"Old Europe": c. 7000-3500 BCE
(Map from Marija Gimbutas,
Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe,
University of California Press, 1974/1982:16.)
"Old Europe" is Lithuanian-born Marija Gimbutas' name for the region of southeastern Europe shown on the map above. She argues that highly artistic, matrilinear, indigenous peoples lived here peacefully in Neolithic villages long before the often violent incursions of nomadic, patriarchal, Indo-European tribes from the eastern steppes. Finding her evidence in a meticulous study of Old Europe's unique pottery and sculpture, and combining the tools of archaeology, comparative mythology, linguistics, and folklore, Gimbutas developed a new interdisciplinary field: archaeomythology. Her theories have generated controversies as well as enormous excitement.
As a graduate student in Religious Studies in the 1980's, I remember pouring over Gimbutas' detailed field drawings in an old out-of-print book in the library stacks at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At the time, I was wistfully envious of her precision and wide-ranging skills as a working archaeologist. Later, I got a paperback edition of Gimbutas' Goddesses & Gods of Old Europe (a title for which she had to fight because the publisher wanted to start with "Gods" and put "Goddesses" second) -- and loved its clarity and sense of vision, a vision too often lacking in graduate studies. I remember my delight in late 1989 when I was able to get a half-priced copy of her superb Language of the Goddess, which I couldn't have afforded otherwise -- and I recall the many enjoyable weeks I spent pouring over it. I never dreamed that one day I would teach at Pacifica Graduate Institute, which is where the Gimbutas Archives would be located after her untimely death 2 February 1994.
I never met her. I never even heard her speak except for a handful of sentences at the end of a lecture she gave in November 1989 at the American Academy of Religion's annual conference. As it happened, I was scheduled for a job interview just prior to when she would be speaking. Another applicant was ahead of me, the interviewer was running late, I was desperate for a teaching position (even though this particular one would have been in dusty, hot, fanatical Texas), and I felt I had no choice except to wait. When my turn came, I presented myself as credibly as possible but I was painfully aware that the interviewer was exhausted and bored after a long day of screening applicants. I wasn't going to get this job. She was only going through the motions and neither of us wanted to be there. I kept wishing I'd skipped the whole futile business and gone to Gimbutas' lecture instead.
I got to the lecture just as it was ending and felt a fleeting connection to Gimbutas even from the back of the conference room. I went forward afterwards to speak with her, but there was such a long line that I backed away and simply watched the small, gentle woman responding to her streams of admirers. "She's fighting cancer," someone said. I felt a sense of shock...and regret that we would probably never connect.
The day will come when a webpage entitled "Old Europe" will have countless links to research establishing the validity of what Marija Gimbutas fought so hard to bring forth. That day is not yet here. There are very few links -- and most currently deal with Gimbutas herself. Even scholars whom I respect dispute Gimbutas' work -- but I cannot. She may have been wrong in certain particulars but, overall, I trust her scholarship and, equally, her intuitions about the artifacts with which she had worked for so long.
"Deer or deer antlers
spinning around a central cross-sign...."
Interior of deep bowl. Late Cucuteni. Bilcze Zlote, northwestern Ukraine.
Early 4th millennium BCE
Marija Gimbutas, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe,
University of California Press, 1974/1982:174.
http://www.online.pacifica.edu/cgl/Gimbutasbio: [Updated 22 August 2007]Gimbutas: "The role of a deer in Old European myth was not a creation of Neolithic agriculturists. The importance of a pregnant doe must have been inherited from a pre-agricultural era. The northern people in the hunting stage still believe in the mother of the universe as a doe-elk or wild reindeer-doe. Myths speak of pregnant women who rule the world and who look like deer: covered with hair and with branching deer's horns on their heads....
"... [on the inner surface of the deep bowl shown above,] deer antlers and crescent moons merge together as they spin around a cross with knobbed extremities showing the four cardinal points of the world. Two pairs of opposed crescents and the goddess' dog can also be seen...."
(Marija Gimbutas, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, pp. 171; 172;174)
Detail from bookcover of Gimbutas' The Livng Goddesses
(Edited & supplemented by Miriam Robbins Dexter)
This is an informative essay on the "Life & Work" of Marija Gimbutas written in January 1995, barely a year after her death, by her friend and colleague, Joan Marler. The essay begins with Joseph Campbell's friendship with Gimbutas:
http://www.second-congress-matriarchal-studies.com/marler.htmlDuring the last few years of his life, Joseph Campbell spoke frequently of Marija Gimbutas, profoundly regretting that her research on the Neolithic cultures of Europe was not available during the 1960's when he was writing The Masks of God. Otherwise, he would have "revised everything." Campbell compared the importance of Marija's work to Champollion's decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was not alone in this appreciation. According to anthropologist Ashley Montagu, "Marija Gimbutas has given us a veritable Rosetta Stone of the greatest heuristic value for future work in the hermeneutics of archaeology and anthropology" . . .
[Added 23 August 2007]: This is another essay by Joan Marler: "The Iconography and Social Structure of Old Europe: The Archaeomythological Research of Marija Gimbutas." The essay is well documented and also draws upon the author's own experiences with Gimbutas. For example:http://www.levity.com/mavericks/gim-int.htm. . . No one before Gimbutas had systematically analyzed the rich symbolic imagery from Neolithic southeast Europe. These items were typically considered to be "curiosities of art history with no standard method of description and interpretation" (Bánffy 2001:53). Their contexts were sometimes not even recorded. As Gimbutas remarked, "I saw thousands of figurines lying in boxes in museum storerooms, completely ignored and not understood" (personal communication).Marler continues:During the 1960s, proponents of the "New Archaeology" considered it unscientific for archaeologists to investigate the beliefs of prehistoric people. At the same time, excavations of Neolithic sites throughout southeast Europe were unearthing thousands of exquisitely painted ceramics, temple models, altars and offering vessels, stylized anthropomorphic sculptures, often with animal masks and ceremonial clothing. Gimbutas recognized it was impossible to understand the early societies that produced these extraordinary remains without studying their abundantly preserved symbolism. She, therefore, devoted the remaining thirty years of her life to an in-depth investigation of the iconography and social structure of the earliest farmers of Europe whose distinctive cultures virtually disappeared during the transition to Bronze Age societies. . .Marler then looks at Gimbutas' unique, interdisciplinary methodology, archaeomythology:. . . In the absence of written texts, an understanding of the nonmaterial aspects of culture is not possible through the description of artifacts alone. Gimbutas, therefore, developed archaeomythology, an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that combines archaeology, mythology, ethnology, folklore, linguistic paleontology, and the study of historical documents. This methodology is informed by the following assumptions: Sacred cosmologies are central to the cultural fabric of all early societies; deeply rooted beliefs and rituals expressing sacred world views are often slow to change; and archaic patterns can survive as substratum elements into later cultural periods. Moreover, an interdisciplinary approach provides a corrective: if an interpretation based upon one or more disciplines does not hold up according to the findings of another, the initial interpretation must be reexamined. . .Marler next turns to the artistic context of the artifacts examined by Gimbutas. Drawing elegant comparisons with the world of quantum physics, she writes:. . . it is no surprise that many Neolithic artifacts feature cyclic patterns combining plant, animal and human forms. Such interconnecting motifs, by no means exclusive to Old Europe, have been created by indigenous peoples on every continent of the world who share a sacred relationship with the living world. These designs often express an uncanny resemblance to writings by quantum physicists who describe the universe as a web of relationships between the various parts of a unified whole. Physicist Fritjof Capra, for instance, identifies dynamic patterns on the micro and macro levels that continually change into one another in a "continuous dance of energy" (Capra 1983:81, 91). David Bohm speaks of an "implicate order" within the universe as analogous to a hologram in which the entire cosmic web is enfolded within each of its parts (Capra 1983:95). Anthropologist/ecologist Gregory Bateson refers to the self-organizing dynamics of the universe as "the pattern that connects" . . .There is much more in this rich and well-nuanced essay. It's worth the read. A good bibliography is provided at the end for those who wish to explore further.
"Learning the Language of the Goddess" begins with a brief biography of Marija Gimbutas followed by a link (see below) to a lively, fascinating and lengthy interview with her (originally published in Mavericks of the Mind). There is also a link to a selected bibliography.http://www.levity.com/mavericks/gimbut.htm
[Added 24 August 2007]: This is a continuation of the foregoing and includes the actual interview with Gimbutas. I especially resonate with Gimbutas' words near the end when she is asked about the future:http://web.archive.org/web/19981207070844/http://www.webcom.com/gimbutas/welcome.htmlMarija: I don't know if I'm optimistic. In a way I think I am, otherwise it would be difficult to live - you have to have hope. But that the development will be slow, is clear. It very much depends on who is in the government. Our spiritual life is so full of war images. Children are from the very beginning taught about shooting and killing. So the education has to change, television programs have to change. There are signs for that, there are voices appearing. So you should be optimistic somehow.
This is the "Marija Gimbutas Home Page," a well-researched website created by Starhawk and filmmaker Donna Read (who are working together on a film about Gimbutas -- 8/23/07: see below for its completion). The site includes great quotes from Gimbutas as well as December 1998 material on both sides of the controversies swirling around her. For more on the controversies, see this December 2002 page stored in the Wayback Machine:http://www.reclaimingquarterly.org/web/gimbutas/gimbutas1.html
[Added 24 August 2007]: This is a lengthy, illustrated, quite informative page introducing the above film, "Signs Out of Time." Here is how it opens:http://www.belili.org/marija/cv.htmlSigns Out of Time is a new documentary film by Donna Read ("The Goddess Remembered") and Starhawk. The film is narrated by Olympia Dukakis.
Determined and courageous, Marija Gimbutas stayed true to what she saw, amidst ridicule, criticism, and controversy. If her theories are correct, then reverence for the Earth, peace, and cooperation are the very underpinnings of European civilization. . .
[Added 24 August 2007]: This is Marija Gimbutas' detailed Curriculum Vitae from Starhawk and Donna Read's Belili Productions (see above).http://www.online.pacifica.edu/cgl/Gimbutasbibliography
[Added 24 August 2007]: This is a well laid out bibliography of Gimbutas' works (several above sources also list her works -- I have not cross-checked to see which is the most complete).
Stag with oversized antlers
Relief on a fragment of a storage vessel
from Csepa, southeastern Hungary.
Early sixth millennium BCE
From Marija Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, p.172.
This is a tantalizingly brief page from Ernestine Elster, a Research Associate in the Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. Elster was a colleague of Gimbutas' and this page is on her field project (organized in part by Gimbutas): the excavation of Sitagroi in northeast Greece. For more on Elster's intriguing and important work, see this google search-term link:http://web.archive.org/web/19990417071504/http://lancomp.starnets.ro/eclipse-travel/terra/terra.htm
"Terra Mirabilis" by Vasile Avram is an interesting, proud little essay on the role of Romania as the "heartland" of Old European civilization. Here's an excerpt -- the English isn't perfect but the spirit is:http://www.unet.com.mk/mian/geograph.htm. . . Allow us to remind you first that, in the light of the spectacular archaeological discoveries in the last decades it is more and more evident the fact that the origins of the European culture are not longer need to be seek for Egypt or Sumer or India or Anatolia but in the south - east Europe, where, between 7,000 and 3,500 b. Ch. have been bloomed a peaceful and creative civilization, attested by the sanctuaries, ritually vessels, altars, ceremonially tools, miniature sculptures made by gold, cooper, clay, marble or bone, incisioned adorned or painted with magical numbers and with fundamental mytho - religious symbols (the cross, the spiral line, the arbor of the life, the circle, the triangle, the rhombus, the meander etc), discoveries in the archaeological places from Cucuteni-Tripolie, Tisa-Petre¿ti, Vinca Turda¿, Karanovo, Hamanghia, Marita-Boian-Gumelnita, Vadrastra and so on.
As the reputed American historian and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas affirms, among others, the Romanian space was ' the heartland of the Old European Civilization ', fact sustained by other many Graeco-Latin authors who referred to the carpatho-danubiano-pontic-territory like a topos with rich mythic-magically valences, where Apollo Hiperboreus, Dionisos the Thracian, Orfeu, Abaris and other symbolical personages who grounded the ancient culture come from. . .
This is a paean to Macedonia's role in Old Europe. It includes connections between Gimbutas' work and Harold Harmann's "Vincha script":http://www.cis.vt.edu/ws/wsmodules/FemTheol.htm. . . After recent scientific analysis, unearthed clay and votive tablets inscribed in Vincha script-particularly those from Vincha itself-prove that the beginnings of indigenous Balkan literacy date back to the close of the seventh millennium B.C. Suggestions that merchants conveyed a Sumeric script to this part of Europe have been convincingly rebuffed by Harmann, who proved that there is a gap of 2,000 years between the first known examples of the Vincha script and Sumeric script. By following parallels drawn by Marija Gimbutas between the Neolithic European and the Classical cultural traditions, Harmann defined the Vincha script as a means of communication between man and the gods during religious ceremonies, the reason why the inscriptions are short and often consist of a combination of several signs. . .Disclaimer: Intriguing though it seems, I am not a linguist so cannot comment on the reliability of the above data. It may represent a high level of scholarship. However, the page's unnamed author works for a Macedonian publishing company and uses too many Biblical quotes about Macedonia from St. Paul to suit me. Thus, use caution here. The focus seems to be less on solid scholarship than on praising this ancient land and highighting its connections to Pauline Christianity. For those who wish to dig more deeply, however, here is a google search-page for "Vincha script": http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=ISO-8859-1&q=%22Vincha+script%22&btnG=Google+Search
Pazardzik, Bulgaria (c. 4500 BCE)
(Photo by Erich Lessing in Peg Streep's beautiful Sanctuaries of the Goddess.)
From the webpage for Women's Studies at Virginia Tech comes this basic but useful essay, largely inspired by Gimbutas' work: "Feminists, Theology and the Reclaiming of the Goddess" by Keveney Barley.http://web.archive.org/web/20010608195841/http://sarasvati.simplenet.com/contacts/mitanni.htm
The non-Indo-Europeans of Old Europe, the proto-Indo-Aryans, and all the rest of the issues related to this field are intricately interlocked and bewildering. This long, awkwardly designed, linguistically-oriented essay from India is called "Proto-Indoaryans, Mitanni, Hurrians: the Indo-European Problem." No author is named. Referencing is non-standard which makes it hard (but not impossible) to tell where quoted passages come from. I could not even locate any information on the site's purpose, affiliation, or bias, which usually indicates that the site is either done by amateurs or simply isn't reputable. Nevertheless, despite my qualms, I'm including the site as an example of how engrossing and extremely complicated this field is. If something catches your eye here, my suggestion would be to try and figure out from the references where the passage comes from and then go straight to the source so that you have a wider context.http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1999/1999-10-05.html
[Added 24 August 2007]: This is a critical 1999 Bryn Mawr Classical Review of Marija Gimbutas' The Living Goddesses. The reviewer is Lauren E. Talalay of the University of Michigan. She writes:http://chass.colostate-pueblo.edu/natrel/pom/old/POM5a3.html...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....In her review of Gimbutas, Talalay generally maintains an appropriate scholarly balance, the familiar controversial issues she raises are handled fairly, and her ending raises good points from an academic perspective, which is, after all, her turf:
. . . 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" . . . 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. . .. . .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. 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, or the whos-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.As an academic myself, I understand the issues Talalay raises here, but missing from her discussion is any recognition of the role played by the patriarchal "canon" in manipulating the religious realm as well as the related academic realm (the two, of course, were Siamese twins for countless centuries). For me, the existence of that warped, controlling "canon" tilts the discourse in Gimbutas' favor. It explains why there is so much resistance to the Great Goddess "within the walls of the academy"; why the goddess resides "in such contested territory"; why she generates so much current debate; and why the "contentious history of religion" has mostly scorned her as an aberration from so-called "primitive," non-war-mongering times. If, as Talalay writes, "certainly part of the answer lies with the feminist movement," then an even larger and far more significant part of the answer lies in millennia of arrogant, misogynistic patriarchies, still alive and well within the walls of the academy, the socio-economic-political arena, and the major world religions.
[Added 30 August 2007]: This essay is "The Interface of Archaeology and Mythology: A Philosophical Evaluation of the Gimbutas Paradigm" by Mara Keller, Ph.D., a faculty member at CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies). At the end of the essay are 4 related links, the first of which offers 6 thoughtful, but mostly negative responses to Keller's essay. I haven't had time to explore Keller or the responses but a quick scan shows excellent pro and con contributions to larger issues raised by Gimbutas' work. If you want to know what the fuss is all about, delve into these links and you'll see how complex and often emotional the issues are.
[Added 22 August 2007]: Artist/woodcarver Daniel Mack in upstate New York creates Bark People from pieces of wood he finds along the Hudson River. When I first saw his online collection, all I could think of was how much they resembled some of the ancient figures unearthed by Gimbutas.
I started crying, however, when I reached the page where I found the above piece. The central armless figure with her intact, but frail, "tree-antlers" resonated painfully within me. Two weeks earlier I had lost a soaring 90-100' tall, century-old maple I'd named Treebeard when I moved here four years ago. My little rural town doomed him to death on July 30th as part of a street-paving project. I was given no warning. The shrill whine of chainsaws grinding into his flesh woke me at 9am that morning. Half asleep, I threw on some clothes and ran outside to find men working high up in my tree, dismembering him limb by limb.
I'd been told some weeks earlier that Treebeard was safe and I couldn't understand what was happening. Someone had made a terrible mistake in sending a crew to take him down. "Wait!" I shouted to the supervisor as I dashed indoors to phone City Hall. I was told that a probe newly purchased by the city had been inserted into the tree -- supposedly, it revealed he was all rotted out and had to come down before the street and new curbs could be put in. I didn't believe this -- another tree-expert had told me he was safe, except for one rotted out limb that would be removed this autumn. Unfortunately, although I had loved and tended Treebeard for four years, he grew on the city's right-of-way between sidewalk and street and there was nothing further I could do to save him.
I watched all that day, a sorrowful, weeping witness, as limb after limb was severed from his massive trunk. Except for that one rotted out limb, everything else looked sound. Neighbors who came to watch said the same thing. The tree could have been saved. That wondrous tree should still be standing.
When I saw the figure carved by Daniel, I recognized myself -- armless, helpless, forced to submit. In the above triad of "Bark People," Daniel's central figure is flanked by two powerful female goddesses, perhaps seeking to console and support her. But no goddesses whisper in my ear that all will be well. I know that Treebeard's hugely compassionate spirit remains near me but the loss of his immense, vibrant physicality still leaves me devastated. My soaring tree -- and the world around me -- has been dismembered. Nothing feels right. As one of my friends, Mary Costello, wrote me when she learned of this: "It seems like the older we get the more intense are our losses--or at least our experiences of them. When we experience a new loss it becomes enmeshed with all the previous ones. Tree loss is a big one. They shade and oxygenize our lives and lifestyles. I mourn with you."
That Daniel's carvings could move me so deeply makes me wonder if some of Gimbutas' somber figures were perhaps themselves expressions of a sorrow too deep to be articulated in any other way.
Down to Eastern Europe
Down to Western Europe
If you have comments or suggestions,
my e-mail address will be found near the bottom of my home page.
This page created with Netscape Gold 3.01
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Text and Design:
Copyright 1998-2007 by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
[Note: on the opening map, I negativized and "greened" the book's plain B&W map for greater impact on this page; on the swirl of deer/deer antlers, I negativized & added sepia tones to a B&W drawing from the book so that it looks more like pottery and shows the original pattern more beautifully; on the stag with oversized antlers, I did the same.]
Latest updates:27 May 1999 (shifted page from Western Europe to Europe, where it should have been in the first place -- for the sake of peoples' already existing bookmarks, I'm retaining the old URL, but changing the page's title); 19-21 September 1999;
17 September 2000 [checked all links];
21/22 August 2007, 2-3:30am-ish: added Daniel Mack's work plus my Treebeard notes.
23 August 2007: checked and updated all links; added new ones; expanded old ones.
23/24 August 2007, 3:11am: finished annotating the remaining 5 new links;
edited/expanded what I'd written earlier.
25 August 2007, 1pm: finished revising Treebeard section: launching page today.
27 August 2007: made a few more small changes. /// 30 August 2007: added Keller link.