The Womb and Tomb of Time: Marija Gimbutas

In religious art, the human body symbolizes myriad functions beyond the sexual, especially the procreative, nurturing, and life enhancing. I believe that in earlier times, obscenity as a concept surrounding either the male or female body did not exist. Renditions of the body expressed other functions, specifically the nourishing and procreative aspects of the female body and the life-stimulating qualities of the male body. The female force, as the pregnant vegetation goddess, intimately embodied the earth’s fertility. But the sophisticated, complex art surrounding the Neolithic goddess is a shifting kaleidoscope of meaning: she personified every phase of life, death, and regeneration. She was the Creator from whom all life-human, human, plant, and animal-arose, and to whom everything returned. Her role extended far beyond eroticism.

—Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses

Our Neolithic forbears inherited the world of the hunters and gatherers across our finite world. They would create myths not of a singular Lord of the Universe but rather stories of a multifarious Goddess for whom the cycles of the great agricultural seasons became the enveloping world within which here people would create myths and rituals to forge temporal links between the earth and the stars above. Humans for millennia would abide under these various organic myths which would imprint upon their minds and hearts the patterns between the star gods and the cycles of natural order that provided the seasonal crops and patterns of rain and drought governing the survival of each and every family, group, and tribe.

As the Neolithic scholar  and singular visionary of Archaeomythology Marija Gimbutas devoted her life and work in uncovering this forgotten world where women not men once took center stage in the course of governance in a era of peace and plenty. In 1956 at an International conference at Philadelphia,  Marija Gimbutas introduced her “Kurgan Hypothesis,” which combined archaeological study of the distinctive “Kurgan” burial mounds with linguistics to unravel some problems in the study of the Proto-Indo-Europeans; namely, to account for their origin and to trace their migrations into Europe. The word “Kurgan” is a Russian word from Turkic describing the kind of graves and grave-barrows built by the people of this culture.

“Indo-European” is a linguistic term that refers to a family of languages found from India to the western edge of Europe. And Proto-Indo-European language refers to the now extinct mother tongue from which all Indo-European languages developed. Gimbutas’ hypothesis locates the homeland of Proto-Indo-European speakers in the area of south Russia and documents their movements into Europe from the end of the fifth millennium BC. Gimbutas describes the influx of nomadic pastoralists over a 2000 year period as a “collision of cultures” in which androcratic cultural and ideological patterns were introduced into Europe. This led to a hybridization between the Old European and Indo-European systems.

With this theory, she was the first scholar to bring together linguistic and archaeological knowledge. Her hypothesis, and the act of bridging the disciplines, has had a significant impact on Indo-European research.

It was at this time that Gimbutas narrowed her focus of her research to the Neolithic cultures of Southeast Europe and the Bronze Age societies that replaced them. She stressed the importance of investigating the enormous changes in beliefs, rituals and social structure that took place between c. 4500–2500 B.C., in order to more fully understand subsequent European cultural development.

In her view, this was “one of the most complex and least understood [periods] in prehistory.” Gimbutas wrote: “It is a period which urgently demands a concerted effort by scholars from various disciplines. The exchange of information between the archaeologists, linguists, mythologists, physical anthropologists, and ancient historians has much to contribute to the field of Indo-European studies.

Much of her work was scorned by the male scholars of her era, and after her death much of her and fellow scholars of feminist theory and practice have fallen into disrepute under the androcratic regimes of male dictators who for the most part still rule the academic departments and journals of scholarly world. And, yet, anyone with an unbiased mind need only read and compare her and other scholars of her circle against the so called androcratic authorities to see a struggle of ideologies in process. That I came upon her and other feminists during the late seventies and eighties of our Common Era should be no surprise to many of my readers.

I usually do not actively speak about much of my own involvement in past worlds of activism and scholarship etc. Yet, it is time to realize that secular society and its pundits of the Progressive sphere who even now espouse regulation and improvement without any vision or empowerment behind their words and critiques. The Secular order of the world is bankrupt and decaying into the very valueless and fragmented codes its once used to gullibly rule over its constituents. Since the Enlightenment we’ve been in the School of Reason, taught the atheistic codes of a world without God or Religion. We’ve been led to believe Man could create a society, culture, and civilization based on a sense of Justice and Freedom. Yet, anyone with even a smattering of intelligence will see that the blind gods of justice sway one way: the way of the Rich and Powerful. For only the rich and powerful and for the most part “males” become leaders in this world of Democracy. Oh sure here and there is the token female who rises to power – a Thatcher or Merkel, etc., and yet as one studies their careers one sees the imprint of the male empire of Androcracy forming and shaping their vision.

What Gimbutas uncovered in her research of the Kurgans was the first inklings of the ancient horse cultures of the Steppes of Eurasia that would invade the Neolithic Agricultural civilizations of Old Europe during wave after wave of war, struggle, and invasion. Very little remains of the ancient Goddess cultures of Old Europe, the Middle-East, Africa, India, China, etc. Most of these ancient worlds having been effaced, and stripped from the memory, stories, and myths of those that conquered them and enslaved them. And, yet, aspects of their world would survive in bone and stone, word and deed through the very sources of that world: the women who would become the servants of the new Horse Lords.

Of course I could speak of all the various nations and cycles of myths, stories, etc., but will keep with the European story. During the so called postmodern era the notion of Grand Narrative, of taking in the long view of humanity was put in abeyance as a fabrication and artificial categorization of our life-worlds. Yet, as we’ve seen the micro-histories of that era were just as artificial and circumscribed by ideological and androcratic thought as other previous scholarship. I’ll admit a bias toward feminist thought of a certain type: my own singular vision of life and world. Having been bred under the worlds of Emerson and Nietzsche, two extreme singularities who spoke out of an inner authority not from the staid authorities of the Scholars I have come to gaze upon the world of literature, philosophy, art, politics, culture if you will with a singular eye and mind. I’m biased, but this only admits that we all are biased in our views of life. How could it be otherwise in a world where one either takes a stand for something, or lives in a blank world of unthinking Being?

Gimbutas opened my eyes to a world that had been in my life up to that point a total blank, a world that seemed to exist in fragments from all the ancient myths and archaeological digs around the globe that spoke of various goddesses. As Gimbutas herself reports it,

In Neolithic Europe and Asia Minor (ancient Anatolia)-in the era between 7000 B.c. and 3000 B.C.-religion focused on the wheel of life and its cyclical turning. This is the geographic sphere and the time frame I refer to as Old Europe. In Old Europe, the focus of religion encompassed birth, nurturing, growth, death, and regeneration, as well as crop cultivation and the raising of animals. The people of this era pondered untamed natural forces, as well as wild plant and animal cycles, and they worshiped goddesses, or a goddess, in many forms. The goddess manifested her countless forms during various cyclical phases to ensure that they functioned smoothly. She revealed herself in multiple ways through the myriad facets of life, and she is depicted in a very complex symbolism.1

When I read through her books of the era my mind clicked, as if the fragments of a lost world stood revealed at last and all my reading in archaeology across the planet which I had pursued for a dozen years suddenly sparked into active truth. It rang true in my inner being. One can never pinpoint just what it is that makes something ring true or why one favors a specific pattern of words and stores about our life-world over others. And, yet, reading her works and the vast literature that it would spark within the feminist movement of the era, along with the – yes, Pagan and Neo-Feminist religious consciousness of that time (70’s, 80’s, 90’s) informed my life and work. It did not matter that in the journals one could see the male androids already at work undermining her scholarship, banding together to expulse this new feminist threat from the ranks of their Androcratic World. At that time she offered a vision that took in the pre-historical worlds that seemed like fragments of a Lost Continent.

Throughout the area of Neolithic Europe that she studied, Gimbutas found images of females that she understood to be Goddesses; especially goddesses sharing form with birds and snakes. In these images she saw a Goddess of birth, death and regeneration, which was honored by Neolithic European people. Thus, supporting a peaceful and woman-centered society.

To Gimbutas, these indigenous Europeans were peaceful, artistic, egalitarian and Goddess-worshiping. Based on thousands of female images from those cultures, she concluded that women were worshiped and that the primary deities were goddesses. She maintained that life was peaceful until the worship of warlike gods was imported by Indo-Europeans.

She traced survivals of goddesses, birds, snakes, and many other images and symbols from Old Europe through historical times to the present. She began to see these images and symbols as a shorthand, a “language” of our early ancestors, that we might decipher with time and care. Through her “reading” of this language, she proposed to modern scholarship an articulate and radical view of Neolithic religion.

Professor Gimbutas’ research, indeed, covered a vast territory of scholarship that crosses many traditional boundaries. Her bibliography contains 33 texts (published in nine languages) and over 300 scholarly articles on European prehistory. When she was often criticized for her interpretations, her response was philosophical:

There is a belief that religion cannot be reconstructed, that it’s a waste of time even to speak of religion because archaeologists cannot do it. Maybe this is because they are not really trained. They are not interested in mythology at all, and are just seeing the material culture. They don’t want to see anything else; they think they are safe in reconstructing the ways of agriculture or how pottery was made, and that satisfies them. In our days there are no people with vision. They cannot go across the border of their discipline. Archaeology now is interested mostly in excavation techniques and they want to be very precise; the computer is used, and all that. Of course, you can reach some conclusions using statistics, but if you do not have a vision as a person — if you are not a poet, or an artist — you cannot see much. You will be just a technician, and this is in most cases what happens. [Joan Marler, “A Tribute to Marija Gimbutas,” Sojourn Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 1998]

Without a sense of vision and poetry one is left in a world of destitution, a depleted world where nothing means utter nothingness without value or meaning at all. The Secular Vision has come full circle, the world of the androcratic male regimes of capitalist aggression and resource depletion has brought us war, famine, disease, and economic if not literal slavery. We are at the end of the Progressive Era of this social disease that has encompassed our minds and hearts with its lies and ideological strategies of governance for two hundred years or more. It has failed, it is failing, it is fragmenting and in its desperate last hours is weaving a conservative program to tyrannize and encircle the earth with a last ditch fascist paranoiac machine to entrap people through fear and the need for security.

Across the earth male or androcratic regimes rule with an iron fist either through force or economics. As Riane Eisler would say in her early The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future:

All societies are patterned on either a dominator model— in which human hierarchies are ultimately backed up by force or the threat of force— or a partnership model, with variations in between. Moreover, if we reexamine human society from a perspective that takes into account both women and men, we can also see that there are patterns, or systems configurations, that characterize dominator, or alternatively, partnership, social organization.2

What we’re seeing is the toxic wasteland of the Dominator male-oriented empires fraying at the edges, while the deeper vision arising out of the ruins is shaping into a Partnership society and culture that seeks to form bonds, assemblages, and relations of active cohesion to undermine the hierarchic and authoritarian vision of the Androcracies. Because this dominator model now seems to be reaching its logical limits, many men and women are today rejecting long-standing principles of social organization, including their stereotypical sexual roles. For many others these changes are only signs of systems breakdown, chaotic disruptions that at all costs must be quelled. But it is precisely because the world we have known is changing so rapidly that more and more people over ever larger parts of this world are able to see that there are other alternatives. (Eisler, KL 209)

We can do this, we must do this. The shift from an androcracy to a gylanic or Partnership Society and Civilization (i.e., where Women/Men share in coeval power the care and guidance of the world) would begin to end the politics of domination and the economics of exploitation that in our world still go hand in hand.

  1. Marija Gimbutas. The Living Goddesses (p. 3). Kindle Edition.
  2. Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future—Updated With a New Epilogue (Kindle Locations 181-185). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.