Episode 12: From India to Ireland, starting with a lot of Bull.

I've been dithering about how to handle the apparent parallels among cultures that now seem more widespread in space and time than I had previously appreciated. Recent reading suggests to me that the Goddess culture seems to extend from Ireland to India, and I've been puzzling about how the linkages might have worked. I'm still puzzling, but I think it's time to take the bull by the horns, and talk about these east-west extensions of the Goddess culture..

The first question is "Where does that strange but common expression 'Take the bull by the horns' come from?" It's a most unlikely thing to do if the idea is to control or to pacify the bull, and in any case, taking the horns in hand would not bring to mind the metaphoric meaning of the idiom, acting to put an end to contemplation of a dilemma. Neither does it describe any action I know of in any contemporary or recent style of bull-fighting or rodeo. And yet the exact same expression with the same meaning occurs at least in English, French, and Dutch (where "bull" is replaced by "cow"). These are the only languages I have so far enquired about, but they come from two different branches of Indo-European.

There is one activity, however, that does fit both the literal and the metaphoric meaning of "taking the bull by the horns"—the bull-leaping shown in various Minoan representations including the famous fresco. To do this right, the leaper must have had to choose the moment carefully, and then, without hesitation, perform the act, which is exactly what the expression means metaphorically, nowadays. Has this expression come down to us over the span of three and a half millennia, and from a different language family? It's rather an outrageous speculation. Could it be right?

Now consider this quote from Iravatham Mahadevan (from <http://harappa.com/script/mahadevantext.html>): "One of the cultural traits in the Indus Valley [2500 BC or thereabouts] is that they had the bull fight. Some famous sealings show a man running towards a bull, catching hold of its horns, doing a somersault over the back of the bull, and landing at the other end. Even today in the Dravidian south [of India] bull fighting and bull chasing are very common sports...young men in the villages chase bulls and get hurt in the process...they can claim the hands of the fair maiden only after they are able to get hold of the horns of the bull and prove their heroism."

The first part of this is an exact description of what the famous Knossos fresco and some other Minoan imagery shows—and it is something that various authorities have suggested could not be a literal description of an athletic act, because no athlete could perform it. Yet apparently both boys and girls did it in the Minoan arena.

The second part of Mahadevan's quote sounds not unlike the Pamplona "running of the bulls", although in Pamplona, the runners just try not to get trampled by the bulls. Pamplona is in the Basque part of Spain, a point that will be significant later in this episode. The modern Dravidian youth, though, do try literally to catch hold of the horns, even if they don't try the somersault over the bull's back.

There are other parallels between the Indus Valley civilization and the Mediterranean Goddess culture. In Mahadevan's interview, he discusses a particular "cult object" that occurs on many Indus Valley seals in conjunction with a horned animal usually called a unicorn, though there is disagreement as to whether it is one-horned animal or a bull with the horns seen one behind the other. To my mind, the horn shape looks enough like other images (in particular, one of a bull charging), in which two horns are shown, to suggest that it is the same animal, but I'm not an expert in the field.

Left: Indus Valley Seal. Unicorn with "cult object". This combination is on many seals. Mahadevan argues that the bowl-like object in the middle of the staff is a perforated hemisphere like a colander, and that the image shows drops coming out of it.Right: Bowl like a colander with embossed snake, from Bulgaria, around 5100 BC.

The object that is shown along with the unicorn has a staff on which are two elements that seem to be functional. At the top is a kind of gridded cylinder, and below it, about the middle of the staff, a hemispherical perforated bowl like a colander, which Mahadevan calls a "filter," probably for some kind of a religious drug he calls "soma". Just such a bowl, dating from a little before 5000 BC is shown in Gimbutas' photographs of Vinca objects (actually Karonovo, in Bulgaria). The inside of the Vinca bowl is embossed with a spiral serpent, and the holes are between the coils of the snake. This suggests that the Vinca bowl, like the one shown in the Indus Valley seals, has some ceremonial or religious significance, because it would be counterproductive if the bowl were a simple kitchen colander. In other Indus Valley representations, the upper cylinder is also shown as shedding drops of something.

A Minotaur from an Indus Valley seal (from Parpola, Special lecture)

There are other parallels between the Indus Valley culture and the Goddess culture. The "Master/Mistress of Animals" appears in the Indus Valley imagery, at least in the form of the Mistress. Bulls are important in Indus Valley culture. They have the Minotaur "horned God" form (as well as other human-animal hybrids), and they have trees as an object of veneration. Mahadevan says they have absolutely "no great palaces, no royal graves, no evidence of a large standing army. In this respect, the Harappan civilization was very unique." But it was not unique, in that in that respect it was like the Vinca and like the Minoans. And like those civilizations, women were important and even may have been leaders. In other words, the Indus Valley civilization conforms in those respects to what we know of the the Goddess culture.

If the Indus Valley held a Goddess culture, where might it have come from, given that the domains of the Hero culture lie between India and the Eastern Mediterranean? There are two possibilities. One is that the two regions are independent and have a common older ancestry, the other is that there was transmission between the Mediterranean and the Indus Valley. I know of no evidence to favour either possibility, but I find the idea of direct transmission slightly more plausible.

My argument is that the Sumerian region probably moved into Hero culture mode only at the time of the drying of the Sahara (as mentioned in earlier episodes). Before that, it belonged to the Goddess culture, and even afterwards it used much of the same iconography. It is quite reasonable to suppose that the migration away from the Black Sea, which seems to have led through the Halaf to the Sumerians, might easily have followed other paths into Iran and beyond, or might have continued from Sumer through Elam along the Iranian coast, which presumably was not as arid as it became after the Sahara dried up.

In support of this latter idea, one may note that by 2500 BC, there was another great civilization between Mesopotamia and India, in southern Iran, known as the Jiroft civilization, which is only now coming to light (Science, 7 Nov 2003 p 973). I don't know anything about their culture, but the one picture shown in the Science item looks quite similar to Indus Valley imagery. However, these are very tenuous threads from which to hang a speculation, let alone a hypothesis!

Before leaving the Indus Valley civilization, I should point out that its area was much larger than just the Indus Valley. At times it covered an area larger than Pakistan, extending beyond the Hindu Kush into what were the Southern Soviet Republics and Afghanistan. We know that there were trading contacts in that era between Ebla and Afghanistan, and between the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. It is not too unreasonable to think that they all might have had a common cultural heritage, which initially mutated into the Hero culture only in southern Mesopotamia.

Here are some images of the Master/Mistress of Animals, from different times and places:

A variety of Masters and Mistresses of Animals from Sumer and Minoan Crete

Five Masters/Mistresses of Animals from widely different times and places.

Top Left: A Sealing from Elam, around 3000 BC. Two Minotaurs as Master, the left one mastering lions, the right one mastering a bull and what might be a horse.

Top Right; Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron, Jutland (Denmark) 1st Century BC. Said to be Celtic, representing the deer-God Cernunnos.

Above: Astarte as Mistress of Animals. Phoenician, ca 1000 BC


An Early Harappan snake-haired(?) Mistress, Indus Valley around 2500BC. Mistress from Phrygia (Central Anatolia), Ivory and Gold, about 700 BC.
The Minoan Snake Goddess with Medusa hair

I label the Harappan Mistress of Animals as "snake-haired" because a similar head signifies snake-haired in at least one image of Medusa. Otherwise one might think her hair style was rather like spiky-haired youth of the 1990's. The Minoan Snake Goddess is also shown with very similar hair in at least one image (from Gimbutas, The goddesses and Gods of Old Europe).

The Gundestrup Cauldron Master (alias Cernunnos) is from a book of Celtic art, but it seems rather late for it to be Celtic in Jutland. However, the Cauldron master makes a nice segue into the next part of this episode, the Western trail of the Goddess culture, through the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast of Europe to (at least) Ireland and (probably) Northern Scotland.

We start in Malta, with the Megalithic temples which date from something like 3500 to 2500 BC. There are two significant aspects of these temples in our story. One is the use of trilithons that look very like those of Stonehenge, except that they are embedded in other structures rather than being freestanding as they are in the Stonehenge circle.

Trilithons used in Ggantija Temple ca 3500 BC (from http://web.infinito.it/utenti/m/malta_mega_temples/index.html)

The second significant point is that the iconography has several points of agreement with other Goddess culture locations. For example, several areas of the temples are covered with intricate arrays of spirals, some with protrusions that could be taken to be snakes' heads. Some of these are carved or engraved, some painted all over the roof and walls of some roome. Spirals (as in the Vinca colander above) are taken by Gimbutas to be a symbol of the snake that is a central element of Goddess culture. There are large bas-reliefs of bulls, and human-headed animals. Finally, although, as in the Vinca culture, there are human figurines (especially very fat women), there are no "heroic" sculptures or images. Altogether, the impression is that Malta, at that time, must have been part of the Goddess culture.

Carved spirals on large stone blocks (altars?) in the Tarxien temple (ca 3100 BC)

The timing of the temples may be interesting. In an earlier episode, I speculated that Goddess culture people may have emigrated from the region around Albania, perhaps by way of Italy, when the Indo-European influx arrived. The timing is at least within a few centuries of when the ancestors of the Minoans arrived in Crete, and may have been much closer in time than that. Both islands may well have seen the arrival of the Goddess culture in the same wave of emigration from the Balkan peninsula.

Now I'm going to take a big leap, all the way to Ireland, and then close the gap by working backwards. Here are two pictures of spiral patterns from the Newgrange megalithic tomb, somewhere around 3000BC. To me, they look almost identical to the Maltese spirals Similar spiral patterns have been found on megalithic structures elsewhere in Ireland, and in Brittany, and complex versions of this kind of scroll survived into much later Celtic art..

Two of the many spiral patterns, from Newgrange passage tomb, Ireland

There is a problem in tracing some of the megalithic buildings, in fact two problems. One is that from time to time, the structures have been thought to be associated with witchcraft, and have been deliberately destroyed. At Avebury (near Stonehenge), for example, all the stones of a great stone ring (within which there is now a village) were toppled and many destroyed in the 17th century. In the 19th century, those that were not destroyed were re-erected, but these were only a small proportion of those that had stood for almost 5000 years until the 17th century. Even so, what remains is very impressive, but too eroded to see any patterns that may have been on the stones.

The other, and perhaps more serious problem for any attempt to trace the builders progress along the Atlantic coast, is that although the global ocean had reached its modern level by about 5000BC, isostatic rebound continues to this day. Isostatic rebound means that the land that was under the weight of ice is rising, whereas land that surrounded the great ice sheets and was pushed up by the weight of ice is now sinking. The coasts along the area of major Atlantic megaliths is subsiding, quite rapidly in places like the Scilly Isles off the tip of southwest England. There are places in Brittany where megalithic stone circles are partly submerged, and the depth of submergence since 3000 BC is quite sufficient to have hidden many more, since many of them were built close to the coast in any case.

So, where I am going next is along the coast of France, down to the Basque country.

In an earlier episode, I mentioned that the Celtic language as spoken in Ireland had been thought to have an African tinge to its structure, but that there was no sense of African in the genetic analysis of the Y chromosome in the Irish population. However, that's not the end of the genetic story.

Proportion of haplotype group 1 in Y chromosome of populations in different parts of Europe. Note the similarity between Basque and Western Ireland. Proportions of different lineages in selected Eurasian populations. The predominant (red) Basque M173 line is evident not only in British and Orkney, but also in Greek, Armenian, and Turkmen, but not to the north or south of this axis, nor in Turkey.

The left figure shows the pattern in Europe of a particular haplotype group of the Y chromosome. There is an east-to-west increasing trend in the proportion of this haplotype, and the regions where the proportion is highest are western Ireland and the Basque country. However, the haplotype also shows a substantial contribution to the genetic structure of the rest of Ireland, Friesland, and central Spain, France, and central Italy. The suggestion from this pattern is either that the haplotype originated in the West of Europe, or that a population with that haplotype were driven westward by the expansion of other groups from the East. A similar pattern is shown in the right figure, which extends further east. It shows that the lineage to which over 90% of the Basque belong is prominent especially in the Orkney Islands (along with a strong Viking lineage) and in Britain, but also appears strongly in Armenia and Turkmenistan, but not in Turkey or the areas north or south of this axis, and not in south India.

Although there was undoubtedly some westward drift of peoples under pressure from invaders from the East, ethnic cleansing was not the normal case when one group invaded the territory of another. More usually, the main body of indigenous people stay, ruled by the invaders, and quite probably taking on the language of the invaders. So I tend to favour the hypothesis that this haplotype originated somewhere along the west European coast and moved to Ireland as well as diffusing eastward over time. It would have been possible for the haplotype to have dominated Ireland even though it did not originate there, because prior to about 7000BC, Ireland seems to have been uninhabited, and the population was quite small until Neolithic times, when there seems to have been a substantial influx. I speculate that this influx brought the haplotype with them, though it is equally likely that both they and the original population carried it.

According to Charles Squire, author of the scholarly "Celtic Myths and Legends" reprinted by Parragon, 1998, but probably written around 1905, to judge from the dates of the references, "We have certain proof of two distinct human stocks at the time of the Roman Conquest" (the Celts and the pre-Celtic people). "The earlier of these two races...is variously called by ethnologists the Iberian, Mediterranean, Berber, Basque, Silurian, or Euskarian race." So even 100 years ago, the conventional wisdom was that Ireland was originally populated from Spain or North Africa. It is interesting that Squire mentions the Berber, who are one African group who may be descended from a people of the Goddess culture.

Going waaayyy out on a limb, and accepting the speculation that the Megalithic Goddess culture arrived in Ireland in a fairly pure form before the advent of the Celts, what was their route out of the Mediterranean? It could not have been through central Europe, because all the Megalithic structures are along the Atlantic coast.

There are at least three different possibilities. One passes through north Africa, where there are strong suggestions that the Goddess culture had some presence (the Berbers and the Dogon--if I remember the name correctly) attest to that. The second is a purely maritime route through the Straits of Gibraltar and along the Atlantic coast. To support this route would require knowledge of Portuguese and Galician megaliths, and I don't know of any such (which doesn't mean they aren't there). The third goes from coastal footholds in Tuscany (the Etruscans seem to have been Goddess culture people) along the French and Spanish Riviera, then through the neck between France and Spain along the foothills of the Pyrenees to what is now the Basque country, and thence up the French coast. I think this third route is the most plausible, especially given the map of the Y-chromosome haplotype proportions.

If the third route, by way of the Basque country, is to survive argument, the problem of the Basque language must be considered. Basque is unique, a language family separate from any other. It is often held to be the last surviving remnant of old European, which would be fitting if the Goddess culture had a stronghold there in its passage along the Atlantic seaboard. But I know of no evidence of the Goddess culture having been in the Basque territory (nor of it not having been there). But if the Basque language is unique, why does the Irish Celtic show African rather than Basque underpinnings?

There are at least two possible answers to that query. One is that perhaps the Basque and the North African do have some commonality, though given the interest that the unique Basque language arouses, it seems probable that linguists would have asserted any minor similarities that might exist. The second is that people, culture, and language can be dissociated. People can emigrate, and their descendants acquire the language and culture of the community into which they move. Or, an invading people can dominate the indigenous population, who over time accept and use the invaders' language, as Latin took over from British, and then Germanic languages took over from Latin in England. But the subjugated people nevertheless can maintain much of their culture, as with the Anglo-Saxons under the Norman rule. The implication is that the people who populated Ireland and built the Megaliths might have originally been part of the same group as the Basques, without leaving traces of Basque in their language.

It's not an easy question to answer without special pleading, but it must be answered, because the decorations on the Megaliths are not the only reason to believe that the Irish had a pre-Celtic, non-Indo-European, Goddess culture that was incorporated into the Celtic culture in the way that happen in other areas into which Indo-Europeans expanded. Of course, the Celts may well have integrated elements of the Goddess culture in their long migration through Central Europe. I know of no evidence for or against this idea--other than the apparent fact that Goddess elements also found their way into Scandinavia, the last region from which the intolerant monotheistic Church evicted them. In both places, the mythology talks of older and younger groups of Gods and Goddesses, suggesting an overlay of one mythology onto a pre-existing one.

The North African and Iberian coastal routes get some support from archaeological hints (based on Ancient Ireland: Life before the Celts, Laurence Flanagan, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), although Flanagan favours the idea that the route was through Britain rather than directly to Ireland. Also, these hints come from later rather than earlier Megalithic structures. For example, a pin found in a wedge tomb seems similar to Iberian "palmella" points, and “Another gold ornament made from thin sheet gold, the disc from Deehommed, County Down,...is quite clearly an import: not only does it parallel very closely a pair of ear-rings from Eremegeira, Portugal, but the composition of the gold suggests that it comes from a non-Irish source.” (p88).

Apart from the question of how the Megalith people came to Ireland, there is the question of whether they were actually of the Goddess culture. Before going into the legends, there are a couple of archaeological hints (from Flanagan) that they were at least related to it.

Firstly, until around 1200 BC, the population in Ireland belonged to an essentially peaceful and non-aggressive culture, to judge from the tools and the few weapons they made, the weapons being more suited for hunting than for combat. Around 1200, they started making a wide range of combat weapons, so something changed (this is the time of the Sea Peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean). Then there is the decorative style, which is much more reminiscent of Vinca than it is of anything else: “All the decoration at Newgrange is geometrical, curvilinear or rectilinear, and aniconic: no attempt at representational art can convincingly be detected.” (p69). Here, from Flanagan, is a catalogue of the decorative themes in the passage tombs (fairly early Megalithic). Most of them, other than the ones that look like flowers, replicate the patterns on Vinca culture objects.

Most of these themes, other than in the left three columns, occur in Vinca decoration. According to Gimbutas, the spirals represent snakes, and the zig-zags water. Some of the others represent sex and regeneration.

Here's some more from Squire. "In the stories of both branches of the Celtic race [i.e. British and Irish], women seem to have taken a higher place in men's estimation, and to have enjoyed far more personal liberty than among the Homeric Greeks. ... Descent seems to have been traced through the maternal rather than through the paternal line." This latter is almost diagnostic of the Goddess culture. Squire also says that there was no central tribunal, and about clan chiefs: "though his decision was the whole of the law, he was little more than the mouthpiece of public opinion." In other words, although there were (in later times) chiefs, they were first among equals, rather than absolute monarchs.

There is a story that combines parts of the Adam and Eve story (without an Adam, be it noted, though the "Eve" did have a husband) together with a flood story. There was a goddess called Boann, who gave her name to the River Boyne. The story tells how she in fact created the river. To quote Squire (p 55): "Formerly there was only a well, shaded by nine magic hazel-trees. These trees bore nuts, and it was the property of these nuts that whoever ate of them became possessed of the knowledge of everything that was in the world. ... Even the highest gods were forbidden to approach the place. Only Boann, with the proverbial woman's curiosity, dared to disobey this fixed law. She came towards the sacred well, but as she did so, its waters rose up at her, and drove her away before them in a mighty rushing flood. She escaped, but the waters never returned."

The last part is easily derived from a distant memory of the Black Sea Flood, where the waters rose up in a mighty rushing flood, and never returned, driving away the people. This Eve was driven away from the tree of knowledge just for wanting to savour its fruit. She never got to eat it or to tempt her Adam. Remember that the tree was a central symbol of the Goddess culture.

Other legends tie into the Goddess culture. Of course, one has to be wary, since the earliest written records of the legends are no more than 1500 years old, and most of them are half that age or less (according to Squire). Nevertheless, if they were collected and published without the collector or the original scribe knowing of the possibility they might relate to a far-away more ancient culture, then one can at least play with the hints they contain.

Let's start with some names. In an earlier episode, I noted the speculation by Ryan and Pitman that the rivers feeding the Black Sea from the north and west might owe their names to the Goddess or vice-versa (the river perhaps being an avatar of the Goddess): Don, Dneiper, Dneister, Donau (Danube), and I added several other possibly related names, to argue that the Goddess might have been called something like Danu or Donu. In the Irish mythology, the earliest group of gods were the "Tribe of Danu" (pronounced "Donu" according to Squire), but they fought against a tribe of Giants who owed allegiance to a different goddess, called "Domnu". Squire says that "Domnu" seems to have meant "the abyss" or "the deep sea." The Domnu tribe was supposed to have been even more ancient than the people of Danu, but Danu was the most ancient "divinity." Danu was also called Anu or Ana, which resonates with the Sumerian/Akkadian Inanna and the Roman or Scythian Diana.

This conflict seems very appropriate if the ancestors of the early Irish had been among those driven from the shores of the freshwater Euxine Lake that became the Black Sea. It might well have seemed to them that their goddess Danu had developed a split personality, one part becoming the bad goddess of the deep sea. To quote Squire (p48): "The waste of water seems to have always impressed the Celts with the sense of primeval ancientness; it was connected in their minds with vastness, darkness and monstrous births--the very antithesis of all that was symbolized by the earth, the sky, and the sun." But the Celts, whose mythology this is, almost certainly came after the people to whom the mythology refers, and they probably came by way of Britain. Perhaps it was the Celts rather than the earlier inhabitants, who split Danu into two halves?

The Minotaur appears again among the tribe of Domnu, some of whom "had the heads of goats, horses or bulls" (Squire, p48). But now we have another name to play with. "The most famous, and perhaps the most terrible was Balor..." Does this remind one of Baal, one of the chief gods of the Middle East and of Phoenician North Africa? "Baal" apparently means "Lord", and the name Baal usually was accompanied by a second word, indicating what this particular Baal was Lord of. "Beelzebub" is probably a version of "Baal ze-bub". I don't think it too far-fetched to suggest that Balor might originally have been Baal-[]or. Balor's father was called "the cow-faced", which brings in the Minotaur once more.

The British Celtic mythology also has a god with a name related to Baal, in this case, Beli. Beli was the husband of the Goddess Don, which again would fit the relation of Baal and our hypothesized eastern Danu. Both Balor and Beli brought death with them, in Balor's case through a venomous eye. If anyone saw the eye, they would die on the spot (rather like someone who saw Medusa being turned to stone). But luckily for all concerned, Balor's eyelid was so heavy he couldn't open his eye. The eylid had to be propped open by assistants when they wanted his help in battle. This leads to a Celtic "David and Goliath" battle, in which a clever god called Lugh, whose weapon was a sling, flung a stone through Balor's eye as it was being opened, and knocked it out of the back of Balor's head. The gods then proceeded to win the battle against the giants. Does this story appear independently of the David and Goliath story, or is one related to the other historically?

There are other signs that the early Irish culture is related to the Mediterranean Goddess culture. Both used human sacrifice, of both adults and children, though this was probably not unique to the Goddess culture. It was, however, anathema to the Romans when they arrived in Britain, and they stamped it out wherever they could. More pleasantly, in the legends "the women have free scope of choice, and claim the respect of their wooers" (Squire, p184), and in questions of the courteous treatment of enemies, the legends foreshadow the chivalric romances of Mediaeval Europe. And more abstractly, from Vinca times through the Minoan, "threeness" was important both in the symbology and in the architecture. The Celtic legends also, according to Squire, show "a love of triads". The tree that is part of the Indus Valley symbolism also has three branches.

There is, quite separately, a weird possible connection to the Indus Valley. It may be, quite literally, far-fetched. Nevertheless I'll venture it because it is fun to contemplate. Mahadevan says: "In the Indian tradition the ruling classes, the princes and priests, always claim to have come from a jar. The jar-born elite is a very famous old Indian symbolism starting all the way back to the RgVeda [sic], where Agastiya and Vasishta are supposed to have been born out of jars." In the same way, in Irish Legend, the Muses were born out of a cauldron owned by the ruler of the underworld.

In the as yet undeciphered Indus Valley script, the signs and appear to be grammatical endings, possibly conveying gender. The first is called the "jar" sign, the second the "arrow", though some prefer to think of the first as the head of a cow seen fron the front. They also appear as components in a set of composite set of signs based on the "bearer".The first of these has no "head", the second has an arrow sign as its head, and the third has a jar sign as its head. Mahadevan connects the arrow sign with the old Dravidian "ampu", which means arrow, but is also used as a gender determinative. He argues from other evidence (http://www.harappa.com/arrow/index.html)that it is a non-male determinative, but then puzzles over why it is the ending of the names of many ancient male kings. From the shapes alone, one might have assumed that the jar sign is the female determinative, and the arrow sign the male, which would solve Mahadevan's puzzle. It would solve another, too, which is the question of why people might have been born out of a jar. It would be interesting to discover whether the notion of people or gods being born out of a jar or other kind of pot occurs elsewhere in the Goddess culture region of time and place.

I think this is quite long enough for episode 12, which was to connect the Irish and the Indus Valley civilizations to the central Goddess culture, and to suggest ways in which the culture reached Ireland. There may be one more episode, on more recent manifestations of the culture clash, and the influence on Scandinavia.