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Malta: The Migrating Sense of Self

May 30, 2013

PriestessIn early April I went to New York City on a mission: Time-travel.

Arriving late on a Sunday afternoon, I dashed to New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW).

I spent every minute until the museum closed in a world of Neolithic art: Temple and Tomb: Prehistoric Malta, 3600-2500 BCE.

I went face-to-face with figurines and altar pieces I’d studied in books for years.

Venus of Laussel

Venus of Laussel
Limestone, H. 44 cm
25,000-20,000 BCE

"Venus of Malta"

Venus of Malta
Clay, H. 13.3 cm
3600–2500 BCE

Of course, I was particularly interested in the Venus of Malta — and her likeness to the Venus of Laussel, a figure sculpted into limestone an estimated 25,000 years ago.

Venus of Malta detail

Venus of Malta
left hand: navel

Venus of Laussel

Venus of Laussel
left hand: navel

Although created by artisans some twenty thousand years apart, both figures place their left hands on their bellies, drawing attention to their navels.

The description accompanying the Venus of Malta read:

Almost all of the standing figures, whether nude or clothed, stand in this posture,
with the right hand by the side and the left resting on the chest.

The chest?

Is the Venus of Malta’s left hand resting on her chest — or on her belly, pointing to her navel?

Large Standing Figure

Large Standing Figure
Limestone, H. 48.6 cm
3600–2500 BCE

Actually, most of the sculptures from this period, like the Large Standing Figure pictured here, rest the left hand on the mid-section, at the level of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the broad muscle at the base of the lungs that initiates breathing. It marks the belly’s upper boundary.

Venus of Malta

Venus of Malta
neck: broken

Large Standing Figure

Large Standing Figure
neck: socket

The Venus of Malta’s head evidently broke off at the neck. Most of the other figures, though, reveal a socket in the neck, ready for the insertion of a separately carved head.  In effect, the statues’ heads were detachable, perhaps even interchangeable.

What accounts for the different positions of the left hand: on-the-belly or over-the-diaphragm? And what’s the significance of the right arm extending downward by the side?

Philip Shepherd’s book, New World, New Self: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Centuryprovides a clue. By looking to the derivation and multiple meanings of certain words, Shepherd traces the migration of human beings’ bodily sense of self from belly to diaphragm to head. That migration coincides with Western civilization’s shift from Being to Doing: from sensing ourselves as participating in networks of vital relationships to thinking of ourselves as masters of material resources.

Shepherd traces the ancestry of navel and finds the word rooted in meanings that include “relationship” and “the hub of a wheel.” He continues:

Consider, then, what it means to watch a wheel turning about its hub, and to relate that hub to the experience of the body, and to find that it accords with the navel: as the center of the wheel is found at the hub, the center of the self was found at the navel. As the wheel revolves around the hub, the sensations of our thinking being revolved about the navel. As the center of a hub rests in stillness, so too the center of the self. The hub of the self stood as the place from which one related to the world, and as the place at which one’s relationships—like the spokes of a wheel—converge.

The hub of a wheel is its center of mass, the stillpoint within the wheel’s turning world. Likewise, your navel region is your body’s center of mass, the pivotal point that serves as the address for the whole.

When your body’s center of mass leads you into action, your whole body moves easily, gracefully: the whole of you moves as one. Deepening your sense of self into your body’s center coordinates your doing, thinking, and being. Drawing awareness here, you know yourself nested within the world around you, your body’s center the hub of congruent, ever-expansive wheels of being.

A sampling of other words reveals the shift of humans’ sense of self from navel to mid-section. As Shepherd says:

…the Hebrew word sarefet means both “diaphragm” and “thought”; similarly, the ancient Greek word phren means both “diaphragm” and “mind.”

For the Greeks…the mind was the diaphragm. The issue here is not that some early Greek anatomist simply misunderstood the functioning of body parts; the usage traces back to a time when the ancient Greeks experienced their thinking in the upper torso, just as we experience our thinking in the head.

…What the term phren suggests, then, is that in the time of the Greek oral tradition, which culminated in [Homer’s writing in the eighth century B.C.], the center of thought and self was experienced roughly midway between the cranial brain and the pelvic brain.

These words for “navel” and “diaphragm” show that we humans have pointed first to the belly and then to the mid-section when locating where we essentially live in our bodies. The sequence of prehistoric figures seems to do the same. Placing left arm over diaphragm, the Neolithic figures from Malta apparently mark the migration of our sense of self from belly to mid-section. Perhaps they extend right arm downward as a balancing act — a gesture of grounding, a salute to the deeper dimension that’s been abandoned.

But what about those detachable, perhaps interchangeable, heads on many of those figures from Malta? Given the migration of our sense of self from belly to mid-section to cranial brain, they present a somewhat scary proposition. These days, we tend to identify ourselves with what goes on inside our skulls.

What do those separately-carved heads signify? The current fashion would have us put on our thinking caps….

UPDATE (May 30, 2013): More on these detachable heads from author Jennifer Jones:

Touring the exhibit with NYU doctoral student Kristen Lee revealed that scholars now consider the full-figured funerary figurines to be gender neutral: they can represent either women or men.

The figures’ heads are not missing because they’ve disintegrated or been destroyed. Rather, the statues are intentionally headless; the sockets carved into their necks fulfilled a specific purpose.

Apparently, the Maltese arrived at the temple or tomb bearing heads sculpted to represent those who had died. By inserting the individualized head into a figurine’s neck, the Maltese “ignited” (Kristen Lee’s term) the statue as their loved one.

All the more inspiration for imagining how our sense of self, the locus of our identity, has shifted from belly to mid-section to brain.

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