Friday, 17 June 2016

Lessons From Menorca - More Dead Gods!

Naveta d'Es Tudons, Menorca. A burial tomb for about 100 bodies between 1200 and 750 BCE. Possibly the oldest roofed building in Europe.
We've just spent a very pleasant few days in Menorca - one of the Spanish Balearic Islands and one of the few places we've visited twice.

Menorca has a very long history of conquest and religious persecution which will be the subject of another blog post; what I want to deal with here is how religions and gods that we know little or nothing of can inspire their believers and shape their cultures, yet they disappear without trace when their last believer dies.

It's a theme I've previously written about in my book, Ten Reasons To Lose Faith: And Why You Are Better Off Without It, and in earlier blog posts such asThe Old Dead Gods of Wiltshire, Old Dead Gods - Lessons From Silbury Hill, Old Dead Gods - Lessons from Cirencester, Gods Come And Go But Truth Remains, etc.

Menorca lies in the northern part of the Western Mediterranean between the Spanish mainland and Sardinia, and is the easternmost island in the Balearic group. It has a large natural harbour that has made it a prize for any Mediterranean power. It is isolated enough to have it's own distinct language - a dialect of Catalan - which is still in use today in addition to Castilian Spanish, hence the dual name of the capital - Mahon in Spanish; Maó in Menorquí.

It has been continuously inhabited since at least 4000 BCE and is littered with prehistoric remains. The most famous of which is probably Naveta d'Es Tudons, which seems to have been used as an ossuary between about 1,200 and 750 BCE. When it was excavated in 1960s the scattered bones of about 100 individuals were found in the lower chamber along with a few Bronze Age grave goods. The upper chamber appears to have been used to dry out the bodies and remove the flesh from them before the bones were moved to the lower chamber.

Clearly, the people were motivated enough to build this structure which seems to have a ceremonial form, with a horizontal slab standing above the roof line to the front of the building. The large stones are obviously shaped to fit neatly into one another and must have taken considerable manpower to move from the surrounding landscape, shape and lift into place. It is unlikely that this effort would have anything other than a religious motive including a belief in an afterlife of some sort.

But we don't know anything about it because there are no surviving records, not even pictures or carvings like there are of the Cretan religion centred on Knossos. We don't know if there were multiple gods or one; why the flesh needed to be removed from the bones prior to them being put into the lower chamber; or who was buried here. 100 bodies in something like 500 years suggests some sort of family tomb - maybe of a ruling family or a family of some local importance?

We don't know why this spot was chosen for the tomb. Was there some significance or was it merely a matter of convenience?

In short, we know almost nothing of the religion of the gods that inspired it, yet we can see it had a powerful influence on the culture. Maybe an echo of their original purpose was in the local superstition which lasted until the 19th-Century, that one should not go near these tombs. Unfortunately, this superstition didn't protect the upper chamber which was found to have been looted when excavated and the top two or three courses of stones had been removed.

Taula of Torralba
Source: Wikipedia
Whatever it was, this culture is believed to have preceded the Talaiotic Culture, which gave rise to the abundant talaiots which are almost emblematic of the Belaric Islands and subsequently to the Taulas. The former may have been more defensive than religious and may even have been lookout towers - suggesting an unsettled period. The latter were almost certainly religious, even having a rather sinister purpose involving human sacrifice.

But again, with no written records, no carvings and no paintings we know nothing about this religion, how it differed from the previous one on Menorca if at all, or what these monumental structures were used for. We know only that there was a political and economic social structure strong enough to command a labour force sufficient to erect them, and a culture which deemed them necessary and worth expending all that energy on.

This period of Menorcan history lasted until the rise of Rome and Carthage, although they would have been visited earlier by Greeks, after which Menorca along with the other Balearic Islands, became the playthings of these two powerful seafaring empires, constantly conquered and reconquered and eventually becoming Romanised as Carthage declined and eventually becoming Christianised along with the rest of the Western Roman Empire.

Just as with today's gods, no doubt the followers of these ancient gods saw 'proof' of their existence all around them and no doubt the priesthood and the rulers, if they were different, worked together to support one another and to keep the people faithful and compliant. Parents would have taught their children about this one true religion and children would have worn their badge of identity with pride, confident that their gods watched over them and provided they meticulously obeyed all the rules, would protect them. Were there multiple gods and multiple religions? Multiple religions seems unlikely because there are not multiple types of structure so it's probable that there was a single religion, possibly with its own pantheon of gods. What gender these gods had, what they were believed to do, how they could be communicated with and by whom are all complete unknowns. We can only guess.

We can only guess because, unlike science where, in the unlikely event of an entire body of science being forgotten, we could reconstruct it exactly because it is founded firmly in measurable and observable reality, religions have no such foundations. Religions and gods exist only and wholly in human imagination so when they die they are lost forever.

Rosa's First Law of Theodynamics: Gods can be created out of nothing and will disappear without trace.

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