Divine Roles Across Cultures

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  • Topic: Goddess, Mother goddess, Goddesses
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CHAPTER 3

The Female Divine

THE GREAT GODDESS
Was There a Great Goddess?
During the last century and a half, numerous and seemingly related prehistoric artifacts depicting female figures have been found in a wide range from France to Siberia and as far south as Greece. Among these ancient objects are engravings, statuettes, and relief carvings, dating anywhere from 30,000 to 5,000 bce, some of which are adorned with designs such as crescents, spirals, triangles, meanders, egg shapes, and lozenges. Among the statuettes, a significant number are abstract representations of the female form, featuring exaggerated buttocks, breasts, vulvas, and bellies. The heads, legs, and arms of these statuettes tend to taper off into stumps and knobs without characteristic details such as fingers, toes, or even mouths and eyes. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, archaeologists and other prehistorians understood these images to be fertility objects or pornographic toys. But over the last 30 years, a growing number of archaeologists and anthropologists and other scholars, including historians, theologians, literary critics, and social theorists, have seen in these artifacts proof that human societies worshiped an all-powerful Great Goddess from whom the many goddesses of the historical period are descended. Led by Marija Gimbutas, whose The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1982) connected the discourses of archaeology and the women’s movement, a diverse group of Great Goddess proponents began to argue that early European cultures were, if not matriarchal (woman-dominated), matrifocal (woman-centered), and therefore they enjoyed greater gender equality, freedom from violence, and harmony with nature than currently experienced under the world’s patriarchal (maledominated) system. In the decades following Gimbutas’s theories of goddess religion and matrifocal society, the presumed existence of a kinder, gentler past gave rise to a wide variety of social phenomena, including modern revivals of goddess worship and earthmagic, a sharp critique of male-dominated political, religious, and educational institutions, and a new woman-centered vocabulary with which to discuss women’s lives and relationships. Even before Gimbutas, few questioned the notion that 102

“Venus of Willendorf.” Ht. 4.5 inches.
24,000 —22,000 bce. Oolitic limestone
covered with red ochre. Found in 1908 by
Josef Szombathy in an Aurignacian loess deposit near the town of Willendorf, Austria.

“Venus of Laussel.” Ht. 17 inches. 20,000 —
18,000 bce. Limestone high-relief carving.
Discovered in 1911 by J. G. Lalanne in
the wall of a limestone rock shelter in the
Dordogne region of France.

Source: © Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

Source: © Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

“Venus of Dolni Vestonice.” Ht. 4.5 inches.
26,000 —24,000 bce. Baked clay and bone
ash. Found near Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia, in 1925.

“Venus of Lespugue.” Ht. 5.7 inches.
25,000 —18,000 bce. Carved mammoth
ivory. Found in 1922 in the Rideaux Cave of
Lespugue (Hante-Garonne) in the foothills
of the Pyrenees Mountains.

Source: Courtesy Anthropos Institute, Moravian Museum, Brno.

Source: © Scala/Art Resource, NY.

104

Chapter 3

The Female Divine

human societies began as goddess-oriented and matrifocal. Indeed, as far back as 1861 Johann Jakob Bachofen asserted, in Das Mutterrecht (The Mother-Right), that human societies evolved from “primitive” beginnings in small mother-ruled family units and clans to the vastly more complex and technologically superior cultural systems of patriarchy. In the early 20th century, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough elaborated upon Bachofen’s conclusions, insisting that “primitive” religion was essentially fertility religion focused upon the relationship between an eternally fecund goddess and her son-consort, the “sacred king.” By the mid-20th century, Jungian psychoanalysts had begun to explore the psychological dimensions...
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