“The Language of the Goddess” In Minoan Crete by Carol P. Christ


While the “war against Marija Gimbutas,” rooted in what my friend Mara Keller calls “theaphobia,” is being waged in the academy, her theories continue to unlock the meaning of hundreds of thousands of artifacts from the culture she named “Old Europe.”

According to Gimbutas, the Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures of Old Europe c. 6500-3500 BCE were peaceful, sedentary, agricultural, matrifocal and probably matrilineal, egalitarian, and worshipped the Goddess as the power of birth, death, and regeneration in human and all forms of life.  The cultures of the Old Europe contrasted with the Bronze Age cultures of the Indo-Europeans who brought the Indo-European languages and value systems to Europe and India and to all of the European colonies.  The Indo-European cultures were patriarchal, patrilineal, nomadic, horse-riding, and warlike, and worshipped the shining Gods of the sky. 

“The language of the Goddess” includes a series of signs and symbols that the people of Old Europe could “read” as surely as you and I know that a cross on top of a building marks it as Christian or that a woman wearing a star of David pendant is Jewish.  Gimbutas identified the meaning of these symbols through a painstaking process that involved comparison of artifacts, attention to where they were found, and clues from the recurrence of similar symbols in later cultures.  In twenty years of leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete, I have found Gimbutas’ theories an indispensible “hermeneutical principle” which unlocks the meanings of the artifacts we encounter.

 

This strange figure greets the visitor on arrival at the annex where the most important finds of the Heraklion Achaeological Museum are on temporary display.  She is dated to the Neolithic period c. 6500-5500 BCE and is usually identified as a Goddess or Mother Goddess figurine

The first thing that strikes us about her is that she is human and other than human. Her overall form and seated posture mark her as human.  But if she was meant to be a human figure, either her creator was not very skilled—or she had other things in mind. 

Gimbutas says that references to birds and snakes are common in the Old European symbolic imaginary.  It seems to me that one of the reasons for is this is birds can fly and we often wish we could, while the movements of snakes inspire many of our human dances.  In addition, migrating birds and snakes emerging from hibernation are harbingers of spring and the renewal of life.  Both lay eggs, symbols of the regeneration.  Birds are very good parents, while snakes are good housekeepers, cleaning the house and farmyard of mice and rats.

Looking more closely at the figure pictured above, we can “read” her “beaked” face as a reference to the power of birds.  Her thick arms and legs can be seen as “snakelike.”  She is both a bird and snake Goddess.  The Indo-European Greeks who drew a sharp line between humans and animals, would have found such an image “repulsive.”  Our old European ancestors must have lived in another world: one which admired the powers of animals and viewed them as “our relatives.”

What about the lines that mark her body? Referring to hundreds of pouring vessels marked with similar lines, Gimbutas concluded that these are “water lines,” reminiscent of the flowing of rivers and the pouring of water from vessels.

 

Our Goddess then is also identified with water, the Source of Life, and with the women who collected water for daily use.

This little Goddess is wearing a flat hat or cap.  This type of hat is still associated with the Greek Orthodox priesthood and may also have inspired the “cap” that goes with the academic “gown.”  Similar hats are widely worn by female figures for thousands of years in widely dispersed areas all over Old Europe. It is likely that such hats were originally ritual garb for women.

What about the seated yoga-like position of our Goddess and her broad hips and backside? The seated position affirms her grounding and connection to the earth.  Her sacred parts touch the earth and her generous proportions refer to the abundance of life-giving Earth.

Is she a mother? She is not obviously pregnant or holding a child, facts which, given our propensity to speak of Mother Goddesses, we might not even notice. 

Reviewing the symbolism we have “read” on this simple female figure, we can see that she is associated with birds and snakes and thus with the coming of spring, the powers of flight, the dance of the snake, with eggs and fertility, with the parenting skills of birds and the housekeeping skills of snakes. She is also associated with water sources, the Source of Life, and the collection and pouring of water. Her hat marks her as sacred, and her sacred female parts are touching the Earth. 

I think we can read her as a Mother Goddess, but only if we understand that the Earth itself, the Source of All Life, is the Mother to whom the figure refers.

Carol P. Christ , a founding mother in the fields of women and religion and feminist theology, is on Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete  with 19 other women who are placing the Goddess figures pictured here on altars and pouring libations to the Source of All Life. The next tours are in spring and fall of 2013. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions



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8 replies

  1. Brava! Clear and useful, like everything you write. It’s good to be reminded that figures of the Goddess don’t always have to look like ordinary (but very tall) human women. The classical Greek and Roman model isn’t the only model. Thanks for this!

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  2. Thank you for this post, Carol, short and sweet, and telling. I’m teaching the “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” curriculum at First Unitarian Society in Madison again, and last night was our discussion of women and power. One of the questions we discussed was how our lives (and our society) would have been different if we had grown up with a Goddess(es) rather than a God. One of the things that became clear to me in a more concrete way during this discussion was that if our culture had been based on Goddess religion, we would never gotten ourselves into the environmental pickle we’re in (climate change, toxic chemicals, invasive species, water pollution, air pollution, etc.). Why? Because we would have known that we are part of an interdependent web of life, just as this Goddess figure shows us that Old Europe KNEW this. For one thing, there is no sharp demarcation between human and animal in this figure; the people who worshipped this Goddess saw animals as our brothers and sisters. For another, the Goddess is associated with water, the source of life. If this was our Goddess today, we would protect all species, not let them become extinct. We wouldn’t see water as a resource, but as a sacred element. We wouldn’t pollute our waterways. We wouldn’t destroy other species’ habitats. And we wouldn’t see ourselves as more important than the other animals and plants that share our globe. What we would have known from the get-go is that we’re all in this together.

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  3. I found Gimbutas work decades ago just stunning! And the idea that a matrifocal time actually existed, and that this peaceful woman celebrating world was alive and well I do believe is threatening to the horrifying 5000 year old world of patriarchy.

    So no wonder Gimbutas faced so much opposition. When she was talking about weapons and warring societies in pre-historic times, it was easy for her to get funding, but then when she started to uncover the goddess symbols and cultures, wow, then the struggle began.

    All of these tools for uncovering the past, I then learned and put to work. It became second nature to discover the hidden herstory of what women have done even 100 years ago, to find the lesbians in the past instantly, to work through the cover-up of woman loving groups, friendships networks and visionary spirituality.

    Gimbutas lives on, the cultures and worlds she wrote about are very much alive to me, and I do hope we are able to preserve all of this from the great erasure machine that goes 24/7 known as patriarchy. We have our work cut out for us!

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  4. I find it very interesting that many early Goddess figures are referred to as ‘”mother goddesses” or fertility figures/fertility goddesses. I would find it very unusual to see a god sculpture described as a “father god” figure or to imply that their only religious significance could be fertility related. I think the attachment of “mother” to her descriptor title is intended to limit her range of power and also to diminish her cultural/historical significance. And, as you observe, there is no pregnant belly or baby at the breast to indicate maternity. The inclusion of babies in religious artifacts like this was a later intervention and seems to correspond to the lessening political and cultural power of the Goddess.

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  5. well I hope I dont offend anybody but sadly there is no evidences that the prehistory was a idyllic place. There is evidences of cannibalism, murder, human sacrifices and yes also war. Going all back to the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Chalcolithic. Im sorry to say, but in light of the abundance of evidences going against Gimbutas we can lump her in the box along Erik von Daniken and Zacharia Sitchin (ancient aliens). She was a good archeologist but im sorry to say, her later work is pure fiction.

    I give you some examples that probably you are already familiar with: ancient tribal warfare, Talhein death pit massacre, Germany (upper-Neolithic) probable human sacrifices, bog bodies Scandinavia (Mesolithic to bronze age) probable murder case, the ice man Otzi, found still with the arrow in his back, Italian alps (Chalcolithic) probable cannibalism, Gough’s cave England (Mesolithic).

    Please dont misunderstand me, Im not opposed of goddess spirituality, however I dont understand why the need to present a bogus human history and then rant against the academia. Historically speaking contemporary times are the most humane and its only getting better although as you very well know we are still struggling with the patriarchy but its on the way out. As you (should) know, if you are a archeology student this fictional history its like a torn in the eyes. And Im also tired of listening to people ranting against the bias in the academia. But excuse me, all the ranters with no exception are unable to support their thesis Marija Gimbutas included.
    Would it not just be better to focus on real history thus giving the goddess movement a more solid foundations rather than just making stuff up? honestly whats preventing then people to lump Aliens together with Atlantis and Wonder woman in the goddess Thealogy and then complain when challenged?

    I dont know your credential, but I hope you understand my frustration. You dont spent years studying a topic just to witness its abuse under your own eyes.

    Love Michelle.

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    • Dear Michelle, My credentials are a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale and numerous scholarly articles and books. I am not making stuff up, nor did Gimbutas. Gimbutas’s work has yet to receive a sustained scholarly critique. Instead it is dismissed with the citation of a number of short articles or a few pages in books that do not consider and critique her method or the consider the information she presents in detail. This has been called a “scholarly backlash” by some. In my opinion, the backlash is due to the fact that Gimbutas dared to challenge the idea the modern western culture based on the classical Greek culture is the highest culture (hu)mankind has ever achieved. In addition, she challenged the ideas that patriarchy and war are foundational to culture and higher culture. This is a huge challenge and it is easily understandable that it did not sit well with scholars in classics and archaeology who for the most part assume the evolution of culture and the validity of the general positions about history they were taught. If you are interested, Kristy Coleman wrote a brilliant two part scholarly critique of The Myth of Matriarchy by Cynthia Eller and Charlene Spretnak has written several scholarly articles about the biases in the critiques of Gimbutas. These scholarly essays have simply been ignored. They have not be refuted. Moreover DNA evidence is supporting Gimbutas’ theory that Old European Culture was overthrown with evidence that the majority of European males carry YDNA from North of the Black Sea that is more recent than the DNA of most European females. This is best explained by the theory that Indo-European invaders killed a large number of the males and raped or married the females. I have a few links to this evidence in one of my other blogs. In addition, as far as I know, scholars in the fields of classics and archaeology “assume” the universality of patriarchy and have yet to consider the evidence from living matriarchal societies that is emerging into public attention in recent years, for example from the culture of the Mosuo. One more point, no one said there never was any violence at all in the Neolithic. When describing societies as peaceful, Gimbutas spoke of there being no big man (warrior king) graves, no evidence of kings or armed men in the art, no warrior graves, etc. This is very different from Sumer or Egypt or ancient Greece where kings are pictured larger than life-size and warfare is celebrated.

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      • One gets very curious of what the credentials of that person could be, who is so sure about the total failure of the research of one of the greatest scholars in the field of archaelogy that ever has been.

        How sad to see the young students of today so totaly mislead of their own historical background as human beings and wome, as well as the memory of our most prominent female predecessors, on whose shoulders we stand, always buried under these thick layers of derogatory dismissals. The young students of every generation having to invent the wheel from the very startpoint once more.

        In addition to Carol Christs comment about the existence of present matriarchies ( Mosuo) and their specific kind of Goddess worshipping I would like to remind of Ifi Amadiumes report on the whole traditional African culture as being matriarchal in its historical fundaments and still is in many places today, upholding a tradition of peace and caretaking / nurturing, cooperativ strategies, that constitutes a corrective to masqulinized violence and dominance. (Ifi Amadiume: Reinventing Africa, Matriachies, Religion & Nature)

        My own partner has grown up in a semimatriarchal society in Westafrica that still in the middle of the 20th was matrilineal and worshipped female Goddesses. Do you Micelle Jewell think that he doesn´t know better himself about these things, than some scholars in the western academies who never sat their feet in his country, and who are brainwashed with the totally unlogical and unproved idea of the universal patriarchy?

        Why is it, that people nowadays are so easaly misled in this hence – and evenso not at least the todays feminists of the third wave? Why is it so hard to imagine women to be able of leading the cultural development according to mothercentered principals, instead of the warlike and dominating / opressing patriarchal ones?

        To me it is quite the contrary, the most logical way of drawing conclusions about how human cultural development must have emerged out of the schimpanzees; wherein it is the females who take care of the infants on their own, cooperating females together from preventing them from being killed by their own males. There has also been undertoken investigations lately that shows that it is the females among the shimpanzees who is the leader of the cultural development in the group, inventing new tools and other improvements in hunting ants and so on.

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