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.
BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator. Her work continues through her non-profit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.
“In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal.” — Carol P. Christ