated a male associate of the Mother Goddess…But…if the female figures were taken as the representation of the Great Mother Goddess, the male figures logically represented the Great Father God. In no case has the accepted Mother Goddess interpretation recognized the logical consequences of its own assumptions…In short…the generally accepted Mother Goddess interpretation of the prehistoric anthropomorphic figurines leaves several features of the figurines themselves wholly unexplained and, in addition, poses several theoretical problems of interpretation which it fails to solve.[32]

An example of relevant but overlooked data is the case of Nevalı Çori, an important early Neolithic village in the middle Euphrates area of eastern Turkey. Radio-carbon dated to 8400-8100 BC, this site revealed some of the world’s most ancient known temples and monumental sculptures. Life-size anthropomorphic stelae as well as clay figurines, human and bovid, have been unearthed.[33] While sitting and pregnant female figures were found, the majority are male, completely contradicting the expectations of the Goddess-cult paradigm whose logic would make this important site a patriarchal cult of the Father God.   

The Goddess’s role in the myth of the ‘new religion’ is not as singular ‘life-creating power’ nor is the male bull-god ‘ephemeral and mortal’ in relation to her.[34]  As Conrad documents, “for millennia the bull-god, the father-god of strength and fertility, stood unchallenged as the supreme god of the ancient Near East.”[35] The Goddess in this myth is a matrix, that prima material out of which life emerged, but the role of Creator of the cosmos is reserved for the male god, the Bull God. The goddess appears as the god’s complement and, symbolically, as the personification of the aquatic substance of the god’s earthly body. This mystery of the union of the masculine Sun God and the aquatic primordial matter, personified as the Mother Goddess, is at the heart of the ‘new religion’, as evidenced by the later mystery systems that will evolve out of it.[36] This is the alchemical coniunctio oppositorum or “synthesis of opposites,” the synthesis of the male element (fire, sun, right) and female element (water, moon, left).[37] As Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty informs us:

The image of fire in water is the ultimate resolution of opposites; held in suspended union, each retains its full power and nothing is lost in the compromise, but there is complete balance.[38]      

This is why the mythological family of Egypt was always a tri-unit consisting of father, mother, andboy-child.[39] The mother and father represented differentiation, the young boy the unity of the two, the coniunctio oppositorum. The child is a boy because this child is the creator of the material world reborn. The ‘new religion,’ through its symbolism of Bull and Woman, is focused on the male god in his imminent black body rather than in his transcendent, fiery aspect.


[1] (CNRS Publications, Paris. Second, revised edition, 1997). English translation, The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[2] Cauvin, Birth of the Gods, 68. See further Jacques Cauvin, “The Symbolic Foundations of the Neolithic Revolution in the Near East,” in Ian Kuijt (ed.), Life in Neolithic Farming Communities: Social Organization, Identity, and Differentiation (Hingham, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000) 235-251. For responses see “Review Feature: The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 11 (2001): 105-21.

[3] For Epipalaeolithic, maybe (Africoid) Natufian roots of this Neolithic symbolism see further A. Nigel Goring-Morris and Anna Belfer-Cohen, “Symbolic Behaviour from the Epipalaeolithic and Early Neolithic of the Near East: Preliminary Observations on Continuity and Change,” in H.G.K. Gebel, B. Dahl Hermansen and C. Hoffmann Jensen (edd.), Magic Practices and Ritual in the Near Eastern Neolithic (Berlin: Ex Oriente, 2002) 67-79.

[4] Cauvin, Birth of the Gods, 69.

[5] Cauvin, Birth of the Gods, 132.

[6] Richard Payne Knight, The Symbolic Language of Ancient Art and Mythology. An Inquiry(New York: J.W. Houton, 1876) 25-28, 60-64.

[7] Knight,  Symbolic Language, 64.

[8] Encyclopedia of Religion, New Edition 14: 9702 s.v. Water by Jean Rudhart.

[9] Marjia Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001) xxii, 3, 25, 29.

[10] Ibid., xix. In the Œg Veda the cosmic waters are cows (e.g. 4.3.11; 3.31.3; 4.1.11) and inPañcaviÒśa-Brāmana 21.3.7 the spotted cow Śabalā is addressed: “Thou art the [primeval ocean].” On water and cows in Indic tradition see further Anne Feldhaus, Water and Womanhood. Religious Meanings of Rivers in Maharashtra (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) 46-47.

[11] Ibid., 316.

[12] François LenormantMagie chez les Chaldéens et les origines accadiennes (Paris: Maissonneuvee, 1874) 106

[13] Ibid., 117, 129. 

[14] Jack Randolph Conrad, The Horn and the Sword. From the Stone Age to modern times – the worship of the Bull, God of power and fertility. (New York: E P Dutton and Company Inc., 1957) 85.

[15] The bull represented potency, fecundity, and primordial materiality, all essential characteristics of the creator-deity. On the creator deity and the bull v. René L. Vos, “Varius Coloribus Apis: Some Remarks of the Colours of Apis and Other Sacred Animals,” in Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors and Harco Willems (edd.), Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years, Part 1. Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Jan Quaegebeur (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies, 1998) 709-18; Harold Bayley, The Lost Language of Symbolism: An Inquiry into the Origin of Certain Letters, Words, Names, Fairy-Tales, Folklore, and Mythologies2 vols. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1912) I:323-4. On the symbolism of the bull see further Michael Rice, The Power of the Bull (London and New York: Routledge, 1998); Conrad, The Horn and the Sword; Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, trns. Rosemary Sheed (1958; Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1996) 82-93; DDD s.v. “Calf,” by N. Wyatt, 180-182. ‘Attribute Animals’ were fauna that symbolically represented particular attributes or characteristics of the anthropomorphic gods. See True Islam, The Truth of God: The Bible, The Qur’an, and The Secret of the Black God (Atlanta: All-In-All Publishing, 207) 23-28. On the ‘attribute animal’ in ancient Near Eastern (hereafter ANE) religion see Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: the One and the Many (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982)109-25; P. Amiet, Corpus des cylinders de Ras Shamra-Ougarit II: Sceaux-cylinres en hematite et pierres diverses (Ras Shamra-Ougarit IX; Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1992) 68. 

[16] Rice, Power of the Bull, 23-24.

[17] Ibid., 274.

[18] See e.g. the black skin of the Egyptian deity Min, the ‘creator god par excellence.” Robert A. Armour, Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt (Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 1986, 2001) 157; Veronica Ions, Egyptian Mythology Middlesex: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., 1968) 110. While Min was associated with a white bull in New Kingdom Panopolis and Coptos at an earlier period in Heliopolis he was associated with the black bull Mnevis. See G.D. Hornblower, “Min and His Functions,” Man 46 (1946): 116 [art.=113-121). On Min and black bovines see also H. Gauthier, Les personnel du dieu Min (Le Caire, 1931; IFAO. Recherches d’Archéologie 2) 55-57. On the mythological significance of the black bovine skin see especially Vos, “Varius Coloribus Apis.” On the black bovine, Creator-god, and primordial waters see Asko Parpola, “New correspondences between Harappan and Near Eastern glyptic art,” South Asian Archaeology1981, 181 who suggests that ‘the dark buffalo bathing in muddy water was conceived as the personification of the cosmic waters of chaos”. See also W.F. Albright who noted that “the conception of the river as mighty bull is common”: “The Mouth of the Rivers,” AJSL 35 (1991): 167 n.3 [art.=161-195]. The black bull (k" km) of Egypt, Apis, personified the waters of the Nile which was regarded as a type of Nu, the dark, primeval watery mass out of which creation sprang (See Émile Chassinat, “La Mise a Mort Rituelle D’Apis,” Recueil de travaux relatifs a la philology et a l’archeologie egyptiennes et assyriennes 38 [1916] 33-60; E.A. Wallis Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Papyrus of Ani). Egyptian Text Transliterated and Translated [New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1967] cxxiii). See also the Babylonian Enki, called am-gig-abzu, ‘black bull of the Apsû (primordial waters).” See Albright, “Mouth of the Rivers,” 167.  On the black bull and the black waters of creation see also Vos, “Varius Coloribus Apis,” 715, 718.

[19] On this ‘Myth of the Black God’ in ancient tradition see Appendix.

[20] On this ‘transcendent’ luminous body in ancient tradition and the Semitic religions see Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Dim Body, Dazzling Body,” in Michel Feher, Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi (edd.),Fragments for a History of the Human Body: Part One (New York: Zone, 1989): 19-47; A. Leo Oppenheim, “Akadian pul(u)É(t)and melammû,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 63 (1943): 31-34.  Wesley Williams, “A Body Unlike Bodies: Transcendent Anthropomorphism in Ancient Semitic Tradition and Early Islam,” forthcoming in the Journal of the American Oriental Society128 (2009).

[21] Rice, Power of the Bull, 82-83.

[22] Rice, Power of the Bull, 102.

[23] See below.

[24] Horn and the Sword, 86.

[25] See for example the Egyptian image of a mighty cow rising up out of the waters bearing the sun-disk between her horns. The cow is the “mother of the sun god”; Erik Hornung, Idea into Images: Essays in Ancient Egyptian Thought (Timken Publishers, 1992) 41.

[26] Edmund Leach, “The Mother’s Brother in Ancient Egypt,” Royal Anthropological Institute News 15 (1976): 19.

[27] Cauvin, Birth of the Gods, 32.

[28] Gimbutas, Language, xvii; idem, Civilizationpassim. See also John D Brinson, When God Was Black (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2007) who claims Neolithic religion was Goddess-centered and Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers (San Jose: Authors Choice Press, 2001).

[29] Lynn Meskell, “Goddesses, Gimbutas and ‘New Age’ archaeology,” Antiquity 69 (1995): 74-86.

[30] Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000) 81, 180.

[31] See Peter G. Bahn, “No Sex, Please, We’re Aurignacians (And Responses),” Rock Art Research 3 (1986): 99-120; Meskell, “Goddesses,” 76,80-81.

[32] Peter J. Ucko, Anthropomorphic figurines of predynastic Egypt and neolithic Crete with comparative material from the prehistoric Near East and mainland Greece (London: A. Szmidla, 1968) 417-418.

[33] H. Hauptmann, “Ein Kultgebäude in Nevali Çori,” in M. Frangipane, H. Hauptmann, M. Liverani, P. Matthiae & M. Mellink (edd.) Between the Rivers and Over the Mountains. Archaeologica Anatolica et Mesopotamia Alba Palmieri Dedicata (Rome: Universita Degli Studi Di Roma 'La Sapienza', 1993) 37-69; idem, “The Urfa region,” in M. Özdoğan and A. Özdoğan (edd.), Neolithic in Turkey: the Cradle of Civilization. New Discoveries (Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayinlari, 1999) 65-86; idem, “Ein frühneolitisches Kultbild aus Kommagene,” in J. Wagner (ed.) Gottkönige am Euphrat: Neue Aus- grabungen und Forschungen in Kommagene (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 2000) 5-9. 

[34] Gimbutas, Language, 316, 175.

[35] Conrad, Horn and the Sword, 112.

[36] On which see Appendix below.

[37] Willibald Kirfel, Die fünf Elemente unsbesondere Wasser und Feur: Ihre Bedeutung für den Ursprung altindischer und altmediterraner Heilkunde (Walldorf-Hessen, 1951) 17; Manley P. Hall, Melchizedek and the Mystery of Fire (Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1996) 9; idem, The Hermitic Marriage (Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1996) 42.  

[38] Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, “Submarine Mare in the Mythology of “iva,” JRAS (1971): 9.

[39] Françoise Dunand and Christiane Zivie-Coche, Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BCE to 395 CE(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004) 30-1.

No comments:

Post a Comment