Friday, March 26, 2021
The Unity of Life and Death
Günther Zuntz (1902-1992), Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 14 (footnotes omitted):Newer› ‹Older
At Çatal Hüyük it is starkly, and even brutally, explicit. The divine reality which dominated the minds of these people and which they worshipped in their small shrines was—the very fact of life and death; these felt as the deeds of ruthless and unaccountable powers; death pictured in the shape of enormous vultures over headless (that is, dead) human bodies; opposing them, the goddess appears in one, ever-recurring shape, namely, in the act of giving birth. Her progeny is the bull, the essential begetter. His emblem, large actual bucrania, is everywhere, in astounding numbers, asserting his power to overcome death; in two of the shrines, moreover, his large image, cut out of the plaster, dominates one of the walls. The begetter and the parturient: these two are constantly undoing the work of the vultures—whose prey is the perishable flesh, and no more. When they have done their part, the lasting bones are gathered and buried under the floors of the houses; the males under the bed of the father, women and children underneath the mother's.
This custom bespeaks an intimate communion between the living and the dead. The dead underneath are ever present with the living; the living have risen from there, for a time; soon to rejoin them. The horror of dying remains unabated, but the power of life constantly regenerated embraces even this terror. A sentiment of the unity of life and death stands out in a crude but powerful symbolism. From many walls protrude models of the female breast moulded over the heads of beasts which signify death; such as boar's tusks, the beaks of vultures, the snouts of weasels and foxes. 'Media vita in morte sumus' or, rather: death encompassed by the nurturing vis vitalis. In one of the shrines human bones, significantly, were found scattered underneath this symbol.
Our interpretation cannot entirely divest itself of terms more or less abstract; in fact, though, the very power of these representations bespeaks the concreteness of this ancient experience. There is not really any thought of vis vitalis, but breasts and beak; no 'concept of fertility', but the act and fact of birth; no 'symbol of death', but horrid vultures feeding on bodies. The miracle of life, unending with eruption and destruction, stands out as the content and boundary of this religion.