The Mythic Dreamer of Gobekli Tepe: Introduction to ceiling panel 1 in St Johns Hall Gallery, Barmouth
When I was a student, beginning to take an interest in middle eastern neolithic archaeology, Chatal Huyuk was the big story. John Mellart (University of London) had discovered and begun excavating an incredibly ancient site that could be described as the first neolithic city. Far back before the great cities on the plains, Babylon, Ur, Sumeria, Mohenjo Dharo, before the pyramids of Egypt, before pottery, before writing, he found a city dating to 6200 B.C near Konya in Turkey.
He invented the term ‘epi palaeolithic’ to describe those cultures who were on the edge of settled life. Some like the Natufians of Siniai were reaping, but only accidentally sowing. They were hunters not farmers.
Chatal huyuk comes just after that. Here we find settled men, living in a cow pat design of a city. There were no inner roads, only a general roof, with numerous ladders descending into gloomy interiors. Here were clay sleeping platforms (filled with the bones of the ancestors) Buchrania, 3 dimensional statues of a spread eagled goddess with the head of a panther giving birth to a bull. Walls covered in paintings depicting the complex life of this vanished culture, and a host of fine craft work centred around obsidian. It was a deeply religious place, almost morbidly religious, with an obsessive interest in death and control. The inhabitants of these subterranean rooms slept on their parents bones, under the spread eagled goddess. Ancestral skulls were plastered back to life,
(Right) The feeding frenzy of vultures on the death towers of Chatal Huyuk, one for the head, one for the body. This way of disposing of the dead is still in use among some Buddhist and some Zoroastrian groups today. Only the picked bones are returned for burial, in their beds.
Then there was a hiatus, when no news emerged from the region, not even news of what was being excavated. There was a sort of scandal that ended in Mellart being excluded from the site and all work there ceased.
I rang him on the eve of my departing for Turkey, to ask him about some flints in the museums there, and he was unhelpful and suspicious. The site of Chatal Huyuk, which I visited on that trip, was virtually abandoned, save for a caretaker in a small wooden huts, amid sand hills packed with layered artefacts and building litter. All were open to the weather, site and trenches, subject to appalling erosion.
We had arrived, in our understanding then (end of 1980’s), at some of the most ancient settlements in the world, dotted about the fertile crescent. Jericho pre-pottery neolithic 7200 BC, Hajilar the first people to decorate pottery, 6000 BC, Chatal Huyuk 6200 BC.
I remember standing with the sole attendant at Bilbashi cave as he threw small pebbles at a huge column ahead beyond an excavated shaft. “That is Roman” he said, “that Byzance, there is Medieval, there is Turk, that is Phrygian, this layer Hittite, there Hattite, Here Assirian, that is Neolithic, that is Hunter-gatherer, that is glacial”
The land mass that astrides Europe and Asia, modern Turkey, has been home to a vast assortment of peoples in the past; Greek, Persian, Hittite, Phrygian, Assyrian, Lician, Lidian, Byzantine, Roman, Turk, and Kurd, to name but a few. Copper may have been first worked here. Perhaps the first farms in the world were in this region. And here in Turkey it seems that the first temples to the gods were built.
This new find by the German Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt completely eclipses Chatal Huyuk. When Chatal Huyuk was first built, Gobekli Tepe was already 5000 years old, and long gone, it’s temples carefully covered for posterity. It is one of the most remarkable finds of our lifetime. A group of people, still hunters, now living in a paradise of plants and game just after the last ice age, had the resources to create massive temple architecture, embellished with fine stone carving, and an elaborate religion full of mythic creatures.
These people link us to the ice age. There are temples on the same site (not yet excavated) that date to the end of the ice age in 13000 BC.
About my Mythic dreamers series, and the new ceiling paintings
For many years, since my major show in Plas Glyn Y Weddw back in 1989 entitled ‘City as Parasite’, I have been returning to the theme of ‘The Mythic Dreamer’. They all (there have been about 8 of these paintings so far) depict a sleeping figure whose body is full of compartments. In each space there is an image drawn from a wide range of myths, so that the sleeping figure has become a composite of myths. A dreamer of cultural dreams.
An example of one of the paintings
The idea originated as an image of the sleeping city, taking Carl Jung’s idea that an individual dreams in dreams, a culture dreams in myths. What myths does a city dream? as it winds down from the day? It withdraws its population of busy workers from the stomachs of the city (the markets), it closes its offices and factories, the commercial centres empty as the population returns to their homes.
Here the talking starts, stories are told of the day’s events. News, rumour, hearsay, gossip and speculation begin their journey in the city’s nervous system. Knots of friends gather in pubs and restaurants in noisy gabbles and boozy laughter. The nervous system of the city is made of these streams of quicksilver sound passing from mouth to ear, from mind to mind. Families sit around tables recounting their experiences, building pictures of sound about who said what to who, who did what, what so and so thought, how they felt.
Then the entertainment begins. The televisions are turned on, so that the big rumours, the big stories pour out into the rooms, into the minds. Chat shows mull over and reflect upon the themes. Actors play parts, adopt roles, become characters, act adventures and the dreaming begins. By the thousand the great population, staring at the screens, all feel sorrow, excitement, pain and pleasure at the same time. The city is dreaming.
Crowds begin to flow towards the bright centres of the nervous system. In theatres and cinemas masses of minds are filled in unison with tragedy, with comedy, love stores, ancient sagas. Old themes are retold in an infinity of new forms; the old myths of the hero, the beauty who changes the frog into a prince, the terror in the night.
Masses gather in stadiums to watch 22 men struggle against each other over possession of a small ball, in a valiant struggle of skill and courage to achieve victory over an enemy. The thousands of spectators share the struggle, every kick of the way, engaged with their eyes and their mouths, roaring and sighing as one great superorganism.
Games of chess between two people act out these dramas. Musical gatherings feel their emotions transported as one. Political meetings pass thoughts around. Religious gatherings recount the old myths of salvations and transcendence.
The city is full of dreams, of heroes, of beauties, of tragedies, of fearful monsters. All the old themes are recounted in a thousand new ways. Until finally the city closes down, the people return to their homes, take to their beds and fall asleep, where the process begins again in each mind. These were the thoughts that led me to begin the series of paintings I call ‘Mythic Dreamers’. Each one is a painting of a community, a culture, a race.
Lately I have been working on a picture that reflects the dreams of a specific culture, the palaeolithic world of Gobekli Tepe. Here I have filled the sleeping figure with myths drawn from the extraordinary ancient temples now being unearthed in Turkey, near the Syrian border. It incorporates images taken from the great carved stones, each one of which represents a monolithic standing figure. It is possible that the images we are familiar with in the horoscope came through these ancient people. Some images suggest a connection with early Vedic religious ideas, others link with Palaeolithic ancestors, for these temples are 10,000 years old and take the story of human culture almost back to the ice age.
Some notes on the technical approach
There are 8 large ceiling panels in the hall. They are flat areas below the curved roof and are above window height, sloping at an angle approaching 45 degrees. Elsewhere I have described my plans for 8 large mythic dreamers to grace these spaces, with the idea of touching on many of the mythic approaches to understanding the universe. Each one will represent a sleeping figure, linked to the whole concept by the arbitrary lines that penetrate the picture surface in the way that the elementary particles penetrate our so called reality without our awareness.
This preliminary drawing shows the approach. The drawing began with a network of lines, drawn randomly across the picture surface, scored in all directions. These serve to indicate the random movements of some elementary particles passing through the picture space at the speed of light each second. This structure is random. It is on this random structure that the images of the painting are hung. I imagine the images as transient illusions.
Using this device, the network of random events, has been a growing character in my work. It provides for a useful painting structure, but also enables a new kind of painterly language, in which structure and depth can be explored. One of the first pieces that explores this cosmic phenomena was a drawing entitled ‘Liverpool Docker’ in 2013. This seems to be entirely fitting with the subject matter of the large painting ‘The Captives of the Cosmic Web’.
Similar visual devices have been used in the large wall painting on the north wall. On many of the canvases the device of dot and line has been used, enabling complex structure to be formed from simple elements. Another cosmic phenomena which it pleases me to exploit in my paintings.
The triangulation that emerges is very interesting, because it illustrates the single point (dimension 1), the line (dimension 2) and the triangular surface (dimension 3). Beyond that we have the solid (dimension 4) and then time (dimension 5). Five dimension where once I thought there were only 4.
These visual devices have the added advantage of being very transparent, so that a whole structure can be created, then faded by the use of glazes, and a new structure created over it that leaves the original there, but at a greater depth. It leads to ‘profundity’ in the work that is literally true, as well as leading to greater ‘meaning’ through the combination of images and ideas.
Since moving into the hall in 2010 for a short exhibition, and then continuing as a tenant and now sharing as resident artist, I have dreamed of using this opportunity to create ‘sacred space’. Using the word ‘sacred’ in the way I would use the word ‘numinous’ or ‘liminal’ For me, this is done by exploring the known universe, learning from science and astronomy, to create a big picture that encourages profound thought, contemplation, meditation or debate. For me, the theme of the paintings, the universe, man’s place in it, the myriad cultures who have come up with their own answers, are a suitable subject for this large work, probably my last work.
So I make compendiums in my work, encyclopaedic gathering of images and ideas woven together into larger images. Fractally.
Thus, after spending 4 years painting the north wall, I have decided to begin another series of these pictures for the 8 ceiling panels in the hall, to complement the large wall painting of the ‘Captives of the Cosmic Web’ on the north wall. By selecting some of the major myths of mankind, the series of 8 panels, each measuring 12’ by 6’ will fill the flat areas of the roof below the curved upper section, and reflect the multitude of forms the human race has produced to explain and give meaning to the universe it finds itself in.
A summary of what is known about the people of Gobekli Tepe
Here is a list of attributes:
- They were the people who came off the ice, and link our story to that of the people of the ice age.
- They were the first temple builders
- They were the first carvers of full three dimensional sculptural figures
- They may have originated the creatures of the zodiac, signifying an interest in astronomy
- They were hunter gathers
- Their priesthood may have had Vedic connection
- They had an elaborate mythic religion possibly with many deities (or clans)
- Maybe the Gods began with these people
- Maybe the priesthood invented agriculture (needing to feed large numbers of people)
- Maybe at this time (in superabundance of game and vegetation) there was surplice and wealth enough to support an elaborate priesthood (or priestesshood) and construct the huge monuments, all 25 of them, many still unexcavated and maybe going back 13000 years.
- Subsequent cultures and ages may have referred to this culture when it described the garden of Eden. (the opinion of Klaus Schmidt the finder and excavator of the site)
- Many subsequent peoples used religious symbolism that first appear here in Gobekli Tepe, The sun and moon motifs, the scorpion, etc.
- Catal Huyuk was using the burial practices (devoured by vultures) that had been in practise 5000 years before a Gobekli Tepe. It is possible that Zorianastronism may owe some of its ancient practises to these people.
Some things to know about their architecture
They built with huge stones, some of 60 tons, measuring 6 metres in height. Many of the stones are carved with animals and insects.
The stones are erected in circular or rectangular forms, with the strange ‘T’ shaped stones facing the centre edge on. Each stone, however, is an enormous figure, carved sometimes with arms sloping to the stomach, belt and hanging fox skin for cover. Faceless they all look in towards the centre. Here stand 2 more stones, of prodigious height, male female possibly. All this is enclosed in a 2 metre wall, with a single point of ingress through a ‘portal stone’ carved from a single slab.
Each stone may represent a mythic being ( associated with a group of animals) and perhaps related to a portion of the sky (some of the carved figures correspond to the present day signs of the zodiac.
An early drawing of the head of the mythic dreamer shows the archaeologists plan of the temple site incorporated into the drawing. You can see the ring of stones clearly here. Later I superimposed the head of the ‘beauty of loulan’ on this image, so it not so easy to see.
The body of the figure is floating in her dream, as though in water. Her feet point to her origin, her endpoint also if the portal stone was a portal to the next world. The third panels explores that idea, and also makes the suggestion that the shaman of Lascaux may be in some kind of lineage to these people, and through them to us.
We know nothing of the mythic world of these people save what can be gleaned from their carvings and the form of their temples. There is, however, some valuable clues to be found in a nearby residential site of the same age. Here there is a very unusual structure at the centre of the building;A great pit, full of chambers, but with no inner doorways. It appears to have been a communal storage facility for the whole community. This unusual feature suggests two developments in social structure.
These people, whose middens suggest were still hunter gatherers, had such a surplice of food, that they could store for the winter. They gathered in such quantity (maybe reaping the wild emmer grass and einkorn that grew naturally in the fertile crescent) that they had a surplice. And they collaborated intelligently together with the cohesion that characterises hunting community.
When finally the temple site declines, in a series of in filling and rebuilding on a diminishing scale 1500 years later, the surrounding communities appear to have begun building their own (local church size) versions of the site, with modified rituals and myths. The ancient site, once visited by a vast congregation (many people must have been involved in its construction and continuing ritual and hunting peoples are widely dispersed) gradually became redundant.
By that time, the new settled people who lived around the site, had become farmers with the world view of farmers radically different from that of the ancestral hunters.
If this speculation is true, it means that organised religion did not emerge from the settled farming communities, as was customarily thought, but it arose much earlier, while men were still in the depths of the ice age. We know that such an inclination existed during Magdalanean times (the painters of Lascaux 15,000 – 1300) for they depicted the dancing of a shaman in their deep sanctuary. Such an origin could account for the ancestors of Gobekli Tepe, who appear to be interested in the pattern of the stars, the portal stones suggesting passage into the other world, the death towers where the vultures devoured the flesh (echoes of Prometheus), a multiplicity of sacred animals and images, priests with top knots, a conclave of massive deity figures, and two leading deity figures at their heart.
Our human preoccupation with religion certainly began long before the builders of Gobekli Tepe emerged from the ice. But our arrogant human belief in our mastery and control over nature seems to have emerged with them.
The right of passage these people represent, from hunter gatherer to farmer was seminal in our development. You could say that the space age began with these priests. For that reason alone I think that this ancient and surprising culture is an appropriate panel to begin the set of eight, representing the human race. A tall order.
It is an epi-palaeolithic moment, a seminal shift in human life. It represented a fatal shift for many species who were harried into extinction by this race of successful predators. It represents unprecedented success for those of us who are alive, consuming three planets. We are the survivors, children of survivors, a tip of an iceberg. The chances of our being here are infinitesimally small. Man stands up erect, lord of all he surveys, master of the animals, in Gobekli Tepe. In the caves he was one animal among many. At Gobekli Tepe he has learned mastery. It is here that the Gods were first created. Gods with faces, large figures with hands on belly. Made in the image of their creators.