by Dawn Work-MaKinne
Lammas 2003, Vol 2-4
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
The Hungry Gap
An interesting little book was published a few years ago. Called The Year 1000, it took the reader through a sample year in Anglo-Saxon England a thousand years ago.(1) Since I was born in the month of July, I turned to that section early in my reading. I found to my surprise that July was part of a time called "the hungry gap," the time of year when the gap between the rich and poor was especially apparent, a time when the previous year's grain had run completely out, and the new harvest was not yet brought in. In all my imaginings of the life of my ancestors, I had never considered that a summer month might be one of the most hunger-filled.
In some ways, the modern Lammas holiday had been one of the most difficult for me to understand and honor. It seemed a simple prelude to the larger harvest festivals later in the fall, the "first-fruits" of the harvest. But now that I know about the hungry gap, I can understand the especially fervent rejoicing that would accompany those first new loaves. Bread, that simple and vital staple of life, had been restored. An ancient and modern miracle, and it is fitting that we should honor the Goddess who has given it.
Since Beltane, my thoughts have often turned to the great scholar, Marija Gimbutas. In the last Goddess and Scholar column I introduced some of the major scholars who have informed thealogical thought in the Goddess movement. None is woven more centrally into the web than Marija Gimbutas. Her work inspired thousands of Goddess women, inspired scholars in many disciplines, and has attracted bitter backlash and attack. I began to wonder more about Dr. Gimbutas and what she was actually saying in her writings. I wondered why Goddess women are so hungry for her ideas and the images she gave to us. And, also, why do others attack these ideas and images so fiercely?
Marija Gimbutas was born in Lithuania in 1921 and came of age in the very tumultuous 1930s and 1940s. She managed to pursue her education, initially in linguistics and folklore. She earned masters and Ph.D. degrees in archaeology, from universities in Lithuania and Germany. She began her academic career in the United States in 1949, first at Harvard, and later at UCLA, working on the prehistory of Eastern Europe. In her earliest articles, Dr. Gimbutas was already commenting on the large number of "female figures" (she did not call them "Goddesses" in her writings at this point) found in the archaeological record, not only in Eastern Europe but further south as well.(2) Not only was Gimbutas already thinking about prehistoric religion, she noted the "pre-eminent role of a Mother-Goddess cult" and was already creating from archaeology and folklore her own interdisciplinary field of archaeomythology.(3)
As early as 1956, Dr. Gimbutas had identified what she called the Kurgan peoples, and traced their successive waves of expansion into Stone Age Europe over several thousand years.(4) She noted the male dominance of the Kurgan social structure, and the presence of male deity figures.(5) The word Kurgan is a Russian loan-word from Turkic(6) describing the kind of graves and grave-barrows built by the people of this culture. The Kurgans were a Proto-Indo-European people, meaning that they were the ancestors of the later Indo-European peoples that settled all over Eurasia. They are thus in the family trees of many of us.
During her long career, Gimbutas directed archaeological excavations, translated ancient and modern documents, and studied and published extensively in archaeology, Indo-European culture and language, and folklore. She was a true interdisciplinary scholar, being skilled in theory and method of more than one academic discipline. For example, her unusual grasp of languages and linguistics added to and informed her archaeological work in significant ways. She was able to read scholarly works in Eastern European languages, and bring the ideas of those scholars into European and American scholarship. And she was able to consider ancient Indo-European languages, looking at the ways changes in language were reflected in the material artifacts of culture. Scholars today are still hard at work on the same issues.(7) Like Gimbutas, many of the scholars are interdisciplinary. They understand not only the theory and methods of their own field but the theory and methods of another, so that fields like archaeology and linguistics can comment upon each other, strengthening both.
Dr. Gimbutas' passion for interdisciplinary scholarship did not end with archaeology and linguistics. She continued to work and publish in the areas of folklore and mythology, and over time her interests began to focus not only on the Kurgan invaders, but also on the older Neolithic cultures that she styled Old Europe.(8)
It seemed to Gimbutas that these indigenous Europeans were peaceful, artistic, egalitarian and Goddess-worshiping. Throughout the area of Neolithic Europe that she was studying, she found images of females that she understood to be Goddesses, especially goddesses sharing form with birds and snakes. In these images she saw what she came to believe to be a great Goddess of birth, death and regeneration, honored by Neolithic European people, supporting a peaceful and woman-centered society.(9) 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.(10) Through her "reading" of this language, she proposed to modern scholarship an articulate and radical view of Neolithic religion. These later works were her culminations in the new discipline that she called archaeomythology, the interdisciplinary area of study combining archaeology, linguistics, religion, and mythology.
Many Goddess-worshipers and Neopagans don't particularly care about the minutiae of archaeological or linguistic research. Only a few really enjoy poking through library stacks for journals in these and other arcane subject areas. But Dr. Gimbutas' work in archaeomythology dropped right into the hungry gap, into a time when modern women were starving for female-centered images and an alternative view of history. We gratefully took these first-fruits, getting glimpses of priestesses and wise women, of peaceful societies, of arts and beauty created by our ancestral mothers and their families in prehistoric Europe. We had license to believe that the first societies were woman-centered, peaceful, egalitarian and beautiful. We could envision that the symbol and reality at the center of this culture was the Goddess of birth, death and regeneration. We could see women as priestesses, leaders, and healers, rather than simple cave-women perpetually hiding behind a grunting male.
The story pauses here for now. When the wheel of the year turns and MatriFocus is published again, we can look further at the concept of archaeomythology, and begin hearing from some scholars who take a critical view of Dr. Gimbutas' later work. And, following that, we can learn about some scholars who are taking archaeomythology forward, creating and refining the discipline as they go. At this Lammas, we can have a fierce, deep joy that the new grain has finally been given, that the hungry gap is past.
May each of you be blessed.