The statuette may be a souvenir of a Roman merchant’s voyage(s) to India — or perhaps from a shorter trip to the ancient port of Alexandria (Egypt), where cargos from India were routed to new destinations in the Roman empire.The podcast is available from Apple, Spotify, Player.fm, and elsewhere. The date is August 11, 2021.
The map above shows trade routes from the empire to southern Indian in that era. Weinstein mentions a “manual for merchants,” written in Greek, that gave sailing directions from the Red Sea and information about the various Indian ports, the products that could be purchased there, etc.
Originally, the figurine was considered to depict the goddess Lakshmi, a fertility, beauty, and riches goddess venerated by early Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. However, the iconography, particularly the exposed genitals, indicates that the image is more likely to represent a yakshi, a female tree spirit who embodies fertility, or a syncretic rendition of Venus-Sri-Lakshmi from an old trade between Classical Greco-Roman and Indian civilizations.
As for the idol, her location in the house suggests more that she was in storage than in a shrine, so perhaps she was “just a souvenir.”
The British Museum is hosting a big exibition on the Neolithic context of Stonehenge, and obviously I cannot go.“Neolithic” basically means stone tools + settled towns + agriculture + domesticated animals + pottery + some degree of social hierarchy. This what they said about it:
The image of Stonehenge is so iconic that if you were to close your eyes right now, you’d likely have a pretty accurate image of the monument in your mind. However, if you were asked to imagine the people who built and lived with the monument, you’d probably struggle a little more. So to help with that, curators Jennifer Wexler and Neil Wilkin have decided to take you on a tour of their British Museum exhibition The world of Stonehenge, to introduce to some of incredible people that built and lived around the time of the monument.
You’ll see some of the best gold work humans have ever created, some of the best stone work humans have ever created, as well as a pretty decent 1.7 kilometre wooden footpath created to cross an inconvenient marsh (trust us, the Sweet Track is awesome). And overall you should come away with a better understanding of who the people of Stonehenge really were, what they thought about the world, and why they built big stone circles.
“One of the frustrating things about this period is that the peope at this tim don’t represent themselves in artwork, at least in any way that we can recognize. So instead, we need to look at what they were doing. And one thing they were doing, in abundance, was making and using stone axes,” notes one of the narrators.
This was the period of hauling huge stones and carrying tens of thousands of baskets of earth to build artificial mounds such as Glastonbury Tor. Who organized all this? How were people motivated? Were there serious penalties if you did not show up with your basket? Why did peope often live in multi-family longhouses? Sometimes, it all seems rather ant-like to me. For 94 generations.
Yet obviously erecting big timbers and later stones was tremendously important. Farmers did not need to know the sky that closely — farmers go by local cues — “When the leaves on [tree] are as big as a mouse’s ear, it is safe to plant,” that kind of thing
Searching “World of Stonehenge” at YouTube.com will bring up more videos.
Why did the “Viking Age,” roughly the 8th through 11th centuries happen as it did? I have seen some people blame population growth – Scandinavia had excess people, and they had to go somewhere.
Wrong. The volcanic “Finbul Winter” — I wrote about it here — cut the Scandinavian population in half in the 530s. It was a terrible time for the Norse, the End of Civilization as They Knew It. An Iron Age version of Mad Max.Whatever the earlier cultures had been — and they included Bronze Age boat trips to Western Europe — this was literally the post-apocalypic version.
The ones who survived probably did so by forming warbands for mutual defense. There is no way that by the mid-700s there were too many people for the land.
So what grew up next were many small chieftaindoms. Pirate kings, you might say. And there was also a shortage of marriagable women, something like we see in China today after decades of the One-Child Policy and selective abortion in favor of boys.
The Big Men could have more than one wife; the poor boys were out of luck. So what is a poor boy to do? Join the jarl’s raiding crew and if lucky come back with lots of loot to impress the girl next door — and meantime, bring back a sex slave too. (So what if she only speaks Old Irish; she is not there for her conversational skills.)
Coupled with [conflict between petty kingdoms] were social pressures—the effects of polygyny creating an underclass of young men disenfranchised by the laws of inheritance and with minimal marriage prospects. A summer or two of maritime violence offered the potential for life-altering change in many directions. Lastly, there was the traditional Scandinavian worldview itself, and its weaponised expression in an assault on the Christian cultures that really were bent on its destruction (274–75).
Although it was left out of the History Channel Vikings series, the slave trade was big for them in both Western and Eastern Europe. So was fighting as mercenaries.
But there is more to Price’s big book that that. With chapters like “The Performance of Power,” “Meeting the Others,” and “Dealing with the Dead,” readers get more than raiders, kings, long ships and mead halls.
It was through the medium of sorcery, not cult, the most of the conversations with the powers were conducted. . . . At its simplest, sorcery was a means, or a method, a set of mechanisms by which people tried to influence or compel the Others to do their biding. In the Viking Age, this was a field of behaviour that lay within the real of ordinary communities rather than any kind of priestly or royal officialdom (221).
There are fascinating calculations, such as it would have taken three to four person-years to prepare the woolen yard and weave the main sail for one Vikig ship. “We might realistically speak of a year’s constant work for about thirty people to fully equip a ship and crew (387).” (Slaves probably did a lot of it, Price suggests.) Or the wool of two million sheep annually for the sailcloth of the warships, cargo vessels, and fishing boats of Norway and Denmark.
He gives the East equal space with Western Europe (and North America) and the Mediterranean. I started this book in late February and, trying to take my mind off the news, flipped it open only to read, “According to the Primary Chronicle [Kyiv] was founded by one Oleg (Helgi), a Scandinavian relative of Rurik, who expanded the Rus’ territories along the [Dniepr] river and needed a more southerly base (426).”
The Viking Age, Price writes, “was a time of horrifying violence and equally awful structures of institutionalised, patriarchal oppression. . . . also a period of social innovation, a vivid and multi-cultural time, with considerable tolerance of radical ideas and foreign fairths.”
Their most respected values were ot only those forged in war but also — stated outright in poetry — a depth of wisdom, generosity, and flection. Above all, a subtlety, a certain play of mind, combined with a resilient refusal to give up.
Lammas seasonNorthern Hemisphere has come, which means bloggers and social media users posting their photos of amber waves of grain. But there is dark side to our love of grain. It lies at the root of many evils: deforestation, environmental damage, slavery around the world, top-down imperial bureaucracies, epidemics, poor nutrition . . . pretty much everything that makes us human, right?
The photo shows 15 grinding stones — “querns” is an old medieval term. Maybe there were more. A woman knelt in front of every one. Maybe she was a palace slave — or an orphan, a foundling, or a widow with no family —someone of low status, however you look at it.
Back and forth she worked the upper stone, turning wheat into flour to make the bread. Bread for the king, bread for the royal court, bread for the temple priests and priestesses, bread for the royal guardsmen.
This is not a blog post about the Paleo diet; in fact, before there were towns, people were harvesting wild grasses along with many other things.
There is a version of human prehistory what “most of us (I include myself here) have unreflexively inherited,” writes Yale political scientist James Scott in his recent book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. In this “narrative of progress, “agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-crops, on the other hand, were the origin and generator of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws.”
Doesn’t this remind you of another “narrative of progress,” in which anarchic animism and shamanism were replaced by polytheism and then by a more pure monotheism — and then by atheism, particularly if you are a Marxist.
In chapters covering domesticaion, epidemics, slavery, war, barbarian-city rellationships, environmental destruction, and the fragility of city-states, Scott draws on examples from Bronze Age Egypt, Mespotamia, China, and other areas to contend that “the standard narrative” is wrong to suggest that people chose sedentary town life voluntarily. Yet archaeologists and historians pay more attention to the sites with stone ruins and writing than to those without, even though the early city-states represented only a tiny fraction of the Earth’s population.
I can’t help but see a parallel to the way that the study of religion focuses on large, text-oriented religious organizations and on the interplay of specialists within them rather than on the “lived religion” and the personal spiritual experiences of average people.
The “standard narrative,” Scott writes, holds that it is “nconceivable that the ‘civilized’ could ever revert to primitivism “— yet it happpened again and again. People often fled rather than be forcibly incorporated into city-states: “Fixed settlement and plough agriculture were necessary to state-making, but they were just part of a large array of livelihood options not be taken up or abandoned as conditions changed.”
Maybe being “spiritual but not religious” is like slipping past the royal guardsmen to take up a life of hunting, gathering, and easy feral agriculture once again.
The Ley Hunter was a British zine devoted to “earth mysteries” (which could include such things as Fairy encounters as well as ley lines, etc.) published from 1965–1998. As Isaac Koi describes it,
Its website described it as “the longest running journal to cover the ‘earth mysteries’ complex of study areas (it invented the term over 20 years ago!)”, including “‘ley lines;, (earth tie geophysical) energies (studied from both a primary sensing – experiential – point of view and that of physical monitoring), folklore, traditional lifeways, archaeology, all aspects of geomancy or sacred geography, shamanism and other aspects of archaic consciousness, unexplained natural phenomena, and so on”.
“Ornaments composed of elk teeth suspended from or sown on to clothing emit a loud rattling noise when moving,” says auditory archaeologist and Academy of Finland Research Fellow Riitta Rainio from the University of Helsinki. “Wearing such rattlers while dancing makes it easier to immerse yourself in the soundscape, eventually letting the sound and rhythm take control of your movements. It is as if the dancer is led in the dance by someone. . . . ”
Associate Professor of Archaeology Kristiina Mannermaa from the University of Helsinki is excited by the research findings.
“Elk tooth rattlers are fascinating, since they transport modern people to a soundscape that is thousands of years old and to its emotional rhythms that guide the body. You can close your eyes, listen to the sound of the rattlers and drift on the soundwaves to a lakeside campfire in the world of Stone Age hunter-gatherers.”
In case you are wondering if I have Finnish or Karelian ancestry, I do not that I know of. And there is complicated story of groups of people here — Neanderthals, perhaps, then Stone Age hunters, Neolithic farmers/herders, and then Indo-European-speaking Bronze Age people. But go back far enough and one might have some of each. So I use “ancestors” in the broadest sense.
If you have read anything on ancient Paganism(s) in Britain, you have probably read about the Cerne Abbas Giant, the huge figure made of chalk (crumbled into ditches) with an upraised Hercules-style club and an upright Cernunnos-style penis.
You probably read that he was prehistoric, or at least pre-Roman — although some dissidents claim there was no record of the giant’s existence before the late 1600s CE.
Now archaeologists have been working to date the site, and they are coming up with a different age.
The Shirgir Idol, a wooden statue that you may see at the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore has now been re-dated, pushing its age back to 12,500 years before present. In North American terms, that is about the time of the “Clovis culture,” when hunters with big spearpoints pursued big animals that no longer exist.
In 2018, more advanced accelerator mass spectrometry technology testing the pristine core of the larch wood statue—rather than the surface, which had undergone numerous conservation treatments over the more than 100 years since its discovery—determined that it was actually even older: closer to 11,600 years old.
Now, a new study published in Quaternary International has pushed that date back by a further 900 years—making it more than twice as old as Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids.
The idol is nine feet tall, made of wood, with humanoid faces and geometric markings. It survived because it was in a peat bog, where gold miners found it in 1890s. There might be others still unfound.
In regions with large forests, wood would have been readily available to Paleolithic artists, but quick to deteriorate over the centuries. That means that our understanding of these ancient peoples is shaped by preservation biases, and might have been very different had more wooden artifacts like the Shigir Idol survived.
“Wood working was probably widespread during the Late Glacial to early Holocene,” the paper argues. “We see the Shigir sculpture as a document of a complex symbolic behavior and of the spiritual world of the Late Glacial to Early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of the Urals.”
To be fair, as British historian Francis Young pointed out on Twitter, “And even if [the Shengir idol and similar] did serve a religious purposes, are they gods or ancestors? Was there a distinction? I rather doubt it. We certainly can’t impose our Classically-derived assumptions about gods with distinct personalities and names, etc.”
As workers in Egypt remove soot and dirt from the temple, sometimes with a mixture of alcohol and distilled water, the original painted carvings and hieroglyphics beneath are so vibrant, “it looks like it was painted yesterday,” project leader Christian Leitz, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, told Live Science. “But we are not repainting anything, we are just removing the soot.”
So what is Taweret, the Hippo Goddess, doing? She is holding onto a chain attached the Bull’s Leg, one Egyptian name for the north polar constellation called Ursa Major or the Big Dipper—and as explained in the caption above, she is keeping evil at bay.
At the time the carving was created, the Dipper/Plough/Wagon/Bull’s Leg/Seven Oxen never dipped below the horizon, as seen by Mediterranean viewers, so it never entered the Underworld. “The seven stars never were below the horizon in the latitude of the Mediterranean in Homeric and classical times (though not today, due to precession of the equinoxes).”
It is made out of sandstone with 24 columns supporting the roof and 18 free-standing columns with colorful plant decorations. The experts believe that the temple was decorated for up to 200 years. Its ceiling is especially exceptional for its astronomical and hieroglyphic inscriptions. The inscriptions are also evidence of religious beliefs and cult movements at the time.
Very nice, but I prefer to think back to when Thuban was the pole star. Now those were shining times! It has all been downhill since.
Archaeologists discovered the man’s skull, as well as the remains of at least 10 other Stone Age adults and an infant, in 2012 at the bottom of what used to be a small lake in what is now Motala, a municipality in eastern-central Sweden. However, only one of the adults had a jaw; the rest were jawless, and two of the skulls had been placed on stakes sticking out from the lake’s surface.
The discovery of a burial containing 8,000-year-old battered human skulls, including two that still have pointed wooden stakes through them, has left archaeologists baffled, according to a new study from Sweden.
It’s hard to make heads or tails of the finding: During the Stone Age, the grave would have sat at the bottom of a small lake, meaning that the skulls would have been placed underwater. Moreover, of the remains of at least 11 adults placed on top of the grave, only one had a jawbone, the researchers said.
The burial did contain other jawbones, although none of them, except for an infant’s, were human. While excavating the site, archaeologists found various animal bones, including dismembered jawbones and arms and legs (all from the right side of the body), said study co-lead researcher Fredrik Hallgren, an archaeologist at the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Västerås, Sweden. [See Images from the Mysterious Burial Found in Sweden]
Seven of the adults, including two of the females, showed signs of “blunt-force trauma” on their skulls, the researchers wrote in the study. But this trauma didn’t kill them, at least not immediately, because all of the skulls showed signs of healing, [Swedish archaeologist Fredrik] Hallgren said.
So we have people who have been clubbed in the head laid to rest in the lake — but maybe not immediately after they were injured, since some showed signs of healing. For an unknown reason, their lower jaws are missing.
Were they “us” or “them”?
Some hunter-gatherer people are known to deposit animal bones in lakes to encourage their rebirth — you can think of the lake as a womb or perhaps a gateway to the Underworld. And there are traditions of throwing weapons, personal ornaments, and other items into lakes as well.
You could speculate, therefore, that these were “us” — members of that group who were returned to the “womb,” even as the hunters want the animals to be re-born.
On the other hand, heads sticking up on stakes above the water are . . . trophies? guardians? something else?
In creating anodyne and harmless religions, we risk creating powerless religions, religions that cannot address the overpowering emotions that accompany human life. By contrast, our Pagan ancestors understood only too well just how vicious and uncomfortable the relation between the self, time, and nature truly is.
The old-time people had multiple and creative responses to death, we can say that much.