Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Gods before Zeus

There is an interesting story in today's New York Times about archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of deities before Zeus took over for the Greeks.
Before Zeus hurled his first thunderbolt from Olympus, the pre-Greek people occupying the land presumably paid homage and offered sacrifices to their own gods and goddesses, whose nature and identities are unknown to scholars today.

But archaeologists say they have now found the ashes, bones and other evidence of animal sacrifices to some pre-Zeus deity on the summit of Mount Lykaion, in the region of Greece known as Arcadia. The remains were uncovered last summer at an altar later devoted to Zeus.

Fragments of a coarse, undecorated pottery in the debris indicated that the sacrifices might have been made as early as 3000 B.C., the archaeologists concluded. That was about 900 years before Greek-speaking people arrived, probably from the north in the Balkans, and brought their religion with them.

The excavators were astonished. They were digging in a sanctuary to Zeus, in Greek mythology the father of gods and goddesses. From texts in Linear B, an ancient form of Greek writing, Zeus is attested as a pre-eminent god as early as 1400 B.C. By some accounts, the birthplace of Zeus was on the heights of Lykaion.

After reviewing the findings of pottery experts, geologists and other archaeologists, David Gilman Romano of the University of Pennsylvania concluded that material at the Lykaion altar “suggests that the tradition of devotion to some divinity on that spot is very ancient” and “very likely predates the introduction of Zeus in the Greek world.”

Of course, it gets a bit more complicated as victorious groups would appropriate gods (and their places of worships) of the defeated group and rename them. This would be symbolic of dominance and, at the same time, allow for an easier transition to the new god.
“You have some god being worshiped on a mountaintop, and the arriving Greeks have translated the god as ‘Zeus,’ their god of the sky, lightning, weather and so on,” Dr. Dowden said. “It’s going to be pretty close to what they found there, and given the site, it makes very good sense.”The affinities of Roman gods and goddesses to earlier Greek ones are well known. Jupiter, for example, is a virtual stand-in for Zeus. In antiquity it was perhaps no heresy to have different names for the same deity.
And monotheistic religions later did the same. Hence the appropriation of many pagan traditions by Christians (for example, Christmas may have been appropriated from the Roman festival of Sol Invictus) and of Arab polytheistic traditions by Islam (for example, Allah was the name of the supreme deity worshiped by pagans in pre-Islamic Arabia). Back to the Mount Lykaion discovery:

Dr. Nordquist said that she preferred the explanation that the Lykaion site was indeed used as a cult sanctuary in the time before Zeus. Little is known of the pre-Greek inhabitants, but some scholars think they originated in what is now western Turkey.

“We do not yet know exactly how the altar was first used in this early period, 3000-2000 B.C., or whether it was used in connection with natural phenomena such as wind, rain, lightning or earthquakes, possibly to worship some kind of divinity, male or female, or a personification representing forces of nature,” Dr. Romano said. “But this is what we are thinking at this moment.”

Read the full story here.