Will the "Great Goddess" Resurface?:
Reflections in Neolithic Europe

Many enthusiasts of the recent "Great Goddess" movement are looking to archaeology in the hopes that it will provide validation to their theories of what they would consider a former religious and societal utopia.  This was allegedly a peace-loving, egalitarian society spread across the whole of Europe, wherein the Mother Goddess was worshipped as the center of religion.  As evidence from archaeology, thousands of artifacts from Neolithic Europe have been discovered, mostly in the form of female figurines.  Although much criticism has come about against the recent 'goddess' movement, it has, however, contributed to opening the minds of many archaeologists and the terms that have been used to define civilization.  Proponents claim that this new view of ancient civilization is now emerging because females are finally getting a voice in the male-dominated field of archaeology.  They insist that the field is becoming more objective with both genders contributing, while challengers criticize the methodology used in this new position with the belief that the interpretation of archaeological finds is being based on the feminist agenda.  Critics also site the need of many believers to establish the Great Goddess in the past so that she may resurface today as a contributor to modern paganism.

The leading pioneer of the goddess movement is the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who has spent thirty years studying patterns and symbols of cult objects and also developed the field she refers to as "archeomythology,"  which embodies the fields of archaeology, comparative mythology, and folklore.  She believes that the key to discovering the meaning of prehistory is through interdisciplinary research.  Gimbutas' The Language of the Goddess is a subject of great controversy in archaeology due to her many inferences about the symbols on artifacts:  "the technique of arguing back from her theory to the meaning of artifacts, so that anything fits her case . . . the imputation of 'religious' significance to any artifact that resembles an organism" (Linnekin 4).  Archaeologist Ruth Tringham has also criticized Gimbutas' methods in that she twists the facts and loosely interprets them to fit her feminist agenda without restraint:  " [using figurines] she has shown to her own satisfaction the contrast between the 'peaceful character of . . . Old Europe' and that of the society which destroyed it" (Tringham 96).  Gimbutas assesses that there are two religious systems:  the matristic gylanic (peaceful goddess society) and the androcratic (belligerent patriarchies).  The matristic gylanic symbols are further divided into subsystems according to the function of the goddess as Life-giving, Renewing and Eternal Earth, Death and Regeneration, or Energy and Unfolding.

As water is an archetype from where all life flows, Gimbutas claims it to be representative of the Mother Goddess as the Life-Giver.  The earliest symbol in human history is the zig-zag, which was used by Neanderthals around 40,000 B.C. and to Gimbutas, represents water.  The 'M' is interpreted as a shorthand for the zig-zag.  Another category of symbols she attributes to the religion of the Goddess is the chevron and 'v' symbols, which are supposed to represent the Bird Goddess.  The 'V'  is reported to be a shorthand version of the pubic triangle (represents shape of the fallopian tubes) which is found on many bird figurines.  It first arose in the Thessalian Sesklo culture in the 7th millennium B.C. on painted pottery, and is also found in early Starcevo and Karanovo cultures (Balkans) during the 6th millennium.  Bird-shaped vases called askoi are found with the 'V' and chevron sign, as are bird-woman hybrids with beaks and 'V' necklaces (Gimbutas Language).  On the island of Malta, graves from 3,000 B.C. were discovered containing these bird-woman hybrids in the Tarxien cremation cemetery, suggesting religious ties to the bird-woman figurines.   The Bird Goddess is also identified with megalithic monuments, which may have been prayed to and embraced.  There have also been grave goods identified with the Bird Goddess, such as the tomb in Orkney containing 725 bird bones (Everson 3).  The Mother Goddess is not only associated with the bird but with many other animals as well.  For example, the way the eyes of some females has been portrayed on figurines like those of the owl leads Gimbutas to the conclusion that the Mother Goddess can be identified with it.  The 'M' is another shorthand for the zig-zag.  The 'V' symbol is also found on ritual vases, lamps, seals, and miniature vessels, while the 'M' is found on water containers.  Again, Gimbutas attributes this as evidence that the 'M' is the symbol for water.  The chevron (repetitive form of the 'V') is often found along with the meander, which is also a water symbol.  In support of the Goddess Revival, links to the Goddess cult can be traced to such artifacts as ornithomorphic female figurines with their fronts engraved as chevrons and their posteriors as meanders.  Other artifacts such as the ivory plaque from Paleolithic Mezin also display an interweaving of the meander and chevron.  A Paleolithic Pavlovian and a Vincan figurine from 5000-4500 B.C. also link the Goddess to water as it represents an alleged female deity with a stream running over her body.  As one can see, many of these symbols seem to be interpreted too subjectively.  A paragon for this is Gimbutas' interpretation that the bull head represents the goddess because it is shaped like the uterus.  Clearly, there is no scientific evidence to justify such claims, but what many of Gimbutas' critics fail to realize is that she does not present her claims as facts, but rather as simple hypotheses.

In a time when survival of elements was a constant struggle, life seemed to be a miracle and those able to hold on to it persisted to preserve it and defend it through procreation.  These struggles gave the role of the Goddess as Renewing and Eternal Earth special importance.  The Earth Mother or Fertility Goddess is often represented as a pregnant woman holding her belly in figurines such as those of Laussel, Dordogne, France, and the Ukraine, which were most prominent from 7000-6000 B.C.  The pregnant figurines often have bi-lines (two strokes) on their bodies, which Gimbutas states is probably symbolism of the power of mother and child.  The lozenge containing a dot is also found on pregnant figurines, especially the belly, which Gimbutas interprets as the child within the womb.  In the Vincan culture, the pregnant figurines wear sow masks, representative of the sow identification with fertility as a fast-growing, nourishing body.  Gimbutas makes the claim that the graves of Neolithic Europeans were modeled after the female's uterus so that the buried dead could feel like they were in the womb of their Earth Mother.  Gimbutas, however, provides no realistic evidence for this claim only citing that graves are sometimes egg-shaped.  Even further fetched is the assertion that because some caves were painted entirely red it was for the purpose of representing the "the color of the Mother's regenerative organs" (Gimbutas Language 151).   Also representative of the role as Fertility Goddess are the duplication symbols, in the form of animals that shed their skin such as snakes or in the form of double yoke eggs.

Cultures all throughout Europe participated in this proposed  "Great Goddess" or "Mother Goddess" religion, with the women as spiritual leaders, not necessarily political or social leaders.  In Gimbutas' The Civilization of the Goddess, she details all the sites that to her knowledge have evidence of goddess worship.  The Sesklo culture of northern Greece, she believes, left evidence behind of goddess worship in the form of pottery and sculptural art.  Pottery from around 6400 B.C.  on had designs of flames, triangles, zigzags, lozenges, and steps painted on them, which Gimbutas believed to all be symbols of the Great Goddess, especially in her domain of water as the Bird and Snake Goddess.  Of the 200 clay figurines found at Achilleion, 132 were found within temples.  Proponents point out the similarities of the Goddess across Europe to prove its universal appeal:  "That the adoration of the Great Mother in fact was a living faith in the entire continent from the earliest times is evidenced not only in the . . . cult figure but is further supported by . . . early figurines having painting of red ochre" (Nagar 9).  Apparently this painting of red ochre is still practiced today in some religious rituals, showing religious connections with the feminine figurines.  Gimbutas claimed only the locations of the worship vary, not the Goddess they worship.  The Pregnant Goddess was always found on a dais or near a bread oven and Gimbutas concluded that some forms of the Goddess were worshipped in temples, while others were worshipped in courtyards (Pregnant Goddess).  The Starcevo Culture of the Central Balkans had elaborate pottery in the form of ornithomorphic vases from 5900-5800 B.C.  Many figurines of the Karanovo culture were also discovered, including forms of the Bird Goddess, the pregnant goddess, stiff nudes, and zoomorphic figurines.

Death was not always something to be feared in ancient cultures because regeneration provides the insight that from death comes life.  One of the more obvious symbols of death comes in the form of the vulture.  Paintings from temples in Catal Hoyuk depict the vulture devouring heads of corpses.  The vulture seems to be a hybrid and, therefore, possibly the Goddess because it has human legs.  The Goddess as a symbol of death is represented as an owl as represented in Hungary and Lemnos by owl-shaped burial urns with umbilical cords or human vulva dating back to 3000 B.C.  Death can also be seen in the form of the stiff nude.  Because it is almost always carved out of bone or ivory, Gimbutas has assumed the stiff nude to be representative of death on the basis that the color white is associated with the bone (that which shows after death).  Stiff nudes can be found in Hamangia, Karanovo, and Cucuteni cultures.  The Goddess mask provides a direct connection to death in the case of Karanavo cemetery of Bulgaria.  Here, 16 out of 81 graves were found to have masks (with no human remains) of the Goddess' face, dating back to 4,000 B.C.  As for regeneration, the egg is one of the most obvious symbols, which is still present today.  Most cultures use eggs in some form or another to celebrate the coming of spring and the renewal of growth.  The egg can be found on vases, water containers, figurines, and bowls.  It is sometimes found in relation to water and the bull.  A dish from Malta contains all three of these Goddess symbols, dating back to 3,000 B.C. (Gimbutas Language).  Snakes, caterpillars, and any animal that sheds a former body or skin are other examples of the Goddess as Regeneration.  These can be found in association with many Goddess symbols on vases.
 

The Goddess as Energy and Unfolding has symbols that "moving up, down, or in a circle, they symbolize cyclical time.  The pulse of life demands an unending stream of vital energy to keep it going" (Gimbutas Language 277).  The spiral is a representation of the snake, which is an archetype for the cyclical mode of life.  The spiral first arrived as a symbol on pottery in 7th millennium south-eastern Europe.  Spirals will sometimes have life branch out from them in the form of leaves and branches, like those of the megalith temples from Malta (3000 B.C.)  Spirals are often located on uniquely feminine body parts in figurines such as the breasts and uterus.  The hook is a shortened version of the spiral and can be found on megalithic tombs of western Europe.  Symbols of the moon and lunar cycle are found with snake coils, owl-shaped figurines, and bull's horns, linking them all together under the Goddess.  The axe, yet another symbol of the renewal of life, was not used for a weapon or tool but rather for cult ritual purposes according to Gimbutas.  It can be found decorated with the Goddess symbols of triangles and chevrons.  Whirls are considered to represent life becoming, as are opposed snakes, both of which can be found on the breasts and abdomen of the female figurine.  The opposing snakes are one of the most common motifs on Neolithic vases with a snake on either side of the opening and can be seen especially in Cucuteni vase painting.  The brush (parallel lines) as a symbol of energy can sometimes be seen as a replacement for the pubic triangle, associating energy with the Great Goddess.

Gimbutas is criticized for using the survivalist theory, citing that cultures in Europe that were isolated from the rest of Europe amidst the Indo-European invasion maintained the Goddess religion.  An example of a currently isolated culture is in Basque country, where they revere their primary deity Mari much as Gimbutas has predicted (Everson 3).  Although there may be similarities in forms of the Goddess throughout cultures, this need not apply a similarity in function.  Folklorist Juliet Woods warns against focusing on "rural and fringe societies as preserving survivals of earlier periods . . . [as] they are outside mainstream culture" because Gimbutas' references lack context (Wood 20).  She also points out that customs can originate in modern times and then criticizes Gimbutas' example of the Celts as a pre-Indo-European Goddess culture because many current archaeological theories maintain that the Celts may have been a central part of Indo-European life.  Anthropologists are also turning to the so-called "fringe cultures" such as the modern foraging and horticulture societies for proof of the goddess civilization's persistence:  "cultures do not seem to be aware of the male role in procreation" (Aelfric 3).  They speculate that for these cultures life seems to originate within the female alone, which would lead them to become the leaders of society pleasing those of the feminist spirituality movement.  This may be the case but it is unscientific to conclude that because some modern fringe cultures revere the female as more powerful than our own that those of 8,000 years ago did.  A culture may worship the "Great Goddess" and therefore consider females as the creators of all life, while another culture may believe females to be the only creators of life but not necessarily believe in the "Great Goddess."  One need not imply the other.

Criticisms aside, some of the most compelling evidence for this former goddess-worshipping culture is from a site in Turkey called Catal Hoyuk.  Here, an alter and temple dating back to 7000 B.C. with many clay figurines of the Great Goddess, an idol, and wall paintings depicting some of her symbols, such as the bull, provide signs of former goddess worship (Everest 1).  The cult of Magna Mater (Great Mother) supposedly originated in Catal Hoyuk 6000 years ago.  The famous statue of a woman giving birth upon a throne with two leopards at her side is also found here, which is the form she is known for in Phrygia as Cybele.  Later in Rome, Cybele would come to be known as Magna Mater, the magical goddess raised by panthers and lions.  The leaders of the Magna Mater cult were female priestesses and castrated male priests called Galli (their leader - Archigalli).  The castration was a symbol of Magna Mater's love, the mortal prince Attis, who couldn't withstand the love of an immortal and, therefore, went mad and castrated himself.  His castration, however, brought new life to the land.   Another account claims Attis was sought after by a "lustful monster and, in revulsion and lest he be forced into unfaithfulness to his Holy Mother , tore his genitals from his body and died" (Leeming and Page 82 - 83).  Every spring Cybele buries him in a dark cave (uterus) and mourns after his death.  Part of the Magna Mater cult rituals was to castrate and sacrifice a bull and be baptized in its blood (Sandberg 2), which along with Gimbutas' far- fetched idea that the bull head appears like a uterus, also provides a basis for the bull as a symbol of the Great Mother.

Presuming a Goddess culture existed, the disappearance of this peaceful agricultural society has been linked to the Indo-European invasion of war-like patriarchal hierarchy societies.  Archaeological evidence, mythology, and comparative linguistics indicate a contrast and conflict of the two cultures in religious and secular life.  The semi nomadic invaders, labeled as "Kurgans", were from southern Russia and first arrived in the Lower Dneiper region in 5,000 B.C. and would continue to arrive for 2,000 years.  The migration occurred in three surges termed by Russian archaeologists:  the first  "early Yamna" culture of the Volga steppe was from 4400-4300 B.C., the second "Maikop" culture of the North Pontic area was around 3500 B.C., and the third "late Yamna" also of the Volga steppe was after 3000 B.C.  Prior to  4500-4300 B.C., neither weapons were found among grave goods nor were hilltop defenses to be found until the Indo-Europeans arrived with metallurgy and weapons such as daggers, spears, and bow and arrows (Gimbutas Civilization 352).  Some archaeologists, however, have found that weapons already existed in the former non-Indo-European cultures:  "Mellaart reports that male burials at Catal Hoyuk contained weapons:  stone maceheads, obsidian arrowheads and javelin heads, also daggers" (Linnekin 2).  Some critics point out that "[later] cultures which still engaged in goddess worship were warlike", citing the Celtics as an example (Miller).  Evidence for the appearance of the Kurgans and characteristics unique to them appear in a wide range of archaeological evidence.  The earliest example of horses represented in sculpture were found in cemeteries from the Volga region dating back to 5,000 B.C. around when Kurgans arrived in Old Europe.  Flint and stone daggers can be found in the cemetery of S'ezzhee after the arrival of the Kurgans, along with a unique burial style (Gimbutas Civilization 355).  They made pit graves with huts of wood or stone covered by mounds, that were not seen in Neolithic Europe before their arrival.  The Kurgans also supposedly brought with them the patriarchy, which would come to replace the peaceful egalitarian system.

Although evidence for the Goddess culture is still uncertain, the resurfacing of the goddess will depend on archaeological evidence's validity.  New feminist views in archaeology have, however, made many archaeologists re-evaluate their concepts of civilization.  Whether the "Great Goddess" cult was a matriarchy or not, it is clear that evolution of civilization does not necessarily mean a shift towards patriarchy.
 

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