Sunday, 16 September 2012

Gods Come And Go But Truth Remains

Minoan "Snake Goddess"
A few miles south of Heraklion, the main town and port of Crete, are the ruins of Knossos, a vast palace/temple cum town complex built by Bronze Age people of whom we know little. Their written language has not been deciphered so we do not even know what language they spoke and how it relates to any other Mediterranean or Indo-European languages. All we know of their religion is what we can deduce from their buildings, pottery, artefacts and art.

The Minoans seem to have worshipped primarily goddesses, which has sometimes been described as a "matriarchal religion". Although there is some evidence of male gods, depictions of Minoan goddesses vastly outnumber depictions of anything that could be considered a Minoan god. While some of these depictions of women are speculated to be images of worshippers and priestesses officiating at religious ceremonies, as opposed to the deity herself, there still seem to be several goddesses including a Mother Goddess of fertility, a Mistress of the Animals, a protectress of cities, the household, the harvest, and the underworld, and more. Poet Robert Graves has argued that these are all aspects of a single Great Goddess.

A major festive celebration was exemplified in the famous athletic Minoan bull dance, represented at large in the frescoes of Knossos and inscribed in miniature seals.

The Minoan horn-topped altars, since [Sir Arthur] Evans' time conventionally called "Horns of Consecration" are represented in seal impressions, and survive in examples as far afield as Cyprus.

Minoan sacred symbols include the bull and its horns of consecration, the labrys (double-headed axe), the pillar, the serpent, the sun-disk, and the tree. However, recently a completely different interpretation of these symbols, focusing on apiculture instead of religious significance, has been suggested.

Evidence that suggests the Minoans may have performed human sacrifice has been found at three sites...

Like much of the archaeology of the Bronze Age, burial remains constitute much of the material and archaeological evidence for the period. By the end of the Second Palace Period, Minoan burial practice is dominated by two broad forms: 'Circular Tombs', or Tholoi, (located in South Crete) and 'House Tombs', (located in the north and the east). Of course, there are many trends and patterns within Minoan mortuary practice that do not conform to this simple breakdown. Over all, inhumation was the most popular form of burial—cremation does not seem to have been a popular means of burial in Bronze Age Crete. Throughout this period there is a trend towards individual burials, with some distinguished exceptions. These include the much-debated Chrysolakkos complex, Mallia, consisting of a number of buildings forming a complex. This is located in the centre of Mallia's burial area and may have been the focus for burial rituals, or the 'crypt' for a notable family.

So there we are. We have no real idea what the religion of the Bronze Age inhabitants of Crete was. It seems to have featured bulls in some way, though they could have been merely some sort of male coming of age ceremony or masculine exhibitionism intended to win sexual favours from women. What we think of as Minoan religion may even have had nothing at all to do with religion and might even have been more to do with bee-keeping.

We know not what gods they believed in, what powers they ascribed to them, whether they believed in some form of afterlife or what role their gods played in their day-to-day affairs. We aren't sure of their rituals, priesthood, what they prayed for or against or whether they blamed gods for disasters or blamed people for not being pious enough to prevent them.

We don't know how much they influenced Greek or Egyptian civilisation or were influenced by them. We think an early form of human civilisation flowered briefly on the island of Crete; certainly their art, to judge by their pottery with it's exquisite yet functional form and decoration for the sake of decoration, shows a mastery of ceramics and an aesthetic appreciation not found earlier in the Mediterranean, and they appear to have invented writing all on their own. The bull cult may be connected to the bull cults of Southern France and Spain still found today in the bullfight, but we don't know if it originated in Crete or pre-existed in the Mediterranean world and was taken there.

We don't know if they would have blamed evil gods or impious people for the disaster which befell them in about 1500 BCE when the volcano island known as Thera to the Greeks blew it's top in one of the largest volcanic explosion known in human history. The resulting volcanic caldera now forms the island of Santorini and the resulting tsunami, pyroclastic flow and ash deposits hundreds of feet thick devastated the Aegean coastal areas and probably caused the collapse and extinction of the Minoan civilisation of Crete some 68 miles to the south.

And for this reason we do not know who or what their gods were or very much at all about Bronze Age Cretan religion.

And for this reason, apart from the few clues we can glean from the archaeology and maybe from their written language if we ever manage to decipher it, we will never know for sure what their religious beliefs were because their religion, like all religions, is not recoverable from first principles. There are no facts to form any foundation upon which we can rebuild and reconstruct their beliefs.

Contrast this to science.

Imagine some time in the future if a cataclysm of some sort were to exterminate humans together with all our books, records, inscriptions or anything at all bearing witness to what we now know and believe, and, given enough time, a new intelligent species evolved. This species would eventually rediscover the entire body of science as we know it.

They would discover atoms and atomic theory, chemistry, physics, the Big Bang, gravity, the laws of thermodynamics, Avogadero's Number, the Planck length, the velocity of light, relativity, the Uncertainty Principle, the Exclusion Principle and quantum mechanics, all the elements, elementary particles, photons, protons, electrons, mesons, quarks and the Higgs Boson, biology, germs and the germ theory of disease.

They would again discover DNA and the genetic code and realise the potential of genetic engineering. They would again discover the cause of the evolutionary process which had produced them, though they might not call it "natural selection" or "descent with modification" because they would have a different language with different words. But whatever the words, the meaning would be the same and the evolutionary 'tree' they constructed would differ only in minor detail from the one we currently recognise, though they may draw the boundaries between species, sub-species and varieties in slightly different positions according to their own definitions of those utilitarian terms.

The entire body of science we have today is reconstructible from first principles because it is based on observable, provable, universal truths and verifiable facts. It does not depend on human memory or written records, and it does not depend on belief, faith or dogma. It is what it is; it is not invented but discovered. Science merely discovers how the universe works.

The universe works that way, whether we have discovered it yet or not, whether we have forgotten it or not and whether we believe it or not. We can be sure than any other intelligent beings on any other planet in the universe would eventually discover the same science we have discovered and would also discover that no scientific explanation ever requires magic or supernatural intervention. They would eventually understand that the only way to tell what is true and what is false is with science and the scientific method.

This is not so for any religion.

Like the Minoan gods, all gods die with their believers, and with no records to tell us about them, we cannot recover a lost religion the way we could a lost science. Science is based on truth; religion is based on myths, assumptions and guesses. If religions were based on truth there would only be one, just as there is only one Science, and it would be part of the body of science. It would be both verifiable and, in theory, falsifiable. It would not be necessary to demand 'faith' or to employ apologists to make excuses for the lack of evidence.

You might not like that, yet you believe it. If you think you don't you only need ask yourself why you don't believe what Bronze Age Cretans believed and apply that to whatever religion you think you believe in. The chances are, it is based on the beliefs of other Bronze Age peoples who just happened not to live in an area devastated by the Thera eruption, not exterminated by some invading army serving different gods, or not wiped out by some other natural or man-made disaster.

What differentiates science from religion is that science is true; religion... isn't.

The real reason we do not know for sure what the Minoan religion was, or the religions of any pre-recorded human civilisation was, is that religions are not based on truth. There is nothing there on which to found a rediscovery.

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1 comment :

  1. Another solid post illustrating an important truth. Religions vary at random, but science always converges on the same answers because they're derived from observation of reality.

    One could also note that while different religions around the world have different creation myths and different gods or pantheons, things like evolution and quantum mechanics are the same in New York, Tokyo, Bombay, Shanghai, or Moscow.

    Even an utterly alien intelligent species which evolved on another planet would eventually discover the same laws of physics that we have, because they're observations of universal reality -- whereas if they had a religion at all, it would be nothing like anything here.


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