Art, Spirit, and Wonder: Finding the Sacred Through Art​

Art History tells the story of humanity. Here we'll look at how Paganism has been viewed in art through the ages; into the ancient past, the Renaissance and other eras, and how artists are exploring Paganism today.

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Temples: Ancient Pagans and Sacred Space

In my last article, I put forth the notion that we humans have had the need to create art encoded into our DNA. Along with the need to create images, humans have had the need to “make special,” to “make sacred,” and art can fulfill this need. By bringing art into a space, humans make the space special. When the art reflects beliefs about the divine, the art that inhabits that space makes it sacred. I spoke at length about cave paintings in my last entry, and I believe that those paintings could in fact have been making ancient caves into sacred spaces.

As humans moved from a hunter gatherer existence into something more settled, areas where they settled often included sacred places where their relationships with the divine could unfold – temples. When I was in graduate school, I strove to understand what installations were and what “site specific” art, as installations are more commonly called these days, were and where they fit into art history. Temples themselves are “site specific,” created to meet the needs of a particular people in a particular place. In this article, I will look at some pre-historic peoples and their need for the creation of permanent sacred space.

The first prehistoric site I will discuss is the newly discovered Göbekli Tepi. Göbekli Tepi is in southeastern Turkey near Turkey’s border with Syria and is around 11,000 years old. One of the amazing things about Göbekli Tepi is that it is exclusively a temple site – there are no settlements nearby. It consists of tall stone pillars with carvings of animals on them set in concentric circles. There is a culture that has been found about 50 miles away in Syria, but aside from that, it is very hard to make meanings of the symbols in the carvings as there is no other context for them. Interestingly, the animals depicted are not animals that would have been hunted and eaten – they instead are fierce animals such as lions, spiders, snakes, vultures, and scorpions. Archeologists believe that the vultures are tied in to the Syrian culture they found – the belief that vultures carried the dead into the heavens.

Another suggestion about Göbekli Tepi is the possibility that it was a site for a burial ground or death cult. The site appears to be on a hill – however the hill was created by successive layers of the pillars mounded with dirt between each layer – creating the hill. It is not hard to imagine the dead looking out from atop the hill onto the beautiful landscape below. My own personal feeling is that it can be these things, but that perhaps because of its proximity to the site in Syria, it was a place of pilgrimage for Neolithic people, such as Stonehenge may have been.

Stonehenge, located in Amesbury, England dates to a much later time – between 2500 and 3000 BCE. However, recent evidence has shown that the area around Stonehenge has been occupied since around the same time as the building of Göbekli Tepi, making Amesbury the longest occupied site in all of England. There is evidence that includes burned flint and the bones of very large animals. According to David Jacques of the University of Buckingham, it shows that Neolithic people were settling down and staying put much sooner than was previously believed.




Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University and Geoffrey Wainwright, president of the Society of Antiquaries of London, have made discoveries about what the purpose of Stonehenge may have been once it was built. They went to the site of Carn Menyn, the place where the bluestones of Stonehenge were mined, about 200 miles away from Amesbury. There has always been much speculation about why stones from so far away were used at Stonehenge. At Carn Menyn, they discovered springs in the mountains where humans had created enhanced spring heads and pools in the stones, and around those areas, they found prehistoric art. Darvill and Wainwright believe that it is possible the blue stones were brought to Stonehenge because it was believe they held healing powers due to the springs running through Carn Menyn.

Another amazing discovery by Darvill and Wainwright was the lithophonic nature of the bluestones. Litho refers to stone, and phonic refers to sound – the blue stones are actually “ringing rocks,” – that is, when struck, the stones produce a ringing tone. As anyone who has performed or taken part in ritual knows, a good ritual engages all of the senses. It makes sense that prehistoric people knew this as well, and used the “singing stones” to produce sound for ritual. It is thrilling to me that Stonehenge is slowly giving up some of its secrets so that we can better understand how ancient Pagans may have lived and worshipped.

In the early Neolithic period (around 5000 BCE), humans began to occupy the island of Malta, off of the coast of Spain. Here are found temples that were at one time considered the oldest on earth (the discovery of Göbekli Tepi proved otherwise).  These temples date to around 4500 – 2100 BCE. The wide span of time accounts for different periods within this temple culture’s existence, and the building of these temples in different areas: Gozo (also called Ggantija – for giants – it was believed by the later Maltese that the sites were created by giants), Salflieni, and Tarxien, all on the island of Malta.




Although this culture covers a wide span of time and space, the temples built all share various characteristics: spiral reliefs which appear at both Gozo and Tarxien, an oval forecourt, facades internal walls are made up of orthostats, a row of large stone slabs laid on end. They also possess doorways made up of trilithons forming a kind of hall way that leads to an open space. There are seventeen temple sites excavated to date on Malta, showing evidence of collective burial, libations having been poured, and animal sacrifice performed. Paintings and sculptures appear on the walls of the inner chambers, and many female figures have been found.




The largest surviving statue is just a fragment of a gigantic female figure – what remains of her is the lower half of the body, showing a fringed skirt and massive legs and feet. This figure, along with other smaller female figures, as well as the rounded plans of the temples have caused some archeologists to theorize that this was the site of an ancient goddess civilization. This was at least a place where the Sacred Feminine was acknowledged. Many of the female statues were covered in red ochre, suggesting menstrual blood or the blood of childbirth.

At the Maltese site of Hal Saflieni is a necropolis – a city or large burial place of the dead. The remains of over 7,000 people were found here, along with more female statues. The womblike spaces of the tombs suggests a connection between the dead returning to the body of the mother. Also found here were images of the sick or disabled along with reclining images of a goddess figure, suggesting that the temple itself was considered to have healing powers.

The last pre-historic site I will discuss is Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia, in what is now modern central Turkey. I first learned of this site as a young feminist while I was an undergraduate taking a course in archeology. I was thrilled when my professor revealed that this may have been the site of a matriarchal or matrifocal culture.  This site dates from 6500 – 5500 BCE, which so far is the largest Neolithic settlement discovered in the ancient Near East. People may have lived there as long ago as 9000 BCE. Çatal Hüyük has revealed one of the most well-developed of the known Neolithic cultures thus far, showing that trade and agriculture were well-established. Due to its pre-historic nature, we can not be certain of their religious beliefs, however paintings and sculptures in shrines and individual homes reveal rituals, hunting scenes, human hands, geometric patterns, and a variety of as yet unidentified symbols.




Sculptures found at Çatal Hüyük show male and female figures – possibly deities - often standing or seated, with what could be their sacred animals. In 2004 and 2005, archeologist James Hodder debunked the idea that Çatal Hüyük was a matriarchal civilization. Closer examination reveals not so much a matriarchal culture as a culture that was more egalitarian. The homes do not reveal class distinctions. So far nothing has been found to indicate either a royal or religious hierarchy. Neither men nor women appear to have been buried with more distinction over one another. An earlier archeologist, James Mellaart had suggested that the female sculptures found sitting between two animals were fore runners of the Goddess Cybele. Hodder writes that this can not be the case as there seem to be the same number of male statues as female statues.

Murals found at Çatal Hüyük include images of decapitated stick figure bodies and vultures. The vultures do seem to fit in with other similar, somewhat nearby Near Eastern cultures as receivers and carriers of the dead to the afterlife. The decapitated heads correspond with skulls found at other sites of the region – the skull being thought by many to be the seat of the soul. Other murals depict frescoes of bulls, which will be seen in much later civilizations such as Minoa and Crete.

As an art historian, I like to look at images created by people in different periods of history and seek the possible connections between them. When a culture has not left behind any written records, this becomes trickier, and we oftimes see the imaginations of researchers taking precedence over what might have actually been the real story behind the mystery. New discoveries and new technologies reveal more of the mysteries as time goes on.

Looking at the statues of Çatal Hüyük and Göbekli Tepi makes me wonder about possible connections between these two sites. Knowing that images of female deities sitting between two animals proliferate later in the Near East and Greece, I must wonder if James Mellaart was really that far off. Knowing that healing may have been a component to the many possible uses of Stonehenge links it conceptually to me to Hal Salflieni at Malta.

Today, modern Neo-Pagan people create sacred space in a myriad of ways, from actually building megalithic circles (such as the circle at Four Quarters Farm in Artemus, PA) to creating libraries to store sacred texts (such as my own tradition’s New Alexandrian Library) to calling the Quarters and casting a circle in an outdoor park. Thankfully, we are not prehistoric and keep written records of our efforts! As I continue to share my studies here at PaganSquare, I will look more at modern Pagans and their efforts and possible links to our distant past.




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Helena Domenic has been an art history nerd for her entire life, having toured the Sistine Chapel at the age of eighteen months. She never quite recovered from that experience (thankfully) and has been seeking out the sacred and profane in art ever since. She's even a real-life art history professor at a Pennsylvania university. She is also a Tarot nerd, having created her own Tarot deck, the Fellowship of the Fool.


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