My 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.
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.
The 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. Or 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.
I 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 Institute—space 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.