Continued from Catal Huyuk 2 (BACK)

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A very fine flint dagger found as grave goods in Catal Huyuk.

The Religion of Catal Huyuk

This ancient religion's (note; this refers to the speculation in part 2 that the animal religion of Catal Huyuk was a survival of the ancient paleolithic animal religion recorded in cave art.) apparent teaching on matters of life and death reveals a type of thinking utterly foreign to our own. Our culture displays a rabid fear of death, fate, and accident, and an especially strong fear of being forgotten; the people of Catal Huyuk, however, were on intimate terms with death in ways which would terrify us. A striking example of this difference is Catal Huyuk's burial customs. The dead were buried in the city's houses, a foot under the surface of sleeping platforms; one would literally sleep, make love, and give birth lying atop one's mother's bones. Of course, the flesh was removed from the body before burial in the traditional process of excarnation. The evidence gives little impression of any preparation for an afterlife: no provisions, no food or water vessels, and no figurines of any kind (of either deities or servants) were buried with the body. Instead, the grave simply included a few treasured personal luxury items -- necklaces, rouge, and bone tools for women, and a favorite knife, wooden box, or belt for men. The dead were buried in a fetal posture, wrapped in cloth.

The impression of imminent popular rebirth, and the mythos of death seen as the gentle setting aside of a valued old body, seem explicit in Catal Huyuk's burial customs.

Not that death was taken lightly. A number of Catal Huyuk shrines are obviously associated with a funerary cult, and there are many representations of death or funeral practices scattered throughout the city's art. The vulture shrines at Catal Huyuk portray in eerie frescoes the excarnation practices wherein the dead were exposed, in open funeral houses of strange design, to the tearing beak of the griffin vulture, who stripped the skeleton of soft tissue. One painting shows a vulture with human legs, wings outspread over a tiny headless figure; it is the Goddess in her vulture epiphany, reclaiming what was always hers. The vulture is also found in the bull shrines, hidden in the clay breast. What modern Picasso could better represent life and death, so strikingly molded together in the carnivorous breast?

Catal Huyuk holds another constant reminder of death: the Bucrania, pillars with the preserved horns of bulls set into their plaster, omnipresent in both the city's houses and its shrines. Some shrines are filled with them -- horns, horns, and more horns -- even benches on which the priestess could lay cradled by the huge, dagger-tipped horns of the giant aurochs bull. When still attached to the bull those horns could, and certainly did, end the life of many a hunter. Power and death, ecstasy and danger, the timeless message encoded in the Pit of the Wounded Man in Lascaux -- all are represented symbolically here by the sign of the Horn.

The horn is always paired with symbols of the Goddess of Catal Huyuk, and is usually paired with a unique plaster relief that is repeated again and again on temple walls during every stage of the city's existence. The Goddess of Catal Huyuk is humanlike, with a head, two arms, and two legs. but she appears to float in the void, caught in some yogic spasm of Her own Goddess energy. The Aurignacian Venuses of 30,000 B.C. represented the Goddess as Fertile Woman, and the Lascaux artists painted the Goddess as a horse. but at Catal Huyuk the image of the Goddess transcended the categories of human and not-human and became a sign, an icon of Goddess Power.

One Goddess in particular stands out far beyond the rest. Her plaster body is shaped exactly like the many other Goddess relief's, but her hands. feet, and head are missing, presumably ritually removed by her worshipers when Her shrine was closed and filled in with rubble. Red, orange. and black diagrams cover her body and radiate out from her in a brilliant confusion -- even after eight thousand years the colors of the designs vibrate and seem to leap from the wall. The whole gives a perfect impression of intense electrical power radiating from the protuberant belly of the schematized, silent figure. As an image of divine female power it rivals anything I have ever seen. This unspeakable, impersonal power was the Goddess of Catal Huyuk.


This striking schist statuette shows two women, connected back to back. One holds a lover, the other a child.
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Tracing the Esoteric Tradition: A Few Speculations

By definition, esotericism is a secret philosophy reserved for highly trained initiates; and it leaves very few clear and unarguable traces.

What we call the"esoteric tradition" is actually a collage of philosophies gathered from many cultures and teachers over a broad span of centuries.

Eastern esotericism "begins" for us with the Rig Veda, composed approximately 4,000-3,500 B.C., and the so-called "Western Esoteric Tradition" (although no dividing line can properly be drawn between Eastern and Western esotericism) begins between 1,200 and 600 B.C. with Orpheus and the first Judaic texts. A gap of thousands of years separates the temple rituals and priestly secrets of Catal Huyuk from the source texts of modern esoteric and spiritual philosophy. Is there any reason to believe that the roots of the esoteric tradition reach back to Catal Huyuk? Is esotericism a 'modern' invention?

Or is there a truly ancient, prehistoric body of knowledge handed down orally from the times of the great cave paintings of Cro-Magnon man? What signs of the esoteric tradition can be found at Catal Huyuk?


Elements of a culture's esoteric philosophy can be found in its art, architecture, and burial customs, but those elements have usually been simplified or encrypted to make them fit into the "popular" religious philosophy of the time. Suggestions have been made in this article about some of the underlying magico-religious (and therefore potentially the esoteric) ideas of Catal Huyuk's people in the previous discussion of the city's religious philosophy; those types of general suggestions about spiritual philosophy as reflected in art or religious icons is the best any researcher can do when asked to define the ideas of a preliterate culture. The silence of the past forces us to speculate.

Two main schools of thought contend over theories regarding prehistoric spirituality and philosophy. One school claims that such prehistoric religious art as found in the cave paintings of Lascaux or at Catal Huyuk is primitive, magical, and childlike, and it dismisses any suggestion that the idols, symbols, and folk traditions of these primitive religions have anything in common with the sophisticated religious philosophies of Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. The other school, relying on recent advances in archaeology and anthropology, claims that we can no longer assume that the ancient cultures were any less sophisticated than our own; they may have possessed knowledge of the human psyche every bit as detailed as our culture's knowledge of physics. These two conflicting schools of thought have shaped recent speculations about prehistoric esotericism.

Ken Wilber, in "Up From Eden", classifies the religious spirituality of prehistoric cultures as Chthonic and/or Typhonic, and suggests that the notion of "Selfhood" or "I-ness," the idea of an Adonai or a personal, immortal soul, did not exist for these earlier cultures. The Atman, Wilber seems to argue, is a relatively recent invention, an evolutionary advancement over the Cthonic-Typhonic Great Mother cults of antiquity. Wilber claims that Goddess worship represented an immature spirituality proper to young children and primitives, a necessary predecessor to self-awareness, but one that lacked essential esoteric teachings about the nature of the Soul. According to Wilber's thesis, perhaps a few exceptional individuals in the priestly class experienced a type of esoteric self-awareness, but the general philosophies of Catal Huyuk's religion were, of necessity, merely crude anxiety-relieving magical practices of no interest to today's religious philoso- phers.

Riane Eisler, on the other hand, in "The Chalice and the Blade", proposes exactly the opposite thesis. The ancient cultures, she suggests, possessed a highly developed "partnership" spirituality that preceded and possibly surpassed in sophistication the religious and esoteric philosophy of the literate, historical, monument-building cultures of Sumer, Egypt, India, and their successors. The philosophies we find in the Vedas and the Torah were in effect stolen by the invading Indo-Europeans from the earlier, peaceful, spiritually sophisticated Goddess-worshiping cultures of Old European and Indus-Dravidian civilizations, she claims. The Indo-Europeans, she suggests, were a savage, elitist lot that took the best elements of the ancient "Union with the Goddess of Life" philosophy, tacked onto it their own concern with personal immortality and spiritual self-aggrandizement as well as the mythology of their jealous warrior-father Sky God, and passed it off as their own invention. Eisler speculates at the end of her book that the "Love thy neighbor as thyself, and love God with all your heart" philosophy of the teacher-figure Jesus was a survival of the ancient Goddess "Love and Union" esotericism, and that, in effect, the most modem and male of our philosophies was actually a reworking of ancient Goddess religion. She suggests that our spiritual traditions have not evolved but have fallen from a golden age.

Riane Elsler's arguments as to the ancient Goddess philosophy may have a more solid basis in current scientific research than Ken Wilber's literary speculations. but academia considers neither thesis authoritative, and discussions of the subject tend to devolve into a rhetorical morass of conflicting ideas on politics, ideology, and sexism. Much research and discussion is needed on these speculations, but for now students of esoteric philosophy will find no easy answers. As practitioners of esoteric methods, however, we can have insight into esoteric philosophies that purely academic researchers often lack. We have a unique insider's knowledge that enables us to make intelligent speculations about the religious and mystical ideas of ancient cultures. What follows is an outline of four areas that immediately attracted my attention when I compared what we know of the ancient religion of Catal Huyuk to some modern ideas.

First, when we study the symbolism of the ancient Goddess religion, we discover that the equation of the divine family for the people of Catal Huyuk was very different from the kinship formula that characterizes modem civilizations and philosophies. For modem traditions, both Western and Eastern, the divine family is patterned after the patriarchal family, and the equation of the divine family is always similar to the magical Qabalistic interpretation of the divine name, Yod-Heh-Van-Heh, as 'Father-Mother-Son-Daughter'. Modern Qabalists, such as Dion Fortune, have taught that this formula is the primary equation, the necessary pattern, for the creative process in the universe, with the male spark of divine fire, the Yod or Shiva, always preceding the female response, the Heh or Shakti. Presumably this process represents an unchanging universal law, yet during the epoch of Catal Huyuk the divine family had been patterned 'Mother-Daughter-Son-Father', Heh-Heh-Vau-Yod. "The divine family was patterned on that of man; and the four aspects are, in order of importance, mother, daughter, son, and father," says Mellaart. Moreover, the Heh-Heh formula is repeated in a number of sculptures. (illustration above)

What has happened? Which formula is "correct"? Does this possible conflict in symbolism imply that the sacred, ineffable, and eternal name of God, the Tetragrammaton YHVH, is as much a political formula for male supremacy as it is a mystical truth, as feminist theorists have claimed? Or is it, as I believe, clear evidence that attempting to sex-type psychological or spiritual forces is merely hubris, and shows just how much further we must go before we have shed the unconscious prejudices which color our spiritual philosophies. Such questions about seemingly obscure issues of, and contradictions in, esoteric religious philosophy constitute an indictment of the authenticity of modem esotericism's deepest foundations.

The second area of inquiry concerns the implied theme of much of Catal Huyuk's funeral customs and wall paintings: gentle rebirth, and acceptance of the necessary cyclicity of death. The people of Catal Huyuk seem to have been almost Buddhist in their lack of emphasis on the personal ego, and in their ruminations on death -- omnipresent in the vulture Goddess and the toothed breast of Catal Huyuk art -- as the great equalizer, the Dark Goddess to whom everyone and everything returns. Did their doctrine of rebirth pass through the Indus valley and become the doctrine of reincarnation and transmigration of souls? The idea of spiritual merit and personal survival after death, so clear in the chieftain burial practices and lavish tombs of later times, seems entirely foreign to Catal Huyuk's thought. The notion of a true personal selfhood, found in the Greek and Christian Mysteries, Hermetic texts, and later thinkers such as Gurdjieff and Crowley, and which seems to be implied by the Lascaux painting of the Wounded Man, appears to be missing or sublimated in Catal Huyuk. Is, as some suggest, the notion of a personal Atman only possible in patriarchal society, with individuality swallowed up by the collective in "matriarchal" society? Do we owe our notion of a personal immortal soul to the Kingship myths of Sumer, Egypt, Greece, and Rome? Another potentially uncomfortable issue, another Pandora's Box.

And yet there is a third, perennially touchy issue; the possibility that Catal Huyuk religion utilized  psychedelic drugs. Mellaart describes the mound of Catal Huyuk as being covered by shrubs of the psychedelic plant Syrian rue, whose seeds contain the compounds harmine and harmaline (the psychoactives in the South American shamanic brew yage) in very active amounts. Harmine, once called telepathine because it was believed to cause shared hallucinations, is well known for causing visions of panthers, leopards, and other large cats. This curious property has been attested to by dozens of reporters, both native and presumably immune white ethno-botanists, who consistently describe hallucinatory adventures with big cats. It is easy to speculate and draw a connection with the leopard imagery which is extremely important in Catal Huyuk art.

This alone might be easy enough to ignore, but John Allegro, in his disputed book "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross", suggests another connection of the leopard image, and especially the leopard's spots, with the spotted amanita muscaria mushroom. Both Allegro and R. Gordon Wasson, in his classic "Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality", connects the motif of 'spots' with the amanita cult. Spots are the ultimate distinguishing sign of divine authority in Catal Huyuk, whether the spots are on a leopardskin cap, on a statute of a god, or painted on an erupting volcano goddess.
Catal Huyuk is located in an area where the psychedelic plants of old Europe -- amanita muscaria mushrooms, Syrian rue, ergotized grains, and cannabis -- are all commonly found. Perhaps we are looking at the trappings of yet another psychedelic shamanic religion.

Lastly, let us not forget to consider the possible connection of the ancient Catal Huyuk religion to the Cybele and Attis cult, whose bloody castration orgies were very popular in declining age of   Classical Greece, and whose ethos of sexless devotion was a powerful shaping force for early Christians who "out-holied" the pious but scandalous Castrati. The Cult of Cybele was one of the oldest and most widespread of the Mystery Religions, and its priesthood, the emasculated Castrati or Galli, had a reputation for being skilled wonder-workers, prophets, and magicians. Circumstantial evidence connects the Persian-Phyrgian-Anatoian cult of Cybele and Attis, especially in its form of the worship of the dying and reborn Son-God, with the esoteric astrological cults of the Persian Magi, and to other roots of the Western esoteric tradition.

Attis-Adonis-Adonai-Christ are all versions of the dying and resurrected God mythos, an omnipresent vegetation deity theme found in agricultural civilizations. Many scholars have drawn connections between the rather similar mystery stories of the death and rebirth myth of Attis. who was driven to self-sacrifice by his jealous mother-lover Cybele, and the death and rebirth of Christ, driven to self-sacrifice by his father-lover Yahweh. Attis was worshiped in the form of a cut pine tree in orgiastic rituals that plainly harken back to an earlier shamanic ecstatic religion, while Cybele, the distant, all-powerful, incomprehensible Great Mother, watched silently from her Leopard Throne. Traces of Catal Huyuk religion may still be found in a renewed analysis of this Anatolian Cult of the Great Mother. Keeping in mind the tendency of religious traditions to preserve archaic forms, it is very possible that what remains of our knowledge of Cybele and Attis worship is the last vestige of the first organized Western religion, the religion of the Temple City of Catal Hayuk.

William Carl Eichman is a teacher, lecturer, and student of esoteric philosophy and self-development in State College, Pennsylvania.

Bibliography, alphabetical

Allegro, John, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970).

Eisler, Riane, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987).

Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989).

Godwin, Joscelyn, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World {San Francisco: Harper& Row, 1981).

Leroi-Gourhan, Andre, The Dawn of European Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Mellaart, James, Catal Huyuk: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967).

Mellaart, James, Earliest Civilizations of the Near East (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965).

Thompson, William Irwin, The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light (New York: St. Martins Press, 1981 ).

Vermaseren; Maarten J., Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult (London: Thames & Hudson, 1977).

Wasson, R. Gordon, Soma: Divine Mushroom of lmmortali&127; (The Hague: Moaton Press, 1968).

Wilber, Ken, Up From Eden: (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1981).

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There's a very good collection of links on Catal Huyuk here:

Generally, an excellent collection of links of interest to anyone interested in history, archaeology, mythology,and psychohistory. Hours of browsing pleasure and discoveries here.


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