Tag Archives: archaeology

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.


Archaeology’s Ultimate Purpose

Recreated row house in Jamestown

The rise in popularity of the History Channel and other similar programs on other channels and networks recently led Bookish Miss to pondering how important the fine details are to the general populace’s understanding of history.

While watching a program on ancient Pompeii, I was nodding along to everything being said; then the narrator stopped and I frowned. But, I thought, what about … ? They didn’t talk about …

The devil is in the details, right?

Well, not always, I was reminded. This led me to my bookshelf, specifically to Stephen Bertman’s Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology — which is not, at first glance, a scholarly book. Even at second glance, its place on any reading list likely appears dubious at best; it is, after all, a compilation of several short sketches about people. In fact, Bertman devotes most of his work to concisely and succinctly reconstructing and understanding the lives of ancient and not-so-ancient people. Accordingly, since the book is about the individual lives of people, there is not much by way of technical details, extensive descriptions of artifacts or discussions relating a particular item to a particular site, feature, zone or level.

Like most of those popular history programs, that’s not the point. The best example of Bertman’s intent is in the final chapter, “Portrait of Pocahontas.” He begins by recalling the myth, then delves into history to detail the ships that sailed for what would become Virginia, including information on their passengers and cargo. There is also discussion regarding the English in Jamestown; he writes “between best of friends and worst of enemies lies the story of Jamestown and the Native Americans … a story written in village campfires long cold and the embers of cottage timbers set ablaze.”

Archaeology is invaluable; some records do remain from this time and the years that followed, but material remains are a viable and much needed resource because they allow us to see a bigger picture. Accordingly, Bertman details the various items recovered and places them in the context in which they are of the most importance — what the final accumulation tells us about their lives.

One of Bertman’s examples is the colonists’ fear of both the known and unknown. He explains this by discussing the sheer volume of weapons uncovered, including crossbows, cutlasses, rapiers and other swords, caltrop (a metal object with four sharp points) as well as muskets, pistols, bullet molds, bandoliers (to hold gunpowder) and grapeshot for a cannon. Other artifacts are also discussed, including how their interpretation illustrates how these people lived from day to day.

For most scholars who skipped or dismissed Bertman’s prologue, introduction, conclusion and epilogue, the most obvious problem with this book is its lack of contextual detail with respect to the artifacts. He does not seek to investigate a certain site or perform a particular test on any given artifact in order to understand a minute part of a culture, but rather he draws on the work of several archaeologists and other scholars to put together a picture of how our antecedents may have lived. Indeed, he is very plain in the beginning and the end — his book was written to be an easily accessible look at the broader swath of history, made fuller by archaeology, and he refuses to allow technical details to weigh down his words. He does provide endnotes, however, for that exact purpose.

However, it is important to the larger discussion about the value of archaeology, history and the use of material culture. What Bertman did nearly 25 years ago is precisely what those history shows aim to do today. Outreach archaeology, public history — it all boils down to collecting information, analyzing it, making the appropriate connections and disseminating it to the public in a palatable format.

This is important and those “buts” don’t always matter. If we don’t do it, someone else (Disney anyone?) will.

Bertman’s own words put it best:

“It is easy for modern archaeologists, surrounded by so many quantitative techniques, to be dazzled into forgetting their qualitative mission. Their purpose is and always should be a fundamentally human one: to discover and narrate with honesty and compassion the story of lives once lived. The archaeologist’s duty is to keep faith with the ghosts, to serve as a medium for those who no longer have voices of their own.”

Bertman currently teaches at Lawrence Technological University in Missouri.

Bertman, Stephen. Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology. Tarcher/St.Martin’s Press, 1986.