The Language of Symbols: Communicating with the Supernatural in Prehistoric Anatolia

Jak Yakar

Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

The decipherment of the spiritual life of prehistoric communities in Anatolia is a highly speculative field strewn with numerous hurdles, needles to say some of them insurmountable. However, when dealing with topics such as magic and religion, and their possible manifestation in the cultural records of permanently settled prehistoric communities, the cautious use of ethnographic records of non-industrial communities from distant lands could be permitted in order to understand the possible nature of community rituals connected say with ancestor cult and fertility.  One can only presume that even in Neolithic times communities of sedentary hunter-gatherers and farmers that produced the art forms encountered at settlements such as Çatalhöyük, Kösk Höyük, Hallan Çemi, Novali Çori (Yakar 1991; 1994), or at the cult center of Göbekli Tepe (Schmidt 2000a-b) accepted the fact that the ‘world’ they were part of had to be regulated by a definite set of customs and institutions and long established ways of thinking.  Some of these naturalistic, geometric and linear art forms most likely served as mediums and symbols of communication with ‘the world of spirits’.  This issue brings up the question of whether shamanism existed among prehistoric communities in Anatolia.  Assuming in the imperative, we have to emphasize that the induction, control and exploitation of altered states of consciousness are at the heart of shamanism the world over.  Recent neuropsychological research on altered states of consciousness claims to provide the principal access that we have to the mental and religious life of the people who lived in western Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, for they too were Homo sapiens sapiens and, one may confidently assume, had the same nervous system as all people today (Clottes and Lewis-Williams 1996:12-13).  In some of the existing and so-called primitive cultures in various parts of our planet the dreams of ordinary people are usually taken to be glimpses of a world that can be visited with relative ease by religious specialists in deep trance
When dreaming, people have far less control over their mental experiences than they do while they are daydreaming, although in the condition known as lucid dreaming, a state between waking and sleeping, people can control, or rather they can learn to control their imagery.  The skills, in other words the spiritual techniques developed by shamans (Clottes and Lewis-Williams 1996:14), are perhaps the relics of shamanistic skills surviving from much earlier times.  It may be postulated that in most communities only a few selected individuals would have ventured out transcendental probings to reach and communicate with the ‘world of the supernatural forces’. Those individuals (shamans) claming success in their endeavors would have thus provided spiritual security necessary for maintaining group identity and unity.  In such a world spiritual beliefs would have developed in reference to particular economic activities and social customs.  Therefore, cultural diversity among ancient societies, particularly emphasized in their iconographic repertories, could have been due not only to a complex interweaving of local and non-local cultural traits, but also to differences in the concept of the manifestations of the supernatural.  It may be postulated that a cultural trait may be saturated with religious beliefs among one particular ancient community and function as an important aspect of their religion, while in another the same trait was less exposed to religious formatting. 
    It is not always clear to what extent if at all ancient communities dichotomized the universe into two distinct and mutually exclusive spheres labeled ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’.  Along this line of argument it is not always clear the line dividing magic and religious rites. Any attempt to distinguish between magic and religion is bound to be arbitrary, for the difference between the notion of a magical power in things and the idea of a more or less personalized spirit in things is very much one of degree (Beattie 1964:219). The question dealing with symbols and symbolism is no less problematical to solve.  Symbolism can be regarded as a kind of language, a way of transmitting a social or religious message. Ethnographic studies in various parts of the world demonstrate that people who carry out institutionalized symbolic procedures or rites usually believe that by doing so they are either producing some desired state of affairs or preventing some undesired one. 
     Another question not often asked when studying archaeological records pertaining to the spiritual domains in ancient communities is did all communal festivities such as marriage, puberty, birth etc., had religious significance?  Another question relates to the concept of the supernatural.  For instance, should we see in some of the wall paintings at Çatalhöyük scenes from real life, spirits’ world or mythological scenes?  It is known that mythology can consist of uncoordinated accounts based on figures taken from different heroic mythic cycles.  It is difficult to ascertain which natural and supernatural forces ancient communities supplicated during communal ceremonies held in the wake of death, birth, puberty and initiation. Assuming that they did have these ceremonies then it could be postulated that these rituals were organized and conducted by religious practitioners (shamans) probably using a codified language of symbols to reach the world of spirits with supernatural power believed living beyond the reach of mortals and communicate with them.


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2002 © European Science Foundation
2002 © Prehistory Foundation & Reports of Prehistoric Research Projects
2002 ©The Author
Editor: Lolita Nikolova, Ph.D.
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