by Superpsychologist, Raymond Lane
During the late stage of prehistory, human beings developed a mother goddess religion. The central theme of that religion--and the great science of the era--was fertility. The people began to observe more closely gestation and birthing, which they saw all around them--in humans, animals and insects. The archaeological record, and a reexamination of the work of archaeologist James Mellaart, shows that this study led to a sense of affiliation with social insects, since their societies had similarities with human society. Additionally, within the period 10,000-4,000 BC (encompassing the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Chalcolithic), humans studied the insect's role of plant pollinator to understand farming, much as today's scientists study genetics for the same purpose.
Let us look at this development from its beginnings.
During the late Palaeolithic, the following artifacts--collected by archaic Homo sapiens (or Homo erectus)show an emerging interest in a mother goddess symbol:
A mother goddess symbolism may have developed in parallel with the Homo sapiens species. By 60,000 years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens had migrated through Asia and down into Australia. Australian Aborigines reverenced spirit beings, but their most important deities were fertility mothers, collectively called the Great Mother or the Old Woman. So by this time, there was a mother goddess religion forming.
In Europe, a significant cultural change occurred around 35,000 years ago (the Upper Palaeolithic). At its heart was a division of labour, with women performing domestic work and men making tools and hunting. This afforded the people leisure time to make artwork (e.g., beads, adornments, cave art, Venus figurines), new tools (e.g., composite tools), musical instruments (e.g., flute, bull-roarer), and to study nature more closely (e.g., recognising lunar and birth cycles). Peculiarities of cave art that included realistic animals, vulva images, feline rooms, anthropomorphs, and spirit beings suggest that the cave was a symbol of the womb (of Mother Earth) where living things were formed and, hence, that humans were theorising about the origins and birth of living things.
For hundreds of thousands of years (in Africa), humans would have consumed termites, bees (honey), and some ants amongst other foods. (In fact, the honey guide is a bird that leads humans or honey badgers to hives, so that it can feed on the remains after the hive is raided.) Eventually, they would have realised that the insect society with its large queen resembled their own society with its queen and mother goddess (a god usually has a same-sex social leader as its earthly representative). So the division of labour in human society may have been a basic form of the division of labour present in insect societies. The barbed bee stinger that locks into the skin and trails a pumping poison sack may have even been the inspiration for two tools developed at this time: the barbed spear point, and the needle (and thread). These tools would indicate close study of insects. Insects were not a common subject in cave art because their tiny forms were too difficult to hold in memory and draw.
From about 30,000 years ago humans began creating Venus figurines. They are recognised as being both a fertility and a mother goddess symbol. They may also be evidence of sympathetic worship of insects. The bulging, often pregnant, figurines may have represented the fertile qualities of the insect queen and its bulging, egg-filled body. Some notable examples are listed below:
At the end of the Ice Age--about 10,000-15,000 years ago--food may have been in short supply due to a large extinction of animals (thought to be due to overhunting and/or climate change) and possible competition over hunting ranges. People turned to fishing and fowling at watersides during the Mesolithic of 10,000-9,000 BC. From about 9,000 BC (the Proto-Neolithic) onwards, people turned their attention to animal and plant domestication. They began capturing their own animals knowing that they would multiply of their own accord, collecting and sewing their own seeds, and began studying insects--particularly bees--as a crop pollinator. Architecture and artifacts indicate that humans also adopted some aspects of insect lifestyles--via sympathetic worship--in an attempt to improve their own working lives. Some early homes were dome-shaped and often described as "beehives". At Khirokitia (from c.6020 BC), for example, "Several compounds were found consisting of one large beehive house, and several others used as kitchens, workshops for grinding corn, etc The general impression is one of great efficiency and good organization" (1965, p. 54). So it appears that early settlements may have been modeled on the beehive, both in terms of architecture and work organisation.
The largest Neolithic settlement was Çatal Hüyük, the East side of which was inhabited from about 6500-5650 BC. Shrine VII has a wall relief of a goddess with two red rings around her pregnant abdomen and a triangular navel (1967, p. 76)--imitating a bee's abdomen and stinger, and suggesting that she was equated to the queen bee. Bone belt clasps have been unearthed, possessing a curved conical pin that may have been inspired by the queen honeybee's curved stinger. Shrine VI.B.8 has a wall painting (1967, p. 123) with many handprints on the bottom, three bull heads at the top and a middle section displaying " the life-cycle of the bee in a honeycomb with closed cells on the left, from which, in the middle, the bees [indicated by white circles] emerge to fly freely in a field of flowers on the right" (1967, pp. 91, 162). The honeycomb is enclosed within two rows of four-fingered hands that Mellaart suspected represented crops. This shows that the people had an intimate knowledge of the beehive and that bees played a role in fertilising crops. One would think that such knowledge could only be attained by providing a nearby hive for the bees--in hollow logs, pots or baskets--as Stone Age people are known to have done. The entire painting theme suggests a spiritual hierarchy of humans on the bottom, gods on the top, and bees as the intermediary between the two. In fact, throughout the site numerous handprints had clear cell-like palms with a circle in them, suggesting that the people considered themselves the equivalent of "bees" for their own society--probably because they were living the same lifestyle as the bees (by working in the fields). Additionally, a painting in shrine A.III.1 shows the people representing themselves as insect-sized compared to the bull they hunted. So for the inhabitants there probably was a hierarchy of a queen at the top, artisans in the middle, and workers on the bottom--thus mimicking the bee hierarchy of queen, drones, and workers. Mellaart noted that over time, the king appears less frequently in statues, and that an interaction with bees would have occurred to (at least) make mead (a wine made from honey).
A wall painting of the city itself, in shrine VII (1967, p. 133), is composed of clear cell-like units--suggesting that the honeycomb may have been its inspiration. The real complex had entry holes in the roof, organic passageways between rooms, intramural burials, and new buildings built over the top of old ones. The people busied themselves with activities on the roofs and moved inside to worship, cook or sleep. It was, in effect, a self-contained "human hive".
Sympathetic worship of insects continued on in other Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlements of Anatolia. At Hacilar, the mother goddess figurines (1965, p. 108) had definite insect eyes: large ellipsoids that stretch round to the sides of the head. (Similar examples also come from Canhasan and Urartu.) This suggests even greater observation of insects. Mellaart also noted that the king no longer appeared in statues. This suggests that the society had completely adopted the queen-based social model. Wall paintings had been replaced by pottery paintings, and one example (1965, p. 110) has a stylised bee head, and four red rings around each of two bulging sides with handles--in imitation of bee abdomens and stingers. In western Anatolia as a whole, the trend was to mold the mother goddess' head onto pottery. They also painted geometric patterns onto pottery, some of which are clearly stylised insect heads--made up of a vertical mouth and forehead inbetween two large eyes. In some cases, the goddess' body was formed onto the pot and then painted with zigzag lines--making her look insect-like. All of this shows that the insect queen was afforded the same reverence as the mother goddess, and that the two were interchangeable.
Bees are the most important pollinators--for fruits, nuts, vegetables and pastures. So beekeeping became a widespread activity in tandem with the growth of agriculture. Early Egyptian and Chinese civilisations were known to have kept bees. The late Bronze Age Mycenaean civilisation of the Aegean (from c. 1600 BC), built some beehive tombs (tholoi) for its royalty. The civilisation was warlike, and known for its king-led palace bureaucracy, and specialised and regimented workforce. The later Spartan city-state was also warlike. So different cultures adopted different intensities of organised social behaviour.
Worship of a mother goddess continued in many forms up until Roman times. Her identities included Ishtar, Astarte, Baalat, Atargatis, Shaushka, Rhea, and Cybele. (Even Mary Magdalen's role has been equated to that of a mother goddess.) Generally, she was called Great Mother or Mountain Mother, and was considered parent to the gods, wild creatures and humans. Her motherly status over the wild was her most important attribute. However, in some forms (particularly Ishtar) she had bird wings and was associated with war. Her weapons poked out from cases behind her shoulders, which actually made her look like she had two sets of wings like a bee. In some myths the mother goddess mates with one or more consorts who are then lost to the underworld--thus mimicking the relationship between the queen honeybee and drone (who dies after mating or is ejected from the hive in the autumn to starve). The Phrygian mother goddess, Cybele, was adopted by Greco-Rome in several different forms. Amazingly, Roman Cybele was seated on a throne and flanked by two felines (but not giving birth), in similar fashion to the Çatal Hüyük mother goddess 6,000 years earlier. Cybele's sacred object was a black stone, while Çatal Hüyük traded black obsidian. So the mother goddess myth remained fairly constant in at least one part of Indo-European culture. Therefore, the attributes of the Greco-Roman goddesses will also be close to the attributes of the Neolithic mother goddesses. And the Greek goddesses Demeter and Artemis, and Roman Cybele, were all associated with bees.
The equating of the mother goddess with the bee--especially the pregnant abdomen with stinger--may have also been part of the reason why some early societies believed that the navel was the centre of the Earth or Universe. (Another reason was undoubtedly the foetus' connection to its mother via the umbilical cord.) In ancient Greece, The Delphi sanctuary--on Mount Parnassus--had a beehive-shaped stone (omphalos) as the Earth's navel. The attendant sibyls were associated with bees, and sat on a golden tripod when transmitting their oracles (interestingly, one bee species fashions its pollen store into balls with tripod supports). Meanwhile, the capital of the Inca Empire was Cuzco--which means "navel"--and the city was built in the shape of a feline (puma). In the mother goddess cult generally, the first-born were usually sacrificed to her in the belief that it ensured fertility, just as the new honeybee queen's first job is to sting to death any young queens.
The good and bad attributes of bees--involving labour, organisation, fighting, stinging, honey and the queen--naturally lent them to be associated with humans, and life's pleasures and toils. Bees were associated with royalty (especially rule by organisation as well as armed force); knowledge (sweet words); the soul; death (they could be featured on tombs); and the underworld and resurrection (due to their disappearance from fields during winter, and reappearance in spring). Jesus (through his resurrection), and Hindu gods (through their reincarnation) were associated with the bee. The priestesses of the Eleusinian Mysteries (worshipping Demeter) and the Essenes were called the "bees". And the Christian and Morman (Utah, USA) Churches adopted the beehive as their symbol. So bee symbolism--especially of diligent work--was attractive to religious groups in particular. This is not surprising as the superorganism is a religious entity by its very nature, because its members worship one above all others. Thus, the symbolic evidence supports the archaeological evidence that humans at all levels felt an affiliation with bees.
So for a short period of history, humans engaged in sympathetic worship of insects--especially bees--to help them better organise society and to learn farming. This may seem like strange behaviour, but it was their way of studying nature. Eventually, the study of fertility was completed--and the queen's power diminishedby the realisation that both Mother Earth and woman could not produce life without seed. So after about 4000 BC, sympathetic worship of insects subsided and newer advances of metalwork, writing, the wheel and economics fueled social growth. (Although agriculture underpinned this growth, with farmers taking bees with them--as an essential farming "tool"--wherever they went, even when colonising the New World. One could say that civilisation was founded on the honeybee's back.) Cities became larger, greater wealth was generated, kings became powerful, labour specialisation expanded, and social hierarchies became firmer-set. But brought with them all was a host of new problems: endemic warfare; a greater range of diseases and illness; overcrowding; and extremes of poverty and wealth. Superorganisms are known for worshiping a royalty, living life at a fast pace, burning out their workers, and for fighting en masse--all of which our species has experienced. So, unbeknownst to ourselves, our ancestors built civilisation on the superorganism model, which acted to boost our species' social development. The difference between humans and other superorganisms is that we have traveled further along the path of superorganism development than they have.
Catal Hoyuk mother goddess with bee abdomen
Catal Hoyuk honeycomb wall painting
Catal Hoyuk city cells painting
Catal Hoyuk bone belt clasp
Hacilar hornet goddess
Canhasan mother goddesses with insect eyes, and pottery with stylised insect heads
Chevalier, Jean & Gheerbrant, Alain, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols,
Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1996.
Mellaart, James, Earliest Civilizations of the Near East, Thames and Hudson, London, 1965.
Mellaart, James, Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967.
Tresidder, Jack (ed), The Complete Dictionary of Symbols: In Myth, Art and Literature, Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 2004.
article © copyright Raymond Lane, January 2005
Archaeological Diggings magazine has published an article describing how the ancient Egyptians were keen observers of insects. Insects of all sorts were a feature of Egyptian tomb art and jewellery, and even featured in medicine. Also, plague species like locusts were associated with Egyptian enemies. The praying mantis, however, is noted for its rare depiction--probably due to its camouflaged nature. It only appears in several texts, in a picture in the tomb of Hesi, and a linen-wrapped mantis was found in a tiny anthrapoid coffin (from Deir el madina, in 1929). But the author does note that the opening of the mouth ceremony--when objects were raised to the deceased's mouth--and the characteristic raised hands worshipping posture of the Egyptians may have been adopted from the praying mantis.
Linda Evans, Macquarie University, 'The Praying Mantis in ancient Egypt', Archaeological Diggings, David Down, Hornsby, NSW, Vol 12, No 4, Issue 69, Aug/Sept 2005, p. 40-44
The superpsychology view is that Neolithic farmers modelled their society on the social insects to increase efficiency. Today, some types of science--particularly related to telecommunications and the future-based nanotechnology, robotics, and space exploration--involve modelling on the insect society, as listed below:
* The concept for the Intenet was developed during the Cold War. It was believed that a network of computers would be able to protect information and maintain communications even after part of the network had been destroyed by a nuclear strike. This is the same principle of how a superortanism works. It is also similar to how a brain works, since a brain can still function after many cells have died. Today, the Intenet electronically connects up many parts of our global society.
* British Telecom based its telecommunications network on the ant colony:
British Telecom: Notes from the Ant Colony
* NASA has a program called "autonomous nanotechnology swarms" or ANTS:
Shape-Shifting Robot Nanotech Swarms on Mars
* Both NASA and the CSIRO are developing a self-repairing spacecraft skin made up of many separate units--based on an ant colony model. Scientists are also developing nanotechnology "swarms" that they believe will be able to repair the environment.
* And some forms of technology involve "biomimetics"--or organic simulation--that includes adoption of some insect attributes:
Space designs from ants and squirrels
So despite objections by some concerning the influence of the social insects on shaping the human species, we still continue to model our society on those insects.
In the early 1900s, American entomologist William Morton Wheeler coined the term superorganism to describe ant behaviour. From around that same time, a number of people have been involved in studying the human species as a superorganism. In the early 1900s, Eugene Marais (The Soul of the White Ant, The Soul of the Ape) directly compared termite society to human ape society. More recently, scientists Peter Russell (The Global Brain) and Howard Bloom (Global Brain)--members of the Global Brain Group--described the human superorganism as a melding of society and Internet. Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd have developed a theory of the human species as a superorganism based on comparing the complexity of human societies to those of insect societies. Meanwhile, some scientists are involved in the Global Consciousness Project, which uses instruments to try to detect a social emotional reaction to major events like wars and terrorism.
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