Vasilisa - by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (1876-1942)For quite some time I'd known that archaeologists have been digging up thousands of small female figurines from ancient Neolithic archaeological sites, both in southeastern Europe ("Old Europe") and elsewhere around the world. However, I was surprised recently to find two Russian fairy tales that seem to contain the literary equivalents of these ancient figurines. The fairy tales, "Vasilisa the Fair" and "Prince Danilla Govorilla," both contain magical "dolls" that help young fairy-tale women through rough times. After reading these tales, I wondered: do they provide clues about how ancient Europeans might have interacted with their goddess figurines: about what they did with them – and when, and why, and how?

Most Neolithic goddess figurines were sized to fit comfortably in the human hand. Many appear "otherworldly," their ancient makers having given them women's bodies but birds' heads and beaks, for example, or coiled snakes for legs. Since these female figurines are typically accompanied by few if any male figurines, and are inscribed with many of the same symbols found on the walls of associated temples, the renowned Harvard/UCLA archaeologist Marija Gimbutas suggested that they represent goddesses, and that their makers belonged to societies oriented around female deity.

"Vasilisa the Fair"

"Vasilisa the Fair" is about a beautiful young Russian girl whose mother is dying. From her death bed, the mother hands her daughter a magic "doll," small enough to fit in a skirt pocket – in other words a size similar to Neolithic goddess figurines. Her mother instructs Vasilisa to keep the doll with her always – but to breathe not a word about it to anyone: "Together with my maternal blessing I leave you this doll.... If you get into trouble, give the doll food and ask its advice. When it has eaten, it will tell you what to do in your trouble."

The doll does indeed help Vasilisa out of several bad scrapes. When her father remarries and Vasilisa's new stepmother seems extremely anxious to irritate and vex the girl, the doll intervenes -- by briskly completing the impossible chores the stepmother demands of Vasilisa, or by advising Vasilisa when the stepmother sends her into the forest to borrow fire from the dreaded Baba Yaga (the crone and death aspect of the Goddess). Interestingly, Vasilisa treats the doll as an actual human being, feeding it the choicest portions of her meals, and telling it all her troubles. At the end of the tale we learn that Vasilisa "carried the doll in her pocket 'til the end of her life" (Afanas'ev 1973: 439-447).

Could this fairy tale tell us anything about how our Neolithic ancestors interfaced with the female figurines they produced so abundantly? Like Vasilisa, were our ancestors sometimes instructed to carry such figurines with them on a daily basis – but to let no one know it? Or is this part of the tale simply a reference to the Medieval and early-modern church in Europe forbidding pre-patriarchal goddess worship, and, so, forcing non-patriarchal Russians to carry their sacred objects on the sly? If so, this suggests the fascinating possibility that even after pre-patriarchal goddess worship was beaten back by the church, some Europeans at least still carried three-dimensional, hand-held goddess images around with them, but secretly, in their pockets, or maybe even sewn into hidden parts of their clothing.

It's important to point out that just because archaeologists haven't unearthed female figurines at any particular archaeological site doesn't mean such figurines weren't produced there. The inhabitants could have carved them out of wood, sewn them out of cloth, or manufactured them out of straw. As a matter of fact, the clay and occasional metal figurines that survive well buried in soil would be far more of a pain to carry around in a pocket than a straw or wooden figurine would. Clay breaks easily, and metal weighs more than straw by a long stretch. My guess is that Old-Europeans produced goddess figurines out of cloth, wood and/or straw as well as clay, but the former disintegrated quickly in archaeological deposits. And maybe at some point making goddess figurines out of clay lost favor, and people began making them only out of lighter and less fragile materials. This would explain why we find far fewer goddess figurines after the end of the Neolithic – most of them could have quickly disintegrated through time.

"Prince Danilla Govorilla"

In addition to "Vasilisa the Fair" I stumbled across a second fairy tale about dolls. In "Prince Danilla Govorilla" a witch casts a spell on a prince to make him want to marry his sister. Not surprisingly, the sister is mortified – until a group of wise old women pull her aside and tell her to make four "little dolls." "Tuck them into the corners of your bridal chamber," they advise. This solves the problem: the dolls help the princess drop into the Underworld long enough for the prince to come to his senses:

And the dolls in the four corners cried like cuckoos.... The earth began to open, the sister began to fall in. Her brother cried: 'Sister Catherine, come to the featherbed!' ... The dolls cuckooed... Only the sister's head was still above ground ... The dolls cuckooed [again], and she vanished into the earth (Afanas'ev 1973: 351-56).

What these "dolls" bring to my mind are the hundreds if not thousands of small clay female figurines archaeologists have dug out of niches in the walls of almost every house in the large ancient Indus-Valley-Civilization cities of Harappa, Mohenjodaro and Chanhudaro. In the first several millennia BC these three cities were part of a sophisticated and peaceful Bronze-Age civilization in what is now India and Pakistan. According to archaeologist Jane McIntosh (2002: 7), the Indus Valley people lived "a lifestyle that would be the envy of most today." Like the Indus Valley people, the princess placed her small human figures into protected spaces in her home. Were her figures, like theirs, actually goddesses?

Incredibly, as late as 980 AD public worship of goddesses was still allowed in Russia. In that year the great Russian goddess Mokosh still glowed brightly in the official Russian pantheon. What's more, according to Professor of Russian and European Cultural History Joanna Hubbs, an unnamed 16th-century writer claimed that Mokosh continued as one of Russia's three primary deities "long after" 980 AD (Hubbs 1988: 17). Without a hint of doubt, Hubbs maintains that Russian fairy tales are secret repositories in which priestesses of Mokosh hid their theology for safekeeping in dangerous times. If true, the ancient Russian goddess religion still survives today in Russian fairy tales. But any goddess figurines in Russian tales would never be called goddesses. Too dangerous. Might they have been called "dolls" instead?

The goddess and her priestesses could be eliminated neither by the pagan volkhvy, nor by the Varangian rulers, nor by the Christian priesthood.... Instead [she] ... was appropriated by the male ruling elite.... Consequently, the religion of the mothers moved underground, into the home or as secret rites at rivers and in groves, fields, and gardens. The cult of the Mother Goddess in her various forms and functions was carried into the religious folk tradition of the peasantry (Hubbs 1988: 22-23).

According to Hubbs "Vasilisa the Fair" contains secret code describing ancient pre-patriarchal initiation rites for girls. As we learned previously, from her deathbed Vasilisa's mother gave her daughter a magic "doll." Later, when Vasilisa's evil stepmother forces the girl to ask for fire from the frightening Baba Yaga, Baba agrees to fork over the fire only on two conditions: that Vasilisa work for her, and that the girl pass certain tests. With the help of her doll Vasilisa satisfies both conditions, and Baba gives her the fire. According to Hubbs' model, receiving the fire would symbolize the girl's successful completion of her initiation ordeal. Did Old European girls carry goddess figurines during their initiation ceremonies, so that the Goddess could help them pass through these ceremonies successfully?

With the doll still tucked in her pocket, Vasilisa next journeys over the countryside. After an old woman gives her work as a spinner and weaver, Vasilisa spins, weaves and sews a shirt for the king, who falls for and marries her. "She is now fully ordained as a priestess of Baba Yaga, the maiden who would become a bride, a mother, and herself a witch in her old age." At the end of the tale, we learn that Vasilisa, the old woman, the king -- and the "amuletic" doll -- all live together, happily ever after (Hubbs 1988: 48-51). Did Old European women possibly use goddess figurines to help them pass their initiation rites into the priestesshood? Were they careful to keep the same figurine throughout their entire lives?

In fairy tales, dead mothers probably serve as code for the Mother Goddess (Gottner-Abendroth 1995: 142). As Hilda Ellis Davidson points out, when fairy-tale mothers die they often leave their children magical helpers (2003: 102-04). In various versions of Cinderella, for example, the bequeathed helper is a bird or a fairy godmother while in the Grimm's tale "The Juniper Tree" the mother, from her grave, sends her son a bird to help him overcome his evil stepmother. And in "Vasilisa the Fair" the bequeathed helper is what appears to be a tiny, three-dimensional image of the Goddess herself. In "Prince Danilla Govorilla" too, the dolls who make the sound of the cuckoo might also be a gift sent to the prince and princess from their dead "mother," probably a bird goddess. Tellingly, as Miriam Dexter points out, "In some Baltic folksongs, the cuckoo is an incarnation of the dead mother" (Dexter 2011 quoting Gimbutas 1989: 195).

Brigid's "Dolls"

Speaking about the ancient Celtic goddess Brigid, Marija Gimbutas says "girls carried dolls in her image." Gimbutas says too that Brigid descended from the earlier goddesses of Old Europe, the same civilization that churned out female figurines by the cartlload (Gimbutas: 185, 187). When in 1959 and 1960 anthropologist John Messenger did fieldwork on the island of Inis Beag off the west coast of Ireland, he found modern evidence of women and girls carrying "Brigid dolls." Among numerous other Celtic survivals, Messenger stumbled across one involving straw dolls connected to Brigid, in which at least one low-income owner of these dolls used them to procure food from others in the community. From his informants Messenger learned that early in the 20th century an impoverished island resident habitually carried her immaculately dressed straw "Brigid's Doll" from door to door. After she showed them the figure and recited the following charm, islanders would give her food:

"Here comes Brigid,
Dressed in white.
Give her something
For the night.
She is deaf and
She is dumb.
For God's sake,
Give her some."

After collecting the food, the woman used her miniature model of a human figure to bless each person in the house. In the 1960s Messenger found small groups of island girls using the same kind of figure and method to extract candy money and alms for the church from island adults (Messenger 1983: 103).


I wonder: did Old Europeans actually feed and talk to their goddess figurines the way Vasilisa did? Use them to gain enough confidence to successfully pass through rigorous initiation rites? Did some use such figurines to elicit needed and/or desired items from their neighbors -- as the Inis Beag Islanders did? Did Old Europeans tote clay figurines around in their pockets and then lodge them at home in sacred wall niches overnight, or in other secret, private places? Or did they use images made of lighter and less fragile materials to carry out into the world, and leave the clay ones at home? Did they place figurines in certain locations where they felt the potential for evil lay, as Prince Danilla's sister did, in order to prevent that evil from happening? While we may never know for certain how prehistoric peoples interacted with their anthropomorphic figurines, the suggestions above certainly constitute a few interesting possibilities to mull over.


Afanas'ev, Aleksandr. 1973. Russian Fairy Tales. New York: Books.

Davidson, Hilda Ellis. 2003. "Helpers and Adversaries in Fairy Tales." In Davidson, Hilda Ellis and Anna Chaudhri, eds. A Companion to the Fairy Tale. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer. Pp. 99-122.

Dexter, Miriam. "Monstrous Goddess: The Degeneration of Ancient Bird and Snake Goddesses into Historic Age Witches and Monsters." 2011. The Journal of Archaeomythology Vol. 7, pp. 181-202. Accessed November 21, 2013

Gimbutas, Marija. 1989. The Civilization of the Goddess. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Gimbutas, Marija. 2001. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gottner-Abendroth, Heide. 1995. The Goddess and Her Heros. Stow, Massachusetts: Anthony Publishing Co.

Hubbs, Joanna. 1988. Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McIntosh, Jane. 2002. A Peaceful Realm: The Rise and Fall of the Indus Civilization. Boulder, Colorado and Oxford, UK: Westview Press.

Messenger, John. C. 1983. Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.

Studebaker, Jeri. 2008. Switching to Goddess: Humanity's Ticket to the Future. Hampshire, UK: O Books.