Curiosity About Everything and the Language of the Goddess by Carol P. Christ

carol christMy recent discovery of Marija Gimbutas on Youtube rekindled my admiration for her work. In her slide-lecture “The World of the Goddess” Marija Gimbutas allows us to follow the line of reasoning she used to decipher the “language of the Goddess” in Old Europe.

Careful attention to her lecture shows that Gimbutas did not close her eyes, dream, and then attach her own ideas and intuitions to the artifacts she later discussed. Rather, she catalogued groups of images with similar symbolism and used her knowledge of nature (what does a water bird or an owl look like?) and folklore (she collected thousands of songs connected to the agricultural and life cycles in her native Lithuania in the 1930s) to unlock the meaning of ancient symbols.

I suspect that most of the critics of Gimbutas lack the knowledge she gained through her wide curiosity about life. Do other archeologists as a group know what specific species of water birds or owls really look like? Do they have the same kind of knowledge of folklore and folk traditions that Gimbutas had?  My discussions of the symbolism of ancient Cretan artifacts with archaeologists suggests that their focus has been on “book-learning” and that they are not always keen observers of nature and even of the artifacts they study.

mochlos altar stone

Years ago when an archaeologist who had excavated a particular site was showing us a dark red triangular stone he had identified as an altar, he made no comment on its apparent reference to the sacred female triangle and the blood of birth. If he had studied the artifacts of ancient Crete and related cultures as closely as Gimbutas had, or if his mind had not been closed to the interpretation of important symbols as female, he would have known that the triangle symbol appears “everywhere” on Cretan artifacts as does the color red.

seal ring shaking the sacred treeThe image of a man shaking a tree that is found on seal rings from ancient Crete is often called “the uprooting” of the sacred tree. Why anyone would want to uproot a sacred tree has always puzzled me. If archaeologists knew that trees are commonly “shaken” during the harvest so that the fruit will drop to the ground, would they have been so quick to imagine that the man was killing (or sacrificing?) a sacred tree? Perhaps he was “initiating” the harvest.

When I began to lead the Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete some 20 years ago, I had a rather more superficial knowledge of Gimbutas’ ideas and theories than I do now.  I have learned “the language of the Goddess” in practice as I attempt to unravel the symbols on artifacts and also as I gain my own knowledge of “traditional” (folk) agricultural and ritual practices in Crete. Like Gimbutas, I am interested not only in the artifacts of ancient cultures but also in their relation to traditional folk practices that have survived down to the present day—practices and beliefs that are increasingly being lost as traditional agriculture is abandoned or modernized.

When I hear someone mention, for example, that in rural Crete the farmers still bring seeds to the church for the blessing of the priest before planting, I do not consider this a “colorful fact” related to “primitive” imagination. Instead I recognize that it is likely that the practice of blessing the seeds (which is not mentioned in the New Testament) has survived from ancient times to the present, with the church and the priest taking the place of the priestess and the altar to Mother Earth. bull leaping ceramicOr to take another example, when someone who has raised cattle tells me that while always potentially dangerous because of their size and horns, bulls are in fact normally placid and even “sweet,” I consider this to be important information supporting my theory that the bull-leaping games in ancient Crete were not violent.

Our educational system itself trains us to discount knowledge that does not come from books and to distain information that comes from people the academic system considers uneducated. In the university system, our innate curiosity about everything in the world is curtailed as we learn that only ideas that are found in certain canonical books are important.

marika's rakiI am beginning to realize that for me this was a “violent” process which began in my freshman year in college.  I was told both explicitly and implicitly that most of the books I had already read were second or third rate and that if I wanted to become an intellectual I would have to replace the knowledge I already had with other forms of knowledge. I was taught to despise my background, my parents, and my younger self.

When I left the university and immersed myself in rural life in Greece, I learned again that people who do not read books have access to important knowledge and wisdom. I also gained a new respect for my parents and grandparents who taught me to appreciate nature and whose wisdom did not come from books, for all of my ancestors, and for my own innate curiosity about life.


Carol P. Christ is looking forward to the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institutespace is still available on the spring tour. Carol can be heard in a recent interview on Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding mother in feminism and religion and women’s spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions

Categories: Academy, Ancestors, Archaeology, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess Spirituality, Herstory

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17 replies

  1. Great read Carol – I used Marija’s book ‘The Language of the Goddess’ for the Primal Woman workshop I ran last week. I encouraged the participants to tell their story symbolically and we looked to her work for inspiration. And yes I have to agree about much of university learning – I struggle with the very small container we are held in. I had a lecturer in Ancient Greek & Roman art and architecture a few semesters back who had never seen any of the monuments, paintings or buildings she taught us about – it astounded me – all of her learning was merely through text books, not from experience. There is so much wisdom to be gained from observation of nature, our elders and experience.


  2. I just LOVE Marija Gimbutas! She had eyes and ears and a great heart to understand the strands and strings that tie things together. Long live her legacy. Thanks for this post Carol.


  3. Thanks, Carol, for pointing to sacred knowledge that does not come from books, but rather from spiritual practice itself and from the everyday routine of life itself, as direct gateways to spiritual understanding. Zen teaches something I love, as regards the path to awareness, it is said simply, “Wash your teacup.” Jane Ellen Harrison also made a fabulous argument on the rudimentary here and now teaching of the ancient Greek mysteries (which makes sense — even the sacred “kykeon” refers to a very simple drink made from grain mixed with mint). Thus Harrison says:

    “The ‘token’ or formulary by which the [Greek] mystic made confession is preserved for us by Clement as follows: ‘I fasted, I drank the kykeon, I took from the chest (having tasted?), I put back into the basket and from the basket into the chest.’ The statement involves, in the main, two acts besides the preliminary fast, i.e. the drinking of the kykeon and the handling of certain unnamed sacra [sacred symbols]. It is significant of the whole attitude of Greek religion that the confession is not a confession of dogma, or even faith, but an avowal of ritual acts performed. This is the measure of the gulf between ancient and modern. The Greeks in their greater wisdom saw that uniformity in ritual was desirable and possible; they left [the believer] practically free in the only sphere where freedom is of real importance, i.e. in the matter of thought. So long as you fasted, drank the kykeon, handled the sacra, no one asked what were your opinions or your sentiments in the performance of those acts; you were left to find in every sacrament the only thing you could find — what you brought.”

    from “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion,” pp. 155-156, by Jane Ellen Harrison (1908)


    • I would add that many archaeologists who themselves are not practicing any religion, still identify religion with belief in (a male) God (who rules the world from on high). In other words they are ignorant of basic facts about the history of religions.


  4. I admire your work and I admire Marija’s. I was fortunate enough to meet her several times and have signed copies of most of her books. I think you’re right that book learning isn’t enough, especially for the men. We’ve talked about how we both went to universities that were male-dominated (are there any other kind? except for all-female schools? do they still exist??) and how we both got better grades than most of the boys. Good for you for writing that not everything we need to know is found in books. Marija and other great women have shown us that. Brava!


  5. Oh Carol. Thank you so much for this. I lived in Greece for a year healing from time spent there in other lives. I have very recently been working again with owl who has taught me so much about accessing endless information through my third eye, including working with the infinity sign. The other day I picked up a Chakra book and was pleased to see all of the information I had gleaned from my Direct Revelation with Owl right there in the book. While I am not against books, I experience that relying on them for information is limited. We have Our Selves to access knowledge. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for shining a light again on the possibility of a New Education for ourselves and our children.


  6. Thanks to all of you. Just to be clear, I do believe that intuition and other than “rational knowing” can play an important role in many aspects of life. However, here I was not talking about that. I was talking about forms of “knowledge” that we can call rational if we like, such as knowledge of bird species and behaviors, and knowledge of folk practices, that are not based on intuition but on observation. My point is that Gimbutas had a wider “rational” knowledge of many things that are not generally the focus of university education than many of her critics.


    • Carol, I think these misunderstandings come from a missing word. In the original excerpt that we receive through our email servers, instead of reading, “Careful attention to her lecture shows that Gimbutas did NOT close her eyes…,” the NOT was missing, so it appeared that you said Gimbutas dreamed and attached her own ideas and intuitions to the artifacts she discussed.


  7. Thanks for your clarification Carol. I see what you mean, that some rational knowledge of cultures is dismissed when attached to “primitive”. I am trained as a scientist and have noticed discrepancies too in observations in the academic world. My comment is a mirror for how we blend experience with observation to create beliefs. I suppose, my recent experience with accessing knowledge through meditation had me interpret your theme for the article out of one of your first observations of Gimbutas “close her eyes and dream.” My interpretation of the theme was based on my own beliefs and experiences. I think too with the blessing of the seeds bit that you are saying the people who do this are not wandering around having beans blessed for no reason or simply based on arbitrary tradition. Instead, the practice has held tradition because, well, based on their own observation and experience, it works! Your point makes sense in that the academic world has often dismissed logical observation on account of their own Belief Filter: “Primitive and feminine is to be discounted.”


  8. I’m going to agree with you on this one (although it is slowly changing), I get really POed when people dismiss “primitive cultures” .It’s like those people ARE REALLY SMART TO SURVIVE IN THOSE CONDITIONS! Aaaack! And academics DO get too immersed in what “ought” to consist of “knowledge”, that they by-pass the obvious. I am always reminded of the Altamira cave paintings which were discovered by a young girl. Dad was too busy looking on the ground for ‘artifacts”, but it was the daughter who pointed to the ceiling and said, “What’s that about, Papa?” And then it took sooooo long for those academics to accept that the paintings were real. Now is the time for your trademark SIGH.


  9. I’m looking forward to viewing the Gimbutas YouTube video. Thanks for pointing it out.


  10. Thank-you Carol for this wonderful article paying tribute to Marija Gimbutas and to the importance of interpreting iconography, mythology, and ritual through deep knowledge of the natural world. As a feminist mythologist, I too came to realize that this perspective and practice causes us to be immersed in the world that holds us in its web and also gives us resonant insights when working with mythological materials.

    I earned my doctorate from Pacifica Graduate Institute where they hold Gimbutas’ archives. At the time, there was just a smattering of them generally available to students and there were absolutely NO courses on her. A small group of my peers thought that was outrageous, but could not get the administration to consider a course or allow broader access to her archives. Perhaps that has all changed now.

    I have been such a long-time admirer of your work as well. I feel honored to work in a similar manner as you and Gimbutas in reclaiming our precious female mythology. Thank-you!!


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