The Religion of Obsidian

A remarkable wallpainting uncovered at Catal Huyuk throws an interesting light on the city's economic and religious foundations. "Painted on the north and east wall of a shrine... soon after 6,200 B.C .... it represents that rarest of all genres of early painting, a landscape, and needless to say it is unique," writes Mellaart. The painting consists of a stylized portrayal of the terraced houses of the city itself, with a geologically perceptive rendition of an erupting, twin-peaked volcano, The painting clearly represents an actual eruption of Hasan Dag, a twin-peaked, then-active volcano eight miles to the east of the city, which dominated the skyline on a clear day. Looking at the erupting volcano with the eyes of an art historian, several features suggest that the painting is not simply a landscape, but is an icon of the Volcano Goddess.

The contours of the volcano are breast-like and the overall shape of the volcano closely matches schematized "bison-woman" paleolithic designs and other goddess representations; it looks distinctly like a body, much more so than like a mountain. The spots on the volcano's flanks, described as "glowing firebombs of lava," are very similar to the "leopard-skin spots" that are a characteristic sign of the Goddess of Catal Huyuk throughout the city's artwork. The painting is a vivid, nearly naturalistic rendering, and the spouts of lava pouring from the cone shapes at its base accurately portray the tendency of volcanoes to erupt from vents at their base. But the painting is also a shrine mural, an expression of religion, and clearly a representation of the Mother Goddess of Obsidian, and the city which was built and consecrated by Her graces. This mural is from a fairly early period in Catal Huyuk's history, painted as the city was approaching its prime, and in it we can perhaps see the heart of Catal Huyuk's economy and the very reason for its existence. The finest Anatolian obsidian was mined at the base of Hasan Dag. Catal Huyuk, located near rivers in a flat, gamefilled plain, was an ideal trading site for the obsidian. In "The Time Falling Bodies

Take To Light", W.I. Thompson likens the obsidian to "a dark, cthonic milk which flowed out of the breast of the volcano, Hasan Dag," and suggests that "Even as far back as the neolithic, religion was good for business.... The relationship between neolithic religion and economics may have been as intimate as the more familiar 'Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," Thus, Catal Huyuk was perhaps built on religion and obsidian, and very probably on the "Religion of Obsidian." (note; the suggestion 'built on religion' is based on the archeological discoveries that as many as 1 in 2 of the rooms excavated were shrines.) Obsidian may have been considered a sacred material charged with "mana," the power of the Goddess. The trade in obsidian may have been surrounded with rules, taboos, and risks of all types. A sacred material may require special treatment -- a blessing, perhaps even a desecration -- before it can be safely handled by ordinary people. The evidence suggests that Catal Huyuk's dozens of shrines (along with their attendant priestesses and priests), as well as the city's artwork, artisanry, and architecture, may have all been inspired and supported by a religious control of the sacred obsidian trade.

An obsidian arrowhead from Catal Huyuk.
Anatolian obsidian, "purchased" in Catal Huyuk with an exchange of valuable lumber or Mediterranean seashell, would wind its way a thousand miles southward to Jericho, another important trading center near the Dead Sea. Jericho craftsmen, paying for the black volcanic glass with equally black chunks of bitumen from the shores of the Dead Sea, would work the obsidian into a variety of stone tools that were sharper and harder than steel. Jericho, which began as a village in about 9,000 B.C.. is also sometimes called the first city. A thousand years before people set foot in Catal HUyak, Jericho was surrounded by walls ten feet thick and fifteen feet tall. But neolithic Jericho at its biggest was substantially less than half the size of Catal Huyuk, and it was clearly only an armed trading post and village, a secular place very different from the unwalled Temple City of Catal Huyuk. Jericho and Catal Huyuk seem to have formed the two ends of a trading network that made possible the spread of agriculture, pottery, durable buildings, and metallurgy (and possibly philosophy,

religion. and the crude beginnings of writing, mathematics, and astronomy) throughout the Mediterranean basin, and eventually into Mesopotamia to the east. Egypt to the southwest, and Greece and Europe to the northwest. This trade network, and the ideas and technologies which it spread. may have been the single most important precondition for the emergence of the monument building empires of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys. What brought the end of Catal Huyuk's culture and the abandonment of the city? We have no idea. Probably. after a time, the surrounding region was deforested in the quest for firewood, overhunted, and damaged by agriculture -- a familiar pattern. Possibly the rivers which supplied Catal Huyuk with timber, transportation, and trade changed their course, isolating the city. In the later centuries of the city's existence disastrous fires apparently occurred more frequently. and the destruction of the community's wealth by these fires must have hastened the city's end. Clearly the demise of Catal Huyuk cannot be attributed to war; the fires look accidental. there are no signs of murder or massacre at burial sites, and there is little emphasis on weaponry. Catal Huyuk West, the daughter city, also shows no signs of massacre or warfare. The walls of Jericho did not prevent the frequent destruction of that settlement, while Catal Huyuk, which had no walls to speak of, was never touched. James Mellaart attributes this in part to the unusual architecture of Catal Huyuk, which he described as "inherently defensible," but psychohistorian W.I. Thompson suggests that it was the city's religious status that kept it immune from attack:

As a ceremonial center situated near the routes of the obsidian trade, Catal Huyuk was an important cultural force, for as a religious center it could exert an influence to keep trade open and peaceable. Like a Hong Kong, Geneva, or a Zurich, Catal Huyuk did not have to defend itself because the need for it was recognized by all concerned in Anatolia and the Near East. Catal Huyuk, like so many other great powers and organized religions, may simply have grown corrupt and self-centered, losing the people's faith. At its peak Catal Huyuk seems to have boasted one temple for every two houses, but, as centuries passed, the ratio dropped to one shrine for five houses, and the houses themselves

showed finer burials and more extravagant grave goods. Religious architecture became less important, and the clergy increased in number and grew richer. Perhaps, after a time, just as with contemporary religions, people lost respect for the sacred institution, disillusioned by too much corruption and too little faith. In its final years, the city may have simply lost its reputation, its most priceless possession. Perhaps people simply stopped coming to Catal Huyuk to trade for obsidian; maybe some unknown neighbor down the road was now offering a better deal. The citydwellers tried to save their livelihood by moving to a new site, but Catal Huyuk West never approached the size or grandeur of her mother. An epoch of civilized achievement came to a quiet end, the shrines and temples were ritually defaced one last time, and the mound was given over to the ruin-weed (rue) and the empty sky.

In this wall painting at Catal Huyuk, rows of hands frame a honeycomb pattern on which are depicted insects and grubs on a field of stylized