Was There a “Golden Age” before Patriarchy and War? by Carol P. Christ

Marija Gimbutas coined the term “Old Europe” c.6500-3500 BCE to describe peaceful, sedentary, artistic, matrifocal, matrilineal and probably matrilocal agricultural societies that worshipped the Goddess as the power of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life. Gimbutas argued that Old Europe was overthrown by Indo-European speaking invaders who began to enter Europe from the steppes north of the Black Sea beginning about 4400 BCE.  The Indo-Europeans were patrilineal and patriarchal, mobile and warlike, having domesticated the horse, were not highly artistic and worshiped the shining Gods of the sky reflected in their bronze weapons.

In the fields of classics and archaeology, Gimbutas’s work is often dismissed as nothing more than a fantasy of a “golden age.” In contrast, scholars of Indo-European languages, Gimbutas’s original specialty, are much more likely to accept the general outlines of her hypothesis. The German linguist and cultural scientist Harald Haarmann is one of them.

In Roots of Ancient Greek Civilization: The Influence of Old Europe (2014), Haarmann presents masses of linguistic evidence in support of his “call for a recognition of the achievements of pre-Greek cultures from which the ancient Greeks profited.” (1) He says that the idea that Athens is the “cradle of democracy” is a myth advanced in the Enlightenment and passed on in Western educational systems ever since. In contrast, he argues that the civilization we know as Greek inherited many of its most important components from the “Pelasgians,” the name the Indo-Europeans who became the Greeks gave to the indigenous inhabitants of the land they began to conquer and settle after 3000 BCE.

Haarmann recounts the much-told story of the competition between Athene and Poseidon for the naming of the city. According to one version of the story Athene caused an olive tree to spring up on the rocky outcropping known as the Acropolis and taught the Greeks to cultivate it, while Poseidon produced a horse. The Athenian king chose the gift of Athene and named the city after her. Haarman reads this story as encoding the conflict of cultures between the earlier Old European-Pelasgian culture and the new culture of the Indo-Europeans.

The horse was domesticated by the Indo-Europeans, while the olive was cultivated by the earlier inhabitants of Greece. The name Athene ends in the suffix –n– which is pre-Greek. Haamann argues that the word for olive in the Greek language elaia as well as the word parthenos, young woman, from which the name for Athena’s temple, the Parthenon, derives, must also be understood to be pre-Greek because they have no cognates in other Indo-European languages. In this instance of the conflict between two cultures, the contribution of the earlier Old European-Pelasgian culture is recognized as more valuable.

Though I am not a scholar of Indo-European languages, I can follow the outline of the argument. The Indo-European languages include most of the European languages as well as Persian and Sanskrit. It is hypothesized that the Indo-European homeland was in the steppes north of the Black Sea and that the Indo-Europeans migrated from there to Europe via the Danube and later by other routes to Persia and India. There are many words with common roots across all of the language groups.

When a word is found in one of the languages, but not in the others, it is presumed that the word is pre-Indo-European, deriving from a word used before the Indo-Europeans left their homeland. Haarmann argues, for example, that the word for horse has a common root in Indo-European languages, while many of the words for farm produce and farm implements, such as grain and plow, are different in the different languages. This suggests that the Indo-Europeans brought the word for horse and the horse itself with them, while they adopted local words for grain and plow when they learned agriculture from indigenous farmers.

Further, words ending in –n– plus a vowel such as Athene or Ariadne are not common in Greek or other Indo-European languages, and usually are the names of people or places. Thus, it is assumed that these words are not Indo-European. If all of this is so, then it makes sense that Athene was the name of a pre-Greek Goddess who inhabited the Acropolis long before the Greeks, the God Poseidon, and the horse arrived in the land we call Greece.

Haarmann argues that the Greeks learned many things we now consider “Greek” from the Pelasgians, including: the cultivation of the olive and the production of wine; pottery and metallurgy; seafaring and trade; the names of many Goddesses and Gods and the rituals associated with them; all of the arts linked to the muses including poetry, song, dance, and drama; and finally, the art of “communal self-administration” which is the foundation of democracy.

As his goal is to recover the contributions of pre-Greek culture to the culture we celebrate as “Greek,” Haarmann acknowledges but does not dwell upon the bittersweet nature of the interaction between the two cultures. He concludes his book circumspectly: stating that once we recognize the contributions of Old Europe and the Pelasgians to the culture we call Greek, we will be in a better position to re-evaluate the contributions of the Greeks to European and world history. What he does not say in the conclusion–though this is hinted at in every chapter–is that many of the contributions the Indo-European Greeks made to the marriage of cultures were not positive.

Athene won the competition with Poseidon and became the patron of the city that was given her name. But in the process, she was forced to don the garb of soldiers and to engage in battle, thus sanctifying wars and pillage carried out in her name. In words put into her mouth by Aeschylus, she betrays her mother Metis (the Clever One) and her sex including the Erinyes (Furies) who avenge crimes against mothers, saying that because she had no mother, she would always side with the man in all things. Moreover, Augustine reported that the contest between Athene and Poseidon was decided by a vote in which the women chose Athene; this vote was said to have been the last time women were allowed to vote in the city of Athens and to have ended the custom of matrilineal descent.

Classical Greece was based upon war and pillage, condoned slavery, and excluded women and slaves from participating in the (so-called) Greek “democracy.” Haarmann does not come right out and say that the Pelasgian culture was superior in many ways to the culture of classical Greece. I suspect he recognized that to do so would be to open his work to being dismissed as a fantasy of a golden age. But what if the golden age was the age before patriarchy and war and not fantasy at all? There would be a lot of re-evaluating to do.

* * *

a-serpentine-path-amazon-coverGoddess and God in the World final cover design

Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is  Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

FAR Press recently released A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess.

Join Carol  on the life-transforming and mind-blowing Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Space available on the spring and fall tours!



Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

28 thoughts on “Was There a “Golden Age” before Patriarchy and War? by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thank you for this… my recently published book. “Sacred Scars: Why the gender of God has done injury to women’s bodies and sense of self”, was at its core inspired by the scholarship of Marija Gimbutas.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have been reading Haarmann’s books over the past couple of years including the one you mention here. Haarmann’s work is interesting and many of us (women) have said similar things and been punished for it. This happened to me in the1980s when I was studying Ancient Greek. I have subsequently also studied Sanskrit and have a fascination for how words change across languages. I hope more people read this research and give Marija Gimbutas the the credit she is due.

    One more thing, I think Pelasgian poetry is really underrated and deserves much more study. I think it could be unearthed and deciphered if it were taken seriously. Same is true of the relationship between Etruscan and the later Roman empire. As a poet, I would love to work out ways of doing this.

    Thanks for this and other posts.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes womenl/feminists have been writing positively about Gimbutas since Language of the Goddess was published. However, what I find important in Haarmann’s work that is not found in the work of the many women scholars and writers who refer positively to Gimbutas is the linguistic evidence he amasses to support his and her claims. The linguistic analysis and evidence is not found in Gimbutas’s work–she focuses on the artistic and architectural evidence. Thus Haarmann is not only repeating the claims made in Gimbutas’s work, he is proving/advancing her theory with new evidence based on his own painstaking research into IE languages.


  3. Thank you for posting this; I’ve been hunting for information o life before patriarchy, and this helps point me in the right direction. Any other information/books would be gratefully accepted.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this post, Carol. I found it comforting. The fact that certain people repudiate Gimbutas’ ideas about old Europe indicates a failure of imagination on their part. Why is it so difficult for them to visualize a time when women weren’t despised and treated like slaves?

    I’m quite old, and I must say that the longer I live the more reverence I feel for the powerful force that creates life. Women are the creators and life-givers. Each baby is a miracle.

    The next question to ponder (at least, for me) is what we’re doing here at all.


    1. Dear goddessfiction –

      I think that patriarchy reinforces its values and principles (including the fiction that women were never anything but “despised and treated like slaves”) with myths like the Ancient Greek founding of democracy with a strong woman (Athene) at the mythical helm. This myth, along with much of historical religions, positions women within the social structure as part of nature – as opposed to that area supposedly separate and supposedly belonging to men, culture – and by extension, positions men as the rulers and administrators of societies. The impact of this, however, is on all of us – women and men – with the war, destruction, and denial of our dependence on and being within nature. Like slaves all, we are being led to dig our own graves, or stand by in horror as others do it, while destroying the Dear Mother Earth upon which we all live and die.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think we must ask: whose interests does it serve to assert that patriarchy and war are inevitable and universal? Once it is admitted that there was a time before patriarchy and war, we can criticize our own societies with new eyes.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As usual, brava! Well thought and well written. Yes, we need to remember that to the classical Greeks, women were hardly human and wives were kept inside. That so-called democracy was entirely male. The Enlightenment brought us a lot of intellectual light (and some dandy literature), but not much benefit came to women.

    I read somewhere that Athena might have been born in Libya along with the original amazons. They went to the Black Sea lands. I guess they dropped her off in Greece, along with the Muses and some other “minor” goddesses. (Yes, this is highly simplified.)

    It’s always good to read your posts first thing Monday morning (it’s 7:18 here in Long Beach). You sort of help me turn my mind on for the week.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haarmann examines the argument made in The Black Athena by Martin Bernal. He notes that though Bernal calls Athene Black, implying that her roots are in all of Africa, in fact Bernal is arguing that Athene is Egyptian and that Greek culture derived from or was deeply influenced by Egyptian culture. He concludes that the linguistic arguments for this linkage are weak. Haarmann’s view is that the roots of Greek culture are in Old Europe, not Egypt or Africa.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks for reminding me of Bernal’s book. I think a sort of Egyptian origin makes sense. But I guess I need to read Haarmann now, too. Like I don’t already have enough books stacked on the other end of the couch…….. But that’s what’s good about this FAR community: we’re always stimulating each other to learn new things. Yippee!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Can’t help thinking of the old Women’s Army Corp with Pallas Athena as it’s insignia. Just found out the WAC was disbanded and combined into one army with the men in the late 1970’s. The military was a way for women, and men, to get a high school diploma and some job training. But of course a person had to be willing to kill or be killed in the effort.
    Seems an obscene way for women to find “advancement” or “equality” in society. Why not just have free, excellent, education for all? And jobs that nurture instead of focus on more and more and more profit for a few.

    The world is in such a mess! Every time I see a photo of Trump and his entourage I want to throw up. And our young Justin has lost the trust of many Canadians. Provincial elections here tomorrow. I voted Green in the advance polls. Then read this morning about US EPA cuts.


    1. Oh poor Athene and the women who fought or supported war under her banner.

      Just the other day while waiting for my car inspection, I was speaking with a Greek American who is currently living in Greece. When I asked him if he was drafted into the army when he came to live in Greece, he said: “Yes and I told them I did not want to be trained to kill people and they let me off.” He added that the woman who was registering him for service stated that this was the first time she had heard that. Oh so sad, every other boy who came in simply accepted being trained to kill people.

      The Green Party value that has been most compromised is “No violence.” Why? Because it is impossible to work in coalition with other parties and to oppose war! Sighhhhh


  7. Thanks, Carol, for alerting us to some at least one academic who’s taking Marija Gimbutas’ work seriously. I will get a hold of Haarman’s book and take a look at it.

    I love the legend recorded by Augustine, but want to remind everyone that it refers to the time around 1500 BCE, and Augustine lived between 354 CE and 430 CE. There are other myths that also indicate the violent take-over of Greece by invading India-Europeans. My favorite is the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, because her mother Demeter wins her back at least part-time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find it amazing that it was still being said in the time of Augustine that women once voted in Athens and that descent was once matrilineal. This was not being said when I went to college, that’s for sure.


  8. Thank you for this post. I just purchased The Language of the Goddess and I can’t wait to get started on it. I also purchased a recording of Marija Gimbutas giving a lecture on her work. Very inspiring to listen to her talk about her work.


  9. An insightful, thoughtful post, as always. Thank you! The disbelief of the classics scholars and archeologists in a peaceful pre-Patriarchal world reminds me of the decades when the same kinds of people absolutely refused to believe that indigenous people of the Americas could create cities, art, astronomy, mathematics, etc. despite all the evidence to the contrary. I firmly believe that in time the lack of acceptance of early societies of peace will be considered to be as ridiculous as this earlier lack of belief in indigenous accomplishments is now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The patriarchal scholar of religions Mircea Eliade stated that the conquests of the Indo-Europeans continue up to the present day. He was referring to the more recent colonial European conquests of the Americas, Africa, South Asia, etc. Yet many classics scholars and archaeology deny that cultures are conquered in favor of the theory that they evolve. What could be more self-serving than that? They not only deny the IE conquests but also let their own more recent cultures off the hook for colonialism.


  10. Thank you, Carol! I just returned from Bulgaria. In the Archaeological Museum in Sofia I saw vitrine after vitrine of beautiful Paleolithic and Neolithic Goddess figurines–sacred vessels shaped like women’s bodies. They were so superbly crafted, so graceful and powerful. I challenge anyone to look at the volume of these figures and then denounce Gimbutas’s scholarship. In my post on Wednesday I’ll be discussing the tragedy of women’s history–how it keeps being obscured and buried and trivialized. This is what we are witnessing with the trivialization of Gimbutas’s scholarship.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you so much for drawing our attention to Haarman’s linguistic analysis– it is fascinating to think about the ways that names and words can hint at earlier layers of history.


  12. This has been very useful for me to as a scholar of Finno-Ugric goddesses. I have recovered much new information about the Great Mother/Bear Goddess in Northern Finland, Permia, among the Slavs etc. Finnish Goddess Mythology and the Golden Woman
    Climate Change, Earth-based Indigenous knowledge and the Gift
    Kaarina Kailo 2018

    This interdisciplinary study focuses on Finnish and Finno-Ugric myths of Nature Spirits and respectful human/animal relations as social mechanisms for the transmission of traditional ecological knowledge. It introduces and applies Indigenous, ecofeminist and modern matriarchal research methods aimed at promoting Earth Democracy. The female figures of Finnish folk belief have been overshadowed by the male heroes. Kailo revisits the Finnish shamanic worldview beyond patriarchal prejudices. She introduces Finnish Goddess mythology (with her own illustrations) and shows the links between the legendary Golden Woman, Zolataja Baba, and other Northern Great Mothers. The author refers to ancient folk materials that provide hints of a mysterious Northern Land of Women (Terra Feminarum) of high antiquity. The study argues that a shift is needed from the competitive economics of exchange to the Gift Economy, and towards the culturally, not biologically “maternal,” human norm of the Gift Imaginary. This worldview has characterized many cultures past and present. The motto of the book is “Planet first!”

    Table of Contents

    Introduction, l. Modern Matriarchal Studies with Peggy Reeves Sanday, Barbara Alice Mann and Heide Göttner-Abendroth 2. The Gift Economy and Imaginary 3. Indigenous Knowledge and Earth-based Feminism 4. the Golden Woman, Earthbody warnings from Prehistory 5. Finnish Goddesses and Great Mothers

    Kaarina Kailo, Ph.D, Docent, is a Finnish scholar who has worked at the universities of Quebec and Concordia in Canada, and as professor of Women’s Studies at Oulu University. She has also worked as Senior Scholar of the Finnish Academy. Her books include Wo/men and Bears—the Gifts of Nature, Culture and Gender Revisited and co-created anthologies on gender & ecopsychology/ traditional knowledge, neoliberalism and the Indigenous Sami. She is an ecoactivist, municipal politician and self-made quilt artist with four recognitions for her life-long work in cultural and women’s studies.


  13. You may buy my book from kaarina.kailo at gmail.com for 25e. plus postage.
    I am now also finalizing a book called Mother and Bear Worship–the Archaic Roots of the Sauna and the Sweat lodge…


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