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The Iconography and Social Structure of Old Europe:
The Archaeomythological Research of Marija Gimbutas
Joan Marler 2003
Presented at the World Congress on Matriarchal
Studies, “Societies in Balance,” September 5-7, 2003,
Luxemburg [Congress publication, forthcoming].
Lithuanian/American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994)1
was a pioneer in the study of the symbolic imagery of the earliest
farming peoples of Europe. Her primary research and interpretations
of European prehistory have been at the center of the most crucial
debates on European genesis for more than four decades. In her
view, the settlement patterns, burial evidence, and iconographic
imagery of the cultures she called “Old Europe”2
reflect peaceful, matrilineal, endogamous social structures that
were economically egalitarian in which women were honored at the
center of ceremonial life3.
Between the seventh and fifth millennia BC, communities throughout
southeast Europe developed mixed horticultural economies4,
villages with well-built houses, an abundance of sculptural and
ceramic art, craft specialization including weaving and metallurgy,
and elaborate ritual traditions. There is abundant evidence for
long-distance trade as well as the use of a linear script within
a ritual context. Examples of long-lived Old European societies
include the Sesklo culture in Thessaly and southern Macedonia
from c. 6500-5500 BC, followed by the Dimini culture, c. 5500-4000
BC; the Starcıevo culture of the central Balkans, c. 6300-5300
BC, followed by the Vincıa culture c. 5400-c. 4100 BC; the Cucuteni/Tripolye
culture, c. 4800-3500 BC in Moldavia and the Ukraine; the Butmir
culture in Bosnia, c. 5300-4300 BC; the Karanovo sites in central
Bulgaria from the early sixth to the mid-fifth millennium; and
the Linearbandkeramik, spanning central Europe, c. 5500-4500 BC,
among others BC (see Gimbutas 1991). Although distinctive cultures
developed over a large geological region, Gimbutas and other scholars
have described similarities in economy, social structure and ritual
activities within the Neolithic period (Gimbutas 1956, 1974, 1989,
1991; Whittle 1985: 64; Milisauskas 2002). Considered together,
the non-Indo-European Neolithic societies which Gimbutas referred
to as the “civilization of Old Europe” reached a florescence
of cultural development during the fifth millennium BC made possible
by long-term dynamic stability.
Between 1967 and 1980, Marija Gimbutas directed five major excavations
of early Neolithic sites in Bosnia, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy5.
The development of calibrated radiocarbon dating revealed the
true antiquity of these ancient societies. Gimbutas’ Greek
excavations at Sitagroi and Achilleion yielded hundreds of anthropomorphic
figurines and abundant ritual equipment reflecting “the
small, ragged remnants of a rich fabric constituting the mythical
world of their time” (see Gimbutas 1986:225-301, 1989:171-250).
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”
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.
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.
For Gimbutas, prehistoric images are not mute, but speak a language
of visual metaphor. Since Neolithic symbols are remnants of once-living
contexts, they should not be studied in isolation as arbitrary
images, but are best understood “on their own planes of
reference, grouped according to their inner coherence” (Gimbutas
1989:xv). In The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (1974)
and The Language of the Goddess (1989), she discusses
Old European symbolic elements as part of a “cohesive and
persistent ideological system” that crosses the boundaries
of time and space. Extremely ancient rituals and myths that have
endured into the historic period offer invaluable opportunities
for studying the function of prehistoric imagery.
In the folk culture of Lithuania, for instance, that Gimbutas
experienced as a child, the ancient songs, stories, dances, seasonal
celebrations, communal rituals, sculptures, textile patterns,
even architectural features are elements of a complex fabric of
ancient beliefs arising from a deep respect for the natural world.
She observed people kissing the earth in the morning and in the
evening as though the earth was their actual mother. The life-giving,
death-wielding, and regenerative powers of nature are venerated
in zoomorphic and anthropomorphic forms. In the Baltic pantheon,
Laima, the cosmic goddess of Fate, who controls the powers of
creation, is a shape-shifter who can appear in human form, or
as a bear, sacred tree or waterfowl. She can be touched as stone,
or heard in the voice of the cuckoo. The Earth Mother Zemyna,
related to seasonal awakening, creates life out of herself and
represents justice and social conscience. The death goddess Giltine
can appear as a slithering snake or can be seen in human form
standing at the head of a dying person. Ragana, the death goddess
who oversees regeneration, is a seer who sometimes appears as
a snake or bird of prey. Vaizgantas, the male god of fertility,
rises, dies and resurrects as the flax (Gimbutas 1999:213). Gimbutas’
early experience of these ancient beliefs within a still-living
context informed her study of Old European symbolism.
The Context of Neolithic/ Old European Symbolism
A profusion of dynamic designs painted and incised on well-fired
Neolithic ceramics and sculptures of the sixth-fifth millennia
BC feature rhythmically interconnecting spirals, zigzags, circles
within circles, egg shapes and serpent forms coiling and uncoiling.
Similar patterns are found in regional variations throughout central
and southeast Europe in Butmir, Karanovo, Bükk, Cucuteni/Tripolye,
Linearbandkeramic and other Neolithic traditions.
In The Language of the Goddess (1989) Gimbutas states,
“Symbols are seldom abstract in any genuine sense; their
ties with nature persist, to be discovered through the study of
context and association. In this way we can hope to decipher the
mythical thought which is the raison d’être
of this art and basis of its form” (1989:xv). What was the
underlying context and mythical thought of early horticultural
societies that gave rise to Neolithic imagery? The answer is rooted
in the most basic life experiences of Neolithic peoples.
The creation of sustainable communities based on reliable food
production required fine-tuned responsiveness to ecological conditions
and the progressive development and transmission of traditional
knowledge. Early human communities were continually concerned
with the fragility of life and the need to renew the generative
processes of nature (Gimbutas 1989:xvii). Human survival depended
upon an intimate and respectful relationship with the seasonal
transformations of the natural world—the fertility of the
soil, the abundance of water, the climate, the teeming presence
of birds, animals, plants and myriad life forms.
From this perspective, 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.”
Gimbutas writes that Old European symbolism is lunar and chthonic,
built around the understanding that life on earth is in eternal
transformation, in constant and rhythmic change between creation
and destruction, birth and death. “The concept of regeneration
and renewal is perhaps the most outstanding and dramatic theme
we perceive in this symbolism” (Gimbutas 1989:316). The
“mythical thought” at the basis of Neolithic art appears
to be inseparable from concepts of the sacred and a consciousness
of intimate participation with the cyclic processes of the natural
Well composed, dynamic designs are found on ceramics, sculptures,
temple models and on actual houses and communal shrines, such
as those of the Vincıa, Tisza, and Karanovo cultures where structures
were painted inside and out with great swirling motifs, formal
geometric patterns, even three-dimensional spirals (Hodder 1990:54-55).
At the fifth millennium BC site of Casciorarele, on an island
in the Danube in southern Romania, a two-room ceremonial building
(16 x 10 meters) was richly decorated with red and cream spirals,
concentric circles, red eggs, and swirling designs which Gimbutas
associates with regeneration. A raised clay altar was painted
red and two wooden columns plastered with clay were elegantly
decorated with interlocking curvilinear patterns (Gimbutas 1991:
258-262; Whittle 1985:154).
Bourdieu’s (1973) study of Berber houses is instructive
as a way of appreciating the Old European cultural environment.
Bourdieu discovered that children brought up surrounded by traditional
imagery within Berber houses absorbed Berber concepts through
“an education of attention” that focused their perceptions.
As Malike Grasshoff discusses in her research (see Grasshoff,
this volume), the pottery, weavings and intricate wall paintings
of the Kabyle/Berber people in Algeria are entirely created by
women. Their designs are encoded with secret signs containing
an ancient cosmology of sacred female knowledge passed down from
mother to daughter. In a similar way, many Old European houses,
sculptures, ritual items and domestic implements were covered
with dynamic patterns rich with female imagery which created a
visually rich symbolic context replicated over many generations.
According to Balkan archaeologist Henrieta Todorova (1978:83),
more than 90 percent of the identifiable Neolithic figurines found
in Bulgaria are female. Of the two hundred-fifty anthropomorphic
sculptures from Gimbutas’ excavation at Sitagroi, Greek
Macedonia, none can be identified as male (Gimbutas 1986b:226;
Hodder 1990:61). Of the two hundred figurines found at the Sesklo
site of Achilleion in Greece, only two are assumed to be male
due to the absence of female attributes (Gimbutas et al. 1989:198).
Throughout southeast Europe, Anatolia and much of the circum-Mediterranean
world, a similar pattern obtains.
Woman’s centrality within the domestic and horticultural
realms is emphasized throughout Old Europe by the overwhelming
abundance of female imagery6. Elaborately
incised Cucuteni figurines; enthroned female sculptures from the
Tisza culture engraved with complex textile designs; hundreds
of Vincıa sculptures stylized as bird-women, masked as mother
bears, anthromorphic vessels, and thousands of other images indicate
a gendered relationship between the human, animal and mythic realms.
The refined stylization of form and posture of many of these female
sculptures, their ritual and ubiquitous contexts, the frequent
use of masks and exaggerated attributes suggest an association
with the sacred which Gimbutas calls “Goddess.”
Although goddesses are well known from the Greek and Roman periods,
the idea that female deity was venerated at the dawn of European
prehistory with a relative absence of male imagery, challenges
the charter myth of Western civilization in which male dominance
in both human and mythic realms is assumed. The term “Goddess”
for many researchers is opaque and problematic, conjuring a utopian
fantasy about a matriarchal fertility cult (i.e., Meskell 1995).
In actuality, Gimbutas repeatedly insisted that the concept of
Goddess is not limited to fertility and motherhood, but includes
the entire cycle of life including death and the reappearance
of life. Gimbutas defines “Goddess,” in all her manifestations,
as a cosmogonic symbol of the unity of all life in Nature. “Her
power was in water and stone, in tomb and cave, in animals and
birds, snakes and fish, hills, trees, and flowers. Hence the holistic
and mythopoetic perception of the sacredness and mystery of all
there is on Earth” (Gimbutas 1989: 321).
Gimbutas’ excavation at the seventh-sixth millennium BC
Sesklo culture site of Achilleion in Thessaly provided in
situ contexts for specific types of anthromorphic and zoomorphic
sculptures. She was, therefore, able to formulate a classification
system based on morphology and style and to identify twenty categories
of figurines associated with seven distinct deities (Gimbutas
et al. 1989:171). Bird and snake goddesses, for instance, were
found in house shrines. Sculptures indicating pregnancy were found
on altars near outdoor ovens and in places where grain was stored,
ground, and baked into bread. Figurines in birth-giving posture
were found in the courtyard at circular hearths. The fecundity
of the womb is associated with the grain that nourishes the community
(Gimbutas 1991:228, 254). This motif repeats throughout Old Europe
on pottery designs, on figurines impressed with grain, on sculptures
with wombs sprouting like plants, on grain storage containers
in female forms, and bread ovens shaped as pregnant bellies. Neolithic
imagery is permeated by symbols associated with the life-creating
Male images found in other Old European sites, often in ithyphallic
posture, are interpreted by Gimbutas as “gods,” consorts
of the youthful goddess in her springtime aspect (Gimbutas 1991:249-251).
Evidence for males as fathers during this period is absent. “My
archaeological research does not confirm the hypothetical existence
of the primordial parents and their division into the Great Father
and Great Mother” (Gimbutas 1982: 316).
Some anthropomorphic sculptures have no sexual characteristics.
Others appear to combine both male and female attributes –
such as those from the Starcıevo culture, c. 5000 BC, as well
as sculptures from the Gumelnitsa and Hamangia cultures in Romania.
The combination of male and female elements may suggest a unity,
wholeness, a fluidity of gender, or one who is “self-generating.”
There are also doubles, most generally two females fused into
one body, implying a bonding between women or between mother and
daughter, suggestive of a matrilineal structure.
Although many hybrid images are found in Neolithic contexts (combining
snake, frog, hedgehog, and other creatures with the human form),
the bird-woman, which Gimbutas calls Bird Goddess, illustrates
the symbolic range and temporal longevity of one of the most prominent
visual metaphors. This figure with a woman’s body and bird
mask, rendered in numerous stylistic variations from the Neolithic
into the historic period, expresses life-nurturing qualities,
but can also appear as a bird of prey or corpse eater, linked
with the powers of death and regeneration. The Bird Goddess must
have carried a constellation of meanings associated with the departure
and reappearance of great flocks of migrating waterfowl signaling
the end of summer or the beginning of spring. Her hybrid nature
suggests a mutual identity between woman and bird which has great
longevity in European folkloric traditions.
According to Gimbutas, settlement and cemetery evidence as well
as linguistic, mythological and historical research indicate that
non-Indo-European Neolithic societies were matrilineal, matrifocal
and economically egalitarian. Gimbutas rejects the term “matriarchy”
because it too often implies a hierarchical structure of domination
in which women rule society by force (Gimbutas 1991:294-296, 324-349;
1999:112-125). She writes,
do not find in Old Europe, nor in all of the Old World, a system
of autocratic rule by women with an equivalent suppression of
men. Rather, we find a structure in which the sexes are more or
less on equal footing, a society that could be termed a gylany
[in which] the sexes are ‘linked’ rather than hierarchically
‘ranked.’ I use the term matristic simply to avoid
the term matriarchy, with the understanding that it incorporates
matriliny (Gimbutas 1991:324).
In actuality, Gimbutas’ description of Old European societies
resembles the cultural and cosmological matrix of the Minangkabau
of West Sumatra, the Mosuo of China and other egalitarian female-centered
peoples who call themselves “matriarchal” (see Sanday
2002; also Göttner-Abendroth, Sanday, Ruxian Yan, Lamu Ga tusa,
and Bennholdt-Thomsen in this volume).
According to Gimbutas, the prevalence of female-centered cosmological
imagery and rituals and the absence of signs of male dominance support
the interpretation of a mother-kinship system in which mothers and
grandmothers were honored and a female ancestor was venerated as
progenitor of the lineage (Gimbutas 1991: 342; 1999:113). The continuity
of women’s traditions at the center of cultural life promoted
the longevity and cohesion of Old European societies. The spiritual
and social worlds were intimately intertwined. Caches of female
figurines found within ritual contexts, such as those from the Cucuteni
culture, may reflect councils of women who functioned as collective
entities to guide community life (1991:344).
The long-term development and transmission of cultural memory throughout
the duration of Old Europe (c. 6500-3500 BC) nurtured finely developed
mature traditions, a symbiosis with specific landscapes, and cooperative
balance between community members. Settlement evidence indicates
balanced, non-hierarchical societies. Internal differentiation is
not readily apparent within individual settlements in terms of either
layout or structure7. Long houses, such as
in the Tisza, Linearbandkeramik, Cucuteni and other cultures contain
no evidence of chieftains or “Big Men” and were most
likely occupied by stem families of matrilineal lineage (Gimbutas
1991:331; see also Whittle 1985:63). Large buildings, used as communal
buildings or shrines, are often indistinguishable from residences
except for more elaborate decorations and a greater abundance of
ritual artifacts (Gimbutas 1989, 1991; Marangou 2001:155). The pattern
of communal shrines attended by several households of women has
endured to the present day in the Aegean islands (Gimbutas 1991).
During the Early Neolithic, particularly in the Balkans, women,
children, and youths were buried under house floors and between
buildings. Habitation areas functioned as realms of the ancestors
as well as of the living in which the sacred bond between women
and their children was preserved even after death. The burials of
adult males are conspicuously absent. When cemeteries of kin-related
burials came into use around 5000 BC, there is no evidence of spatial
hierarchy in which rich and poor graves are placed in separate areas
(Gimbutas 1991:331; Whittle 1985: 89).
Evidence does exists, however, of burials in which older women were
highly honored. In western Poland, for instance, a 70 year old woman
from the Funnel-Necked Beaker (TRB) culture (end of the fifth millennium
BC) was buried within a huge triangular barrow, thirty meters long.
Such a prominent construction may have functioned for many generations
as a shrine in honor of an Ancestral Mother (Gimbutas 1991:336).
In central Europe, Neolithic male graves are associated with trade
items and tools whereas women’s graves include pottery tools,
quern stones and symbolic items. Nevertheless, the division of labor
between males and females reveals a certain fluidity: quern stones
for grinding grain are sometimes found in male burials while stone
celts for woodworking also appear in female graves (Gimbutas 1991:133).
From the late fifth millennium BC in the central Mediterranean,
hundreds of rock cut tombs created in egg- or womb shapes contained
skeletons in fetal position. In Sardinia, the symbolism associated
with these burials included triangles, snake coils, spirals, concentric
circles and the use of red ochre as well as female sculptures with
bird masks, sometimes with prominent vulvas. In the later Neolithic,
the egalitarian pattern of kin-related burials continued in the
collective graves of western Europe where communities of ancestors
were honored in large-stone monuments. Gimbutas associates these
graves with uterine symbolism in which the tomb functions symbolically
as a womb for rebirth.
A major tenant of Gimbutas’ theory is that the deeply rooted
Old European cultural traditions did not produce the patriarchal
system that later took hold. The dramatic transformation in Neolithic
social structure, economy, language, and religious beliefs that
took place during the fourth and third millennia BC was not the
result of internal development of élite dominance out of
simpler, egalitarian, woman-centered societies. Gimbutas’
Kurgan Hypothesis describes a progressive collision between two
entirely different ideologies and social systems (see Gimbutas 1997;
Marler 1997, 2001).
After the introduction of androcratic structures and the demise
of Old Europe, matristic patterns endured in some regions as substratum
features into the historical era. Ancient sources from Herodotus
in the fifth century BC to Strabo in the first century AD, describe
cultures still practicing matriliny, endogamy, matrilocal and group
marriage with common ownership, and metronymy (naming through
the mother) (1991: 349). The Greek term for brother, adelphos,
meaning ‘from the womb’ is a relic from an earlier time
when kin relationship was determined by the mother.
Matrilineal succession continued in such non-Indo-European societies
as the Minoan, Etruscan, Pelasgian, Lydian, Lykian, Carian in western
Turkey, Basque in northern Spain and southwest France, and the Picts
in Britain before the Celts (Gimbutas 1991: 344).
Beneath the intertwined layers of Indo-European and later Christian
influences, many Old European elements have been preserved in myths
and folklore that speak of a veneration of the earth, female deities,
and women as cultural and religious leaders guiding their communities.
These motifs are found in ancient Greek and Roman mythologies as
well as in Basque, Old Irish, Welsh, Gaulish, Norse and German,
Baltic and Slavic traditions (1991:324). As Gimbutas has written,
“There is no question that Old European sacred images and
symbols remain a vital part of the cultural heritage of Europe .
. .the matrix of much later beliefs and practices” (1991:320).
Visit Joan Marler's website at www.archeomythology.org
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1 Gimbutas used the term “Old Europe” to indicate the
earliest farming cultures of Europe before the influence of Indo-European
speakers. She considered these non-Indo-European societies to be
diametrically different in terms of language, ideology, economic
patterns, material culture and social structure from the Bronze
Age cultural patterns that replaced them.
2 This paper includes references to writings by other archaeologists
to indicate ideas shared by colleagues in her field.
3 The complete bibliography of Marija Gimbutas (up to 1996) is published
in From the Realm of the Ancestors, (Marler 1997: 609-25).
4 Although “Neolithic” literally refers to the production
of the new lithic technology of ground stone tools, the definition
of a Neolithic society in most regions of Europe refers to the transition
to a sedentary life-style, a progressive reliance on village gardens,
and ceramic production.
5 “Mixed horticultural economies” refers to gardening
combined with animal husbandry and a measure of hunting and gathering
in the surrounding environment.
6 Between 1963 and 1989, Marija Gimbutas was Professor of European
Archaeology at University of California, Los Angeles. Her excavations
took place through the auspices of UCLA.
7 In concert with this concept, Gheorghiu has recently suggested
that encoded artifacts can function as holograms to be used for
cultural interpretation (Gheorghiu 2001:73).