A report in the Hürriet Daily News published in July of this year announced that the world’s earliest pictogram had been discovered at the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe, Southeast Turkey. It was not specified what example was being referred to, but it is clear that Müslüm Ercan, Director of the Șanliurfa Museum, was referring to a relief depicted on the west-facing side of Pillar 43, Enclosure D. Pillar 43 is known more widely as the ‘vulture stone’. Not long after, the Daily Mail picked up the story and had me say that I thought the disk, ball or egg, seen above the vulture’s extended left wing depicted the sun. While this is not untrue, the following remarks clarify why I believe this to be the case.
The Vulture Stone of Göbekli Tepe.
The vulture stone is one of the most graphically charged and complex reliefs so far excavated at the site. Technically speaking, it is not the world’s earliest pictogram, but it is an early, stone-cut pictogram that has preserved well. Müslüm Ercan describes the scene as a sky burial in which the ‘soul’, sometimes symbolized as a head, is figuratively carried up to the sky world, basing his view, it appears, on painted examples found at the site of Çatalhöyük. Although there is outline of resemblance between these separate patterns, the vulture stone embeds a far more complex impression.
Traditional Tibetan Sky Burial in which vultures pick clean the bones of the dead.
The character of its central figures such as the headless man, the scorpion, and the vulture, resonantly propose a theme of death suggesting the scenario to reflect afterlife beliefs of the builders. While this might be the case, it does not imply these figures were based entirely on subjective visions. It would also be somewhat thin reasoning to conclude it picturing the soul of a departed ascending to the heaven world in the manner of a sky burial, purely in those terms.
The central figures such as the headless man, the scorpion, and the vulture, strongly propose a theme of death and a scenario which reflects afterlife beliefs. While this might be the case, it does not imply these figures were based entirely on subjective visions or that the scene depicts a sky burial and ascension to a heaven world purely in those terms. It would rather seem to reflect a chapter in a story, one with astronomical elements.
The Scorpion. In ancient legend it served as killer and guardian. ( CC BY 2.5 )
Scorpions are timelessly strange creatures with key roles in mythology, medicine and magic. For millennia scorpion images are used to express human experiences of danger, pain, and desire. Although an arachnid of forbidding underworlds, the scorpion can also be a guardian and counter to baleful forces. Its presence in the context of the vulture stone imagery would therefore seem indicative that similar meanings were applied to this creature during the PPNA. The scorpion has also enjoyed a long career in astronomy. Scorpius is amongst the earliest recorded constellations and features in zodiacs and mythologies based on celestial movement.
In Greek mythology the hunter Orion was stung to death by a monstrous scorpion. Thereafter he became the constellation of the same name in the opposite side of the sky to Scorpius to evade its venom. The Egyptian Osiris was also killed by a scorpion sent to him over the hottest part of the summer by his brother the god Set. The Barasana, an Amazonian hunter-gatherer people, possess a similar version. For them, Orion was sent to the sky after suffering snakebite by a reptile corresponding to Scorpius. The same stellar polarity was known in ancient Peru.
An earlier example than these involved the Sumerian strongman Gilgamesh being attacked by scorpion-men as the sun rose in Scorpius.
Scorpius and its neighbouring Sagittarius and Aquila constellations have served as markers that divided time and space between the Orion, Taurus, and Gemini star groups on the opposite side of the sky. They do not define a precise 180° opposition, but from our platform on earth these two sets of constellations appear to group around the galactic centre and anti-centre respectively. Their periodic rising and sinking provide an astronomical basis to the mythological schism between Scorpius and Orion-type heroes, each taking turns in the night sky and in the underworld. There is yet another reason for interest in this region of sky during the time of the Enclosure’s construction.
The constellation of Scorpio
It would be wrong to perceive the vulture stone relief as an iconography of horror as if the head of the man were the playing of an infernal spirit in some diabolical charade. A notion of ascent is arguably present but there is more going on than a sky burial or mortuary ritual. The scene possibly expresses a timeless genre of human experience defined by death, dismemberment, and ascent, although ascent to a sky world above or descent to an underworld below are synonymous in terms of the otherworldly wisdom acquired. The death involved is mystical rather than physical and involves experiential voyage to the threshold of death without dying. The shaman, priest, or magician thereby returns to the world spiritualized or shamanized.
Whatever enlightening experiences individuals may acquire, they become meaningful to groups who mythologize the rare, holy people who have had such experiences. Moreover, these often become integrated within megalithic statements or aligned to recurring phenomena which are seen to re-enact them. Regarding the vulture stone, it is significant that during circa 9,600 BCE the Sun rose in Scorpius at the summer solstice, so that the Sun would soar overhead on the longest day of the year. But would it be incongruous that the vulture’s ‘ball’ referenced the Sun and a ritually severed head at the same time? It would not.
As the head houses the organ of sight, or in the case of a voyaging shaman, the faculty of seeing worlds beyond the physical, the head has symbolized the microcosmic counterpart of the Sun. Correspondingly, the Sun has been conceived as the cosmic homologue of the eye. In the age of metallurgy solar-fire-head imagery continued whereby a shaman’s head was forged in a blacksmith’s furnace before being reconstituted and the initiate reborn as a shaman. This is not to suggest the figure on the vulture stone is undergoing a shamanic initiation characterised by the dismemberment and ascent as we know it, but rather what is graphically present has shamanic parallels.
Egyptian Solar-Headed Entity.
Other examples of mystic death from the ancient world can be advanced in sexual symbolism. Clearly, the man on the vulture stone is elated, which besides indicating a vague notion of ‘shamanic ecstasy’ can signify a link between the living and the dead and realms unseen. The ancient Egyptian concept of Osiris appears to embody this aspect of the vulture stone scene to large degree. Besides his famed genital mutilation, Osiris was often portrayed as headless while his death and resurrection could also reflect astronomical events and the seasonally changing landscape. Indeed, as a symbolic representative of death and renewed life, and of the unseen worlds between, the concept of Osiris was by no means confined to ancient Egypt.
Concerning the jubilant vulture, or post-mortem initiator, it too bears solar affiliations attested elsewhere. While its presence complements the scorching ‘summer-sting’ of the scorpion, it unfolds wider solar meaning. Though a menacing bird, vultures generally do not attack and kill. Vultures and the Sun therefore not only personify wide-ranging powers of vision from their stations in the sky. Like Grim Reapers, both can also signify the irreversible effect of time which unaggressively, though inevitably, destroys life. Similarly, although the summer solstice is a festival of celebration, it is yet a tipping point in the cycle of nature and reminder of the gradual ebb of days and their displacement by an expansion of night.
Göbekli Tepe, mysterious prehistoric site. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Featured image: [Left], Photo of the Vulture Stone of Göbekli Tepe. (Alistair Coombs). [Right], Archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy author, Alistair Coombs.
By Alistair Coombs
Anadolu Agency. “Signs of world’s first pictograph found in Göbeklitepe.” 2015. HurriyetDailyNews.com [Online] Available here.
Richard Gray. “Is this the oldest evidence of written language? Pictograms found in ancient Turkish city could be 12,000-years-old.” 2015. DailyMail.co.uk [Online] Available here.