In the early 1950s archaeologists were digging up ancient Jericho. This is one of the oldest cities on earth dating straight back to the prehistoric Neolithic era. In strata dating to about 7,000 BCE, the archaeologists found human skulls. But these weren’t just any skulls:
“[T]he whole of the lower part was covered with plaster molded into human features. Eyes were inset with sections of shell. Central slits represented pupils. Cheeks were rounded and chubby, ears delicately molded, mouth prim. Only the nose was broken away.” Kathleen M. Kenyon and A.D. Tushingham, Jericho Gives Up Its Secrets, National Geographic (1953), pp.853-870.
This kind of plastered skull wasn’t found just at Jericho but throughout the Near East. They had a wide distribution having been found as well in sites at Syria and Turkey.
No one really understands what these skulls were for. At the time they were dug up it was speculated they were probably tied to ancestor worship where “descendants attempted to preserve the personality of tribal or family elders.” Kenyon & Tushingham, supra at 870.
And to the society that decorated these skulls, there certainly must have been some religious or magical connection. Even up until very recently pretty much the most plausible answer was that this was some ancestor cult.
But in 2003 a scholar reported on scientific tests that were performed on the skulls. “Information derived from the plastered skulls does not support claims that age or sex were consistent factors in the selection of skulls for special treatment. . . . The skulls of both young and old males are included among the plastered skulls, but so too are the skulls of females and children.” Michelle Bonogofsky, Neolithic Plastered Skulls and Railroading Epistemologies, The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research No. 331 (Aug., 2003), pp. 1-10.
This discovery, that the skulls were not limited to those of elder males but also were young children and majority female, threw a wrench into the theory of ancestral worship of elders. So we have a little insight into some very ancient human practices regarding the dead, but generally we are in the dark about this prehistoric behavior.
I think, however, that the Hebrew Bible preserves some cultural memories of this phenomenon.
As enigmatic as these plastered skulls are, there is a similarly cryptic word in the Hebrew Bible – teraphim(תרפים). The etymology of this word is pretty much unknown. As far as I know, no one has really solved its origin, despite some pretty impressive efforts. See generally Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., Hittite Tarpiš and Hebrew Terāphîm, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan., 1968), pp. 61-68.
So while we don’t know too much about what teraphim means from an etymological point of view, we do have the Hebrew text where it is used which offers context clues. There are pretty much four big references to this word.
The first occurs in the Jacob story in Genesis 31. We are told that as Jacob takes his wives, children, and wealth to leave his father-in-law Laban’s service that one of Jacob’s wives, Rachel, “stole her father’s teraphim.” Laban overtakes his fleeing in-laws ten days later and confronted them saying, “Why did you steal my gods (elohim)?” Jacob unaware his wife stole these things denies the accusation and tells his father-in-law to search his tents for them. “Rachel, meanwhile, had taken the teraphim and placed them in the camel cushion and sat on them.”
So from this story we understand the teraphim to be rather small – that is, at least small enough to be hidden by putting them under a cushion and sitting down. We also know they were both valuable and sacred, at least to Laban who calls them his gods.
The second appearance in Judges 17-18, however, hints that teraphim were not simply idols – or at least were distinct from molten and sculpted images. We are confronted with several passages similar to this one where molten image and teraphim are listed separately as though they are distinct items: “[M]en entered Micah’s house and took the sculptured image of the ephod, and the teraphim, and the molten image.” Judges 18:18. The story in Judges portrays teraphim as an accoutrement to Yahweh worship for the tribe of Dan but also in several passages as something different from molten/graven images. We also see teraphim linked to kingly worship in Hosea 3:4: “For the Israelites shall go a long time without king and without officials, without sacrifice and without cult pillars, and without ephod and teraphim.”
The third appearance occurs in 1 Samuel 19 in the story of David and Saul. Here the teraphim actually is used in a classic storytelling convention. “That night Saul sent messengers to David’s home to keep watch on him and to kill him in the morning. But David’s wife Michal told him, ‘Unless you run for your life tonight, you will be killed tomorrow.’ Michal let David down from the window and he escaped and fled. Michal then took the teraphim, laid it on the bed, and covered it with a cloth; and at its head she put a net of goat’s hair.”
So we realize that teraphim were humanoid in appearance. They had heads upon which fake hair could be placed, and they could be used for the narrative trope stand-in for a sleeping person under bed sheets.
The fourth occurrence is really a combination of several textual references but all in a similar vein. Teraphim are mentioned briefly and denounced as detestable. They are also linked closely to necromantic magic and divination.
So we see in 2 Kings 23:24: “Josiah also did away with the ghosts and the familiar spirits, the idols and the teraphim – all the detestable things that were to be seen in the land of Judah and Jerusalem;” in 1 Samuel 15:23: “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, Defiance like the iniquity of teraphim;” in Ezekiel 21: “For the king of Babylon has stood at the fork of the road, where two roads branch off, to perform divination: He has shaken arrows, consulted teraphim, and inspected the liver.” (Inspecting liver is a reference to the ancient practices of sacrificing animals and then inspecting the entrails for omens). And in Zechariah 10:2 we have: “For the teraphim spoke delusion, The augurs predicted falsely; And dreamers speak lies, And console with illusions.”
So from these various textual appearances a picture of what the teraphim were begins to appear.
Particularly, the last reference I noted in Zechariah says teraphim “spoke.” Perhaps this is just a poetic device, but perhaps not. I’d like to turn now to a medieval document called the Targum Pseudo Jonathan. This Targum is basically a version of the Torah or the first five books of the bible with rabbinic commentary interspersed. In it, when one comes to Gen. 31 and the story of Rachel and Laban I mentioned earlier, the Targum states: “and Rahel stole the images. For they had slain a man, a firstborn, and had cut off his head; they salted it with salt and balsams, and wrote incantations on a plate of gold, and put it under his tongue, and set it up in the wall, and it spake with them; and unto such their father bowed himself.” Also, in a Jewish folktale called “The Skull of the Prodigy Child,” the events of which supposedly take place in the 16th century C.E., we see “the severed head of a person being interrogated.” Ephraim Nissan, Ghastly Representations of the Denominational Other in Folklore, La Ricerca Folklorica, No. 57, Visioni in movimento: Pratiche dello sguardoantropologico (Apr., 2008), pp. 133-147.
“A great merchant in Prague, who is a learned Jew, has a child prodigy who is a pupil of Maharal. A marriage is soon arranged for the boy. By deception, the boy is taken away from his family, and led into a tower, where [. . .] he is closed by his captors inside a room full of books. Then a skull [. . .] talks up and warns the child. The talking head commiserates with the captured boy, explains the situation, and proposes a plan for escape. He, too, had been a Jewish child prodigy. The captors are from a Gentile sect that every eighty years (once the powers of the previous talking head are depleted) capture such a child, kill him, and by magical means (placing a magical formula under his tongue) cause his head to become a talking tool which they worship (the talking head refers to the candles lit in his honour inside the room), and which they can interrogate, and then the head is forced to give them accurate answers.” Id.
Here I think we begin to see a clear link between these Jewish traditions, teraphim, and plastered skulls. So I conclude that the Hebrew Bible preserves hints of this ancient divination practice. People were either killed or died naturally and then their heads were taken and used for magic purposes. It was thought that these heads (or perhaps more precisely the ghosts of the dead through the heads) could predict the future or offer guidance. This is not quite ancestor worship, so the fact that the skulls we find are not all elder males does not pose a problem. In fact, if these skulls were supposed to be the way the dead communicated, it would make sense that the practitioners would try to preserve those who were steeped in magic in life, i.e., witches, which explains female skulls. The Jewish traditions also refer to first born children, so the practice may have additionally been connected with child sacrifice. It seems possible – even likely – that Israelite religion evolved from some starting point where this prehistoric practice was prevalent to a later form of monolatrous Yahwism, and as it did references to the older cults became more and more taboo.