Magic: A History - Prehistory

A deep history of magic from the Paleolithic to the first temples

To a large extent, the prehistory of magic is impossible to know. In Gosden’s formulation, magic “has always existed”, but the forms it took—and people’s relationship to it—can only be surmised from the material remains that have survived. We can also look at magical practices that survive today in various forager and tribal cultures to help reconstruct magical practices of people living thousands of years ago in nomadic communities during the last Ice Age.

Thus, the earliest chapters are a whirlwind tour of some of the most important archaeological sites from the Paleolithic where we might catch a glimpse of the earliest magical practices, along with a good deal of informed speculation since there is obviously no written evidence and only sporadic physical evidence. But what evidence there is tells that clearly magical practices must have played a significant role in lives of the people living in these societies, and that they believed in some sort of transcendent reality beyond the physical world.

The most spectacular evidence for spiritual beliefs of people during the Ice Age is, of course, the cave paintings discovered all over France and Spain, among other places. The amount written about these paintings has filled entire volumes, so Gosden doesn’t go into too much detail about these.

The images on the cave walls were traditionally seen as a kind of “sympathetic magic” whereby depicting the prey animals gave the humans some level of control over their behavior. Gosden makes a connection between these cave paintings and the wall paintings done by hunter-gatherers living today in southern Africa. In these cultures, the wall represents a dividing plane between the reality inhabited by humans and the transcendent reality inhabited by “purer” forms of spirits that manifest obliquely in the physical world (somewhat analogous to Plato’s cave):

An important but controversial set of interpretations, featuring magic, has been produced by David Lewis-Williams and his collaborators. Early in his career, Lewis-Williams worked with Bushmen in Southern Africa, noting that their art derived from broadly shamanistic beliefs and that these beliefs were given shape and emotional force through states of altered consciousness. Bushmen rock art was made well into the nineteenth century, and there are some accounts of the ceremony around its making and use. Chanting, drumming, dancing, sensory deprivation and the use of drugs all combined to shape people’s appreciation of the world…(43)

For the Khosian the [wall] paintings were not depictions of people and animals, but attempts to bring them to life. The act of painting was important, rather than the finished images. Painting was often part of broader sets of performance, such as song, dance, and storytelling, designed to address important problems…Painting was a way of getting things done, of penetrating beneath surface appearances to the underlying nature of things…it is clear that what we see as the spirit world and so-called reality is blurred for Khosian people in interesting ways. Rock art surfaces might have been seen as the meeting points of two worlds, so that painting was making visible the spirit world surfacing in the rock, bringing the power of the that world into our own. Whereas we see rocks as the most solid of all materials, for others they might be a screen on which other worlds are projected in order to tackle problems that cross worlds (which is most of them). (299-300)

There is one enigmatic particular piece of artwork in particular which has been dubbed "the shaman" (or "the sorcerer") in The Cave of the Trois-Frères in southwestern France that has engendered a great deal of speculation about Paleolithic religious roles and practices:

The Shamanistic-Visionary Experience (Bradshaw Foundation)

Ancient cave painters may have been stoned, study says (Salon)

The melding of human and animal forms can also be seen in the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel from approximately 35,000 years ago. Clearly there is some sort of notion of interdependence and interpenetration of the human and non-human worlds, rather than seeing them as separate and distinct (a point Gosden returns to in his discussion of steppe cultures).

The sites of Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov in modern-day Czechia were occupied around 20-25,000 years ago and exhibit a number of items that seem to indicate some sort of magical and ritual practices. One particular burial here has been frequently described as a "shaman". Mammoth scapulae were placed very deliberately over the body in the grave site. This site goes into more detail:

The “Shaman” of Dolní Věstonice (Mimir's Brunnr)

Dolní Věstonice provides the earliest evidence that we know of for the use of ceramics, but strangely, ceramics were not used for storage containers or construction materials. Rather, they were used to make clay figurines. Archaeologists discovered that these figurines were apparently designed to deliberately "pop" when exposed to heat, which they speculate was used for ritual purposes. Figurines are a staple of the Paleolithic, most famously the so-called “Venus figurines” of which the oldest is the Venus of Hohle Fels from 40,000 years ago. The meaning of these corpulent figurines—which have been found in great numbers—has been highly speculated upon since they started to be discovered. They were traditionally associated with “fertility”, but that interpretation is hardly universal.

The Ancient Near East

The Natufian culture of the Western Levant is associated with the earliest shift from hunting and gathering to full-time domesticated agriculture. A 12,000-year-old burial at Hilazon Tachtit in Israel featuring copious turtle shells has been described by its discoverers as a "shaman":

The grave was constructed and specifically arranged for a petite, elderly, and disabled woman, who was accompanied by exceptional grave offerings. The grave goods comprised 50 complete tortoise shells and select body-parts of a wild boar, an eagle, a cow, a leopard, and two martens, as well as a complete human foot. The interment rituals and the method used to construct and seal the grave suggest that this is the burial of a shaman, one of the earliest known from the archaeological record. Several attributes of this burial later become central in the spiritual arena of human cultures worldwide.

A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel) (PNAS)

Of course, the site of Göbekli Tepe is discussed, which, so far is we know, is the world's oldest large-scale freestanding ritual complex. There are also nearby sites like Nevalı Çori and Çayönü Tepesi, and new sites are constantly being unearthed in the same region that may be even older. Göbekli Tepe is formally dated to the Pre-pottery Neolithic Period of the ancient Near East, just before settled agriculture took off. It's been speculated that Göbekli Tepe was the last stand of hunter-gatherer people, as well as the exact opposite—that it was where cereals first became incorporated as dietary staples in the Near East (indicating that there are clearly some problems with correctly interpreting this site).

Plastered skulls have been found throughout the Near East from sites like Çatalhöyük, Jericho, 'Ain Ghazal and Kfar HaHoresh. The skulls were severed from the body, the flesh removed, and plaster used to reconstruct the faces of the deceased. The skulls appear to have been prominently displayed in houses for unknown reasons. The bodies associated with the skulls were often buried beneath people's houses, perhaps indicating a claim to ancestral property. It seems clear that there was some sort of reverence for the dead in these societies, but the nature of it is unclear. Was it ancestor worship, the veneration of the dead, a display of vanquished enemies, or something else entirely? We will probably never know for sure.

Dozens of skulls fleshed out with plaster nearly 10,000 years ago in an area from Israel to southern Turkey, are among the oldest human portraits known. Their purpose remains a mystery, but researchers now argue that they were part of a vast ancestor cult, that contributed to the successful rise of the first complex societies in the Neolithic period.

9,500-year-old Plastered Skulls Were From Vast Middle East Ancestor Cult, Archaeologists Say (Ha’aretz)

Sites like Jericho and Çatalhöyük were the earliest permanent large-scale agglomerations of people that we know of. There don't appear to have been anything like temples set apart from the other dwellings in these settlements; rather, worship appears to have been a domestic affair. Houses were roughly the same size, accessed from above, and certain rooms seen to have been set apart as shrines. Murals on the walls of Çatalhöyük depict fierce creatures, echoing the animals depicted on the stone pillars of Gobekli Tepe.

It was once assumed that life in Çatalhöyük was centered around the worship of goddesses based on the discovery of numerous goddess figures, most notably the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük. Subsequent discoveries showed that the subjects of sculptures were far more varied than first thought, causing the theory of goddess worship to fall by the wayside. Like other sites in the region at this time, bodies were found underneath dwelling units, and the skulls of cattle were prominently displayed on what are thought to be altars, leading to speculation about a possible “cattle cult”.

This intense community constructed houses with painted walls, showing scenes of leopards, aurochs, vultures and cranes. Occasionally the horns of aurochs were were plastered into the walls. Beneath the house floors the dead were buried, now sometimes with plastered skulls, taking up practices of plastering human heads previously only known from the south.

Burials were often concentrated in so-called 'history-houses', built directly one on top of each other, making manifest in mudbrick the lineal continuity of the human inhabitants. The fierce wild animals depicted in wall paintings were more rarely found among the bones on the site, which were all mainly sheep and goats that were probably cultivated and herded some kilometers from the settlement, in the immediate environs of which was a swamp. (65)

As the Pre-pottery Neolithic drew to close, larger settlements like Çatalhöyük and Jericho were replaced by smaller villages all over the Near East from Syria to the Gulf of Oman. These settled villages were the incubators for the later Neolithic way of life centered around domesticated plants and animals.

When Did Religion Start?

As mentioned before, formalized religion centered in temples and controlled by priests seems to begin—as far as we can tell—during the Ubaid period on the alluvial plains of southern Mesopotamia. The Ubaid culture featured a wide range of new manufactured goods such as metals and wheel-turned pottery, along with a greater range of foodstuffs including tree crops such as olives, almonds, figs, grapes, pomegranates and dates. Villages may have been established close to the sites of cultivated stands of tree crops. Food processing equipment is typical at Ubaid sites.

We can imagine small Ubaid villages on the banks of the Tigris, Euphrates or some smaller watercourse, surrounded by date palms and olive trees, herds of goats and sheep in among irrigated fields with stands of cereals to be made into porridge, bread or beer. Traders moved between villages carrying seashells for jewellery, the volcanic glass obsidian for knives and novel lumps of smelted copper to be cast into new objects of desire. (68)

Alongside the cultivation tree crops was the burgeoning cultivation of grains for brewing into mind-altering substances like beer. Alcoholic beverages are ubiquitous in all these early Neolithic societies around the world. Even here magic may have played a role in the creation of new types of foodstuffs:

Another, more humble process, but one of immense consequence, during the Ubaid was the first use of yeast to produce both leavened bread and wheat beer, as indicated by chemical residues sticking to pots. Yeasts occur in nature in many forms, and it may be that contaminants in flour first caused bread to rise from its unleavened state. The causes for such an accident were sought and then deliberately reproduced...We do now from Sumerian texts that all substances were considered active and animate, so the leavening of bread may have been seen only partly as a biochemical matter and more as an enlivening of the dough with the correct spirits…

The inventiveness of the Ubaid would have been underpinned by a new ideology of substances that probably mixed with what we call science and magic. It also saw a separation of the gods from people, allowing fresh thoughts about the universe, as people wondered more directly about the power of the gods and their influence on human lives. (66-67)

(As an aside—it's interesting that in English we refer to grain alcohol as spirits).

A distinguishing feature of Ubaid villages were distinctive t-shaped mud brick houses which were probably occupied by extended families. These houses featured a tripartite, t-shaped plan featuring a long central room with smaller chambers off the sides. Houses were separated by narrow brick streets and alleyways.

Storerooms in houses indicate that surpluses were being stored on an individual basis. Storing surpluses on a domestic—rather than a communal basis—has been seen as indicative of the origins of inequality. As this excellent Aeon article points out, the storage of surpluses on a household basis undermines norms of sharing universally seen in hunter-gatherer societies around the world. Both storage and sharing are ways of mitigating risks. But storage is a better strategy for farmers than sharing because—unlike the risks associated with with hunting—everyone in a village would experience a downturn at the same time. It makes sense, then, that "agricultural" magic would start to differ from "hunting" magic, as it is based on a different set of social factors. Magic is, at its core, about exercising some sort of control over the unpredictable nature of life, and life in early Neolithic villages must have been very precarious during this time of a changing climate.

It’s emblematic of the Ubaid that this large cache of lentils resides within a private house and not in a public building. It represents a valuable crop which was the property of an industrious farming family and did not belong to the wider community, as it would have in the previous more egalitarian periods. The Gurga Chiya lentils represent an accumulation of private wealth during a time which saw the birth of the chief mechanisms of social inequality.

How ancient lentils reveal the origins of social inequality (The Guardian)

Based on the archaeological evidence, it appears that the earliest temples in the Ubaid period were simply houses dedicated to the gods—they were just slightly larger and more elaborate versions of the same t-shaped residential structures occupied by regular households. The Sumerian notion of temples as "houses of the gods" may have developed out of this tradition:

Villages were made up of a series of almost identical houses constructed in mudbrick, in which the hearth was found at one end in the horizontal element of the 't', and food was consumed and social life played out in the longer vertical section which formed a central hall...In a number of instances, such as at Eridu in Iraq or Susa in Iran Uruk period temples have been found. Digging down under these structures revealed a sequence of similar t-shaped buildings stretching back many generations to the Ubaid...

Drawing these strands of evidence together, we can come to two conclusions: the larger t-shaped buildings of the Ubaid may well have been temples (indeed the first temples that we know of); temples were modelled on domestic houses and were probably seen as houses of the gods (and this is how they are described in later Mesopotamian texts). (66-67)

The subsequent Uruk period saw creation of cities closer to how we know them today rather than just collections of dwellings. Cities were centered around temple districts that were caved out from the surrounding areas of the city and concerned with ritual purity—a division into “sacred” and “profane” that is a hallmark of later religion. It is during this period that we see the beginnings of what will become the temple-centric “household economy” of later Mesopotamia. Temples become larger and more elaborate at this time, featuring storehouses for surplus goods. These temples were seen as "artificial mountains" reaching up to the heavenly realm of the gods, while their foundations extended deep into the earth below where demons and other powerful spirits dwelled. Thus they connected the “three worlds” of gods, demons and mortals seen in magical thinking worldwide.

White Temple and ziggurat, Uruk (Khan Academy)

As the Aeon article mentioned previously describes, the centralized control of information by a single, homogeneous class of people also kickstarts the path towards inequality. As ritual knowledge became disproportionately controlled by a hereditary class of priests, this class appears to have also asserted their power over the practical economy of goods as well as the “social economy” of politics. The very word hierarchy comes the word for 'sacred'—hiero (also the root of hieroglyphics—sacred writing); and archon meaning ‘ruler’ (c.f. oligarchy, anarchy, patriarchy, etc.)

Writing—perhaps initially seen as a kind of esoteric, mystical knowledge connected with magical practices—was used to further consolidate control. This can be observed, for example, in Uruk sites which feature clay tokens, tablets, and cylindrical seals. Priests were often buried with cylindrical seals indicating the high status that these objects conferred to history’s earliest “professional managerial class.” Once again, magic played a role:

There are two developments in mobile forager cultures that tend to set the stage for the establishment of inequality. One such scaffold to inequality was the emergence of clan structure...The second development was the emergence of a quasi-elite based on the control of information, which created a hierarchy of prestige and esteem, rather than wealth and power. This was originally based on subsistence skills...

While the original exchange of deference for access to expertise was probably adaptive for both parties, oblique social transmission (from a favoured few in generation N to all of N+1) puts manipulation on the agenda. When social information flows just from parents to children, maladaptive instructions have an automatic tendency to fade away. But the centralised transmission of the norms, rituals and ideology of a community can easily favour one group at the expense of others.

How equality slipped away (Aeon)

As urbanized societies in this part of the world became more unequal and more hierarchical, magic and religion followed the same pattern. It's no coincidence that the earliest pantheons emerge in large-scale urban societies based around patriarchal households.

The gods in Mesopotamia were associated with heavenly bodies—a feature also shared with Egyptian religion. In both cultures, authority was bound up with appeals to supernatural forces whose beliefs probably shared a continuity with earlier, more egalitarian times. Rather than inchoate spirits, a pantheon of distinct gods emerged with whom the leaders could intercede on behalf of the society. The gods represented the fundamental forces of the universe. Yet, despite its more formal nature, religious practices were still intrinsically bound up with magic rather than seperate from it:

As human society became more hierarchical, so too did the cosmos. The pantheon of gods was often ordered by rank and power, with lesser entities, such as demons or spirits, also active in the world, towards the bottom of a great hierarchy of spiritual beings...formalized religion started in embryonic form in the Ubaid but then fully developed with the cities, where we have evidence of priests, temples, and a fixed ritual calendar…(72-73)

Pantheons of gods existed in Mesopotamia by the early fourth millennium BCE. These were perhaps built on earlier beliefs, but in their details they were the product of city dwellers enmeshed in particular forms of human power. Egypt soon also developed gods, in quite a different cultural milieu. Mesopotamia and Egypt created the first elite cultures in which a small number of people ruled the majority. Legitimacy for such elite government derived from the rulers' close connection with the power of the gods and of magic.

Magic was an important strand in the DNA of early city cultures, an element of their official construction and not something marginal or odd. As cities spread over the next 3,000 years or so, the gods spread with them, eventually being found in multitudinous local variants from the Indian subcontinent tin the east to the emerging cities in Italy far to the west...Worship of the gods encouraged forms of direct magical participation in the world, rather than outlawing them...(75)

It appears that these early leaders promised their followers a certain modicum of control over the vagaries of life during this uncertain transition period. Farmers had different practical concerns than hunter-gatherers: will the rains come; will the riverbanks flood; will insects destroy our crops; will a new disease kill our children; will we be attacked by hostile neighbors? The ways leaders accomplished this varied from culture to culture, but the end result was the same—they were seen as being able to assure the health, safety, fertility and abundance of their people, and it was on this basis that their power rested, at least in part.

Although it may seem irrational, is it really any different that electing a president who promises us a "good economy" on his watch (seemingly the litmus test for every modern politician)? Is it any wonder our leaders tell us that only they can "keep us safe" from (often imaginary or exaggerated) threats?

It's also ironic that once again power is predicated on the asymmetric control of information by an elite class of insiders who use it to manipulate society and funnel a disproportionate share of society’s wealth into their hands. Is our behavior toward our modern-day leaders really any more rational than it was six thousand years ago, and is it truly based on rationality rather than magic?

Next we'll be looking at the magic of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.