picture of the day
Left: A pot from the Naqada II period,
Right: A cosmic diagram from Mangaia, Polynesia, published in 1876.
Apr 17, 2008
A Potted View of Ancient Geometric Imagery
Pottery from the classical world is replete with
mythological imagery, so much so that classicists treat the
familiar images on black and red Attic ware as a respectable
class of “witnesses” to myths otherwise known from texts.
Since the onset of human
history, creative artisans have decorated pots and vases
with whatever occupied their minds. In some cases, pictures
found on vases represent traditions not attested in any of
the texts at our disposal and even these are taken into
account by scholars as respectable sources.
Much the same is true for other societies as well as,
presumably, the abundant pictures found on prehistoric pots,
where the accompanying myths themselves can no longer be
retrieved. “Abstract” or “geometric” patterns are
particularly common on pottery from the Neolithic period and
the Bronze Age. While circles, spirals, crosses and the like
will often not have had any deeper meaning than a purely
decorative fantasy of the painter, such forms may in some
cases represent phenomena featured in the artist’s
mythological and cosmological worldview. For example, even
today cross-shaped patterns are in countless cultures linked
to the four cardinal directions.
One reason to believe that many “abstract” patterns on
prehistoric pots denoted cosmological concepts are the
striking similarities found between these shapes and
recurrent traits of ancient cosmological thought systems. An
example of the often close linkage is shown above. The
curious image on the left adorns a vase from the Naqada II
period of prehistoric Egypt, dated to 3500-3200 BCE. The
image on the right is a 19th century drawing of the cosmos
as perceived by the indigenous people of Mangaia, one of the
Cook Islands in southern Polynesia.
The visiting missionary-cum-anthropologist William Wyatt
Gill explained that the Mangaians associated the nine
concentric arcs with ten layered heavens and the segmented
“balloon” below it with an “underworld” called Avaiki,
comprising the “root of all existence” at the very bottom, a
series of six superimposed internal divisions in the middle,
and the surface of the earth at the top.
The visual similarity between these two images is striking.
Is it conceivable that the Egyptian painter responsible for
the adornment of the Naqada II vase was inspired by a
comparable “cosmogram”, on a par with the “cosmic drums”,
mandalas and mappae mundi of later ages?
The idea may not seem quite so potty if both images
ultimately traced to a complex configuration once seen in
the sky. Plasma physicist Dr. Anthony Peratt has recently
been modeling a high-energy-density aurora that must have
been observed towards the end of the Neolithic Period coming
in from a south polar direction. Laboratory experiments and
computer simulations bear out that this aurora, arguably
recorded in millions of “geometric” petroglyphs worldwide,
during one of its stages displayed a morphology quite like
the images reproduced above.
Interdisciplinary collaboration also suggests that the
formative history of this aurora encapsulates what
traditional societies across the globe collectively remember
as the ‘events of creation’. It looks like these people
interpreted the complex movements and arrangements of
conspicuous plasma filaments in the sky as the organization
of space by mythical gods and ancestors. Strings of
bead-shaped plasmoids of varying sizes gave rise to
countless variations on the themes of stacked heavens,
hells, and ancestors or cosmic “eggs” and “coconuts” from
which the world emerged in illo tempore.
The interpretation of the image on the Naqada vase in terms
of a prehistoric super-aurora may jar with archaeologists in
the absence of any positive evidence for the meaning of the
picture – and rightly so. Yet, on a speculative level, the
analogy with similar cosmological and mythical imagery on
human artifacts worldwide inspires confidence that the
prehistoric painter was engaged in more than idle doodling.
Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs
The Mythology of the World Axis; Exploring the Role of Plasma in World
The World Axis as an
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