By Nelson CABEJ/
On the long road to understanding the perceived world, inhabitants of the Neolithic society of the Western Balkans created their own belief system of interpretation of the observed objects and phenomena. The cognitive level of the Neolithic society at the time didn’t enable them to go beyond the intuitive notion that another imperceptible world must exist, where the real causes of the observed things and phenomena lay. On this ideological platform the Neolithic society built a whole belief system on the nature and organization of the observable world, dominated by idealistic principles. In an attempt to influence the world, the society developed cults, rituals, magic, symbols (drawings, pictograms, etc). This, however, is the prevailing opinion on the emergence and evolution of religion, but not the only one: Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) believed that the earliest form of religion is monotheism rather than animalism and totemism1.
As an early document of the magic art in Albania are the pictures of the Lepenica cave, Vlorë district, made by the Pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Albanian territories. These pictures may represent an animalistic stage of the prehistoric faith that was characterized by a close relationship of animals with humans and their life. The pictograms are believed to have magical-symbolical meaning.
It is believed by some that geometric signs as those in the figure may have a semantic contents and their combination follows a grammar, but attempts to decipher them have been unsuccessful so far2.
The close relationship of the Neolithic human society with the animal world, initially related to hunting activities and later to animal domesticates led to the development of magical and religious involvement of animals in the life of humans. This human fusion of the animal world with his own world, is believed to have led to creation of figures of animal supernatural beings related to particular groups of animals, which may be considered as a form of ‘protototemism’. This protototemism later evolved into a typical totemism, a spiritual connection of the society with one or a group of particular animals (mostly wild animals) whose supernaturality protected them from dangers and unpredictabilities of life. This stage of the development of animalism could develop parallel with the development of some form of agriculture and living in permanent settlements. During the Neolithic period, animalism developed in the form of animal cults.
At a later stage of the Neolithic Age, the Mediterranean population of the Western Balkans developed a form of anthropomorphic belief, the belief in the existence of supernatural beings resembling man not only in appearance and physical traits but also in customs, habits, and behaviors. The advent of the anthropomorphism, however, didn’t led to the disappearance of the totemism, as is clearly attested by the later use of names of totem animals for naming Illyrian tribes (Ulciniates, Taulanti, Enchelei, Dalmati, etc.), beginning from the Bronze Age.-
Apparently, one of the earliest Neolithic cults that were raised to the status of an anthropomorphic divine figure in the population of the Western Balkans during the Late Neolithic period was that of the fertility, generally known as Mother Earth. The earliest archaeological find pointing to the existence of a primitive deity of fertility is a stone figurine carved with flint blades, discovered in 1908 in Willendorf, Lower Austria, hence known as Venus of Willendorf. It is very surprisingly dated from Palaeolithicum, 28-22 thousand years ago.
From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_of_Willendorf. Retrieved on April, 7 2016.
During the late Neolithic period, under the influence of the Vinča culture, in the territories of Serbia, Macedonia and Albania developed the Bubanj-Salcuţa-Krivodol culture represented by predominantly female clay figurines (in the territory of Albania related to the Maliq, level IIa, and Burimas, level II)3. The figurines are deliberatively fragmented, apparently for magical purposes.
The cult of the Mother Earth, as the most important cult of the agricultural population of the West Balkans at the time, displays multiple iconographic variants in clay figurines in the form of the pregnant woman, or woman delivering baby or breast feeding her baby. The earliest evidence on the worship and adoration of a Mother Earth deity in the Indoeuropean Anatolian-Balkan world is dated from 9-8th centuries BC. This is the Phrygian deity Matar Kubileya, which means Mother of Mountains, attested in a Phrygian shrine in Western Central Anatolia, and generally known as Cybele. It was adopted by Greeks towards the 9-8 century BC and towards the end of the 3rd century by Romans, who established her as their state deity named Magna Mater (Great Mother).
The cult of the Great Mother, as the most important cult of farmer population of the Western Balkans is represented in many Neolithic and iconographic variants in clay figurines in the form of pregnant women, or women delivering baby, breastfeeding the baby, etc. And the Great Mother was so dep-rooted to the historical consciousness of peoples of Europe that, as Abrecht Dieterich (1866-1908) put it, “the most inherent religious necessity, which was named Mother Earth, Demeter, Isis, didn’t die…Nothing can prove the immortality of the religion in the heart of people better than the attempt of the Christendom to create a maternal god. I am not talking about Maria, although her worship and design as God’s mother loud enough testifies to a most inner religious necessity. I mean about earlier attempts. The third person of the Holy Trinity was found in the Holy Spirit. This was of quite immeasurable (unpredictable) consequences that he in Greek could be neutrum only πνυμα ἅγιον”4.
Since the Late Neothithic, the fertility cult is also represented by the symbol of axe, prompting the cleansing of the world from the old and bygone, to stimulate the renewal of life. It is also represented by rhomboid and triangular figures and mollusk shells that appear in pendants5. During the Neolithic in the Vučedol culture (3,000- 2,200 BC) appears the symbol of the double axe (labrys), which is believed to originate in the Aegean cultural region6 and reached this region via the Morava and Vardar, as well as the Shkumbin and Haliakmon valleys .
The bull is another fertility symbol (apparently male fertility), that is preserved in these territories even after the arrival of the Indo-Europian ancestors of Illyrians until the Roman conquest of Illyria. During the Neolithic he-goat and the dove also appear as cult symbols, probably under the influence of the Creto-Mycenaean cultural region.
Pre-Indo-European amulets construed of teeth, horns and bones of wild animals are often finds in the region.
Other widespread cult symbols found in the Neolithic Western Balkans are:
Spiral, which is a closely related to the intricate subterranean path spirit has to go through to reach the afterlife, with the snake as the typical chthonic animal7.
Meander, which appears as early as the the Upper Palaeolithic (40,000-10,000 years ago.
Zig-zag line often represents the snake, but its use for decorative purposes is not rare
Vertical zig-zag lines may represent rain or lightning.
Svastika symbolizes the sun, moon and fire. This symbol appears during Neolithic period. During the Late Neolithic period appears the deer, which may have been used in a totemist meaning.
Crescent, is related to bull’s horns and is a fertility symbol. It is appearance is relatively frequent in Neolithic objects, especially when compared to the exceptional scarcity during the Illyrian period of the Western Balkans.
Horns of consecration, are very typical for the Vučedol culture. They appear in the territories of some Illyrian tribes by the 7-5th centuries BC.
Snake appears as cult symbol in modern Albanian territories in objects dated to the beginning of Neolithic period.
In Illyrian territories anthropomorphic figurines of such deities are found in the territory of Iapodes and Liburnians since the 3rd millennium. They come in the form of women figures in pendants held by the women that didn’t give birth to children.
This brief description suggests that the Neolithic belief of the Pre-Indo-European inhabitants of the Western Balkans was closer to the Babilonian ancient religion, which was more interested in their well-being in the earthly world, than to the Egyptian that was dominated by the idea of the death and the terrifying darkness of the subterranean world
The Neolithic belief system of the Western Balkans reflects the status of the socio-economic and cultural development of the Pre-Indo-European society of the region. It seems to have been based on a direct, ‘open’ perception of the reality, by recognizing in the nature’s picture and in his own pictures (dreams), the “hidden basis” of the reality. Based on these premises, on might conclude that their belief system might have advanced up to a mythic explanation of the observed phenomena of nature and society. However, their ‘worldview’ was more primitive than that of the Indo-European migrants (the most important component in the formation of Illyrians) at the time of their arrival in Western Balkans. It is suggested that upon their arrival, the latter had experienced a cultural differentiation that enabled them an analytic polytheist view of reality, creation of a polytheist system.
- Zimoń, H. (1986). Wilhelm Schmidt’s Theory of Primitive Monotheism. Anthropos 1/3, pp. 243-260. The study of the primitive tribes of Africa during the last century showed that since the gatherer-hunter stage, groups of primitive people were capable of developing monotheist religions. Of course, this primitive monotheism is not reliably demonstrated for any people, the population of the Western Balkans included, but it is argued via the induction from the nature of the faith of the hunter-gatherer tribes of the last century. In any case, essential to bear in mind is that even if such a primitive monotheism would be scientifically acceptable, its advent cannot be, as the Austrian linguist and anthropologist, Wilhelm Schmidt believed, a primeval revelation that would imply “recognition of the supernatural origin of religion and a strong belief in the active goodness and the saintliness of the highest being”.
- Harrod, J. B. (1998). Deciphering Upper Paleolithic (European): Part 1. The Basic Graphematics—Summary of Discovery Procedures. Internet: http://www.originsnet.org/loslecture888k.pdf.
- Korkuti, M., 1995. Neolithikum und Chalkolithikum in Albanien. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern.
- Dieterich, A. (1913). Mutter Erde: ein Versuch über Volksreligion. Zweite Auflage. Teubner, Leipzig, p. 116: “das innerste religiöse Bedürfnis, das nach der Mutter Erde, der Demeter, der Isis gerufen, war nicht tot….Nichts kann die Unzerstöbarkeit der Religion, die in den Herzen der Menschen lebendig ist, besser beweisen als die Versuche innerhalb des Christentums trotz allem eine mütterliche Gottheit zu schaffen. Ich rede nicht von der Maria, obgleich ja auch deren Verehrung und Ausgestaltung als Gottesmutter laut genug ein innerstes religioses Dedurfniss bezeugt. In frühere Zeit gehen Versuche zurück, die ich meine. Die dritte Person der göttlichen Dreieinigkeit war im heiligen Geiste gefunden. Es war von ganz unabsehbar wichtigen Folgen, dass er im Grieshischen nur neutrum sein konnte, πνυμα ἅγιον”.
- Stipčević, A. (1983). Simbolet e kultit te ilirët. Rilindja, Prishtinë, f. 94.
- Hammond, N.G.L. (1972). A History of Macedonia I. Oxford, f. 335-336.
- Stipčević, A. 1983). Op. cit., p. 10.