14 Mar 2010

The dank bowels of earth

Memiyawanzi remarks lately on the use of γῆ κατ' εὐρώσσ' 'dank earth below' in the oddly named post Dank earth and ejaculations. It inspires me to take a crack at this interesting and potentially profound concept. For me, the subtle phrase in Greek can be understood as part of a much larger concept that goes well beyond Homer or the borders of Greece, pertaining to the world of the dead as it was once conceived.

Hades is described as 'cold', 'dark' and 'watery'. This is equally a description of the literal earth that we dig up when we bury the dead, showing us the analogy involved here and its evolution. The rivers in Hades that are later named (ie. Acheron, Styx, etc.) are relatively recent add-ons to the initial analogy of burial and moist earth. In Ugaritic texts, we read instances of 'filth' in reference to the city of the underworld, directly derived from the image of the deceased being laid to rest in the literal filth of the earth. Hence, the underworld came to be seen by many cultures of the Mediterranean to be cold, dark and moist. This was also the understanding of Etruscans who traded afterall with the Greeks and who absorbed many traditions from the Near East.

However, I believe the symbolism goes one step further. The very rites of Etruscans which were designed to divine the future from the internal organs of sheep, themselves imported traditions traced back to Babylonian extispicy, are necessarily built on a lost metaphor of the Earth, not only as cold, dark and moist but also a living deity, complete with innards. From the metaphor of a living earth, ancients reasoned further that the sun, as it passes under the horizon in the west and underneath the earth to rise again in the east, is effectively passing through the bowels of the earth. The way in which the sun passes through the world of the dead below and how it's effectively reborn every morning was a directly significant and life-affirming image to ancient believers throughout the eastern Mediterranean, whether Greek, Etruscan, Hittite or Egyptian. People ancient and modern have mourned their loved ones and often need to believe in a greater purpose to mortal life, sometimes straining to see any hope, even a blind metaphor-induced one.

Knowing now the source behind expressions like 'bowels of the earth'[1] and Etrusco-Babylonian haruspical rites, we're armed with the power not only to crack the intended meaning of some obscure Greek texts or comprehend the purpose of some Etruscan artifacts, but we're also capable now of seeing a glimpse into the heliocentric belief system of the Minoans in the same region. The Minoans left traces in their murals and their stories carried on by the Greeks. The mystery of the labyrinth unravels itself and we recognize it as a representation of the entrails of the earth. The living Earth is the maze of innards. As anthopomorphic goddess, she protects her holy symbol of immortal life within her, the labrys. The Minotaur becomes transparent as Death incarnate (cf. the Ugaritic death god, Mot), with whom Theseus wrestles in the dead of night. Here, Theseus can only represent the immortal, heroic Sun[2] who in Herculean fashion conquers death. We see this not only by his function but also by his non-Greek name built on a Proto-Aegean root *tʰes- 'to dawn' (> Etruscan θesan 'dawn').

The Minoan mural below, tragically described as showing a 'secular' act by some stunted historians[3], is replete with iconography. The tanned youth representing the sun 'floats' in the air atop the living bull of the underworld between two ladies representing the horizons of east and west and forming the invisible Horns of Consecration (cf. Egyptian aker). In sacrifice, this same bull might be offered to the gods and his organs interpreted by priests just as if the animal were literally Death incarnate[4], perhaps holding important omens of the future in his murky, dank depths.

[1] Compare equivalent expressions in the Semitic world like Ugaritic l-kbd ’arṣ 'in the bowels of the earth' where kbd refers to both the literal viscera of an organism and also metaphorically as the interior of something.
[2] Rev C W Jones, On mythology in funereal sculpture in Parker, The archaeology of Rome (1877), p.27 (see link).
[3] Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean religion and its survival in Greek religion (1971), 2nd edition, p.374 (see link). In a failed attempt at erudition, the author dug himself into a corner with a contrived attempt to impose his own atheism on ancient cultures: "It is often assumed that Minoan bull-fighting was a sacral performance, but there is nothing in the Minoan monuments to prove that it was more than a very popular secular sport."; Renfrew, The emergence of civilisation: The Cyclades and the Aegean in the third millennium BC (1972), p.435: "Whether or not it had a religious origin and significance, which is not certain, these representations are entirely secular in flavour, expressing often the dramatic contrast in the anatomies of bull and leaper." Again, an exaggerated emphasis on secular interpretation of bull-leaping at the expense of a competent and convincing explanation of its source.
[4] Castleden, Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete (1993), p.168 (see link) laments: "The bull sacrifice was probably a regular occurrence at the temples, yet it is very rarely depicted: the scene with the tressed bull on its sacrificial table shown on the Agia Triadha sarcophagus is a rarity."


  1. 'in the oddly named post'

    Look, I'm weird. I noticed that reading Archilochus at 1am. There was a very graphic description of splooge in the poem completely unrelated to the item of discussion but since it was amazing to my mind that often thinks like a 12 year old I just write what weird sense associations come into my head. I have no shame.

  2. Hahaha, no, no, it wasn't a judgment. You're talking to the guy who wrote about Babylonian whores afterall. And who among us is not a sinner of the hand? Lol!

  3. Hm. My immediate reaction is to try to tie in the pouring of libations somehow, and in particular (if only because it fascinates me) the super stinky milk libations they found poured down the cracks at one of the Minoan sacred caves ... um. Both my memory and Google are failing me at the moment, bah!

    It is -great- to have open discussions about some of the body fluids and features that are taboo in much of Protestant-influenced society. Most ancients had no such taboo! I've long held that the reason AB03/PA in Linear A and B is a male identifier because it's literally the stick-figure drawing of a penis (the vertical line) and testicles (2 horizontal lines). I'm Ok with being wrong, but given that the female identifier is a cave / open legs, I'm very much in love with my hypothesis. It fits, as it were.

  4. Ah yes, the milk-semen metaphor is widespread, even in Egypt. (Read all about it at The quick and the dead: Gordon/Schwabe, Biomedical theory in Ancient Egypt (2004), p.136. Be shocked, be amazed, tell friends and family!

    It's well impossible to avoid semen in Egyptian mythology considering that their very Creation myth is steeped in it, so to speak. And if it was good for the Egyptians, it must have been good for the neighbouring Minoans whom they heavily influenced in so many other cultural respects.

  5. Minos as the judge of the dead seems similar to Manu/Yama, the PIE First Man/First Dead, and the slain Minotaurus akin to the Primordial Bovine Geush Urvan-Audhumla.