Female Figurines and a Cult of the Great Goddess in Prehistoric Europe (Part II)

Venus of Willendorf
(Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Over generations, it can be construed that Neolithic men and women did begin to wonder if something or someone controlled their ability to procreate in the same way they controlled agricultural production. Thus was born the belief in a power that controlled female reproduction, and “thus was born the concept of the Goddess/es” who were nature personified.1 Such a shift in viewpoint, from innate to supernatural, may have been inevitable — but it may have also diminished the status of women. While still extremely important (they were, after all, the ones who bore children) the very fact that this ability was eventually considered a “gift” and not a natural power surely contributed to loss of the mystique surrounding human reproduction and to the later male control of female reproduction.

Given the number and position of goddesses in later Bronze Age Mediterranean pantheons, it’s likely they had Neolithic roots.2 However, the Neolithic era encompassed a six thousand year period in which change, while coming in more frequent intervals, was by no means universal or uniform. Certain specific images and themes are present well into the Bronze Age, including the cow, bull and horns to name but a few. However, if they too had a profane rather than sacred origin, then it becomes impossible to state with any certainty that a Neolithic settlement rife with female images and horns was the home of a people who worshiped a goddess.3

One such site is Catalhoyuk which is located in what is modern-day Turkey. Its excavator, Melaart, posited that this as an example of a Neolithic people who worshiped a mother goddess, especially because the upper levels the settlement (appx. first millennium BCE) contain representations of the Phrygian Mother.4 However, this leap is somewhat ill-formed; to assume that the Phrygian Mother was worshiped in her 1000 BCE guise several millennia earlier is not quite prudent. Melaart and Gimbutas both believe that Neolithic settlements devoted to fertility and reproduction that are centered on, but not limited to, humans are representative of a culture with a goddess. While in some instances and places this may be true, it must be remembered that the cosmological shifts are neither uniform nor universal.

Although much of Catalhoyuk is devoted to the importance of reproduction, there is no indication of the Phrygian Mother or any type of goddess.5 Instead, it’s possible the animal and reproductive imagery were not bound up in an especially religious society, but represented that society’s dependence on animal fertility. This, then, even explains the connection of the horns and the seated woman (from Level 2) giving birth since the “horns may recognize the dependence of humans on cattle.”6

Within this framework, the themes and images are not sacred but profane in the spiritual sense. And yet, because the culture is cognizant of its needs, the images are important because they teach and remind the community of its social and economic structure. Even the “enthroned” female figure mentioned above continues to express this dependence in other ways as well; the figure was found in a grain-storage room that connects to the main room, and its placements may have been meant to symbolize that human reproduction is merely an expression of the “human dependency on cereals and other domesticated plants”.7 Also, several other female figurines from Level 2 were found in or near grain-deposits and bundles of grain were found with figures in other rooms not associated with food storage or preparation.

One possible conclusion from this interpretation is that the figures at Catalhoyuk represent not a goddess, but are rather a part of a socioeconomic framework that likely governed the lives of its occupants. The myriad expressions of human dependency, however, do not necessarily negate a spiritual connection; the people who inhabited this level of the site may have practiced a form of proto-animism that would lay the foundations for the development of the Phrygian Mother in later centuries. This is more than likely the case at Catalhoyuk. Any assumptions about the female figurines as goddesses are the result of a modern bias that posits that a goddess “would be depicted with an iconographic image denoting human female reproductive capacity” (Roller: 1999: 38).8 And as such, if Catalhoyuk was not a settlement of goddess worshiping people then it was not the religious center of the Konya plain as Melaart once proposed.

While this conclusion about the figurines at Catalhoyuk would appear to negate the idea of a cosmological shift that made the profane figures sacred, it must be remembered that change is gradual and does not always occur along a broad spectrum but in isolated pockets. Roller admits to there being an ideological change during the Neolithic because her entire purpose is to seek the Neolithic origins of Cybele, considered to be an evolutionary offshoot of the Phrygian Mother.9 However, her main point — and one well made — is that it is impossible to pin an argument on one site that contains a multitude of figures and ignore the long-term themes. Neither the Phrygian Mother nor her more famous incarnation, the Magna Mater, was ever pictured as a mother, but as a woman surrounded by animals, much like the Minoan Queen of Mountains and Mistress of Animals that are found at Knossos on Crete and Akrotiri on Thera.10 In point of fact, the Roman authors Varro, Ovid and Livy all describe the actual Magna Mater that was imported to Rome as “a small, dark sacred stone not formed into any iconographic image”11 , but it is the themes and accents that remain constant. While the origins of the extant Phrygian Mother Goddess are unknown, it is clear that the symbols, themes and beliefs that surround her have Neolithic beginnings.

The Neolithic was a time of changes for all people as well as for the earth itself. Like Childe’s agricultural revolution, the cosmological shift that occurred during the Neolithic cannot be appropriately dated or pinpointed on a map, but what is clear is that it had occurred by the beginning of the Bronze Age. The goddesses of the Mediterranean pantheons did not emerge overnight; the Early Bronze Age versions still known today were surely intact by the Late Neolithic, if only in certain areas. However, to randomly categorize a Neolithic female figure as either sacred or profane, without consulting its context, is ridiculous because the simple fact remains — no one really knows. Any theory is conjecture. Well thought out and well researched conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless.

Thus it is impossible to make many absolute assertions about the figurines, especially when faced with their Bronze and Iron Age descendants that do not appear to mimic pregnancy, menstruation or even any known goddess. Perhaps the Bronze and Iron Age figures often found in domestic settlements or houses are the remnants of “a tradition that was ancient even to [women]” in later years, or perhaps they were part of a tradition of female reproductive control not easily eradicated by later governments and policies.12 Although the artists have long since turned to dust and their purpose remains unknown, the figurines of the Neolithic continue to fascinate, intrigue, frustrate and inspire everyone from archaeologists to theologians to the world at large.

1Teubal, 290.

2Johnson, 3.

3Johnson, 270.

4Gimbutas, 107-8.

5Roller, Lynn. In Search of God the Mother. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1999.

6Roller, 31.

7Roller, 31.

8Roller, 38.

9Roller, 39.

10Gimbutas, 109.

11Roller, 265.

12Teubal, 300.

Works Cited and Referenced

Antanaitis, Indre. “An Archaeomythological Approach to Meaning of Some East Baltic Neolithic Symbols.” From the Realm of the Ancestors. Ed. Joan Marler. Knowledge, Ideas & Trends, Inc., Manchester: 1997. 145-162.

Berggren, Kristina. “The Capestrano Warrior, Marija Gimbutas and the Chinese Merciful Mother.” From the Realm of the Ancestors. Ed. Joan Marler. Knowledge, Ideas & Trends, Inc., Manchester: 1997. 188-193.

Christ, Carol P. Rebirth of the Goddess. Routledge: New York, 1997.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. Harper & Row: New York, 1989.

Johnson, Buffie. Lady of the Beasts. Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1988.

Marinatos, Nanno. The Goddess and the Warrior. Routledge: London, 2000.

McCoid, Catherine Hedge & LeRoy D. McDermott. “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Paleolithic.” American Anthropologist, June 1996. 319-326.

Rabinowitz, Jacob. The Rotting Goddess. Autonomedia: New York, 1998.

Roller, Lynn. In Search of God the Mother. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1999.

Teubal, Savina J. “The Rise and Fall of Female Reproductive Control as Seen Through Images of Women.” Women and Goddess Traditions: In Antiquity and Today. Ed. Karen L. King. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1997.

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