Giants

This is actually just a person in a tunnel, but imagine that it’s Polyphemus, blocking your way out of his cave.

How creepy, on a scale of 1 to 10, do you find the idea of giants?

I must confess, I was never particularly bothered by them. They have never struck me as uncanny. Just extra-large people, right? This might be partly because of portrayals like Disney’s, where the giants(s) are not too malevolent and certainly not too bright.

And the Iron Giant, and Gulliver when he was in Lilliput. In all of these cases, the fact of a person being huge creates some interesting logistical problems, but it certainly isn’t horror in the same category as anything unnatural, undead, or even as really depraved human evil.

All that to say, if I had set about, unguided, to pick a force of evil for my story, giants would not be the first place I would have gone.

Nevertheless, giants ended up in my first novel because they are featured in Genesis.

[The] story is told succinctly in Genesis 6:1 – 4, one of the most enigmatic and misinterpreted passages in the Bible. Here is how it reads in the oldest surviving copy … the Greek Septuagint:

“And it came to pass when men began to be numerous upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God having seen the daughters of men that they were beautiful, took to themselves wives of all whom they chose. … Now the giants were upon the earth in those days; and after that when the sons of God were wont to go in to the daughters of men, they bore children to them, those were the giants of old, men of renown.”

[In this book], we will proceed upon the premise that this passage tells of a time in the remote past when heavenly beings entered the abode of humans, and through our women were able to spawn a race of half-breed children, giants that all cultures throughout the world remember as powerful and often wicked, ruthless demigods.

Douglas Van Dorn, Giants: sons of the gods, pp. 2 – 3, emphasis in the original

In other words, that there were once, in actual history, giants that were half human, and that could in some sense be called demigods.

In the rest of the book, Van Dorn looks in detail at this passage and others, and answers arguments about whether this passage, and other passages that seem to assume the same background, should be interpreted to be talking about literal giants or about the people of God versus humans who had rejected God. He also delves into Hebrew terms for other demonic and paranormal creatures, terms that often get rendered as various animals in modern translations.

I am not going to get into the exegetical discussion in this post. But I am going to touch on how Van Dorn’s thesis – that this stuff actually happened, way back in the mists of human history – is backed up by what is usually called mythology.

It is a really strange fact that every culture has stories about giants, gods, and various other supernatural creatures (including chimeras, but that’s another topic). This fact does not strike us as strange – at least, it didn’t me – precisely because these stories are so old and so universal. We just accept it as a given that human “legends” and “myths” deal with threatening creatures that we do not see today. We don’t look for an explanation of why this should be. I am sure that Jung could give you a psychological explanation for the universality of giant stories. Jordan Peterson could give you a Jungian, evolutionary explanation.

And certainly, the idea of a giant as a large and threatening presence is deeply embedded in the human mind. But why? How did this idea get there? Why aren’t our symbols of evil just bears and saber-toothed tigers, if those were the only threats our ancestors were dealing with?

If you go to Bali, you can see sculptures of an ugly, bearded giant being attacked by an eagle as he attempts to carry off a beautiful girl with an elaborate crown and hair that falls to her ankles. This is an illustration of a scene from the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic that, in the millennia since it entered Indonesia, has there acquired its own flavor. In the Indonesian version, the beautiful girl is Sinta, bride of the prince Rama. The giant (raksasa) captures her through deception, carries her off, and is able to fly to get her back to his castle. The heroic eagle (garuda) attacks him in the air. This is a favorite scene for sculptors and illustrators, who still exist in great numbers in Bali and are insanely talented. The story is also told in shadow-puppet plays and operas.

In Borneo, where I had the privilege to live for a few years, they have their own local legends. One common theme in these is that you should not marry outside your clan, because if you marry a girl from an unknown people, she might turn out not to be human. In one story, a young man marries a foreign girl. When she goes down to the river to bathe, he goes to spy on her and is shocked to see her take off her head.

One area, where we lived for about a year, had a large local mountain with a distinctive jagged top. As the story went, this mountain once reached the clouds. A giant used to climb down it in order to eat the people down below. Then a female hero used a machete to hack off the top of the mountain. The giant, now trapped in the clouds, looks down upon the people but cannot eat them anymore. It drools, and the drops of drool become the bloodsucking leeches that live in the jungle on the slopes of the mountain. Still trying to eat the people, you see.

These few stories from island southeast Asia illustrate features that show up associated with giants again and again: kidnapping/rape, and eating people. (I mean, that is virtually all the giants and demigods do in the Greek myths, for example.) I mention these stories from Bali and Borneo to show just what a wide geographical area the human consensus on giant behavior seems to cover.

Given all this, giants are starting to look more like what we in our house would call a “horror creature.” To review: based on Genesis and numerous myths worldwide, the giants:

  • are not fully human, but are some sort of human/supernatural hybrid
  • are nevertheless fully physical and present in actual history
  • seem to like kidnapping human women
  • seem to like eating people
  • are smart enough to practice deception

Ok, now this is starting to get scary. If we accept that these myths are historical memories, then all of a sudden, hearing giant stories is sort of like hearing about atrocities committed by people during the Holocaust, or the Communist takeover of Cambodia, or any other of humanity’s many periods of pure, unrestrained, depraved evil. But it’s scary in another way too. Given the purported origin of these giants, it’s like hearing about a successful genetic experiment, or like finding out that demon possession is real.

I’ve always kind of longed to live in the really ancient ages of the world. But, the more I learn, the more relieved I am to be living in modern times. We slam the door to the giants shut behind us, and lean against it, panting.

Mobs Are Bad.

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting at the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”

“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them.

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Portland Sodom — both young and old — surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. [Note: Lot may have been lying. We are later told that he has sons-in-law.] But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

“Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

But the men inside the house reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.

Genesis 19:1 – 11

The Horrifyingly Compelling Sulfur Pools of Yellowstone, and Another Cover Draft

Yellowstone National Park, which straddles the borders of Idaho and Montana but is mostly in Wyoming, is famously on top of an underground “supervolcano.” The volcanism in the area leads to the phenomenon that Yellowstone might be most famous for, namely Old Faithful geyser and many smaller and less faithful geysers.

Yellowstone also boasts these surreal-looking mineral pools. The edges are white, crusty mineral deposits similar to Tolkien’s descriptions of Mordor. The colors within the water come from heat-loving bacteria. Different microbes thrive at different temperatures, and they are responsible for the range of reds, oranges, and yellows before the water becomes clear and hence blue.

These pools are dangerous. They look appealing, but the heat will quickly kill any human or dog foolish enough to jump into one. There have been tragic cases at the park. Some people have survived their burns and others haven’t. To make matters worse, the ground around the pools can be fragile although it appears solid. The park has put up boardwalks studded with signs imploring people to stay on the paths and keep control of their children. Even the bison sometimes break through.

The landscape around these pools is not particularly beautiful, but it is interesting, even alien. I happen to have at least one pleasant association with the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone. It was there that my now-husband first blurted out that he loved me.

However, in my book The Strange Land, my characters’ encounter with these pools did not go so well.

The strange land of the title is not Yellowstone National Park. It is another volcanic region, the area now known as Kamchatka. Kamchatka also has sulfurous pools. Behold:

For my second draft for a cover of The Strange Land, I thought about featuring one of these pools, with the volcano in the background:

I’m not sure how I feel about this cover painting. For one thing, there’s a lot going on in it. I’m not sure it has enough focus. For another, it’s kind of hard to believe. The colorful pool, the colorful vegetation, the white mineral deposits: all of them are well attested, but they look kind of … made up? I’m not even sure it would be clear what the pool is, to a viewer who wasn’t already familiar with Yellowstone.

I’m thinking perhaps I need to re-do this picture with a darker sky and with slightly more muted colors in the pool. You know, tone it down from real life to make it more believable.

For reference, the previous cover draft for the same book was this:

Two Indie Authors to Check Out

What’s your stereotype of “indie” (independently published) books? Is it a tame memoir that would interest only the author’s family? A bitter rant where the author finally gets to have their say? An amateurish sci-fi filled with cringe-inducing grammatical errors?

I’ve read all of these types. (And, for the record, my opinion is not the same about all of them. The family memoirs, in particular, will be valuable historical records one day.) But in case you didn’t know it, there is so much more to the world of indie books. Here are two indie authors I’ve discovered, both worth reading and each weirder than the last.

Spectre

Specter by Katie Jane Gallagher

I discovered Katie right here on WordPress. She likes horror, which I didn’t think was really my speed, but I just had to buy her book to see the results of her self-publishing. The book is, in a word, professional. The cover, the formatting, the editing … it all looks and reads just like any high-quality YA paranormal book you’d pick up in a bookstore (or, in my case, a library). And no, it’s not a paranormal romance where the ghost is the girl’s love interest. (Thank God.)  It just features a normal, smart high schooler who starts seeing ghosts. And, refreshingly, her parents are all right, unlike in so many YA books where the parents are either dead, clueless or part of the problem.

And the horror? Well, there are some horrible revelations at the end … but they didn’t turn out to be anything I couldn’t handle. Perhaps I’ve been toughened up by watching Stranger Things.

The Collision series by Rich Colburn

Full disclosure: I knew Rich before he wrote these books. He’s weird. (I honestly don’t think he’ll be offended if he reads that.)  When, having not seen him for years, I heard that Rich had indie published a couple of books, I eagerly bought them. They are exactly the kind of books I would have expected from him, which makes them a little hard to describe.

From the Amazon blurb: “What if the spirit world was rampant with technology sophisticated beyond anything mankind has imagined? What if a sociopath got his hands on a powerful piece of this technology? What if you couldn’t die no matter how much damage your body sustained?
“Join a reluctant hero on his quest to discover what the heck he should do with his time now that he has unlimited power and the world as he knew it collides with the unseen world. Will demon-possessed biomechanical monsters kill everyone? Will there be enough coffee to last through to the end of the world? Will that play into our hero’s decision whether or not to bother saving it? These are questions we’ve all wondered about. Explore these and other important philosophical questions as you follow the adventure that was contrived to do just that.
“The Collision series offers a technological explanation for the supernatural. Human psychology, questions of life and death, and the nature of the supernatural play a critical role in the story of a man who becomes aware of the technology used by beings existing in higher modes of reality.”

The Collision books are slightly less professional than Specter. They could have used a second pass with an editor. But they are a joy to read because they are just so darned clever. To take a sampling of the chapter titles from Resolve:

Chapter 34: When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object, It’s Best If They Avoid Eye Contact

Chapter 35: Omnipotence: It’s There When You Least Expect It

Chapter 36: I Love the Java Jive but the Java Jive has Found Me Wanting

Chapter 37: Seriously? Another Plot-Thickening Thread?

Chapter 41: It Came From My Parents’ Basement

Believe it or not, these titles are not just one-liners. All of them make sense when you read the chapter. I really don’t think a traditionally published book could have gotten away with chapter titles like this.

So now you are probably thinking that the Collision series is like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And it sort of is, if that book had been written by a Christian. But it’s not just metaphysics and humor. The book also becomes surprisingly poignant (in the context of all the weirdness), and also very horrifying and tense. Especially the scene in the parents’ basement. Also, be it noted that the monster made out of corpses in Stranger Things was familiar to me because an even more horrifying version had already roamed the pages of Formulacrum.

The Maya Microcosm of Humanity

The Maya flourished between approximately 1000 BC and 1500 AD in Central America. Their civilization was centered in the Yucatan Peninsula and the lowland and hilly regions south of it. Their sites are found in what are now the countries of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

There is so much to learn about the Maya. I have barely dipped my toe in it. As always when learning about a new culture or civilization, I was met with the thrill of the exotic followed by a creeping feeling of familiarity. Though the Maya are very unique, in their own distinctly Mayan way they also epitomize certain things about human beings. In some sense, the more unique they are, the better they epitomize it.

They Are Surprising to Other People

I don’t know why, but people always get excited when they discover other people. (Animals get excited too: “Oh goody! A person!”)  And we are always discovering other people, in the most remote corners of space and time, where for some reason we did not expect to find them, though you would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.

The Maya were particularly hard to find because of the geography of the region they inhabited. Jungle is not kind to the preservation of buildings or artifacts. It destroys things quickly, grows over things and hides them, and can make the region impassable.

Tree destroying a stone arch. From Mysteries of the Ancient Americas, p. 165

A really thick jungle allows no roads through it, and once they arrived, here is what some of the archaeologists found:

“The rain was incessant,” Charnay complained. “The damp seems to penetrate the very marrow of our bones; a vegetable mould settles on our hats which we are obliged to brush off daily; we live in mud, we are covered in mud, we breathe in mud; the ground is so slippery that we are as often on our backs as on our feet.” Once Charnay awakened to find 200 “cold and flat insects the size of a large cockroach” in his hammock, 30 of which clung to his body and bit him painfully.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 22

They Got Romanticized

In the early 1500s, during the Spanish conquest of the region, Spanish priests managed to preserve some Mayan cultural data – vocabulary lists, transcriptions of myths, and a few codices (books) – at the same time they were brutally wiping the culture out. These records remained obscure until, 300 years later, there was a resurgence of interest in the Maya. Explorers, hobbyists, and artists who happened to have the time, money, and fortitude to brave the jungles started unearthing Mayan ruins and making sketches and watercolors of them. In some cases, these sketches are the only record we have, since the jungle has continued its destructive work in the 200 years since.

Once European academics started getting interested in the Maya, they realized there was a very elaborate system of numbers and pictographs that they could not read.  Thus began a long, haphazard process of rediscovering old codices and cross-checking them with symbols found on the monuments, as recorded in photographs and drawings. The number system was easier to decipher – dots for ones and bars for fives, for example – and so the first thing that got decoded were dates and astronomical cycles,

… which led many experts to conclude that Maya writing was limited to such matters. As late as the 1950s this was still the most prevalent view, and its chief spokesmen were the American archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and J. Eric S. Thompson, a British archaeologist also affiliated with Carnegie. Thompson drew a picture of the Maya as a peaceful, contemplative people, obsessed with the passage of time, and guided by priests who watched the movements of celestial bodies and discerned in them the will of the gods. Maya cities were ceremonial centers, he believed, not bastions of the worldly power.

The Magnificent Maya. p. 33

Over the next few decades, through the work of several brilliant code breakers, about 80 percent of Mayan glyphs were deciphered. Turns out they are a combination of ideograms (an image representing an idea) and phonetic units (an image representing a sound).  As this work went on, researchers have been able to read more and more of the Mayan myths and history, which in turn has helped us better to interpret their art. They started to discover that the 19-century “noble savage” characterization of the Maya was badly mistaken.

They Were Shockingly Cruel

First of all, the Mayan society was indeed hierarchical, with battles for succession and kings of city-states engaging in (perhaps ritual?) warfare. Discoveries during the 1990s confirmed that this hierarchy was present hundreds of years earlier than previously guessed.  (Archaeologists’ preconceptions might have had something to do with these inaccurate guesses. See my post about Serpent Mound for a critique of the 19th-century idea that civilizations always develop along certain lines, from hunter-gatherers, to villages, to cities.)

from The Magnificent Maya, p. 108

But warfare was only the beginning. There was also the bloodletting, the torture, and the human sacrifice.

Apparently, Mayan royalty were expected to offer blood to their gods. During these bloodletting rituals, they would have visions. There are pictures and statues of both men and women doing this. Women would draw a stingray spine through their tongue to produce the blood. Men would draw blood from their tongue, earlobes, or genitals. (Yikes.) They would allow the blood to be absorbed by sheets of bark paper, which was then burned, the smoke being a way of getting the blood to the gods.

If a culture is going to have a painful ritual, it’s good that it should be done by the royalty. That’s certainly better than having a royalty that is unwilling to suffer for their duty and their people. If this were the only painful ritual the Maya had, I’d kind of admire it. But it wasn’t.

The Maya were big on human sacrifice. Decapitation was popular, or they might throw the victims into a sacred cenote (large natural limestone hole filled with water) if one was available. High-born victims, captured in war, would be mutilated and displayed before the community before being offed. Later, perhaps under the influence of the feathered-serpent cult of the Toltecs, Mayan priests would cut out the victim’s heart, offer it (and its steam – ew!) to the sun, and then kick the body down the steps of the temple. This ritual was still being conducted at Uxmal in the 1500s, which is why we know about details like the kicking of the body (Magnificent Maya, 139 – 140).  Chacmools, which were obviously built to hold something, may have been made to hold human hearts.

The Magnificent Maya, p. 136. Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza. The reclining statue holding a bowl is the chacmool.

Then there were the ball games. Did I mention that the Maya were big sports fans? Like, really big. You have probably heard of this game, where the players would use their hips and buttocks to bounce a large, heavy rubber ball off the sloping walls of the court. Apparently, the Maya took their sports so seriously that the losers of this game might be sacrificed, either by one of the methods above, or by being trussed up and used as the ball until they died (94 – 95).  This very ball game features in the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh, where the Hero Twins play the game against the inhabitants of the Underworld. The reason they are obliged to do so? The rulers of the Underworld “covet [the brothers’] sporting gear and want to steal it” (56 – 57). This story, too, features a lot of torture.

Cruelty is always shocking, which is why the heading for this section says “shockingly cruel.” But it should not shock us to discover that a previously unknown civilization featured widespread, institutionalized atrocity. Every single human culture has something like this. Cultures can have good historical moments when the human evil is comparatively restrained, and they can have bad historical moments when it is encouraged. You could argue that in the case of the Maya, it had really gotten out of hand, and I think you’d be right. But I don’t think that makes the Maya different from any other people in their basic humanity. In their uniqueness, they epitomize what human beings are capable of. People are extremely creative, and they have often used their creativity to dream up ways to torture one another. This is why we have the expression, “Man, the glorious ruin.”

They Were Jaw-Droppingly Smart

from Fingerprints of the Gods, photo plate between pages 134 – 135. I have no idea how this light and shadow serpent effect was accomplished, but if true, it’s an amazing piece of engineering.

And now we get to the glorious part. No matter how depraved, broken, fallen, or ruined they may be, human beings never stop being made in the image of God, which means they will keep on being creative and clever and productive. It has long been a theme on this blog that ancient people were smarter than modern people expect. This is because they were people, and people are always surprising other people – because the other people are proud – with their cleverness.

The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They had the concept of zero, and the idea of place value, which the Romans did not have. They had calculated the solar year at 365.2420 days (the modern calculation is 365.2422), and the time of the moon’s orbit at 29.528395 days (modern figure is 29.530588). They had figured out the average synodical revolution of the planet Venus (the amount of time it takes for Venus’s orbit and the earth’s orbit to sync up so that Venus is rising in the exact same spot in the sky). This average happens to be 583.92 days, and they had figured out how to reconcile this with their “sacred year” (13 months of 20 days each) and with the solar year, by adding days every certain number of years, similar to our leap year.  Bringing all these interlocking calendars into sync then allowed them to calculate mind-blowingly distant dates without losing accuracy.

All the above information is from Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods. Hancock then quotes Thompson, the romanticizer whom we met a few sections ago. Studying the Mayan calendar, Thompson had reason to be impressed:

As Thompson summed up in his great study on the subject:

“On a stela at Quiriga in Guatemala a date over 90 million years ago is computed; on another a date over 300 million years before that is given. These are actual computations, stating correctly day and month positions, and are comparable to calculations in our calendar giving the month positions on which Easter would have fallen at equivalent distances in the past. The brain reels at such astronomical figures.”

Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods, p. 162

Hancock, being a bit of a snob, questions why the Maya “needed” to develop these calendrical and mathematical tools. He speculates that the Maya had inherited “a coherent but very specific body of knowledge … from an older and wiser civilization.”

“What kind of level of technological and scientific development,” Hancock asks, “was required for a civilization to devise a calendar as good as this?” (158 – 159)

Of course, he is asking these questions because he’s heading in the direction of civilization having dispersed from a “mother-civilization.” That’s fine with me, but in asking these questions he also betrays a worship of science and technology that is distinctly modern and that, when applied to ancient peoples, makes us shortsighted. Why should mathematical genius exist only in the service of technology? The Maya were smart, and they wanted to make these calculations about the celestial bodies and about dates in the distant past and future. Isn’t that enough? Furthermore, they actually recorded why they were so obsessed with these calculations. Their cosmology held that time proceeded in predictable cycles of disasters, and they were pretty concerned with knowing when the next one was coming. That was the purpose of the Long Count calendar, as Hancock himself points out on page 161. It was a doomsday clock. That may also have been a big part of the reason for the horrifying sacrificial system.

The Long Count calendar is what everyone was talking about when they were saying the Maya had predicted a cataclysm for Dec. 23, 2012.  It didn’t happen – phew! – and, frankly, for obvious reasons I don’t completely buy in to their cosmology. Although we do need to consider the possibility that in converting the dates, we made a mistake in interpreting their extremely complex system.

Bottom Line, the Mayans are People

I can’t say that I find the Mayan – or the Toltec, Aztec, or Olmec – myths or aesthetic particularly attractive. I dipped my toe in because as part of the research for my books, I need to at least know my way around the ancient Mesoamerican mindset. As the research proceeds, I find myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these people. But I still wouldn’t want to have lived as one. This has been true of virtually every ancient culture I’ve studied.

So, taking it in reverse order, here is what we have learned about the Maya, and here is what we have learned about humans.

Humans are smart.

Humans are evil.

Humans are wonderful.

Humans are everywhere.

Sources

Hancock, Graham, Fingerprints of the Gods. 1995, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc., New York, New York.

Reader’s Digest books, editors, Mysteries of the Ancient Americas. 1986, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York.

Time-Life books, editors, The Magnificent Maya. 1993, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia.

Special Foods I Have Prepared During Quarantine

  • “sweet” chicken curry (using canned chicken)
  • “chicken noodle soup” using Ramen noodles and canned chicken
  • chocolate chip cookies (3 4 batches!)
  • almond strip cookies (1 batch so far)
  • pies: pumpkin, chocolate pudding, banana pudding
  • brownies
  • lemon poppyseed muffins
  • biscuits (No, not the things the British call biscuits. Those are cookies. I mean those things that are made with flour, shortening, and buttermilk) (Lost count of the number of batches I’ve made. Son keeps requesting them)

Do I detect a theme here? Sounds pretty carb-heavy, no? We even managed to run out of white sugar. But rest easy, because I also made …

  • fridge pickles (to go on frozen hamburgers)
  • Moroccan-style preserved lemons

The Curiously Affirming Female Figurines of Ancient Europe

Trigger warning: statue of a naked fat lady

This post is the second in a series of posts based on chapters from this book:

The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley, Touchstone, 2000.

As Rudgley writes in the Introduction:

In this book I will show … how great is the debt of historical societies to their prehistoric counterparts in all spheres of cultural life; and how civilised in many respects were those human cultures that have been reviled as savage.

Ibid, p. 1

What do you mean, “Stone Age”?

“Stone Age,” of course, sounds very ancient, and that is by design. But when Rudgley talks about the Stone Age, often the dates involved are “only” about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago (approximately the time we think that people were crossing the Land Bridge). This falls before the beginning of recorded history — we think — unless we are willing to accept local origin myths worldwide as inevitably garbled historical records. After the small amount of study I have done about the historicity of myths, of Genesis, and of the many amazing prehistoric engineering feats, I no longer think of Stone Age people as “cave men,” but rather as fully modern humans, certainly our intellectual equals and probably our superiors. For my disclaimer about the dating of archaeological sites and prehistoric events, see my last post about Rudgley, here.

The “Venuses” of Eurasia

Chapter 14 of Rudgley (pp 184 – 200) discusses the large number of small female figurines which have been found all over Europe and as far east as Siberia. These are called “Venuses,” though of course they would not have been called that by the original artists. They were being produced (if we take the dating at face value) over a period of many thousands of years.

The oldest one, according to Rudgley, dates to the Aurignacian age, about 31,000 years ago: “the Venus of Galgenburg [Austria].” It is 7 mm tall, made of a soft green stone, and is artistically sophisticated. The figure is posed as if dancing. She is bearing her weight on her left leg. The right leg is carved free of the left and braces on the base of the figure. The right arm is carved free of the body, with the hand bracing on the knee. Clearly the sculptor knew what he or she was doing when it came to posing the figure, carving free limbs that would not break off, and piercing through the material without breaking it. Since this is (by hypothesis) the oldest such figure that we have, it’s clear that we don’t have a case of an artistic tradition that started out crude and later became more advanced. (pp 192 – 194)

Probably the best-known of these figures is the Venus of Willendorf (also found in Austria).

When I was first exposed (pun not intended) to this little figurine, it was introduced to me simply as “the mother goddess.” Although shocking to modern eyes, it is certainly a work of art. As you can see, it has no face, but it has a considerable amount of detail in odd places such as the knees, private parts, and hairdo. The hair looks a bit like corn rows to me, but could also be braids wrapped around the head or even styled curls a la the Babylonian kings. “Alexander Marshack believes the coiffure of the Willendorf figurine may be one of the symbols of a mature and fertile woman” (198).

Not all of the Stone Age Venuses are fat or naked.

Bednarik is very skeptical about the usefulness of lumping all female figurines of the period together, noting that they are extremely diverse in numerous ways. Some are naked; others partly or fully clothed. Some are in pregnant condition; others are not. Some are fat to the point of obesity, whilst others are very slender. Beyond the fact that they all depict females and most come from the same period of the Upper Palaeolithic, they appear to have little in common.

Ibid, p. 197

The Meaning of the Venuses

Figures like the Willendorf Venus are very intriguing to some people, for obvious reasons. The explanation most ready to hand is that they are artifacts of some kind of fertility religion. This explanation is the more intuitive because of what we know about the importance that fertility often plays in pagan religions worldwide.

Marija Gimbutas has taken these figures and other evidence to posit a wide-ranging “civilization of the goddess” in Old Europe. (She published a book with that title in 1991.) She deduces (or speculates) quite a lot about this religion from Venus artifacts and from other sources. Her thesis is that the gentle, goddess-worshipping Old Europeans were overrun by warlike worshippers of a sky god coming from the Eurasian steppes (i.e. the Indo-Europeans). Gimbutas’ work had quite a strong influence on one of my high school literature teachers, who emphasized to us that worshipers of a male sky god “always” come to rape, pillage and plunder, steal, kill, and destroy. (At this point, the neo-pagans in the class would give the Christians the side eye.) We will deal with Gimbutas in another post, probably later this year.

In Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books, the venuses are definitely symbols of a goddess of fertility and sexuality. Her male lead Jondalar comes from a matriarchal society in western Europe where the figurines are referred to as doni. Jondalar, when distressed, will even exclaim, “Oh, Doni!” The female lead Ayla, meanwhile, was raised by Neanderthals, who in Auel’s books severely oppress their women (because, of course, they fear their procreative power).

Moving even farther along the continuum of being obsessed with sex, Rudgley’s chapter includes a hilarious discussion of how some archaeologists have gotten over-excited and begun to interpret nearly all Palaeolithic art as porn.

It has been suggested that another important aspect of Aurignacian art was their liberal and frequent use of sexual imagery, particularly … female genitalia. This theory was first developed by l’Abbe Breuil … The idea soon caught on among French prehistorians and became something of a dogma, and various shapes engraved in stone … that looked vaguely like a vulva were automatically perceived as such by scholars eager to discover further proof of the prehistoric obsession with sexual matters. … Perhaps the most absurd example of all is a description of a simple straight line as a representation of the vaginal opening.

Ibid, pp. 194 – 195

It just cracks me up that these were French prehistorians. Of course they were. Of course.

Rudgley sums up in a way that I think is quite reasonable and balanced:

[T]he fact that the figurines are found across a huge geographical area and a period of thousands and thousands of years means that it would be ridiculous to think that they all symbolised the same thing to their extremely diverse makers. It is quite apparent that the female body was used to express numerous concerns in Palaeolithic times. [198]

We can now see how any crude explanation of the Willendorf figurine as simply a fertility figure or an object of sexual desire is entirely inadequate. The representation of the female body during the Upper Palaeolithic period … was a symbol of cosmological significance that was able to express all aspects of Palaeolithic human concerns. [199]

If the female body was one of the most widespread and elaborate images of the Old Stone Age, and a symbol for the various forces of nature and the various aspects of culture, would it really be so far from the mark to believe that the figurines actually embody aspects of the Palaeolithic worship of a goddess? [200]

Rudgley, Lost Civilizations, chapter 14

… So, Why Are They Affirming Again?

Well, obviously, on the most superficial level, the Willendorf Venus is an implied affirmation to any modern woman who is pregnant, aging, or concerned about her weight. Somebody worked very hard to portray this lady.

On a slightly deeper level, our modern culture is one that really hates the idea of motherhood. We don’t like the idea that potential motherhood is a defining characteristic of being a woman, or that it might be a worthy or even glorious goal. Unfortunately for our tidy little minds, though, motherhood (besides being a kind of superpower) is in fact a built-in goal in the design of women. Which means that knocking it as a role and calling is pretty hard on women, even those who don’t realize it, because we, as a culture, are constantly asking them, in a thousand ways large and small, if for the sake of decency they could please not exist.

In this kind of environment, it’s a tonic to know that it was not always thus. There could exist – there apparently did exist – a culture that greatly valued, perhaps even worshiped, mothers. You don’t have to be an acolyte of the goddess to appreciate the boost this gives women.

Worshiping a good thing, rather than its creator, is idolatry and idols always turn on their followers. Thus, a religion of motherhood certainly would have come with its own distortions and injustices (such as devaluing infertile women, as we see in the Old Testament). But still … it’s nice to know that at one time a mature, even obese woman was considered a thing so good that she could possibly be worshiped.

I am dealing with this topic not because I feel a particular affinity for it. I don’t enjoy looking at the Venus of Willendorf, and despite the paragraph above I would not want to look like her. I tackled these figurines because my area of interest is prehistory, and durned if they don’t show up in it. Finding out how affirming they are to women was just an unexpected bonus. And if they do feel really weird even as they are affirming, I think the weirdness comes because they are from such a different culture.

Stone Age Surgery

Photo by Renato Danyi on Pexels.com

Trigger warning: Stone Age surgery!

This post is the first in a series I have planned about prehistory. Each post will draw on one or more chapters from the book The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, by Richard Rudgley, Touchstone, 2000. From the front flap:

Our long-held myths are exploding. Recent discoveries of astonishing accomplishments from the Neolithic Age – in art, technology, writing, math, science, religion, and medicine, and exploration – demand a fundamental rethinking of human history before the dawn of civilization.

Lost Civilizations, inside flap

So, Rudgley’s thesis is basically that there was, in fact, civilization long before there was civilization. That is, of course, also a theme of this blog. “Ancient people were smarter than we think,” or that art, literature, science and civilization are the natural state of human beings and have been present (ebbing and flowing of course) as long as there has been humanity.

A near-universal theme in the mythologies of the world is that the present state of the world, and more specifically the social world, is in decline — a fall from the Garden of Eden or from a Golden Age. Modern civilization has turned these traditional mythological assumptions on their head and written a new script, one based on the idea of social progress and evolution. In this new mythology the notion of civilization (as it is generally understood) replaces Eden and this novel paradise exists not at the beginning of time but, if not right now, then just around the corner. Civilization is … presented as the final flowering of human achievement born out of a long and interminable struggle against the powers of darkness and ignorance that are represented by the Stone Age.

Lost Civilizations, Introduction, page 1

I have come to believe in the ancientness of civilization because I take ancient documents seriously as historical records: Genesis, primarily, but also the other legends and myths from around the world which Rudgley mentions in his intro. This suspicion that ancient people were much smarter than we give them credit for was further strengthened as I learned about some of their building projects. Now Rudgley is presenting archaeological evidence that they knew far more than we suspect about art, mathematics, the natural sciences, and medicine.

Disclaimer about Dates

By the way, I don’t have a coherent way to sort out which archaeological dates to accept and which ones to doubt. As far as I can tell from my reading, all methods of dating archaeological sites are based on some form of dead reckoning.

Carbon dating depends on certain assumptions about rates of molecular decay, which can’t be proven in the first place and can also be thrown off universally or locally by events such as a comet strike. Carbon dating also seems to be less reliable the farther we go back in time.

Dating by archaeological layers also depends on assumptions about different historical periods and what might be diagnostic of each, except in cases where a site can be reliably linked to a known historical event (which is obviously only the case for relatively recent sites). Other than that, it’s all dead reckoning.

Dating events in human history by the use of genetics depends upon assuming that all genetic differences evolved and assuming certain rates of change. Historical linguistics has the same problem.

Finally, historical records such as the genealogies found in Genesis and in the oral traditions of other peoples worldwide hit only the highlights of a family line and don’t give us any idea how many generations were skipped.

Each of these methods can be pretty convincing in specific cases. It is even more convincing when one or more methods converge, yielding the same date range. But even when that happens, it’s still just one method of dead reckoning appearing to validate another. And most often, different dating methods contradict each other. If a plurality of them converged on one timeline for human history, maybe we could accept that. But they don’t. It’s complete chaos.

I would love to present a clever, coherent, data-grounded rubric for sorting all this stuff out. But I’m not a professional in any of these fields. Even if I were, the pros don’t all agree with one another. It’s starting to look like, in order to have a sorting method that makes sense, I would have to do full-time research for several years. Maybe for a lifetime. So I got nothin’.

My working theory is that humanity, and hence human civilization, is tens of thousands but not hundreds of thousands and certainly not millions of years old. I can’t prove this. No one can.

So, in these posts about Rudgley’s book, I’ll just present the dates as he gives them. I won’t try to integrate them with the picture of ancient human history that I have been piecing together in my books and in other posts on this site, all of which could be invalidated at any time by a new historical or archaeological discovery. Sometimes Rudgley gives dates that are hundreds of thousands or even millions of years old (though not in this chapter). I might be skeptical that they are really that old, but can still accept that these people were living long before mainstream archaeology tells us that there was “civilization.”

On to the Icky Stuff!

So. Stone Age Surgery.

Undoubtedly the widest-known major surgical operation in tribal cultures is trepanation … which, as will become clear, was also known in the Stone Age. This operation involves the removing of one or more parts of the skull without damaging the blood vessels, the three membranes that envelop the brain … or the actual brain.

Lost Civilizations, p 126

That’s right, removing parts of the skull. There are three methods by which this can be done: scraping, “a mixture of boring and sawing,” and “the push-plough method,” which involves creating an oval groove in the skull (basically another method of scraping).

Thomas Wilson Parry, MD (1866 – 1945), became fascinated by trepanation and practiced various methods of it on human skulls (not on live patients), “using implements made of obsidian, flint, slate, glass, shell and shark teeth.” “Parry records that the average time it took him to perform a trepanation by the scraping method on a fresh adult skull was half an hour. He found both flint and obsidian excellent materials to work with surgically, and also expressed the opinion that shells — which were used in Oceania to perform such operations — were highly effective too.” (page 128)

Trepanation appears to be less painful than it sounds. It has been used at various times and places to treat epilepsy, mental illness, head injuries, severe headaches, vertigo and deafness (129). It is “still regularly practised among the Gusii of Kenya, a Bantu people with a population of about one million, and theirs is perhaps the last surviving traditional practice of its kind.” (130) Trepanation was also practiced by the Incas and the pre-Inca peoples; in Neolithic Europe; in 6th-century BC Palestine; and now, trepanned skulls a few thousand years old have also been found in Australia.

Rudgley points out that “as it is usually only the bones of Stone Age people that survive to be discovered … any operation that was performed on the soft parts of the body cannot be detected.” (136) If Neolithic people were willing and able occasionally to practice trepanation, it seems likely that they were able to perform less risky kinds of surgery too. There is some evidence from Neolithic Europe of various kinds of dentistry, including toothpick grooves, birch bark chewing gum, and even a skull with a tooth that has been drilled. (136)

Rudgley’s chapter on trepanation (“Stone Age Surgery”) comes after a chapter called “Under the Knife” (pp 116 – 125), which discusses medical procedures in “tribal” cultures that are known from history and ethnography. This includes everything from circumcision in the Ancient Near East, to amputation among the Australian aborigines, to very detailed anatomical knowledge among the Aleutian islanders. The chapter concludes with two horrifying yet impressive accounts of successful surgeries in a tribal context. There is a c-section performed in Uganda in 1879, and various tumor removals performed in the Ellice [sic] Islands in the 1920s. The message is clear: modern, “civilized” people don’t have a corner on medical knowledge.

Antiseptics and Painkillers

We don’t know whether Stone Age people had germ theory. Nor, if they had it, do we know how they referred to germs. In one of Ursula le Guin’s novels, a wound getting infected is called “the evil of the blade.” That’s hardly less scientific than calling it an “infection,” as long as you know how to prevent or treat it.

Studies of both the trepanned skulls of the Incas and some of those found in Neolithic Europe indicate that healing seems to have been the norm in both cases. It is hard to explain the Stone Age success rate without concluding that some kind of effective antiseptic agent must have been used. Furthermore, the surgeons of the time must have understood the need for it.

Lost Civilizations, p 131

If germ theory was ever explicitly known, it was obviously forgotten at some point in human history, only to be re-discovered much later. But even if people were operating on a different theory, it would be possible for them to know the importance of cleanliness and to know how to treat a patient using any of a large number of natural substances that have antiseptic properties. The words “Stone Age” naturally evoke the image of a cave man, and the idea of a cave man naturally includes an individual who never takes a bath. But it ain’t necessarily so.

It is also possible that people’s immune systems were much stronger many years ago, if we are willing to entertain the idea that the human race has declined over time rather than evolving upwards.

Now, I am sure you want to know about painkillers. Here, gleaned from Rudgley’s Stone Age Surgery chapter, is a short list of substances that have been used as painkillers at different times and places:

  • cocaine (in coca leaves — South America)
  • wine mixed with extract of mandrake (first-century Greece)
  • mandrake beer (ancient Egypt)
  • possibly just beer
  • the opium poppy (starting in the Mediterranean around 6000 BC and spreading west from there)
  • cannabis (native to Central Asia, but quickly spread to Old Europe and China)
  • betel nut (Southeast Asia)
  • tobacco (in the Americas)
  • pituri (a nicotine-bearing plant used by the Australian Aborigines)

Clearly, although we might prefer modern anesthesia, ancient peoples were not completely without recourse when it came to pain. Most of the substances on this list are attested not only in history but also in ancient burials.

And Now, the Lucky Honoree of this Post

This post is dedicated to a certain relative of mine whose birthday today is. Like the surgeons in this post, he is both very smart, and now, as of this birthday … ancient.