Tag Archives: culture

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.

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

Goddess. Fertility Statue. Art. All of these are designations that have been applied by various scholars to the graven and painted prehistoric images of women. Although any interpretation is conjecture based upon a particular reading of the material and culture, the most readily given label (and the one most readily contested) is that of “goddess” or fertility image, as evinced by the frequent naming of these statues as a Venus. Identifying and locating the true purpose of these figurines has since nearly become a study unto itself, with scholars and researchers from various disciplines proposing and negating hypotheses and theories. However, if these symbols are to be correctly understood then they must be examined in the context in which they once operated and not at a general level.

The essential problem with this type of analysis is the simple fact that their culture is still not fully understood. In light of this dilemma, to say that there was once a universal cult of a Great Goddess is not quite prudent, but nor is it altogether untrue. However, given the early prominence of goddesses in Mediterranean pantheons, it seems likely that there were several goddess traditions (perhaps with a common genesis) stretching back into prehistory that emerged as the social view of women altered in tandem with a cosmological shift during the early Neolithic.

Marija Gimbutas once wrote that the most obvious place to seek the origin of the Great Goddess would be at the dawn of agriculture.i How, then, to explain the proliferation of female figurines that date to the Paleolithic?

One possible answer may lie in the sheer volume of figures and traits they share, such as heavily emphasized bellies, breasts and buttocks, featureless faces and tapering legs that seem to have no feet. Although problematic, it can be generalized that the figurines from the Paleolithic era meant something, as these images appear in various styles and positions for over thirty thousand years. Again, to ascribe to them any type of power is conjecture, but the fact remains that they do proliferate all over Europe and the Mediterranean.

The Laussel Venus
The Laussel Venus (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

One example from the Upper Paleolithic is the Laussel Venus, a limestone relief found carved over a cave that retained traces of red ocher. The figure is eighteen inches tall with one hand on her protruding stomach while the other is upraised and holds a bull horn or crescent.ii Many scholars believe this shelter to have been a place of ritual, and the very nature of the figure, head slightly inclined towards the horns/moon, may have been meant to communicate something to the prehistoric peoples. The hand of the Laussel Venus that rests on her corpulent belly has “fingers pointing toward her vulva”iii which could indicate a relationship to the horns, and all of the symbols could point to one particular meaning.

Gimbutas and others may be right to assume this was a ritual area,iv but given the location of the cave during the Upper Paleolithic the shelter may have been not a place of sacred seclusion, but one where menstruating women could congregate away from the other members of their group. Given that these people were hunter-gatherers they would have been closely attuned to the seasons and would have recognized that monthly bleeding was attuned to specific phases of the moon, especially since numerous modern studies have shown that the menstrual cycles of women who live in close proximity will synchronize.

Thus the Laussel and other figurines of this type may have been “menstruants” not only because such a shelter would have been a safe locale for bleeding women, but also because the lack of detailing on certain areas of the figures are consistent with later menstrual taboos. Indeed, such taboos decreed that menstruating women “could not touch anything [and] mouth, eyes and hair all came to exude ominous powers.”v Even the large bellies could be an exaggerated representation of abdominal bloating, and red ocher may not have symbolized a spiritual connection so much as it alluded to blood.

Another possibility as to the origin and meaning of Paleolithic figurines is a further form of self-representation, but one of pregnancy rather than menstruation. This theory purports that the figurines were created by women who were pregnant and that the distorted body shape is the result of an optical illusion.vi Indeed, if a pregnant, average-size modern woman looks down at her body, she finds a “strongly foreshortened view of the upper frontal thorax and abdomen”vii and that her breasts loom large. Furthermore, if the same woman looks over her shoulder and under her arm to see her backside, what she sees is remarkably similar to the Paleolithic figurines.

Even the tapering legs and small to nonexistent feet make sense in this context, as a pregnant woman has difficulty seeing the farthest parts of her body. The misrepresentation of height and width is thus the result of a woman’s own vision of her anatomy,viii which means even stylistic variations can be explained by cultural differences in self-examination.

However, if this theory is accurate then we must recognize the cognitive autonomy of these prehistoric women in documenting and preserving this state of being. This, then, begs the question — why? It seems likely that if these figurines were made by women during various stages of pregnancy, they had a very pragmatic purpose as obstetrical aids, models that allow gestation time to be calculated or to ensure reproductive success. Either way, the function of these figurines is practical and grounded, not spiritual.

The spiritual potential of the figurines only arise with a cosmological shift as the Old Stone Age gave way to the Neolithic. This shift was part of a larger, more major shift that occured all over Europe, including the Mediterranean, over the course of generations. Gordon Childe was the first to coin the term “agricultural revolution” and as much the transition to the early forms of horticulture and agriculture took several generations, so did the cosmological shift. As the modern growth of a goddess-oriented cosmology, born during the critical years of the Women’s Movement,ix has shown, any significant social change can bring about a change in ideology and belief systems. To assume that such human adaptability did not exist in prehistory is ludicrous — it seems more likely that as human manipulation and exploitation continued to evolve, so did their understanding of natural processes.

During this time when social changes were occurring at ever increasing intervals, the female figurines became increasingly more complex and detailed, with incising, molding and carving more the norm than the exception. This may have been the result of more time availability or the specialization of the craft within a set group, but there may also be another underlying reason. Women were still gatherers in the Neolithic Period, but were also beginning to cultivate plants. This type of control over the reproduction of the land may have, over the course of generations, led to questions about human reproduction. Where once the ability to conceive and bear another person may have been considered an innate female power, the coming of agriculture, animal domestication and human control over an admittedly limited amount of natural forces could have made Neolithic people question their world.

If they could control what the earth would yield, was there then something that controlled them?

[Bookish Note: Part II, which examines cosmology shifts and the figurines as religious or spiritual artifacts, will be posted in two weeks.]


iGimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess.Harper & Row: New York, 1989. 141.
iiTeubal, 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. 285.
iiiTeubal, “Rise and Fall,” 286.
ivGimbutas, Language, 141-142.
vTeubal, 287.
viMcCoid, Catherine Hedge & LeRoy D. McDermott. “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Paleolithic.” American Anthropologist, June 1996. 319-326.
viiMcCoid & McDermott.
viiiMcCoid & McDermott.
ixChrist, Carol P. Rebirth of the Goddess. Routledge: New York, 1997. 3.


the BBC’s top 100 books

About a month ago, The Written Nerd posted a list of the BBC’s Top 100 books. The instructions are as follows:

Copy this into your NOTES. Bold those books you’ve read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish or read an excerpt. Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses …

The Bookish Miss just couldn’t resist seeing how she stacked up, especially since her friend Elizabeth, over at Travels With Books, did it too.

1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (all)

5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6. The Bible

7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14. Complete Works of Shakespeare

15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20. Middlemarch – George Eliot

21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34. Emma – Jane Austen

35. Persuasion – Jane Austen

36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere (this one is actually on my current to-read list!)

39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41. Animal Farm – George Orwell

42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (wish I hadn’t!)

43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50. Atonement – Ian McEwan

51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52. Dune – Frank Herbert

53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72. Dracula – Bram Stoker

73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75. Ulysses – James Joyce

76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78. Germinal – Emile Zola

79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80. Possession – AS Byatt

81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94. Watership Down – Richard Adams

95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

This list includes some of the greatest books in the English (or any other) language — and if you haven’t read them, you should. Unfortunately, it also includes Dan Brown, who I wouldn’t even trust to write, let alone proofread, a menu.

However, I was surprised to see that nothing by Eudora Welty or Toni Morrison made the list. Welty I can sort of understand since she specialized in short stories (although her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, won a Pulitzer in 1973), but I’ve always considered Morrison to be one of the best writers of the twentieth century. Morrison’s work, especially Song of Solomon and Beloved, rank right up there with others on this list. Both she and Welty are stupendous writers; their characters are real, and they deal with themes that stretch far beyond their stories’ plots. Both make the reader feel like they are part of the story.

Not sure why they didn’t make the cut and Dan Brown did, but I, personally, think both should have. For that matter, where are Katherine Anne Porter, Guy de Maupassant, Mary Shelley, O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe?

What other books were left off? Are there books you think shouldn’t have made the list?

60 second book review: “Borderlands”

Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera is, perhaps obviously, about borders — of language, culture, sexuality, gender, class, spirituality, race, belief, religion, history, literature, family, ethics and morality. In other words, lots of fun stuff. This book is incredibly relevant to the way we live in the new millennium, not just with respect to race, class and culture, but to sex, gender and belief as well. Investors and analysts and politicians talk a lot about globalization and the global economy, but what they seem to ignore is that we are many people with many beliefs. We are not so much a global society as a border society, and those borders are not limited to the physical and geographical. Anzaldúa realizes this; in fact, I would say that Borderlands/La Frontera, while about living along the U.S./Mexico border, is about everything but that. It’s about what happens when cultures and beliefs collide, when capitalism and racism combine to disenfranchise those the dominant race considers Other. It’s also explains how even among the Other one can be even more Other, to the extent of seeming monstrous.

“The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains … nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads,” she writes. We constantly live with divided loyalties, just as we may live with multiple oppressions, and Anzaldúa knows this. Her entire point is to exult in these borders — because it is when we are conscious of these borders that we connect with other people.

Even her language bears this out; she writes mainly in English (the language of the dominant group, the language she learned from childhood that was “correct”), but adds bits in Castilian, Tex-Mex and Nahuatl. This has the effect of marginalizing readers, making them feel Other, but more than that it allows Anzaldúa to rejoice in the way her world has many borders. It that allows her to claim — whether with “permission” or not — pieces of each culture. By doing so, by embracing and exulting in the smoky, hazy, ambiguous borders, she is creating culture and religion and belief and gender and sex … and inviting us to do the same.

[Bookish Note: 60 second reviews are not written in 60 seconds; they’re not really designed to be read in 60 seconds either, although they probably could be. They are so called because they short and to the point. It’s all about getting down to brass tacks, really. Oh, and just to be safe, no one sent me this book, it was bought with my own hard-earned cash.]