BMCR 1999.10.03

Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence

, , Ancient goddesses : the myths and the evidence. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. 224 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9780299163204. $22.95.

If, as Xenophanes observed, humans create gods in their own image (21B15 D-K) it seems curious that there is such sustained enthusiasm in modern times for an archetypal Mother Goddess. For unlike goddesses in Greek literature, the Mother Goddess does not think or speak or interact with other gods or humans. In what has been taken to be the authoritative book on the subject, Marija Gimbutas’ The Language of the Goddess, the female figures are shown sitting or standing, sometimes alone and sometimes flanked by infants or animals, remote from the world of other gods or adult humans.1 The Goddess is distinguished in these images not for her wit or moral strength or vengeful anger, but for her prominent breasts, gaping mouth, and her swollen belly, as if she were synonymous with her reproductive organs.

Nonetheless, this Goddess is celebrated in Wicca and in several New Age cults,2 as well as in a lively popular literature.3 The authors of books about the Goddess take it for granted that her existence has been confirmed by the discovery of prehistoric artifacts. Joseph Campbell, who is regarded many people in the U.S.A. as an authority on all ancient mythologies, stated that Gimbutas’ work provided a “lexicon of the pictorial script” of Goddess religion. According to Campbell, Goddess religion was an expression of “that primordial attempt on humanity’s part to understand and live in harmony with the beauty and wonder of Creation” in contrast to the story of creation in Genesis, and the “manipulated systems of the West”. As he saw it, rediscovery of her religion addressed the “need in our time for a general transformation of consciousness.”4

But could a religion that so precisely met the needs of the twentieth century C.E. have existed in the twentieth century B.C.E.? Certainly not in the form that Gimbutas, Campbell, or any of their predecessors imagined it. The present book shows why. Editors Lucy Goodison (University College, London) and Christine Morris (Trinity College, Dublin) explain in a brief, but informative introduction that in reality the Goddess is a recent creation, not of women in the distant past, as many of her enthusiasts suppose, but of male academics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The ktistes of her cult was of course J.J. Bachofen, but she had influential priests like C. G. Jung and Erich Neumann.5 Their theories influenced the work of prehistoric archaeologists, such as Sir Arthur Evans and James Mellaart. As the women movement gathered force, the notion of a prehistoric Mother Goddess was taken up earnestly even by academics like Gimbutas and historian Gerda Lerner.6 The moral sub-text of these works leant credibility to their arguments: most of the evils of the present-day world had been introduced as a result of the dominance of men.

By the 1960s archaeologists had begun to question the existence of the Goddess, in part because they saw what extravagant deductions were being made on the basis of a fragmentary body of material evidence. How (for example) was it possible to know what Cycladic figurines represented, in the absence of written evidence, and when there were no exact records of the proveniences in which the artifacts had been found? The authors of the essays in the book have reexamined the evidence “in areas where claims for the Goddess have been most insistent”. The result, as the editors put it, is a “revelation. Not of a single, fundamental pattern universally repeating itself, but of a picture of staggering diversity”. There are many different kinds and types of goddesses, but no Goddess. Here is a brief account of the some of the significant material in this detailed and extensively documented book.

1. “Rethinking Figurines.” Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey (both University of California, Berkeley) point out that very different assessments could be made of the materials discussed by Gimbutas: in most cases, nothing identifies a particular figure as divine. They see variation and diversity rather than the “language” or “pictorial script” that Gimbutas was able to construct from a careful selection of the surviving evidence. They emphasize the importance of context, and the difficulty of interpreting it. Why were so many houses burned in the Neolithic-Eneolithic period (5500-3500 B.C.E.)? Gimbutas blamed accident or invasion; but ritual may offer a more plausible explanation, signifying a symbolic destruction or even preservation of the house and the people, especially women, represented by figurines buried within it.

2. “Twin Peaks: The Archaeologies of Çatalhöyük.” Lynn Meskell (New College, Oxford) examines in some detail the findings of the two mounds for which the site is named. Although Mellaart identified female figurines as representations of the Goddess, he did not deduce from animal figurines that there were animal gods, or postulate from the many male figures found on the site that there was a “Great Father God”. Nor did he try to account for some puzzling combinations, both of animals and genders, including the famous seventh millennium B.C.E. female figurine often identified as the “Great Mother”. Her protuberant “breasts” may actually be animal heads. Meskell concludes that because of all these uncertainties, interpretations of Çatalhöyük probably tell us more about ourselves than about the past.

3. “Goddesses of the Ancient Near East: 3000-1000 BC.” Joan Goodnick Westenholz (Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem) begins with a useful discussion of the “filters” that color and distort our vision of the past: monotheism, the notion that only women worshiped goddesses, modern emphasis on sexuality, failure to recognize the complexities of ancient societies, and mistaken assumptions about gender: the Moon was male throughout the Near East. Another problem is that “the literary and visual evidence are neither complementary nor comparable”. Westenholz then provides a helpful overview of what we do know. Near Eastern goddesses performed many different functions, both public and private. Inanna-Ishtar has both feminine and masculine characteristics and a cult that involved transvestism; she is goddess of life and death, order and disorder. Some goddesses appear to threaten patriarchal values. For example, the Babylonian myth of the marriage of Harab (“Plow”) and Ki (“Earth”) might seem to advocate female subjugation; but Ki kills Harab in order to marry their son Shakkan, the cattle god.

4. “Goddesses in Early Israelite Religion.” Karel van der Toorn (University of Amsterdam) reminds us that Yahweh once had a consort. She was worshipped as Anat-Yahu (“Anat of Yahweh”) in the fifth-century temple at Elephantine in Egypt.7 “Queen of Heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18) is almost certainly one of her epithets. There are also inscriptions addressed to “Yahweh and his Asherah”, whom most scholars now think is a goddess rather than the wooden pole that was her symbol, and female figurines that may best be understood as her cult symbols. But unlike her Ugaritic counterparts Anat and Astarte, Yahweh’s consort is definitely subordinate to him. That may account for her popularity, because she could intercede with him, much as the Virgin Mary was believed to be able to do many centuries later.

5. “The Earliest Goddesses of Egypt.” According to Fekri A. Hassan (University College, London), it is possible to get from the complex portrait of Isis in Apuleius a sense of how Egyptian divinities merge into one another. She is at once both herself and Ceres, Minerva, etc.; in early Egypt Isis could be “cross-identified” with the goddesses Hathor, Neith, and Nut. But as Egypt became a single nation state with a national ruler, and agriculture developed, Egyptian goddesses were more closely associated with fertility in both life and death (since in ancient Egyptian religion death was the beginning of a new life). Even though males, both divine and human, had political power, female fertility and love were regarded as equally essential to existence.

6. “Beyond the ‘Great Mother’: The sacred world of the Minoans.” Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris point out that although figurines of females predominate, there are also male, un-gendered and animal figurines that must be taken account of. There is no reason to think that all female figurines placed in graves represent goddesses. Is the central female bird-faced figure flanked by two smaller similar figures on a clay Kamares-ware pedestal table from Phaistos a goddess or a woman dancer in a mask? Why not imagine the figurines known as “snake goddesses” as snake-holding priestesses? On the fresco from building “Xeste 3” at Akrotiri on the island of Thera real and supernatural creatures approach a goddess-like figure with offerings of saffron; but the scene could represent economic activity as well as religious ritual. Why suppose that all representations of divinity are anthropomorphic? Was there a cult of the sun as suggested by the orientation of tombs in Koumasa? The evidence of the post-palace period presents a different set of problems. All the figurines found are females with upraised arms, but according to the Linear B records from Knossos both male and female gods were worshiped, including local deities along with familiar names like Zeus, Poseidon, and Eileithyia.

7. “From Athena to Zeus: An A-Z Guide to the Origins of Greek Goddesses.” Mary E. Voyatzis (University of Arizona) addresses the question of disjunction between the archaeological and literary evidence. The content of the chapter is less comprehensive than Voyatzis’ title would suggest because she concentrates on evidence from Arcadia. The kind of votive offerings found at the sanctuary of Athena Alea at Tegea turn up in other sanctuaries, including those sacred to other gods. In many respects, the goddess Alea has more in common with Artemis than Athena, and the association with Athena probably dates from the eighth century at the earliest. Other ancient cults became affiliated with Panhellenic gods: Erinys (Demeter), Hippios (Poseidon), Despoina (Persephone) and began to take on their distinctive (and more restrictive) characteristics. We appear to have no real record of the wider range of powers attributed to earlier deities, such as Apollo, who was worshiped in the pre-polis period as kourotrophos.

8. “God or Goddess: The Temple Art of Ancient Malta.” Caroline Malone (New Hall, Cambridge) tackles the difficult problem of the figurines of Neolithic Malta found in ritual buildings and tombs. These obese figures are often regarded as the classic representations of the “Great Goddess,” but they could just as easily be male humans. A lack of individuality in these figurines is matched in burial practice, which is collective, not individual. Nothing suggests that ancient Maltese society was matristic or matrilineal, as Gimbutas maintained.

9. “A ‘Mother Goddess’ in North-West Europe c. 4200-2500 BC?” Elizabeth Shee Twohig (University College, Cork) takes on a problem even more difficult than the one considered in the previous essay since the evidence she considers comes from a wider range of both time and space. What is one to make of tomb drawings of animals and female figures, or of the large stone stelae known as menhirs, some of which are clearly female? Are they necessarily goddesses, as Neumann and Gimbutas believed?

10. “Some Gallo-British Goddesses: Iconography and Meaning.” Since early written accounts of Celtic religion are contaminated by Greco-Roman assumptions, Miranda J. Green (University of Wales College) concentrates on the archaeological evidence. Before Roman times representations of divinities were not anthropomorphic, and goddesses such as the horse-riding Epona appear to have been as important as gods. There was, as in early Greek religion, an important hunter-goddess and a symbiotic relationship between hunter and hunted. Sulis, the native goddess of the hot springs at modern Bath, later connected with the Roman Minerva, could cure as well as destroy. Green’s essay ends with an important reminder, which applies to every other essay in the book: in the absence of literary texts, it may never be possible fully to understand the nature of iron-age Gallo-British iconography.

I wish this book had existed ten years ago. It would have made the task of evaluating Gimbutas’ work much easier for those of us (i.e., most of us) who are not completely familiar with the wide range of materials and cultures she discusses.8 But now that this book does exist, it belongs in all university libraries. It not only offers an antidote to goddess-theory; it provides readers with the specific data they need to see why there are many other possible interpretations of the available evidence. Because the Editors and contributors have demonstrated so successfully the danger of trying to go beyond such limited evidence as we now have, no one can be disappointed at their reluctance to come up with final interpretations, or (goddesses forbid) a comprehensive theory.


1. Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989).

2. On Wicca and modern witchcraft, see T. M. Luhrmann, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual and Magic in Contemporary England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); Helen A. Berger, A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998).

3. For details, see esp. Lotte Motz, The Faces of the Goddess (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) 24-38, 179-86; Philip G. Davis, Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality (Dallas: Spence Publishing Co., 1998), pp. 19-52.

4. Joseph Campbell, “Foreword”, to Gimbutas (n.1), pp. xiii-xiv. Lucy Goodison’s own Moving Heaven and Earth: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Social Change (London: Pandora Press, 1992) advocates spiritual renewal, but she carefully explains that there was never one Goddess, pp. 294-300.

5. The editors might also have mentioned the influential speculations of Robert Graves in The White Goddess, first published in 1948 and still in print.

6. On the uncritical enthusiasm with which some female academics received Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), see my “Feminist Myths and Greek Mythology”, TLS July 22-28 (1989), pp. 804-5.

7. On the fate of this cult, see Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 122-35.

8. I reviewed Gimbutas (n.1) and several other books about the Goddess and goddesses in “The Twilight of the Goddess,” The New Republic 8/3 (1992): 29-33.