Apparently, I’m all about the library angels these last couple of posts.
While I was picking up a copy of Chesnut’s Devoted to Death for my partner, another book caught my eye. It turned out to be some existential / therapeutic examination of death, but it opened with an epigraph about Çatalhöyük, describing the centrality of the bull and the vulture to the imagery of the so-called ‘great goddess.’ I would have shrugged it off had I not turned around and come face to face with Michael Rice’s The Power of the Bull in which Çatalhöyük gets its own chapter.
Reading books like this…well, let’s talk about that a little shall we? What purpose do they serve? Unlike books on historical material, this material leaves us with a bare minimum of information to interpret and understand what is going on. While I could read the later chapters about Mithraism and sensibly speculate about it, this stuff? The more full the account given of what went on at these sites, the more we can bet that the interpreter is filling in the gaps with their own expectations.
Rice is aided in his interpretation by the durability of the signs under consideration. The bull, the snake, the scorpion, the leopard/lion, the mother? They keep showing up in conjunction with each other for millenia. That’s striking isn’t it? Thousands of years, longer and more durable than the literate historical record.
Still, read a little Claude Levi-Strauss, maybe leaven it with some Mikhail Bakhtin. What do we know about such signs in myths to which we have access? They don’t have stable meanings, but rather form elements that can be arranged within myths to produce meanings. They are a lot like words. They don’t have a single definition and what definitions they acquire depends upon their application.
To have what feels like a spiritual nudge toward a book like this? The temptation is to consider it as toward the interpretation, but that isn’t what works for me. What I take to be important is the what sits between the interpretation, the potent symbols that occupied both the attention of these long-departed (enough that they explored them again and again) and of archaeologists and their contemporary audience (enough to fuel fantasies in response to them).
In other words, I take it to be a nudge toward a set of useful signs and symbols for the work I am undertaking. “Here, think with this a little.” A little prehistoric and historic fantasy might be useful, but it is just that, fantasy. It serves an allusive purpose, and what it alludes to is a spiritual reality that is otherwise fairly subtle.
(As an aside, my preference for this mode is also one of the reasons why I am fairly lukewarm on the various occult trends that focus on reclaiming abandoned spiritual practices, whether we are talking about the early modern fraternal orders seeking out rites of ‘appropriate antiquity’ or modern efforts at fuller reconstruction. I get that they can serve the allusive purpose in spite of their stated historical purpose, but it always rings a little funny in my ears.)
What potent signs circulate around the famous female figuresof Çatalhöyük: headless corpses, vultures, bulls, rams, leopards, boars. Some of the objects appear downright surreal, like vulture skulls and boar jaws replacing nipples in the statues of some female figures or the female figure, the female figure giving birth to the bull (sometimes with a small ram’s head surmounting the bull).
The vultures appear elsewhere, with human legs gathered around the headless corpse, suggestive of the work of the vulture to take away the restless forces of the dead, of burial and purification. The headless figure foreshadowing the demonic potency of the Headless One to do the same, but through an excess of deathly power rather than through the amelioration of it.
Those human-legged vulture also hint at the representations that the ka will take in ancient Egypt, of the divine soul taking flight to heaven with wings in early Mesopatamian art. This parallels Rice’s own observation about the common linguistic roots between ‘mother’ and ‘vulture’ in the ancient Egyptian language (‘mwt’) parallels the Çatalhöyük substitution of vultures for nipples.
While the woman gives birth to te bull, the bull features prominently in sacrificial scenes suggesting the killing of the bull in the hunt. When he discusses, later, the symbolism in Mithraism, I can’t help but wonder if the ram surmounting the bull at Çatalhöyük foreshadow the virile Aries-Mithras subduing the bull of the heavens.
The leopards as flanking guardians of the female figures and the bull as the female figure’s child seems to foreshadow the opposition Rice observes in later Mesopotamian civilizations like Elam where the lion and the bull are clear rivals. Lion’s shoot bulls with bows, bulls beat down lions with clubs.
In the light of Göbekli Tepe, Rice’s consideration of the astrological significance of Çatalhöyük acquires a little extra depth. Is this an early effort to explore the spiritual consequences of the mystery of procession? Might Çatalhöyük form part of a network of astrological shrines and serve as the antecedents to the sort of stellar cult whose outlines we can still catch sight of in the accounts of the Brethren of Purity?
Loose historical speculation to the side, the imagery of Rice’s material provides me with the conceptual tools to expand my own understanding of the Garden-Market. The way in which the human figures are integrated with animal ones provides an image of the figure of humanity’s animal entanglement with the forces of creation.
Rivals for a mother’s love? Cain and Abel in different guise?The entanglement that is compressed and distorted in the image of Eve and the serpent.
Oh wait: Ram, Bull, Lion. Cain, Abel, Seth. Mars, Venus, Sun. Maybe.
And what sits alongside this dalliance of Eve and the serpent? Well, the secret alliance of roses, figs, and apples, for one. Those plants we cultivate for food and sweetness, Venus, Venus, Venus. Which isn’t to say that Eve is primarily a figure of Venus, but that her alliances unfurl under its auspices. And Eve? Well, she is one hell of a muerto, I’ll tell you that.
Interesting, too, that while Power of the Bull relies upon James Mellaart’s work, later work has observed another interesting feature regarding the female figure: headlessness.
“There are full breasts on which the hands rest, and the stomach is extended in the central part. There is a hole in the top for the head which is missing. As one turns the figurine around one notices that the arms are very thin, and then on the back of the figurine one sees a depiction of either a skeleton or the bones of a very thin and depleted human. The ribs and vertebrae are clear, as are the scapulae and the main pelvic bones. The figurine can be interpreted in a number of ways – as a woman turning into an ancestor, as a woman associated with death, or as death and life conjoined.”—Ian Hodder, “New Finds and New Interpretations at Çatalhöyük” (Qtd. from Wikipedia)
We are looking at the great mother of the dead and of her special generative potency. Bony ladies, the ends and beginnings of eras, and their interminglings.