Sunday, February 15, 2015

Resurrection in Beaker Religion?

I continue to pick away at the Valera, Evangelista, Castanheira paper on zoomorphic figurines of Iberia's Early Chalcolithic.  It had come out months ago, but was not accessible till recently.

Although the following tradition straddles pre- and early Beaker culture, so many cultural elements of this region are carried forward into Europe that perhaps this is one early manifestation of a wider belief system (maybe not rabbit iconography per se).

These little grave rabbits are sometimes found with the dead in parts Western Iberia. The one above is from Perdigos(?), but they also were abundant in Zambujal as well. Rabbits appear to have a special, symbolic meaning as a grave offering.

Reading the Valera paper, the symbolic value of these rabbits is something that seems to stand out among the figurines.  The authors' discussion on these items provides some fascinating insight:
And within this broad sense related to an idea of reproduction we may look at the double lagomorphs as if sprouting from a common base or multiplying, suggesting that this representation supports the main idea behind these objects: renewal. Expressing and acting over the capability of regeneration, these objects (most of them pendants) may have been used as amulets, revealing an ability to act in transforming reality. Although arguing for a different meaning, by associating underground movements of rabbits to the return to the earth expressed by funerary monuments, the proposal of Thomas and Waterman (2013) follows the same general view of rabbit figurines as metaphors.
Easter Egg Hunting, An American Variation of the Tradition
Maybe it is possible to see some parallels in pre-Christian Europe.  The rabbit was in ancient times associated with Germanic, pre-Christian Easter whose symbolism was adopted for expressing Christian concepts.  Its ancient meaning allowed the rabbit to represent the burial and resurrection of Christ.  Other Easter icons such as the Easter egg and the lamb were re-used to represent rebirth and the innocent sacrifice. All of these things are metaphors for the central message of Christianity.

In old Anglo-Saxon, Eōstre means to 'face-east' which is derived from Proto-Indo-European austrōn 'rising sun', being the domain of the PIE goddess, H2eus(os).  This goddess, Eos or Aus (the dawn or morning star) was sister to Helios (the sun) and Selene (the moon), to use the Greek names.  In Germanic lands, she was the fiery red-head associated with resurrection, bunnies, Easter eggs and the vernal equinox.

Typical East-facing Beaker at Shrewton, Wiltshire
Knowing the exact meaning of the rabbits in the Iberian Chalcolithic is impossible to know for sure, but it is interesting to know that Beaker burials almost always face the rising sun.*  Additional materials may suggest respects to this heavenly trio: Eos, Helios and Selene.

We know that the most archaeologically visible aspects of Beaker material culture were drinking beakers with solar crosses, amber, gold badges and pinheads with solar crosses, lunulae of various forms, and solar calendars.  The resurrection goddess of the vernal equinox would have been extremely important to those who adorned all of their equipment with solar and lunar depictions. Theoretically, the vernal equinox (in Ēostre's month of April*) would be the holiest day in Beaker religion based on the materials they left behind.  It would also herald the first month of the calendar year (the dawn of a new year) as was common in ancient Iran and Northern India.

(* Update.  Actually, if their calendar was strictly solar, then the vernal equinox might start the month before Easter/April.  The Corded Ware calendar may have been Zodiac based looking at their burial orientation, so it its case it may have oscillated between March and April.  On the other hand, it's possible to make a case that April had been the first month in early Near Eastern religion where the similar Astarte was worshipped.  I realize this can become circular reasoning)

Items excavated from Zambujal

It doesn't appear that rabbit figurines spread to other parts of Europe, but a matured Beaker package does.  One included item that might also have had a symbolic meaning was the beer beaker that accompanied the dead.  In Ancient Egypt beer was associated with the goddess of childbirth and in Mesopotamia the goddess of procreation.

There has also been some discussion about Beaker idealism where men, women and children are buried in their ideal forms.  Young boys have little weapons, young girls are buried with little pots. This idealism may point to an underlying moral and metaphysical worldview.

Concerning idealism in death, Harry Fokkens offers some ideas on idealism in life and death; the following slide stands out in my mind.  It's hard to know if they believed they would experience bodily resurrection as they Egyptians did.  It does appear that they believed they were leaving a corrupt world and being reborn in a idealic world.

Harry Fokkens (burial of the ideal man)

*(It would be interesting to know if the slight variation in body orientation , ENE, due East and ESE, conform to the season in which Beakers died.  For example, does the palynological record jive with sun up/body orientation for that latitude?  Do winter deaths align with sun up, etc?)



  1. It's very interesting this information about rabbits in bell beaker culture because the meaning of the word "Spain" is "land of rabbit's". Spain is usually represented in roman times by a barbarian woman (later on a romanized one) with a rabbit close to her feet.

  2. western iberia is Portugal not spain... but in those days there was no spain neither Portugal.