Exploring Neolithic Near Eastern Domestic Rituals

Stephenson (71-73) suggests ritual is a quality of action available across a wide spectrum of behaviour which is content and purpose specific, stylised and formalised, and reflective of the beliefs, values, customs, and habits of a particular society. First and foremost, ritual, which has its roots in mimesis, or artistic imitation of the real world (Benz & Bauer), is an action prompted by thoughts and ideas (Stephenson, 3), which are often expressed through symbols ( Raja and Rüpke, 3). For this essay, I define domestic rituals as stylised and formalised behaviour related primarily to symbolism depicting home and family life (Bowes, 209).

The Neolithic Age (OED (A,1) corresponds to a period after humans had moved from nomadic hunting and gathering to a more settled agricultural existence. I suggest that Neolithic domestic ritual, often linked with the daily concerns of seasonal rhythms of planting and harvest and endless cycles of birth, life, and death (Fagan, 98), falls roughly into two categories: (1) the design, construction, decoration, and location of domestic structures and (2) the objects found or used within them.

The Shrines of Çatalhöyük, a large, well-planned Neolithic settlement in central Anatolia that flourished between 6,000 BCE and 5,000 BCE, arguably summarises both categories well. The site contains houses built closely together, with adjoining walls and roofs, which perhaps symbolised a shared sense of cooperation and collective identity whilst at the same time providing for smaller, intimate groups within the greater community to ritually define themselves (Routledge, 214, andTwiss & Bogaard et al.). Excavations revealed 139 rooms, approximately 40 or more of which were likely elaborate household or kin group ritually significant shrines boasting plaster reliefs of deities, human skulls set on platforms, and bull horns (Barstow, 8, and Fagan, 92). The site also boasts well-preserved examples of clay hearths in a central position with adjacent plastered benches,  which might have symbolised the household’s sacred centre (Fagan, 92). 

The wall paintings, which follow well-defined rules, provide clues about the nature of these hearth rituals. For example, death scenes always appear on the north and east walls, with the dead buried beneath them. By contrast, birth scenes were depicted on the west walls. Decorated walls depicting vultures devouring human corpses may reflect the society’s belief in a spiritual realm or afterlife. Clay models depicting human-like figures with animal attributes and transformational qualities also suggest shamanic rituals, which would have allowed Neolithic men and women to engage with animal spirits and/or ancestors through animism, symbolic movement, and altered states of consciousness, perhaps for healing and oracular purposes (Benz & Bauer, and Fowler).

Finally, clay statuettes and painted reliefs of female forms with enlarged breasts and prominent hips suggest fertility rituals and goddess worship (Fagan, 98) which may provide a link between much earlier cave art and later classical Mother Goddesses like Cybele, Artemis, and Aphrodite (Barstow, 8). It would seem the goddess of the residents of Çatalhöyük was a deity of both life and death; there is speculation that priestesses dressed as vultures like those depicted on the walls presided over funeral rites (Barstow, 13).  


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2 responses to “Exploring Neolithic Near Eastern Domestic Rituals”

  1. Very interesting!

    1. debramoolenaar Avatar

      thanks – it was an essay for a course I recently took – 500 words – an interesting course about religion and ritual in prehistoric times – but the icing on the cake was delving into Stonehenge – that was the 1500 word essay! That was great fun!

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