Fifteen kilometers from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, on a bank of the Danube river, lies the small town of Vinca. Thousands of years ago, one of the most significant cities of the Neolithic Vinca culture thrived in this area. This culture is also known as Old Europe, as it marks the first organized settlements in Europe (true cities in every sense, erected with the arrival of agriculture) and also because its trade and cultural influence extended for thousands of kilometers in every direction.
Prosomorphic lids of Vinca and ritualistic drinks
Today we are going to talk about Vinca, but only about one, often neglected symbol of that culture – the so-called “prosomorphic lids”. These lids, as the name suggests, look like horned heads. According to some scholars, these are animal heads, while some others see them as human.
These ceramic heads were used to seal jars and amphoras containing liquid. What kind of liquid, remains a mystery, but it looks like that liquid was some kind of ritualistic drink, and it wasn’t meant for daily use.
This is pretty much everything that we know about these lids, and it is hard to make any further conclusions when dealing with such a remote past, that is understandable. However, we may be able to draw some parallels with other cultures. A recent article from National Geographic shows very similar-looking pottery of the Wari people of Peru. The article states that a hallucinogenic, ritual drink was drunk from these vessels.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice that these lids look really similar to traditional Slavic headdresses, known as Kichka (or Kika).
Kichka – the headdress of the married Slavic women
Now, Kichka is not really a mystery. In the written record, it is first attested in 1326, but it is very likely that its origins are hundreds or even thousands of years older. Kichka is worn by young Slavic women, mainly from Central Russia, and only after the wedding. According to some traditions, those are cow horns, and they stand for fertility and protection from evil spirits.
Some researchers claim that this type of headdress comes actually comes from ancient female shamans of the steppes. In that case, this fashion could really be thousands of years old – but can we relate it to Vinca?
Hathor – goddess of marriage
The resemblance between the Neolithic and Slavic headdresses is striking, but one key element is missing – and that is the sacred, ritualistic drink. However, with the help of some comparative mythology, we might be able to put the pieces together.
A female with cow horns – that sounds very much like the Egyptian goddess Hathor. Worshiped in Egypt since the Neolithic, she is sometimes depicted as a cow, and sometimes as a woman wearing a headdress with cow’s horns. Her name means – “The house of Horus” as it is believed that the Sun was born between her horns.
This information about Hathor’s name is important, as it helps us to date the myth. Very likely, it comes from the period when Sun rose in the background of the Taurus constellation during the spring equinox, a date which marked the beginning of the year. And this (roughly) happened between 4,700-2,500 BC. Interestingly, those are the same dates given for the Neolithic Vinca lids.
Because of this, Hathor was also a goddess of marriage, and one of her most important festivals was her wedding with Horus (a unity between the Sun and the Earth).
Here are examples of some other myths whose origins are probably Neolithic and are related to the same period. The bull (Taurus constellation) is the main element in all of them.
Hathor – the goddess of religious ecstasy
But here is what is even more interesting. Hathor’s festivals were celebrated by dancing and drinking a ritualistic drink that might have been hallucinogenic. The scholars claim that such a form of religious ecstasy was in reality foreign to ancient Egyptian religion. And indeed, it probably was imported. Another tell-tale sign is a story of a heavenly cow. In this story, Ra of four faces (representing the cardinal points in the picture above) sends Hathor to punish humans, but she turns into a lion (Leo constellation) and gets a bit carried away, killing everyone on her path. In order to pacify her, he orders his people to cover all of the lands with ochre-colored beer, that looks like blood. Hathor drinks this and goes into a deep sleep, after which she is pacified.
Now, this red-colored drink could have easily been wine in the original myth, meaning that the story comes from a region where wine is abundant and that originally these were the wine harvest rites, that took place in Autumn, after the summer marked by the Leo. The Egyptians had to color their beer in order for the story to make sense. This is another element that makes Hathor a foreign import. But imported from where?
Return to the Balkans – Dionysus and the Holy Grail
When one thinks of religious frenzy, dancing, wine, and hallucinogens, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the cult of Bacchus / Dionysus. The origins of this cult are in the Neolithic Balkans, and from there it was the Phrygians who brought the cult to Asia Minor, somewhere in the Bronze Age.
The cult of Dionysus connects all of the elements – the grapes, the wine, the bull, the ecstasy, and of course, the wedding. These festivals were mysteries even to the ancient Greeks, so nowadays little is known about them. However, based on the iconography and little records that we have left, we can be certain that the rituals were related to the four seasonal markers, and most importantly to the equinoxes. The autumn equinox, for example, was signaling the crop and the grape harvest and the beginning of the winter rest. In the images below, we don’t see Scorpio marking autumn. Instead, we see the constellation Crater – the heavenly cup that lies opposite the Taurus, the spring marker. This very “cup” was later incorporated into Christianity as the Holy Grail.
Vedic India and beyond
It is worth a mention, that this Dionysiac ritual is not absolutely unique. Even in Rg-Veda, the most ancient of the Vedas, Indra is represented as a bull, and the priests praise him while drinking the hallucinogenic soma. As the hymn XLIV says:
“Indra, they bring to thee, the Strong and Mighty, Soma of juices shed by mighty press-stones.
Thou art the Bull of earth, the Bull of Heaven, Bull of the rivers, Bull of standing waters.”
Numerous depictions of Indus Valley Civilisation show horned headdresses and bull or buffalo sacrifices. And as far as Asia and Indonesia, even today, all rice-harvest festivals are marked with a buffalo sacrifice. These festivals always include drinking and dancing, although the hallucinogenic element is long gone. These similarities should not be surprising, considering the fact the knowledge of agriculture, so vital for the survival of our species, had spread precisely during the period when the spring season started with the Taurus constellation.
However, we started this article with the female deities, and we will also end it there. In the myth of Dionysus, it is Semele who plays the main role. Officially, the etymology of this ancient name only makes sense in Slavic languages – from the words “seme” (seed) and “zemlja”(earth) (see here) It would be really interesting to know why an ancient Thracian deity (possibly Neolithic) has a Slavic-sounding name.