Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Was Ötzi a Shaman?

A reader recently asked me to write up a blog post about Ötzi (pronounced ‘etsy’), the ancient man whose mummified remains were found in the Alps on the border between Austria and Italy in 1991. The Wikipedia page about Ötzi gives a pretty good overview of the information we know about this man from his remains, while the website of the museum where his body is housed offers great details and photos of all the clothing and equipment he had with him. But I think he can tell us even more: He can help us understand the spiritual worldview of the people in that region during the Chalcolithic era, 5000 years ago.

I apologize that I can’t post photos of Ötzi on my blog; every picture I could find is copyrighted and I don’t care to violate other people’s copyright. If you’d like to see some great, up-close photos of Ötzi and his stuff, National Geographic has some good ones here.

Now let’s start with the hard evidence. From scientific studies of his remains we know Ötzi was about 45 years old when he died in the Alps due to blood loss from an arrow wound in his shoulder and a deep blow to the head, in the spring or early summer. He had climbed up the mountain sometime in the previous 12 hours. He was propped semi-upright when he died and around the time of his death someone pulled the arrow out of his shoulder, but the arrowhead broke off and remained inside.

Ötzi had a large collection of objects with him: a sturdy copper axe, a flint dagger, a flint-working tool, a net, two small birch-bark containers apparently used to transport embers for starting fires, a leather-string gadget for hanging birds that the hunter has killed, and some birch polypore bracket fungus which are antibiotic, can stop bleeding and are effective against the kind of parasites found in his stomach.

Nearby were found an unfinished bow without a bowstring and a quiver containing 2 finished arrows (which were apparently made by two different people, one left-handed and one right-handed) plus 12 unfinished arrow shafts and other small tools and supplies. A large wood-framed backpack and a thick woven mat were also among the collection found near Ötzi’s body.

He was well-clothed with a loincloth, leggings, coat, hat and shoes all made with skill and care from the leather and fur of livestock animals (not wild animals). Studies of isotopes found in his tissues tell us that he lived in the valleys just south of the mountain where he was found; his people were settled and not nomads. They farmed and raised livestock but also still gathered wild foods and hunted. They were not isolated, but traded across wide expanses. At the age of 45, he was an elder in his community.

The remains in his digestive tract tell us that Ötzi ate his last meal about 2 hours before his death and it included wheat, sloe plums and the meat of an ibex (a kind of wild goat). The Beau-Reil lines on the one fingernail still intact on his mummy suggest that he was under great physical stress, probably from a serious illness, three times shortly before his death: 16, 13 and 8 weeks before. The line at 8 weeks before his death is the most pronounced, suggesting that whatever the problem might have been, it was getting worse.

Ötzi had 61 tattoos (so far discovered) formed by making shallow cuts in the skin and rubbing charcoal into them; his skin has darkened so much from the natural mummification process that it’s really hard to see some of them. They are all in the shape of crosses or sets of parallel lines. There are clusters of vertical lines along both sides of his spine, on his left calf, his right instep and the inside and outside of his right ankle. There is a small cross on the back of his right knee and one next to his left Achilles tendon. There are also two lines that run across his left wrist. You can view an excellent graphic showing all his tattoos in this article. Since many of the tattoos that were originally discovered on Ötzi’s body were located on joints where he might have been experiencing pain (his mummy shows that many of his joints were very worn at the time of his death), researchers had suggested that they were some kind of acupuncture treatment. But the recent discovery of a tattoo on his lower right abdomen suggests these were not ‘arthritis treatments’ but something else.

Given this information, what are the possibilities about the nature of Ötzi’s death and, for that matter, of his life?

First of all, Ötzi had a hefty copper axe with him. This is a very valuable item and shows that he had high status in his community. The high levels of arsenic in Ötzi’s body suggest he did a good bit of copper smelting during his lifetime and may have cast that axe himself. This is the earliest kind of smithing – smelting raw copper ore into workable metal and then turning the metal into tools, weapons and jewelry. The people of that time would have viewed this activity as magical, hence the smith-gods we find in so many cultures around the world. The earliest smiths were likely spiritual leaders of some sort, not just the craftsmen we think of today.

Ötzi’s people buried their dead in specific positions and provided them with grave goods; there is also evidence that they performed ritual activities in the burial areas, so they probably practiced some sort of ancestral worship or cult of the dead. They also performed rituals at other places near their villages. Sometimes they set up standing stones to mark the locations and sometimes the places had their own natural, powerful markers, such as the openings to deep crevices in the mountains. Ötzi’s people made burnt offerings in these location – in other words, they shared their food with the ancestors. They also made offerings of metal objects which were highly prized, and therefore very valuable. So these were people with well-developed spiritual beliefs and practices and, by extension, spiritual leaders.

Scientists have suggested that Ötzi was either a herdsman or a shaman, and the two factions tend to argue against each other, but there is no reason to suppose that the two are mutually exclusive. Many societies that include shamans (the Maya, for instance) do not set the shaman aside from regular work. In other words, the shaman still has to produce food and perform other labor just the way everyone else does. Only in later, larger and more hierarchical societies do we find shamans who get to be ‘just shamans’ and not have to raise their own food just like everyone else does.

So, if Ötzi  was a shaman, we might consider the possibility that his tattoos were magical markings and not some primitive form of acupuncture. And I’d like to consider this as well: What if his death was not caused by an attack by marauders, but by a purposeful ritual?

By his society’s standards, Ötzi was pretty old. He had worn-out joints, hardened arteries, and bad teeth. He had been seriously ill several times in recent weeks. Throughout history (and prehistory) it has not been unusual for a shaman who is reaching the end of his or her life to choose to die in a purposeful manner in order to enter the Otherworld and be a helper and guardian for his or her people. I think that may be what happened to Ötzi. I think he may have offered himself in this way for the people he cared for.

We know that the people of Ötzi’s region buried their dead. If he had been injured in an attack, surely his companions would have carried his body back down the mountain for a proper burial. They would also have gathered up his belongings to put in his grave, just like they did with everyone else. But what if his belongings, and even his body, were too sacred (and hence, too scary to the ordinary folks) for that kind of treatment? What if his death was a ritual, with his body and all his belongings left right where they were because everyone was afraid to touch them? That would be reason enough to hike up into the mountains, far away from the village, to perform the ritual.

An interesting tidbit that plays into the possibility that Ötzi was a shaman and that his death was a purposeful ritual: an ancient stone statue-menhir was discovered in a church in Italy near the region where Ötzi lived. Like so many ancient carved stones around the world, it was scavenged to construct a newer building; in this case it was incorporated in the altar of the church. The stone has been dated from the general time period of Ötzi’s life and its carvings show, among other things, an archer shooting an arrow into the back of an unarmed man. It is possible that this depicts a sacrificial ritual like the one that killed Ötzi.

A couple more tidbits that may play into this situation: We know the people of Ötzi’s time and region raised poppies. In addition to being useful as a medicine for pain relief, poppies have long been used for shamanic journeying in cultures around the world. Also, the meat in Ötzi’s last meal was ibex, a kind of wild goat. This is distinct from the livestock he herded and presumably ate on a regular basis, and from which his clothing was made. Did this have any significance, perhaps in a sacred way? Was this a special meal, his choice for his last meal?

Yes, this is all speculation, but so are the ‘life pictures’ the scientists have created for Ötzi. If you ask me, this is a subject that’s ripe for shamanic journeying, psychic archaeology and other kinds of non-scientific exploration. If you give it a try, let me know what you find. Maybe I’ll do so as well.