Cristina Biaggi, Ph.D
According to archaeological, mythological and anthropological evidence, the Great Goddess was probably the principal deity worshipped along the Mediterranean, in Europe, the Near East, much of Russia, North Africa, India and even parts of China during the Upper Paleolithic (30,000-10,000 BCE) and in the Neolithic (roughly 7,000 to 2,500 BPE). The Goddess was still present in the Bronze Age but with the rise of the "big" kingdoms, She became subsumed in their general pantheons, acquired different names and was either conquered, raped or married off to various newly emergent and vigorous gods (Tiamat and Marduk in Mesopotamia and Hera and Zeus in Greece immediately spring to mind). Recently, due to the women’s movement and to the growing attention to woman’s place in history, the Goddess has made a comeback. There seems to be a need to see the Goddess as an embodiment of the feminine sensibility, contained in both sexes, in this era where the negative fruits of patriarchy are glaringly apparent.
Why a Goddess and not a God? We glean from Anthropological analogy, and anyone who has been involved with the birth of a child or a puppy or anything else will know, that Motherhood of humans and animals is considered a great mystery, a holy event. This was no doubt true in the Paleolithic. The growth of the baby in the womb was a marvelous magical event. Woman’s monthly bleeding, unconnected with violence or death, but instead keeping time with the waxing and waning of the moon gave woman a cosmic connection – made her appear beyond time and space. The overwhelming representations from the Paleolithic suggest Her importance and point to a female numinous power. From the great number of female figurines and the cave paintings of animals connecting women with them in a transformative manner, we can assume that the first deity that was worshipped by our Paleolithic forebears was female.
The Goddess was the personification of the reproductive energies of nature – birth, death, fertility and motherhood. She was also a cosmic sky goddess having created everything from Herself and containing all the generative possibilities of transformation within herself. She was gynandrous – She contained both feminine and masculine attributes – a vagina and a penis. Her appellations in various societies include Divine Ancestress, Mistress of Animals, Fire Mother, Sky Goddess etc. Since Her worship existed before written records, the evidence of Her religion can be found only from an examination of the artifacts, from the mythology of the cultures in question. Ancient peoples worshipped a female divinity who personified the creative and protective powers, which were thought to be most highly concentrated in woman. Although in each culture this Goddess had a different name, she seems to have been the same deity, born of similar needs. Her epithet, Great Goddess, was used by Her worshippers in addition to Her local name to suggest Her universal nature.
How can it be surmised that Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples, separated by vast geographical distance and spans used the appellation Great Goddess to invoke their deity? A conjecture can be made from three types of evidence: an examination of primary sources – writings by Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Mesopotamian authors who speak about an archaic universal Great Goddess who preceded the other deities, the archaeological record, mythology, and anthropological analogy.
The term Mother Goddess or Great Mother derives from the syncretistic Magna Mater of the Near and Middle East whose cult emerged and became important during the Graeco-Roman period. References to a Mother Goddess are a feature from the earliest historic time to the present day. Her religion acquired a mystical and theological content in Christendom. She became the Mater Ecclesia and the Virgin Mary.
Working independently, nineteenth-century archaeologists unearthed many prehistoric figurines, which they interpreted as representations of the Great Goddess. Support for this conclusion came from ancient sources and from the mythology of the cultures they were researching. This interpretation immediately acquired its fervent supporters and its passionate adversaries. A controversy was born that proved to have far reaching political, sociological and psychological overtones. The Great Goddess became a sociological concept linked with the battle between matriarchy and patriarchy. During the last four decades, feminism has intensified the emotionalism of this issue, causing a counter reaction just as emotional, although not as overt.
The discovery of America and the subsequent period of intense exploration gave birth to a growing interest in exotic societies. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this interest was intensified by spectacular archaeological discoveries. Contact with people in newly “discovered” lands caused European thinkers to question the axioms on which their societies were founded, e.g., that patriarchy and male dominated religion had been accepted as the norm was brought into question. The first field archaeologist to speak about matriarchy was Joseph Lafitau, a missionary who worked among the Iroquois of Canada. In 1724 he published a paper eulogizing the spiritual, social, and practical superiority of the Iroquois women. The Swiss jurist J.J. Bachofen and the English anthropologist James Frazer were influenced by the work of Lafitau. Then came Jane Harrison, Robert Briffault, and many others, all more or less subscribing to the theory concerning the prevalence and influence of a great Goddess in ancient times. During the early part of the Twentieth century there were a number of important thinkers and archaeologists who subscribed to the Great Goddess. However within the last 40 years some brilliant and original scholars have emerged who have seriously challenged the Great Goddess theory. Among these are the archaeologists Peter J. Ucko and Sir Colin Renfrew. Armed with revised information from the new radiocarbon dating technique, they have systematically reviewed the evidence and concluded that there is very little proof for the prevalence of a Great Goddess except in specific places during historic times. These archaeologists have influenced a whole new generation of scholars who do not believe in the existence of a Great Goddess. In fact it is considered bad form and can even be detrimental to one academically to mention or to even allude to a Great Goddess. The only respected and internationally known archaeologists who believe in a Great Goddess are the late Marija Gimbutas and James Mellaart of Catal Hüyük fame and possibly the late Jacquetta Hawkes.
The fact remains that the archaeological record from the Paleolithic and early Neolithic supports a female deity. Representations of female images, many with numinous characteristics, far exceed that of male images during those periods. The fact also remains that the earliest myths in much of Europe and Asia feature the prevalence of a powerful female character.
Over 1,000 figurines, reliefs and sculptures of female images (and more are being found all the time in all parts of the world) from the Paleolithic have been found in caves and habitation sites extending from Europe to Asia. There are some male portraits in caves (as at La Marche in France) but no mobiliary male figures that I am aware of; very few penises but many vulvas. There are many different types of female figures found throughout Europe and Asia. They are made of stone and bone and range vastly in size. Some are realistic and some are more abstract. Some are slim and some ample. Some representations show merely the parts of woman such as the vulva disks from Brno in Moravia, or the breast images from various parts of France.
Perhaps different images related to different functions and meanings of the Goddess and to women in general. Some images are small and were meant to be worn around the neck probably in a prophylactic capacity, to insure health or to ward off evil influences. The figures with large breasts which they cup with their hands could relate to the nurturing aspect of the Goddess.
The mythic connection between woman and animal is represented in a number of images from the Paleolithic. Two of these images are the life-sized figures from the La Madeleine cave in France. These relief figures are almost life size and depict female figures reclining naturalistically. One figure has an animal lying at her feet. There is the suggestion here that she is displaying her power over animals as the mistress of the hunt. The cult of the animals was not only concerned with their killing but with their resurrection as well. The worship of the animal was not only transference to an image, but to different parts of its body as well, which in the eyes of Paleolithic humans, signified a particular strength. This attitude, killing animals in order to eat but with reverence, has also been observed in the present era among Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert in Africa and among the Aborigines of Australia.
The above musings concerning the depiction of female images in the Paleolithic are extremely abbreviated in the interest of space. Much more could be said about the role of the Goddess and her depictions during the early Prehistoric period in a subsequent article.
The evidence for the Great Goddess during the Neolithic is vast and has been recovered from sites throughout Europe and Asia. As Gimbutas says, “The Neolithic IS the Goddess.” The connecting link between the Paleolithic cultures and those of the Neolithic are the female figures. The sculptures of the Paleolithic cultures and those of the Neolithic ones are remarkably similar in material, size and style. Many of these images of the Goddess and her religion have been found in Neolithic sites from the 7th millennium onward. Although these images might seem different at first they have common characteristics: there is some indication of their sex, they are depicted in a frontal stance and the clothed figures have a necklace and sometimes a belt and a headdress. There are male figures in the Neolithic but the vast majority are female. Three types are distinguishable: 1) realistic nude, 2) clothed and 3) schematic representations. All were being produced at the same time.
Besides being the goddess of death, rebirth, the cosmic Goddess connecting heaven and earth, mistress of animals and of the hunt, and the ancestress from the Paleolithic, the Goddess now became the Goddess of agriculture. She was gynandrous, and according to Gimbutas she was “the product of a sedentary matrilinear community, encompassing the archetypal unity and multiplicity of feminine nature.” At first the Goddess reigned alone, and then She acquired a son or brother who, with time, became Her husband. This youth was known as Tammuz, Osiris, Balder, Attis and Baal in different parts of the world. His yearly death became symbolic of the yearly death and rebirth of vegetation and the crops. The earlier myth of Demeter and Persephone was a precursor of this mother-son myth and depicted one aspect of the Goddess Persephone whose sojourn in Hades was a metaphor for planting, growth underground and the emergence of the seed into plants above ground.
At some point during the Neolithic the peaceful egalitarian societies that had been prevalent throughout the world changed. This change occurred more violently in areas such as Europe and emerged more gradually in others, as in China, but it did occur in most areas of the world. With some exceptions, the change from peaceful egalitarian societies to patriarchy occurred during the Neolithic period, and it was probably propelled by a number of factors – environmental, material, psychological and spiritual. The archaeologist Marija Gimbutas is widely recognized for her revolutionary “Kurgan theory”. According to this theory, archaeological evidence shows that around the middle of the 5th millennium the peaceful agricultural communities of Old Europe (southeastern Europe around the Black sea) were invaded by non-indigenous people we now know as Indo-European or Kurgan. Recently, geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza confirmed Gimbutas’ theory with his findings that there was indeed a mixing of different biological types in that part of Europe at that time.
The invasions were not a single major event but a series of three events – maybe migrations at first and then downright destructive invasions subsequently- that lasted from 4400 to 2800 BCE. At the end of this time Europe was totally changed and patriarchy as a social system was in place throughout Europe. Before these invasions the Neolithic societies in Europe seemed to be peaceful and egalitarian; after the invasions stratified societies and kingdoms were in place.
Two themes in the mythologies of Europe and Asia suggest and support such an event: one was a battle between a male god and a female goddess who sometimes appeared in the shape of a giant snake or dragon; the other theme was that of the procreating god. These two themes recurred, in one form or another, in Eurasian mythology. The male god fought the Goddess, defeated Her, and took over Her powers including the ability to give birth. Sometimes the takeover was dramatic and sometimes Her displacement was gradual, with the Goddess retaining Her power but changing Her outlook to conform with the new patriarchally oriented society, as in the case of Athena. Following are some examples.
In India the Goddess Danu fought against her son Indra; in Greece Zeus fought Typhon and Apollo killed Python and took over the Delphic oracle. In Christian mythology St. George fought and killed the Dragon and Adam, Eve were deceived and ruined by the serpent. Included under the theme of the birth-giving god was Zeus who gave birth to Athena from his head and Dionysus from his thigh. Aphrodite was born from the severed phallus of Uranus bobbing in the Aegean Sea after it had been chopped off by Cronus. Yaweh formed Adam out of ashes (or dust) and then made Eve from Adam’s rib.
Anthropological evidence for the Great Goddess in prehistoric times is indirectly found in vestiges and customs known to have been prevalent in Europe and Asia during historic times. In many parts of the world we find traditions which suggest that religious functions, now exercised by men, were formerly the prerogative of women. One of these traditions involved ritual attire. The adoption of female dress by male shamans and priests is a worldwide phenomenon. Furthermore in certain so-called primitive societies the assumption of women’s customs by men went even further. The couvade – or imitation by a man of a woman in labor – is a good example.
During the Bronze Age, the Goddess lost Her powers and became absorbed into the various regional hierarchical polytheistic beliefs. In certain areas She lingered in the form of strong local deities such as Isis who became powerful in Egypt and around the Mediterranean. Later on, with Christianity, the strong desire for a feminine deity surfaced in the guise of a strong belief in the Virgin Mary in Europe and in lands bordering the Mediterranean. The witches of the Middle Ages right up until the Nineteenth Century represented in part the lingering and needed belief in an alternative strong female deity and in Her accompanying rituals. And so, the Goddess lingered on, despite the persecution of Her believers, until the 21stth century. With the new consciousness of the Sixties and the feminist movement in the 20th century, overt interest in the Goddess surfaced again. The interest in Her is many leveled and varied and has become more powerful lately especially in the Western world but in other parts of the world as well. There are those who are interested in Her archaeological manifestations, or interested in Her symbolically, or as a metaphor or a combination thereof.
The Great Goddess and women spirituality is making a comeback these days. At this point a multitude of books both scholarly and popular about the Goddess can be found in many libraries and bookstores in the west. In such recent best sellers as Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code the Goddess is a principal character. This is heartening. Maybe this new interest in women’s spirituality and in the Great Goddess will help in the needed shift from patriarchy to a more egalitarian social and spiritual climate.
©Cristina Biaggi, October 5, 2006