ur The Language of the Goddess

av Marija Gimbutas

Marija Gimbutas, Introduction to The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe

The purpose of this book is to present the pictorial “script” for the religion of the Old European Great Goddess, consisting of signs, symbols, and images of divinities. These are our primary sources for reconstructing this prehistoric scene and are vital to any true understanding of Western religion and mythology.

Some twenty years ago when I first started to question the meaning of the signs and design patterns that appeared repeatedly on the cult objects and painted pottery of Neolithic Europe they struck me as being pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, two-thirds of which was missing. As I worked at its completion, the main themes of the Old European ideology emerged, primarily through analysis of the symbols and images and discovery of their intrinsic order. They represent the grammar and syntax of a kind of meta-language by which an entire constellation of meanings is transmitted. They reveal the basic world-view of Old European (pre-Indo-European) culture.
Symbols are seldom abstract in any genuine sense; their ties with nature persist, to be discovered through the study of context and association. In this way we can hope to decipher the mythical thought which is the raison d’être of this art and basis of its form.
This present work grows out of the vast body of symbols preserved in the actual artifacts themselves. My primary presupposition is that they can best be understood on their own planes of reference grouped according to their inner coherence. They constitute a complex system in which every unit is interlocked with every other in what appear to be specific categories. No symbol can be treated in isolation; understanding the parts leads to understanding the whole which in turn leads to identifying more of the parts. This book explicitly seeks to identify the Old European patterns that cross the boundaries of time and space. These systematic associations in the Near East, southeastern Europe the Mediterranean area, and in central, western, and northern Europe indicate the extension of the same Goddess religion to all of these regions as a cohesive and persistent ideological system.
I do not believe as many archeologists of this generation seem to, that we shall never know the meaning of prehistoric art and religion. Yes, the scarcity of sources makes reconstruction difficult in most instances, but the religion of the early agricultural period of Europe and Anatolia is very richly documented. Tombs, temples, frescoes, reliefs, sculptures, figurines, pictorial painting, and other sources need to be analyzed from the point of view of ideology For this reason it is necessary to widen the scope of descriptive archeology into interdisciplinary research. For this work I lean heavily on comparative mythology early historical sources, and linguistics as well as on folklore and historical ethnography.
The world of the Goddess implies the whole realm in which she manifested herself. What were her major functions? What were the relations between her and her animals, plants, and the rest of nature? Her place in prehistory and in early history as a cosmogonic figure the universal fruitful source is no longer a novelty to many readers. In a number of books by religious historians, mythologists, and psychologists, she has been described as the Great Mother who gives birth to all things from her womb. She is usually represented as wellknown Paleolithic “Venuses” and figurines from Neolithic Europe and Anatolia or from Bronze Age Crete. Analogies for her were sought from around the world: pre-Vedic Asia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, American Indian cultures, and elsewhere. These were simplistic and presented without the benefit of background studies. In order not to base my interpretation of symbols and functions of the divinities on such accidental analogies from all the continents of the world, I have focused my research strictly on European evidence but including all the Neolithic and subsequent cultures, phase by phase. Then I follow the continuity of symbols and images forward to later prehistoric and historic times and also backwards, tracing their origin to the Paleolithic.
The materials available for the study of Old European symbols are as vast as the neglect that has been accorded that study. Of this rich body of material, the assemblage of ritual ceramics and other objects marked with symbols is most complete. The miniature sculptures, called figurines, found in quantity in almost every Neolithic settlement and cemetery are invaluable for reconstructing not only the symbolism but the religion itself. Because rituals were reenacted using these stone ivory, bone and clay figurines, much of the content of this prehistoric religion has been preserved. The tradition of marking figurines and other cult objects with symbols allows us to decipher their functions.
The richest sites where temples and paintings have been preserved are of paramount importance recreating these divinities, their functions, and their associated rituals. Findings at Çatal Huyuk in central Anatolia, dating from about 6400 to 5600 B.C.1, were made by James Mellaart in the 1960s. My own excavations at Achilleion, Thessaly, in 1973-74 uncovered some of the earliest European temples of c. 6000 B.C. The discovery of Mesolithic and Early Neolithic sacred burial areas at Lepenski Vir and Vlasac on the Danube in northern Yugoslavia, excavated by D. Srejovi and Z. Letica in the 1960s, contributed precious information on funerary rituals and sculptures of divinities associated with regeneration. A remarkable surge of discoveries in Bulgaria, Romania, Moldavia, and the western Ukraine after World War II revealed treasures of sculptures and painted pottery, as well as temples and temple models. Most of these date from the 6th and 5th millennia B.C. In the Mediterranean area, in addition to the great temples and tombs of Malta known from the early decades of the 20th century, excavations in Sardinia have revealed rock-cut and subterranean tombs, another rich source of information on funerary rituals and associated symbolism. The art and engravings of the megalithic tombs along the Atlantic coast of western and northwestern Europe and the British Isles provide valuable insights into the beliefs linked with death and regeneration.

Most of the illustrations reproduced here date from 6500 to 3500 B.C. in southeastern Europe and from about 4500 to 2500 in western Europe (the Neolithic began considerably later in the west). Examples from the Upper Paleolithic are also included to demonstrate the amazing longevity of certain images and designs. However, their persistence into the Bronze Age is not to be ignored. In fact, being more evolved than their predecessors and full of life-affirming grace the motifs of Bronze Age Cyprus, Crete Thera, Sardinia, Sicily, and Malta are magnificent sources for our purpose. Theran and other Minoan shrines, frescoes, and ceramic and stone carvings and sculptures are of the highest quality the Old World ever created. Historic records, myths, and rituals show that much of this great artistic culture pervaded ancient Greece Etruria, and other parts of Europe.
Agricultural peoples’ beliefs concerning sterility and fertility, the fragility of life and the constant threat of destruction, and the periodic need to renew the generative processes of nature are among the most enduring. They live on in the present, as do very archaic aspects of the prehistoric Goddess, in spite of the continuous process of erosion in the historic era. Passed on by the grandmothers and mothers of the European family, the ancient beliefs survived the superimposition of the Indo-European and finally the Christian myths. The Goddess-centered religion existed for a very long time much longer than the Indo-European and the Christian (which represent a relatively short period of human history), leaving an indelible imprint on the Western psyche.
The ancient beliefs that were recorded in historical times or those that are still extant in rural and peripheral areas of Europe removed from the turbulences of European history— particularly in Basque Breton, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and Scandinavian countries or where Christianity was introduced very late, as in Lithuania (officially in 1387 but in reality not before the end of the 16th century)— are essential to the understanding of prehistoric symbols, since these later versions are known to us in their ritual and mythic contexts.

This volume is a study in archeomythology, a field that includes archeology comparative mythology and folklore, and one that archeologists have yet to explore. The mythologists on their part have ignored the rich archeological sources in spite of enormous possibilities they provide. It is hoped that this work will open avenues to folklore treasures as another source for reconstructing prehistoric ideology Further research should yield a rich harvest. Recognizing two different symbolic systems - one reflecting a matristic-gylanic culture the other an androcratic—within European prehistoric and historic mythology will enlighten the studies of origins of myths and symbols.
Dumézil (1898— 1986) devoted his life work to establishing mythology as an independent branch of the social sciences. His studies have shown that mythic beings are the means for explaining the order of mankind and the origins of the universe and that mythic thinking is not accidental but occurs within an organized system of divine activities and functions. Thus mythology reflects an ideological structure. Comparative studies show Indo-European mythology and society as consisting of three classes: sovereign, warrior, and pastoral-agricultural; these relate to divine functions in the three realms of the sacred, of physical force and of prosperity. Thus first light was shone on the nature of Indo-European life and ideology Unfortunately, Dumézil, mainly because he did not use archeological sources, dissociated his system of three functions from the preceding matristic system that reflected an entirely different pantheon of goddesses and a different social structure. This is where his model failed. Typically, Old European goddesses were relegated to the third function, prosperity or fertility, and thus became grouped as “lowest gods “dieux derniers”. In some contexts, however, for instance in dealing with the Greek Athena or Irish Machas, Dumézil admitted that the goddesses are multifunctional, performing in all three realms. In one of his works he even states that they form “the thorn in his system” (Dumézil 1947:1352).
It is clear that Indo-European mythologies are mixed with the pre-Indo-European, and that a reliable system cannot be reconstructed without first distinguishing and then weeding out these earlier elements. Dumézil’s model does not work if applied to these hybrid mythologies. The goddesses inherited from Old Europe such as Greek Athena, Hera, Artemis, Hekate; Roman Minerva and Diana; Irish Morrigan and Brigit; Baltic Laima and Ragana; Russian Baba Yaga, Basque Mari, and others, are not “Venuses” bring ing fertility and prosperity; as we shall see they are much more. These life-givers and death-wielders are “queens” or “ladies” and as such they remained in individual creeds for a very long time in spite of their official dethronement, militarization, and hybridization with the Indo-European heavenly brides and wives. The Old European goddesses never became “déesses dernières,” even in Christian times. All this calls for a vertical expansion of the Dumézilian method.
Archeological materials are not mute. They speak their own language. And they need to be used for the great source they are to help unravel the spirituality of those of our ancestors who predate the Indo-Europeans by many thousands of years.
My focus is on the period beginning with early agriculture in Europe some nine to eight thousand years ago. The Neolithic farmers evolved their own cultural patterns in the course of several millennia. Food gathering gave way to food producing and hunting to a settled way of life but there was no corresponding major change in the structure of symbolism, only a gradual incorporation of new forms and the elaboration or transformation of the old. Indeed, what is striking is not the metamorphosis of the symbols over the millennia but rather the continuity from Paleolithic times on. The major aspects of the Goddess of the Neolithic— the birth-giver, portrayed in a naturalistic birth-giving pose; the fertility-giver influencing growth and multiplication, portrayed as a pregnant nude; the life or nourishment-giver and protectress, portrayed as a bird-woman with breasts and protruding buttocks; and the death-wielder as a stiff nude (“bone”)— can all be traced back to the period when the first sculptures of bone ivory, or stone appeared, around 25,000 B.C. and their symbols—vulvas, triangles, breasts, chevrons, zig-zags, meanders, cupmarks— to an even earlier time.
The main theme of Goddess symbolism is the mystery of birth and death and the renewal of life not only human but all life on earth and indeed in the whole cosmos. Symbols and images cluster around the parthenogenetic (self-generating) Goddess and her basic functions as Giver of Life Wielder of Death, and, not less importantly, as Regeneratrix, and around the Earth Mother the Fertility Goddess young and old, rising and dying with plant life. She was the single source of all life who took her energy from the springs and wells, from the sun, moon, and moist earth. This symbolic system represents cyclical, not linear, mythical time. In art this is manifested by the signs of dynamic motion: whirling and twisting spirals, winding and coiling snakes, circles, crescents, horns, sprouting seeds and shoots. The snake was a symbol of life energy and regeneration, a most benevolent, not an evil, creature. Even the colors had a different meaning than in the Indo-European symbolic system. Black did not mean death or the underworld; it was the color of fertility, the color of damp caves and rich soil, of the womb of the Goddess where life begins. White on the other hand, was the color of death, of bones— the opposite of the Indo-European system in which both white and yellow are the colors of the shining sky and the sun. In no way could the philosophy that produced these images be mistaken for the pastoral Indo-European world with its horse-riding warrior gods of thundering and shining sky or of the swampy underworld, the ideology in which female goddesses are not creatrixes but beauties — “Venuses,” brides of the sky-gods.
The Goddess-centered art with its striking absence of images of warfare and male domination, reflects a social order in which women as heads of clans or queen-priestesses played a central part. Old Europe and Anatolia, as well as Minoan Crete were a gylany2. A balanced, nonpatriarchal and non-matriarchal social system is reflected by religion, mythologies, and folklore by studies of the social structure of Old European and Minoan cultures, and is supported by the continuity of the elements of a matrilineal system in ancient Greece Etruria, Rome the Basque and other countries of Europe.
While European cultures continued a peaceful existence and reached a true florescence and sophistication of art and architecture in the 5th millennium B.C., a very different Neolithic culture with the domesticated horse and lethal weapons emerged in the Volga basin of South Russia and after the middle of the 5th millennium even west of the Black Sea. This new force inevitably changed the course of European prehistory. I call it the “Kurgan” culture (kurgan meaning “barrow” in Russian) since the dead were buried in round barrows that covered the mortuary houses of important males.
The basic features of the Kurgan culture go back to the 7th and 6th millennia B.C. in the middle and lower Volga basin — patriarchy; patrilineality; small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry, including the domestication of the horse not later than the 6th millennium; the eminent place of the horse in cult; and, of great importance armaments — bow and arrow, spear, and dagger. These characteristics match what has been reconstructed as Proto-Indo-European by means of linguistic studies and by comparative mythology They stand in opposition to the Old European gylani4 peaceful, sedentary culture with highly developed agriculture and with great architectural, sculptural, and ceramic traditions.
So the repeated disturbances and incursions by Kurgan people (whom I view as Proto-Indo-European) put an end to the Old European culture roughly between 4300 and 2800 B.C., changing it from gylanic to androcratic and from matrilineal to patrilineal. The Aegean and Mediterranean regions and western Europe escaped the process the longest; there especially in the islands such as Thera, Crete Malta, and Sardinia, Old European culture flourished in an enviably peaceful and creative civilization until 1500 B.C., a thousand to 1500 years after central Europe had been thoroughly transformed. Nevertheless, the Goddess religion and its symbols survived as an undercurrent in many areas. Actually, many of these symbols are still present as images in our art and literature powerful motifs in our myths and archetypes in our dreams.
We are still living under the sway of that aggressive male invasion and only beginning to discover our long alienation from our authentic European Heritage — gylanic, nonviolent, earth-centered culture. This book presents for the first time the concrete evidence of this long-standing culture and its symbolic language whose vestiges remain enmeshed in our own system of symbols.

  1. In uncalibrated chronology. The suggested actual age is from the end of the 8th to the end of the 7th millennium B.C.
  2. Riana (sic) Eisler in her book The Chalice and the Blade (1987) proposes the term gylany (gy- from “woman”, an- from andros, “man” and the letter I between the two standing for the linking of both halves of humanity) for the social structure where both sexes were equal.