Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Neolithic art, part 4: Religion and art

It is tempting to imagine Paleolithic artists contemplating the images they created and beginning an intellectual journey towards conceiving creator gods who made humans, like humans made figurines.

The Neolithic sees the beginnings of religion in the form we recognise today. As we are dealing with prehistory, there are no writings to preserve the beliefs of that time, so we are limited to what we may infer from archaeological evidence, but there is no question that religion had profound implications for art.

Organised religion, as opposed to whatever Paleolithic societies practiced, is built on the resources of a more advanced economy, with prescribed scriptures and rituals, and a hierarchy of specialist priests. Come the rise of civilisation, religion took on the role of helping to justify the disproportionate wealth and power of the nobility by ascribing their status to divine edict. In return, the priest caste could enjoy being part of the elite, with considerable material rewards.

But religion is of course also one of the means by which human beings, when they know no better, try to explain the world around them — such as the belief that there are supramundane, intelligent powers that determined the destiny of human beings. Religion was a way of trying to meet some of our prehistoric needs: it provided an explanation for the animals and natural forces around which human life revolved, but for which no scientific account was yet possible. These explanations were, inevitably, anthropomorphised; that is, humans found meaning by relating external forces to what they were most intimately familar with. Therefore, as Marx wrote, “Man makes religion, religion does not make man.”[1]

Rituals, whatever their specific purpose, occur in all human societies and serve to unite a group of humans within a common sense of identity. There is a relationship between ritual and art that is as true of modern ceremonials as it was of Neolithic rites. They are not identical, but they are inseparable. Ritual enlists the arts in the forms of elaborate costumes and head-dresses, body-painting, the use of decorations like feathers, beads and gems, evocative language, music, displays of groups of people in formations, dances, revered objects made of rare and precious materials, and so on. In the construction of the temples and tombs that provided settings for these rituals, religion calls upon the most monumental of the arts: architecture. These methods drew attention to the ritual as an event that was out of ordinary, or super-natural. A huge proportion of the creative labour expended by society was, and to a lesser extent still is, for a religious, semi-religious or superficially religious purpose.

A brief note on Marxism and religion

As a materialist philosophy, Marxism points out that no evidence for the existence of supernatural beings has ever been produced. There are compelling materialist explanations for the processes of the universe.[2] None of these theories are, or can ever be, complete, but they provide a framework for understanding the physical laws of nature and the evolution of living creatures. Given that human consciousness cannot be separated from the human body, an afterlife cannot exist. Humans need ways of addressing their fears, giving life meaning, and explaining the nature of our relationship to the world — and religion provides that for millions of people — but they deserve better than illusions and falsehoods.

Marx is famous for describing religion as the ‘opium of the people’, but it is worth reading the whole passage:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.[3]

Marx knew that religion was nonsense, but he also knew that it was not the main enemy, and that it was the means, albeit illusory, by which oppressed people found meaning and solace. To free the poor from these illusions required a fundamental change in the structure of society; the enemy is not religion but the alienated society that fosters it.

The correct attitude towards religious people and institutions was summed up by Lenin, who was often scathing about religion, when he wrote:

Religion must be declared a private affair... Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable.[4]

Thus the Stalinist approach of banning and oppressing religious practice is quite wrong. Lenin also argued however that the party, as opposed to the state, should agitate against religion. It is in no one’s interest to live according to a lie — and the vanguard of the working class above all should not be seduced by it.

From Paleolithic magic to Neolithic religion

We know that at least some Paleolithic societies buried their dead (this is even true of Neanderthals, though in their case there is no evidence of associated ritual.) Skeletons found at Qafzeh in modern-day Israel, dated to around 100,000 years ago, had been stained with red ochre; it is hard to see why skeletons would be modified in this way if not for some ritual purpose. Max Raphael amongst others proposed that Paleolithic society practised totemism, in which an animal is worshipped as a representative of the social group. Alternatively, David Lewis-Williams proposed that Paleolithic rock art originated in shamanism, and the trances of shamans as they saw both revered animals and abstract forms in their hallucinations.

Shaman from Papua New GuineaShaman from contemporary Papua New Guinea. Photo: Kira Salak.

The truth is that we know next to nothing about Paleolithic ideas about the supernatural. They are impossible to extract from flint tools, animal bones, and indeed from the art, and would not have been uniform across the entire world for thousands of years. The ideas associated with the activities for which we have evidence are unknowable. The most persuasive theory, encouraged by ethnographic precedent (itself a very unreliable guide), is that Paleolithic spirituality centred upon the spirits of animals and human ancestors. It was probably sensuous and immediate — practitioners knew intimately the animals that dominated their art: saw them, observed their behaviours and seasonal movements, tracked them, and tore open their bodies after the kill. It may therefore have been monistic, i.e. it saw a unity in all aspects of nature.

The Neolithic farmer was confronted by bigger, invisible forces — such as the rhythm over seasons across a year — which were more in need of abstraction. With the cultivation of fields of crops and investment in animals, Neolithic humans had something to lose, and were more aware than ever of flood and famine, of disease and war. Unsurprisingly they sought ways to extend their control over their fate. Hauser characterised the roots of Neolithic religion this way:

Not until [the Neolithic person] begins to breed plants and cattle does he also begin to feel that his fate is directed by powers endowed by reason and with the ability to determine human destiny. With the awareness of man’s dependence on good and bad weather, on rain and sunshine, lightning and hail, plague and famine, on the fertility and infertility of the earth and abundance or meagreness of litters, arises the conception of all kinds of demons and spirits — beneficent and malignant — distributing blessings and curses, and the idea of the unknown and mysterious, of the higher powers, of huge, supramundane and numinous forces beyond human control.[5]

Hauser draws a very firm line between ‘Paleolithic magic’ and ‘Neolithic animism’. The first is single and concrete in texture, the latter dualistic and abstract. “That is the main reason why Paleolithic art reproduces things true to life and reality, whilst Neolithic art opposes a stylised and idealised superworld to ordinary empirical reality.” This is too rigid a division. We can see a continuity between the spiritual art objects of both the Old and the New Stone Ages, just as there may be a continuity of animistic beliefs, i.e. that animals, plants or even rocks and rivers may possess souls and need to be placated with offerings to win favours. The spiral form of the dialectic reminds us that old forms live on inside the new.

However, in the Neolithic a change does occur which is based upon the increased resources of society. Making parallels, perhaps, between their own small acts of creation and those of beings more powerful than themselves, they conceived of spirits who intervened in their affairs, and in a supernatural world which included a place for themselves after death. The planting of crops invited the parallel concept of fertility gods. Where the Paleolithic hunter depended upon his senses, upon his immediate world, in order to survive, the Neolithic farmer depended upon organisation and long-term forces. As a peasant he required stability and this led to conservatism: his art, as his life, was regulated and disliked change.

To placate the spirit world Neolithic farmers developed forms of worship with a new level of sophistication, and with worship came the cultural need for religious idols, temples, symbols and rituals. The behaviour of these spirits or deities could supposedly be influenced by human action — performing the correct ritual would encourage deities to behave in a way that favoured our own needs, such as bringing rain during a dry season, healing a sick relative, and so on. Humans in other words were looking for ways to materially influence natural forces over which, in reality, they had no control at all. The arts were enlisted in these entreaties.

Neolithic religion and art

As we touched upon in the previous article, this was realised in a variety of ways. In megalithic structures we have evidence that Neolithic societies were prepared to invest enormous amounts of labour, using only basic tools, to dig out, drag and carve huge blocks of stone to erect tombs and temples.

StonehengeStonehenge in the United Kingdom, probably the most famous of Neolithic religious sites. The Neolithic Revolution came late to the Britons — Stonehenge is dated to around 3000–2500 BCE, a good two millennia after Mesopotamian peoples were creating the first civilisations.

Built along the Atlantic coast of Western Europe from Portugal to Sweden, these tombs usually form a single burial chamber, covered with a mound of earth with one entrance passage, and hold the remains of several people. They were often laid out according to geometric designs based upon circles, rectangles and triangles, implying that humans saw a relationship between the human and the divine sense of order. The items buried with the entombed are strong evidence of a belief in an afterlife — why bury valuable jewellery, weapons and other objects with the dead if they were not useful to them in another world?

The supernatural world that governed the afterlife was also populated by deities. The proliferation of images of ‘fertile’ women, which originates in the Paleolithic and continues into the Neolithic, has prompted suggestions that there was a female deity generically termed the ‘Earth Mother’ or ‘Mother Goddess’.[6] Without written documents this is extremely difficult to confirm, but the sheer number of female images compared to male is beyond doubt. Early writings include references to such beings as the Sumerian fertility goddess Ninhursag, or the Gaia goddess mentioned by Hesiod in his Theogeny, which have roots in earlier belief systems. During the Neolithic, deities such as these become responsible for crops and harvests.

That deities so often took the form of a human — and when in the form of an animal, the sun, the moon etc, the behaviours of a human — is instructive. A deity will only respond to offerings and entreaties if he or she has the human trait of being susceptible to flattery. This was our habit of anthropomorphising: natural processes become identified with non-human forces, but those forces could only be understood by us through beings whose motivations and behaviours resembled our own. Hence Engels’ description of religion as “that fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind”.[7]

Figurine from Lepenski VirFishlike figurine from Lepenski Vir, which may represent a half-fish, half-human god. Photo: Mazbln

Prehistoric beliefs still do not quite constitute religion in its modern sense, with its written scriptures, hieratic priesthood, anointed leaders, and so on. Writing by definition did not exist in prehistory and there were not enough resources to sustain parasitic priestly institutions. But in the Neolithic Revolution the foundations are laid. Some archaeologists believe that the Biblical myth of Eden, for example, is a folk memory of our hunting and gathering past, and equate the tearful expulsion of Adam and Eve to sweat in the fields as the social cost of the discovery of agriculture.

Religion was humans’ attempt to make sense of, and thereby take further control of, their environment, at a time when science was too under-developed to provide answers. Prehistoric animists would not have seen magic as a system of belief so much as a system of what (they thought) they knew about how things worked: art, religion and science would have been one and the same. It is obvious that offerings to non-existent beings cannot have made the least difference to whether a harvest succeeded or not, whether a woman had a successful childbirth, etc. Gordon Childe’s view was that this represented a great waste of social resources. For example, the stones used in the second phase of building Stonehenge, some weighing up to 4 tonnes, were dragged or rolled 240 miles from the Preseli mountains in south-west Wales, and the raising of each stone on the site would have required 5–600 people. But the labour expended for the sake of religion created a great repository of art — indeed, religion was to become one of the main ideological conduits through which creative labour would be channelled.

The most important lesson is that the developments in Neolithic religion and art grew from the fundamental changes in material conditions brought about by the agricultural revolution. Sedentary populations with greater reserves of labour erected not just villages but tombs and temples. The social surplus product allowed for specialists skilled in making a huge range of utilitarian/aesthetic objects, and for ‘full-time’ religious practitioners. The scale of Neolithic societies’ supernatural concerns grew larger. Religion became more systematised, organised, and materially well-resourced.

Neolithic religious art was not of course ‘art’ in the modern sense of an ‘art object’ created by ‘an artist’ for aesthetic contemplation and sale on the market. These products of creative labour served a collective purpose — even, in their creators’ view, a utilitarian one.

Human creative labour, like all human action, cannot be divorced from its social and historical context. Rather than take this for granted, we shall examine the relationship between society and art in the next few articles.

Further reading

Classical Marxist texts on religion in general:

Marx and Engels on Religion section at the Marxist Internet Archive
Lenin, Socialism and Religion (1905)
Lenin, The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion (1909)



[1] Marx, Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843–4).
[2] The glaring omission to this is the question of why this matter and these processes came to exist in the first place. However the existence of an unsolved problem does not justify leaping to supernatural explanations.
[3] Marx, Critique of Hegel‘s Philosophy of Law (1844).
[4] Lenin, Socialism and Religion (1905).
[5] Hauser, Chapter 2 of The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).
[6] Some archaeologists, in particular Marija Gimbutas, have taken the ‘goddess’ theory further to propose that in prehistory women were worshipped and dominated society. A belief in prehistoric matriarchy has even been ascribed to Engels, whereas The Origin of the Family states that women were relative equals, supreme only in the household; lines of descent went through the female line, yet matrilineality is not the same thing as matriarchy. The theory has more to do with wishful thinking by some feminists than reality, as the evidence is unconvincing. Under a subsistence economy it is unlikely that any group could consistently exert authority at the expense of others.
[7] Friedrich Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876).

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