Evolution of the Dragon, by G. Elliot Smith, , at sacred-texts.com
Blood and its substitutes, however, were not the only materials that had acquired a reputation for vitalizing qualities in the Reindeer Epoch. For there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that shells also were regarded, even in that remote time, as life-giving amulets.
If the loss of blood was at first the only recognized cause of death, the act of birth was clearly the only process of life-giving. The portal by which a child entered the world was regarded, therefore, not only as the channel of birth, but also as the actual giver of life. 2 The large Red Sea cowry-shell, which closely simulates this "giver of life," then came to be endowed by popular imagination with the same powers. Hence the shell was used in the same way as red ochre or carnelian: it was placed in the grave to confer vitality on the dead, and worn on bracelets and necklaces to secure good luck by using the "giver of life" to avert the risk of danger to life. Thus the general life-giving properties of blood, blood substitutes, and shells, came to be assimilated the one with the other. 3
At first it was probably its more general power of averting death or giving vitality to the dead that played the more obtrusive part in the magical use of the shell. But the circumstances which led to the
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Fig. 18.(a) The Archaic Egyptian slate palette of Narmer showing, perhaps, the earliest design of Hathor (at the upper corners of the palette) as a woman with cow's horns and ears (compare Flinders Petrie, "The Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty," Part I, 1900, Plate xxvii, Fig. 71). The pharaoh is wearing a belt from which are suspended four cow-headed Hathor figures in place of the cowry-amulets of more primitive peoples. This affords corroboration of the view that Hathor assumed the functions originally attributed to the cowry-shell.
(b) The king's Sporran, where Hathor-heads (H) take the place of the cowries of the primitive girdle.
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Fig. 19.The front of Stela B (famous for the realistic representations of the Indian elephant at its upper corners), one of the ancient Maya monuments at Copan, Central America (after Maudslay's photograph and diagram).
The girdle of the chief figure is decorated both with shells (Oliva or Conus) and amulets representing human faces corresponding to the Hathor-heads on the Narmer palette (Fig. 18).
development of the shell's symbolism naturally and inevitably conferred upon the cowry special power over women. It was the surrogate of the life-giving organ. It became an amulet to increase the fertility of women and to help them in childbirth. It was, therefore, worn by girls suspended from a girdle, so as to be as near as possible to the organ it was supposed to simulate and whose potency it was believed to be able to reinforce and intensify. Just as bracelets and necklaces of carnelian were used to confer on either sex the vitalizing virtues of blood, which it was supposed to simulate, so also cowries, or imitations of them made of metal or stone, were worn as bracelets, necklaces, or hair-ornaments, to confer health and good luck in both sexes. But these ideas received a much further extension.
As the giver of life, the cowry came to have attributed to it by some people definite powers of creation. It was not merely an amulet to increase fertility: it was itself the actual parent of mankind, the creator of all living things; and the next step was to give these maternal functions material expression, and personify the cowry as an actual woman in the form of a statuette with the distinctly feminine characters grossly exaggerated; 1 and in the domain of belief to create the image of a Great Mother, who was the parent of the universe.
Thus gradually there developed out of the cowry-amulet the conception of a creator, the giver of life, health, and good luck. This Great Mother, at first with only vaguely defined traits, was probably the first deity that the wit of man devised to console him with her watchful care over his welfare in this life and to give him assurance as to his fate in the future.
At this stage I should like to emphasize the fact that these beliefs had taken shape long before any definite ideas had been formulated as to the physiology of animal reproduction and before agriculture was practised.
Man had not yet come to appreciate the importance of vegetable fertility, nor had he yet begun to frame theories of the fertilizing powers of water, or give specific expression to them by creating the god Osiris in his own image,
Nor had he begun to take anything more than the most casual
interest in the sun, the moon, and the stars. He had not yet devised a sky-world nor created a heaven. When, for reasons that I have already discussed, 1 the theory of the fertilizing and the animating power of water was formulated, the beliefs concerning this element were assimilated with those which many ages previously had grown up in explanation of the potency of blood and shells. In addition to fertilizing the earth, water could also animate the dead. The rivers and the seas were in fact a vast reservoir of this animating substance. The powers of the cowry, as a product of the sea, were rationalized into an expression of the great creative force of the water.
A bowl of water became the symbol of the fruitfulness of woman. Such symbolism implied that woman, or her uterus, was a receptacle into which the seminal fluid was poured and from which a new being emerged in a flood of amniotic fluid.
The burial of shells with the dead is an extremely ancient practice, for cowries have been found upon human skeletons of the so-called "Upper Palæolithic Age" of Southern Europe.
At Laugerie-Basse (Dordogne) Mediterranean cowries were found arranged in pairs upon the body; two pairs on the forehead, one near each arm, four in the region of the thighs and knees, and two upon each foot. Others were found in the Mentone caves, and are peculiarly important, because, upon the same stratum as the skeleton with which they were associated, was found part of a Cassis rufa, a shell whose habitat does not extend any nearer than the Indian Ocean. 2
These facts are very important. In the first place they reveal the great antiquity of the practice of burying shells with the dead, presumably for the purpose of "life-giving". Secondly, they suggest the possibility that their magical value as givers of life may be more ancient than their specific use as intensifiers of the fertility of women. Thirdly, the association of these practices with the use of the shell Cassis rufa indicates a very early cultural contact between the people living upon the North-Western shores of the Mediterranean in the Reindeer Age and the dwellers on the coasts of the Indian Ocean; and the probability
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Fig. 20.Diagrams illustrating the form of cowry-belts worn in (a) East Africa and (b) Oceania respectively.
(c) Ancient Indian girdle from the figure of Sirima Devata on the Bharat Tope), consisting of strings of pearls and precious stones, and what seem to be fourth row from the top) models of cowries.
(d) The Copan girdle (from Fig. 19) in which both shells and heads of deities are represented. the two objects suspended from the belt between the heads recall Hathor's sistra.
that these special uses of shells by the former were inspired by the latter.
This hint assumes a special significance when we first get a clear view of the more fully-developed shell-cults of the Eastern Mediterranean many centuries later. 1 For then we find definite indications that the cultural uses of shells were obviously borrowed from the Erythræan area.
Long before the shell-amulet became personified as a woman the Mediterranean people had definitely adopted the belief in the cowry's ability to give life and birth.
150:1 Davies and Gardiner, "The Tomb of Amenemhet," p. 112.
150:2 As it is still called in the Semitic languages. In the Egyptian Pyramid Texts there is a reference to a new being formed "by the vulva of Tefnut" (Breasted).
150:3 Many customs and beliefs of primitive peoples suggest that this correlation of the attributes of blood and shells went much deeper than the similarity of their use in burial ceremonies and for making necklaces and bracelets. The fact that the monthly effusion of blood in women ceased during pregnancy seems to have given rise to the theory, that the new life of the child was actually formed from the blood thus retained. The beliefs that grew up in explanation of the placenta form part of the system of interpretation of these phenomena: for the placenta was regarded as a mass of clotted blood (intimately related to the child which was supposed to be derived from part of the same material) which harboured certain elements of the child's mentality (because blood was the substance of consciousness).
151:1 See S. Reinach, "Les Déesses Nues dans lArt Oriental et dans lArt Grec," Revue Archéol., T. XXVI, 1895, p. 367. Compare also the figurines of the so-called Upper Palæolithic Period in Europe.
152:1 Chapter I.
152:2 The literature relating to these important discoveries has been summarized by Wilfrid Jackson in his "Shells as Evidence of the Migrations of Early Culture," pp. 135-7.
153:1 Cowries were obtained in Neolithic sites at Hissarlik and Spain (Siret, op. cit., p. 18).