On the origins of the Egyptian Pantheon
Results of a 4WD-trip to Gebel Uweinat and to the Gilf Kebir
12/1/2009 – 12/20/2009
- part one -
In the course of their November 2008 Western Desert expedition Miroslav Barta, Professor of Egyptology at Charles University, Prague, and his team paid a visit to the Wadi Sura area of the Gilf Kebir, paying particular attention to the Cave of the Swimmers (WG 52; Andras Zboray classification) and the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave (Grotta Foggini; WG 21; Andras Zboray classification) which were top priorities on their agenda. At the latter site, like most of those before him, Barta was startled by the beauty and splendor of the largely cryptic rock art that embellishes the slightly concave rounded shelter and made an important discovery, when to his great surprise, he realized that some of the cave’s enigmatic paintings portrayed gods and goddesses from the Pharaonic pantheon. Consequently he concluded that ancient Egyptian mythological concepts were primordially linked to the Neolithic rock art of Egypt’s Western Desert, notably to the Gilf Kebir.
The Foggini-Mestekawi Cave (WG 21) was discovered in 2002 by the Italian desert enthusiast Massimo Foggini and his tour operator Ahmed El-Mestekawi. Although unilaterally renamed as Cave of the Beasts (“Grotte des Be´tes”; J. Le Quellec, P. and P. de Flers: Peintures et gravures d´ avant les pharaons du Sahara au Nil, Seleb 2005 ) by the prehistorian and prominent specialist in African rock art, Le Quellec et al., we shall adhere to its original name which was already consolidated into common usage long before the Frenchman, who had no involvement in the find, arrived there. The Cave of the Swimmers (WG 52) lying only 10 kilometres distant was discovered by the Hungarian explorer Count Laszlo Almasy in October 1933. Its name alludes to the notion that several small figures depicted on its walls vaguely recall humans in a floating or swimming posture. (figure 1)
figure 1: small human figures in swimming posture
2. Attempts to date the Wadi Sura rock art
Whilst Le Quellec tentatively dated the Wadi Sura rock art to around 4,500 +/- 500 years BC. (J.-L. Le Quellec, Une nouvelle approche des rapports Nil-Sahara d´apres lárt rupestre. Archeo-Nil 15 (2005) p. 73), Barta had assumed an age ranging between “…the Sixth – Fourth millennia B. C., and most likely to the period between 4,300–3,300 B.C…” (M. Barta: The origins of the goddess Nut and the predecessors of ancient Egyptian kings. Unpublished manuscript, received on 2/26/2010, p. 2), the latter time span being considered as the period of most intensive habitation in the Gilf Kebir and the surrounding area. (J. Linstaedter: Rocky islands within oceans of sand – archaeology of the Jebel Owenat/Gilf kebir region, eastern Sahara, in: O. Bubenzer, A. Bolten, F. Darius (eds.): Atlas of cultural and environmental change in arid Africa. Cologne 2007, 36 et seq. Note that for Neolithic sites in the Gilf Kebir Hoffmann suggests a period of habitation ranging from 6,000 to probably 4,000 B.C.. M. A. Hoffmann: Egypt before the pharaohs. London, Melbourne, Henley 1984, p. 232) However, as images of giraffes present in both caves (figure 2) point to an earlier era, Barta deviating from his original proposal, reasoned that the rock art in question “… must date to a wet period in the region as giraffes need rich water reservoirs. This wet period ended around 6,200 B.C. after which this mammal had to withdraw to the south.” (M. Barta: Origins, op. cit. p. 2) Thus, according to Barta, an earlier date seems to be more likely. (Ibidem, p. 2 ) Extending the time interval defined above, he finally concluded that the period of origin of the Wadi Sura rock art probably lay somewhere between circa 7,500 and 3,200 BC. (Ibidem, p. 2 )
figure 2: altar-cave (WG 61; Andras Zboray classification): a giraffe superimposed on a cow
So, various periods have been suggested: 7,500 B.C., 6,000 B.C, 4,500 B.C., 4,000 BC, 3,200 B.C. or even later? As is evident from the different styles and manifold superimpositions, the Wadi Sura rock art would seem to have been “… created in several, chronologically different phases.” (M. Barta,: Swimmers in the Sand. Unpublished manuscript, received on 3/10/2010, p. 12)
3. Wadi Sura – a Mecca for pilgrims from the Nile?
(see P. and P. de Flers, J. J. Le Quellec: Prehistoric swimmers in the Sahara. http//rupestres.perso.neuf.fr./page 76/assets/AC_, p. 61)
Wadi Sura lies on the route of the ancient Kufra Trail and its side paths. (see “The Kufra trail – another pharaonic period road to the southwest” on this website; in preparation). This long distance donkey road was in use until 2,000 B.C. Although less probable, it may be that the religious concepts so evidently displayed in the Wadi Sura rock art, were brought there by Nile valley travellers on their way from Dakhla oasis to the west. Given the chaos of styles and motifs, we cannot say more than this about the possible age of some of the rock paintings. The only hope to establish a more precise date “… is future archaeological research in their vicinity, especially in the case of (WG 21) which has never been properly surveyed.” (M. Barta,: Origins. op. cit., p. 2)
4. Research strategy
Bearing in mind my modest resources, how could the issues raised by Barta´s discovery be thoroughly investigated? What was the function of the two caves? Were they merely art-embellished sites decorated for art’s sake only? Or were they gathering places for rituals as suggested by the inherently religious nature of the ideas displayed on their rock faces and by the sacrificial altar found at WG 61? According to Assmann, Egyptian cult rituals are “…rooted in the basic concept of a deity as resident in a locale; (they are ) not directed toward a distant divinity who must be summoned, but rather to one who is present and resident.” (J. Assmann, The search for god in ancient Egypt. Ithaca, London 2001, p. 48) Does WG 21 and its divine rock art qualify for such a place of worship? Where can one find sound evidence for such a proposition? How could datable elements in the material culture of the region’s prehistoric populations be identified? Since the 1930´s, this expanse of great natural beauty has been frequented by a vast number of tourists and also by a few Egyptologists, archaeologists, pre-historians and rock art specialists. Apart from the rock art itself, was there any chance finding anything in situ? Could the age of the rock paintings be revealed without destroying them? Determined to find answers to these questions, in the Spring 2009 I began to look out for participants to join me on this difficult venture.
In two successive expeditions, one in December 2009 and the other in January 2010, a bunch of desert addicts and myself (Uwe George, Uwe Karstens, Dominik Stehle, Christian Kny, Christian Philipp, all five of whom generously sponsored the project, and Roland Keller), hopped into 4WDs and headed together with Khaled Khalifa and his staff (Muhamed Khalifa, Ibrahim Muhamed Imam, Muhamed Abd el-Faraq, Muhamed el-Said) towards the destination of my dreams.
5. 1st 4WD-trip (12/1/2009 – 12/20/2009
5.1 Resuming an earlier cancelled project
Memories awakened in me as we embarked on our first journey into the Land of Seth were, during the past 29 years I had left behind so many footprints. In the winter of 2002/3 Heino Wiederhold and myself had tried in vain to reach Almasy´s Cave of the Swimmers from Dakhla by camel. We managed to arrive at the top of the western escarpment of the Gilf Kebir only a stone’s throw away from the famous site, in the evening of the 1/21/2003 after a strenuous hike but shortage of water brought our lives to the brink of the abyss and in order to save ourselves, we were compelled, after only a few hours sleep at that spot, to commence the forced march back to Dakhla oasis together with our camels Amur, Maqfi and Rashid. Now, at long last, it was possible to resume the survey which had been deferred for almost seven years.
5.2 An unexpected discovery in Karkur Talh/Gebel Uweinat
Coming from Gebel Uweinat, the huge pluton which, together with its neighbouring mountains, Kissu and Arkenu, mark the direction of the drift of the African continental shelf during a distant geological epoch, we approached Wadi Sura from the south. In Karkur Talh I had bothered my companions with an (in their opinion) abstruse urge to identify mythological and religious traits in the Gebel Uweinat rock art (such as depictions of ithyphallic human figures or hand prints) that could be linked with ancient Egyptian religion. This aspiration unexpectedly yielded a result when Uwe George discovered a sandstone penis, measuring 2.30 metres in length. (figure 3) Sculptures are extremely rare in the Western Desert and to the best of my knowledge, apart from a large, carefully worked 2.5 ton sandstone block resembling a cow which was unearthed at Nabta Playa, this penis is the only other Neolithic sculpture found there so far. The phallus is comprised of two testicles (figure 4) and a clearly articulated glans. (figure 5) It’s form and size suggests it had been utilized for ritual purposes.
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figure 3: sandstone sculpture of a penis discovered by Uwe George figure 4: close up of the testicles
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figure 5: close up: clearly articulated glans figure 6: rock art found next to the phallus (detail)
The surface of the penis shows that it had been dressed by tools. It was found next to a horizontal row of inconspicuous engravings on a narrow rock terrace overlooking Karkur Talh. The event depicted in these engravings, shown in figure 6, may commemorate a group of humans being put to flight. Does this give a clue to the sculpture’s function? Even if one considers, that for the most part, the item might be naturally shaped, the fact that it bears anthropogenic marks indicates that it had attracted someone’s attention and thus, it must have possessed an important meaning of some kind. Was it the intention of the sculptors to erect the penis in an up-right position? In this case, would the object have to be considered as a megalithic monument intended to demonstrate virility and power according to the beliefs of an obscure cult? As the period when it was used certainly goes back to “… dimly distant prehistoric times which may lie forever beyond our grasp in terms of any full degree of understanding.” (R.H. Wilkinson, The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt, Cairo 2006, p. 10) a reasonable satisfactory answer is not easy to find.
Nevertheless, we tried to find similar megalithic sculptures down in the Karkur Talh but only managed to spot one piece of rock art in which the unexplained and mysterious depiction of erect penises(?) is again in evidence. (figure 7) Revisiting a small rock shelter, in front of which I had camped with my camels 23 years ago (see picture 10 of “The road to Yam and Tekhebet – part one”, in: Results of the winter 2008/9 4WD trip to Gebel Uweinat; on this website), I cast a glance into the dimly lit interior and looked once more at the single inconspicuous piece of rock art showing a man with erect penis standing behind a quadruped; the glans of his member obviously bulging somewhat. (figure 8) From our brief survey of the vast number of anthropomorphic depictions in Karkur Talh, we concluded that phallic symbolism is relatively rare in the wadi.
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figure 7: three dancers, two with erect penises(?) and knees bent (courtesy of Dominik Stehle)
figure 8: man with erect penis behind quadruped (colour enhanced for improved contrast)
5.3 Foggini-Mestekawi Cave/Gilf Kebir (WG 21; Andras Zboray classification)
5.31 A triad of nameless (Wadi Sura) deities evolving into a tetrad
When we arrived at WG 21, the enigmatic arrangement of those images engraved into the left freeze above the bulk of the rock paintings immediately attracted my attention. It consists of four human or divine figures, two of them outfitted with naturalistically shaped penises similar to the one shown in figure 8, two ostriches, two vulvae and a few negative hand prints. As shown in figure 9, the human figure slightly to the right of the centre is superimposed on an ostrich and also on the leg of a barely visible quadruped (the human figure thus probably being of younger age). This figure and the faint negative handprints immediately surrounding it, bear traces of reddish brown colour.
figure 9: nativity scene composed of two gods and a goddess, an umbilical cord, two ostriches and two pubic triangles.
Although the scene cannot be entirely explained, an attempt is made to unveil its possible meaning: The two human or, more generally speaking, the two anthropoid figures to the left of the picture, seem to represent a male holding his oversized penis with his right hand and a female of prominent status. The determinative-like, horizontal stroke or rectangle above the female’s head may be an indicator of this status but is so far uncorroborated. Linear strokes have been related to “owner’s marks”, “potter’s signatures”, “notational signs” etc. (M. A. Hoffmann: op. cit. p. 294; K. A. Bard: Origins of Egyptian writing, in: The followers of Horus. Studies dedicated to Michael Allen Hoffmann. R. Friedman, B. Barich (eds.), Oxford 1992, p. 299; E. D´Amicone: The art of vessel production. Turin 2001, p. 25). One, two or three horizontal strokes are common below the Horus names of the early Egyptian rulers (G. Dreyer: Um el-Qaab. Nachuntersuchungen im frühzeitlichen Königsfriedhof. 3./4. Vorbericht. MDAIK 46 (1990) p. 58 et seq.; G. Dreyer: Umm el-Qaab I. Mainz 1998, p. 89; http://xoomer.alice.it//francescoraf/hesyra/Dyn0serekhs.htm, F. Raffaele: Dynasty 0 “Serekhs”. Late predynastic Egyptian royal names) and occasionally, on jars (W.M.F. Petrie, J. E. Quibell: Naqada and Ballas, London 1896, pl. LIV; E. C. M. van den Brink: Corpus and numerical evaluation of the “Thinite” potmarks, in: The followers of Horus. op. cit., pp. 278, 288, 291, 293, 295; The international potmark workshop, http://www.potmark-egypt.com/Signs.asp?basic_sign-81. Note that the quality of oil was indicated by a horizontal stroke on jars found by Dreyer et al. at Umm el Qaab. G. Dreyer, U. Hartung, T. Hikade, E. C. Köhler, V. Müller, F. Pumpenmeier: Umm el-Qaab, Ergänzungen, MDAIK 54, p. 140) and Clayton rings (figure 10).
figure 10: pot mark on a Clayton ring deposited at a way station on the Kufra Trail
The stroke’s possible function as an indicator of the figure’s female gender seems unlikely, as an umbilical cord emerging from between figure’s legs (that is, from the womb; figure 11) and fusing with a “child” engraved on the far right, already supplies sufficient proof of gender. If one interprets the meaning of the determinative-like rectangle or stroke above the head of the female figure as an accentuation of her elevated position then, on that score, the figure may be seen as the consort of a chieftain who is depicted to the left of her or as a goddess who a.) has just given birth or b.) is related by lineage to the figure (her and her divine husband’s child) on the right.
figure 11: nativity scene – a god and his divine consort (detail of figure 9; colour enhanced for improved contrast)
A painted female statuette found by Flinders Petrie and James Quibell at Naqada (W.M.F. Petrie, J. E. Quibell: op. cit. pl. LIX¸; figure 12) seems to suggest the divine nature of the female figure seen in figure 11. (Even though Petrie and Quibble have assigned such female figurines, tattooed or painted, to their “New Race” which they related to “…a slender European type…” (Ibidem, p. 34) or alternatively, to the “.. slave women of the previous steatopygous race…” (W.M.F. Petrie: Prehistoric Egypt. London 1920, p. 47, Pl. VI), Fekri Hassan ventures further and proposes their mythological association with early predynastic female deities. (F. A. Hassan, Primeval goddess to divine king. The mythogenesis of power in the early Egyptian state, in: Followers of Horus. op. cit., p. 313 et seq.) With regard to a similar figure he states: “Although other interpretations are possible, the female may be identified with a deity, perhaps the goddess Hathor or Bat.” (Ibidem, p. 315))
figure 12: Human figures found by W.M.F. Petrie at Naqada
Note that the two tall statuettes in figure 12 show signs “…linking the breasts and hips with water, grain, and plant symbols.“ (Ibidem, p. 314) Note that in addition to zigzagging water lines painted on her arms and legs, the figurine on the left is decorated with a horizontal rectangle at waist level in the region of the vulva whereas, the statuette on the right is decorated with zigzag water signs at the same body section. In many cultures women are frequently associated with water. “Water is connected… metaphorically with menstrual blood. The link between women and water is indicated in Predynastic iconography by the association of female figures with the sign for water and by the association with water shells (including cowries).” (Ibidem, pp. 314 et seq.) Because of its positioning and because of it being just a different representation of water, the enigmatic rectangle evokes associations related to reproduction or to female fertility. Note that the lines inside the rectangle (as seen from top to bottom) slope right to left. Later in the Pharaonic script, a lake, the sea or “ornamental water” were represented inter alia by, a hieroglyph consisting of a horizontal rectangle in the centre of which, a double line sloping in the opposite direction, is depicted. (see E. A. W. Budge, An Egyptian hieroglyphic dictionary, vol. 1, New York 1978, p. CXXVi, No. 66) In the case of the slim female goddess depicted on the rock face at WG 21 it seems only logical that, because of the narrowness of her torso, the said horizontal stroke or rectangle could not be placed in the region of her pubic triangle, so it was put above her head instead. However, even at the chosen place directly above the goddess, the small dimensions of the composition and the grainy nature of the sandstone, precluded the creation of a “rectangle in outline” by the method of incising two tiny pairs of vertical and horizontal lines because the horizontal lines at such small scale could not be cut into the rock so close together without removing the sandstone in between them, thus a single thick stroke was formed. The small dimensions of the rectangle also prevented the insertion of any zigzag water signs into the tiny triangle (Note that the WB 21 rock art does not feature zigzag water signs.), and any such attempt by the artist would also have fragmented the rectangle by the blows of his tools. Thus, at the given scale, it seems that there was no alternative other than to use a simplified variant of the sign as seen in figure 12, in the form of a broad horizontal stroke (a bar which, without elaborate discussion, some observers may instantly view as a rectangle in bas-relief).
When one has advanced to this point, it would come as no surprise that two ostriches are found positioned on the umbilical cord. The following quote may provide an interpretation: “Females are also associated since the Late Palaeolithic with the sky and birds…. Representations of a female figure with raised arms in association with boats, sycamore fig trees, and ostriches are documented for several Gerzean (late Predynastic, Naqada II) pots.” (Ibidem, p. 315) More precisely, “.. maternity (of the cows in the context of the Gerzean rock art of Nubia)… was generalized to include ostriches.” (Ibidem) Thus, drawing on evidence from the Upper Egyptian Neolithic, links between the female deity, the female character of the cord in question and possibly, the female gender of the “child” can be established. Even when leaving aside the gender aspect of the “child” “…this complex association of female symbols constitutes a schema related to birth.” (Ibidem)
With the exception of the arms, which are extended outwards, the “child’s” body whose legs are shown as a single element, gives the impression of a wrapped mummy in an upright position. If this “mummy” had been depicted with an erect penis, the notion that the god Min had just been born would have been evoked. From the “child” a double line, considerably less elaborate than the umbilical cord, runs down to another horizontal line representing the sky (Note that the use of the sky-hieroglyph has been confirmed as far back as the end of the Predynastic period only. S. Schott: Hieroglyphen. Untersuchungen zum Ursprung der Schrift. Mainz 1950, p. 24), into which a rain emitting cloud is incorporated. (figures 13 -15)
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figure 13: child-god, rain-god, two clouds, a pubic triangle and an ostrich; colour enhanced
figure 14: detail of the dim vertical double line connecting the child-god with the upper cloud
figure 15: detail showing the two rain emitting clouds; the lower one superimposed on an ostrich; colour enhanced
In the later Pharaonic period “rain or dew falling from the sky” (E.A.W. Budge, op. cit. p. CXXiV, No. 4) was represented by a hieroglyph (Ibidem) very similar to the prehistoric depictions of this meteorological event. At Djedefre´s Water Mountain, two depictions, both vaguely related to this Hieroglyphic sign (see expedition report 2005/6 on this website) and also to the rain cloud in question can be seen. (figures 16 +17)
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figures 16 +17: 4th dynasty meteorological notations and K.P. Kuhlmann´s transcriptions
Below the rain emitting cloud there is yet another cloud which is superimposed on the image of an ostrich. (figure 18) There is also a pubic triangle on the left, almost connecting with this cloud, the connection serving as a roof-like “sky shelter” for a mysterious anthropoid figure. What is the meaning of this? A close look reveals that the enigmatic individual consists of a torso without arms on which a round head is mounted. The skirt like lower body lacks legs and feet which are replaced by a cluster of five vertical lines, enclosed on both sides by inward curved outlines. Doubtless, this odd figure which resembles a cloud itself, alludes to a rain-maker goddess. It is the rain giving deity herself! (figure 19)
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figure 18: rain goddess below the “roof of the sky” the latter distorted by the image of an ostrich
figure 19: image of the rain goddess (close up)
To sum up, it may be ascertained that, in later times (when droughts had become a recurrent meteorological feature), the “child god” appears to have been established as a mediator between his parents, who are the pair of deities to his left and the composite deity or rain-maker goddess below him. The pictographic cluster consisting of pubic triangles, rain clouds, an ostrich and the rain-maker deity herself, may thus symbolize reproduction and female fertility or the urges connoted with it, during a period of infrequent rains at the end of the Neolithic Wet Phase as experienced in the Wadi Sura area. Hence, this cluster, its linkage to rainfall and to the “child god”, must have evolved out of a tangible need and therefore may have to be interpreted as a spell or a lamentation carved into the rock to prevent or to overcome human tragedies caused by absent or insufficient rainfalls. As the link between the “child god” and the upper rain-cloud is only faintly engraved, and as a “sky-extension” is superimposed onto the ostrich by means of the horizontal stroke that belongs to the lower cloud, it is likely that this link as well as the two clouds and the rain-maker goddess, were carved into the sandstone at a later date than the majority of the WG 21 rock art, possibly during a period of environmental stress. If this is true, such a notion would lead to the sound conjecture that, the rain goddess and her divine companions were considered as local deities by the Neolithic population of the Wadi Sura area. Furthermore (leaving aside for the moment the reddish brown coloured figure outfitted with a naturalistically shaped penis (see figure 9) which may be even of a later age, in order to concentrate on the other figures and their surroundings which are connected by the umbilical cord or by the double line), the nucleus of this family grouping which initially consisted of three deities, was extended when the Neolithic population of Wadi Sura became subjected to the pressures of climatic change. Thus from an existing triad of local gods it became a tetrad i.e., a group of four local gods. Looking in this way at this complex panel of prehistoric rock art, it becomes clear that these deities reveal a genealogy of the gods created in the desert that echoes the mythic symbolism of later Pharaonic times and that also gives insight into how and why these divine genealogies came into being.
There is yet more evidence to substantiate the notion that the rain-maker goddess image created by Neolithic people and interpreted by Le Quellec et al. as a medusa (J. Le Quellec, P. and P. de Flers: op. cit., p. 214, figure 599) was in fact intended to represent a deity proper. Her “rain skirt” consists all together of seven strokes. This “..is certainly not accidental, but it is constructed according to a system of cultural references that is now lost to us.” (B. Midant-Reynes: The prehistory of Egypt. Oxford 2000, p. 179) For comparison: eleven vertical strokes are attached to the upper rain cloud and twenty two to the lower one. What is the reason for the sparse use of strokes when it comes to the design of the deity’s skirt? Although it is somewhat speculative “…to extrapolate back from the (Pre-) Dynastic period into prehistory… (since) new myths are grafted onto old rites until almost all sense of their original identity has been erased” (Ibidem), some parallels should be drawn: On the Narmer macehead, the Narmer palette and also on the mace head of the Scorpion king, a symbolic element consisting of a rosette with seven petals can be seen. (See K. A. Bard: op. cit., pp. 298, 302, 303. Note also that Saad found a pendant in the form of a small wheel of green faience which he interpreted as palm tree with seven braches and a trunk and which he viewed as a representation of the goddess Seshat. Z.Y. Saad: The excavations at Helwan. Norman 1969, pp. 57, 59). In case of the Scorpion king the ruler’s name itself consists of such a rosette and the image of a scorpion. Although the political meaning of the three artefacts remains obscure, one may reason that the rosette itself as well as the number seven as evidenced in the rosette’s petals, possibly constituted a component of the king’s name. Hartung assigned a similar rosette found on a seal belonging to the tomb of U-j, to a high Pre-Pharaonic office involved in the control of long distance trade. In later times such trade became the sole privilege of Egyptian kings. (U. Hartung: Prädynastische Siegelabrollungen aus dem Friedhof U in Abydos (Umm el-Qaab). MDAIK 54 (1998), pp. 211, 213) Contesting Hartung´s interpretation that the Scorpion King’s rosette constitutes a part of the spelling of a rulers name, Baumgärtel argues that it is a symbol of a goddess. (E. J. Baumgärtel, in ZÄS 93 (1966) pp. 9 et. seq., cited from G. Dreyer: Ein Segel der frühzeitlichen Königmetropole von Abydos. MDAIK 43 (1987) p. 42) Leaving this aside we consider the idea of Dreyer who sees seven-petal-rosettes as an expression of (the king’s) divineness, thereby, partly reconciling both interpretations. Could this expression of divinity also apply to the number seven independently of the floristic motif? Venturing from the realm of probability into the realm of prudent speculation, I propose that the number seven could be considered as having been sacred in Neolithic times, imbued with a “religious” or ritual meaning, signifying the divine.
Side note: Aldred has pointed out that the Egyptian concept of the god-king derived from the “…prehistoric rainmaker who kept his tribe… (and their domestic animals) in good health by exercising a magic control over the weather... (who was)… transformed into the Pharaoh, able to sustain the entire nation by having command over the Nile flood.” (C. Aldred. The Egyptians. New York 1963, p. 157) Such a transformation cannot be inferred in the case of the WG 21 rock art as the depiction of a chieftain with a mace who just has smitten an enemy, (figure 20) whom Barta considers the prototype of the ancient Egyptian kings (M. Barta: Swimmers. op. cit., p. 6.) is seemingly not endowed with any rain-making qualities. Such qualification seems to rest solely on the rain-maker goddess to whom, in periods of drought, the Wadi Sura tribe may have performed sacrifices.
figure 20: prototype of the ancient Egyptian king smiting enemies
Although there is no evidence, neither from the Neolithic period nor from the Pharaonic as to what happened to the rainmaker-chieftains or kings during times of severe drought, we are informed about their fate in recent times and from various regions of Africa “… and there are anthropologists who believe that the ceremonial killing of the Pharaoh was sometimes revived in moments of crisis.” (C. Aldred: op. cit., p. 157) In the period between 8,500 – 5,000 B. C. serious droughts may have occurred more often in the area of the Gilf Kebir than the term “Neolithic Wet Phase” suggests as, according to Bolten and Bubenzer, the annual precipitation at that time did not exceed 100 mm. (A. Bolten, O. Bubenzer: Watershed analysis in the Western Desert of Egypt, in: Atlas. op. cit., p. 22) Bearing in mind the prevailing high evaporation rates during this period and the fact that the rains may have fallen only episodically or seasonally, water may not have been easily available all year round. However, the first stratigraphic evidence ever, recovered from a small settlement site in the area confirms that despite this difficulty, a semi-sedentary life at around 5,700 B.C. was possible for at least one hundred years in the Wadi Sura area, lying as it does, at conveniently close quarters to several palaeodrainage systems, thus suggesting this period to be the most likely one in which the bulk of the rock art of the region may have been created. (for details see part two of this report) With this in mind, we may conclude that it did not necessarily require the lasting desiccation that gradually set in around 5,300 B.C. (see R. Kuper, Environmental change and cultural history in northeastern and southwestern Africa, in: Atlas. op. cit. p.9), to cause people to call upon a rain-maker goddess. Such invocations might have been a frequent occurrence long before the onset of the period of dwindling rainfalls which, more than 2,000 years later, (beginning circa 3,000 – 2,000 B.C.) led to the creation of the hyperarid desert, devoid of vegetation, as we know it today.
5. 32 Or is it a Triad (tetrad) evolving into a pentad? (corrected on 9/12/2010)
Rethinking the issue of the goddess depicted with her divine male consort by her left side (see figure 9 above), the composition suggests that:
- she has either just given birth to the small figure connected with her by an umbilical cord (figure 11) or she
- is related by kinship or lineage to this same small figure (in case of the latter the umbilical cord symbolising and expressing such an affiliation) in a way which may have been typical at the time (see preceding chapter).
Thus it may well be that the small rectangle above the head
- signifies that the personage is a female or
- signifies that the personage is a deity or
- signifies that the personage is both female and also a deity.
Thus, as Miroslav Barta has put it, we may see here not only, “… a rare combination of ´power and dominion´ (= mace) and fertility (= penis) so typical for later pharaohs” (M. Barta: pre-print, p. 92; initially Barta had envisioned the male figure as holding a mace in his right hand; a weapon I cannot discern), but also a combination of male and female fertility on an equal footing as well as a representation of lineage or kinship. (see similar view in F. A. Hassan: Primeval goddess to divine King. The mythogenesis of power in the early Egyptian state. op. cit., p. 312 et seq.).
Merging with my view that the engraved line connecting the female figure and the “child” is an umbilical cord, Barta subsequently states “Fertility cult and kin was of great importance even for the prehistoric populations in the Gilf Kebir – chieftain with a large penis in the Cave of the Beasts. He is followed by a woman with umbilical cord and with a child… This may be one of the oldest representations of a kinship.” (M. Barta, M. Frouz: Swimmers in the Sand. Dryada 2010, p. 96) If the figures in question are considered deities (as has been proposed in the preceding chapter), we may see here the nucleus of a family group that qualifies as a representation of a Triad of divine creatures who, (if the rain goddess is included in our considerations) developed later into a Tetrad.
But what about the “dressed individual” in figure 9 seen in the centre right, at the highest level of the composition (for a close-up see figure 21 below) who, like the male divinity to his right, is also holding his penis with the help of his (left) hand? This anthropoid figure is clearly not as closely connected with the other four deities as they seem to be with each other. His rather more detached status is evident by the fact that he is not attached to the umbilical cord or to any other engraved line, nor is he holding hands. He is superimposed onto an ostrich and the faint engraving of a quadruped´s legs. The skyline and the rain cloud (below the child god) that are also depicted, are also superimposed onto another ostrich. (see figures 13 + 15 above) These superimpositions indicate that the “dressed individual” is younger than the Triad thus, most probably, of the same age as the depictions of the clouds and the rain goddess.
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figure 21: dressed individual with “unnaturally” erect and extraordinary large penis
figure 22: for comparison: naked hunter with flaccid penis (from WG 72)
Why does this enigmatic attired individual stand somehow lost in the scene? And why is his penis not fully erect (in contrast to the ithyphallic character to his right who boasts a fully erect member)? Seemingly, his penis, although sexually aroused and incredibly extended, is not in the normal upward pointing or horizontal angle you would expect in a fully erect penis (which, amongst other deities, later became a characteristic feature of the god Min) but instead is pointing down. Such a defective curvature can be hardly explained as a possible medical condition (of the penis) during an erection. However, could it be that we see here an old but still powerful man? Is this the reason why this individual is shown fully dressed (his attire is the only item in the scene bearing traces of reddish brown ochre paint) and why he is depicted with such a large penis? (Does he constitute a symbol which may represent the combined qualities “enduring might” and “old age”?) By contrast, figure 22 displays a naked predecessor of the “Libyan hunter” from a slightly later period wearing a feather on his head, his penis (not sexually aroused) depicted in a rather naturalistic state. The depictions provide credible evidence for the existence of refined artistic articulation that could, in a masterly manner, clearly differentiate between various kinds of sexual arousal.
A close look at figure 9 (an enlargement of which is presented in figure 23) reveals that, in contrast to the penis belonging to the male deity on the leftmost side of the penal, the penis of the “dressed figure” is clearly directed towards the “child”. This leftmost male deity together with his female consort, also seems to be walking leftwards and westwards (and/or is shown in a position that that is averted to the “child”), with the female following the male, thus, both are moving away from the “child”, whilst the “dressed personage” from his position in the scene, the orientation of his feet and featureless head (note that this head is positioned on the corpse slightly to the centre right), seems to be facing this “child”.
Why do “parents” of high social status abandon their “child”, even though this child is still connected by the umbilical cord with his mother? In my view, such conduct is not the natural behaviour one would expect from human beings which suggests (mythologically justified) that these are the actions of gods. As the “dressed anthropoid figure” is of younger age than the Triad, the fact that it was added to the scene at a later time could be indicative of a change in the mythology of the people concerned (or of an advancement to their “tales of the gods”) and it seems there had existed a need to make such a shift explicit in the rock art.
Does the depiction allegorize the outcome of a paternal quarrel; a fight in which both ithyphallic creatures were involved? Or, to phrase it more cautiously, had there existed an urge to make it retrospectively clear, who really was the father of the child god? Can we here envision the “dressed figure” as a god? Half way between this “dressed” god and the divine couple something has been obliterated. Would the missing depiction have given us additional insight into the interpretation of the scene?
figure 23: Enlarged detail of figure 9
To the best of my knowledge there are no accounts in Egyptian mythology/religion that resemble the tale that is being told in this panel (figure 23). Even the fight between Seth and Osiris, with the latter´s resurrection by Isis (see E.A. W. Budge: Egyptian religion – Egyptian ideas of the future life. London 1987, pp. 41 ff.) so that he could conceive an heir (Horus), would not seem to be conclusively related to the scene in question.
Sidenote1: Whilst I was photographing this rock art panel at Foggini´s cave, the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus came to mind. It seemed to me that a revelation similar to the one that disclosed that Sisyphus was the father of Ulysses and not Laertes, was here being related. After Sisyphus (= dressed individual to the right) had seduced Antiblia (= the female on the left), she became pregnant and hastily married her fiance Laertes (= the male on the far left) thus, awarding the unearned joy of fatherhood of the child (= the small figure on the far right) to Laertes.
It had been assumed by Wilkinson (R. H. Wilkinson: The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. op. cit., pp. 12-15, 20) that in pre-historic times gods in human form had emerged or developed more slowly than zoomorphic type deities. Similarly, Assmann states a “… preceding ´prepersonal´ phase in the history of Egyptian religion… (moulded) the classical form of Egyptian polytheism..” (Jan Assmann, The search for God in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca and London 2001, p.101) concluding that, with “.. the coming into being of the persons of deities – that is, with the personalizing and thus the anthropomorphizing of the Egyptian concept of the divine – polytheism came into being…” (ibidem) If here, we leave aside the issue of whether or not Egyptian religion originated from a stellar cult (see Report on the results of radiocarbon datings from the Wadi Sura area, Gilf Kebir, southwestern Egypt, attachment 1 – additional 14C-datings, sidenote 4), we may, for a moment, unquestioningly follow Assmann´s further conclusion that, as the “.. history of religion knows many forms of apersonal concepts and experiences of the numinous…(,) animal, plant, and fetish forms of many Egyptian deities point to a preanthropomorphic and thus probably also prepersonal phase of the form of the numinous.” (ibidem, p. 101 et seq.)
Indeed, until now, the evidence in the archaeological record from Nabta Playa in Egypt´s Western Desert confirms that the earliest worship of animals, believed to be gods in animal form, may have considerably preceded the creation of human type divine beings. Examples of such evidence are:
a.) offerings of domestic animals (dated to 5,900 – 5,500 BC; see M. Barta, M. Frouz. op. cit. p. 79),
b.) a regional ceremonial centre comprising cow and sheep burials at around 5,500 – 5,400 BC (Ibidem, p. 83)
c.) a carefully worked sandstone block which resembles an animal, most likely a cow, which also may reflect such a progression. (The sculpture cannot be dated but may be associated to the megaliths and tumuli believed to belong either to the period of 5,500 – 4,600 BC or to the interval of 4,500 – 3,100 BC.) (Ibidem, pp. 83 + 87)
However, the older, enigmatic type, pre-cattle pastoralist portion of the imagery at the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave (dated to around 6,000 – 5,600 BC) suggests that the tendency for animal deities to evolve faster than the human deities cannot be confirmed there because the depicted scenes include both the strange zoomorphic “headless beasts” and also the antropomorphic deities (shown in large scale) and human figures that surround them (pictured in small scale; see chapter…. below). Furthermore, the anthropomorphic divine Triad/Tetrad/Pentad engravings ie., the proposed birth scene discussed at length above and in chapter 5.31 which, most likely, are contemporaneous with the “headless beasts”, are portrayed without divine zoomorphic companions. Do we perhaps see here the oldest representations of gods in human form known so far in the Egyptian hemisphere?
Returning to the statements of Wilkinson and Assmann, if one accepts that this group of anthropoid figures depicted in the birth scene is indeed either a Triad/Tetrad/Pentad, it again weakens the proposal that the development of zoomorphic deities had considerably preceded the creation of gods in human form. At the same time, however, it strengthens the proposition that the Egyptian pantheon and religion partly originated in much earlier times from the Libyan Desert. In this case the birth scene would serve as further evidence which adds to the sparse and ambiguous records of gods in human form from early pre-dynastic Egypt, extending the earliest date of their creation further back into prehistory.
Sliema, Malta 8/13/2010
posted on this website 8/31/2010
5.33 More about sacred numbers
As a supplement to what has been outlined in chapter 5.31 above and in my “Report on the results of radiocarbon datings from the Wadi Sura area, Gilf Kebir, southwestern Egypt” (attachment 1, chapter 1.3) I would like to remind readers that in his book ´Symbol & magic in Egyptian art´ (London 1994), R. H. Wilkinson had written at length about the magical symbolism underlying Egyptian art and notably, in chapter 6 of his book (pages 126 – 147), the author focuses on the meaning and symbolism of numbers as understood by the ancient Egyptians. Can Wilkinson´s ideas also be applied to the Neolithic?
Desirable as it may be, I feel it is still too early to discuss the possible correspondences that may exist between Egyptian sacred numbers and their allied mythical-religious themes on the one hand and the rock art of the Western Desert cultures on the other. Notwithstanding my findings as described in chapter 5.31 and in my report on the radiocarbon datings from Wadi Sura, such a discussion would, at the moment be completely inconclusive on account of the sparseness of archaeological data covering this distant epoch that has accumulated so far. However, there is an entry in the Wikipedia website that attempts to set up a list of sacred “pharaonic numbers”. Although this list is partly wrong and so far lacking in sufficient citations which may verify the statements in there, the link concerned is quoted for the interest of readers. (http://en.wikepedia.org/wiki/Numbers_in_Egyptian-mythology):
- Number “3”: “..basic symbol for plurality… Triads of deities were also used in Egyptian religion to signify a complete system.”
- Number “5”: “It took five days for the five children of Nut to be born…. The star, or pentagram, representing the afterlife, has five points.”
- Number “7”: “Symbol of perfection, effectiveness, and completeness.”
(quotes from (http://en.wikepedia.org/wiki/Numbers_in_Egyptian-mythology)
BTW, in my opinion the comments on numbers 5 + 7 support the notion that the figure Le Quellec interpreted as a medusa (fig. 18 above) is indeed a goddess.
When time permits efforts will be made to delve deeper into the symbolism of numbers.
5.34 Headless Beasts and the issue of the sky goddess Nut
5.341 Evidence of phallic cult practises
I am not surprised that the phallic cult reflected in the birth scene, discussed at length in chapters 5.31 and 5.32, reappears, albeit in modified form, in other sections of the spectacular rock painting that embellishes the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave (WG 21). Three scenes where the existence of such a cult are indicated are listed below. (Phallic cult practices were not confined to the Wadi Sura area only. This is proved by the large sandstone sculpture of a penis found at Gebel Uweinat. See figure 3 above.)
- Figure 24 shows persons in a “…strange unnatural semi-squatting body posture (legs apart, and knees at right angle)…” (A. Zboray: Rock art of the Libyan Desert. 2nd expanded edition. Newbury 2009, Rock art styles, Wadi Sora style). From the pelvis of one of these figures rises a large phallus. The phalli of the individuals to the left and right of this figure apparently have been obliterated.
- Figure 25 displays a male individual in a similar semi-squatting body posture holding his member with both hands. His phallus is very similar to the ones shown in the birth scene. Such similarity makes it clear that the body part in question is indeed a penis and not a tool or a weapon. There are three individuals in an upright position standing next to the ithyphallic figure as though they were his audience.
- In figure 26 nine ithyphallic individuals are lined up in single file.
figure 24: male figure in a semi-squatting body posture holding his erect penis with one hand
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figure 25: another figure in a semi-squatting body posture holding his erect penis with both hands
figure 26: nine ithyphallic figures walking in single file
Sidenote 2: There are other scenes at the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave that possibly could be depicting phallic rituals but it is not certain that these images are phallic in nature. See for instance the hostile(?) scene depicted in figure 27 where combatants(?) seem to be wielding slightly kinked tridents that are supported from the lumbar or hip region of these fighters/dancers. Although the meaning of this imagery is obscure, the manner in which the spears are being held does resemble the way in which the erect phalli are being held in figures 24 – 26.
In the case of the warriors(?) shown in figure 28, the question of whether or not the figure in the lower left of the scene is lifting his mace or is holding his erect penis, is not easy to answer. As this particular combatant is depicted in a vigorous forward striding posture, it seems unlikely that, the Neolithic artists intended him to be the only one in the scene with an erect penis. Thus, this possible phallus might just as well be a mace handle with a stone mace fixed to its tip.
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figure 27: hostile scene showing archers (right) and a group of figures (left)
lifting slightly kinked tridents(?)
figure 28: warriors(?) lifting their maces
These examples may suffice to convey the uncertainties which we face when trying to interpret seemingly insignificant but, for the purpose of analysis, important scene elements of the WG 21 rock art. Against this backdrop and even though these men are holding their arms in a position untypical of such an activity, it comes as no surprise that Barta interprets the cluster of ithyphallic individuals shown in figure 26 as offering bearers (M. Barta, M. Frouz: Swimmers, pp. 41 + 51). (The standard Old Kingdom body posture of offering bearers is shown in figure 20 of Barta´s “Swimmers”. Two engraved human figures in a kneeling posture which are interpreted as copies of the offering bearer of the Mentuhotep II inscription by Zboray and Borda, were found in the immediate vicinity of the inscription at Gebel Uweinat. See A. Zboray, M. Borda: Some recent results of the survey of Jebel Uweinat. Sahara 21(2010)p. 188) Let´s now return without further ado, to figure 26 and try to unravel the details of its interpretation.
5.342 Barta´s “white Nut” surrounded by gods
The composition is part of an enigmatic scene (figure 29) in which, as Barta sees it “…a large figure of a composite body painted white… leaning against the ground in a way similar to later depictions of the goddess Nut in ancient Egypt…”, is brought together with “.. a red figure of a male (the earth god Geb), which seems to support her body, reclining on his right elbow and with his left arm touching/supporting her breast. His legs are unnaturally long and nine men are depicted walking on them from the right side. In their hands they carry large, elongated items resembling joints of meat brought by later offering-bearers as attested in Egyptian tombs from the Old Kingdom… The assumed offering bearers may refer to ancient inhabitants of the desert who were ascending from the desert plateau to the cave which was considered a place of transition. In the cave were meeting the profane world with the netherworld. And thus the cave was the place of their interference as was the goddess Nut.” (M. Barta, M. Frouz: Swimmers, pp. 41 + 51)
Barta then continues: “The scene is complemented by two more, large and thin figures of gods, one to the left of the White Goddess and another one below her trunk, with both arms outstretched to her breast. They are also the two gods, known later in ancient Egypt as Shu and Tefnut. Two considerably smaller human figures complement the scene on the right and another pair of human figures (male ones?) is shown just in the place of the missing head of the goddess. They appear to venerate her.” (Ibidem)
figure 29: Neolithic precursors of the sky goddess Nut, the earth god Geb,
Shu and Tefnet approached by nine men. Note the hostile scene in the
lower left of which an enlargement is shown in figure 28.
5.343 Can the Wadi Sura rock art be linked with the cultural development in the Nile valley?
We had reached the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave at noon on December 12, 2009. Whilst my friends took their well deserved opulent lunch at our camp site, a couple of kilometers south of WG 21, I was lucky enough to spend a few hours alone admiring what has been rightly qualified by Andras Zboray as “…the most important rock art site in all of the eastern part of the Sahara.” (A. Zboray: op. cit., no page numbers) As time - spent in solitude - passed, a feeling evoked in me the vision that I had arrived at the origin of the Egyptian religion. In the Nile valley this religion and the conception of its gods and goddesses reveal themselves mainly in texts: in the writings of the early sages of Egypt, in hymns and epithets. At WG 21 there was silence. But even this silence seemed to be absorbed by the presence of the magnificent, rather abstract and highly symbolic-religious rock art. I felt this extreme void. I felt that I had entered a holy site, a place of rituals and worship bare of utilitarian use. I had stepped into a temple.
But where were the altars? If Egyptian religion is a product of different periods “… so remote that it is useless to attempt to measure by years the interval of time which has elapsed since it grew up and established itself in the minds of men…” (E.A. Wallis Budge: Egyptian religion. New York 2005, p. 2), one should also note that “of the gods of the prehistoric man we know nothing, but it is more than probable that some of the gods who were worshipped in dynastic times represent, in a modified form, the deities of the savage, or semi-savage, Egyptian (outside the Nile valley; S. Morenz: Egyptian religion. Ithaca, New York 1992, p. 233) that held their influence on his mind longest.” (E. A. Wallis Budge, 2005, p.86) Thus, could some of the threads for unveiling the roots of the Egyptian pantheon be picked up here?
Rock art specialists like Andras Zboray argue that, most “.. of us studying.. (Wadi Sura rock art) have their knowledge base firmly rooted in the Egyptian civilization, and often look for analogies there.” (email of 9/16/2010) Thus, it is this background that “…introduces a cognitive bias. We try to explain things using an Egyptian frame of reference and terminology, often ignoring the far more overwhelming evidence from Saharan rock art.” (email of 9/26/2010) In addition, emphasizing that “…the Gilf/Uweinat cultures are linked to the broader Saharan-Sahelian cultures, and have no link whatsoever with the Nile valley”, Andras points out that “there is a time gap of at least 3,000 – 4,000 years between Wadi Sura and the time the Road to Yam and Tekhebet was in use.” (email of 3/25/2010) Therefore “.. one should not draw conclusions from single isolated examples without consulting the broader picture.” (email of 9/15/2010)
My perception regarding the permeability of the Western Desert during the periods in question is different. To me, cultural contacts with areas to the east of the Gilf Kebir during the said periods are as likely as contacts with the Saharan-Sahelian cultural sphere. (see also sidenotes 2 + 4 of my “Report on the results of radiocarbon datings from the Wadi Sura area, Gilf Kebir” on this website.) How, otherwise, can it be explained that, around 2,000 BC, when climatic conditions had worsened, donkey caravans were able to move along the Kufra Trail, from Wadi Sura to Dakhla oasis and vice versa, without the need of an elaborate water supply system? On this trail each of the ancient water dumps comprises, if any, of no more than two water jars. Certainly not enough storage facility for thirsty caravans thus, implying that water, food and feed were permanently collected from the surroundings of the trail. (Hopefully, my report on the Kufra Trail will be published next year on this website)
Sidenote 3: By the way, a TL-date from a pot sherd found at WG 49 revealed an age of 4,700 +/- 20% (circa 3,600 – 1,800 BC) indicating that during the period in which the Kufra Trail was in use, the Wadi Sura area still may have been regularly inhabited. (On the inaccuracies of the TL-dating method see my remarks in previous reports on this website.)
Sidenote 4: For the camel period, Harding King reports a convincing case of a wandering existence in the Sahara. Before the introduction of motor vehicles to the desert Haggi Qwatin Mohammed Said, one of his guides and “… a native of Surk in Kufra Oasis,…had acted as a tax collector among the Bedayat for Ali Dinar… He had a Bedayat wife in Darfur, a Tawarek one somewhere near Timbuktu and one if not two others near Manfalut … The last time he was in Farafra… he was on his way back from Tibesti … Quaytin´s knowledge of the least known parts of North and Central Africa was profound… He gave me enough data to form a fairly complete map of the unknown portions of the Libyan Desert, with a great deal of the Bedayat country and Endi… The map when completed contained the names of some seventy places that… had not previously been recorded; many of them have been found since, approximately in the position in which they were shown. (W. J. Harding King: Mysteries of the Libyan Desert. London 2003, pp. 199, 207, 210 et seq.)
Even long before, during the “… climatic optimum, the Eastern Sahara was far from being a paradise. The amount of annual rainfall, estimated to a maximum of 100 mm during the Holocene humid phase… or slightly higher in mountainous regions, such as the Gilf Kebir… indicate a dry savannah with episodic rains and a patchy and unpredictable availability of surface water and related resources such as vegetation and wild animals. These factors created living conditions of high risk and stress for the foragers of the Eastern Sahara. Highly variable spatial and temporal logistical and residential mobility patterns are likely to be adaptive expressions of risk minimization in the Western Desert.” (H. Riemer: Prehistoric rock art research in the Western Desert of Egypt. Archeo-Nil 19(2009) pp. 34 et seq.) Were highly mobile Neolithic tribes that frequented the Gilf Kebir, as mobile as the much later pharaonic donkey caravans? I think so. These tribes must have been able to traverse hundreds of kilometres of what we consider barren lands. By adapting to their environment and to seasonal rainfall which, in those early times, may have been much more predictable than during the dynastic period, tribal groups practiced a wandering existence and may have managed to go wherever they needed to travel. Only fear of their foes prevented them from doing so. Thus, taking into consideration the permeability of the desert-steppe/dry savannah as described above: why should there not have existed, in the Neolithic period, an “open door” also to the Nile valley?
Why not, for now, accept Budge´s aforementioned vision and Siegfried Morenz´ fascinating thesis put forth in 1960, according to which in “… the early period… the Libyans to the West played a significant role … in the development of Egyptian culture … (so that their) influences should not be accounted as foreign borrowings… (but rather as) an integral part of the process whereby the Egyptians constructed their own cultural forms”? (S. Morenz: op. cit, p. 233) Why not follow Barta´s remarkable approach to the splendor of WG 21 and WG 52 as outlined in his “Swimmers in the Sand”, which may lead to a paradigm shift with regard to the way we view and interpret the Wadi Sura rock art?
Sidenote 5: With once´s naked eye the careful observer will notice that some of the XX WG 21 images may have been deliberately(?) washed X whilst others were overpainted XX up to at least five times XX. Considering these omnipresent X superimpositions and bearing in mind that probably, XX half of the WG 21 rock art was still covered by sand when we XX visited the cave, the estimated XX number of its depictions XX may run into the thousands. Thus, with regard to the number of paintings, the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave may not only be the biggest rock art site of the Sahara but perhaps, also of the whole world.
The overpaintings XX considerably complicate rock art analysis for those to whom XX advanced image enhancement is not available. Because of lack of such techniques my study will focus on what can be clearly X seen with bare eyes.
(sidenote corrected on 11/21/2010)
5.344 The procession of nine ithyphallic figures symbolizing earth based X fertility and strength
Looking at the complex composition shown in figures 29 + 31 whilst at the same time, focusing on Barta´s “assumed offering bearers” (shown in the lower left of figures 29 + 31 and, as a detail, in figure 26), a slightly different interpretation of the scene entered my mind as follows: With regard to the two large, standing figures arched by the white body of what, subsequently, may have become the sky goddess Nut, the figure on the right may foreshadow the Egyptian air god Shu and the figure to his left, resting the handless tip of his arm (not his right elbow as Barta sees it. Because what may be interpreted as Geb´s forearm is, in fact, a floating figure. See figure 30.) on one of Nut´s legs, may be an early form of Geb, the Egyptian earth god. In Egyptian mythology Geb is occasionally depicted with an erect penis. (see for instance, W. Forman; S. Quirke: Hieriglyphs and the Afterlife in ancient Egypt. Norman 1996, p. 9) Would therefore, the procession of ithyphallic figures shown as if they are just about to ascend Geb´s legs, symbolize the attribute of male fertility? Note that there is a striking iconographic similarity between the Neolithic and the dynastic representation of Geb when, X to emphasize his fertile nature XX, in the 21st dynasty, the god´s body was portrayed with a covering of the hieroglyphs for ´reed XX. (R. H. Wilkinson; op. cit., p. 106)
figure 30: floating figure close to the tip of Geb´s arm and to Nut´s leg
Sidenote 6: For the sake of promoting open discussion I want to acquaint the reader with a fundamental objection put forth by Andras Zboray. In his email of 9/26/2010 Andras writes: “This whole argument relating Geb is an excellent illustration of what I call “cognitive bias”. An isolated element is taken from the Egyptian pantheon, and compared to an isolated element of the paintings, noting some very real similarities. However the implied conclusion is in my opinion incorrect, as only the apparent similarities are included, ignoring 99% of the remaining corpus of paintings where no such similarity may be established. What you write is technically correct, but cannot be accepted by itself as evidence for any cultural links.” At this stage, it may suffice to reply that, cultural differentiation as evidenced in the WG 21 rock art, would not at once have started on a broad scale but rather, it began with a new perception of the world followed by a search for alternative means of religious and artistic expression. At the beginning of such a transformation within one and the same culture only tiny, fragmentary and unspectacular changes in expression may be noted before, much later, a separation and an autonomous development of new cultural, religious and artistic traits took place. However, as long as such a process had not matured, “old” and “new” means of expression may have coexisted and interoperated within the same cultural context.
BTW, nowhere in the world, there exists a cultural or an art concept that saw the light of the day in fully developed form. This was true for the hieroglyphic writing system. And it also may have been the case with regard to the evolution of the Egyptian pantheon and the Wadi Sura rock art.
Furthermore, neither Barta nor myself do compare “isolated elements”. Instead, what we do is to compare key themes of the WG 21 imagery with the religious and power iconography of the Nile valley both of which exhibit striking iconographic similarities thus, suggesting mythological analogies. Our interest focuses on themes and not on depictions of a matchstick man here and an ostrich or a headless beast there. In my view, there are indeed complex conceptual analogies which hint at a cultural link between the Gilf Kebir and the Nile valley. This issue cannot be decided by the argument that, on the whole, (and by counting figures, “isolated elements” or motifs) statistical likelihood is against such a cultural connection. Note also that Kupers team so far, verified interregional contacts between the Gilf Kebir and southern Egypt, reconstructed on the basis of stone tool production, for the time around 8,300 BC and for the period between 6,800 and 4,300 BC. (See my Report on the results of radiocarbon datings from the Wadi Sura area, Gilf Kebir on this website. ) In addition, Wendorf and Schild “…discovered many indications that there might be a strong connection between the Sahara Neolithic and the Neolithic in Upper Egypt..” (M. Barta, M. Frouz: op. cit., p. 77) thus closing the remaining geographical gap between Nabta Playa and the Nile valley. It is most unlikely that, even later, these interregional contacts were limited to the transfer of handicrafts and did not comprise religious and cultural ideas. Andras and other authors have characterized the unique WG 21 imagery as a very specific piece of rock art. The fact that some of its iconography bears resemblance with the religious and power imagery in the Nile valley can hardly be a coincidence.
At WG 21 the symbols of fertility as represented by the nine small phallic creatures, are not assigned to the god´s lumbar area but instead, to his lower limbs. Geb´s legs are shown as being extremely long and footless, giving them the appearance of the roots of plants. Were these root-like legs and the cluster of ithyphallic figures an artistic means of expressing the divine fertility of the soil by the Neolithic painters? Hence, is it the intention of the painting to disclose to the viewer, the age old message that the strength of every organism living on land is derived from the soil (and from the breasts/penis which Geb is touching with his left hand)? From this point of view, fertility and power as qualities of the earth “emanate ” from the ground through the mediation of Geb who, by his mere presence, may have transmitted these two important properties of fertility and power to the inhabitants of the Wadi Sura area.
Apparently, at the time when the mythical-religious scenes at WG 21 were created, sophisticated artistic means of depicting the divine, in particular, the ability to conceptualize earth based X fertility and power, did not exist. Thus, it seems that an already prevailing phallus cult was slightly modified so as to represent the “emanation” of the earth´s attributes. Consequently, Geb is not depicted with a large phallus in the region of his pelvis but instead he is shown cohabiting with a number of small autonomous phallic characters painted further down on his body. These phallic figures are walking up his legs in single file and, so to speak, in a small and steady stream of finite doses (of power). Thus, in a simplistic way, the idea is being conveyed of a flowing of power that may invigorate people, similar to the minerals and nutriments that flow up from the roots in the earth to the branches of a tree.
Obviously, the Wadi Sura artists XX envisioned Geb (who represented earth based fertility and power) not in X a reclining position X but X as acting and upright standing XX. (To these X artists floating figures or figures rendered upside down seem to have represented the deceased. See M. Barta, M. Frouz: op. cit., p. 41) By means of the phallic procession along the god´s legs, a feature assigned to Geb alone, these early artists succeeded in pictorially distinguishing between Geb and Shu. Later in Egyptian history it became increasingly common to depict Geb in a reclined posture X. Conceptualizing him XX in that X way and featuring him with greater anthropomorphic detail from then on, Geb, as attested by numerous religious texts, was perceived as the bearer of the aforementioned qualities (earth based fertility and power). Furthermore, the god was associated with other attributes assigned to him at different times according to changing mythological needs. (see R. H. Wilkinson; op. cit., pp. 105 + 106)
(This chapter´s text corrections - in blue - of 11/21/2010)
But what about Nut? Lets look more closely at her body painted in “…unique white color… (which) allows for the possibility that at this early stage she was already considered to be an anthropomorphic form of the Milky Way.” (M. Barta, M. Frouz: op. cit., p. 51)
figure 31: color enhanced version of figure 33 (courtesy of Roland Keller)
5.345 The “White Nut”: nothing else than a headless beast
When dealing with the large composite figure painted in white at WG21 which Barta considers “one of the most important scenes…” there (M. Barta; M. Frouz: op. cit., p. 41), namely, that figure that resembles the sky goddess Nut, the author emphasizes four major stylistic qualities or particular parts of the scene in question which may indicate possible mythical-religious correspondences between the cultures of the Neolithic Gilf Kebir and the Pharaonic Nile valley. These are:
a.) The “unique white color “ of the Nut-like figure which makes way “for the possibility that at this early stage she was already considered to be an anthropomorphic form of the Milky Way, which in ancient Egypt was associated with the legend of the birth of the sun god Ra.” (Ibidem, p. 51)
b.) The large size of the Nut-like figure which consist of “…a mixture of a beast’s legs and a female torso with a clearly visible breast.” (Ibidem, pp. 41, 51) The beast itself seems to resemble a panther. (Ibidem, p 41)
c.) “The figure is leaning against the ground in a way similar to later depictions of the goddess Nut in ancient Egypt…. Her head “… is missing and one can recognize only the neck” (Ibidem, p. 51)
d.) This “.. white goddess…” (Ibidem) is surrounded by three gods known from the Egyptian pantheon. These gods are Geb, Shu and Tefnu. (Ibidem)
Not everyone agrees that some of the scenes at WG21 are direct antecedents of later Pharaonic imagery and symbolism. For example Andras Zboray points out that in certain quarters, researchers have developed an unfounded cognitive bias (see sidenote 6) which, among other things, results in a preoccupation that leads some Egyptologists to search “…for Egyptian influence everywhere” (email of 3/25/2010.) To impartially assess the different views, one has to painstakingly focus on the facts as they come to light at the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave. Let’s therefore, take a close look at the stylistic features and scenes listed above, starting with the question of whether or not, the representation of a figure painted in “unique white” (which Barta considers to be a precursor of the sky goddess Nut) is truly peculiar amongst the WG21 imagery.
5.345.1 No indication for Nut being painted in unique white color
To the casual observer as well as to the rock art specialist, the color range of the Wadi Sura rock art at WG 21, “… is limited to “…basic red, white and yellow colors..” (A. Zboray: Rock art styles. Wadi Sura style. op. cit.). Most probably, this choice of colors depended on the range of pigments available and seemingly, no specific symbolic meaning was attached to any of these colors by the Neolithic painters. (see further remarks in chapter 5.345.2)
Sidenote 7: In his email to me of 9/22/2010 Andras Zboray wrote that during their visit to WG21 in 2003, Jean Loic le Quellec had found a small piece of yellow ochre in the ancient inhabited area at the foot of the WG21 hill. This piece of ochre showed clear signs of use thus indicating a possible link to the paintings in the cave above.
By contrast, in ancient Egyptian art “… the color of an object was regarded … as an integral part of its nature or being, just as a man’s shadow was viewed as part of his total personality… this is why the colors used in Egyptian art so frequently make a symbolic statement, identifying and defining the essential nature of that which is portrayed in a way that complements and expands upon the basic information imparted by the artist in line and form.” (R. H. Wilkinson: Symbol & magic in Egyptian art. London 1994, p. 104) Thus, “it is true to say… that wherever symbolism enters into Egyptian art, the use of color is likely to be significant.” (Ibidem, p. 105) Regarding the color white, ancient Egyptians associated it with cleanliness, ritual purity, and sacredness “…so it was the color of the clothes worn by ritual specialists. The notion of purity may have underlain the use of white calcite for temple floors. The word ´hd´ also meant the metal ´silver´, and it could incorporate the notion of ´light´ thus the sun was said to ´whiten´ the land at dawn.” (G. Robins: Color symbolism, in: The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, vol.1, Cairo 2001, p. 291) Furthermore, Wilkinson points out that white was “…used with gold to symbolize the moon and sun respectively.” (R. H. Wilkinson: Symbol & magic. op cit., p. 109) This color was interchangeable with yellow/gold and therefore took on the symbolic meanings of these colors that, in the minds of the ancient Egyptians, were associated with what was eternal and imperishable. “The flesh of the gods were held to be of pure gold, and …(their bones) were said to be of silver…. The two-dimensional representations of deities are also often given yellow skin tones to reflect the mythological golden nature of their bodies” (Ibidem, pp. 84, 108) In Wilkinson’s view the associative link between yellow/gold and white is established by ´white gold´ (the mixture of gold and silver called electrum) which, in ancient Egypt “… was often regarded as being the equal of pure gold… Many sacred animals were also of.. (white) color, including the ´Great White´ (baboon), the white ox, white cow, and white hippopotamus.” (Ibidem, p. 108 et seq.)
But does this imply that the symbolic meaning regarding the coloration of Nut which Egyptologists identified in mortuary contexts where, (in dynastic times, namely) “…in the reign of Seti I and Ramesses IV,…the sky goddess… is depicted … (as a) celestial cow,… her body painted black or yellow as the night sky and covered with yellow stars…” (M. Barta, F. Frouz; op. cit., p. 57), held any significance for Barta´s white Nut-like figure or for the Wadi Sura Neolithic culture as a whole?
Sidenote 8: Discussing a depiction of Ramesses III before the gods (Harris Papyrus, British Museum, London), Wilkinson emphasizes that “…the king’s skin, which would normally be painted red if he were alive or golden yellow – as a god – if he were deceased, is not yellow but white. The two colors (yellow and white) are used in this way because of their essential equivalence… though the use of white skin coloration is less common.” (R. H. Wilkinson: Symbol & magic. op cit., p. 121) Applying Wilkinson’s reasoning to the Wadi Sura rock art: does this mean that Barta´s “White Nut” was painted white in order to indicate her divine status?
Judging from numerous WG21 rock paintings found above the sand during our visit, white seemingly, was not used to depict anything special, and there are, so far, no indications that a specific symbolic value is associated with it. This is substantiated by a number of scenes that show that apart from “Nut”, white was also used to depict human figures of different shapes and size, animals and other complex compositions that echo no specific color symbolism. (figures 32 – 38)
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figures 32 + 33: White quadruped shown in original coloration and in a color enhanced version. The hind end of
the animal is supported by a pair of white hands/forearms.
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figures 34 + 35: white feline(?) shown in original coloration and in a color enhanced version (courtesy of
figure 36: white quadruped and white accessories on human figure to the right
(courtesy of Andras Zboray; color enhanced)
figure 37: white quadruped superimposed onto a reddish-brown human figure
standing next to a headless beast that is about to devour a human
figure 38: white quadrupeds and human figures lined up above a
headless beast (courtesy of Andras Zboray; color enhanced)
If a color preference at WG21 had ever existed, it was obviously that of red or reddish brown. But it must be accepted that even red may have had no specific significance because, as in the case with white, it was indiscriminately used.
Sidenote 9: In ancient Egyptian art red and yellow-white were used for gender differentiation and reflected “…at least to some degree ...the traditional outdoor/indoor roles of the male and female in Egyptian society.” (Ibidem, p. 10) Thus “… red was used to present the normal skin tone of the Egyptian male without any negative connotation (Ibidem, p. 107)… in contrast to the paler skin tone of the woman.” (Ibidem, p. 115) However, in the Wadi Sura rock art, “reddish-brown” was used indiscriminately to depict males and females, most probably signifying that there existed no difference in life style between the sexes in pre-dynastic gather-hunter and cattle herder societies as, in those times, life was more or less outdoor based for both genders. In this sense, the reddish-brown color is naturalistic as it seems to be based on objective reality, ie., on the actual skin color of the people of those times.
In comparison with the abundant use of reddish-brown in the Wadi Sura rock art, white and yellow are colors that were sparsely applied by the Neolithic artists. The meaning of these color preferences may never be fully understood. All that can be said at this stage about this restriction is that, in all certainty, it can be ruled out that such a sparing use of white and yellow was the result of convention.
Thus, based on the present evidence regarding the coloration at the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave, it is still too early to make comparisons as Barta does, and to draw conclusions about perceived similarities between the Egyptian sky goddess Nut as a manifestation of an anthropomorphic form of the Milky Way and the headless figure painted in white at WG21, which Andras Zboray, plain and simple, interprets as just another headless beast. At any rate, Andras´ view seems to be supported by the facts as they come to light with regard to “line and form” in the color enhanced version of the “White Nut scene” shown in figure 31 above.
Examining more closely the corpus of photographs of the Wadi Sura rock art
compiled by Andras Zboray
(A. Zboray: Rock art of the Libyan Desert. op. cit.),
one will notice further depictions of human and/or animal figures painted in
white. A few of the scenes containing such depictions from the
Foggini-Mestekawi cave and other rock shelters in its surroundings are
briefly discussed here. Comments and attempts to interpret choices of color
are included in the captions. Will this analysis provide answers as to why
the color white was used and did this color perhaps have symbolic
significance; at least in some of the paintings? It seems that the more such
scenes are investigated, the more obscure any symbolism they contain
appears. In the case of the ancient Egyptian culture, color symbolism is,
according to Wilkinson, amongst other things, “…usually an expression of
underlying religious beliefs which gave …
(a piece of art)
life, meaning, and power
(R. H. Wilkinson: Symbol & magic. op. cit., p. 8).
In the case of the Wadi Sura imagery, could it be that the juxtaposition or
interchange of certain colors is purely based on stylistic considerations?
The conception of reality (German: Wirklichkeitskonzeption) is greatly influenced by colors. How colors are perceived, accepted, assimilated, “consumed” and interpreted as part of the physical space that surrounds people may express itself also in the Wadi Sura imagery. (At present, unlike in Neolithic times, our conception of the physical reality consists to a large extent of prefabricated experiences.) In this context an enigmatic relevancy, at least in parts, seems to be attached to the color white. At WG 21 for instance, a mythical creature, the “white Nut”, and her surrounding world of images, whose intrinsic symbolism may refer to a religious world in which the living exist alongside the dead (Note that, for the ancient Egyptian “...the mythical geography , and especially that of the underworld … (is) as ´real´ as the world of the living.” (Ibidem, p. 62)), coexists with other, conceptually dissociated white images, thus raising the question of whether or not the artists also intended that the latter are mysterious animals, persons or entities. So what about white depictions in other Wadi Sura rock shelters? Are they, simply speaking, just copies, illustrations or stylized reproductions of a once existing reality or do they also refer to a symbolical world?
Choice of color or color combinations used by the Neolithic artists of the Wadi Sura region may never be fully understood by us, and it may well be that, in parts, a juxtaposition , e.g., white and reddish-brown paint within a scene was meant merely to create a contrast. Note also that, for instance, in “… groups of overlapping objects or figures… (ancient) Egyptian artist(s)… invariably alternate(d) the colors of otherwise identical subjects in order to differentiate them from one another… Even apart from practical considerations such as these, it is evident that the Egyptians enjoyed the use of color for its own sake in much of their art and decoration, and that the selection and use of colors could be for purely aesthetic purposes.” (Ibidem, p. 105) Why should this have been different in the preceding Neolithic period, in regions far to the west of the Nile valley?
figure 39: From WG 52. Recumbent human figures painted white suggesting annihilation, death and dying. It’s not clear that the two reddish-brown painted mourners(?) and the ostrich are partly superimposed onto the dead white bodies. It may well be the other way round. Such ambiguity could indicate that the scene was completed by the artist in a single operation. Does the presence of the ostrich which is a symbol of fertility, suggest a desire for an afterlife existence, for rebirth or for reincarnation? (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 40: Figure 39 may be part of a bigger scene shown here which is depicted in the “lower center left section” of the Cave of the Swimmers (see A. Zboray : Rock art of the Libyan Desert. op. cit.). Note however, that the recumbent human figures painted in white, the two reddish-brown mourners and the ostrich are separated from the main panel by an empty space. This main panel consists of a group of comparatively large reddish-brown human figures (on the right). As WG 52 is a “…badly eroded shelter which preserves only small patches of what was originally a completely decorated surface” (M. Barta, M. Frouz: op. cit., p. 69), it may well be that, at one time, this empty space was covered with depictions although a survey with bare eyes does not support such an assumption. The recumbent white human figures are barely visible. Their fairly isolated placement gives reason to qualify the small painting to which they belong, which also includes the mourners and the ostrich, as an independent grieving scene. However it may well be that, originally this scene had been embedded into a larger panel. What meaning and symbolic value this particular composition may have possessed in the context of the rest of the rock panel’s depictions, can not be discerned at this stage because of the poor state of preservation and the lack of access to advanced image enhancement technologies. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 41: From WG 21. A male human figure painted reddish brown exhibiting white body decoration and wearing a white loincloth. As the patterns of white body paint contrast perfectly with a tanned, outdoor complexion, the depiction seems to indicate that the selection and use of colors was based on purely aesthetic considerations. Detail from figure 43. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 42: From WG 21. A reddish brown male (left) and a female human figure (right) accompanied by two children(?) who are dressed in white. (Evidently, the clothing of the “child” on the left is, partly, of translucent nature) Note the recumbent human body below which, due to its faded color, may be much older than the “family” depicted above. Seemingly, the combined application of white and reddish-brown was meant to create a contrast and to distinguish between cloths or body paint and otherwise naked(?) human figures. Detail from figure 43. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 43: Scene from the “middle lower center section” (A. Zboray: op. cit.) of the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave (WG 21) in which a large gathering of individuals is shown. Note the gaping “mouth” of a headless beast in the lower left to which, amongst other things, a human corpse is being offered to be devoured. A complete image of the headless beast in question is shown in my “Report on the results of radiocarbon datings from the Wadi Sura area, Gilf Kebir, southwestern Egypt”, figure 15. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
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figure 44: From WG 21. Two reddish brown human figures wearing white translucent dresses. Such translucent clothing may be merely the result of weathering that, over centuries, took away part of the white hue that originally covered the reddish brown bodies underneath. Detail from figure 43. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.) Note however that, in the 19th dynasty and during the Amarna and Ramesside periods, white transparent vestments were in vogue among the Egyptian upper classes. (see F. Tiradritti: Ancient Egypt. Art, architecture and history. London 2007, pp. 79, 92, 97) (see also figure 45 a) Note also that on the wall painting in tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis, three human figures are depicted who hold their arms outstretched as if they were dancing. (F. Tiradritti: Egyptian wall painting. New York, London 2008, pp. 89 et seq.) Seemingly, these figures which are shown above a white vessel wear long transparent white skirts (see figures 45 b + c below) thus indicating that already in the Naqada II-c Period (circa 3,400 – 3,300 BC) translucent textiles were known or tailored in the Nile valley.
figure 45 a: Wall painting depicting scribes of the 18th dynasty wearing white translucent robes. (tomb of Menna (TT 69), Thebes)
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figures 45 b + c: Three dancers from the Naqada II-c period wearing long transparent white skirts. The dancer´s legs painted in reddish-brown appear to show through the textiles in question. (Interpretation based on a watercolor copy made by the discoverers of Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis in the late nineteenth century. The original wall painting which is on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was ruined by improper use of glues thus making any further deciphering impossible.)
figure 46: From WG 21. Two reddish-brown male figures embellished with patterns of white body paint. They wear white loincloths and each one of them is holding a white bow in his hand. Note the human corpse or ”swimmer” below the bowman on the left. The fact that the coloration of the three figures is fairly equally degraded, may suggest that the three figures are part of the same composition and that it was the intention of the Neolithic artists to present the “swimmer” as a victim of the archers. Detail from figure 43. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 47: From WG 21. A male figure holding a white bow and white arrows in his hands. Note the reddish-brown feathers that are attached to the end of the arrows´ shafts. This particular choice of colors corresponds fairly well with the real world where bones, tendons or branches stripped of their bark reveal a whitish hue whilst the predominant shades of many feathers tend towards brown. Detail from figure 48. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 48: From “right lower center section” (A. Zboray: Rock art of the Libyan Desert. op. cit.) of WG 21. To the left of a hunter(?) holding a white bow and white arrows in his hands, a white feline(?) has been added to the scene. Note the headless beast (on the lower right side of the picture) and two more archers (top) who are aiming at the feline with their bows. These two bowmen are arched over the feline and the hunter first mentioned. Surprisingly, this hunter is facing away from the target. He does not seem to be engaged in the hunt. Even if this hunting scene is not related to the headless beast below, a mythical-symbolic meaning to the chase seems likely. Could it be that the game animal and the deadly weapons are depicted in identical white so as to signify that the inevitable and impending death of the prey have already rendered it as good as dead? Such an assumption seems to be supported by figure 49 below. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 49: Detail from the “lower right” (A. Zboray: Rock art of the Libyan Desert. op. cit.) section of the WG 45/A rock shelter that, apart from a headless beast and a running human figure, both painted in reddish-brown, is primarily decorated with depictions of white cattle. (See figure 59 below. Further badly weathered reddish-brown WG 45/A-figures, just barely visible to the human eye, are shown in Andras Zbaray´s rock art catalogue.) Note that the white bows and arrows next to the white game might, in an unconventional way, convey the idea of a hunt. Is the identical use of white paint for weapons and prey in this specific context therefore, an indication that the Neolithic artists wanted to highlight that the game animals that were being chased, were in a state in which certain death was inevitable? Yet, such an assumption must be prefaced by the caveat that, in the surrounding of the scene in question, further depictions, possibly painted reddish-brown, may have existed, which are now lost to us. (See for instance, a badly weathered depiction of a brown & white cow shown in figure 09f_0488 of the rock art catalogue) These missing elements irrevocably obscure the meaning of the artwork and make it impossible to understand the artist’s original intention. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 50: From WG 35. Herd of giraffes depicted on the right hand side of a small low shelter which contains “… several layers of remarkably well preserved paintings of giraffes, bovids in numerous colors and styles and human figures” (A. Zboray: Rock art of the Libyan Desert. op. cit.) Two of the giraffes are completely painted white whilst the other three are white from the knees down only, the rest of their bodies painted in reddish-brown. Note that the two beasts on the right are standing whilst the two in the center of the painting are shown trotting or galloping. This mode of movement could have been the reason why the two animals in the center are the only ones painted white. Yet, the giraffe on the far left, shown in reddish-brown coloration, also seems to be moving thus, disproving the idea that coloration was used here as an indicator of movement. On the other hand, is it conceivable that we marvel at a wonderful but unfinished piece of rock art? (Thus, the two white depictions in the center of the painting being mere preparatory drawings.) If this is true, the Neolithic painter would have sketched the giraffes in white color first before he applied reddish-brown paint to complete his work. We did not visit WG 35. This is why, at the present time, a definite view on this issue cannot be expressed.
Dual usage of colors, where, on the one hand, “… objects are given the same hue as they appear in nature… (whilst) on the other hand … objects are assigned to colors to which they are symbolically linked…” (R.H. Wilkinson: Symbol & magic. op. cit., p. 110), may be another reason why two of the giraffes received a different artistic treatment. Does this method reveal a “magic code” or formal convention to which the Neolithic artists may have been adhering? Note that, if the “white Nut”, seen as just another headless beast that normally, was painted reddish-brown, received fairly the same color treatment as the white giraffes. This may signify that these giraffe were meant to represent more than just reality. Thus, the white coloration may have been employed to make a symbolic statement.
Note also that in Egyptian art a “…frequent juxtaposition of certain colors… (occurred) which is often understandable symbolically as signifying wholeness or completion through the combination of opposing or related colors. The symbolic opposites red and white (or its alternate hue yellow) find completion together as the colors of man and woman…” (Ibidem, p. 111). Applied to the case discussed here, would the white giraffes represent mares whilst the reddish-brown ones represent stallions? Unfortunately, the Neolithic artists made no attempt to draw in detail the reproductive organs of giraffes. (They did so in the case of headless beasts.) Therefore the issue raised here cannot be dealt with conclusively.
If, in case of the giraffes, “wholeness or completion” are regarded as implicit presuppositions on which, at one time, Neolithic artistic expression was based, the artist´s interest in color and (forward) movement could also be viewed as an attempt to depict the passing of time within the cycle of life, namely life (as represented by the giraffe on the far left), death (as represented by the two white beasts in the center), and rebirth (as represented by the two beasts on the right). Such symbolism would indicate that the inhabitants of the Wadi Sura region adhered to a belief according to which dying was not considered as the end of (human) existence but that death was linked to a possible afterlife or rebirth. Accordingly, the white giraffes in the center, together with the two beasts on the right, would represent a postmortem existence of some kind that, possibly, elapsed in a metaphysical sphere. At any rate, it must be pointed out again that one faces extreme difficulties when venturing to decipher hidden meanings inherent in a specific piece of rock art with the aim of breaking its code of underlying religious beliefs.
There is yet another point to which attention must be drawn. The alternate use of white and reddish-brown “…may represent the unity of the two colors as perceived in sunlight under different circumstances in nature…” (Ibidem, p. 112) If this is true the giraffe motif shown in figure 50 is the result of an arbitrary yet widely accepted convention. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 51: “…painted cattle and an archer… from the left vertical wall … of a very narrow shelter… Two cattle are tethered to a tree, similar to several such scenes at Uweinat.” (WG 46) (A. Zboray: Rock art of the Libyan Desert. op. cit.) It seems as if the brown & white cow on the left is partly superimposed onto a white quadruped and the legs of a white giraffe. Such a superimposition may indicate that the overpainted images are older than the depiction of the brown & white cow. Hence, was there a time when white depictions were en vogue, or when, for some time, only white pigments were available? Or, on the contrary, did artists intend to make visible distances between the beasts in question by superimposing one onto another? Commonly, giraffes would not graze amongst a cattle herd guarded by herdsmen or a herd that is staying nearby a cattle herder’s camp. Thus, could it be that the said scene represents a situation as it appears in nature? A real life scene without specific symbolic connotation with regard to the colors used? If, against all odds, this interpretation is fairly correct the Wadi Sura rock artists would have practiced a primitive form of perspective drawing. Only calibrated direct dating of paint samples taken from the scene elements mentioned above will supply reliable answers to the questions raised here. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 52: From a “…small cave (WG 61) on the southern side of the … western tributary of a .. wadi. Exceptionally well preserved paintings of cattle, humans, giraffes, and a unique facing pair of hands on the rear ceiling. Some of the paintings overlie older engravings of cattle and giraffes.” (A. Zboray: Rock art of the Libyan Desert. op. cit.)
It is not easy to decide whether the white giraffe in figure 52 is superimposed onto the reddish-brown cow. It could, in fact, be the other way around as the cow may have been painted on top of the giraffe. In the first case there may have existed a deeper (mythical?) reason for such a superimposition as seemingly, the rock face allows for the depiction of such a small giraffe without interfering with an already existing(?) composition. In the second case such an underlying reason seems unlikely as the cow belongs to a larger scene (see engraved fellow creature on the right facing the cow) which was intended either to replace the giraffe, to weaken its effect or to coexist with the comparatively small-sized white beast. Thus, superimposition (and the contrast of the colors white and reddish-brown) may have been deliberately provoked as a reflection of encounters of cattle with giraffes that, once in a while, Neolithic herdsmen experienced in the vast expanses of the dry savannah. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 53: From WG 35, “…a low shelter… with several layers of remarkably well preserved paintings of giraffes, bovids in numerous colors and styles and human figures… , left” section. (A. Zboray: Rock art of the Libyan Desert. op. cit.) We did not visit the site and from Andras Zboray´s description it is not clear whether some, if not all of the images had been painted on the roof of a ceiling instead of onto the walls.
A herd of cattle consisting of white, reddish-brown, white & yellow and brown & yellow beasts. The herd is superimposed onto three giraffes of pale brown color which are lying down(?) and which may have been hunted down by a group of archers shown in the lower left of the scene. See also figures 50 - 52 for comments . (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
If the scene including the giraffes in question had been depicted on the ceiling, my statement above is resting on shaky ground especially as the giraffes were painted before the cattle by the same or by earlier artists. Thus, it could be that the artist who painted the giraffes imagined the ground in a different direction than the painter of the cattle. Furthermore, some of the archers are probably part of the later cattle composition whilst the “crouching” figures together with the “strongmen” next to them, probably belong to the giraffe composition. Only calibrated direct dating of paint samples taken from the scene elements in question will supply answers to questions such as a.) How many years are separating the giraffe from the cattle composition? b.) Were both scenes painted by the same artist who, only slightly, washed his first composition in order to create a complex artistic statement? or c.) Did a later artist who painted the cattle scene use the older painting as a source for such a complex statement, and what message did this artist want to convey to spectators?
figure 54: From WG 35, cattle herder period. Detail of figure 53. White & yellow spotted cow with a collar X superimposed onto the white outlines of another earlier(?) cow. Seemingly, this naturalistic scene indicates that, the Neolithic artists enjoyed the use of color for its own sake. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 55: From WG 35. Detail of figure 53. Cattle herd superimposed onto an older giraffe hunting scene(?). The fact that the giraffes, in relation to the hunters on the center left of the picture who are depicted in the same faded hue, are shown lying(?) on their side may indicate animals that were hunted down or killed. The bowman partly shown in the upper left part of the picture and the human couple on the lower edge of it (of which the individual on the right is also holding a bow in his hand) are both painted in vibrant brown. Contrary to the group of hunters(?) on the center left, they are superimposed onto (white) cows thus, possibly indicating their engagement in protecting the herd of cattle. See also caption to figure 53 for comments. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
figure 56: From WG 35. Detail of figure 53. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.) The giraffe hunting party may well also be a group of warriors engaged in battle. Apparently, the winners of the fight are depicted larger than the losers of whom many are shown slain (in a lying or upside down position). (As stated in captions to figures 53 + 55, the “slain figures” and the archers next to them onto whom white cows are superimposed, could belong to an earlier painting and thus, would have nothing whatsoever to do with the archers herding the cattle. The latter archers are not seen here but in figures 53 + 55.) Such a “battle scene” may indeed signify dominance and rigid exercise of power. Note that a few of the “crouching victims” are depicted as if they were swimming thus, possibly, foreshadowing the “…deceased souls in the waters of Nun” (M. Barta; M. Frouz: op. cit., p. 59) in Egyptian art. In this context the three giraffes to the right of the combatants may be variants of the so-called sitting giraffes even if they were depicted some time earlier, as the creator of the “battle scene” could have integrated the three beasts as a source into his work to make a more complex artistic statement. Sitting giraffes could also symbolize death.
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figures 57 + 58: Evolution of pictorial symbolism regarding the portrayal of defeat, destruction and death in art.
Figure 57: Detail from figure 53; slain enemies; Western Desert Cattle Period or older.
Figure 58: Detail from the Battlefield Palette; slain enemies, Late Predynastic period (3,100 BC.).
Even if the scene in figure 57 was created at least a millennium earlier than the one in figure 58, there is, as far as the symbolism inherent in the depictions is concerned, much common ground between the two images. Whilst, for instance, in the first scene strongmen are stepping(?) on the bodies of the deceased (actually all these dominant human figures are superimposed onto the corpses of defeated enemies), the idea of the domination of one group over another materializes, in the second scene, in a king in the guise of a huge lion (partly visible in the upper part of figure 58) devouring a dead foe. (New arrangement of caption made on 8/23/2011)
figure 59: From WG 45/A. Another herd of white cattle indicating that white colorations, albeit not as common as the reddish-brown, were frequently used in the rock shelters of the Wadi Sura area. To determine if white imagery as depicted in WG 45/A, had symbolic meaning, one would need to know if, in reality, completely white cattle had existed in the Wadi Sura area in the period of the creation of the rock art. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
Note that, with regard to the issue of white coloration as a possible form of artistic expression of the sacred, the decoration in the “Painted Tomb” at Hierakonpolis (the only known example of wall paintings in the tombs of the Naqada II Period (circa 3,550 – 3,200 BC)) not only provides scenes of a funerary flotilla but also representations of white animals depicted in a highly symbolic visual language. Figure 60 shows that some of the animals are filled in with solid white color inside reddish or black outlines.
figure 60: Representations of quadrupeds filled in with solid white color inside reddish or black outlines. (from Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis)
figure 61: From WG 73/B. A shelter which is sparsely decorated with paintings of a skirted female figure and only two cattle. (A. Zboray: Rock art of the Libyan Desert. op. cit.) For the record only: a white bovid depicted above a brown & white one. (Image shown in a color enhanced version. Courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
Amendments to sidenote 10 in blue made on 1/5/2011.
Correction in red made on 8/23/2011.
Summary and outlook:
In this chapter we have examined several rock paintings in an attempt to understand the use of white color by the prehistoric artists of the Wadi Sura area. (see figures 32 - 61) Although this inquiry raised a number of questions, no firm conclusions could be drawn because no interpretation provided unequivocal answers free of contradiction. It may be that the use of white to depict various animals and other objects or entities was a symbolic statement inspired by underlying religious beliefs or perhaps these artists may have used white for purely aesthetic reasons or for reproducing reality according to the cultural conventions of their time. One could also go so far as to label some of the rock paintings, namely the white feline (figures 34, 35 and 48), the cattle herds and associated wildlife (figures 59, 49 and 53) and the giraffes (figure 50), as works of “magical realism” i.e., the paintings project onto the spectator several versions of reality which do not exist. More than likely, we are confronted here with a mix of two enigmas: the mystery of art and the mystery of the natural world. From this crucible arouse those ideas that eventually became myths and religious beliefs. For instance, from the white feline, a beast thoroughly known for its vicious nature, came an icon that perhaps simply symbolized danger. Based on this view, the images of headless beasts painted in reddish brown, although consisting of incomplete composite torsos, but otherwise painted in a hyper realistic way, may be interpreted as the result of a process of evolution taking place in the world of ideas that eventually transposed the “danger” represented by the vicious “feline-like” icon into a beastly deity of the metaphysical-religious sphere. (Thus, the feline image which may originally have presented danger, over the times was utilized for a religious concept. Similar metamorphoses have been described at length by Feuerbach. According to the German philosopher mankind tends to create its gods according to its needs. See Ludwig Feuerbach, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 7, Theogonie. W. Schuffenhauer (ed.), Berlin 1969, pp. 31 ff.) Did the artistic realization of this punishing & life-giving archetypal deity emerge as the result of the cultural-religious sublimation of a physical explorable reality? Is then, the headless beast, weathered over the millennia and interpreted as an early divine creature or deity, a metaphysical complement to a real lion or any other vicious feline? Finally, can the white headless beast be seen as an artistic attempt at visualization of the sacred whereby a deity is placed into the context of the stars and the night sky? Thus, may we envision Barta´s “white Nut” in WG 21 as a predecessor of the goddess Nut of the dynastic period? (see M. Barta; M. Frouz: op. cit., p.51) If we do, some of the paintings presented in this chapter may indeed be imagined as windows to another world.
For readers who prefer clear-cut answers, such reasoning may sound unattractive. These readers may also be somewhat disenchanted that my initial arguments against a color symbolism existing in the Wadi Sura rock art are downplayed in sidenote 10. They might be further irritated when, in chapter5.346 below, they are introduced to the idea that “headless beasts”, by no means, may be considered as incomplete mythical composite torsos but instead, that these beasts do represent an existing animal species. If this is true, “headless beasts” would have been part of the physical reality which surrounded the Neolithic artists in like manner as giraffes or other animals of the savannah and desert-steppe. And: the production of images thereof would comply perfectly with the concept of natural realism mentioned above.
Yet it is not the intention of this paper to deliver an accurate account of Neolithic artistic expression or of the clues relating to possible hidden or disguised meanings. Why are attempts at interpreting the use of white color in the Wadi Sura rock art destined to remain incomplete and inconclusive? Why at best, do such interpretations remain in the realm of merely plausible approaches? Indeed, there are as yet, “ no firm grounds for establishing a method of interpreting the paintings and reliefs, produced…” (B. Adams; K.M. Cialowicz: Protodynastic Egypt. Princes Risborough 1988, p. 36) during the Neolithic up to the Predynastic period. Thus, any scheme to decipher in retrospect the mysteries of Neolithic rock art meets its limits right from the start, because there are no written documents from this period before recorded history and the meanings intended by the artists cannot therefore be elucidated. All that remains is the suspicion that a specific myth or idea may have provoked a certain choice of color. But which idea is it? It seems that answers will remain unsatisfactory and ambiguous for years of rock art research to come.
The cultures that produced the Wadi Sura rock art were lost a long time ago, sometimes between 6,000 – 3,500 BC. Too long ago for us today to penetrate the mists of this vanished period. So, in the absence of any real knowledge about the minds and spirits behind these unique creations, the paintings we see today, if we are honest, are not much more than colored forms of humans and animals. In other words, the disappearance of the Neolithic painters, also spelt the disappearance of the meanings of the numerous images they projected on the rock faces. Yet, let us recall why the investigations in this chapter were undertaken. We were reviewing Barta´s assumption, according to which the headless beast’s “…unique white color.. allows for the possibility that at this early stage she was already considered to be an anthropomorphic form of the Milky Way.” (Ibidem, p. 51. See also R. H. Wilkinson: The complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. op. cit., p. 161 et seq.)
Although it may seem quite daring to prehistorians to extrapolate “… the known symbolism from Dynastic times back into the Predynastic” (B. Adams: Predynastic Egypt. Aylesbury 1988, p. 45) and further back into the Neolithic, the reader’s attention, at last, has to be drawn to a detail from the astronomical ceiling in the burial chamber of the tomb of Seti I (Valley of the Kings; KV 17; 19th dynasty; figure 62) which shows a recumbent yellowish-white lion partly surrounded by (twenty) white stars painted on a field of dark blue. Apparently, the beast is about to devour one of these stars. Also, a horizontal array of five stars at his hind leg may indicate the delivery of these celestial bodies from his “womb”.
figure 62: Bi-chrome reproduction of animal figures from the astronomical ceiling in the tomb of Seti I showing a recumbent lion surrounded by a formation of stars. (courtesy of Christian Kny) For a complete view of the colored ceiling of the burial chamber see Sandro Vannini´s photography in: http://heritage-key.com/blogs/images/sandro-vanninis-photography-tomb-seti-i-kv17-burial-chamber.
(For comparison see the delivery(?) of a small human figure from the hind end (“womb”) of a standing headless beast (figure 63) that is about to devour a human whilst other human figures are depicted tampering, as it seems, with its imaginary penis(?) or, less likely, with its udder(?). (figure 64) These depictions raise the question about the animal’s gender. However, this beast may also combine both male and female qualities. Thus perhaps, can the animal in question be imagined as an androgynous deity despite the fact that the dual sex of this divine creature is not clearly elaborated? Note that two of the headless beasts depicted in the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave seem to be giving birth to human beings whilst others (including Barta´s White Nut) are provided with male genitals (for more information see next chapter).
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figure 63: Delivery(?) of a small human figure from the womb of a headless beast. Detail of figure 64.
figure 64: A headless beast devouring a human figure whilst giving birth(?) to another.
Reverting to the question of whether or not the “Seti lion” (figure 62) can be interpreted as a hermaphroditic feline predator, it has to be admitted that my assumption as put forth above, merely draws on the array of five stars which, strangely, are depicted on the beast’s hind leg. The “Seti lion” reveals no female attributes but only male ones and it is only the array of the said five stars that indicate the animal might be a hermaphrodite thus possibly, having usurped female qualities, for instance from the small lioness which is depicted at the top left hand side of figure 62.
Some years ago, Gisela Vögler drew attention to the phenomenon of male imitation of female body functions in occidental religious art. (G. Vögler: Der gebärende Mann. Erst Männerrituale machen Kinder zu Menschen, in: Neue Züricher Zeitung, NZZ Folio 03/98.) According to the author, concepts of male parturition and male motherliness seem to have played a decisive role in the exercise of gender polarization in many cultures. In Greek mythology for instance, Athena was born of the head of Zeus, the father of the gods who also delivered Dionysus from his thigh. Another male variation of childbirth is exemplified by the birth of Aphrodite who was believed to have come forth from spume of the sea, which accumulated around the truncated genitals of the sky god Uranus. Later, in Christian mythology, male childbirth fantasies make their mark in the creation of Adam who is even nowadays considered being the product or delivery of a male god. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Eve emerges from Adam’s rib. Note further that, in the early days of Christianity bishops, when referring to god and the holy scriptures, occasionally used phrases such as “the breasts of the word”, “divine breasts” and “milk that comes forth from the father”. (see V. Mollenkot, cited from A. Barth: Der Herr mit den Brüsten. Der Spiegel 26/1985). Such phrases indicate that Christian spirituality drew on myths that, long before, had perverted female birth-symbolism and that these myths may have been known from the depths of time. (Ibidem) In this context it comes as no surprise that, most probably, at the dawn of the Pharaonic civilization, a reverence shown for the royal placenta had existed. This unusual aspect of Early Dynastic religion which “…may have belonged to an ancient African substratum of Egyptian culture.” (T. A. H. Wilkinson: Early dynastic Egypt. London, New York 1999, p. 266) is confirmed by one of “…the divine standards which frequently accompany the king on early royal monuments.” (Ibidem, p. 299) According to Seligman, Murray, Blackman and Rice this particular standard “…apparently shows the (royal) placenta.” (Ibidem) Could such a strange representation on a cult object give rise to the suggestion that, early Dynastic iconography portrayed a hermaphroditic ruler, a strongman who, in his urge for power and omnipotence, had usurped even female qualities? The standard concerned consists of a “…bag-shaped sign, later associated with the god Khonsu. (Ibidem, p. 198) “Ethnographic parallels from other Hamitic African cultures provide support for the possible deification of the royal placenta in Ancient Egypt… It is possible that the royal placenta was regarded as the king´s stillborn twin; it may have been associated with the royal ka, the divine essence passed from ruler to ruler which played an important part in Egyptian kingship ideology from the earliest times.” (Ibidem, p. 199) Furthermore, when later, “…elements of the cosmos and environment were rendered in concrete form, they usually took human shape. Geb (the Earth) and Nut (the Sky) for example, were pictured as a man and a woman… Hermaphroditic or androgynous images were rare, though fecundity figures were sometimes portrayed as such.” (D. P. Silverman: Divinity and deities in ancient Egypt. in: Religion in ancient Egypt. B. E. Shafer (ed.) Ithaca, London 1991, p. 21) However, in the Heliopolitan creation myth Atum, the (male) creator god, ejaculated “…out of himself Shu (“air” – male) and Tefnut (“moisture” – female)” (L. H. Lesko: Ancient Egyptian cosmogonies and cosmology. In: Shafer (ed.), op. cit., p. 92), and according to Coffin Text spell 76 the eight Heh (chaos) gods were made by Shu “…from the efflux of his limbs…” (cited from L.H. Lesko, op. cit., p. 94) The same text states that Shu “…was not fashioned in the womb,… (that he) was not bound together in the egg,… (and that he) was not conceived, but… (his) father, Atum, spat …(him) out in the spittle of his mouth together with … (his) sister, Tefnut.” (Ibidem, p. 94 et seq.) Reference to a hermaphrodite or androgynous mode of being is also made in the “…Theban version of the creation story… best preserved in the Khonsu Cosmogony…” (Ibidem, p. 105) which describes Amun-Re as “… father of the semen, mother of the egg…” (Ibidem). At last, “one final Egyptian cosmological concept deserves mention here. In Ptolomaic… (hieroglyphic) writing…(the) name (of the god) Ptah, the “fashioner” god, incorporates both the male aspect of Geb and the female aspect of Nut, and the writing carries further the concept of Ptah´s androgyny found earlier in the Memphite Theology.” (Ibidem, p. 121 et sec.)
In summary, it can be concluded that,
a.) if a semi-divine Dionysus emerged from the thigh of Zeus, if the eight Heh (chaos) gods were made by Shu from the efflux of his limbs, and if Amun-Re is described as “… father of the semen, mother of the egg…” (Ibidem) the arrangement of the stars around the “Seti lion”, despite its male gender, is suggestive of this animal delivering stars from its hind leg
b.) it is not so far fetched to envision the headless beast in figure 64 as a male deity that also embodies female qualities, and
c.) a possible deification of the royal placenta in Early Dynastic Egypt may have been an offshoot of a much older symbolism as, for instance, confirmed by some depictions of headless beasts at WG 21.
(Amendments to Summary and outlook in blue made on 7/10/2012)
At this point I leave it up to the readers to dwell further on this issue.)
Do we see in figure 62 a depiction of celestial movement? Are the stars shown rising from the womb, continuing on and along the beast’s backbone and then moving over its cranium until, one after another, they disappear in the lion’s jaws? (Note that in one version of the Heliopolitan myth, the stars were “… thought to travel along the river that flowed through ..(Nut’s) body during the day to reappear each evening… (Such) myths gave rise to one of Nut’s many epithets: ´she who eats her children´.” Z. Hawass; S. Vannini: The royal tombs of Egypt. Cairo 2006, p. 270. Note also that, in cases in which Nut is depicted in her bovine form … the stars are often shown sailing across the underside of her body.” R. H. Wilkinson: The complete gods and goddesses. op. cit., p. 162)
Most probably, the “Seti lion” who is shown to the right of a number of decans (small constellations “… located in a band south of the ecliptic” (R. A. Wells: Astronomy, in: D. B. Redford (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of ancient Egypt. Vol. I, p. 148) which first appeared in ´coffin lid´ tables of the 9th and 10th dynasty. (Ibidem)), represents a cluster of circumpolar stars (i.e., “…stars that circled the north pole, and neither rose nor set.” Z. Hawass; S. Vannini: op. cit., p. 278) According to this view, Wilkinson seems to suggest that, in New Kingdom times, the feline equates to the modern constellation of Leo. (see R. H. Wilkinson: The complete gods and goddesses. op. cit, p. 91) But could the “Seti lion” also represent Nut? (Note that as early as the 5th and 6th dynasties, Nut appears almost 100 times in the Pyramid Texts. Ibidem, p. 161) “In fact, astronomers and Egyptologists still have not succeeded in correlating most of the Egyptian star clusters with actual star groups” (Z. Hawass; S. Vannini: op. cit., p. 270) and with the corresponding divinities. In the case of the ceiling in Seti´s tomb, decans and circumpolar star constellations conceptualized as divinities are depicted in yellowish-white. But what about the unique starry line surrounding the lion in a semi circle and what about the single star depicted above the tip of the lions tail? It seems unlikely that Nut, who is the embodiment of the sky as a whole, who’s head is formed by the constellation Gemini and who’s legs are partly shaped by the constellation of Cygnus (Ibidem, p. 266) would here be conceptualized as a yellowish-white feline. Yet, seemingly, the “Seti lion” is giving birth to white stars and later devouring them in a Nut-like way. Could it be that the starry line in figure 62 represents a grouping of circumpolar stars? Would however, a cluster of circumpolar stars depicted in zoomorphic form and thus conceptualized as a divinity, eat up the celestial bodies of which it is made up? The fact that the cluster of stars surrounding the “Seti lion” is painted white whilst the body of the lion exposes a yellowish-white hue may hint that this is indeed so.
From time immemorial people of the desert savannah and the Nile valley have watched the starry skies. As indicated by “… aligned megalithic structures and stone circles found adjacent to Middle and Late Neolithic (7,000 – 5,000 BCE) settlements at Nabta in the Western Desert of Egypt…” (R. A. Wells: Astronomy, op. cit., p. 145) which are “...clearly related to astronomical observations” (Z. Hawass; S. Vannini: op. cit., p. 270), sages long before the pharaohs seem to have paid attention to single stellar bodies as well as to stellar groupings, each of which they may have attached a meaning to. Did these age old endeavors take place in mortuary contexts only? If in Seti’s burial chamber, stars, circumpolar stars and decans are depicted in white or yellowish-white hues this coloration may have been chosen to correspond with the actual lighting of the night sky. Also evoked is the idea that such coloration may owe its origin to artistic concepts that are based on old myths which were handed down from the Neolithic to the pharaohs suggesting that depictions of whitish colored animals found in Wadi Sura rock shelters, may indeed represent divinities of the night sky, their age being as old as the hills. With this in mind, Barta´s remark that, the white headless beast in question may represent the Milky Way is cautiously supported. Yet the documentation presented in this chapter resolves the uniqueness of Barta´s “white Nut” and widens the view towards the possibility that other iconographic material painted in whitish tints may also have had a celestial connection.
5.345.2 Excursus: conceptions of death and the afterlife expressed by rock art depicting associated headless beasts, swimmers, handprints, giraffes, ostriches and aardvarks
Another unique feature noted in some instances at the Cave of the Swimmers and at the Foggini-Mestakawi Cave is that headless beasts are accompanied by swimmers. This “… association is highly specific, and very localized, which must be taken into account in any approach to meaning.” (J.-J. Le Quellec: Can one read rock art? op. cit., p…) There also seems to be a further connection between depictions of handprints (Ibidem), giraffes, ostriches and the two features mentioned above.
Some authors have tried to interpret the swimmers as shamans “… moving in a trance-like meditation into another world” (Kuper) or as “…bodies in levitation or in adoration, painted by artists who were themselves in trance” (de Fleurs)… At first sight, such interpretation… seems to be supported by the fact that the swimmers are on a wall where there are also…” (J.-J. Le Quellec: Can one read rock art? op. cit, p….) handprints, the latter resulting from “… an attempt by the shamans to enter into contact with another world located behind the ´veil´ of the rock wall (Lewis-Williams).” (Ibidem) In a painted panel at WG 21 that further confirms this interpretation we see, adjacent to a headless beast, a swimmer or a deceased person who is painted head-downward, a few handprints and a conspicuous dark circle surrounding a fairly bright area inside which, it seems, three human figures are drawn. (figure 65) If not all of these figures are depicted in an upright position, then at least one consisting of a torso only, is possibly painted upside-down. Is this circle an entrance to the “world behind the veil”? (figure 66) Ethnological evidence may support this suggestion. Figure 67 shows a Nuba mud hut which is used as a kitchen. The circular entrance offers a view into a cave-like enclosure which “…is small and high to keep out cattle and rats.” (K. Nomachi; G. Moorhouse: The Nile. Hong Kong 1978, p. 73) If my interpretation is correct, the design of these mud huts may, in a distant time, have served as a model for magical portals into the netherworld. Did such mud buildings (or tiny caverns, natural stone constructions or intermediate dwellings (tabernacles) for those who just had passed away) exist in the Wadi Sura area around 5,000 BC? This question cannot be answered definitely until further corresponding archaeological finds emerge.
Sidenote 11: Le Quellec interprets the circular recess as a disc which may constitute a solar symbol. In his book he lists six of these “light spots”, all of them found at WG 21. If Le Quellec´s explanation were correct we would be faced here with first rudimentary two-dimensional images of a solar religion. Yet, no solar calendar(?) similar to the one discovered at Nabta Playa and dated to around 5,000 BC, or other archaeological evidence has come to light in the Wadi Sura area to support Le Quellec´s proposal. See J.-J. Le Quellec, P. + P. de Fleurs: op. cit. pp. 257 – 259; M. Barta, M. Frouz: op. cit., pp. 79, 83, 85. Nevertheless, it seems beyond doubt that a structured meaning lies behind the representations concerned. But what the combination of a “light spot” and human figures exactly means is hard to discern. Apart from such circular spots also giraffes and ostriches could have been used as divine symbols for expressing beliefs within the context of a solar religion. See remark below in Ref. figures 70-75)
figure 65: From WG 21. A headless beast associated with a.) a number of live human figures, b.) a swimmer or a deceased human who is painted upside down, c.) a few handprints and d.) a “hole” leading into an imaginary cave-like enclosure that may represent an entrance into the netherworld. In all likelihood, the ensemble is indicative for a cult of the dead. (Image shown in a color enhanced version)
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figure 66: Detail from figure 65. The “entrance” into another world located behind the rock wall?
figure 67: Nuba mud hut. The round entrance offers a view into a cave-like enclosure which is used as a kitchen. Image shown in a color enhanced version. (by courtesy of Kazuyoshi Nomachi)
However, what can hardly be disputed is the idea that swimmers are related to a cult of the dead. (H. Rothert: Libysche Felsbilder. Ergebnisse der XI und XII deutschen innerafrikanischen Forschungsexpedition (DIAFE) 1933/1934/1935. Darmstadt 1952, p. 105). Some thousand years later in ancient Egypt, around the base of the 2nd dynasty Kha-sekhem statues, “…a row of contorted human figures representing slain …” foes (figure 68) and described in the adjacent inscriptions as “…Northern enemies…” (W.B. Emery: Archaic Egypt. Harmondsworth 1961, p. 99), bear witness to the fact that the difficult task of graphically depicting the dead, had been resolved in roughly the same way over the millennia. An additional visual trick consisted of “…representing dead beings by showing them upside down.” (J.-J. Le Quellec: Can one “read” rock art? op. cit., p….) Such upside down figures are depicted quite frequently in the Wadi Sura caves. (see for instance figures 65, 69 and 82)
figure 68: Inscriptions on the base of Kha-sekhem statues (2nd dyn.) showing contorted human figures representing slain enemies (From W.B. Emery: Archaic Egypt. Harmondsworth, 1961, p. 99)
Associating certain images in the Cave of the Swimmers and the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave with “…swimming in another world… is all the more probable because.. (the swimmers) are accompanied by … enigmatic Beasts whose (otherwise mysterious) presence makes sense in this context.” (J.-J. Le Quellec: Can one read rock art? op. cit., p…) Hence, headless beasts, swimmers and handprints would have to be considered as elements of “…a mythology of the next world” (Ibidem, p….; to avoid repetition the argument in favor of such an interpretation will not be put forward again.) But what about giraffes and ostriches? Is it conceivable that real animals could also have been part of the mythological imagery that represented the cycle of birth, death and afterlife?
In six of the WG 21 rock art scenes giraffes or ostriches are depicted at close quarters to a headless beast. (figures 69, 70, 76, 77, 78, 84, 85 and 87)
Ref. figure 69: Regardless of whether or not this giraffe carving is contemporaneous with the whitish, headless beast painting, the question is, are both these depictions and the other figures associated with them, a single mythical theme? It may well be that, as in the case of figures 76 + 77, where the tail of the headless beast seems to be superimposed onto the giraffe, that the white headless beast of figure 69, was also added to an existing scene. This is indicated by a depiction of a human in figure 69 that is, perhaps, also over painted by white hues belonging to the headless beasts body and by a human torso(?) that is sticking out of the beast’s hindquarter. Also, the position where this beast is depicted may have been deliberately chosen because of its closeness to the giraffe (or vice versa) the purpose being to produce a complex mythical metaphor, the proximity of the beast and the giraffe, itself forming a statement of its own.
figure 69: The white headless beast and his immediate surroundings including a giraffe above his head. To this giraffe a number of human figures are striding. Note the single swimmer touching the headless beast´s forelimb. (Image shown in a color enhanced version)
It seems that two rows of human figures are approaching(?) this giraffe from the right, whilst another figure is shown next to its faded head. Is this individual about to touch the beast’s cranium? “Intensive research by Paul Huard and Jean Leclant has demonstrated that Saharan rock art often illustrates a very intimate relationship between humans and dangerous animals… but also (with) harmless yet most alert (ones like)… giraffes… Particularly humans touching the head…, tail or trunk of … such animals…depict this relationship which… primarily symbolizes hunting magic.” (M. v. Hoek: The Saharan ´giraffe a lien´ in rock art. Domesticated giraffe or rain animal? Sahara 14(2003), p. 50) ”However, associations between humans and animals in rock art do not necessarily imply … (such) practices; they also could reflect a religious or mythical association. (Coulson and Campbell).” (Ibidem, p. 51) The latter assumption is supported by the notion that, in reality, “…prehistoric people will have realized that it is actually impossible for a human to touch the head of a standing giraffe.” (P. Huard; J. Leclant: La culture des chasseurs du Nil et du Sahara (part 2) Alger. Mem. Du CRAPE, XXIX, p. 371)
Ref. figures 70 – 75: Contemplating the swimmers and the enigmatic headless beast whose bodies are sometimes marked with a mesh pattern, Le Quellec concludes that a significant proportion of the Wadi Sura imagery may represent “… the earliest graphic evidence for a myth.” (J.-J. Le Quellec: Can one “read” rock art? op. cit., p….) But what about the depictions of giraffes? Are they not also part of this myth? As mentioned above, the giraffe paintings could simply indicate hunting magic but the fact that the giraffe in figures 70 + 72 seems to be closely associated with a swimmer, may speak in favor of the giraffe depictions being part of the said myth. The scene in figure 71, where a swimmer is approaching the foreleg of a headless beast (note however that in figures 70 + 72 the swimmer is shown moving away from the giraffe.), also supports this idea. So, following the ideas of v. Hoek, it is suggested that in addition to headless beasts and swimmers, images of giraffes were also employed by the Neolithic artists “… to convey a metaphorical message.” (M. v. Hoek: op. cit., p. 62) This message refers to the transition from the world of the living to the world of the dead. In fact, as shown by the superimpositions in figure 77, the metaphorical message attached to giraffes may even be older than the (same or a similar) metaphorical message inherent in the depictions of headless beasts. If this were the case headless beasts would have emerged as “new” deities from a “religion” where a giraffe god or goddess had been venerated. Hence, it seems fairly certain that the origins of the “Wadi Sura pantheon” reach far back into the hunter-gatherer period.
Admittedly, the swimmer moving away from the giraffe in figure 72 could have been added to the animal at a later date. If so, such an addition would possibly nullify my assumption concerning the date of the formative period of the Wadi Sura pantheon, but the intrinsic meaning of the composition would change very little. Where is the swimmer heading? Why is he “watched” by the giraffe as we see in figure 72? Apparently, the giraffe is in an alert state as its tail is slightly raised. (figure 73) Also, its head is lowered and the animal seems to be focusing on the swimmer, thus establishing a connection between beast and corpse. This indeed may express a special spiritually(?) inspired bound i.e., a relationship between the dead swimmer and the giraffe predefined by religious(?) ideas or, in other words, by the spirit of the time (German: Zeitgeist. See also M. v. Hoek: op. cit., p. 52). The swimmer is heading towards a silhouette of a tall human figure, whose lower legs and feet are framed by a pair of handprints. Inside the palm of the handprint depicted to the right of the figure’s legs, a corpse of a deceased(?) person is superimposed. (figure 74) Note also that the giraffe is painted over another tall human figure but perhaps, also over the front legs of a vanished creature (which may well be another headless beast). Thus, the pictographic link between the giraffe and the headless beast shown in figure 71 is created solely by handprints. But doubtless, the pictorial elements of figures 70 + 71 comprise a single metaphorical message. Although the meaning of this message, for the most part, remains enigmatic, the carriers of the message, i.e., the giraffe, the headless beast etc., differ from each other only in their degree of realism. Whilst the headless creature is viewed by Le Quellec as a “… totally unreal beast… (proving) that the intention which motivated this art-work was not that of describing real surroundings” (J.-J. Le Quellec: Can one “read” rock art? op. cit., p….), the depiction of the giraffe is an almost true-to-life rendering. The enigma presented by the Neolithic artist’s association of a naturalistically painted giraffe, a mythological swimmer and a headless beast, can be resolved by interpreting the scene in question as a work of “magical realism” (see summary and outlook of the preceding chapter) Thus, both images, the giraffe and the swimmer, may, together with the headless beast, represent symbolically charged entities that are part of the same metaphor.
There is reason to believe that since time immemorial, the long neck of the giraffe may have been “… regarded as a sort of medium between earth and sky.” (M. v. Hoek: op. cit., p. 59) With this in mind it comes as no surprise that, giraffes occur as “hallucinatory rain-animals” in southern African rock art. (Ibidem, p. 58) “In many southern African areas… the potency of a giraffe was instrumental in creating rain and bringing health to the land.” (Ibidem, p. 59) Therefore when applying such beliefs to the Wadi Sura environment, is it reasonable to conjecture that the intention behind the Neolithic artist’s inclusion of the giraffe in figure 70, was to exert a beneficial influence on the swimmer? Furthermore, does the giraffe in figure 69 support (or even strengthen) a link between the Wadi Sura rock art and the sky/Milky Way which association, Barta has so far limited to the white headless beast? (M. Barta, M. Frouz.: op. cit., p. 51) Despite the great distances in space and time between southern African and Wadi Sura rock art, there is not much that speaks against such suggestions. (Note also that, according to W. Westendorf, giraffes, crocodiles, ostriches, storks and guinea fowl were commonly related to the sun during the dynastic period. Regarding giraffes, D. Huyge has recently confirmed such a link for the Predynastic period. Cited from S. Hendricks, F. Förster: Early dynastic art and iconography, in: A companion to ancient Egypt, vol. 2, A. B. Lloyd (ed.), p. 834)
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figure 70: From WG 21, middle lower left center section. (courtesy of Andras Zboray) Swimmer in front of a giraffe surrounded by handprints. These handprints continue up to the headless beast whose forepart is seen at the top right corner of the picture. The whole beast is shown in figure 71. Note that in the palm of one of the hands, a swimmer or the corpse of a deceased human is depicted. For details see figure 74. (Images shown in color enhanced versions)
figure 71: Headless beast surrounded by hands and footprints. A swimmer approaching its front limb is possibly superimposed onto one of the handprints. Note that two digits of a hand are over painted by a human figure that has fallen down or that has died. (figure 75) There is no doubt that the pictorial elements of figures 70 + 71 comprise a single metaphorical message.
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figure 72: Detail from figure 70 showing a swimmer underneath the head of a giraffe. The neck and the head of the animal are lowered towards the corpse as if the giraffe were focusing on the latter. Such “illogical” relationship between the animal and a corpse/swimmer, may express a special spiritual(?) relationship between the two. (see M. v. Hoek: op. cit., p. 52) (Courtesy Andras Zboray)
figure 73: Detail from figure 70. The slightly raised tail may indicate that the giraffe is in an alert state.
figure 74: Detail from figure 70. Corpse of a deceased(?) human superimposed onto the palm of a hand.
figure 75: Detail from figure 71. Human figure that has fallen down or that has died(?) superimposed onto two digits of a hand.
Ref. figures 76 + 77: Another rock panel which combines depictions of a headless beast and a giraffe is shown in figures 76 + 77. As already mentioned, the tail of the headless beast seems to be superimposed onto the giraffe, indicating a younger age of the former. Also, the giraffe’s head may overlap the fore quarters of a quadruped. (see also figure 593 in J.-J. Le Quellec, P.+P. de Flers: op. cit., p. 212) The complete meaning of this penal cannot be reconstructed and nor can the correct chronological order of the three figures and other faded details of the scene be resolved with the limited technical means available to me. Nevertheless, the close proximity between the headless beast and the giraffe may have been deliberate.
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figures 76 + 77: From WG 21. Overview and detail of a scene in which a headless beast is shown together with a giraffe and another quadruped. The tail of the headless beast seems to be superimposed onto the giraffe whilst the quadruped may be over painted by the giraffe’s head. The place for the depiction of the headless beast may have been chosen because of its proximity to the giraffe. (Images shown in color enhanced versions. Figure 77 by courtesy of Andras Zboray.)
Ref. figures 78 – 80: There is yet another intriguing rock art ensemble which, besides other figures, contains another headless beast, this time enveloped by a decorative yellow striped object that resembles a net, together with three(?) swimmers and two giraffes. (figure 78) Figures 78 + 79 show one of the swimmers close to the “mouth” of this headless beast and figure 80 reveals an apparent swimmer(?) or a deceased(?) human depicted under the front legs of the larger of the two giraffes whilst another swimmer/contorted human figure representing a deceased(?) is shown above the same giraffe’s neck. What more is needed to demonstrate that giraffes indeed, may have been linked to death and the netherworld by the Neolithic artists?
figure 78: Two giraffes above a headless beast with one swimmer close to its” mouth” (for detail see figure 79) and two others (Are they just “ordinary” deceased humans?) above and below the larger giraffe. (Image shown in a color enhanced version)
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figure 79: Detail from figure 78. A swimmer close to the mouth of a headless beast.
figure 80: Detail from figure 78. Apparently, a swimmer or a deceased human is depicted under the front legs of the larger of the two giraffes. Another such figure is shown above this giraffe’s neck.
To sum up the pictorial contents of figure 69 and in particular of figures 70, 72, 78 and 80, these seem to point clearly to a link between death and afterlife. This association is not only allegorized by adding headless beasts to scenes in which swimmers and live human figures are present, but also by incorporating giraffes into the paintings, thereby enhancing the mythical-religious meaning of the images. Although, in the scenes just mentioned, giraffes are closely associated with swimmers, one could argue that this closeness does not necessarily mean that the various images concerned were meant to be part of the same composition and the perceived meanings may only be projections of present-day observers. So how the Neolithic people viewed the scenes shown in figures 70, 72, 78 and 80, we do not know but from ancient documents we have an idea of how Egyptians viewed giraffes.
“While the giraffe seems to have had no sacred qualities attributed to it, some Egyptologists have sought to identify the animal associated with (the sun (see remark above in Ref. figures 70-75) or) the god Seth – a creature difficult to identify zoologically – as a giraffe and to see its head as a model for the royal was-scepter. Indisputably, the giraffe has made contributions to Old Egyptian in the word sr, meaning “to announce”, “to foretell”, “to proclaim”, or “to prophesy”. Those verbal associations were based on its 2 to 3 meter … neck.” (E. Brunner-Traut: Giraffes, in: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, D. B. Redford (ed.), vol. 2, p. 25) Thus, if we follow Brunner-Traut´s reasoning, the ancient Egyptians did not attach any religious qualities to giraffes but “only” prophetic and heralding ones. Kuhlmann has gone so far to say that the ancient Egyptians characterized the animals as “prophetical heralds of positive omens”, suggesting that the giraffes of the Neolithic might have played a prominent role as rain-animals. (K. P. Kuhlmann: Der Wasserberg des Djedefre. op. cit., p. 257) So according to the ancients, when a giraffe (as a “hint of the gods”: German: “Fingerzeig der Götter”), appeared in the landscape, rain was about to come.
With regard to a mythology of death and “the next world” as is seemingly expressed in the Wadi Sura rock art, does this notion of a link between “giraffes – rain – water/health – swimmers - headless beasts - Waters of Nun – (sun) - afterlife” have any credibility? According to Kuhlmann ancient Egyptians assigned specific symbolic values to giraffes, especially on account of their long neck which enabled them to look far ahead. (Ibidem, p. 277) Applying this idea to the “after life” mythology already existing a couple thousand years before the emergence of Egypt in Wadi Sura, could this mean that giraffes, whose hieroglyphic characters (mmj) “…could be playfully associated with “mmt” (spring)…” (Ibidem, p. 277; my translation) were imagined by the Wadi Sura people as being capable to foreseeing a beneficial future for the deceased in the netherworld? Thus, can a giraffe as, for instance, the one depicted in figure 72, be interpreted as a divine beast who is a herald of positive omens for the dead at that point when they are about to turn away from the world of the living and to enter the realms of eternity? I leave it up to the readers to form their own opinion. To me it seems more than a coincidence that several prominent rock art ensembles at WG 21 depict giraffes, swimmers, handprints and headless beasts together.
Ref. figures 81- 83: It should be noted that there are rock art ensembles in WG 21 which may challenge the chain of thought (“giraffes – rain – water/health – swimmers - headless beasts - Waters of Nun – (sun) - afterlife”) postulated above. In figure 81 the giraffe seems to be “replaced” by an ostrich that is associated with three swimmers, a pair of quadrupeds(?), handprints and a headless beast that is about to attack a human figure. One of the simmers is superimposed onto a handprint. So are the two quadrupeds. If the ostrich stands for positive omens such as maternity and female fertility (See chapter 5.31 and caption to figure 39) there may have been good reasons for the Neolithic painters to give preference to the bird instead of depicting a giraffe. Could this imply that the swimmer (i.e., the deceased) who is superimposed over the handprint, next to the ostrich, represents a female dead body? Does this scene signify that certain mythological motifs consisting of animals of the real world (that simultaneously, may also have been used to represent a solar symbolism) were, within certain limits, interchangeable?
figure 81: From WG 21. A headless beast attacking a human figure. Also an ostrich, handprints, swimmers and two quadrupeds(?). Image shown in a color enhanced version. (Courtesy of Andras Zboray)
Sidenote 12: Figure 81 is part of a composition shown in figure 82 that, to the left of the ostrich, includes a village scene(?) and, to the lower left of the headless beast, a place of gathering or mourning(?). The general view in figure 82 seems to indicate that the left edge area of figure 81 was not chosen arbitrarily and that, in all likelihood, the ostrich depiction is indeed more likely related to the handprint and the swimmer therein rather than to the village scene.
Regarding the (female) connotations of ostriches as outlined in chapter 5.31, we saw that lineage or a spiritual(?) bond between mother and child is symbolized by an umbilical cord on which two ostriches are placed. (figures 9 + 23) A similar symbolism, not quite as clear as the one just mentioned, is also evident in another WG 21 rock art panel. I refer to the tiny scene presented in figure 83 which, as far as is visible to the naked eye, is void of a depiction of an ostrich, but shows a human figure connected by a rope(?) to a pair of humans who are closely grouped together. Does this depiction portray the male aspect of lineage showing a bond between a deceased(?) person, possibly a father and his offspring?
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figure 82: general view of a WG 21 rock art panel consisting of a.) handprints, a village scene(?) to the left of an ostrich and b.) a place of gathering or a mourning site(?) to the lower left of a headless beast. Image shown in a color enhanced version.
figure 83: a human figure connected by a rope(?) to a pair of humans. Image shown in a color enhanced version. Color enhanced. (Courtesy of Andras Zboray)
Ref. figures 84 – 86: Another WG 21 rock art penal which depicts an association between a headless beast, humans and animals is that illustrated in figures 84 -86. Here we see relationships between the beast and a number of human figures, including swimmers and also an ostrich. The way in which the motifs in this composition are arranged underscores the symbolic character of the scene and strongly indicates that, for mythical-religious reasons, the Neolithic artists aimed at deliberately creating links that are pregnant with meaning between various elements, which make up the scene in question. In particular one notes the scene just above the beast which depicts a swimmer between the beast’s back and an ostrich, on either side of which, recumbent human figures are facing the ostrich. Here again, it seems reasonable to assume that the swimmer (i.e. the deceased person), between the ostrich and the headless beast is a female. (see my arguments above) And thus, the positioning of an ostrich directly above a swimmer may serve as a feminine attribute (i.e. as a generic determinative as known from hieroglyphic writing. See A. Gardiner: Egyptian Grammar. 3rd edition, Oxford 1979, pp.31-34) in the context of an allegory of death. If one accepts this interpretation, a small proportion of the Wadi Sura pictorial art may also be seen as anticipating, in a quite rudimentary form, ideographic signs and premature “grammatical patterns” to which, at the dawn of the invention of writing, the later Egyptian hieroglyphic system resorted.
On the other hand, if the ostrich in figures 84 – 86 is regarded in the same way as depictions of giraffes (see above Westendorf´s attempt to interpret pre-dynastic depictions of giraffes as sun-bearers; Westendorf and Huyge in S. Hendricks, F. Förster. op. cit., p. 834) i.e., as a symbol related to the sun, then it would seem that quite different ideas about the afterlife are conveyed to the observer. In this case the ostrich may well be a symbol of power and strength and thus, it’s image and the qualities presumably associated with it could be related to sun worship. Yet, in this context it is not clear what meaning has to be attached to the noticeable emphasis on symmetry as underlined by the opposing and recumbent human figures that face the ostrich in figures 84 + 86. Do we see here an artistic antecedent of the pharaonic convention according to which “.. many components of works of art … have a counterpart which is symmetrically designed and placed according to an imaginary central axis”? (J. Malek: Egypt. 4000 years of art. London 2003, p. 31. Among the first art works on which this formal principle left its mark are the Narmer palette and the verso of the battlefield palette.) Are these two human figures meant to represent the east (sunrise) and the west (sunset) within the context of death and rebirth? (Note that sun worship was prevalent in ancient Egypt and that Nut was one of the deities associated with the sun.) As in the case with the figures we see in figures 84 + 86 “… Egyptian symmetry is...never reduced to a true mirror image; absolute symmetry is, in fact avoided as is the repetition of identical features in general.” (Ibidem) Nonetheless, it seems that in the WG 21 rock art a “…perception of completeness as a synthesis of two complementary, and sometimes confrontational, elements…” (Ibidem) had already begun to evolve which, in the later pharaonic period “… permeated all thinking.” (Ibidem)
(Amendment in blue made on 8/23/2011)
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figure 84: A headless beast, an ostrich, swimmers and a number of other human figures shown interacting with each other in what appears to be a mythical-religious scene. Image shown in a color enhanced version. (Courtesy of Domik Stehle)
figure 85: Detail of figure 84. A swimmer depicted on top of the back of a headless beast. The ostrich directly above the swimmer may serve as a feminine attribute similar to a generic determinative as known from hieroglyphic writing.
figure 86: Detail of figure 84. The ostrich is flanked by two recumbent human figures. Their presence further highlights the mythical-religious character of the scene which, in its central part, could also be seen as anticipating, in a quite rudimentary form, ideographic signs and a premature “grammatical structure” as known from the hieroglyphic script of the proto-dynastic era.
Ref. figures 87: A scene from WG 21 showing a “peaceful” headless beast, a handprint and a couple human figures . Underneath the animal the faint contours of an ostrich engraved into the rock face are to be seen. Does the presence of the ostrich in this case, underscore the female essence of the beast?
figure 87: A panel consisting of associated headless beast, ostrich, handprint and human figures. (Image shown in a color enhanced version.)
Ref. Mark Borda´s recent aardvark discovery: The chain of thought presented above (“giraffes – rain – water/health – swimmers - headless beasts - Waters of Nun – (sun) - afterlife”) is split open all the more by a recent find made by Mark Borda at Garet Shezzu, about 60 kilometres southwest of Gebel Uweinat. This discovery questions Le Quellec´s notion that depictions of swimmers commonly occur in association with headless beasts only. (see J.-J. Le Quellec: Can one “read” rock art? op. cit., p….. However, in his book “peintures et gravures d´avant les pharaons” Le Quellec himself presents an image of a human figure found at Gebel Uweinat which strongly resembles a swimmer and which is not depicted together with a headless beast. J.-J. Le Quellec, P.+P. de Flers: op. cit., pp. 73, 77, fig. 154) The find may also challenge the definition of headless beasts as “….totally unreal beasts…” (J.-J. Le Quellec: Can one “read” rock art? op. cit., p…..) that seem to merge the characteristics of felines, baboons and bovines as well as of humans, forming a surrealistic, composite creature.
During his winter 2010/11-desert survey, whilst traversing the southern flanks of Garet Shezzu, Mark Borda came across a small rock shelter in which he noticed an enigmatic painted panel consisting of three pictorial elements:
a.) a tall vertical human figure that seems to be stepping with one foot on
b.) a smaller sized horizontal human figure (swimmer), which is lying belly down with arms out stretched and legs below the knee lifted whilst
c.) an aardvark approaches the lifted lower legs (of the slain(?) enemy(?)).
The exceptional find will be published in the next issue of SAHARA. The panel in question is cleanly separated from the other rock art panels also present in the same shelter, thus it is very clear that the three pictorial elements concerned are related to one another. Indisputably, the scene is symbolic in nature and, to me, constitutes surprising proof of a swimmer, shown in unequivocal association with an animal that lives in underground burrows i.e., a real existing “animal of the underworld”, found at a distance about 260 kilometers away from the Foggini Mestekawi Cave.
Until the release of the 2011 edition of SAHRA I shall refrain from further discussions of Borda´s find and from posting pictures thereof on my website. Thereafter, an interpretation of images of headless beasts based on real animals of the formerly existing Neolithic fauna will be offered in chapter 5.346.
Amendment of 9/7/2011:
After Mark’s article has been published (M. Borda: Rock art finds at Garet Shezzu and an aardvark? Sahara 22(2011)pp. 130-133, Plates D1 + D2) I would like to acquaint the reader with the unusual piece of rock art referred to above. Figure 87a shows the entire panel consisting of a tall vertical human figure, a smaller sized horizontal human figure which, after the submission of the images by Mark Borda, I identified as a swimmer, and an aardvark. A close-up of the swimmer is shown in figure 87b, a close-up of the aardvark is to be seen in figurem87c.
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figure 87a: Rock panel consisting of a human figure, a swimmer and an aardvark found by Mark Borda at Garet Shezzu, Libya. Image shown is color enhanced. (Courtesy Mark Borda)
figure 87b: Detail of figure 87a. Swimmer. Image shown is color enhanced. (Courtesy Mark Borda)
figure 87c: Detail of figure 87a. Aardvark. Image shown is color enhanced. (Courtesy Mark Borda)
5.345.3 The “White Nut’s” body posture in comparison to those of other headless beast
5.345.31 The “White Nut” figure and “ordinary” headless beasts as enigmatic composite figures
Referring to headless beasts which he differentiates from the “White Nut” figure Barta states that they “…possess an unidentifiable mammal’s body and legs, and instead of a neck portray a ´mouth´ between two humps. In some instances, it is this mouth that devours human corpses. In most cases, these creatures/beasts are surrounded by standing or moving/floating human figures (some of them are ´swimmers´) that seem to approach these beasts… Some of the humans are rendered upside down as if they were dead.” (M. Barta, M. Frouz, op. cit., pp. 63, 65) Following Le-Qellec, Barta considers depictions of these reddish-brown headless beasts as precursors of the Egyptian “…mythical creature Amemait, which was part of the final judgment of the deceased. When he failed to pass judgment, he was eaten up by her. If he was successful, the deceased passed and attained life in the afterlife and appeared in the sky.” (Ibidem, p. 65). Note however, that in Egyptian myth Amemait, the devourer of the dead, is portrayed as a composite creature with a lion’s/lionesses body, the forelegs of a crocodile and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. (see several judgment scenes in the Book of the Dead) On account of these differences Barta points out that, the “… manifold process of resurrection as we know it from ancient Egypt may have been different at the period when the (Foggini-Mestekawi Cave) … was decorated, yet the parallels are striking enough.” (Ibidem, p. 63) In contrast to his interpretation of “ordinary” headless beasts, Barta reserves a special interpretation for the largest known of these headless beasts, which on account of its extraordinary size and its white coat of paint, he associates with the Egyptian sky goddess Nut. In this chapter we will ask again, whether or not Barta´s reasoning is supported by the facts as they are emerging at WG 21 and other Wadi Sura rock art sites.
(Note that according to Andras Zboray “… there is a strange symbolism and standardized iconography in the Wadi Sura paintings (not known from any other styles at Uweinat) that does seem to echo some of the traits of Egyptian art (this was noted by Jean-Loic le Quellec, but he too went a bit too far without enough evidence), however the overall style and subject matter is too distant to suggest any kind of relationship… At present … there is nothing in the rock art of either the Gilf or Uweinat to suggest that any of these cultures were ancestral to, or just even had contacts with the predynastic Nile valley cultures. In fact, if our chronology is right (and your dates so far support this), the early Nile valley civilizations (Fayum, Badarian, etc.) were contemporary with the early Gilf/Uweinat cultures, and had a very different material culture. Of course we all know now that in later dynastic times there were contacts, as attested by (the Road to Yam and Tekhebet) … and the (Mentuhotep) …inscription at Uweinat, but there was a thousand year gap between this and the last paintings.” (A. Zboray, email to the author of September 13, 2010))
5.345.311 The “White Nut’s” size as a distinguishing feature?
Regarding the size and thus, the importance which the Neolithic artists may have attached to the “White Nut”, it must be admitted that we did not measure this image when visiting the cave. Uwe George, taking my body size as a frame of reference (figure 88), estimates her to be 250 cm long (U. George, pers. comm.), whilst I assume a size of about 120 cm and Andras Zboray a size of about 75 cm. (A. Zboray, Rock art of the Libyan Desert. Rock art styles - Wadi Sora Style) But even Andras´ modest estimate would highlight the white beast’s prominence, as all other depictions of headless creatures are much smaller; “…the smallest are just a few centimeters.” (Ibidem) In Barta´s opinion both, her white color “… and the enormous curved shape of her figure…” (U. George: In the cave of the Sky Goddess. GEO India, January 2011, p. 90) can be interpreted as anthropomorphic forms of the Milky Way which is indicative of the white beast being the Stone Age predecessor of the Egyptian goddess Nut. Thus it seems that about 3,000 years before the pharaohs, a natural phenomenon had inspired Neolithic sages to further develop their worship in a way that is “…without parallels in the Gilf-Uweinat region”. (A. Zboray. op cit.)
figure 88: the author below the depiction of the “White Nut” (detail; courtesy Dominik Stehle)
5.345.312 Zoological equivalents to the headless beast’s mystical form and the meaning of this form
Andras Zboray´s assessment also applies to the composite character of the headless beasts. So far, these Wadi Sura” headless beasts” have not been found anywhere else in the Gilf Kebir/Uweinat region and since the discovery of WG 21, visitors to this cave have been puzzling over the question of what kind of animal the Neolithic artists had in mind when they depicted these mysterious headless creatures. Here are some recent propositions cited from the extant literature. According to Zboray the strange animals appear “… to have a feline body (lion?) with curved tail, with usually (but not universally) only a single forelimb, bent rearwards at a right angle at the knee. The head is always missing, replaced by two rounded humps resembling an elephant’s forehead. There appears to be a mouth between the humps, as two examples clearly show a human torso sticking out.” (Ibidem) “Rhotert saw in ..(the) ´beast´ (which is depicted in the Cave of the Swimmers) a half-human, half-animal being, its back is profoundly curved, and its long tail ends in a flossy ball…” (J.-L. Le Quellec: Can one “read” rock art? An Egyptian example. in: P. Taylor (ed.): Iconography without texts. London 2008, p. 15) Le Quellec remarks that, “…although one cannot identify them as any real, known animal, these Beasts all have a certain similarity which prevents one attributing them merely to the individual fantasy of inventive artists. They often seem to associate characteristics of animals (feline? baboon? bovine?) and humans (articulation of the limbs, sometimes with a kind of foot). (Ibidem, p….) Robert Twigger straightforwardly interprets these beasts as headless baboons. (R. Twigger: Lost oasis. In search of paradise. London 2007, p. 95) and Roland Keller speculates that the headless beasts either “… actually show the god Seth” (www.rolandkeller.org) or represent shamanistic giraffes. (www.rolandkeller.org/roland_Keller_aegypten_neueste_entdeckungen_links_35.html) On the other hand, Barta and George interpret the beasts as loin-like animals with muscular bodies whilst D´Huy considers them to be mutilated lions. (J. D´Huy: New evidence for a closeness between the Abu Ras shelter (Eastern Sahara) and Egyptian beliefs. Sahara 20 (2009) pp. 125 et seq.) However, at first sight, it appears from the evidence in Wadi Sura that the beasts in question bear only slight resemblance to any known creature. (see opposite view presented in chapter 5.346) For the time being, these fabulous animals as well as the “White Nut” may be seen as composites of lions (torso), elephants, cattle (hoofs) and baboons.
Regardless of the zoological interpretations of the enigmatic beasts at WG 21, the meaning of the historical and cultural developments which this imagery bears witness to, can only be guessed at. As in the past, so in the present: The world that surrounds us starts and ends in our head and just as we do today, the tribes of the Wadi Sura area lived in a realm of invented ideas and perceptions of their own. (For comparison, see cultural differentiation processes of semi-isolated mountain valley populaces in the Alps before the onset of modern communication and increased mobility.) In this realm (as well as in their social reality) members of these tribes did not seem to conceive themselves as an enigma. Furthermore, it seems they regarded the end of their days as an inevitable part of the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth and were by no means reluctant to hand themselves over to the frightful headless beasts who devoured them as we see in some of the images that have survived for us today, which images also underscore a decisive mythological element in these paintings, which it seems were informed by visions that transcended Neolithic daily life and which shed light on what seems to have been a highly developed animistic culture with a sophisticated cosmogony. Therefore the headless beasts can be seen as the remains of a vanished imaginary world that, altogether, was used as a statement to attest to the commitment of the Wadi Sura populace to their concept of afterlife whilst, vice-versa, we can imagine that the paintings in question probably had a profound mind altering effect on the prehistoric peoples that would have partaken in rituals inside these shelters. (Although for instance, the altar that I found at WG 61 is suggestive of being an element of emotionally charged cult activities the corresponding feedback effects, to which the ones gathering around the sacred item and participating in the rituals were presumably exposed, cannot be discussed in this paper. Note however that recently, Early Dynastic hybrid creatures have been considered as being endowed with a religious aura by their creators. (see Cialowicz, cited from S. Hendricks, F. Förster: op. cit., p. 846)) Nothing prevents us to assume that the same could apply to headless beasts which are tentatively seen here also as hybrid i.e., composite in nature.)
5.345.32 Movements and body postures: the fearful nature of the “White Nut” and the “ordinary” headless beasts
In one of his captions, Barta briefly mentions the possible maleficent nature of headless beasts (M. Barta, M. Frouz, op. cit., p. 64), following Julien d´Huy “… who sees the headless (i.e., mutilated) beasts as predating another typical ancient Egyptian concept.” (Ibidem, p. 67) In reference to the Old Kingdom and thereafter he quotes d´Huy as follows:“… animal and human hieroglyphs, especially dangerous animals´ hieroglyphs were suppressed or replaced by those of intimate objects, while in the later version, these hieroglyphs are either mutilated or only partly depicted…. The reason was that texts were magical and thus capable to materialize their content.” (J. D´Huy: op. cit.) Occasionally, this fear that hieroglyphs had the potential to magically materialize into the beasts they represented, led Egyptians to depict dangerous animals such as ”…lions and elephants… as incomplete and without an essential part (because)… people thought they might be dangerous… when they became alive… In this way, complete Beasts´ bodies (depicted in rock shelters of the Wadi Sura area)… may have been avoided because of the fear they could inflict harm. The absence of the head (for both “ordinary” beasts and the “White Nut”) can also be explained by the will to magically eliminate the danger that Beasts represent.”(Ibidem) In addition, as shown in figure 89, some of the headless beasts are portrayed with “… vertical scores splitting their body... The authors of the pyramid texts slash the body of their hieroglyphic lions in the same way, to neutralize them. Furthermore, to make hieroglyphs representing dangerous animals harmless, the custom was particularly to impose one or several notches on them.” (Ibidem; see also literature references in D´Huy article.) This practice is seen in figures 89 + 90 and on quite a few other Wadi Sura paintings.
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figure 89: Headless beast with vertical groves scored across its body. Color enhanced.
figure 90: Headless beast damaged by three indentations. It may well be that the indentations were made to stop the beast’s attack(?) on the human figure to the left. Color enhanced. (courtesy of Dominik Stehle)
However, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that the grooves and other types of deliberate damage we see on the torsos, could have been made long after the beasts were painted. Perhaps these effacements served as a further measure to tame the ferocity of the already headless beasts. If the effacements took place hundreds or even a thousand years later, there could be many reasons for this, such as the weakening or changing of beliefs, the loss of confidence in age-old myths, magic and rituals, a general awakening i.e., a disillusionment or a reinterpretation of old ideas regarding man’s role on earth and in the netherworld. Thus, a sudden onset of droughts or of other natural disasters could, due to their psychological impact, have caused disillusionment amongst the faithful and detachment from their established pantheon and from the physical world that was then probably undergoing climatic transition (5,400 – 4,300 BC; see Report o the results of radiocarbon datings from the Wadi Sura area, Gilf Kebir, southwestern Egypt, table 2). In such circumstances one can imagine how such changes could have led to a loss of confidence and the eruption of fears.
That the headless beasts as well as the “White Nut” might have been viewed as potentially ferocious animals who had to be controlled and reined in, is further suggested by the fact that quite a few of these creatures are depicted, in a standardized manner, with “…only a single forelimb, bent rearwards at a right angle at the knee.” (A. Zboray: op. cit.) This unusual front leg posture is reminiscent of the manner in which grazing animals such as camels (note however that before 520 BC camels were unknown in Egypt) and other animals have their mobility temporarily restrained. Figure 91 shows a camp-scene from Wadi Sura (probably from the cattle pastoralist period) in which, to the right of a hobbled cow, a canine(?) with a curved tail seems to be tied to an object by a rope that is attached to one of its front legs (detail shown in figure 92) which scene seems to echo some of those of the headless beasts. (figure 92) In the case of the headless beasts, the tying-up is imaginary i.e., there is no visible rope (figure 93) as opposed to the more evident shackling of the bovines and the canine. (figures 91 + 92) Regarding the region and the periods in which the two paintings were made, this is as close as we can get to identifying depictions which probably signify two forms of shackling, a symbolic and a real one. For comparison see figure 94 which shows a camel’s foreleg shackled with the help of an agal (leg restraint). When a camel is hobbled in this way, the resulting forelimb posture is similar to that of the headless beast (figure 93) especially when the limb in question is raised. Does this prove that the unusual position of headless beast’s forelimbs was copied by the Neolithic artists from real life scenes?
Sidenote 13: When a camel is crawling on its foreleg knees and when both forelegs are tied separately with agals, the camel’s body posture will be strikingly similar to that of a headless beast as depicted in figure 93. I saw this kind of crawling maneuver quite frequently around campsites during my expeditions but regrettably, I never photographed it. When such a hobbled camel is in the mood of attacking, and when it lunges forward, it raises its forequarters, usually holding both of these front limbs more or less side by side so that from a lateral vantage point, one limb hides behind the other. Could this be the reason why, at some headless beast’s sites, only one foreleg is visible? As the beast aligns its limbs in the instant of pouncing, is the second “symbolically tied-up” foreleg hidden behind the first? Another explanation could be that in order to emphasize the controlled state of some of the creatures, and thus to allay the fears of the ancient viewers, the Neolithic artists had, right from the start, painted these animals with only one foreleg.
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figures 91 + 92: From WG 46. Camp and shackling scene showing, from the cattle herder’s point of view, the body postures of hobbled cattle and a tied canine(?). Color enhanced. (Courtesy Andras Zboray)
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figure 93: From WG 21. Decorated headless beast “...with a single forelimb bent rearwards at a right angle at the knee.” (A. Zboray: op. cit.)
figure 94: Male camel from a salt caravan which I photographed at Laqiya Arbain/Sudan on my camel hike of 1986/87. The animal is urinating. His left front leg is tied with an agal (leg restraint). When both legs of a camel are hobbled in this way and the animal is also sitting, if it lunges forward, the upper section of its forelimbs will, for a moment during this motion, reveal a forelimb stance very similar to the headless beast in figure 89. In any case, figures 89 + 90 present ways quadrupeds can be tied up.
That, in some cases, headless beasts were considered and thus consequently, were portrayed as aggressive and dangerous animals, is also indicated in figure 95. Here we see a mythical creature with its tail erect, frozen in movement that represents a full gallop(?) and thus, depicted with a single front leg that is not symbolically tied up. Apparently, the beast is making a big leap forward and is depicted whilst its attack on the person to its left is well under way. The backward leaning posture of this human suggests a retreat in the face of the assault and a state of paralysis brought on by fear. Panic-struck and defenceless, he stretches out his arms, does not dare to move and submits(?) to his fate, whilst all but one of his companions(?) run away from the scene.
figure 95: From WG 21. Headless beast attacking a human figure (color enhanced). Courtesy Andras Zboray.
So, in order to protect the ancient viewers from the maleficent nature of headless beasts, the Neolithic artists and later visitors to the Wadi Sura caves sought to curtail the outright ferocity of some of these animals by the following remedies:
- depicting the beasts headless
- limiting them to a single(?) forelimb which is bent rearwards at a right angle to the knee as a further precaution
- scoring grooves across their torsos
- damaging them with further indentations.
As already discussed, three of these measures were also common in pharaonic Egypt. This, amongst other evidence, seems to support the idea that the Wadi Sura culture was a source of Egyptian mythology. “This population may have migrated towards the Nile valley, bringing with it its mental universe and contributing to the formation of Egyptian beliefs.” (J. D´Huy: op. cit., p. 126)
In addition to those images that present headless beasts in an aggressive stance, there are a number of depictions that suggest the animals were capable of various other different temperaments and conduct. The depictions which correspond to these alternative behaviours include postures such as running (without attacking), peacefully striding forward, following a lead animal, standing and nursing(?).These variations will be treated further below together with other characteristics such as ´lifted tails´ and the decoration of the bodies with yellow ribbons and ornaments.
to be continued in part two