In Plain Sight:
The identity of the Twin Pillars of Göbekli Tepe
Thomas T. Lawson
At the throats of the two monumental anthropomorphic paired central pillars of Enclosure D, the oldest Enclosure at Göbekli Tepe, are pictograms. It is here argued that these both identify their respective pillars and connect them with the archaeology of Neolithic southwest Asia. On one pillar is a bucranium; on the other, at the throat and on the belt, are two differing images of the moon — ancient symbol of the female. The bucranium and, in varying iterations, the two putative moon/woman symbols populate special purpose structures erected over many hundreds of years throughout Göbekli Tepe. Together they comprise what are very likely the only pictograms of any sort among the vast number of stone carvings at the site. The specialized character of the pictograms, their ubiquity, and their linking the pillars as a pair, sets them apart as having been of central importance to their Neolithic builders. Taken as identifying markers for the pillars, the pictograms associate Göbekli Tepe with woman/bull iconography then extant in Upper Mesopotamia, and they afford a link in Jaques Cauvin’s theory of a psycho-cultural shift leading from them in a direct line to the ensuing Bronze Age Great Mother/Son-Lover religions.
The concept of a Mother Goddess at the dawn of humanity as we know it caught the popular mind, and it has some scholarly credentials. Its relation to the revolution in symbology in southwest Asia in the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic has had its ups and downs. Today it does not find a wide acceptance within the archaeological community. The author, in connection with work on a book on the evolution of mind has come upon discoveries at the famous archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in south central Turkey that puts this question in a new light. Much of what follows is taken from the author’s wider work, presently readying for publication.
The goddess and the bull
There have long been reservations among Middle East archaeologists in connection with the presence of a mother goddess at the inception of agriculture and all that followed in its wake. A comprehensive analysis of such a figure in the early Neolithic of the Levant and Anatolia was made by Jaques Cauvin in1994 (Cauvin, 1994/trans.2000). What he concluded constituted a challenge to the then orthodoxy established in the nineteen-twenties by Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, who believed that climatic, demographic, and economic factors in the face of the exigencies of theYounger Dryas were the source of what he named the “Neolithic Revolution” (Watkins,
2011, pp. 30-31). Cauvin led the excavation of Mureybet in northern Syria, and his emphasis on mother goddess imagery found there was consistent with findings of such a divine presence by James Mellaart at Çatalhöyük, and later by Claude Schmidt at Göbekli Tepe. The idea of a mother goddess, nevertheless, failed to gain credence, generally, among professionals in the field.
What Cauvin had found at Mureybet was the development of an art form entirely new to the Levant. And, as he pointed out, art is a very special cultural marker. Because it has least to do with practical utility, it can tell us most about the symbols that inform daily life; it can speak to the present about images that moved an ancient culture in its bloom. Natufian art was essentially zoomorphic, whereas, beginning at about 10,000 BC human figures appear for the first time in the Levant, taking the form of female statuettes (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, pp. 22-25). The Mureybet archaeological site yielded eight such figures from about 9500, some in stone and some of baked clay, most with pronounced sexual markers. With the build-up over time of similar iconography, the female figure takes on the unmistakable stamp of a goddess. At Mureybet and environs she is found in association with another symbolic figure, the bucranium, the skeletal head and horns of the wild aurochs (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, pp. 28-29)
The subsequent proliferation and elaboration of these symbolic images, paired together in varying media, and their seeming centrality to the life of the societies that produced them suggest a predicate of a mythic sort. It was Cauvin’s idea that, just on the eve of agriculture’s birth, there was a momentous shift in the way the people of the Middle East looked at themselves and the world. He concluded that the motive force behind the Neolithic Revolution was not Childe’s economic determinism, but rather a psycho-cultural change. Instead of being at one with nature, the individual now stood in a worshipful attitude toward other-worldly beings.
The Mureybetian culture lasted from 9500 to 8700 BC. Evidence of a farming economy appears only after 9000 BC (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, p. 39). Hence the agricultural economy was established, not at the beginning of, but rather during the course of, the cultural development of the Mureybetians, “as if, in a certain way, farming grew out of it” (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, p. 50). For Cauvin, the combined figures of the woman and the bull betoken a religion reigned over by a goddess, and a goddess who bore “all the traits of the Mother-Goddess who dominates the oriental pantheon right up to the time of the male-dominated monotheism of Israel” (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, pp. 29-30)
In the several Neolithic settlements in the upper Euphrates region of south central Turkey uncovered to date, a particular form of architectural structure appears. Research over the last twenty years has identified these structures as being for the apparent purpose of communal or ritual activities. To avoid the bias of contemporary cultural labels they are called “special purpose” buildings. Central to a number of these are T-shaped monoliths or pillars, set in pairs (Dietrich, 2016, May 8). Far and away the most striking of these structures are those of Göbekli Tepe.
Göbekli Tepe is the oldest human enterprise of its scope of which we have any knowledge. It is likely the work of nonresident hunter-gatherer groups assembling there
from various locations. Excavation is still ongoing, but indications are that there are up to twenty structures, each apparently designed for ceremonial purposes. They are placed at several levels in the tell, and represent, accordingly, construction in successive periods of time. Strikingly, a structure seems to have served for a time and then been intentionally covered over with debris, to be replaced by another. In the end all was covered over and the site abandoned.
Enclosure D, at the lowest and oldest level of the site, has been fully exposed. Its two central T-shaped pillars dominate the structure, there being smaller such pillars facing them in the surrounding circular walls. Stone benches spaced between these suggest, but possibly only suggest, a convocation of some sort. The late Klaus Schmidt, the initial director of the excavation, and colleagues, described the scene. The central pillars stand at the height of 18 feet. Hands and fingers and elements of clothing are indicated in both. “These abstracted, impersonal, but clearly anthropomorphic, Tshaped beings clearly belong to another, transcendent sphere” (Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K., & Zarnkow, M., 2012, p. 679)Göbekli Tepe puts the sophistication of early Neolithic hunter-gatherer groups at a very high level. There is plainly a symbolic meaning behind what transpired there, but it is not just the structures themselves or such ritualistic activities as may have been associated with them that are symbolic. The builders and craftsmen were at pains to fashion a multitude of iconic images — some of true beauty — that are themselves of symbolic significance. One can only be diffident in taking up the question of what these singular artifacts from so different a world might tell us today, but the quest is a worthy one, and there are reasons to believe it might bear fruit.
The life and death continuum
The quest begins with the earliest form of human thought. Probing the ethnological record for the sources of religion, venerated French archaeologist Marcel Mauss (1902/1972) and collaborator Henri Hubert came to the conclusion that initially — before there existed anything in the nature of religion — human mentation was cast in a spiritual realm of magic. They attribute to magic a force prior even to the souls, or spirits of animism that have been said, following nineteenth century philosopher Sir Edward Tylor, to have inhabited the world of the earliest human imagination (Mauss, 1902/1972, p. 131). In exploring the origins of religion Mauss and Hubert were initially led to the rite of sacrifice. They ended, however, by concluding that there first appeared magic, and that sacrifice was a later arrival, and more closely bound up with religion (Mauss, 1902/1972, p. 65).
An essential orientation of the primitive mind seems from time immemorial to have been an implicit recognition of the interdependence of life and death: the elemental round of nature. In the face of nature’s round of life and death, the magical realm of thought was imbued with a spiritual awe and reverence. Death is essential to life; inevitably, life must be extinguished: the sheaf must be cut, the fruit picked, the meat killed. Nonetheless, it would seem that in the magical realm the appropriation of nature’s usufructs constitutes a violation — an encroachment in the most fundamental sense, upon the sanctity of nature. This is confirmed in cultural practices of the earliest times, as they have been preserved in the ethnological record. Sir James George Frazer and, more recently, Joseph Campbell, among others, have recounted the
harrowing variety of forms of human sacrifice that have characterized expiatory rituals all over the world. In the calculus of nature’s round, the sacrifice of an individual life counted but as little.
It is hard to know how such a sense of the sanctity of nature might have come to register itself in this way. Nothing that we know about the figures of the woman and the bull at earlier stages seems obviously to portend sacrifice. There is no clear evidence of it among the hunter-gatherers of Göbekli Tepe or even later, with an exception not directly relevant here, at Çatalhöyük, where agriculture had long been established. Human sacrifice would no doubt not have been congenial to the egalitarian life of hunter-gatherer groups, at least in respect of fellow group members, nor to settled groups, so long as they remained small in size. In any case, whenever it first emerged and whatever the sacrament it came to enshrine, at the heart of the sacrificial rite lay the interdependence of life and death. The rite often conjoined copulation — with its implication of new life — with sacrificial death.
In the two thousand years between Mureybet and Çatalhöyük we can trace a marked progression of culture — from the crude depictions of the woman and the bull at Mureybet to their considerably enhanced and refined iterations at Çatalhöyük. As might be expected in the course of the development of a culture over such a time, its conception of its deities and their relationship had taken on clearer definition, and what we find there affords further insight into the spiritual dimension of the life/death continuum of the magical realm. It is to be seen in the association of the goddess with the natural world, with fecundity, and with death. Depicted at Çatalhöyük is the allembracing goddess, mother, and lady of the beasts — her attendants, potent and lethal carnivores, both bird and beast. Her nourishing breasts are shown split open to reveal, harbored within them, dealers of death. Jaques Cauvin noted that James Mellaart, the initial excavator of Çatalhöyük, “quite rightly underlined the funerary association of this imagery, the Mistress of Life also ruling the dead” (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, p. 29). Cauvin proceeded further to develop the point:
We shall see that from the Neolithic onwards suffering and death are well represented in the attributes of the oriental Goddess. These are lions or panthers, vultures and other animals that are dangerous for man, which form the immediate retinue of the Goddess and specify her powers…. The ambiguity of the symbol, where birth and death are joined, is readily decipherable for us who bear the ‘terrible mother’ in the deepest strata of our unconscious (Cauvin, 1994/trans. 2000, p. 71).
In the course of their long history, the mythic pair, the woman and the bull, were to become honored in sacrifice and enshrined in religion as the Great Mother and Son-Lover of Bronze Age religions. Solid evidence of human and animal sacrifice is found in the Halaf culture (circa 6500 to 5500 BC) that was to emerge — within the time horizon of Çatalhöyük — in the Pottery Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia. Populations appear to have become hierarchically stratified. Ceramic remnants associated with sacrifice on a large scale plausibly reflect the presence of religion. Bucrania are a prominent device in Halaf clay pots, along with stylized female figures (Carter, 2012)
We are now positioned to frame the question before us in terms of what signs there may be, if any, that what transpired at Göbekli Tepe can be seen as expressive of a
transition from the world of magic to that of religion. However, further reflection may yet be warranted on where Middle East archaeological scholarship seems to stand today in respect of a mother goddess in the early Neolithic. As I have indicated, there have long been serious reservations among the professionals in field as to a connection between a mother goddess and the origins of agriculture and all that followed. This attitude reflects a healthy reticence respecting overarching approaches to complex and varied realities and, as well, a warranted scholarly reluctance to find gods of any sort front-and-center at crucial stages of human development. A great deal of recent archaeological discovery and scholarship has been accumulated, and, with it, this resistance persists, although taking on perhaps something of a new flavor. Beyond a reaction to the mother goddess idea as lodged in the popular mind, there is also a growing sense that agriculture was not a singular development of a particular time and place, but rather the outgrowth of cultural processes in respect of which its emergence was in some ways a secondary event. To be sure farming and herding shaped the future, but we are beginning better to understand forces afoot in the Upper Paleolithic that could be seen as making changes in the mode of subsistence all but a sidelight.
Two points of view
Ian Hodder is the now long-time director of excavation at Çatalhöyük and successor to James Mellaart. Hodder, is very respectful of Mellaart, but, nevertheless, working the site today with modern techniques and the benefit of thousands of artifacts uncovered since Mellaart’s time, he is dubious as to any pronounced role in Çatalhöyük society of a fertility goddess. In 2011, he and Lynn Meskell published an influential article, which included generally approving comments from a distinguished collection of other Middle East archaeological experts (Hodder and Meskell, 2011). The device of the piece is to compare the iconography of Çatalhöyük, the theretofore undisputed pinnacle of middleeastern archaeological discovery, with that of more recently discovered Göbekli Tepe. The conclusion of the authors was that there is very little at either site in the way of a mother goddess. Rather, Hodder and Meskell find three distinctive common threads in the imagery of the two sites. These they see, taken collectively, as foreign to notions of matriarchy and fertility (Hodder and Meskell, 2011, p. 236).
The themes are masculinity or phallocentrism; dangerous wild animals; and the cutting of flesh and the removal of heads. I will take up these three threads in reverse order. As to the last — the piercing of flesh and the severing and removal of heads — at both Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe images of vultures, carrion-eaters that tear the flesh of the dead, are prominently on display. They are an apt symbol of life thriving on death, feeding, as the vulture does, directly on the flesh of the dead. We saw at Çatalhöyük the vulture peering from torn, life-giving, breasts. Prominent vulture imagery at Göbekli Tepe has been seen by the excavation team there as illustrative of a preoccupation with the eternal round of life and death (Dietrich, 2016, July 15). On one pillar there, a vulture balances a severed head on its wing. This seems to connote the mediation of the soul between the realms of the living and the dead.
The presence here of the life/death motif brings on the question of whether the findings of Hodder and Meskell might not be taken from a different perspective. At Göbekli Tepe, there was a decided funerary cast to observances (Notroff, 2017, January 24). Burial practices may have been involved, and there seems to have been a studied
deposition in special places of sacred items associated with death. Most notable in this respect is evidence that the heads of life-sized, naturalistic human male statues were intentionally removed — severed — and deposited in special spots, such as at the foot of one of the central pillars. This appears to have been done in contemplation of the final covering over of the entire structure (Dietrich, 2016, May 5). Even this — the burial of one of these structures directly following its complex and energetic build-up — seems to replicate the cycle of life and death.
Hodder’s and Meskell’s second theme — dangerous wild animals — feeds likewise into the life/death milieu. It also affords a prime medium for the expression of the first thread — masculinity or phallocentrism. Animal iconography abounds at both sites. At Göbekli Tepe, depicted in etchings, reliefs, and sculptures, images of wild creatures are rendered in some cases schematically and in others with impressive naturalism. At first blush the profusion of the figures takes one away from life/death imagery as well as from the concept of a mother goddess. Frequently depicted are animals that are pointedly male, with penises erect. Moreover, at least one of the human male statues is likewise ithyphallic. There is no doubt, with all those erect phalluses on the scene, that it has much to do with masculinity. Underscoring the point is the glaring fact that no overt human female image of any sort has been found at the site, with the exception of a single carving on a stone slab, which was “not part of the original decoration, but is a later added . . . graffito” (Notroff, 2017, January 24), and is of a sort hardly to be seen as reverencing womanhood. Hodder and Meskell accordingly sense the thrust of what was going on — the whole feel of the place — to be one of overwhelming masculinity. This they take as being alien to a pervading maternal presence.
All those phalluses at Göbekli Tepe, however, obviously do relate directly to fertility. And behind the figure of the mother goddess is that of the bull, whose potent masculinity is beyond doubt. At the same time, the association of the goddess with the round of life and death has about it an implacable and remorseless aspect. Hence, the “animality and phallic masculinity that downplays female centrality” (2011, p. 236) found by Hodder and Meskell is a thing in no wise remote to her as embodiment of the equation: life equals death. The preponderance of creatures of the deadly sort at Göbekli Tepe, be they mammalian, avian, reptilian, or invertebrate, may be taken as in fact attesting to such a presence there. Ingenious portrayals display a very lively awareness of nature’s remorseless round. Carnivores are shown as in distress, with spine and ribs protruding, as of a predator searching for prey while itself at the point starvation, and wild boar — potential prey for large predators, yet themselves dangerous animals — are pointedly depicted as lying dead (Dietrich, 2016, July 15).
At Çatalhöyük the lethal and dangerous creatures identify themselves directly as the retinue of the mother goddess. The enthroned female figure of that site presides convincingly as goddess — but also as mistress of wild creatures and as psychopomp, intermediary between the realms of the living and the dead. Recall the killers and eaters of the dead peering from split-open breasts (Mithen, 2003, pp. 93-94). With her dangerous retinue the goddess is, in the equation balancing life and death, a symbol sine qua non of nature herself.
There is a possibility that Göbekli Tepe was simply a male bastion, a thing apart from the society as a whole. Perhaps the structures were for strictly male observances. It is quite plausible that, on a number of grounds, women might have been excluded from
entry or participation. The undertaking itself, however, would seem an enormous venture to have been brought off by just the men alone. More probably the enterprise involved the entirety of a number of hunter-gatherer groups, fully inclusive of both men and women. That the whole of the society was embraced was clearly the case at Çatalhöyük, where the notable symbolic features were embedded in everyday village life. And, while the nature of the two sites is different, the male-dominant orientation evidenced in both probably fairly reflects how the two societies were structured in terms of gender relationships.
This would not, in my view, in any way detract from the existence of a female deity at the culture’s core, nor deny the goddess a pronounced presence in ritual life. A female goddess can most certainly preside over an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. Were that not so, we would expect to find in the historical record only male deities. Put the other way around, the worship of a mother goddess does not imply a matriarchal society. There is, in fact, no sure instance of the existence any such society in the course of human history. There were the early egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, and there have been matrilineal societies, and also many cultures in which women may have ruled at home, but societal dominance writ large can reliably be counted on to have been male. There have been no female popes, no lady Genghis Khans. Joan of Arc was a religious anomaly. Female pharaohs and queens may usually be found to have served as place-holders — to secure the continuation of hereditary male lines. From the inception of complex, hierarchical societies men have predominantly held the power, in part because they were physically the more powerful. Even in the most civilized societies of today the patriarchy has been tardy to yield up any fair measure of its power. It should not be forgotten that, but a hundred years ago, women in the United States did not have the right to vote.
Historically speaking, an exclusion of a goddess presence in keeping with the Hodder/Meskell findings would amount to the absence of a central divinity altogether. It would indicate that at the time of Göbekli Tepe or even at the later time of Çatalhöyük the concept of a central deity had not been born. Polytheistic notions might have surfaced as an outgrowth of the magical world of spirit; indeed the Great Mother, when she arrived, was quite congenial to coexistence with lesser divinities. It was not until the much later emergence of unrivaled male deities in Egypt and Palestine that the concept of monotheism arose. Before that time there is no evidence of such a male god, and it seems that male gods, when they arrived, insisted on being the sole deity. It could very well have been the case that no central deity ever materialized at Göbekli Tepe or Çatalhöyük. I have made much of the evidences of the magical realm in both places, and magic may well have remained the suffusing cast of thought throughout in those societies. As we know, however, that religion did in time develop in Anatolia, the interesting point is whether at the time of Göbekli Tepe or, indeed, of Çatalhöyük a religious factor had come to exist. I turn now to specific findings at Göbekli Tepe.
Were the woman and the bull there?
Given that there is only one overt reference to woman at Göbekli Tepe and that the bull appears there in company with a host of other animals, establishing a connection between the symbology at Göbekli Tepe and the palpable symbolism of the woman and the bull at Mureybet and Çatalhöyük would seem an unpromising prospect. The
evidence about to unfold, however, argues that the woman and the bull were not a mere presence at Göbekli Tepe — they were the abiding presence there, and everything else turned upon them. If this is so, we would find there also intimations of the transition to myth and religion.
How might this be? To begin with, the ground was fully prepared. If, as one may suppose, all who approached one of the structures at Göbekli Tepe were thoroughly conversant with its meaning, a presiding presence could hardly have been more imposingly invoked. A person of faith entering the cathedral at Chartres does not need a depiction of Christ or the Virgin Mary to know what lies at the heart of the edifice. It is quite likely, further, that the want of specific definition peculiar to the central pillars at Göbekli Tepe reflects a reluctance of a religious sort. All Bible-based religions, for example, display a reflexive reticence toward the physical depiction of the divinity. Issues of iconoclasm have fostered internecine divisions in Christianity, Islam tends to be more iconoclastic, and a Jewish tradition goes so far as to avoid even the pronunciation of the name of God — either aloud or to oneself.
Against this background must be considered the central pillars themselves. There does not seem to have been found a predicate for scientific analysis as to why there should have been two such figures in each enclosure — and not just at Göbekli Tepe but also in other special purpose structures located in the vicinity. Yet it cannot be ignored that what was at the center of things seems to have had a dual aspect. In an apparently otherwise vacant field of coupled candidates for this pairing, the woman and the bull would seem an obvious explanatory recourse, assuming there were supporting evidence for them. Such evidence is in place, but there are also some concrete obstacles to it. The pillars are broadly anthropomorphic in shape, and, in the fully exposed Enclosure D both central pillars have rudimentary or stylized hands and arms carved in low relief, and, as well, a belt and fox skin loincloth. Such a pillar could, without gender-specific markings, stand for a woman, but certainly not for a bull. It is true that in the subsequent mythology the bull was ultimately to take the form of a man as the masculine element of the pair. However, the bull did not morph into a human in the mythology until much later. There is, therefore, no basis on which to suppose that either the bull or the woman might be represented as embodied in the pillars save in an abstract, purely symbolic, way.
On the other hand, the pillars stand amidst scores of highly naturalistic and precisely rendered animal and human depictions, yet they, themselves, are only vaguely anthropomorphic. It may therefore indeed be that they represent divinities — else, why so ill-defined? If they were to represent divinities, they might take a generalized human form simply because that is the way gods tend to be visualized. God does not make man in his own image; man conceives God in the image of man
A decisive factor
There are a number of bucrania at Göbekli Tepe. Recall the aforementioned bucranium; in its iterations it came to be the skeletal head and widespread horns of the wild bull aurochs. A bas-relief bucranium is carved into one of the two central pillars of Enclosure D at Göbekli Tepe, the earliest enclosure. This, in and of itself, would not seem of special significance. However, the corresponding figure on the partnering pillar is identifiable as female, and that has far-reaching implications.
The figure there appears to combine basic forms that are mimicked in three letters as shown in Figure 1. The uppermost is the shape of an “H”. Directly below it is a circle “O” figure, and directly below that, a “C”, lying on its back. I suggest that the latter two images, the “O” and the recumbent “C” represent, respectively, the full and crescent phases of the moon. As they are carved, they fit this interpretation cleanly. The moon, by reason of the facts that the lunar cycle parallels the menstrual cycle and that lunar rhythms imply birth and renewal, and hence motherhood, is associated with the feminine at the deepest levels of the human imagination. I venture that, as with the “O” and the “C,” the “H” also represents a celestial figure, and furthermore that a likely candidate would be Orion — a highly visible and widely recognized constellation. Orion can be visualized as an “H.” A row of three bright stars, the readily identifiable “Orion’s belt,” would constitute the crosspiece, with the four most brilliant stars in the constellation serving in pairs as the uprights, forming, roughly in parallel, two imaginary straight lines.
There have been a number of technical interpretations of celestial configurations having to do with Göbekli Tepe, many with respect to the positioning of the structures
themselves in relation to heavenly events. These have support in the orientation of Stonehenge and other Stone Age monuments in respect to the solstices. My finding the “H” of the moon emblem to stand for Orion is of a different sort, but it does present a perplexity having to do with the time and place of the observer. As it happens, owing to the precession of the equinoxes, in 9000 BC Orion would have been visible in the southern sky at Göbekli Tepe only from the belt up. This, need not necessarily, however, stand in the way of the interpretation. The constellation would have been visible in full in southern Mesopotamia. And there had come into play in the late Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic high levels of intergroup communication and interchange over the whole of the region: “This was a highly connected world. There were multiple channels of communication along which a symbolic repertoire could have spread and been renewed” (Hodder and Meskell, 2011, p. 259). It is therefore by no means implausible that the constellation in full might have become a fixture in the human imagination throughout the region, even though Orion was visible in full in only part of it. Moreover, such a bright and distinctive figure in the night sky as Orion would invite interpretation. Consider that someone today, looking up at Orion, would not, without its being in some way explained, readily conjure up the image of a mighty hunter. That the constellation is seen as such, however, supplies a further ground for the idea of Orion here: Orion is portrayed in myth as a hunting companion of the Great other goddess Artemis — whose emblem was the crescent moon — and who was also goddess of the hunt. Another notably bright star, Sirius, is directly associated with Orion, appearing in a straight line from Orion’s distinctive belt. Called the “Dog Star,” it is linked in legend with Orion as one of his hunting dogs. All taken, these connections should warrant a provisional treatment of the “H” as a symbol for Orion, at least until a surer explanation might present itself.
The crescent of the moon newly rising before dawn is oriented toward the eastern horizon from which it arises, as might be a bow bent to send an arrow back in that direction. By contrast, the bow of the crescent of the waxing moon seen after sunset points in the opposite direction, toward the western horizon into which it sinks. The two “C’s” framing the “H” figure on the belt of the moon pillar would replicate, therefore, the positioning of an astral figure such as Orion — or another, the Milky Way, for instance — as standing between the opposed crescents as they might be pondered at break of day and after sunset by ancient scanners of the sky.
One today, looking up at the constellation Orion would not, without its being in some way explained, readily conjure up the image of a mighty hunter. That the constellation is seen as such, however, supplies a further ground for hanging onto the idea of Orion: Orion is portrayed in myth as a hunting companion of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, whose emblem was the crescent moon. Another notably bright star, Sirius, is directly associated with Orion, appearing in a straight line from Orion’s belt. Called the “Dog Star”, it is linked in legend with Orion, as one of his hunting dogs. As I view it, all taken, these connections warrant a provisional treatment of the “H” as a symbol for Orion, at least until a surer explanation might present itself.
The crescent of the moon newly rising before dawn is oriented toward the eastern horizon from which it arises, as might be a bow bent to send an arrow back in that direction. By contrast, the bow of the crescent of the waxing moon seen before sunset points in the opposite direction, toward the western horizon into which it sinks. The two “C’s” framing the “H” figure on the belt of the moon pillar would accurately replicate, therefore, the positioning of an astral figure such as Orion — or another, the Milky Way, for instance — as standing between the opposed crescents as they might be pondered at break of day and at dusk by ancient scanners of the night sky.
The positioning of the markings at the neck of the figures in the two pillars suggests emblems or insignia of some sort. It seems improbable that, matching each other in size and placement as they do, they might have been arbitrarily placed. They could be positioned as they are for purely symbolic reasons or, from their location, possibly as representing pendants, or, perhaps pins holding together a garment closed at the neck. Even if serving as ornaments, however, it is unlikely that the designs for such a strategic position would have been randomly selected. Accepting therefore that their selection was a calculated one, the two devices can be taken as emblematic, and, if emblems, then identifying markers for their respective pillars. Jens Notroff of the excavation team characterizes the significance of the placement of the two devices on the central pillars:
There are no eyes, no nose or mouth present, these pillar-statues remain bereft of individuality on first glance — only to be distinguished, at least in the case of the central pillars of Enclosure D for example, by peculiar symbols below their heads — not unlike where one would wear necklaces. So, while still nameless to us, the Neolithic people may well have recognized who it was depicted here towering above them (Notroff, 2016, June 10).
Figures such as the “O”,”C”, and “H” are pictograms or ideograms: pictorial signs for something of broader import; they might more recognizably be called, in the digital age, icons. There seem to have been but few pictograms deployed at Göbekli Tepe. Taking the bucranium as one such — something other than a literal animal representation — puts it as a part of an exclusive, and quite definitive, set: corresponding symbols of a sort rare at the site strategically placed on the paired pillars dominating the scene. A straightforward interpretation of such symbols would be that they identify the personae of the pillars as the bull and the woman, respectively: the bucranium pillar as the bull, and the pillar with the moon-like symbols as the woman.
Curious about bucrania at Göbekli Tepe, I had an illuminating discussion on the staff’s blog with Oliver Dietrich, another senior member of the Göbekli Tepe Research Staff. I can think of no way of conveying the burden of that and succeeding blog conversations more succinctly than by introducing them here, verbatim as reproduced from the blog — with my further observations intervening as called for. Also unfolding here is the course of my arriving at the conclusion I am now putting forward. The actual online conversations are in italics (Lawson, 2017, February 16).
02/16/2017 AT 17:43
Is that a bucranium top center on the porthole stone?
02/16/2017 AT 17:50
If you are referring to the image in the post about Enclosure B, yes, it is a bucranium.
The object in question is a large stone block fitted into a wall with a rectangular opening at the bottom, possibly an entry portal. It is clearly an important element of Enclosure B. Vertically aligned on the two sides of the opening are opposed foxes in low relief. Centered above the opening, much larger, and dominating the block in more pronounced relief, is the bucranium (Dietrich February 3, 2017). The whole set-up of the porthole stone points to the bucranium as of special significance, at least for Enclosure B.
02/16/2017 AT 17:52
Thanks. I’ve noted three. Do they seem to abound?
02/16/2017 AT 17:59
There are around ten on pillars and stone slabs.
02/16/2017 AT 18:12
Thank you. This is very instructive. It strikes me that the bucrania(?) may serve as emblems or insignia of a sort. In the photographs I don’t see other figures of such a character, where the part stands for the whole. For example, there are naturalistic depictions of bulls in addition to the bucrania. Am I on the wrong track here?
02/16/2017 AT 19:47
We have several more pictograms at GT, most notable are “H” and “C” shaped
symbols. Their meaning is open to discussion. It is interesting to note that naturalistic depictions of aurochs show the animals’ bodies from the side, while the head is shown in frontal view, similar to the bucrania. Obviously the head with the dangerous horns was of importance for the artists.
Dietrich treats the “H” and “C” pictograms as being of the same order as the bucranium, recognizing therefore that the bucranium is present on the pillar as a pictogram or icon. This view is reinforced by what would appear to be a decidedly symbolic deployment of the bucranium as the dominating feature of the porthole stone in Enclosure B, with which we began the discussion. In a later post, made after our conversation, Dietrich elaborates:
Notably, the cattle head is one of the few depictions also transformed into a possible ideogram at Göbekli Tepe. Bucrania can be found on several pillars and other elements of architecture (like so-called porthole stones). It is obvious that the mode of representing animals in Neolithic art is far from arbitrary (Dietrich O. 2017, April 3).
I return to the earlier conversation.
02/16/2017 at 21:18
Oliver, that is a nice observation respecting the orientation of the head and horns of the naturalistically depicted aurochs. This is a bit early for bull-leaping, so I hope the artists didn’t too often encounter one head-on. It does seem clear, though, that the frontal aspect is an object of fascination. I am grateful for your prompt and apt responses.
Keep up the good work. Tom
02/17/2017 AT 11:41
Unfortunately for them these encounters seem to have been very frequent indeed. Aurochs comes second in the hunted fauna at Göbekli after gazelle.
02/17/2017 AT 17:58
Hearty fellows. Beef fed. Now I see your point about being galvanized by the face-on view.
I had assumed that the hunters of Göbekli Tepe did not normally venture to take on the bull aurochs. Jaques Cauvin had noted that the villagers at Mureybet but rarely included local cattle in their diet (Cauvin, 1994/ trans. 2000, p. 28). If one were to face down a bull in the act of trying to kill it, the image would tend to stick with one. Ask any bullfighter. The riveting effect of this view no doubt added punch to the bucranium as a symbol.
02/17/2017 AT 18:56
Going back to pictographs: Jens in his 6/10/16, “Temples”, post suggests that the symbols at the neck of the apparent garments on the central pillars of Enclosure D might have served to identify the figures to Neolithic viewers. On one is a bucranium. On the other there appears to be an H and something like an S just below it. Is that correct?
02/17/2017 AT 19:49
A circle and a lying ‘C’.
02/17/2017 AT 21:40
Thanks for clearing that up for me.
02/17/2017 AT 22:15
Sorry I’m so slow to come to this: possible full and crescent moon?
02/18/2017 AT 0:56
That is definitely a possibility. However there is a clear danger of misinterpretation. These shapes may have that meaning in our cultural background, they could have meant something completely different in the Neolithic (Lawson, 2017, February 16).
There is little doubt that the bucrania at Göbekli Tepe are symbols, if not of the bull, then nevertheless bull symbols in some sense. Let’s focus therefore on the “H,” the “O,” and the “C.” They appear as a set at the throat of the pillar paired with the bull pillar in enclosure D. On the belt of that pillar the “C” and “H” motif also appears. I have found
both configurations to be drawn from the night sky and to represent the moon. By contrast to this pillar, the belt of the bucranium pillar is blank.
As it happens, the “H” cupped by “C’s” replicates itself across the site. Here is a later conversation from the Göbekli Tepe blog, this time with excavation team member
Notroff about a photograph on the blog of a pillar in Enclosure C (Lawson, 2017,
11/29/2017 AT 0:39
Jens, might the figure on Pillar 28 be a different configuration of the pictograms “C” and “H” on the belt of one of the central pillars of Enclosure D? These “letter” pictograms also appear at the throat of that pillar. I note that there is also an inverted “H” at the base of Pillar 28. Are there other instances where these pictograms appear in association with each other?
11/29/2017 AT 11:52
This seems absolutely possible. There seem to be several variations of the “C”- and “H”-like symbols repeatedly appearing in the site’s iconography. While they
of course cannot be really associated with the corresponding Latin letters, they certainly may carry peculiar meaning in the contexts they are displayed. We are currently looking into this question in the course of ongoing research.
On pillar 28 in Enclosure C, the “H” and the “C” pictograms appear in a new alignment. The pillar is one of the smaller, circumferential pillars. The figure of an “H, with the crosspiece straddled above and below by opposing “C’s,” as shown in Figure 2, appears on the leading edge of the pillar at its midpoint. Below it, at the base of the pillar, the “H” appears alone, this time on its side.
To pull all this together, there are bucrania along with what I am confident in calling moon symbols spread across the site at Göbekli Tepe. We have discussed those in Enclosures B, C, and D, and it would seem that they are to be found elsewhere as well. They occur in varying contexts. The bucranium by itself holds a special position at Enclosure B, and it crops up in as many as nine other places. I see it and moon symbols to be the identifying devices for the central pillars of Enclosure D. The moon symbol appears in two different forms on the mate to the bucranium pillar there. At the throat of that pillar, it takes the form of the full and crescent phases of the moon, in association with the “H” figure. And, on the belt of that pillar, what I see as the waxing and waning stages of the crescent moon are carved, embracing the “H.” As noted, there is no corresponding marking on the belt of the bucranium pillar. Finally, the crescent moon symbol appears in conjunction with the “H” on one of the smaller pillars of Enclosure C, and there the “H” also appears separately.
One fact is particularly striking. These four figures, the circle “O” with the “C” and the “H”; the paired “C’s” with the “H”; the “H” alone, and the bucranium are quite possibly the only pictograms on the entire site. And they are replicated throughout the site, and in several configurations. This makes the pictogram a unique feature among the thousands of stone engravings, reliefs, statues, and monuments peopling the structures at Göbekli Tepe. The specialized character of the pictograms, their ubiquity, in various structures erected over a wide span of years, and the fact that they identify the pillars and relate them to each other as a pair leaves no doubt as to their signal cultural import for those assembled at Göbekli Tepe.
The iconography of the woman and the bull in combination was well established in the northern Levant at the time of Göbekli Tepe. Its relevance to Göbekli Tepe in the mythology can be broadly sketched out as follows. The moon is symbolically associated with the feminine at the deepest level. We have linked moon symbolism to the Great Mother goddess, Artemis, whose emblem is the crescent moon. She is one of many Great Mothers of Middle East Bronze Age myth. Fundamental to the myth is the figure of the Son-Lover, who stands proud, but is cut down — later to be born again. Campbell treated the Son-Lover extensively, taking note of the comparison between the paired horns of the bull and those of the crescent, or horned moon. He related the dying and resurrected Son-Lover to the crescent moon as seen at the point of disappearing from the night sky and then reappearing at dawn following the interval of
the dark of the moon (Campbell, 1959, p. 143). Marija Gimbutas in turn recorded in her The Language of the Goddess the extensive iconography of bucrania and bull symbolism that attended the mother goddess (Gimbutas, 1989, pp. 265-271).
Göbekli Tepe and Mureybet are roughly contemporary. The focus of Göbekli Tepe seems to have been as a gathering place, while Mureybet was a village of permanent habitation. Cultivated grains appear to have been transported to Göbekli Tepe, whereas farming came into practice at Mureybet. Cauvin traces a migration of the culture of the goddess and the bull from Mureybet northward into Anatolia and then, with its special character, back again into the whole of the Levant:
Wherever it extended, the PPNB brought with it the legacy of the religion of the PPNA in its specifically Mureybetian version; it consists of not only the female divinity, who appeared simultaneously throughout the Levantine corridor, but also a masculine principle represented in animal form, the Bull, whose presence had not previously been indicated in the southern Levant…. The new religion seems to arrive [there] precisely with the middle PPNB, at a later stage therefore than in Anatolia, where it had arrived rather earlier through the influences from northern Syria (Cauvin, 1994/ trans. 2000, p, 105).
Goddess figures had been in evidence in northern Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, coextensively with the Franco-Cantabrian cave paintings in the south. Justly celebrated for their sophistication and elegance, the latter do not of themselves speak to a religious belief system. Goddess and bull imagery became coupled in Europe only later, as sedentary societies took hold (Gimbutas, 1989, p 265), presumably with the arrival of agriculture spreading from the Middle East.
No one thought up the goddess or the bull, or thought to put them together in a singularly strange pairing; the two simply materialized in the evolutionary play of chance and circumstance that brought about the miracle of the human mind. One begins with the earliest evidenced milieu of thought — a magical realm of spirit, rooted in life’s implicit interplay between life and death. From that emerged the figure of a goddess, associated with both birth and death and balancing the two. An affront to her sanctity meant death to the living. The bull, her masculine counterpart, was also her sacrificial victim.
The complementary emblems strategically placed at the necks of Göbekli Tepe’s paired central pillars all but of necessity specify the pillars’ respective identities. One pictogram, the bucranium, is unmistakably the symbol of a bull. The symbol at the neck of the other depicts the full and crescent stages of the moon. The moon, owing to the correspondence between the cycles of women and the moon, vouches a feminine aspect for this pillar. As if to underscore the point, the artisans added crescent moon symbols on the belt of the pillar and elsewhere. The evidence is perforce circumstantial — one cannot look into the Neolithic mind — but, taken all together, the circumstances fit into a coherent whole warranting the conclusion that behind the ritual activities of Göbekli Tepe lay the woman and the bull — the divine pair that carried forward into the Bronze Age religions of Mesopotamia.
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Copyright © Thomas T. Lawson