Monday, April 27, 2015

Praying in the Chalcolithic

This is really, really fascinating.  It's so simple, so obvious.  I feel like I've been slapped across the face by Captain Obvious*.

First, I apologize for linking to a pay-per-view.  Second, I apologize for a pay-per-view I haven't read.  Thirdly, I pray for the souls who write articles that aren't accessible to those who care.

"Killing or Clemancy" Late 15th Matthew Strickland
Europeans have traditionally prayed with palms together.  It is an ancient habit that predates Christianity and is common among several Eurasian religions.  You may find Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Shintoists praying in such a manner.

The exact origin or meaning may be unattainable, but one line of thinking suggests that it is an act of submission, as one might expect his hands to be bound when lodging or being led into a strange village.  It is an act of vulnerability, but also bravery.

"Woman Praying" Hans Memling c1485 WikiArt
The paper appears to reference Beaker burials, but it really doesn't matter anyway.  The search results and abstract gave enough of it up.  The orientation of the body and the funerary arrangements tell us a little about the religion of the deceased as long as we are careful to not project too much on the materials.

Reinald II of Guelders and Elanor Woodstock (British Library)
I don't know that I ever thought about it too much, but is Amesbury Archer praying?  Most Beakers appear to have their hands together, although some deviate from this occasionally.  The placement of the hands isn't necessarily unique to Beakers, but a case can be made that the orientation of the body is observant.

Is Amesbury Archer praying to the East?  Wessex Archaeology

* This was really more of a manly punch, and a sucker punch at that.  I was surprised nonetheless.

Between Representation and Eternity: The Archaeology of Praying in Late Medieval and Post-Medieval times. European Journal of Archaeology. Rainer Atzbach 2015 [Link]

This paper seeks to explore how prayer and praying practice are reflected in archaeological sources. Apart from objects directly involved in the personal act of praying, such as rosaries and praying books, churches and religious foundations played a major role in the medieval system of intercession. At death, an individual's corpse and burial primarily reflect the social act of representation during the funeral. The position of the arms, which have incorrectly been used as a chronological tool in Scandinavia, may indicate an evolution from a more collective act of prayer up to the eleventh century AD to a more individual way of praying in the late and post-medieval periods.


  1. Why do you say it's a pre-Christian custom? I just browsed for images of "praying ancient Greece" and while there are number of images that are Christianized or directly depict Christian behavior, the real images such as those taken from the pottery and other art, show that: (1) Greeks prayed standing (a well known fact, for kneeling was not proper of free men but slaves), (2) Greeks seldom made praying gestures other than raising their hands with palms open to the up, (3) most of Greek religious rituals were about offerings and sacrifices. If you change "Greece" for "Rome" is the same, just that the gesture of open hands to the above is more common.

    The paper you mention (which I haven't read either) is about praying in Medieval times, so I see no reason for your claim.

    The gesture of the Amesbury archer is not one of joined hands the Christian way anyhow but he's holding a dagger close to his chest, as if that would be something precious, maybe in the spiritual way indeed. As I see it the gesture of bringing hands to the chest is one that basically emphasizes the heart and hence expresses feelings of love, respect and loyalty. It can well be a religious one but I don't see how it is attested nor how it may relate to the submissive act of kneeling with joint hands, which, as you correctly describe is one of slavish submission, and hence totally unrelated to known pre-Christian Europan customs.

    1. It may have been different in Greece and Rome, or less common.

      However, praying with the palms joined is common across a number of cultures. In PIE, to beseech or request, is represented by the word 'prayer', which in Hinduism or Medieval Europe is represented by joining the hands.
      But the act itself isn't necessarily religious, joining the hands to beseech another person is common in many cultures, to ask for mercy, to ask for forgiveness. I've seen this done to sincerely request acceptance of a gift, attendance at a dinner or some other great request. I've seen Arabs and Asians do this.

      "As I see it the gesture of bringing hands to the chest is one that basically emphasizes the heart and hence expresses feelings of love, respect and loyalty"

      That could be true as well.

      Although it's possible the earliest Levantine Christians or early Jews did this, how this became so prevalent in Europe might be better explained if it was already a gesture that was practiced. Even if it wasn't, it's still possible that folding of the arms a certain way in some Neolithic and Bronze Age burials eludes to the practice.

    2. "I've seen Arabs and Asians do this".

      My point precisely: something non-European. I was checking (by image search) other ancient cultures and Sumerians seem to have prayed with joined hands but rather on the chest, so more similar to what we see in the Amesbury archer and to some extent to Christian prayer (although they did not kneel either). Ancient Egyptians also don't seem to have joined hands but rather raised them, although in some images they do kneel, bow or even prostrate.

      Indeed Indians do join hands and bow their heads as you suggest and maybe it is an Hindu tradition of hierarchical distant respect (Indians seldom shake hands or hug because of purity taboos but all that is probably Vedic and exclusively Hindu in origin). By means of Buddhism (originally a branch of Hinduism, much as Christianity or Islam are of Judaism) this tradition probably expanded to other areas. Extension to the West of this gesture probably comes from Zoroastrianism, in which we can see both raising hands and the joining hands cum bowing gesture in prayer. Let's not forget that Babylonian and Hellenistic Judaism and their Christian offshoot competed and often hybridized with other "oriental" religions like Isianism or variants of Zoroastrianism (particularly Manicheism, i.e. the belief in two opposed principles of good and evil, so dear to modern Abrahamanic religions but so alien to ancient religions in general, except precisely this overly simplistic one).

    3. I'd agree that it probably predates IE, or it could have spread very late in the Iron Age or early Christian era.
      See my comment to Grey. I hate not being able to see a paper, especially when it may have something interesting. I've always assumed the 'fetal position' was a sleeping position (sounds reasonable) But if the flexed burial were truly sleeping, the arm position seems a bit formal and the direction of the burial would matter less. BTW, similar arm positions are in some previous Neolithic cultures, I believe the Lengyel (?) put their hands over their mouth. Almost cupped hands(?) (Don't quote me on the last one)
      If this was true, you could look at Mesolithic burials of the shell middens. They flex on their backs facing the sky with arms flexed and together (praying?) It could be very ancient.

    4. The crouching or fetal position is very old indeed, and I'd associate it rather with Neolithic than Paleolithic in the case of Europe (actually I first thought La Braña could be Neolithic because of his anomalous crouching burial). I have no idea if it meant sleeping (too packed, nobody sleeps that way) or a return to the Earth, perceived as womb of all life, (probably IMO). Maybe it implies some sort of belief in reincarnation (back to the womb) but this is speculative at best. In any case it was very extended and is not at all specific of Bell Beaker.

      The arms on the chest seem to be holding that dagger, which was surely iconic for them, much as the axe was in Central Europe in a previous period or as the cross is for Christians (which is often placed in the same way, just that not using crouching position but extended on the back). So IMO it represents a symbol of the faith of the deceased. Whether they used a similar gesture when praying in life or not... well... like Christians, sometimes they may hold the cross against their chest as well, but it's not really the most common. What it means, quite intuitively, is that the dagger and what represented was very dear to them, taking a central position, close to the heart, hugged against the chest, that can only mean that.

      Re. Lengyel, I found this: - the burial (second image) does not seem to follow what you say, but rather the hands seem to be used as pillow of sorts. In this case I would support the notion of a sleeping position, really. Other examples, that also seem to be "sleeping":

  2. Something only obliquely related and that rather is an afterthought on our previous discussion on Chalcolithic religiousness. Something that I find interesting from the Medieval period are that guilds (crafter guilds) were largely religious associations. Of course their religiosity was expressed in Christian terms but there are elements that may well be pre-Christian, for example eating and drinking together.

    I say because the Bell Beaker phenomenon does seem as both a "guild" and a "religion", so very possibly it was something like the Medieval guilds, but of course pre-Christian (and West of the Rhine also pre-Indoeuropean). I wouldn't be surprised if metallurgists, traders and other specialists incorporated this Bell Beaker standard as they formed their associations, probably becoming a very powerful force in Chalcolithic Europe if they worked as a unified force and for as long as they did. Probably the diversification we see in the late BB period is a sign of internal divisions within what once was an "all-powerful" international gild league of some sort, some kind of Hanseatic league of sorts maybe?

    1. It is interesting to see 'cohesion' in areas and cemeteries with varying beaker traditions or otherwise.

  3. interesting thought. if it was pre indo-european you might see it more in the west than the east?

    1. It probably pre-dates Indo-European by a mile. On the other hand, it could have spread East via Buddhism from Northern India. If it wasn't practiced by Native Americans, it might be more recent.

      Again, it goes back to the 60's anthropology of human movement (facial expressions, clapping, pointing, squatting, etc) Some behaviors like pointing with your index finger or clapping may either be hard wired or so ancient that almost all humans learned it. Some may be influenced by biomechanics. It's difficult or uncomfortable for many Caucasians to squat, who instead choose to bend at the waist when picking something off the ground. (long torsos, wide hips)

      Praying (as a movement) is probably old, but not too old. If the paper is going the direction I think it is, some burials with praying mantis arms, however old, may be a religious expression rather than just a sleeping, fetal pose.

  4. "It's difficult or uncomfortable for many Caucasians to squat"...

    Really? I associate squatting with Afghans and I have adopted it myself for spontaneous rest position in many contexts (better for the back than sitting on a chair but tiresome for untrained legs), however not for picking stuff so much (there I follow working health advise of bending knees while lifting the weight but I do also bend the waist). I know many other Caucasoids (not "Caucasians") who use squatting for all kind of activities like defecation or eve birthgiving - sure they are hippies, but white hippies anyhow.

    On the other hand the action of bending the waist quite flexibly I rather associate with African women particularly. If you have practiced a minimum of yoga you should know that the body adapts... and a lot, but it's also a lot in the mind: for example if are not used to do exercise and they ask you to bend and try to touch your toes, most people will do it wrong: they will "try", "force", instead of "allowing" the body to bend by its own weight via mere simple relaxing.

    So I think what you say about squatting it's extremely cultural and comes from the development of benches and chairs. Also never heard that white men have wide hips before today - it may be true but never heard it before.

    1. I'm a caucasian (as in from the caucasus) and I squat all the time. But then I'm pretty stocky, so biomechanics, again has a factor to play.

      But to come to bellbeakerblogger's point, there's too much physical variation in western eurasian, as early racial literature attests. So to expect everyone to have a single comfortable movement is probably asking too much. Northwestern europeans may indeed have longer torsos, making it uncomfortable for them. But that's generalizing again,as I have seen Geordie working class men squat!!

    2. Sorry for the late reply, been off the grid.
      To clarify, I meant Caucasoid in general, in American English one is often erroneously used for the other.

      I got that from an old anthropology textbook called "The Science of Man", I believe. Squatting vs. Bending was one of several examples on the study of human motion. Obviously all people squat and bend but the unconscious preference for one appears to vary quite a bit.

    3. Yes, it seems to be a biomechanical issue though. So:

      Short, stocky ---> squating
      Tall, lanky ---> Bending

      So people from populations that tend to the latter probably prefer to bend, regardless of whether they are european or asian. It should be pretty easy to check this.