The Neanderthal Influence

After visiting eleven decorated caves in northern Spain, including two replicas, I came away with a tremendous sense of admiration and respect for the artists who worked on them.  My favorite, by far, was El Castillo, the largest of four caves on the beautiful mountain of the same name (pictured below).  For starters, it has yielded evidence of an incredibly long span of occupation – over 150,000 years.cave El Castillo

That means it was home to Neanderthals, who, most texts explain, first appeared in Europe about 300,000 years ago.  Homo sapiens (modern humans) started living in the El Castillo cave about 40,000 years ago.  Both groups apparently shared the area for about 5,000 years.  All those dates are subject to challenge.


El Castillo  (modern entrance shown in photo) is no dank, narrow cave.  Back in the Paleolithic era, it had a natural arch opening and a wide area lit by sunlight, making it a bright, airy spot for a campsite, a meeting area, or even a village shelter in bad weather.  It also has a fine view of the valley below. ( See photo.)

cave view from El Castillo

In the front section now under excavation, different levels seem clearly separated.  The ones with human occupation look much darker because they include carbon from fires.  The periods in which the cave was occupied only by animals are marked by pale yellow bands.  But how do researchers know that a certain level was Neanderthal rather than modern human?  It turns out it’s based on agreed-upon dates and tool styles.  Neanderthals succeeded Homo Heidelbergensis in Europe about 300,000 years ago and died out between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago for reasons unknown.  If the carbon dates for a layer come back between 40 and 300 thousand years old, it’s identified as Neanderthal.  Maybe.  Certain stone tools and objects made from antler and bone are also typical of this period.  The truth is the dates keep changing, and the whole field of study is in a state of flux.

El Castillo Frieze wall

So, did Neanderthals paint at least some of these dots on the walls of El Castillo, a couple of which, including one of the dots in the photo, have been dated to over 41,000 years old?  Another part of the same panel  was found to be 25,000 years old, and yet another to be 37,000 years old. (See labelled photo. The number of years is listed first, then the margin of error.)  That covers 16,000 years on a single panel of the cave!  If Neanderthals did paint some of that panel, it would be toward the end of their reign in Europe and the beginning of the ascendancy of modern humans.  According to a study published in Nature, pockets of Neanderthals survived in Europe until 39,260 years ago.  Even given that, it’s not clear which group painted the dots on the wall of El Castillo.

One problem we face in answering that question is the paucity of dated samples.  It’s very expensive to complete carbon dating or uranium-thorium dating on a piece of cave art, and the process right now requires taking a tiny sample of the paint off the wall.  Once dating techniques improve and the cost comes down, we’ll know a lot more about the dates and sequence in which different paintings were made.

March Neanderthal seals painting

Right now, archaeologists are reluctant to say more than it’s possible that some of the art in El Castillo might have been made by Neanderthals. They admit that Neanderthals may have painted a couple of seals on a stalactite in a cave near Malaga, Spain (photo), and they may have carved bird bones and deer teeth, and left crosshatch marks on a cave wall in Gibraltar.  But their underlying belief is that only modern humans had the sophistication to create art or think symbolically.  That assumption, though, is being challenged.

Three Interesting Sites

The Lozoya Child in Central Spain

In a cave north of Madrid, in what’s come to be called The Valley of the Neanderthals, researchers identified the ritual burial of a Neanderthal toddler they called the Lozoya Child.  Placed on fire sites nearby were horns and antlers from bison, aurochs (cattle), and red deer.  These are also animals commonly painted on Paleolithic cave walls in northern Spain.  The fires were dated between 38,000 and 42,000 years old.  Enrique Baquedano, director of the Regional Archaeological Museum of Madrid, thinks the cave might have been used by Neanderthals as a place to mourn and remember the dead

The Stalagmite Circle in France

Neanderthal circle

It’s also interesting to consider a 1990 find in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France.  Alerted by 15-year-old Bruno Kowalsczewsi and his father, local cavers squeezed through a narrow opening into an open chamber containing animal bones.  Some 1100′ (336 meters) farther back in the cave, they found several stalagmites that had been purposely broken, then many more.  About 400 pieces had been laid in two rings.  Others had been propped up against them or stacked in piles, some marked with red or black lines (Photo from the National Geographic article listed with sources). There was also a mass of burned bones.  These were not natural formations.  Scientist and caver Sophie Verheyden took over the exploration of the cave after the original archaeologist died, and called on archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and stalagmite expert Dominique Genty for their help.  They tested the stalagmites in 2013 by drilling into them and pulling out test cores.  In studying the cores, they realized part was old minerals and part was new minerals that had been laid down after the fragments were broken off.  The date of the divide was clear but shocking: 176,500 years ago.  There were no known modern humans in the area at the time.  It had to be the work of Neanderthals.  Verheyden’s team’s study appeared in the journal Nature in 2016.

Also interesting was the depth of the placement in the cave, which would have had no natural light, so the makers had to work by torches or fires.  The structure leads to the idea of ritual behavior in the cave.  “A plausible explanation is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior,” noted Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum.  More than 120 fragments have red and black streaks not found anywhere else in the cave. (Curiously, many of the decorated caves I saw included black marks on stalactites.)  “Some type of ritual behavior” is a pretty wide umbrella term, but the idea of honoring the dead, especially a child, has real resonance in the caves I visited in northern Spain, as do the red circles and black marks.

Verheyden is continuing her exploration of the cave, hoping to answer some of the many questions about the people who used it with such a clear purpose.


The Shanidar Skeletons of Iraq


Skeletons of eight Neanderthal adults and two infants, dated from 65,000 years ago to 35,000 years ago were found in Shanidar cave in northern Iraq.  One of the adult males was given a pile of stones including worked points made of chert.  And there was evidence of a large fire by the burial site.  (The possible scene pictured comes from the Smithsonian article listed with sources.) Pollen grains found on the adult male skeleton known as Shanidar 4 led some to say he had been buried with flowers known for their medicinal properties: yarrow, cornflower, bachelor’s button, ragwort, grape hyacinth, horsetail, and hollyhock.  Later, skeptics claimed the pollen might have been brought in by gerbils or bees.  I’m not sure why bees would bring pollen to a body in a cave, but that’s the complaint.  Some of the skeletons showed evidence of wounds that had been tended and healed.

The Red Lady

A modern human woman, dubbed “The Red Lady,” was buried about 19,000 years ago in a cave called El Miron, across the valley from El Castillo, and covered with red ochre and flowers.  No one has suggested these pollen grains were the work of gerbils or bees.


All this is to say that the Neanderthal influence in El Castillo and other caves should not be dismissed or minimalized.  It’s seems clear that Neanderthals used caves for more than shelter from the storm long before modern humans arrived on the scene.


The Creative Juncture

Even if modern humans living in El Castillo didn’t meet their Neanderthal predecessors, they would have noticed their work on the cave walls.  Perhaps the combination of cultures was enough to spur an artistic explosion.  Imagine the conversation: “Look, they put dots along this wall, and hand prints.  This place has important energy relating to death and life.  Let’s add something of our own to claim this space.”  Originally, I thought of it as a competition, just as a gang tags a wall in a disputed territory and another gang comes along and covers the marks with theirs.  A talented artist puts up a beautiful tag.  The opposite one is even better.  Competition spurs growth and invention.  But, in the case of the El Castillo artists, they seem to have incorporated many of the same symbols as their predecessors, which suggests a continuity of thought rather than a total replacement of one ideology with another.

An Even Greater Shock

Everything we think about the Neanderthals and modern humans is based on the timeline.  But what if that timeline is not quite the whole story?  A new possibility was suggested in a study described in Nature Communications.  After analyzing the DNA from a 100,000 year old Neanderthal skeleton discovered in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern Germany, researchers found the mitochondrial DNA resembled that of early modern humans.  In an attempt to explain how this could be, scientists suggested that about 220,000 years ago, a female member of the line that gave rise to Homo sapiens mated with a male Neanderthal.  Imagine the scene at the family dinner.

If this theory is proven to be true, it would make our family tree a good deal more complicated!

So it’s not hard to see the progression that played out in El Castillo and the explosion of creative energy that accompanied the co-existence of these two groups.

It will be interesting to see what we learn about our cousins in the next ten years or so.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Bruniquel Cave,” Wikipedia,

Calaway, Ewen. “Europe’s first humans: what scientists do and don’t know,” Nature, 22 June 2015,

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  London: Phaidon Publishing, 2010.

“Divje Babe Flute” Wikipedia,

“Early Human Migrations,” Wikipedia,

Edwards, Owen. “The Skeletons of Shanidar Cave,” Smithsonian magazine, March 2010.

Garrido Pimentel, Daniel, and Marcos Garcia Diez.  Discover Prehistoric Cave Art in Cantabria: The Caves of Chufin, El Castillo, Las Mondedas, Hornos de la Pena, El Pendo, Covalanas, and Cullalvera, published by Sociedad Regional de Educacion, Cultura y Deporte, Gobierno de Cantabria, no date given.

Ghose, Tia. “Ancient Mourners May Have Left Flowers on ‘Red Lady Grave’” Live Science, 20 May 2015,

Gibbons, Ann. “Neanderthals and modern humans started mating early,” Science magazine, 4 July 2017, http:/

Gray, Richard. “Cave fires and rhino skull used in Neanderthal burial rituals,” This Week, New Scientist, 28 September 2016,

Jaubert, Jacques, Sophie Verheyden, Dominique Genty, and others.  “Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France,” Nature (534) 02 June 2016,

“Neanderthals, humans may have coexisted for thousands of years,” Associated Press, 22 August 2014, CBC,

Rincon, Paul.  “Neanderthal ‘artwork’ found in Gibraltar cave,” BBC News, 1 September 2014,

“Shanidar Cave,” Wikipedia, https?

Than, Ker. “Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual,” National Geographic, 16 Deccember 2013,

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic News, 14 June 2012,

UNESCO World Heritage Center. “Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain,” UNESCO,

Von Petzinger, Genevieve.  The First Signs. New York: Atria Books, 2016.

Wong, Sam. “Neanderthal artist revealed in a finely carved raven bone,” New Scientist Daily News, 29 March 2017,

Yong, Ed.  “A Shocking Find in a Neanderthal Cave in France,” The Atlantic, May 2016.

New Thoughts on Olmec Art

The Olmec culture is generally defined as the “Mother Culture” or first great civilization in Mesoamerica, an area encompassing most of Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of Honduras, and Costa Rica.  Olmec cities flourished on the Gulf Coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow neck of southern Mexico. Olmec Map 2

However, Olmec influence and trade routes spread over a much larger area.  New research shows extensive trade connections between Gulf Coast Olmec cities and Oaxaca, closer to the Pacific side, as well as the Basin of Mexico, particularly Teotihuacan, and into what is now Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and parts of western South America.   Olmec map

The earliest Olmec sites presently known date to 4000 years ago ( about 2000 BC).  By 1400 BC, Olmec artisans were creating amazing earthworks, stonework, and ceramics that still captivate the viewer.  To their 19th century discoverers, Olmec cities seemed to have sprouted full-blown out of the earth, complete with sophisticated directional alignment, symbolic writing (which we still can’t decipher), a complex set of spiritual beliefs, and finely crafted stonework, much of which was imitated by the Maya and other peoples who came to prominence after the Olmec faded.

Because of this belief, alien theorists claimed Olmec art was the work of extra-terrestrials.  Some religious sects claimed the cities were founded by a lost tribe of Israel.  Today, if you read about Olmec cities, you’ll come across all kinds of bizarre theories.

The problem with Olmec research is that we know so little about these people, including where they came from, when they arrived and what made them organize their society the way they did.  Some sites lie buried off the coast, often in areas now populated by oil rigs.  Others were discovered in the 1800s, when there was little interest in carefully uncovering the layers.  People just wanted curiosities for their collections.  Indeed, many unprovenanced Olmec artifacts now live in museums around the world.  Looters still use crude methods, including digging trenches through possible sites, looking for portable pieces they can sell on the black market.  So much valuable information has been lost.

Olmec art

People often associate the Olmec culture with colossal basalt heads, strange greenstone figurines, and hollow ceramic babies.

Giant Heads  Olmec head unearthed

The first colossal head was discovered in 1862, when workers found what they thought was a giant cook-pot turned upside down and buried in the ground.  It turned out to the top of a stone head, about 4’ (1.47 meters) tall.  The local geologist thought it depicted a male of African descent.  This head turned out to be one of the smallest of the seventeen discovered so far.  The largest is over 11’ (3.4 meters) tall.  Interestingly, some of the heads appear to be purposely mutilated and buried, either by the people themselves or by those who followed.

Olmec giant head b

In 2009, three members of an evangelical church entered the Olmec archaeological site at La Venta, near Villahermosa, Mexico, and vandalized about thirty pieces, including four colossal heads.  Clearly the heads are still threatening to some people.

More curious to me is the refusal of the archaeological community to recognize the African features on these giant heads.  Though it’s entirely possible that people came to the Americas from West Africa, scholars have stuck to the idea that everyone came across the land bridge from Asia to Alaska.  Therefore, they reasoned, the heads couldn’t look like Africans because the people all came from Asia.  Circular thinking at its worst.

The only people talking about the African origins that resulted in these stunning basalt portraits are Afrocentric historians like Ivan van Sertima, who published They Came Before Columbus in 1978, in which he pointed to the Olmec heads as evidence of African presence in the Americas long before Europeans arrived.  Unfortunately, his theories have been largely ignored or dismissed by the academic community.

The same can be said for Pedra Furada, a collection of over 800 archaeological sites in northeastern Brazil, where Niede Guidon, a Belgian archaeologist, claimed she found evidence of human activity dating between 32,000 and 60,000 years old.  American scholars refused to accept her data, partly because they were convinced of the Alaska land bridge theory, so no one could possibly be in the Americas before 13,000 years ago.

If the Pedra Furada site findings are finally accepted, especially now with the 130,000 year old site near San Diego proposed, it would open the door to more possibilities.

Most Olmec scholars now see the cities as important trade centers, especially for jade, obsidian, malachite, rock crystal, basalt, schist, andesite, and serpentine.  Trade might have invited people from all over to the cities.  Some experts now suggest that ceramic production in the Olmec world was inspired by pottery from Ecuador (over 2,000 miles/ 3200 km away) as far back as 1900 BC.


The Figurines

Olmec Kunz axe

A remarkably consistent design drove the making of many Olmec figurines.  One of the first to have extensive publicity was a jade “axe” obtained by George Kunz in 1889, a wedge-shaped piece carved with a face featuring almond-shaped, lidless eyes, a flat nose, and a strange mouth that seemed to have a puffy upper lip and fangs.  In 1929, Marshall Seville of the American Museum of Natural History declared the figure to be “the conventionalized mask of the tiger” on the shoulders of a man.  By 1955, Mathew Stirling decided the figures showed the offspring of a female human-male jaguar sexual encounter.  Seriously.  Michael Coe, at one time the pre-eminent Mesoamerican scholar, agreed.  Given the popularity of were-wolves in European literature, Coe used the term “were-jaguar” to describe the figures.  When he curated an exhibit of Olmec art in New York in 1956, he called it “The Jaguar’s Children.”  The mysterious figures were identified as “were-jaguars.”  Now, unfortunately, the term won’t come unstuck. Tate book cover

However, Carolyn E. Tate has described a new possibility in her book, Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation (University of Texas Press, 2012).  Her argument for a new interpretation of the figurines is compelling.  She describes them as embryo, fetus, and baby forms stylized for some important purpose.

To try out her theory, she showed pictures of Olmec figurines to a cardiologist friend.  He thought they looked like human fetuses but recommended she talk to specialists in human gestation.  Of the eleven experts who responded, all felt several images represented fetuses.  Some said they showed specific congenital abnormalities such as neural tube defects which would cause spontaneous abortion (miscarriage).  Several said the images were so naturalistic, they could identify the age of the fetus.

In the book, Tate develops that idea.  Specifically, she suggests that the abnormalities shown in these sculptures of embryos, fetuses, and babies show the effects of a diet of untreated maize.  It’s a compelling argument when you consider the evidence.

Two diagrams from her book shows developmental stages of the human embryo’s face.  The second shows an Olmec sculpture corresponding to the stage.

Olmec face images


Olmec embryo

The Olmec figure pictured below, often described as a dwarf, looks more like a 14-week old fetus.  Note the symbols on its head and back.

Olmec figure 2


And another:

Olmec figurine identified as dwarf









Tate blames untreated maize for a disastrous number of miscarriages among the Olmec that led to the creation of these statutes.  Olmec mother and fetusClearly the Olmec understood insemination and gestation.  However, they had to learn that unless maize (corn) is treated with ash or lime, it does not provide enough nutrients, especially niacin (Vitamin B3).  A diet heavy in untreated corn can cause birth defects and pellagra. Eventually, they learned how to solve the problem, but when the Spanish brought maize back to the Old World, widespread pellagra followed its introduction.

Olmec Las Limas (2) We don’t know why the Olmec found these images so important they repeated different versions of them in their masks and figurines, but perhaps, like so many people who suffer through the pain of a stillbirth or a miscarriage today, they felt those unborn children had become “angels” – powerful spirit beings capable of interceding on their behalf.  The Las Limas sculpture from La Venta shows an adult holding a baby (two views shown in photo).

Olmec head with mask


olmecs figure with seed

Several monuments in La Venta seem to show people wearing an “embryo” mask.  (See head with mask carving pictured above.)  The image is also conflated with sprouting seed, as in La Merced monument 1 (pictured).  At some point, the Olmec may have seen the death of the child as an offering that could bring life, just as the seed must be buried in order for the plant to rise.  It’s a common theme in later Maya art.

While many of these figurines are identified in art history sources as “dwarfs,” some seem to be, as Tate suggests, figures of the unborn.  However, it’s important to note that others are statues of dwarfs.  And some show jaguars.  But maybe we can back away from the “were-jaguar” description.


The Hollow Babies

Olmec_baby-face_figurine_(Bookgrrrl)   Olmec baby Hern back

Another strange feature of Olmec art is the ceramic hollow baby.  Examples have been found in the Olmec heartland and across the Isthmus to Oaxaca and Chiapas, down into Guatemala.  The baby can range from tiny to life-size.  It’s usually made of thin, light-colored clay that is highly burnished. The babies are usually seated with legs spread, so it’s clear that they have no genitals.  Some have a star/fontanel shape pierced into the back of the head.  Some have symbols on their back.  Michael Coe referred to them as “the jaguar’s children,” but there is nothing jaguar-like about them.  Other scholars have described them as a stand-in for human sacrifice, a way to fill a house with powerful spiritual force, or a ritual object that was carefully curated by a society, along the lines of holy statues that are carefully tended and dressed according to the liturgical season.

Tate refers to them as the “seed state” of humans.  They seem to be happy and healthy.  Perhaps that is their power.

Olmec-hollow baby 2

Tate’s book provides a new and interesting view of Olmec art.  It doesn’t answer all the big questions, but it gives us lots of new possibilities


Sources and other interesting reading:

“Aflatoxin,” Wikipedia,

“Afrocentrism,” Wikipedia,

“Basalt Olmec Mask,” The Barakat Collction, London, Beverly Hills, Abu Dhabi.

“Infant Jesus of Prague,” Wikipedia.

“La Venta, monument 44,” Smithsonian Olmec Legacy: Images Database,

“La Venta: Stone Sculpture,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, October 2001,

Minster, Christopher, “Olmec Art and Sculpture,” ThoughtCo.

“Nixtamalization,” Wikipedia,

“Olmec,” Wikipedia,

“Olmec Art,” Heilburnn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

“Olmec Civilization,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.

“Olmec Colossal Heads,” Wikipedia,

“Olmec Jade ‘Corn Cob’ Found in Veracruz, ”New Fire: The University of Texas at Austin’s Blog on Mesoamerica News and Research,” 23 March 2015,

“The Olmecs,” The Olmec Civilization.  (map)

“Pedra Furada,” Wikipedia,

“Pelagra,” World Health Organization, 2000,

Tate, Carolyn E.  Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation.   Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

It’s Not an Alien Astronaut

When I visited the famous Maya city of Palenque, in southern Mexico, I had the chance to see the full-size replica of the sarcophagus of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, or Pakal the Great.

Pacal tomb lid 2

The original is still under the Temple of Inscriptions, where it was discovered in 1952.  Unfortunately, archaeologists at that time were not able to translate the many symbols and glyphs on the sarcophagus.  So people guessed at the meaning.  One guess, in particular, proved to be very popular.

In his book, Chariots of the Gods, published in 1968, Eric Von Daniken proposed that the image on the sarcophagus actually showed an alien astronaut.  Palenque was one of the ancient sites that he proposed were proof of alien presence on Earth. The book was wildly popular, selling over seven million copies.  That same year, Arthur C. Clarke’s space epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was published.  It continued a story line from his earlier work, “The Sentinel,” written in 1951, which tells the story of an ancient artifact left on the moon by alien beings.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the obelisk proves to be the force behind the sudden advancements in human achievement, including the first use of weapons by the ape-men shown at the beginning of the movie.Pacal Von Daniken

So Von Danniken was simply using popular science fiction theories and imposing them on specific ancient sites, including, among others, Machu Pichu, Nazca, Cusco, and Palenque.  The problem is now that experts can read Mayan glyphs and understand Mayan cosmology, people still want to see a picture of an alien astronaut on Pakal the Great’s tomb.


When I was walking from the ruins to the museum, I passed numerous street vendors offering small replicas of Pakal’s tomb lid, one of which I bought for ten dollars.  But the vendor also held the plaque up sideways and pointed out the alien astronaut, in case that’s what I wanted.

Pacal ancient aliens astronaut theory debunked YouTube

The hoax is extraordinarily long-lived.  Maybe it’s the appeal of seeing intelligent aliens as part of our history.  TV shows like “Ancient Aliens,” “In Search of Aliens,” “Mystery Quest,” and “History’s Mysteries” keep the story of the alien astronaut alive and well.  For an episode of “Ancient Aliens,” Paul Francis, a model maker, created a 3-D image of the alien astronaut on Pakal’s tomb lid. (See photo, above.)  He admitted, “I had to be a little interpretive.”  I guess so!  The “rocket” he created looks nothing like the image on the sarcophagus.

Pacal Ganesha   Pacal Kells

This whole debate arose out of ignorance of the belief system and cultural symbols of the ancient Maya.  It would be like seeing a photo of the Indian god Ganesh (See image, above) and trying to interpret it with no knowledge of the Hindu beliefs behind it.  Or looking at the image from the Book of Kells, the beautiful illuminated gospels drawn on calfskin in Ireland around 800 AD, without an understanding of the Four Evangelists it pictures and their winged representations.  (That would be clockwise from the top left: Mathew – shown as a winged man, Mark – shown as a winged lion, John – shown as an eagle, and Luke – shown as a winged ox.)  These symbols come from the prophetic Revelation of St. John.

Imagine the wild theories you could come up with if you didn’t know the background.


Maya symbols and cosmology

The World Tree

Pacal worldtree

As it turns out, Maya cosmological beliefs, many of which were absorbed from earlier cultures, were fairly consistent across the Maya city-states.  They saw the world as divided into three zones: The Upper World, or the land of the gods, the Middle World, where humans live, and the Underworld, which is the realm of death.  However, these realms weren’t necessarily defined as good or evil.  Every part had its value.


The World Tree spanned all three worlds.  Its roots were in the Underworld, its trunk in the Middle World, and its highest branches in the Other World.  It took several forms, including a Ceiba tree, a stylized maize plant, and a cacao tree.  The version used on Pakal’s tomb lid is also used in a mural in the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque.

Pacal Foliated Cross

Here you see the same imagery (minus the reclining human): the World Tree rising from the offering bowl (marked with the dotted X “kin” sign and filled with the trappings of royalty: the crossed sky band, the fish, and the lancet for ritual blood-letting) on top of the Underworld/realm of the dead (Cauac monster head).  At the top of the tree is the Principal Bird Deity.


Shining Glory

Pacal celts

All along the tree you find the symbol for precious greenstone celts, emphasizing wealth and power as well as shining glory. (In the diagram the glyphs for jade celts are marked in red)  The tree is also marked with the sign for wood.

Curled around the upper section of the tree is the Milky Way conflated with the double-headed serpent bar, which was the symbol of power for Maya kings. (See diagram below. Each serpent has a huge upper jaw.)

Pacal serpent bar

Pacal Temple of the Cross



It’s interesting to see the same elements repeated in other tablets and murals which show the World Tree in the center, growing out of the Earth Monster/ Underworld.  In the case of the Temple of the Cross (drawing above), the World Tree is a maize plant, with personified ears of corn growing out of the branches.  Once again, it grows out of the Cuauc Monster/Underworld figure at the bottom, and the Principal Bird Deity rests at the top.  Interestingly, the two figures in the mural are the same person at different ages.  Note that the figure on the right stands on a personified maize plant, while the one on the left stands on a Cuauc monster with a cleft head from which corn emerges.

The King Dying and the Young Maize God Being Reborn

Pakal, on his tomb lid, is presented as both the man dying, falling into the maw of the Underworld (between jaguar jawbones) and the baby being born onto the Tree of Life.  Certain Maya rulers were thought to take on the role of god-kings who could intercede with the spirit world after death.  In this image, Pakal is being reborn as the maize god. (Note the seed and leaf image just below the reclining figure of Pakal.) Just as the maize seed must be buried in the earth in order to grow, Pakal is falling into the Underworld only to rise again.

Pacal baby

Pacal, birth of maize god

The Baby

Pakal is shown lying on his back, with the right leg raised, which is the sign for “unen” or baby (drawing on left).  While this sign usually shows an infant, it’s also used to show the birth of the maize god on a Late Classic vase (drawing on right).Note the vegetation growing out of the cleft head of the Cuauc monster.

Pacal mother's skirt

The jade skirt

Pakal’s net jade skirt is interesting in that the diamond weave is usually associated with women.  Indeed, a very similar skirt seems to be worn by Pakal’s mother in a tablet found in the royal palace. (See drawing, left)  This may suggest an androgynous combination, just as the adult in the baby pose suggests a combination of youth and age.

Pakal rebirth of maize godPacal turtle

The turtle emblem

The turtle emblem Pakal carries on his chest (drawing by Linda Schele, left) may be a reference to the rebirth of the Maize God from the Turtle Shell, as referenced on this plate (drawing above, right).:

Ancestors and nobles

All along the border on the outside of the image are references to celestial bodies and six portraits of leading nobles.  The coffin inside the sarcophagus is carved on all four sides with portraits of Pakal’s ancestors emerging as trees sprouting from the earth.  Painted stucco figure on the walls of the tomb echo these references to relatives and important figures in the life of the leader who was laid to rest in the tomb.



While some may find it harmless fun to see an alien astronaut instead of a famous leader immortalized by his tombstone, for me, it seems a little insulting to the people who created this amazing piece of complicated and beautiful art.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Alien Explorations: Ancient Aliens season 1, episode 4,”

“Alien Explorations: Von Daniken’s Mayan Rocket Man,”

“The Book of Kells,” The Library of Trinity College, Dublin.  https:///

Coe, Michael D.  The Maya.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Four evangelists, from The Book of Kells, Public Domain,

Fields, Virginia M. and Dore Reents-Budet.  Lords of Creation:  The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Scala Publishers: 2005.

Foster, Lynn V.  Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.

“Ganesh,” Manas: Indian Religions, Ganesh.

Guenter, Stanley. “The Tomb of K’inich Janaab Pakal: The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque,” Southern Methodist University,

Heyworth, Robin, “Chicanna Structure II: The Monster Mouth Temple,” Uncovered History (blog) 16 July 2016.

“K’inich Janaab’ Pakal,” Wikipedia,’_Pakal

The Linda Schele Drawings Collection, FAMSI.

Mark, Joshua. J.  “K’inich Janaab’ Pakal,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. http:///

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube.  Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya.   London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin.  Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya.  Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Minster, Christopher, “The Sarcophagus of Pakal,” Latin American History,

“Pacal’s Rocket,” Ancient Aliens Debunked (blog)

Palenque: History, Art and Monuments, booklet, reproduced and authorized by the National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH) 2001.

“Palenque Mexico,” Mayan Ruins: The Ultimate Guide of the Mayan Ruins.”

“The Sentinel (short story)”  Wikipedia,

Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture.  New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

Tedlock, Dennis.  2000 Years of Mayan Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

“The World Tree: A World in Layers,” Mayan Kids,

Jacks and Knucklebones


Jacks used to be a popular children’s game.  It’s considered old-fashioned today because you don’t play it on your phone, but it regains some of its popularity when the kids are stuck in the cabin during a storm and there’s no signal available.

Long ago, though, jacks and knucklebones, its predecessor, were very important indeed.


A modern jacks set includes a rubber ball and several (sometimes five but usually ten) six-sided metal pieces, each with four round ends and two pointed ends.  Typically the players sit on the floor.  The first to play drops the pieces on the floor.  Starting with “onesies,” the player tosses the ball in the air and scoops up one jack before the ball takes its second bounce, then moves on to the next until all the pieces are retrieved.  If not, the player loses his or her turn and another player starts.  Once the “onesies” round is complete, the player moves to “twosies,” and onward all the way to “tensies,” which usually marks the end of the game.

Like solitaire, jacks can be played alone, which gives the player a chance to practice.  It’s all in the hand-eye coordination.  A good player can move from one-bounce to no-bounce games, catch pieces on the back of the hand when necessary, and switch dominant hands.

But like so many bits of modern culture, it provides a link to our ancient past, when “throwing the bones” meant far more than playing a game.



The game of Knucklebones, also known as Astragaloi, Tali, Kuglelach, Five Stones, and other names, has been around for thousands of years and played all over the world, including Africa, Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas.  Usually, the bones used were ankle bones of sheep, goats, or pigs because they had four distinct sides.  Once the meat was scraped off, the bones were set out so ants or other insects could devour all the scraps.  Then the bones were cleaned and polished, and sometimes dyed.


A set of knucklebones and a board to play on was included in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s grave goods (1323 BC). The game is mentioned in both The Iliad and The Odyssey (800 BC).  A Greek vase from 350 BC shows a nymph and a satyr playing the game.  A painting in Pompeii shows two goddesses playing (before 79 AD).  A Roman statue (pictured) features a young woman playing astragaloi. A painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder includes a couple of girls playing knucklebones (1560) – Detail shown below.


Throwing the Bones:  Divination

But the use of knucklebones is part of an even older tradition still in use today: divination – predicting the future or seeking answers to questions.  Divination is based on the idea that all things in the universe are connected and nothing happens by chance.  Therefore, the particular arrangement of the bones on a board as they fell is meaningful. As with Tarot cards, the reading depends on the bones, their values, and their relative positions where they fell.


If the charms used in the divination are quite different physically, such as a red stone, a weasel jawbone, an eagle talon, and a piece of fur, each piece may be assigned a specific meaning, emotion, or connection.  However, if the pieces are all the same, they need to have different aspects or facets.  In the case of the knucklebones, each bone has four very distinct faces. (See photo.)  In some cases, the faces were further delineated with markings, usually indicating numbers or values.

Women sometimes threw knucklebones to find out who whether the man they liked felt the same about them, along the same lines as pulling the petals off a daisy while saying “He loves me, he loves me not.” In ancient Greece, unmarried women who played Knucklebones were thought to be placing themselves in the hands of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who would choose a suitable mate.


In some Mongolian villages, throwing the bones was associated with fertility, destruction of evil spirits, and the promotion of life.  Knucklebones were often given to children as protective magic.  The game is still popular in Mongolia and Nepal (pictured).




Later, some bones were filed down but the markings remained, and knucklebones morphed into dice.  But the sense of destiny riding on the throw of the dice remained.  When Julius Caesar and his armies crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy in 49 BC, beginning a civil war with the Republic, he used the expression “The die is cast.”  In other words, the single die was rolled and the choice was made – perhaps by fate – and now cannot be reversed.

It’s not clear when or how the “throwing of the bones” morphed from divination to game.  Perhaps several uses existed side by side.  In the hands of a shaman, the bones became an instrument of divination, just as a deck of cards or dice might today.  In the hands of a gambler, they became the heart of a game ruled by luck, the more powerful and capricious cousin of chance.  In the hands of children, they became the central part of a contest based on skill.

Today, the game of jacks exists, like so many other pieces of our culture, as a remnant of a past we’ve almost, but not quite, forgotten.


Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Alea iacta est,” Wikipedia,

Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers, “Category: Obi and Diloggun Divination”

Association of Independent Readers and Rootworkers (Bonereaders), “Category: Throwing the Bones and Reading Other Natural Curios,”

Collinger, Zachary.  “How to Play Jacks,”

DeGrossi Mazzorin, Jacopo and Claudia Minniti, “Ancient use of the knuckle-bone for rituals and gaming piece,” Anthropozoologica, published by the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, 2013, reprinted in BioOne,

“Dice and Divination: Playing with Knucklebones (Part I) September 2016,

“Dice and Divination: Playing with Knucklebones (Part 2)” February, 2016,

“Dice and Jacks,” YouTube,

Good, Alexandra.  “Knucklebones,” Archaeology of Daily Life.

Howard, Dorothy, “The Game of ‘Knucklebones’ in Australia,” Western Folklore (1958), reprinted in Australian Children’s Folklore Newsletter, November 1996.

“Item SH 990058  Knucklebones – Sheep, Aboriginal Children’s Play Project, circa 1945-1960” Australiab Children’s Folklore Collection, Museums Victoria Collections,

“Jacks,” The Encyclopedia Britannica,

“Jacks,” The National Toy Hall of Fame,

“Knucklebones,” Board Game Geek,

“Knucklebones.” Wikipedia.

“Knucklebones and Other Animal Deposits in the ‘Cruz del Negro’ Necropolis: Possible Phoenician Funerary Rituals in SW Spain,” Anthropozoologica, published by Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, reprinted in BioOne, http;//

“Knucklebones: Playing with Bones,” Ancient Games.  Henssen Palaeo Werkstatt.

“Kugelach (aka Five Stones) Yehuda: Life Intersects Games, 01 September 2008,

“Mesopotamia Architecture, Music, Games and Pets,” Facts and Details,

Pegg, Carole, Mongolian Music, Dance, and Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities Seattle: University of Washington Press: 2001.

“Rollin’ Bones: The History of Dice,” Neatorama, 18 August 2014,

“Tallus bone,” Wikipedia,

“The die is cast,” Wiktionary, the free dictionary,

Thorn, John. “Bruegel and Me,” from the column “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, 28 December 2006,

“Toys and Games,” History Lives, a division of the Cooperman Fife and Drum Co.,

Wiener, Noah.  “Ancient Games: Bronze Age tokens uncovered in Turkey are world’s oldest game pieces” Biblical Archaeology, 19 August 2013,


Bruegel, Pieter the Elder, “Children’s Games,” (detail), Google Art Project Version 2, Photo Gallery

Five Stone in Nepal, photo by Eli Shany

Jacks, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Knucklebones – Sheep, Museum Victoria,>

Roman statue of girl playing knucklebones, photo by Sarah Joy

Woman Playing Knucklebones, painting by Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Baltimore Museum of Art, the Mary Frick Jacobs Collection,


Searching for Those Glory Days

Bruce Springsteen’s hit “Glory Days” examines four people’s ideas of the glory days.  Two of them have a nostalgic view of their high school years.  One was a sports star and the other a beauty.  Now that they’re older, their life is clearly a disappointment; they’ve lost that high they once felt.  The third person is the speaker’s father, who worked at a Ford plant for nineteen years before he was laid off.  Now he drinks down at the American Legion Hall.  But, the speaker adds, his father never had any glory days.  (This particularly harsh verse is often omitted from live performances.)  The speaker finishes off by saying he’s going to the bar, where he’ll probably bore his listeners with tales of the good old days.

Glory days, well they’ll pass you by

Glory days in the wink of a young girl’s eye

Glory day, glory days

‘”Glory Days,” Bruce Springsteen, Columbia Records, 1984, on the Born in the USA album


The song became so popular it hit #5 on the Billboard pop singles chart for 1985 and, along with “Born in the USA,” became one of the cornerstones of the album Born in the USA, which sold 30 million copies.  Springsteen performed it as part of the half-time show for Super Bowl XLIII, and it’s played after every New Jersey Devils’ home win.  How curious, since Bruce Springsteen, who wrote the song and based it on people he knew, is a huge star, not a washed-up adult waxing nostalgic.  He doesn’t miss his high school days.  He’s said on several occasions that he hated high school.  But clearly, he tapped into a powerful emotion in his listeners.  And the driving rock sound, complete with rolling electric piano, heavy drums, and catchy melody helps to balance the sad commentary.  In the YouTube video listed in the Sources section, you’ll see the band having a great old time singing this basically sad song.

Perhaps there are personal glory days and societal glory days.  From the lyrics, “Glory Days” seems personal, referring to the time when these people were the star baseball player and beauty queen, when everybody knew their names.  Then time went by and life didglory-bruce-springsteen-born-in-the-usa-1n’t turn out the way they thought it would.  That’s understandable. Many people, as they age, find accident or illness robs them of the life they once enjoyed.   But the album, Born in the USA, with the picture of Bruce facing the American flag on the cover, is clearly about more than four individuals.  It speaks to a very different kind of disappointment, a feeling that some bigger promise has been left unfulfilled: the promise of greatness.  Except now, with the big flag, it becomes the story of the whole country, not just four people.

The album cover is fascinating.  Annie Leibovitz took the famous photo of Bruce Springsteen, from the back, which is cropped to focus on his butt, lower torso, and upper legs.  The photo is so important that the words are pushed to the very top edge of the cover.  The flag in the background is enlarged to the point it’s reduced to red and white stripes, while Bruce’s white shirt and worn blue jeans become the field of stars.  His stance is at once relaxed and slightly defiant, which suits the tone of the album.  The dominant colors are red, white, and blue.  The red hat stuck into the back pocket is especially striking.  Apparently Lance Larsen gave it to his old friend, Bruce Springsteen, after Larsen’s father died.  It had been his favorite cap.  As a tribute, Springsteen stuck it in his back pocket for the photo.  But on the cover it functions as more than a memory.  It’s a perfect symbol.  It’s red – the color of strength and passion.  It echoes the flag stripes.  But like the blue jeans, it’s worn.  How perfect to symbolize an American man, a complex mix of power and dreams and disappointment.

It became so famous that it spawned numerous imitations, including baby gear.


The other possible cover photo, showing Bruce from the front, leaping in the air while holding his guitar, was used for the cover of the single, “Born in the USA.”  While it’s full of energy, it lacks the emotional punch of the album cover.

You can now buy shirts that feature an image that conflates Bruce Springsteen’s cover image from the single of “Born in the USA” and Captain America. (Image below)


The title track, “Born in the USA,” is an indictment of a government that sent young men to an unpopular war and then ignored them when they returned. The narrator grew up in a grim industrial area, was sent off to Viet Nam, came back after losing a brother there, then couldn’t find work back home.  Ironically, the song was used in multiple Republican conventions, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s.  Apparently, no one bothered to listen to the lyrics, or else they felt the heavy beat and catchy, repetitive chorus were all that mattered.


It’s curious that the red hat sticking out of Springsteen’s back pocket on the album cover bears a striking resemblance to the red hat worn by Trump in his campaign, emblazoned with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”  Trump also played “Born in the USA” at rallies, partially in order to challenge the citizenship of Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada.  In the strange, twisted way of the 2016 campaign, Trump followers booed Springsteen for campaigning for Hillary Clinton, but they loved singing along to Springsteen’s songs, which were used without his permission.

The Dream Tarnished

Failure of the American Dream is hardly a new theme in American arts and letters.  In his poem “Harlem,” published in 1951, Langston Hughes asks the question “What happens to a dream deferred?”  The last two possibilities are that it “sags like a heavy load” or it explodes.  Aren’t these the same emotions Springsteen has put into his song?      In his film Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky explains the roots of inequality in American society, which he claims go back to the founding of the country.


Photo of the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit, Michigan

“My Little Town”    

Paul Simon’s song “My Little Town” paints a dismal picture.  The speaker says he remembers “flyin’ my bike past the gates of the factories” while his mother was “doin’ laundry, hangin’ up shirts in the dirty breeze.”  Then the chorus adds:

“Nothin’ but the dead and dying’ back in my little town.”

The second verse says

In my little town, I never meant nothin’

I was just my father’s son.

Savin’ my money, dreamin’ of glory,

Twitchin’ like a finger on the trigger of a gun.

Chorus: Leaving nothin’ but the dead and dying back in my little town (repeat four times)


This picture is just as bleak as Springsteen’s but the song lacks the punchy rock sound.  It’s straight up dark and threatening.  But it’s interesting because once again, it brings up the dream of glory as well as the desperation and barely controlled rage that go along with the long quest for it.

The Land of Promise

Part of the mythology of the USA is that it is the Land of Promise.  Anyone with the necessary talent and drive can make it big here, right?  We don’t know how to define “making it” or “big” exactly, but it’s all terribly important.  Life is a competition.  The better ones win; the others lose.  Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to notice how fierce and strange that competition is here.  Frida Kahlo, artist and wife of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, remarked, “The most important thing for everyone in Gringolandia is to have ambition and become ‘somebody,’ and frankly, I don’t have the least ambition to become anybody.”

But by and large, we do.  (And Frida and Diego, despite their clear Communist sympathies, were actually very good self-promoters. One section of Diego Rivera’s famous “Detroit Industry mural at the Detroit Institute of Art is shown below.  It makes an interesting contrast to the photo of the abandoned plant.)


Natural Wonders Lost

There’s another side to the disappointment in both of these songs.  The place is dirty.  America the Beautiful is a dingy factory town, and the dirt is weighing everyone down.  People have become less because the world is ugly. According to the Paul Simon song, “When it rains, there’s a rainbow, and all of the colors are black.  It’s not that the colors aren’t there.  It’s just imagination they lack.”  The people are all “dead and dying.”

What’s most interesting about these songs is the heartache that’s part of the loss.  A promise of some kind has been broken, and the emotional cost is very high indeed.  Ironically, though, the factories/mills/mines that built these towns also polluted them.  So is the nostalgia for the good old days of dirty factories or the good old days before the Industrial Revolution, or some other nebulous time in the past?


It’s not hard to understand how Trump was able to use the red hat and the slogan “Make America great again” so effectively.  While it may have started as a call to the unemployed who had once worked in the now shuttered factory, steel mill, or coal mine, it quickly expanded because people could interpret it any way they wanted and use it to support whatever grudge they held.  White Supremacists saw it as a license to hate people of color.  Misogynists saw it as a reason to take away women’s rights.  Militant Christians saw it as a reason to harass non-Christians.  As the Nazis proved in Germany, national problems become easier to handle when you make them someone else’s fault.

Fear of the future, including climate changes, new technologies, global companies and marketplaces, and ever-increasing automation, drove the Trump supporters to chant “Build the Wall!”  They might as well have chanted, “Turn back time!”  And indeed, the slogan on the red hat is about turning back time, though it’s not clear how far.

Perhaps before Europeans reached these shores.


(I took a little break from antiquity in this post, but I’ll be back there next time. – KFR)


Sources and interesting reading:

Behind the Scenes: A Rear View of Bruce Springsteen, Network 9, -the-scenes-the-rear-view-of-bruce-springsteen/

Chomsky, Noam. Requiem for the American Dream video, available on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.  Preview available on YouTube at

“Detroit Industry: North Wall” mural by Diego Rivera, 1932 – 1933, Detroit Institute of Arts

Ellis, Aaron.  “The Cover Cove: Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A.” Quora

“Frida Kahlo,” Wikipedia

Hughes, Langston.  “Harlem.” (1951) From Collected Poems. Reprinted by Poetry Foundation.  Copyright 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

Molloy, Parker, “Are Politicians Too Dumb to Understand the Lyrics to ‘Born in the USA’?” The Daily Beast, 6 November 2014,

Packard Plant photo by Joshu Lott for Getty Images North America, December 12, 2013,…

Simon, Paul.  “My Little Town” Universal Music Publishing Group, from the Still Crazy After All These Years album, 1975

Google Play Music,

Simon and Garfunkel, “My Little Town,” YouTube video,

Springsteen, Bruce, “Glory Days,” YouTube video,

Springsteen, Bruce, “Glory Days,” lyrics, AZ Lyrics,

Happy Birthday: Cake, Candles, and Customs


Around here, people often celebrate a child’s birthday with a cake, lighted candles, and a song.  A parent or friend brings the cake to the table, candles already lit, while all the guests sing the “Happy Birthday” song.  The birthday girl or boy is told to make a secret wish then blow out the candles.  It’s great fun but sort of an odd tradition.  We put this flaming cake in front of a child, hope she doesn’t burn herself or set the house on fire, then cheer when she blows them out.  Why?


Like so many of our holiday customs, our birthday rituals come from very old beliefs that have been absorbed into the present but stripped of most of their original meaning. birthday-cake-and-candles


The birthday cake

The history of the birthday cake is surprisingly vague.  If you look up its origins, you’ll find the same two points repeated in almost every source. birthday-artemis One refers to round loaves presented (sacrificed) at the temple of the Greek goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans), who was associated with hunting and the moon.  Some sources say candles adorned these loaves so they would glow like the moon. (Artemis/Diana, pictured with her hunting bow, on the left)

Also, you’ll read about German bakers in the Middle Ages who baked cakes for aristocrats and much later expanded the practice to ordinary people.

Then there’s often a short and obscure reference to older “pagan customs.”  That’s where it gets interesting.

Paganism vs. Christianity

The early Roman Catholic Church tried to erase all traces of earlier beliefs, which were (and still are) often lumped together as “Paganism.”  According to, “pagan” refers to a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions.  Synonyms include heathen, infidel, idolater, a non- Christian, and (currently) an adherent of neo-Paganism.

Most popular beliefs before the rise of the Abrahamic religions revolved around the natural world, especially the movement of the sun, moon, and stars.  People marked the rising of important stars and planets, and the passage of the sun along the horizon that brought the change of seasons. Solstices and equinoxes were celebrated with elaborate rituals.  Many groups felt they had to participate in these changes in order to keep the universe turning.

birthday-sol-invictusOne example of a pre-Christian faith is the Cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia at least 6000 years ago and spread throughout the Roman Empire with the Roman legions.  It included worship of the sun as Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), a god whose birthday was generally celebrated just after the winter solstice, December 25. (Image, left)

Emperor Constantine had a coin struck, picturing himself and Sol Invictus side by side, so in a stroke of genius he equated himself with the Unconquered Sun, and December 25 became a Roman holiday: Saturnalia.  As a side note, the image of Sol Invictus looks a lot like the head of the Statue of Liberty. (Coin, lower right, Sol Invictus, lower left)



However, early Christian Church officials were so set against pre-Christian practices that they outlawed all celebrations marking celestial events.  Birthday celebrations were also forbidden because they made an individual connection with the alignment of the sun, moon, and stars, and thus were used in astrology and divination.

Church teaching said humans were “born in sin,” so clearly, the faithful shouldn’t be celebrating the moment of their birth.

This reflects the beliefs of conservative Jews and Muslims as well.  Some sources go so far as to say that birthday celebrations are a form of Satanism in which believers create a god in their own image and celebrate that person’s birth as the highest holy day.

Name Day

In order to give people an alternative, the Church recommended that the faithful celebrate their “name day” instead of their birthday.  Since each Catholic child was named after a saint, the name day was usually that saint’s feast day.  Some conservative European Catholics still follow this practice. birthday-saint-stephen

For example, all the people named Stephen could have a celebration on St. Stephen’s Day.(Icon of St. Stephen, left)  Actually, St. Stephen’s Day is a very important celebration even now, with participants in various European countries marking it with costumed parades, horseback rides, feasting, drinking, playing music and dancing. birthday-st-stephens-day-one-world-news(photo, right)

While St. Stephen is known as the first martyr to the Christian faith, his feast day seems more like a party than a religious ceremony.  Plus, the feast day falls on December 26 or 27, so while it’s dressed up as a feast day, it’s essentially still Saturnalia or the triumph of Sol Invictus.


birthday-constantineActually, the ban on seasonal festivities started to lift as far back as the 4th century.  By the time Emperor Constantine (sculpture, left) ended the persecution of Christians and Emperor Theodosius decreed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, or what was left of it, traditional beliefs had already started blending with Catholic practices.

Saturnalia (the festival after the winter solstice) became Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus.  The Vernal Equinox became part of Easter, which is still celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.

And birthday celebrations, while still frowned upon in conservative circles, became popular once again.  Their significance in terms of divination and horoscopes, however, was officially forgotten. This silence allowed old customs and beliefs to grow once again, adding a sense of danger to the celebration.

According to some, any bad event on your birthday warned of a whole bad year ahead.  You shouldn’t celebrate before your actual birthday or you’ll have bad luck.

In order to balance the good wishes of a birthday, some people spank the birthday celebrants or pull their ears.  In Kentucky Superstitions, Daniel and Lindsey Thomas note, “On a child’s birthday, he should receive a blow with a switch or other instrument of pain for each year of his life.  Each blow should be accompanied by the pronouncing of one line of the following or a similar incantation, adapted to fit the age of the child:

One to live on,

One to grow on,

One to eat on,

One to be happy on,

One to get married on.”


It’s hard to know why these customs began, but once they became part of the ritual, it would be bad luck to change them, I suppose.


For important birthdays of aristocrats, special charms were baked into the cake and used to tell the fortune of the receiver.  In some cases, these were gems.  I can only imagine the dental problems in the future of the unfortunate recipient!


And about those candles –


Candles were the outgrowth of torches built with pitch/resin to burn hotter and longer.  Artists used torches like these to light their way in the caves of France and Spain while they painted their beautiful images 30,000 years ago. The Egyptians are usually credited with making the first beeswax candles, 5,000 years ago, but it took the Romans to develop the wick-burning tallow candle, about 100 BC.  Because tallow (rendered beef fat) candles smelled worse than beeswax candles, rich people and religious leaders preferred beeswax.  They still do.

In animist thought, the natural world is seen as the source of all power, good and bad.  For example, water spirits bring life-giving rains and fill the rivers, but they can also send floods that kill.  Same with fire.  Or storms. The spirit force that is part of the living world is both good and bad.   The Abrahamic religions changed that balance.  In these faiths, God, not nature, was seen as the source of goodness, prosperity, power and light.  Since pain and suffering were still very much part of their lives, people blamed them on the opposite of God: the dark spirits.  The main player was Satan (Lucifer) and his minions from Hell, fallen beings of light who’d gone over to the Dark Side. “The Devil made me do it” worked as an all-purpose excuse for bad behavior.

Evil Eye charmBut there were other dark forces as well, many of them carry-overs from earlier superstitions.  These evil forces could take many forms, most of them frightening and ugly, and all brought misfortune.  Some dangers were well-known, like the evil eye, the power another could have over you simply by giving you a “look of daggers.”  (“If looks could kill, I’d be dead now.”)  Children were particularly susceptible to the dangers of the evil eye, so mothers pinned eye charms on the child’s clothes as a protection (photo, left)

My grandparents thought it was bad luck to compliment a baby.  They feared spirits would strike the baby with some illness out of jealousy.  And where were these spirits?  Everywhere.

The birthday boy or girl was especially susceptible to evil spirits, so it was important to have fire/light and lots of sound to scare them away.  Lots of guests helped too, especially if they sang.  A bright, happy atmosphere drove away dark spirits.

Even with the lights and singing, danger lurked, so people had to be extremely careful during a birthday.  Everything had to be done correctly to avoid bad luck.

Light a candle, make a wish

birthday-vigil-candlesThe candles on the birthday cake contain the wish of the birthday boy or girl.  Just like the banks of vigil candles found in Catholic churches (photo, left), if you light a candle, you can make a wish.  The practice is so popular that even when churches moved the vigil candles to a distant part of the church, people sought them out.  Currently, you can arrange for someone to light a candle at one of the famous churches for you, by paying on-line.

From its inception, the Catholic Church used candles for its rituals, just as the Jews, Romans, Hindus, Egyptians, Persians, and probably most others who came before them had.  Fire was a symbol of life and a triumph over darkness.  The Holy Spirit was pictured as a tongue of fire.  In every active church, a candle, lit on Easter eve, burns all year long, indicating the presence of God in the building.  During official ceremonies, multiple candles burn on the altar.  At Baptism, a child is blessed with a beeswax candle.  In the Last Rites before death, the person is blessed again with a beeswax candle.  Russian Orthodox believers will often keep a candle burning before a holy icon in their home.

If lighting candles was common practice in the church, why ban them on a birthday cake?  Because it was using sacred fire to mark a “pagan” tradition connecting the person to the stars and planets.  When birthday celebrations became more tolerated, the sense of danger lingered.  The birthday could be marked, but it had to be done so carefully.


Then why blow out the candles?

kr-birthday-at-aunt-suesThe candles are safe as long as the song goes on, but there’s always a sense of hurry once the song (and helpful cheering and clapping) is over.  The celebrant must hurry and blow out the candles, even if she needs help to do it.  Why?  Here are some possibilities:

Perhaps the number of breaths it takes is important in determining the future.  Less is more, here, definitely.

Perhaps the smoke carries the wish up to Heaven, just as a burned petition would, in which case the fire becomes an offering, and the cake becomes a sacrifice.

Perhaps the future can be read in the pattern of the smoke.  This is a whole area of divination, with its own rules.  For example, a tall straight flame means a stranger will arrive shortly.  A dripping candle is bad luck for the person on that side of the cake.

Perhaps it’s important that the candle is blown out by a person rather than dying on its own, which could be a sign of evil spirits nearby.


When the early Christian Church attempted to kill birthday celebrations, it only drove them underground and permanently encased them in  superstitions.  When they were once again allowed, the celebrations lost a lot of their connection to divination but retained their sense of power and danger.  In order to protect the celebrant, certain rituals had to be completed exactly.  Interestingly, we still go through these steps with great care, even though few birthday party guests today would talk about evil spirits trying to steal the soul of the child unless they were scared away by light, song, and happy noise.  Still, we all cheer when the child completes all the steps.  Then we can serve the cake and hope the birthday child’s slice doesn’t fall, which would be – you know – bad luck.


Sources and interesting reading:


“Birthday Cake,” Wikipedia.

“Birthday Superstitions,” New World Witchery – the Search for American Traditional Witchcraft, blog post 159. superstitions/

“Ceremonial Use of Lights,” Wikipedia.

“Christmas,” World Book Encyclopedia, 1966, 3:408 – 417

Deezen, Eddie. “Why do we put candles on a birthday cake?” Neatorama blog.

Dwived, Bhojraj, Dr. The Study of Omens. New Delphi: Diamond Pocket Books, 2000.

Goldschneider, Gary, and Joost Elffers.  The Secret Language of Birthdays: Your Complete Personology Guide for Each Day of the Year. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994.

Haymond, Bryce. “Blowing out Birthday Candles,” Temple Study: Sustaining and Defending the LDS Temple (Latter Day Saints) 18 July 2008.

“History of Candle Making,” Nature’s Garden class.

“The History of the Birthday Cake,” Hankering for History blog by bravodeluxe,

“The Importance of Lighting Candles,” Sepulchre Candles.

Linton, Ralph and Adelin. The Lore of Birthdays. Omnigraphics: 1952.

“Mithrasim,” Wikipedia.

“Name Day,” Wikipedia.

“The Origin of Birthday Cake and Candles,” ProFlowers blog.


Puckles Family Bakehouse, “A History of Birthday Cakes,” 2011.

“Quick History of the Birthday Cake and Candles,” Trivial Importance video.

“St. Stephen’s Day,” Wikipedia.

“Sol Invictus,” (image)  Shadows Magick Place­invictus­yule­and­magick.html

Still Waters Revival Books, “Birthdays: Pagan/Occult Origins & the Highest of All Holy Days (Holidays) in the Satanic Bible,”

“Theodosius I,” Wikipedia.

Thomas, Daniel and Lucy.  Kentucky Superstitions.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1920.

Turner, Bambi. “10 Wacky Birthday Superstitions,” How Stuff Works.

“Why Australians won’t let kids blow out birthday candles,” Wide World of Stuff blog, 20 February 2013.  (photo)

“Why do we blow out candles to celebrate birthdays?” Alusi Candles blog, 1 June 2015.

“Why do we blow out candles on your birthdays?  A deep insight into it” Naresh Golla blog,


Sacrifice, as we usually understand the concept, is purposeful giving up.  It may be as simple as foregoing chocolate or alcohol during Lent or as difficult as killing humans or animals for what is perceived as the greater good.

Ancient people practiced human sacrifice in many different areas, including Africa, Europe, South America, Central America, North America, the Near East, Austronesia, and the Far East.  These sacrifices generally served either to please the gods or to honor prestigious humans who wanted a group of people to accompany them into the afterlife.  According to Joseph Watts and his colleagues at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, when Pacific Island chiefs beheaded their more helpless rivals, the act helped to create a sense of social stratification and control.

venus Human-Sacrifice

But usually, when we think of human or animal sacrifice, we think of offerings to the gods, which is curious in itself.  The photo shows an Inca mummy left out on the mountains as an offering to the spirits.venus Inca mummy


Why did people use sacrifice to contact their gods and affect the course of events?  Let’s start with what we know and work our way backwards in time.

Blood: the fluid of life

For the ancient Maya, blood, the fluid of life, was the most valuable substance that people could offer the gods.  Blood offerings kept the world turning and the gods appeased.  The more valuable the offering, the more worthy the sacrifice.

Like the Olmecs before them, the Maya sacrificed both animals and humans.  Animals included crocodiles, iguanas, dogs, jaguars, and turkeys.  Human sacrifice, however, was seen as more valuable. As Ethan Watrall, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University explains, “It [Sacrifice] has been a feature of almost all pre-modern societies during their development and for mainly the same reason: to propitiate or fulfill a perceived obligation toward the gods.”

Beheading appears often in Mayan literature, including the Hero Twins creation story recorded in the Popul Vuh, sometimes called the Mayan Bible.  The picture included here shows  a stone panel from Chichen Itza showing one of the Hero Twins (on the right) after he has been decapitated during a ballgame with the Lords of the Underworld.  His head, used as the ball for a while in the game, appears in a circle to the left of the twin who is spurting rivers of blood from his neck.

Venus Chichen_Itza_JuegoPelota_Relieve

However, death is a temporary state in the Popul Vuh, and the twin who was decapitated later gets his head back later in the story.  Still, the Hero Twins show themselves to be quite willing to play with death, literally, in the form of the Lords of the Underworld with all their potent magic.

Recent finds at Tonina, in Chiapas, Mexico, indicate that it was known as the City of Divine Captives.  The beheading of two sons of rival ruler Pakal from Palenque is memorialized in stone at the site. (See photo.) The captives, with their hands bound behind them, slump in defeat.  But according to the beliefs of the time, spilling their royal blood would increase the prosperity of Tonina and help keep the cosmos alive.

Venus Tonina-captives

This seems hard for us to understand.  Today people feel little connection with or obligation to the natural world, but sacrifice was once perceived as the way to keep the world going. The movement of the sun, moon, and stars, the abundance of land and sea animals, the continuation of life itself depended on the active participation of people.  If they stopped giving gifts to the gods, everything stopped, and disaster followed.

This belief may have been the result of apparent causality: people stopped offering sacrifices to the gods and then something terrible happened.  It could also carry the weight of tradition.  We’ve always killed a young woman to make the crops grow, so we better not change.

Righting a wrong

Sometimes, sacrifice is a means of righting a wrong.  In that case, the ancient people had to have an awareness of sin – a moral transgression that required a moral gift to the gods to erase it.

The French philosopher Georges Bataille maintained that it was the consciousness of transgression that defined modern humans and separated them from the animals. To make amends for their sins, people offered sacrifices to the gods, including the spilling of human blood.

But sacrifice is more complicated than righting wrongs. It also served as a way to acknowledge and worship the gods, to make a request, or to give thanks, or perhaps all of the above.

Animal sacrifice

The Greek sculpture from the Louvre collection, pictured, shows the sacrifice of a boar to the gods. (Photo, below)

 venus Sacrifice_boar_Louvre

In order to gain God’s favor, believers of many ancient faiths regularly sacrificed animals, perhaps because killing humans dangerously depleted their population after a while, especially if they kept sacrificing the best.  So certain animals may have become the stand-in for people.  In some cases, the animals were cooked and parts were eaten in a sort of communal feast with the gods.  The books of Exodus and Leviticus in the Old Testament give clear directions on the kinds of animals (such as a bull, lamb, goat, or dove) to be sacrificed for each kind of sin and the portions the priest and the faithful should eat.  Each explanation includes the reassurance that God will find the aroma of the burnt offering pleasant. “It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Leviticus 1:12).

Biblical scholar Alice C. Lindsey maintains that animal sacrifice as defined in the Old Testament came from much older societies, including older Mesopotamian civilizations, such as the Kushites.  Nimrod, the son of Kush, moved to the Tigris-Euphrates valley and established the practice of sacrificing rams, bulls, and sheep.  Abraham was a descendant of Nimrod.

To be a suitable sacrifice, the animal had to be perfect, and the person sacrificing the animal had to identify with it at the moment he took its life.  If these conditions were met, the guilt would be transferred to the innocent animal, the sacrifice would be pleasing to God, and the act of spilling its blood would bring purification to the supplicant in particular and the society in general, by transference.  “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22).  The more valuable the animal, the more valuable the sacrifice.

As a cautionary note, the book of Leviticus includes the story of two of Aaron’s sons who decided to make their own offering by burning incense before the Lord, contrary to His command.  “So fire came from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).  Clearly, death is the punishment for straying from the correct path.

Older models of animal sacrifice

But the practice of animal sacrifice is far older than the events recorded in the Old Testament. Vedic Hindu teachings of ancient India use the word bali to mean tribute, offering, or the blood of an animal, which might be a horse (symbol of the cosmos) a goat, a bull, an ox, a chicken, or a calf.  Later, for Hindus, the cow became the revered symbol of all life, and of Earth, the nourisher of life, the representative of Kamadhenu, the divine, wish-fulfilling cow, and as such merited protection.  Interestingly, the cow was also the symbol of Hathor, the ancient Egyptian goddess of love, joy, and motherhood, usually depicted as a sacred cow or a woman with a cow-horn headdress.

Also consider the famous San paintings in South Africa which feature dancing men surrounding the “dream beast,” the eland, the favorite animal of the gods.  The men are dream-hunting the dream-beast that controls the rain.  When the beast bleeds, rain falls.  In the most famous panel, from the Game Pass Shelter in Drakensburg, the shaman imitates the eland, standing behind it, his legs crossed the same way the eland’s are, bleeding from tvenus San rock art Game Pass Shelterhe nose just as the dying eland is.  Again, this shows a sort of ritual sacrifice.


The ultimate sacrifice and gift, according to the Bible

In the Bible, human sacrifice at God’s request is the ultimate test of faith.  The most famous example in the Old Testament is God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  (In the Koran, the son is not named but many Muslims believe it to be Ishmael.)  In obedience, Abraham prepares the pyre.

venus abraham-and-isaac-1

At the last moment, an angel stops Abraham and shows him a ram he can sacrifice instead of his son.  (Interestingly, the ram, like the bull, is a common choice for sacrifice.)


The heart of the New Testament is the sacrifice of Jesus, whose death Christians feel liberates them from their heritage of sin.  In the Catholic mass, the priest pours a little water into the wine in the chalice then lifts the bread and wine as an offering to God. He then ceremonially washes his hands, just as priests and rabbis did before ritual slaughters. The priest then says, “Pray, brethren (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.”  In the old version of the Catholic mass, the Latin wording translates as “Come, O Sanctifier, Almighty and Eternal God, and bless this sacrifice prepared for the glory of Your holy name.”  The consecrated bread becomes, for the faithful, the body of Christ.  The wine becomes the blood of Christ.  The faithful then consume both, in order to share in the sacrifice and the redemption it promises.


Symbolic human sacrifice

When I was helping on an archaeological dig of an early Maya site in Chocola, Guatemala, workers found a small statue of a bound, beheaded captive included in the foundation of a building.  Along with the metates (grinding bowls) and intentionally smashed cookware also included in the foundation, archaeologists interpreted the figure of the captive as a dedicatory offering to the gods.

The Chocola figure struck me as interesting because it was a symbolic blood sacrifice, a clay figure that took the place of a human.

Today, many Christians keep a crucifix on the wall, remembering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, known as the Lamb of God, on the cross.  Like the Chocola figure, this statue symbolically replaces the ultimate human/divine sacrifice.


So the idea of ritual sacrifice is wide-spread, but where did it come from?

A triple burial found in Moravia and dated to 27,000 years ago may provide some clues.  In the grave, three adolescents are laid out so one is facing down while the other two face each other.  The figure on the left in the photo (below) is apparently reaching over to the genital area of the one in the middle, who was affected by congenital dysplasia.  Since the bodies seem to have been purposely arranged, the site brings up many unanswered questions.  Why were these three buried together?  What was their relationship? Were they killed?

venus Moravia

Two other Paleolithic graves, in Italy and Russia, also contained adolescents with deformities.  As part of their burial, they were decorated with ivory beads, which would have been very valuable.

Archaeologists investigating a series of graves dating from 26,000 to 8,000 BC found several that contained the remains of young people who suffered from abnormalities, including extra fingers and toes.  In an article in Current Anthropology, Vincenzo Formicola of the University of Pisa, Italy, maintains that these burials could be a sign of ritual killing because, unlike usual burials, with a single body, these sites often contain multiples.  “These individuals may have been feared, hated, or revered,” Formicola said.

Perhaps, because they were different, they were both feared and revered as different and therefore “touched by spirits.”


 Back to the “Venus” Figurines

One of the most enduring enigmas in Western art is the popularity of the “Venus Figurines,” the small sculptures of obese, exaggerated female figures that appear in different sites from the Mediterranean to Siberia, over an enormous span of time, from the Venus of Hohle Fels (Germany), about 40,000 years old, to the Venus of Garagino (Ukraine), about 22,000 years old.  The illustration shown here gives a sampling of the “Venus” figures found.

venus map

In most cases, the female figures are small and thus portable.  While many have wildly exaggerated breasts and buttocks, and sometimes a pregnant belly, they have little or no face or feet, and sometimes no arms.  Many writers have pointed to these early figurines as evidence of a widespread “Goddess Cult.”

The problem is, many look more like sacrifices than gods, though I suppose the two entities can be combined.

Venus gagarino2Take the “Venus” of Gagarino figure, (photo, left) one of several found in the Voronezh region of Russia, in the same region as the Kostenki and Avdeeno sites (22,000 years old), which have also yielded extensive finds of bone awls and points, burnishers, shovels, and jewelry.  Gagarino yielded several Venus figures.  The one pictured was found buried in a prehistoric fire pit.  It has a featureless round head, enormous breasts, and an undefined lower body.venus of Moravany 2


The Venus of Moravany (photo, right), from about the same time period (23,000 years ago), was found in Slovakia.  Like many others, it was purposely beheaded before being buried.

Encyclopedia Mythica

Willendorf Venus

The famous Venus of Willendorf (Austria), perhaps the most well-known European Venus statue (24,000 years old), has sometimes been described as a celebration of fatness and therefore plenty, but she doesn’t look as if she’s celebratin.(photo, left).  With her bowed head and stooped shoulders, she looks like the victims at Tonina, Mexico.

The Venus of Lespugue (France) is even older and her features more exaggerated.  Again, her head is bowed.

The oldest European Venus statue, the Venus of Hohle Fels (Germany), dated to 35,000 years ago, has a huge middle, a tiny suggestion of a head, and no feet.

Many sources, including the program “How Art Made the World” on PBS, have called these statues a statement of exaggerated beauty.  The site called About Archaeology describes these statues as “Rubenesque,” but Rubens never painted women like these: faceless, footless, sometimes armless figures with hunched shoulders and bowed heads. Their creation, neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran argues, shows that ancient artists valued the parts of the female that were most attractive and important: breasts and pelvic girdle.

However, other statues of females — not wildly exaggerated — have been found at these Paleolithic sites, as have statues of males, and many animal figures.  What’s interesting is that most of the pieces found ritually destroyed and buried are of grossly exaggerated females. Why?


A couple of theories

A sacrifice to get rid of a problem

Like the ritually killed and buried people with abnormalities found in Eastern Europe, it’s possible that the Venus figurines represented diseased females. Elephantiasis, lymphedema, tuberculosis, leprosy, or podoconiosis would cause gross enlargement of the breasts and genitals.  Genital elephantiasis can also be caused by sexually transmitted diseases, such as Chlamydia.  Today, where women are affected by elephantiasis, they are socially shunned.  Ironically, despite their swollen female features, they typically have trouble getting pregnant.

If this were the case in an ancient society, these women may have been ritually sacrificed.  That would explain the ropes tying the Venus of Kostenki’s wrists and her missing head.  It would also explain the many cut marks found on all of these figures. And perhaps the unusual clothing, including net or knitted headwear.

A sacrifice to avoid a problem

If the statues were a stand-in for a human sacrifice that would address some problem, even if it wasn’t disease-related, it’s likely the idea would spread quickly.  In order to avoid these problems in your tribe, you could simply ritually kill a little statue.  It could become part of the process of setting up a village or a dwelling, the way some people tack up a horseshoe over the garage – or the way the ancient Maya included the statue of a beheaded, bound captive in the foundation of their building.

A sacrifice to create life

Venus CoatlicueAnother possibility is the statue represents a female creation figure who must be destroyed for life to emerge, like the Aztec creation goddess, Coatlicue (She of the Serpent Skirt, pictured, left) and her daughter Coyolxauhqui (pictured below, right, after she was torn apart to create the world).Venus Coyolxauhqui, daughter of Coatlicue

Spanish explorers discovered a statue of Coatlicue in 1790, near what is now called the Calendar Stone or Sun Stone, in Mexico City. She wears her skirt of snakes and a necklace of skulls.  Her hands and feet have claws so she can devour her prey.  (She was considered so frightening at the time that the statue was re-buried.) She is the destructive force that both gives life and takes it away.  Her hair hangs down her back in 13 plaits, symbolic of the 13 lunar months and 13 heavens of Aztec religion.


That does make you wonder about the 13 marks on the horn (or crescent moon) held up by the Venus of Laussel (about 28,000 years old) discovered in the Dordogne Valley of France.

The problem is that nothing about the “Venus” figures suggests that kind of dark strength – or any kind of strength.  With their hunched shoulders and downcast head, they seem powerless.

This is not to suggest that there was never a Goddess Cult, but only that the well-known Venus figurines were probably not representative of one.  Certainly, though, some later figures in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean art depict powerful female figures.  Inanna, Tanit, Astarte, Ishtar, Sekmet, Hathor and Isis were powerful goddesses with a huge following.  (See the earlier post on them at

The Venus figures, though, look more like sacrifices.

The question remaining is why this particular strange figure became the perfect symbolic sacrifice, copied, with variations, over an area ranging from current day Spain all the way to Russia!  Perhaps it became a trade item or a gift, suggesting a sharing of powerful charms and therefore a social network. At some point in this sharing, she may have gone from an unfortunate victim to a magical one.

In any case, this statue apparently held enormous power.

Intriguing connections with Sudan, Siberia, and Indonesia wait to be explored.  It’s also not clear what relationship, if any, the Berekhat Ram Venus figure (Golan Heights, 250,000 years old) has with the later sculptures of voluptuous females.  Perhaps more research will help us fill in the blanks between them.  It will be interesting to see what new facts we can learn about the sacrifices that were so central to our ancestors’ life.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Avdeevo: a Paleolithic site with strong links to Kostenki,” Don’s Maps,

Baudez, Claude F. and Peter Mathews, “Captive and Sacrifice at Palenque,” Mesoweb

Benson, Emily. “Human sacrifice may have helped societies become more complex,” Science Magazine, April 2016, http:///

Cartwright, Mark.  “Coatlicue,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.  November 2013,

“The Catholic Worship Service: The Mass,”

Coffee, Albert. “New Discoveries at Tonina!” Albert’s Archaeoblog, July 2015,

“Elephantiasis” National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) 2009,

“The First Artists,” Exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem,

Haviland, Willam A., et al.  Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing, 2014.

Hirst, K. Kris.  “Laussel Venus – Upper Paleolithic Goddess with a Horn,”

Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1989.

“Human sacrifice,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia,>

Jongko, Paul. “10 Ancient Cultures That Practiced Ritual Human Sacrifice,” 2014, TopTenz,

Linsley, Alice C. “Where Did Animal Sacrifice Originate?” Just Genesis (blog), August 2013,

“Lymphatic filariasis,” World Health Organization (WHO) updated 2016, http://www.who.into/mediacentre/factsheets/fs102/en/

“Lymphatic filariasis,” Wikipedia,

Parker-Pearson, Mike.  “The Practice of Human Sacrifice.” BBC, 2011.

Saint Joseph Daily Missal: The Official Prayers of the Catholic Church for the Celebration of Daily Mass. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1961.

Shoemaker, Tom. “Images of the Ancient Goddess,” Mesa Community College, 2015,

Swezey, Thomas. F. “The World’s Oldest Religious Ritual,” 2002,

“Venus figures from Russia,” Don’s Maps,

“Venus figures from the Stone Age arranged alphabetically” Don’s Maps

“Venus Figurines, Indonesian Art and the Interconnectedness of the Stone Age,” Biology Magazine, November 2014,

“Venus Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic,” Wake Me Up Before You Gogh Gogh blog, December 2013,

“The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era,” Ancient Origins,

“Venus of Berekhat Ram,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia_org/wiki/venus_of_Berekhat_Ram

“Venus of Gagarino,” Visual Arts Cork,

“The Venus of Moravany”   Venus Figures from the Stone Age, Don’s Maps,  (Don’s Maps is an excellent source.)

“Venus of Willendorf: Exaggerated Beauty,” How Art Made the World, PBS, Episode 1, 2006,

Whipps, Heather. “Early Europeans Practiced Human Sacrifice,” Live Science, 2007,

White, Richard.  “Bataille on Lascaux and the Origins of Art.” Creighton University.

Wynd, Shona, and others. “Understanding the community impact of lymphatic filariasis: a review of the sociocultural literature.” World Health Organization,

The Caduceus, The staff of Asclepius, and other serpents


caduceus medical symbol

If you take a trip to the local medical center or pharmacy, at least in the United States, it will probably involve dealing with several ancient symbols.  The most common is the caduceus, the herald’s staff, featuring opposite, twin serpents entwined around a staff topped by a ball and wings.  If you look up the definition of caduceus, you’ll learn that the symbol comes from Greek mythology and refers to the staff carried by Hermes (caduceus Hermespictured below).
But that’s only part of the story.

Hermes has something of a mixed reputation, being the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead, and protector of merchants, shepherds, athletes, liars, and thieves.  As several writers have pointed out, that doesn’t seem like much of an advertisement for doctors!  They maintain that the use of the caduceus symbol for members of the medical profession is a mistake.  It should be the rod (or staff) of Asclepius, the son of Apollo, pictured below, left.

caduceus staff of Asclepius 2caduceus vs Staff of Asclepius sculpturecaduceus asclepius

As the god of medicine in Greek mythology, perhaps based on a real person, Asclepius does seem to be a better choice, at least at first. He is usually pictured with a serpent-entwined staff because, according to legend, a serpent taught him the secrets of healing.  Snakes were widely respected as sacred beings of healing, wisdom, and resurrection.  Shrines erected to Asclepius always featured non-poisonous snakes.  In the drawing based on a famous sculpture, you can see the frowning Asclepius (center) with his serpent staff in hand, meeting Hermes, holding the caduceus.  Meanwhile three of Asclepius’s daughters, including Hygenia and Panacea, stand off to the right.

One snake or two?

caduceus WHO and AMA

Today, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association use the staff of Asclepius in their logos (as pictured).  However, many more organizations use the caduceus, and most people in the USA recognize the caduceus as the symbol of the healing power of medicine. So why did the caduceus win over the staff of Asclepius?  Maybe it was an accident of history.  Or maybe the caduceus has more visual impact.  Or perhaps it still carries traces of more powerful magic from the past.

Accident of history?

caduceus medical corps

According to some sources, in 1902, the US Army Medical Corps adopted the caduceus as their official symbol and ordered it to be included on all medical officers’ uniforms and field offices.  From there, the symbol spread to other medical professionals.  However, the Medical Service Corp’s History page describes how the Corps grew out of earlier medical service wartime groups, including the Revolutionary War apothecaries, the Civil War Ambulance Corps, and the World War I Sanitary Corps.  At the end of that war, the permanent medical ancillary organization was formed, morphing into the current Medical Service Corp in 1947, long past the 1902 date.

Today, the caduceus is so central to the Medical Corps that their association is called the Silver Caduceus Association.  Current Medical Corps men and women embracaduceus, drawingce the caduceus, no matter what some folks say about the staff of Asclepius.  One Navy Medical Corps artist posted a stunning tattoo design of it that elicited several requests from current medical corpsmen for permission to use it. Pictured, right, it has a great sense of strength.


Actually, the Army Medical Department uses both the caduceus (for their branch insignia) and the staff of Asclepius (for the regimental insignia).  So it doesn’t seem that the Medical Service Corps is responsible for the dominance of the caduceus.

A more dynamic logo

In my opinion, the caduceus is just a more powerful image.  It has symmetry, motion, and balance.  The staff of Asclepius makes a much less dramatic graphic, especially with the snake drooping off the staff.  Note that the AMA, in using the staff, also includes a spiral, to create some sense of motion.


Gustav Klimt certainly made a powerful image out of the Asclepius serpent in his painting of Hygeia, but the power lies as much in the figure of the young woman and the gold decoration as in the snake.  She seems to evoke the powerful snake goddesses of the past.


Long history of magic in both symbols

The serpent staff of Asclepius was thought to possess magical properties. But it wasn’t only that staff.  Serpents were respected – and feared – magical creatures in many ancient cultures, from India, Africa, and Australia, to Persia and Ireland.  In the Old Testament, both Aaron and the pharaoh’s magicians have magical staffs that can turn from staff to snake and back (Exodus 6: 8 – 10).  When the Israelites were bitten by poisonous snakes in the desert, God instructed Moses to build a bronze serpent on a staff and treat the people (Numbers 21: 5 – 7).


Most sources say the caduceus comes from Greek myth.  But where did it come from before that?  Take your pick.  Since the eastern Mediterranean was home to many different peoples, including Phoenicians from the Arabian Peninsula, Persians from central Asia, Egyptians from North Africa, and Sumerians from Asia, it was a melting pot of ideas about spirituality, magic, and healing power. And twin snake images abound.

caduceus, Chinese male and female progenitors

The Chinese mythological progenitors were said to be serpent-tailed humans: male and female, Nuwa and Fuxi, shown here on an ancient painting unearthed in Xinjiang.



In ancient Egypt, twin serpents were associated with Thoth, the god of learning.  In the image shown below, the ibis-headed god’s headdress includes both the center staff and the opposing serpents.caduceus Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Hermés

caduceus Tanit_StoneThe powerful North African goddess Tanit, like her counterparts Astarte, Ishtar, and Isis, is often shown with twin snakes. In the stone pictured below, right, the twin snakes rise on both sides of Tanit, while her symbols: the triangle, the crescent moon, and the sun/flower stand over her.

cadu Kundalini risingIn the Kundalini yoga practices of India and southern Asia, twin male and female forces/snakes, rise through the chakras of the body until they enter the brain and open the third eye of wisdom, as shown in the illustration.

caduceus pre-Christian serpent cross, IrelandThe pre-Christian sculpture in Ireland (pictured) features twining, opposite snakes culminating in a cross and circle. Other monuments feature crossed snakes leading to an open hand.

In all of these images, the paired snakes are moving, crossing each other, and leading to a circle, sometimes a winged orb.  There is a sense of increasing power and enlightenment.  The caduceus, as a symbol, is a promise of that power bestowed on the supplicant.  In that sense, it’s hard to beat that as a symbol of the healing arts.


So when we see the caduceus on the wall of the medical center or drugstore, we see a symbol that echoes thousands of years of belief in the power of serpents and the pairing of opposites, the dynamic power of yin and yang/male and female, a concept far older and more universal than the Greek god Hermes or his Roman equivalent, Mercury.



Sources and interesting reading:

Amaro, John A. “The Caduceus, Chakras, Acupuncture and Healing” (Part I), 2002,

Army Medical Department – Medical Service Corps Heraldry, “Insignia and Plaques, Army Medical Department – Medical Services Corps,”

“Asclepius,” Wikipedia,

Blayney, Keith, “The Caduceus vs the Staff of Asclepius (Asklepian), revised October 2005,

Caduceus drawing for Medical Corps, Bad Medicine (part 1)

“Caduceus,” Pinterest.

“Caduceus,” the photo of a stained glass work from sunlightstudio, to Pinterest,

“Caduceus,” Symbol Dictionary: a visual glossary.

“Caduceus,” Wikipedia,

“Caduceus as a symbol of medicine,” Wikipedia,

Champollion, Jean-Francois. “Thoout, Thoth Deux fois Grand, le Second Hermes,” Brooklyn Museum collection, Wilbour Library of Egyptology, Special Collections imprint 1823 – 1825.,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Herm%C3%A9s,_N372.2A.jpg

Gill, Joseph O. “Origins of the Caduceus, as told in the world’s oldest language: symbolism,” June 2011,

“Hermes,” Wikipedia.  https;//

“Highlights of Medical Service Corps’ History,” Silver Caduceus Association, 2016,

Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1989.

“Hygeia,” painting by Gustav Klimt, pinned to Pinterest,

Images of the winged staff with intertwined snakes as a symbol of ancient Indian medicine, as well as a drawing based on the monument by Aubin Louis Millin (1811) showing Mercury (Hermes) and a merchant approaching the disapproving Asclepius, Immune ACCORD,

Jenkins, Avery. “The problem with mainstream medicine is staring us in the face” 28 March 2013, DocAltMed,

“Snakes in Chinese Mythology,” Wikipedia,

“Tanit,” Wikipedia.

Face Jugs

On one episode of the PBS show History Detectives, April Hynes of Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania brought in a small ceramic jug to be evaluated by antiques experts.  It was discovered in the 1950’s by her grandfather, a plumber working in Germantown, Pennsylvania, who thought it might be an Indian piece, so he took it home.  It has remained with the family ever since.

The jug is about 6” tall, with a greenish-brown glaze. (See photo) Its most striking feature is the face on it.  The eyes are round and staring, and the mouth is open, exposing clenched teeth.

face jug

In the course of the show, experts from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and art historians examining the piece concluded it was not an American Indian artifact.  Instead, it was very similar in size, design, and glaze to jugs made in the 1850’s and 1860’s by slave potters on Edgefield County, South Carolina plantations.

Jekyll Island and The Wanderer incident

Many of those slaves were brought from the Congo through ports in Angola and imprisoned on slave ships bound for North America.  Some of those who survived the voyage were “processed” through Jekyll Island, off the coast of Georgia and worked on plantations on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, including the Edgefield plantations.

face jekyll-island club

Ironically, Jekyll Island is today a lovely place, home to upscale vacation resorts, like the one in the photo above.  Its blood-soaked history has been largely ignored.  The Jekyll Island Club Hotel “Island History” handout dedicates a short paragraph to the 19th century, saying:

“Slaves were imported to pick cotton, which was the primary agricultural product on the  island during this time.  The U.S. government banned the importation of slaves in 1807, but smuggling still continued.  On November 29, 1858, The Wanderer unloaded 409     slaves on Jekyll Island, one of the last cargoes of slaves imported into the United States.        Those involved in the activities of the Wanderer were indicted by the federal             government.”

face The Wanderer oil painting, Blue World Web Museum

The racing yacht The Wanderer refitted as a slave ship, shown in the oil painting above.

That’s the end of the 19th century history section.  But what the Jekyll Island Club Hotel piece fails to include is that the slave traders were never convicted, despite three attempts by the federal government.  Outcry over The Wanderer slave trading trials helped fuel anti-slavery sentiment in the north, including support for the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.

In yet another bizarre chapter of its history, in 1859, The Wanderer, which was not a standard slave trade ship, having been built as a racing yacht originally, was apparently taken on one more slave trading voyage after the trials, despite the fact that slave trading had been illegal for fifty years by then.  However, near the coast of Africa, the first mate led a mutiny, set the captain out to sea in a small boat, and returned the ship to Boston.  During the Civil War, the U.S. government seized the ship and used it as a gunboat in the blockade of the South.

face Farnum Further, J. Egbert Farnum, (photo, left) who had been a hot-headed, hard-drinking officer on The Wanderer on its infamous 1858 voyage, later regretted his part the affair and headed north after being acquitted.  When the Civil War broke out, he signed up with the Northern Army to make amends.  He later suffered nineteen bullet wounds and two saber wounds.

The ship’s story sounds like a movie plot.


But back to the strange little pot uncovered near Philadelphia.

In the PBS show, David Barquist, curator of American Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, confirmed what April Hynes had discovered – that face jugs were generally associated with slave potters in Edgefield County, South Carolina.  Barquist went on to say that only a dozen or so of the original face jugs have been discovered.  Most are now in museums or private collections. (The one pictured below right is from the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum.)

face jug, Milwaukee art museum

The grimace and green-brown ash glaze are typical of face jugs made in Edgefield during the 1850’s and 1860’s.  Jim McDowell, a potter who continues the face jug tradition using 19th century techniques he learned from his Jamaican ancestors, showed how the face would be created and attached to the jug.  When he was asked how the jugs were used, McDowell said they probably were not used to carry water.  Instead, they were used as grave markers since slaves were not allowed to erect stone markers.

Indeed, shards of face jugs have been found in slave burial grounds.

Fusion of Old and New Beliefs – Ancestor worship, Voodoo, and Christianity

The face jug featured in the show carries a long cultural tradition behind it.  It represents West African beliefs put into a form outsiders could not recognize – or forbid.  It served as more than a grave marker to people who were not allowed to erect grave markers.  Face jugs became containers for holding and guarding a precious connection with the past.

Wyatt MacGaffey, author of Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular, explains that power comes from the land of the dead, and in precolonial times, was present and available for use in minkisi: fabricated items that provide local habitations for the dead, throuface Nkisi Nkondi, power figure, early 19th century Congogh which the powers of such spirits are made available to the living.  Minkisi typically include clay, stones, or grave dirt.  A Nkisi, singular form of Minkisi,  power figure from the Congo is pictured, left.)


Thus, the jug, especially when it contained dirt from the grave, became a powerful item, very similar to the ritual baskets popular in parts of West Africa, which contained teeth, hair, or bone fragments of the dead person.  These items link the dead to the living, making an unbroken lifeline, which would have been especially important to people who had been wrenched away from their homeland.  The ancestors, as represented by the face jugs, are then part of life and ceremonies, and can be consulted on matters of importance.  Also, they lend considerable strength.

Spirit objects

It seems clear that these small jugs were portable representations of the dead and their power.  As Gary Dexter, an Aiken, South Carolina potter and historian remarked, “Obviously, this [the face jug] was the single most important cultural item they had.”

The big question for the people in the TV show was how the face jug wound up near Philadelphia if it was made in South Carolina, 700 miles away.

The Underground Railroad

If the jug was owned by a slave, which seems to be the case based on studies of other jugs of similar size, design, and construction, it could have been carried north during the owner’s attempt to escape to free territory.  Philadelphia was a hub for those trying to get to Canada and freedom.  (See map below, which shows Philadelphia as part of one route.)

face underground-railroad-map

The Underground Railroad was a series of safe shelters for runaway slaves.  They were often private homes run by people who abhorred slavery and sought to help as many slaves as possible escape that fate.  The Lemoyne House in Washington, Pennsylvania was one such stop.  The Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME church in the United States, was another.  In Germantown, the area of northwest Philadelphia where the face jug was buried, there were several safe houses.  The whole area was predominantly anti-slavery, mostly due to the influence of the Society of Friends (Quakers), so if escaped slaves could get there, chances were good they could find a place to rest.

Finding the pot buried in Germantown points to the owner being an escaped slave.  Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing why the precious artifact was buried, so the story remains unfinished.



face antique memory jug on Etsy

“Memory bottles”

The influence of slave-made face jugs spread far beyond the slave communities.  In the 1800’s, memory bottles or “spirit jars” became popular across North America.  A thick layer of putty, lacquer, plaster, clay, or cement added to the bottle or jug held the various charms, mementos, and decorations that were reminiscent of the deceased loved one.  Some of them look surprisingly like the African spirit figures of long ago.  (A Midwestern “memory bottle” is on the left, an African Nkisi figure on the right in the photos below.)

face memory jug, buttons     face male Nkisi figure with strips of hide

Memory bottles enjoyed a Renaissance in the 1950’s and 60’s, especially in the Midwest and Appalachia, crossing racial lines.  Currently, both E-bay and Etsy do a lively business in both antique and modern memory bottles.  The one on the left (below), advertised on Etsy, seems to have its own bizarre power.   The one on the right was made in memory of a member of the clergy.

face memory jug   face clergy memory jug on etsy

Death, power, and memory combined: the legacy of the original face pots.


Sources and interesting reading:

Bradley, Eric. “10 Things You Didn’t Know about Memory Jugs,” 24 February 2011, Antique Trader,

“Destination Freedom: Traveling PA’s Underground Railroad Pennsylvania,” Visit PA,

“Face Jug” episode of History Detectives, Season 8, episode 8, PBS, 2010

“Face jug,” Wikipedia,

“Germantown, Philadelphia,” Wikipedia,

“History of the African-American Face Jug” The Black Potter: Face Jugs and Functional Pottery,

Hynes, April. “Farnum,” The Wanderer Project, 15 June 2012,

“Island History,” Jekyll Island Club Hotel,

MacGaffey, Wyatt.  Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular.  Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000.

“Matt Jones Pottery – Face Jugs,”  This source includes photos of grotesque face jars that are little more than racial slurs made into pottery, but it also includes some modern face jugs that carry on the African tradition.

“Nkisi,” Wikipedia,

“Nkisi Nkondi, Kongo people,” Central Africa: Democratic Republic of the Congo, KHAN Academy,

Osborne, John, reporter. “In Charleston, South Carolina, all charges in the Wanderer slave ship case are dropped,” report on federal trial of J. Egbert Farnum and others, as recorded in Tom Henderson Wells’ book, The Slave Ship Wanderer.

“Reliquary Guardian Figures,” Central African Art: A Personal Journey, from the Lawrence Gussman Collection,

Richman, Jeff. “Green-Wood Connections Everywhere!” Green-Wood Historian Blog, 29 October 2009,

“Ritual Pottery from Togo and Benin,” Arte Magica Galerie,

“Slave Pottery: Face Jugs” US Slave (blog),

“South Carolina Plantations: Edgefield County, SC Plantations,” SCIWAY: South Carolina Information Highway,

“The Underground Railroad: A Well-Kept Secret,” ArtSmart Indiana,

“Underground Railroad Map,” American Historama,

“Unusual Vintage African Mask – Republic of Congo, for sale on Quintessentia,

“Vodun (aka Voodoo) and related religions,” Religious Tolerance: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance,

“Wanderer (slave ship)” Wikipedia,

Well, Tom Henderson.  The Slave Ship Wanderer.  Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1967.

“West African Vodun,” Wikipedia,

“Wooden Nkongi Fetish Statue,” from the Pinterest board “Togo”