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Marija Gimbutas:
A Memorial Appreciation.

The distinguished archaeologist Marija Gimbutas died on February 2nd 1994 just after her seventy-third birthday. She had been fighting against cancer for many years, completing some of her published books during this time.

She was born in Lithuania, where she took her first degree, obtaining her Ph.D. in Germany in 1946. She emigrated to the USA in 1955, holding various appointments. She became Professor of European archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1963, a post she held until her retirement. She was author (or editor) of more than twenty books, and over two hundred articles. She was one of the four editors of the Journal of Indo-European Studies. Most of her books were specialist texts in archaeology. Her first two books for the general reader (in the series “Ancient Peoples and Places”) were The Balts (1963) and The Slavs (1971). But she is best known for her three great books, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974,1982), The Language of the Goddess (1989), and  (1991).

Her views on the nature of the pre-Indo-European civilisations, which she regarded as Goddess-centred, matrifocal, and peaceful, in contrast to the patriarchal Indo-Europeans, won her much acclaim among the general public. Some of those who have been influenced by her thinking seem not to have read any archaeological books except hers, and, indeed, may only have come across her work in popularisations such as Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade. As Gimbutas tends to refer to her conclusions as if they were established fact (a fault she shares with very many other scholars), people often assume that her views are definitive.

In response to this, some scholars who are not themselves archaeologists have tended to dismiss her findings as if they were untenable, again without looking at the literature.

I have felt for some time that, because of these opposing tendencies, it is now necessary for someone to produce a critical appreciation of her work for non-specialists. This should indicate which of her work is accepted by her colleagues, which is controversial (and whether controversy is usual in those areas), and which is rejected. It should also consider whether the rejection of part of her work comes because it is unsound or whether her vision is deeper than that of her colleagues. To do this would be a major task. (After a few weeks’ work I already have a selection of relevant quotations which is over seven pages long; and there are many important topics I have not yet even dipped into, such as the relationship between the history of religion and its prehistory, and nomadism and pastoralism.) This current article is a very preliminary attempt at such an appreciation. For brevity, I do not indicate the sources of quotations I make, but I will be happy to supply detailed references to anyone who wants. Anyone wanting to make their own assessment, whether favourable or otherwise, of her work and her status should certainly read Renfrew’s Archaeology and Language and Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans, both of which are easily available and intended for a general readership. For a wider account, look at Margaret Ehrenberg’s Women in Prehistory, particularly interesting (and sometimes infuriating) because she does not speculate, and so has to say repeatedly that evidence permits more than one interpretation.

Old Europe and the Indo-Europeans

In her books and articles, she particularly discusses the archaeology of the Balkans and south-east Europe, primarily between 6500 and 3500 BCE, including sites she herself excavated. From excavation of burial sites, and other evidence, she shows that this agricultural society, which she refers to as “Old Europe” (although at times she uses this phrase to cover larger areas of Europe before the Indo-Europeans), was egalitarian and women and men had equal status. By contrast, the neighbouring Kurgan culture (the name comes from the burial barrows, for which the Russian name is kurgan) is pastoral, patriarchal, and ranked. Most of this work is accepted by her colleagues.

It has been said that “History begins at Sumer”. As the distinction between history and pre-history is the invention of writing, and the first known writing comes from there, this is broadly speaking true. But it had also been thought that civilisation began in the Near East, with such cities as Jericho and Sumer. Her work shows the rich culture (as shown by pottery, figurines, and other archaeological remains) of Old Europe, and amply justifies her claim that this should be called a civilisation, and not just a culture.

Her other major academic contribution is to the identification of the original Indo-Europeans. In 1796 Sir William Jones remarked that “No philologer could examine the Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin without believing them to have sprung from a common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists”. This insight was later extended, and it is seen that most European languages, together with Hindi, Iranian, and many others, all spring from such a common source. By investigating the process of changes in pronunciation of words in different languages, and by other means, linguists have identified many words in this lost language, which is referred to as ‘Indo-European’.

From looking at the words of this early language, one can gain some idea of the culture of its speakers. But it is also necessary to look at the archaeological record to see how this compares, and whether, using both methods, one can determine where the original Indo-Europeans were located. There have been great debates over this, and it sometimes seems that there are almost as many opinions as there are interested scholars. However Gimbutas’s view, that the Kurgan people are the original Indo-Europeans, is still the most widely accepted one. In the course of time, the Old European civilisation became ‘kurganised’. This is generally accepted, but the reason it happened is unclear. Gimbutas refers to the incursions (a less specific word than ‘invasions’) of warlike Kurgan people on horseback as the cause. But this idea of mounted warriors is rather doubtful (especially if parallels are drawn with the Scythians or Huns of history). The horse was certainly domesticated at this time, and was used for milk and meat, and, probably, as a traction animal. It may have been ridden, but the evidence is not clear. There is no evidence that the horse was used in war until at least a thousand years after the end of the period Gimbutas is considering; even then, this involved chariot-fighting, with mounted warriors only being known at a later period still. However, it might well be that warriors fighting on foot, but using horses to travel quickly between one place and another, would have an advantage over those without horses. If this happened, one would not expect to find evidence in the archaeological record.

We can ask, more generally, if this kurganisation occurred as the result of migrations of the Kurgan people, and, if so, whether this involved mass movements or only the movement of conquering warriors; or whether there was a cause other than migrations. Similar questions are asked about the spread of languages. Migrations have certainly occurred in historical times, and there is no reason to claim that they did not occur in prehistory. But migrations leave little trace in the record, unless changes in burial patterns and similar activities are regarded as evidence. Fashions in archaeology change, as they do in other matters, and old and rejected fashions may become popular again. It used to be the fashion to ascribe all changes in material culture to migration, but views have now changed. (The old notion of the ‘Beaker People’ is not generally accepted at present; some people would say that evidence used to claim they existed would, by the same process, cause an archaeologist of the future to refer to the ‘Coca-Cola People’ of the present day, and their migration into Eastern Europe!) Certainly one needs to look at other explanations to see how well they fit.

Changes in climate, which seem to have occurred, might have tended to make people move from agriculture to a more pastoral society. This, and other changes, “would tend to enhance the male role in the productive economy. This, in turn, would effect a series of social changes which would influence inheritance systems and might promote patrilineality, clan associations, warfare, and a diminution of the status of the female in society, craft production and, possibly, religious ritual such as that so often expressed in Southeast Europe figurines. All of this might suggest that local processes may, in fact, have stimulated the creation of a society that matches our expectation of the Indo-Europeans. Nevertheless, when the steppe culture both reflects the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary for these economic, technological and social changes, and offers substantial evidence for the introduction of the domestic horse, larger woolly sheep as well as, possibly, wheeled vehicles into the Balkans, we can hardly dismiss their presence as merely coincidental.” (Mallory, p.242)

The Language of the Goddess

I turn now to the three great books. When Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe first appeared, in 1974, its title was changed at the demand of the publishers to Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, and the original title was only restored when it was reprinted in 1982. This book first showed us how rich the culture of Old Europe was — in particular, how many female figurines, probably images of deities, were found there. In its time it was both a revolution and a revelation. But to some extent it has now been superseded by the later books, which include magnificent illustrations as well as detailed text. All three books are a great resource for anyone interested in Neolithic societies, their cultures and religions.

The Language of the Goddess claims to explain the meaning and purpose of the figurines, and of the marks inscribed on them. Gimbutas convinces me, and, I think, would convince many others including some of her colleagues, that the inscribed marks are not mere decoration but do have a symbolic meaning. She also convinces me that some of the marks are an early script. She claims that “Symbols and images cluster around the parthenogenetic (self-generating) Goddess and her basic functions as Giver of Life, Wielder of Death, and, not less importantly, as Regeneratrix, and around the Earth Mother, the fertility Goddess young and old, rising and dying with plant life. She was the single source of all life who took her energy from the springs and wells, from the sun, moon, and moist earth.” The different types of figurines and inscriptions represent different aspects of this Goddess.

In describing the methods she uses to reach her conclusions, she says that “It is necessary to widen the scope of descriptive archaeology into interdisciplinary research. For this work I lean heavily on comparative mythology, early historical sources, and linguistics as well as on folklore and historical ethnography.” Her colleagues would mostly not agree with her on this, but I think this is because they do not have the depth and breadth of knowledge to follow her lead. However, though I am sure that this interdisciplinary approach is the way forward, I think her interpretations are very much open to question even on her own terms.

We cannot hope to understand prehistoric religion in enough detail to provide definitive interpretations. We will have to rely on analogy and intuition, as Gimbutas does, but to convince others we must give some indication of what analogies we are using, and why our intuition has led us in one direction rather than another. For instance, Dorothy Cameron (who was part of the excavation team at Catal Hoyuk) remarked that one reason why the bull was a favourite animal of the Goddess is that a bull’s head and horns looks remarkably like a uterus with the fallopian tubes. In support of this, it was explained why it was quite probable (contrary to many people’s thoughts) that the people of the time would know what the uterus looks like. But in the end, this likeness is either apparent to one or it is not, and no proof can be given.

In attempting to understand the meaning of images, it is legitimate to make comparisons with other uses of similar motifs from other times and places. Such comparisons may be helpful, but similar symbols can be used in very different ways, and so comparisons can also be misleading. It is more satisfactory if one can trace the use of a symbol through the centuries, preferably in the same area. Some studies of this kind have been made, but Gimbutas does not make them. Her insights may well be correct, but it would be a massive amount of work, enough for many Ph.D. theses, before one can say that they are soundly established.

In any discussion of Gimbutas’s use of symbols, however, we should remember that she is a Lithuanian. Lithuania was christianised very late, not till the end of the 14th century; even then, it was mostly the upper classes who became Christian, with Christianity only being accepted generally two hundred years later. And so pagan survivals in folk song (of which there are more than 500,000 in the archives) and folk customs are much more widespread that in Western Europe and the USA. For instance, before Christianity, household snakes were common. Her connection of bears with a goddess of childbirth parallels local attitudes to bears and birth. She says that “In some nooks of Europe, as in my own motherland, Lithuania, there still flow sacred and miraculous rivers and springs; there flourish holy forests and groves, reservoirs of blossoming life; there grow gnarled trees bursting with vitality and holding the power to heal; and beside the holy waters there still stand menhirs, called ‘goddesses’, full of mysterious power.”

In her interpretation of the figurines she may go beyond the evidence. But this is better than the ignoring of the evidence shown by the scholar who remarked that “Those V-inscribed Balkan figurines may be related to some sort of a fertility exercise, but to design a Great Goddess to accommodate them is mere wishful thinking.” A more cautious scholar accepts part of her arguments, and says that “While Gimbutas’s detailed interpretations of decorative motifs, figurines, and ornaments can be criticised on the grounds of ethnocentricity and the unproven assumption of direct religious continuity from the Neolithic to the present, her insight may be correct insofar as myths and seasonal dramas could have been enacted through the medium of the figurines, each miniature sculpture with a different role in public or private ceremonies, and intended for the invocation of appropriate deities.”

The Civilisation of the Goddess

In The Civilisation of the Goddess Gimbutas presents the results of her work on the civilisation of Old Europe, and the nearby Kurgan culture and the relations between the two; her distinction between peaceful matrifocal societies and the patriarchal Indo-Europeans, already looked at, came as a revelation to many of us. This is her most important book, solidly based on her own excavations (as well as that of others), and the material given here has changed the way we look at these ancient societies.

She also looks at other societies, such as Malta, Crete, and Catal Hoyuk, for which she has to rely on the work of others. She tends to treat all these cultures as aspects of the same civilisation, which is questionable in view of their distances apart in time and space. However, they all had goddesses as primary deities, and women had high status. Crete is often regarded as a golden age of goddess-based culture. Certainly women were prominent in society, which was mostly peaceful (perhaps because of being on an island), and the main deity was a goddess. The “Mistress of the labyrinth” appears to be a form of the Great Goddess. However the society does not appear to be egalitarian — differences in rank do seem to be noticeable. Also the Cretan period to which most attention has been paid is at least a thousand years after the decline of Old Europe, and what is known about the religion of the intervening period does not indicate a continuity.

Malta, too, had temples to a female deity, built towards the later part of the Old European period. The prime deity was again a goddess and many people believe that the temples were built in the shape of the body of the Goddess. This remains in dispute, but enough scholars support this view for it to be academically respectable — once again, one either sees this similarity or one does not.

Catal Hoyuk in Anatolia (Turkey) comes from a much earlier period, at the same time as the beginning of Old Europe. This site shows the difficulties archaeologists face in their work. The many conclusions drawn from there are based on the excavation of only one acre out of thirty! Again, the religion seems to be based around a goddess, and many of the related symbols are close to those found in Old Europe.

One Goddess or many goddesses?

There are always problems in referring to ‘the Goddess’. Frequently, female deities are seen in different forms and fulfilling different functions. Are they fundamentally different deities, related but distinct deities, or aspects of one ‘Great Goddess’? The evidence in prehistory cannot tell us, and it is always possible that assimilating all the deities into a Great Goddess was not part of the ideas of prehistoric people, but owes most to the monotheising effects of Judaism and Christianity.

Further, even if a Great Goddess is found in many cultures at the same time, is there any reason to assume that they are all aspects of one universal Great Goddess? Current archaeological fashion says no, and has said so since the work of Ucko and Fleming in the late 1960s. But their work does not (though it is alleged to) refute the possibility of such a deity; rather, they show that the evidence produced in support of this idea can as well be interpreted in other ways. Also, they persistently refer to the “Great Mother” or “Mother Goddess”. This seems to me to owe a lot to Jungian ideas, and a Great Goddess who has aspects other than motherhood is a very different being from the one they refer to. Gimbutas is not the only archaeologist who sees the female deities of different times and places as being aspects of one Great Goddess; Mellaart, the excavator of Catal Hoyuk, in his recent work, has the same viewpoint.

Perhaps one of her colleagues, the English archaeologist Colin Renfrew, should be allowed the last words in assessing the life and work of Marija Gimbutas. They come from his obituary of her in the Independent (23rd February 1994), which I recommend to anyone interested in her work. “[Her views] will be debated for years by specialists, and [her books] have also given a wider public a new insight into the richness and diversity of earlier societies in Europe and a vision of a spirituality different from that of our own Indo-European society.”

Wood and Water 46, Spring 1994
© Daniel Cohen

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