Lammas 2004, Vol 3-4
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Finding Women and the Sacred in European Prehistory
In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Marija Gimbutas published important new work highlighting the centrality of women and Goddesses in several prehistoric European cultures. (Gimbutas 1974, 1982, 1989, 1991) She theorized that the early Neolithic cultures of southeastern Europe were theacentric, Goddess-centered, and that women held important roles in the society. Many Goddess-women are aware that there has been much scholarly disagreement with Gimbutas' work, conclusions and methodology.
Is Dr. Gimbutas the only scholar to be thinking about women, the sacred, and early Europe? Not at all. Many other scholars have turned their attention to similar areas of study. In this article, I will share some of this scholarship, and set the stage for taking another look at the Paleolithic female figurines known as the "Venus" figurines.
In the past several decades, feminist scholars have made important strides in thinking about gender and prehistory. Scholars are reinstating women as agents and subjects in prehistory, focusing on women's involvement in the creation of symbol systems (which would include systems of meaning such as religion), in politics and production. (Brettell and Sargent 1997) In figurine studies, as in many other fields, feminist research has destabilized the field, not only to critique previous work, but to offer new frameworks for what is hoped to be a better, more inclusive, science.
Strangely enough, research for this article led as much to epistemology as to archeology, anthropology, or religious studies. Lauren Talalay puts it nicely:
The work of feminist scholars notwithstanding, the scholar of women in prehistoric religion must remain alert for an undoubted androcentric bias in much of the scholarship. Both archeology and religious studies, the disciplines which frame my research, lag behind other fields in applying a feminist criticism to their theories and methods. Talalay remarks that "Old World prehistorians [have] barely begun to grapple with questions raised by feminist agendas." (Talalay 2000, p. 3) As recently as 1994, an important textbook on European prehistory identifies a breasted figurine (found in a shrine and depicted wearing a religious emblem) with the neuter pronoun "it," while facing "it" with a statue holding a spear named as "a warrior god." (Cunliffe 1994, p. 286. See also Figure 1.)
When considering the role of women and female sacrality in prehistory, the primary evidence is the stuff of archeology: tools, buildings, decorative objects, the artifacts of everyday life. Margaret Ehrenberg, in her Women and Prehistory, gives an overview of approaches to learning about women in prehistory, a subject that has often been ignored by male archeologists (Ehrenberg 1989). She acknowledges the importance of women as part of foraging society; the usual term "hunter-gatherer" mistakenly highlights meat as providing the highest caloric portion of the foragers' diets, and has foregrounded the supposedly male role in providing for the community. Foraging for the many plant foods actually provided a higher percentage of calories in the prehistoric diet than did meat foods, and both women and men gathered as well as hunted. The social structure of our pre-agricultural ancestors is now thought to have been relatively equalitarian, with equality between individuals and between the sexes. Ehrenberg also notes that women were as likely as men to be tool-users and tool-devisers, especially tools of digging and cutting, and containing.
Ehrenberg points out that by the time written history begins, the cultures the records describe are no longer equalitarian, but patriarchal. She asks, what happened in Europe during the important Neolithic era, as horticulture spread through Europe and became a prominent option for feeding the community? Why and how did the social structures of the communities change? Ehrenberg assumes that rather than having been invented or discovered by men, the horticulture of plants was likely discovered by women as they worked with them. And though the societies that adopted horticulture changed greatly, Ehrenberg does not think that they immediately became patriarchal. The Linear Pottery Culture of central and northern Europe, for instance, may well have been matrilineal and matrilocal. (See also Battaglia 1990)
For Ehrenberg (following Andrew Sherratt) the crucial change came with the "secondary products revolution." The key is the changing role of animals, around 3000 BCE in the later Neolithic. Domesticated animals had been kept throughout the Neolithic, but as a source of meat, not as a source of milk, milk products, raw materials for spinning, or working fields with ploughs. These innovations came later, and the tasks of women and men seemed to change with the scale of herding. As the herds became larger, men hunted less and tended to plowing, herding and milking, while women took on the tasks of processing the products of the herd. Ehrenberg also notes that cattle-raiding also began occurring around this time, perhaps accounting for the origin of warfare.
For my current purposes, I will draw on the work of Michael York, a prominent scholar of paganism, which he calls "root religion." (York 2003) Key concepts in indigenous religious expression, whether European pre-Christian or other tribal expressions, include some or all of the following: a number of female and male deities, magical and ritual practices, corpospirituality (spirituality that includes the physical, including nature, idols, humans, place) and an understanding of deities and humans as codependent and related (York 2003, p. 14).
Ehrenberg adds another important consideration. Looking at contemporary forager societies, she notes that "belief" in "deities" is not typical. Instead, belief systems "centre on general spirits and forces, rather than on personified gods and goddesses." (Ehrenberg 1989, p. 74) Thus, I hold with the assumption that prehistoric European artistic and decorative expression does not presume a division between "sacred" and "secular," "social" and "religious;" and that until later prehistory, female sacrality is not personified in specific named Goddesses.