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Transoxiana 8 - Junio 2004

Homo Faber or Homo Symbolicus? The Fascination with Copper in the sixth millennium

Kristina Berggren(*)

Abstract: The question asked is why beginning in the sixth millennium we find such a fascination with copper jewelry and small axes considering that copper tools are less efficient than those made of stone. Following the proposal of Ferdinand de Saussure, that all human beings use signs to communicate, I look at the signs through the eyes of analytical psychology. Copper objects mirror light, the smith being the earliest alchemist transforming the Stone into light.
Furthermore, the ore taken from the entrails of the earth is like a foetus and it becomes the task of the smith to give birth to the metal objects. With the smith thus becoming mother, male fertility receives a new importance. This hypothesis finds a validation in the story of the dance imitating the mating dance of the cranes that Theseus, according to Plutarch, danced on Delos after having killed the Minotaur. Theseus is a hero, beautiful in mind and body; he does not limp. The only important figure in Greek mythology that limps is Hephaestus, the divine smith. I therefore propose that in the beginning the dance was lead by Hephaestus, not only smith but also god of male fertility.

In 1836, twenty-three years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Christian Thomsen, curator of the National Museum in Copenhagen, published Ledetraad til nordisk Oldkyndighed (A Guide to Northern Antiquities) in which he divides prehistory into Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. His theory - that mankind progresses by making better and better tools - was not even questioned until 1976 when Andrew Sherratt pointed out that copper tools are not more efficient than stone ones (103). If copper needles and small axes were of no practical use, why did people want them? Sherratt, who is strongly influenced by Gordon Childe's marxist philosophy (39), proposes that the solution lies in economic reasons. Although I agree with him that some economic reasons developed from the use of copper, I shall present a different hypothesis. I firmly believe that modern economic theories are not the best way to grasp what happened during prehistory, but that semiology and analytical psychology may offer better solutions.

At the university of Geneva, Ferdinand de Saussure, between 1907 and 1911, gave his famous lectures on linguistic theory proposing that his studies have a much wider application, that is, his theory constitutes a science not only of relations between words, but a help to scientists in studying signs. The sign always expresses an idea and is thus comparable to the system of writing, to the alphabet of deaf-mutes, to symbolic rituals, to forms of etiquette etc. Insofar as all human beings use signs to communicate, these signs, although in themselves random, also belong to a conventional system that can be studied. Saussure proposes to call this science semiology (Saussure 33f.; cf. Alleau 39 ff.).

While Saussure was giving his lectures in Geneva, in Zürich, Carl Gustaf Jung was working on his book Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido, published in two parts in 1911 and 1912 and later translated into English as Symbols of Transformation. In this book Jung points out that symbols are not allegories and not signs: they are images of contents which for the most part transcend consciousness (par. 114). In 1921, in Psychological Types (pars. 814-29), he further discusses and deepens the definition. Symbols are unconscious contents that in great psychological need sometimes rise into consciousness, but they are also the best possible explanation of facts that are so vast and so deeply felt that they can only be described through analogies with our physical world (Alleau 77ff.) . Words like life and death, humanity and divinity, masculinity and femininity, are a few examples of facts that can only be explained through images that in themselves are analogies with our physical world (Berggren [a], 27). These are the methods with the help of which I shall look into the fascination of copper that began in the sixth millennium in Western Asia.

Copper was known in Anatolia, South-West Iran and Syria as early as in the ninth millennium and in Greece in the early fifth millennium (McGeehan 33). In the sixth millennium, female figurines, in the Near East and Balkan, begin to wear representations of jewellry, necklaces, bracelets, ear-rings and finger-rings (Müller-Karpe Pls 222; 247; 249; 296). Even the goddess represented as her temple in Porodin (near Bitola in Macedonia close to the Greek frontier) wears a big necklace (Gimbutas 257, fig. 7:53).

Why do figurines begin to wear jewelry? Why do we wear them? Because they make us look as beautiful as they are. Certainly, but this is not the only explanation. To show our social position? Certainly, but it is not enough. As amulets and talismans to protect the ears and the head that are the seat of our thoughts, intelligence, and feelings? To protect the neck that is the go-between of the head and the body? To protect the arms? Certainly, but why? Because polished copper mirrors the light where it is very dark at night. Copper jewelry and small copper axes reflect the light and carry deep inside themselves a memory of that inner light that visionaries, artists, and shamans see. Creation is the coming of light. We need the sun's light to see the true colours in nature. We need light to become enlightened.

When certain reddish, bluish, greenish or greyish stones are smelted at a temperature of 1,250-1,300 degrees Centigrade, they begin to ooze a substance that can be formed into objects and when polished, mirrors the light. Here we find the beginning of alchemy; the lapis, "the stone", that creates light out of its own substance, the prima materia. The symbol is present long before the earliest treatises from Egypt and China have been written.

However, it is by comparing the alchemic work with two preceding discoveries involving the transformation of nettles and hemp into cloth and clay into pottery that we reach a better understanding of how deeply our lives have been influenced and changed by the symbols appearing in the Copper Age. Spinning began between thirty- and twenty thousand-years-ago (Soffer and Adovasio 513), pottery making ten thousand years later (Rice 7; Kozlowski fig. 74). These first two inventions may have been made by women. The reasons are not only that spinning, weaving and pottery making have been traditional female work in most cultures (Barber 290), but that the goddesses spin the fate and fashion the textures of the body. As Lévi-Strauss points out, women create forms out of clay which in itself has no form in the same way as the divine potter creates the world out of clay (177).

Pottery and textile making probably emphasized the role of the mother placing her in the center of the circle and relegating the man to the periphery from where he guarded the women and children from dangers. The mother's central place may have accentuated the power of the goddess and explain why most figurines during the later Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods are female. Male statuettes are so few and so far between that they tend to be illustrated because they are exceptions from the female rule.

The alchemical work with copper is different from that of the spinner and the potter. Men crawl into the mines, into the womb of the Earth where the ore slowly matures with the terrestrial rhythm of its mother. When it is ready to be born, She will give birth to it (Eliade 64 ff. ). As the Earth gives birth to both plants and copper, it is possible for Her to give birth to plants of metal. This image is not as strange as it may seem: cosmos is compared to a tree of gold in alchemy (Jung [a] par. 409) and we accept, without question, metal candle-holders with flowers on them and silver and golden Christmas trees. However, the Earth also gives birth to weapons: King Arthur draws his sword from a stone, which could symbolically indicate that England, his Mother Earth, gave it to him.

The ore extracted from the mines, the womb of the Earth, is still immature, yet-to-be-born. It becomes the task of the smith to give birth to the metal, transforming it into objects. Thus, the smith replaces the mother and gives birth to her children, who become his objects (Berggren [c] 21). The furnace is an artificial womb, and that explains why not very long ago the furnaces in Africa were decorated with breasts and considered brides and wives (Collett 502-503). With the smith becoming the stepmother of copper, male fertility receives a new importance. Even today in Greece and Italy, metal objects accentuate and protect male fertility. The father who creates light now enters into the center relegating the mother to the periphery. She doesn't create; she only transforms the foetus into a child.

This hypothesis finds a validation in the story about Theseus, who after having killed the Minotaur in the labyrinth sails to Delos where he dances the géranos dance in front of Apollo's altar: "... he danced with his youths a dance that they say the Delians still perform ... This dance, as Dicaearchus tells us, the Delians call the Crane" [Plutarch, Theseus 21] (My trans.). Although Plutarch writes in the second century of our era, K. Friis Johansen thinks that the dance is represented on the famous François vase from the second quarter of the sixth century BC (20). The names of Theseus and Ariadne are written on the vase and the boys and girls are undoubtly dancing. The dance may, therefore, have been known in the early sixth century BC, but I think it probably was much older.

However, in my opinion, nobody has yet explained the link between Theseus and the crane. According to Detienne (560) there is an analogy between the crane and the labyrinth: in the same manner that Theseus follows the thread of Ariadne, the cranes, in their migration flight, pick up small stones and throw them down to earth to find the way back. However, seeing that the cranes fly over the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Egypt, this explanation makes little sense.

The crane appears on the Bronze Age pottery. We find it in Susa in the late fourth millennium, then one thousand years later in Crete and in the eighth century BC on the Geometric funerary vases in Athens. In the beginning of the first millennium BC, the crane is found on the rocks in north Italy, where it proudly stands above six labyrinths (Berggren [b]114), but the only written testimony that has come down to us in which both crane and labyrinth appear, is the Greek story about Theseus.

The male cranes - birds belonging to the family of the Gruidae - make a limping, complicated "dance" to attract the females at the time of mating. It is inconceivable that Theseus, the young hero, should lead a dance pretending to limp. He is kalós k'agathos ("beautiful in mind and body"), the opposite of kalós being aischrós, "ugly, shameful," which in the Iliad (2:216) is used in superlative about Thersites, who limps. Theseus does not limp.

The only god in Greek mythology who limps is the divine smith, Hephaestus. My hypothesis is that long before the story about Theseus and the labyrinth was born, the smith being "godmother and midwife" of the metals performed the male fertility dance in the very center of the sea; on the place where the Cyclades make a "circle" (kúklos) around Delos.

Several vase-paintings represent Hephaestus as the midwife of Zeus, opening his skull so that Athena can be born, dressed in glittering armor that mirrors the light (Simon 217, figs. 200, 201). He performs the operation with the Minoan double-axe (lábrus as in labúrinthos, "labyrinth," both foreign words in the Greek language). According to Erika Simon (213), Hephaestus is the god that Homer prefers above all the other Olympians because he is intelligent, empathic, and thus able to accomplish more than any of the other gods or goddesses. Homer dedicates most of the chapter 18 of the Iliad to Hephaestus. He is not only a smith, but an architect, who has built all the houses on the Olympus (1:603-4) including his own "full of stars" and made of glittering bronze (18:370-71). He has invented three kinds of robots (376): twenty tripods on wheels that go to the assemblies of the goddesses and gods at his order (373-77), two female servants of gold that support him when he walks (416-18), and bellows that begin working at his command (468-69). In his free time, he makes "brooches, twisted spirals, rosettes, necklaces" (400-402). The hypothesis that Hephaestus - not Theseus - is the fertility god with the right to lead the dance of the cranes is strengthened by two vase-paintings, made around 500 BC, that show Hephaestus in his "automobile" fashioned from different parts of cranes (Simon 223, fig. 209). The smith thus continues the work that another smith, the god of male fertility, has began.

These new symbols - the smith creating ligh and the new importance given to male fertility - are the two most important biocultural changes that the use of copper has brought us. The changes did not happen in one generation, but although it went faster in the Middle East than in the West, it still took thousands of years. According to the neurobiologist Piero Giorgi this is as should be expected as the biocultural evolution is very slow (101). At the same time as the symbolic use of copper advanced, economic reasons developed.

According to Gordon Childe, the Neolithic "revolution" changed our way of acting and thinking. I propose that the symbols of the alchemy of the stone and the smith becoming the new god of light and male fertility during the Copper Age are among the most important ones. The roots of our present electronic era are buried deep in the mines where men crawled to bring forth the light. Homo Symbolicus slowly developing his skills became Homo Faber.


[Missing Image]
Figure 1. Theseus with dansers in front of Ariadne holding the ball of yarn and a fillet with which to crown Theseus. Detail of paintings on the lip of the "François Vase" from an Etruscan tomb in Chiusi, Central Italy, now in Museo Archeologico Etrusco, Florence, Italy, 4209. Middle of sixth century BC. Drawing by K. Berggren after Materiali per servire alla storia del vaso François, Bollettino d'Arte 42, Serie Speciale 1 (1981), fig. 65.

[Missing Image]
Figure 2. Hephaestus in his "automobile." Painted inside a bowl found in an Etruscan tomb in Saturnia, central Italy, now in Museo Archeologico Etrusco, Florence, Italy, 81600. Last part of sixth century BC. Drawing by K. Berggren after E. Simon, Die Götter der Griechen, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 1969, fig. 209.

My thanks to Ronald Bugge, He-Kyoung Koh and Jim Harrod for fruitful discussions, Carol Winter for correcting my English, and Paola Raffetta without whose encouragements this article would never have been written.


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K. Berggren [a] The Capestrano Warrior and the Numana Head, Opuscula Romana 18 (1990), 23-36.

------ [b] The Crane in Valcamonica and the Geranos Dance on Delos - a Link? Bollettino del Centro Camuno Di Studi Preistorici 31 (1999), 114-17.

------ [c] Why Embroider Pottery? Journal of Prehistoric Religion 8 (1994), 8-25.

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----- [b] Psychological Types, 1921. R.F.C. Hull, trad. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981.

----- [c] Symbols of Transformation, 1911-12/1952. R.F.C. Hull trad. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981.

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(*) Kristina Berggren, Ph.D.
Istituto Svedese di Studi Classici, Roma, Italia; Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, California, U.S.A.

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