BMCR 1999.10.05

The Living Goddesses

, , The living goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. xx, 286 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780520213937 $35.00.

A Goddess’s work is never done. Even the Internet is now protected by a deity — the Net Goddess’ Page — guarding against quakes, viruses, and stalled links, and granting continuous connections and fast-loading pages. As millennium fever heats up, the Goddess is surfacing, perhaps predictably, with renewed vigor in every conceivable venue.1 A few minutes surfing the Net produces hundreds of “Goddess” entries ranging from scholarly articles, lectures, course syllabi, and videos, to Goddess aromatherapy, “spiritual stencils” for furniture, walls, and fabrics, and pilgrimages to Goddess sites.2

The archaeologist most closely linked with the “Goddess Movement” is indisputably Marija Gimbutas, whose prodigious publication record includes three major books on the Goddesses of Neolithic Europe and the Mediterranean: The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (1974), tellingly renamed and reissued as The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1982); The Language of the Goddess (1989); and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991). Anyone familiar with these books knows that they have never rested comfortably on the shelves of academia. Although Gimbutas’s beliefs in an early matrilineal/focal society throughout what she terms “Old Europe” (Pre-Indo-European culture) have been embraced by many grassroots feminists as the authoritative scholarly voice on the topic, her reception among academic archaeologists has been less than favorable, running the gamut from apathy and annoyance to disdain and bitter controversy.

The Living Goddesses, Gimbutas’s last book, was close to completion at the time of her death in 1994. Miriam Robbins Dexter, Lecturer in the Programs of Women’s Studies at UCLA and Liberal Arts at Antioch University undertook the formidable task of editing and supplementing the manuscript. As Dexter informs us in the book’s preface, Gimbutas had reworked the first chapters more carefully than the final ones, and although she had planned extensive illustrations for the second half, none had been chosen at the time of Gimbutas’s death. While Dexter has done an admirable job editing and shaping the manuscript, the book, inevitably, suffers from some unevenness. The central problem rests, however, not with the editing. Unfortunately, The Living Goddesses is a single-minded, essentializing, and largely unrigorous sweep through the mythology and folklore of prehistoric, historic, and modern Europe and the Mediterranean. As in much of Gimbutas’s earlier work, the book raises intriguing questions but provides answers that are often unsatisfying and oversimplified, creating dichotomies that are more imagined than real. The weight of examples rather than carefully constructed arguments serves to buoy assertions. Like her other Goddess books, this one also has the feel of a museum display — the “text as label” is more descriptive than analytic.

The main thesis of this book is one Gimbutas has presented before: beginning around 4,000 BCE the “Kurgans,” who Gimbutas describes as a patrilineal, patrilocal, militaristic, and seminomadic group originating in the steppes of Russia, embarked on a series of invasions or migrations across Europe that radically transformed the region’s language and material culture. The “Kurgan” incursions displaced the earlier, indigenous Goddess-focused, egalitarian, earth-centered societies of the Neolithic, but vestiges of this gynocentric culture managed to survive. The first half of the book limns the outlines of Neolithic religion and cultures, while the second half details those traits of the Goddess culture that persisted into later times. Nearly every aspect of Gimbutas’s thesis — from the “Kurgan” invasion to the notion that Neolithic societies were egalitarian and matrifocal — is, however, far from a given in the field of prehistoric archaeology.

The Living Goddesses is divided into two parts: “Religion in Prepatriarchal Europe” and “The Living Goddesses”. Part One, largely a summation of Gimbutas’s earlier works, focuses on evidence for the religion and social organization in Upper Palaeolithic/Neolithic “Old Europe.” The six chapters contained in this part include: Images of Goddesses and Gods; Symbols, Signs, and Sacred Script; The Tomb and the Womb; Temples; Sacred Stone and Wood Ceremonial Centers; and Matrilineal Social Structure as Mirrored in Religion and Myth. Part Two takes a step forward in time, looking at the relics of the Goddess religion in post-Neolithic Europe. The net is cast wide, gathering in its catchment Bronze Age and Classical Greece, Etruscan traditions, and more recent manifestations in Basque, Celtic, Germanic, and Baltic mythology. Although Gimbutas had an enduring interest in modern folklore, she published only rarely on the topic. Part Two, therefore, is a departure from her previous publications and is, indeed, filled with intriguing information.

The book does not contain a traditional conclusion, ending rather with a discussion of Baltic mythology and folklore. Gimbutas considered the Balts the “last pagans of Europe,” (197) whose wealth of songs, tales, riddles, charms, and rituals represented the world’s greatest repository of “Old European” beliefs and traditions. Indeed, many of Gimbutas’s ideas about ancient religion and the Goddess derive from extensive knowledge, accumulated since her childhood, of Lithuanian and Latvian folklore. While the ultimate chapter does not serve as an adequate last act for such a broad-ranging book, it is, as Dexter observes in the editorial afterword, a fitting end for Gimbutas’s last book.

Chapter One provides the book’s mise-en-scène, describing the preoccupations in “Old Europe” with the cycle of “birth, nurturing, growth, death, and regeneration,” (3) and the multiple manifestations the Goddess adopts during these various cyclical phases. Since Gimbutas has often been misrepresented as suggesting that most Neolithic figurines, especially naked females, are fertility images, the chapter is, to some extent, an attempt to correct that perception. For Gimbutas, early figurines — be they anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, or abstract — embody more than fertility. They reflect a “feminine force,” refracted into a “shifting kaleidoscope of meaning” (5). Within that kaleidoscope are five basic categories: life-giving images; life-sustaining portrayals; vegetation goddesses and gods; images of death and decay; and representations associated with regeneration. Subsumed under each category are specific kinds of symbols. For example, frogs, fish, hedgehogs, bucrania, phalli, and triangles are all part of the regenerative repertoire. Gimbutas has discussed these categories and examples before, and I, for one, have never been able to decipher precisely how she arrived at her typology. Just because a triangle schematically mimics the female pubic region, or a hedgehog resembles a uterus (!), or dogs are allied with death in Classical mythology, it is hardly justifiable to associate all these images with “the formidable goddess of regeneration” (39). While Gimbutas could well be correct about a pantheon of deities, her initial chapter is far from convincing. It reads, in fact, more like a testament of faith than a well-conceived thesis.

Chapter Two, explores the “language” of the Goddess, examining the frequent appearance of abstract symbols and signs — such as X’s, V’s, O’s, and meanders — on both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines as well as on pottery and seals. Gimbutas has dealt with this topic more extensively in an earlier book, and this chapter is a digest of her “alphabet of the metaphysical.” In principle, the idea that these signs are not random but may reflect a proto-literate “symbolic script” is intriguing, as is Gimbutas’s idea that certain signs are repeatedly linked with specific types of figurines. In the final analysis, however, she fails to convince the reader about the specifics of her decipherment. The chapter contains too many unwarranted assertions (e.g., M-signs are abstract versions of frog legs and therefore linked to regeneration [46]). These assertions undermine the fundamental value of her concept about the early appearance of primitive scripts.

In Chapters Three, Four, and Five, Gimbutas turns her attention to the substantial range of built and created structures found in “Old Europe,” including tombs, temples, roundels, henges, and a variety of other enclosures. While Gimbutas’s range of knowledge is impressive, she seems to suggest that the entire built environment of “Old Europe” was sacred and must be seen through the filter of the Goddess. Circular tombs are viewed as symbolically equivalent to the womb, the curved lines of Maltese temples become the body of the Goddess, the triangular-shaped (read pubic-shaped) shrines at Lepenski Vir emerge as grand abstractions of the Goddess, and tomb dromoi are turned into evocations of the female birth canal. Although ethnographic reports provide archaeologists with ample evidence that architecture can indeed be anthropomorphized and highly symbolic in nonindustrialized societies, there is no evidence to warrant the kinds of sweeping, homogenized visions that Gimbutas proposes. Even if she could be proved correct, the kind of supralocal mythologies Gimbutas discusses demand complex and nuanced explanations about why and how certain beliefs and their particular manifestations in material culture can endure over such expanses of time and space. Other critics of her work have been troubled by her readiness to assume, rather than question, that a basic symbolic matrix can remain essentially intact over so many millennia.3

In Chapter Six, the final section of Part One, Gimbutas discusses the putative matrilineal social structure of “Old Europe.” This is perhaps the least satisfactory chapter in the book from an archaeologist’s point of view, but one that I suspect will be embraced by various groups in popular culture who continue to seek scholarly legitimation for an alleged “Golden Age” of women. Reconstructing social organization and structures from archaeological evidence is notoriously difficult, and Gimbutas’s reasoning is anything but compelling. Near the beginning of the chapter she proffers the (unsupportable) statement that “[g]iven Neolithic religious symbolism, it is extremely difficult to imagine that Old European society would not be matrilineal, with the mother or grandmother venerated as progenitor of the family” (113). The data that might shed light on social structure from this time period are endlessly fascinating, and to Gimbutas’s credit she brings together a range of evidence, though admittedly in a random fashion. She seems to suffer, however, from the misconception that archaeologists can erect simple bridges between the possible social organization of a culture and its symbolic system.

Part Two covers Minoan Crete, Mycenaean through Classical Greece, Etruscan, Basque, Celtic, Germanic (mainly Scandinavian), Lithuanian, Latvian, Finish, and Estonian archaeology, mythology, and folklore. What appears at first to be a geographic casserole reflects, in fact all the places and cultures where Gimbutas finds expressions of the earlier gynocentric religion still preserved. The chapters in this section are uneven in length and depth (e.g., four pages for the Basque chapter and seventeen for the Baltic). Many of the chapters consist merely of descriptive entries on the various deities and customs, which are in and of themselves intriguing. There is, however, little theoretical glue holding the chapters together, and the complex nature of cultural continuity is never examined. This section would have been much stronger if Gimbutas had explored, for example, the circumstances under which certain customs may be retained, diverted, or transformed, how the maintenance of traditional practices can function as a form of resistance, social manipulation, or empowerment, and when one can reasonably argue that modern images or practices are analogous to earlier examples. Engaging as the data are, the second half of the book is theoretically unsophisticated. At one point, Gimbutas writes that “[t]he world of religious myth reflects social reality” (191) — a surprisingly naïve remark.

Although Gimbutas never intended to be the “Grandmother of the Goddess Movement” (as she was recently dubbed), this book will probably be well-received by a popular and perhaps undergraduate audience. The style is easy, and a useful glossary appears in the back. The book will find a smaller academic audience and the lack of references in the text suggests that this was not the proposed audience.

Audience notwithstanding, two fundamental questions inevitably arise out of The Living Goddesses : does the book provided us with anything new, and where does it now leave us in regard to the Goddess? In answer to the first: there is little in this book that is new. Gimbutas was a prolific writer (20 books and hundreds of articles), and many of the topics here have already been discussed in earlier works. One only wishes she had countered the criticisms already made of her work, presented her own conclusions with more rigor and self-reflection, or pursued some tantalizing comments made in passing (e.g., obscenity as a concept in prehistoric contexts, the transforming power of masks in ancient societies).

Even though this book does not represent a final leap forward for Gimbutas, it will continue to fuel the ongoing debate about ancient Goddesses, the origins of matriarchy, and the role of patriarchy in prehistory. Gimbutas was one of the first prehistorians to attempt a systematic disentangling of early symbolism, spirituality, and the Mother Goddess in Europe and the Mediterranean. Flawed as her work was, the response, principally from feminist audiences, created a literature and art of its own. In the last few decades the Goddess has become a rich and controversial topic in fiction, feminist literature, performance art, and film. The Great Goddess is not, however, so alive and well within the walls of the academy, and the history of that resistance deserves attention.4 Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves why the ancient Goddess resides in such contested territory. Certainly part of the answer lies with the feminist movement, which has, for better or for worse, polarized many groups in its attempts to delineate a history that has relegated women to less than satisfactory roles in many contemporary societies. Equally important, the history of the Goddess has been cast as a narrative of origin,5 or the who’s-on-first-syndrome, that always seems to generate debate. But the Goddess also resides behind the scrim of modern feminism. By definition she is part of what we broadly define as religion and her controversial status owes much to her being part of the contentious history of religion.


1. Several authors have commented on this phenomenon. See in particular, L. Meskell, “Oh My Goddess!”, Archaeological Dialogues, 5 (2), 1998: 126-142.

2. For recent reviews of the relationships among the Goddess movement, feminism, and popular culture, see M. W. Conkey and R. E. Tringham, “Archaeology and the Goddess: Exploring the Contours of Feminist Archaeology,” in Feminisms and the Academy, D. C. Stanton and A. J. Stewart (eds.), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995: 199-247; L. Meskell, “Goddesses, Gimbutas and New Age Archaeology,” Antiquity 69, 1995: 74-86; L. Meskell, “Oh My Goddess!”; R. Tringham and M. Conkey, “Rethinking Figurines: A Critical View from Archaeology of Gimbutas, the ‘Goddess’ and Popular Culture,” in Ancient Goddesses, L. Goodison and C. Morris (eds.), Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999: 22-45; and C. Eller, The Myth of Matriachal Prehistory, in press.

3. Conkey and Tringham, op. cit. p. 212.

4. For early reviews of Gimbutas’s work and the Mother Goddess theory see, A. Fleming, “The Myth of the Mother-Goddess,” World Archaeology 1 (2), 1969: 247-61; B. Hayden, ” Old Europe: Sacred Matriarchy or Complementary Opposition?” in Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean, A. Bonnano (ed.), Amsterdam: Grüner Pub. Co., 1986:17-30. For an excellent, recent critique, see C. Eller, as above, n. 2.

5. M. W. Conkey, “Original Narratives: The Political Economy of Gender in Archaeology,” in Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Anthropology in the Postmodern Era, M. di Leonardo, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991: 102-139.