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Anthropology/paleolithic religion, wicca

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Question
What do we know about paleolithic religion? As a Wiccan (born and raised) when I look at some paleolithic art I recognize Wiccan symbolism (the horned god, the great goddess). Am I seeing the roots of my faith?

Answer
Hi Rose,

The simple answer is, in my view, is that yes, you MAY be seeing some of the roots of your religion, but the longer answer is a bit more complex.

We know very little at all about the actual tenets of Paleolithic religion.  Inasmuch as all recent humans have some kind of organized beliefs about the supernatural, it seems safe enough to assume prehistoric humans had them as well.  Because such beliefs vary widely over time and space among recent humans, it is also reasonable to assume that there was no one unified Paleolithic religion, but rather a range of belief whose specific tenets also varied widely over time and space.  As evidence for this spiritual variability, one could cite the wide range of variation we see in Paleolithic burial practices and in the art, but there is a risk there in accepting that the art is expressing religious belief.  (Not all art necessarily does so today.)  The Paleolithic art many Wiccans point to as evidence for a link to Paleolithic religion, such as the “Venus figures” (images depicting females with exaggerated large breasts, buttocks, prominent vulvas) and therioanthropomorphs (images combining human and animal elements –e.g., deer head, human body) are just two of many kinds of images.

There are at least two possibilities to keep in mind.  

The first possibility is that there is indeed a cultural connection between these images and Wiccan religion.  Similar kinds of images, stout ladies/Mother Goddesses and human-animal combinations show up in Neolithic European imagery and in some of the mythological traditions of later pre-Christian societies (Greece, Rome).  What Wiccans call the Horned God is almost certainly based on the Greek god Pan or the Celtic Cernunos, both of whom enjoyed a popular following in the areas into which early Christians were proselytizing.

The main argument against this connection is that such images are so widespread elsewhere in the world, that we may be mistakenly linking Paleolithic, Neolithic, Greek/Roman and Wiccan religious imagery across substantial gaps in time and culture simply because the images look similar and not because of known continuities between the religions of these periods.  For example, both Egyptian New Kingdom and Christian faith have a "resurrection" and an afterlife in which souls are judged based on the good or bad one does during life.  Does this mean Christianity is based on the earlier Egyptian Osiris cult?  No, of course not.  Resurrected gods turn up in all kinds of religions and mythologies.  It is a common theme the two religions share, nothing more.

The other possibility is that when Wiccan beliefs began to be codified into an organized religion in the early 20th Century, its practitioners selected icons of their faith from images known to archaeology and art history to have a Neolithic and Paleolithic antiquity.  This is not an uncommon phenomenon.  Nearly all of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all claim legitimacy by saying they are part of a long and continuous tradition.  For example, in SW Asia, the Torah, the Bible, and Koran, all include the sacred books (Pentateuch) of the Hebrew people.  (Modern-day Judaism is itself an outgrowth of a far more varied set of religious traditions that were popular in what is now Israel back 3000 years or more ago.)  Even Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, sought to legitimize his theological arguments in a "prehistory" linking the Americas to Biblical proto-history.  So, for Wiccans to claim a Neolithic and Paleolithic antiquity for their faith would not be unusual, just a strategy along these same lines.  In saying this, though, I want to be clear, that the recent founders of the Wiccan religion were probably not trying to be deliberately deceptive.  Rather, they were looking around for matches between what they believed and what early-mid 20th Century archaeologists and anthropologists thought they knew about prehistoric religion.  Many of these earlier archaeologists and anthropologists believed that there were universal meanings to symbols and "primitive" religions out of which recent faiths developed.  (Modern-day anthropologists do not believe these things, because a century of scientific anthropology has pretty much proven them wrong.)  

Personally, I think this second possibility is most likely correct, because it is based on observations of religion-related behavior among recent humans, rather than untestable hypotheses about the meanings of symbols used by prehistoric humans.

This all being said, one has to ask, does it really matter if a religion has deep or shallow historical roots?  Does antiquity make a good idea better or a bad idea worse?  There are plenty of bad ideas with a long history (slavery and wife-burning, for example) and good ideas of recent origin (e.g., universal suffrage, freedom of religion).  If it makes you feel better about your religion, you can accept the hypothesis of links between Wicca and Paleolithic art.  Nobody can prove them wrong to any greater or lesser extent than any other argument about the origins of other religions.  But in accepting this pedigree for your faith, it is important to recognize that there are argument against those links.  Wiccans are not unique in this situation.  Those elements of prehistory set forth in Genesis bear no resemblance whatsoever to what can be proven by scientific methods.  So, arguing against someone's religion because of perceived flaws in its origin story is a game that nobody wins.   For my own part, I judge religions by what good or bad their followers do, rather than what claim they make for historical or pre-historical precedent.
Sincerely
John Shea  

Anthropology

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John Shea

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Questions about Old World prehistoric archaeology (especially Stone Age) of Europe, Africa, and Western Asia, prehistoric human and hominid behavior, primitive technology, origin of modern humans, extinction of the Neandertals. IMPORTANT: Between February 14 and September 01, 2014, I will be on sabbatical leave. During this time I will have limited access to email. This means that there may be very long periods (i.e., weeks) between your posting a question and my having time to answer it.

Experience

>20 years as a professional anthropologist based at a research university.

Publications
Journal of Field Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, Lithic Technology, Evolutionary Anthropology, Current Anthropology, Mitekufat HaEven (Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society), Paléorient, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, American Anthropologist, Geoarchaeology.

Education/Credentials
Ph.D (Anthropology) Harvard University, 1991.
BA (Archaeology) Boston University, 1982.

Awards and Honors
Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer 2012-2014

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