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The living goddesses /
Marija Gimbutas ; edited and supplemented by Miriam Robbins Dexter.
Berkeley : University of California Press, c1999.
xx, 286 p. : ill. ; 26 cm.
0520213939 (alk. paper)
More Details
Berkeley : University of California Press, c1999.
0520213939 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 235-259) and index.
A Look Inside
Flap Copy
"The quintessence of decades of research. . . . It excellently illustrates the various manifestations of the Goddess in the Minoan world and in ancient Greece, among the Etruscans and the Basques, in Celtic, Germanic, and Baltic religion. . . . For sure, the ideas of Marija Gimbutas about the 'Old European' civilization are controversial, but they are built on strong arguments and valid bases, which make it indispensable for her dissident colleagues to take heed of her writings."--Edgar PolomÉ, Editor of theJournal of Indo-European Studies "The overall view of 'Old Europe' Marija Gimbutas presents is not only readable but spellbinding. . . . Archaeological findings, folklore, and historical texts, including images and texts from ancient Greece and the ancient Near East, are drawn on, and together they produce a coherent, seamless imagery."--Kees Bolle, University of California, Los Angeles
First Chapter

Chapter One

Images of Goddesses and Gods

In Neolithic Europe and Asia Minor (ancient Anatolia)--in the era between 7000 B.C. and 3000 B.C.--religion focused on the wheel of life and its cyclical turning. This is the geographic sphere and the time frame I refer to as Old Europe. In Old Europe, the focus of religion encompassed birth, nurturing, growth, death, and regeneration, as well as crop cultivation and the raising of animals. The people of this era pondered untamed natural forces, as well as wild plant and animal cycles, and they worshiped goddesses, or a goddess, in many forms. The goddess manifested her countless forms during various cyclical phases to ensure that they functioned smoothly She revealed herself in multiple ways through the myriad facets of life, and she is depicted in a very complex symbolism.

    First I will explore these forms in detail, looking mainly at goddess figures, and then I will unravel their meaning. The images of the goddess can be loosely categorized under her aspects of life giving and sustaining, death, and renewal. Although male energy also motivated regeneration and life stimulation, in both the plant and animal worlds, it was the feminine force that pervaded existence.


Small statues, excavated from Old European settlements, cemeteries, and tombs, comprise an important source for understanding Old European religion. When the Old Europeans discovered how to fire pottery in about the seventh millennium B.C., that pottery provided a new way to express religious ideals. A variety of ceramic forms--vases, figurines, and ritual implements--displayed the spiritual symbols of Old Europe. Although Old European cultures continued to create religious artifacts in other media--stone, bone, amber, and antler--it was ceramic forms that most richly manifested the symbolic world of Old Europe.

    By nature, archaeological preservation favors smaller artifacts. Chances are better for a ceramic sculpture a few inches high to survive seven or more millennia under several feet of dirt than for a life-size ceramic statue. Consequently, we often unearth small images intact and larger statues in many parts. Most of these figurines can be held in one's hand. Their makers often etched them with sacred symbols in the form of facial markings, geometric designs, and signs that may have been a form of script.

    Our Neolithic ancestors not only created figurines representing certain deities, priestesses, or other mythical persona; they also reenacted rituals with these figurines. Discoveries include not only female and male figurines, which may have been made to represent goddesses and gods, but also thrones, vases, offering tables, furniture, musical instruments, and even miniature temples. Such miniature temples preserve the prototypes, adding an extra dimension to the archaeological record. Although ancient peoples created religious artifacts in other media (woven cloth and wood, for instance), except in extraordinary cases these have decayed. As a result, small ceramic objects provide some of the most important evidence for deciphering Old European religion.

    Almost all archaeological sites in Italy, the Balkans, and central Europe contain these objects, spanning almost every Neolithic time period. We also find them in Asia Minor (ancient Anatolia, modern Turkey), the Near East, and to a much lesser extent, in western and northern Europe. Often where sites reach several meters deep, representing centuries or even millennia of occupation, figurines occur at almost every level. In these significant sites, we can often discern an artistic evolution from the earliest levels to the latest ones, indicating the importance of these objects to generation after generation of inhabitants.

    The Neolithic, or earliest agricultural era, provides a much more fertile source for deciphering figurines than the previous archaeological periods, the Mesolithic and the Upper (or later) Paleolithic. The artifacts from this earlier time period often lose their contexts, and for the entire Upper Paleolithic, we have only about three thousand figurines. For Old Europe, with its great outpouring of religious art, so many figurines have been excavated at so many sites that we cannot possibly tabulate them accurately. Total Old European figurines may number one hundred thousand or more, counting all the broken or damaged figurines deemed unimportant in earlier excavations. Fortunately, settlements, cemeteries, and tombs, which provide excellent contexts, constitute the bulk of Neolithic sites. The innumerable Neolithic figurines preserved in their original settings intimate the richness of Old European spirituality.

The human body constituted one of Old Europe's most powerful symbols. As a result of modern cultural programming, we often associate nakedness with sexual enticement. The modern analyst naturally projects these attitudes back thousands of years and assumes that ancient depictions of the body served basically the same purpose.

    Our cultural programming also leads to the assumption that female representations invariably represent "earth as fertility"; therefore all naked female artifacts become "fertility figurines." The Old European cultures certainly cared about fertility. But, as we will see, the wide variety of figurines, and particularly their Neolithic archaeological contexts, suggests that the feminine force played a wider religious role. The many sophisticated Neolithic art forms accentuating the female body unveil a natural and sacred sexuality neglected by modern culture.

    In religious art, the human body symbolizes myriad functions beyond the sexual, especially the procreative, nurturing, and life enhancing. I believe that in earlier times, obscenity as a concept surrounding either the male or female body did not exist. Renditions of the body expressed other functions, specifically the nourishing and procreative aspects of the female body and the life-stimulating qualities of the male body. The female force, as the pregnant vegetation goddess, intimately embodied the earth's fertility. But the sophisticated, complex art surrounding the Neolithic goddess is a shifting kaleidoscope of meaning: she personified every phase of life, death, and regeneration. She was the Creator from whom all life--human, plant, and animal--arose, and to whom everything returned. Her role extended far beyond eroticism.

    The fact that these female figurines do not typically resemble an actual human or animal body belies their use as mere erotic art. The body is almost always abstracted or exaggerated in some manner. These modifications are not accidental: a brief survey of Neolithic art shows that the highly skilled ceramic workers of this time could achieve whatever effect they wished. Their intentional modifications of the human body expressed various manifestations of the inmost divine force. Before discussing the types of divinities represented by the figurines, it is necessary to focus on several peculiarities of figurine art: schematization, masks, hieroglyphs, and exaggeration of certain body parts, all of which were conventions used by the Old European artist.


In Old Europe, schematic female and male bodies, in conjunction with other symbols, often represented the sacred force. Although many figurines are ceramic masterpieces, other figurines appear strangely unfinished, sometimes resembling nothing more than a single clay cylinder with exaggerated breasts or buttocks, or a pregnant belly without arms or legs (Fig. 1). Their makers often incised them with symbols, such as two or three lines, spirals or meanders, a chevron or a lozenge. These geometric symbols may have stimulated or identified certain functions of the divinity In fact, I believe that these schematic renderings distinctively focused attention on the symbolic message they conveyed.

    Schematic figurines comprise one of the most captivating and intriguing aspects of Old European art. Although realistic, beautiful likenesses attract more attention, many more schematic figurines are excavated than lifelike ones. This should not surprise us, because prehistoric art was symbolic art. Old European artisans could create schematic figurines easily, and, like the Christian cross, in religious practice these figures communicated the same symbolic concepts as the more representational art. These simplified images do not disparage the human body, as has been commonly thought; instead, they express a sacred message.


To express different sacred functions, figurines and other ceramic art often display unusual modifications or exaggerations. Female figurines, representing the complex feminine force, particularly show such enhancements. Some figurines show exaggerated body weight, and they have been interpreted by some as obese figures or "fat ladies." Undoubtedly, this exaggerated body weight is valued, since it appears on female figurines from several different cultures. Other figurines focus on the generative organs, the breasts and vulva, as well as the buttocks. Such emphasis enhances the power of that particular part of the body. For instance, many figurines and vases prominently display breasts. The tradition of emphasizing breasts actually began much earlier, during the Upper Paleolithic, and continued much later, into the Bronze Age. Breasts symbolize the nurturing and regeneration of life. The depiction of breasts on ceramic vessels used in rituals clearly shows the female body, and by extension the body of the divine female, as a vessel of nourishment or renewal. Although breasts obviously embody nourishment and life sustenance, their portrayal on megalithic tomb walls also attests to the comprehensive spiritual role of the Old European goddess in death and the regeneration of life.

    On many figurines, the breasts and the upper part of the body appear relatively thin and de-emphasized, while the lower parts--the buttocks, thighs, and legs--are enlarged beyond natural proportion (Fig. 2). The figurine's center of gravity, and its religious significance, rests in the lower part of the body. These figurines often display exaggerated vulvas and buttocks. Although we almost automatically think of the vulva and buttocks as sexual symbols, in Old European art they most likely signified life giving and sustenance, rather than eroticism. The symbolic value of exaggerated buttocks relates to breasts and double eggs, where the power of the life-giving symbol increases by doubling. Sometimes the artisan molded the buttocks of a figurine on egg-shaped clay cores or pebbles; thus she or he may have felt the interconnectedness of the symbols of buttocks and eggs. This symbolism was inherited from the Upper Paleolithic: on rocks dating to the Magdalenian period, in southern France (La Roche, Lalinde) and southern Germany (Gonnersdorf), artisans engraved buttocks in silhouette and marked them with one, two, or more lines. The early Neolithic figurines with egg-shaped buttocks often exhibit two lines as well, perhaps illustrating the state where one human being becomes two, in pregnancy.

    In both Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic art, the vulva dominates symbolic portrayals, appearing separately or greatly enlarged on figurines and pottery vessels. The vulva appears as a triangle, an oval, an open circle, or even as a bud or branch--a fact that emphasizes its life-giving, rather than erotic, role. The frequency and longevity of this symbol in the archaeological record (over thirty thousand years) speaks for its essential role in the belief system. Three large rock-carved female figures from Anglessur-l'Anglin (Vienne), in southern France (dated circa 17,000-14,000 B.C.), exhibit neither heads, breasts, arms, nor feet, but their vulvas are displayed prominently. Giedion (1962, 178) comments on the L'Anglin frieze, saying, "Had there been a need to represent the entire body, it could easily have been done in the space available. But apparently no such need was felt, and so only the abdomen, the pelvic area, and the vulva have been carved. The entire figure was not important, but only the fragment which stood for the whole." We can easily understand why the vulva figured so prominently among the script and symbolic messages encoded by artisans on figurines. On one figurine dating to about 5000 B.C., semicircles enhance the oval vulva, while a meander and spirals decorate the thighs and buttocks (Fig. 3). This symbolic combination conveys dynamism: growing, flowing, and turning. As in other symbolism, the feminine force is active and life producing. The goddess embodied the mystery of new life.

The faces of both male and female figurines display a peculiar shape: some show severely angular jawbones, while others look perfectly oval. This feature, combined with stylized eyes and other facial features, gives these figurines an otherworldly appearance (Figs. 4 and 5; see also Figs. 13, 14, 24, 28, below). Closer scrutiny reveals that these peculiar "facial features" represent masks. For many decades, archaeologists have failed to recognize masks on figurines, even those with a distinct demarcation between the face and the edge of the mask. In fact, at the Achilleion site in northern Greece (which dates from 6400 B.C. to 5600 B.C.), we found pregnant goddess figurines with detachable masks on rod-shaped necks. In exceptional cases, figurines hold a mask instead of wearing it (Fig. 6). In contemporary cultures that still use masks in ritual, the masks serve to personify a supernatural force. The ancient Greeks employed masks in drama and in ritual for the same function: to embody the deities, as well as heroines and heroes. Masks most likely had a similar purpose during the European Neolithic. In fact, the masks of the Greeks undoubtedly descended from Neolithic times.


Copyright © 1999 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-03-15:
Before her death from cancer in 1994, the pioneering archeologist Marija Gimbutas had nearly completed this book, a distillation of her life's work. After decades of scholarly research that shaped much of the field of pre-Indo-European archeology (7000-3000 B.C.), Gimbutas produced two copiously illustrated, oversized books accessible to a nonscientific audience, The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess. This final, smaller work illuminates the continuity between scores of religious symbols from the cultural flowering of Neolithic Old Europe in the fifth millennium B.C. to European folk cultures of the modern era. The first part concisely presents Gimbutas's discoveries and observations about imagery of goddesses and gods, symbols and signs, sacred script, temples, burial practices and social structure in Old Europe before 4400 B.C., and reveals the sophisticated degree of abstraction and artistry in the expression of the Old European cyclical sense of birth, maturation, death and regeneration. The second part traces the adaptations of these Old European elements into subsequent religious systems from the late Neolithic era to our own century. As in her previous work, Gimbutas's aesthetic and spiritual sensitivity adds a depth unusual in archeological writing. This book is a major contribution to cultural history, especially the history of religion; clearly no one but Gimbutas could have produced this masterful contribution to the archeomythology of Europe. Although Part One is generously illustrated with ink drawings of excavated artifacts, none appear in Part Two, as they had not been assembled before Gimbutas's death. Miriam Robbins Dexter, who edited the book, has added a helpful introduction plus a summary at the end of each chapter. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 1999-11:
The Living Goddesses was edited and brought to publication by Robbins after Marija Gimbutas's death in 1994. Robbins's introduction contextualizes Gimbutas's work and provides a retrospective of her career as a scholar and provocative theorist. She also discusses Gimbutas's contributions to folklore, mythology, and archaeomythology, a field of study that Gimbutas arguably founded. Gimbutas's appreciative and dedicated readers will enjoy this final absorbing work. New readers will find the text accessible and will want to deepen their study of European prehistory by reading the compelling and extensive oeuvre of this intellectually ambitious woman. This last Gimbutas book, in many ways a summation of her earlier work, offers her perspective on religious continuity and the persistence of goddess iconography. Gimbutas looked forward to a time when translation of the ubiquitous linear inscriptions found on pottery and figurines c. seventh millennium BCE would significantly alter understanding of the "intellectual heritage of Old European peoples." Though Gimbutas's interpretations are controversial, her work is grounded in her own archaeological research on Neolithic Europe. Robbins has provided excellent notes, a glossary, and a fine bibliography for this beautifully illustrated book. All levels. L. De Danaan; Evergreen State College
Appeared in Library Journal on 1999-07:
Gimbutas, a much-praised and consistently controversial archaeologist and scholar of religion, startled academia with her assertion of the realities of goddess-focused religion in preliterate Europe. This book, ably completed after Gimbutas's death by Dexter, was intended by her to be a popular treatment of her themes but also draws upon later findings. Wide-ranging and fascinating, The Living Goddesses should intrigue the curious and delight most feminist scholars. Highly recommended. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, March 1999
Publishers Weekly, March 1999
Library Journal, July 1999
Choice, November 1999
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Bowker Data Service Summary
This volume includes discoveries, insights and analysis of the European goddess-centred cultures which predated historic patriarchal cultures by many thousands of years.
Long Description
The Living Goddesses crowns a lifetime of innovative, influential work by one of the twentieth-century's most remarkable scholars. Marija Gimbutas wrote and taught with rare clarity in her original--and originally shocking--interpretation of prehistoric European civilization. Gimbutas flew in the face of contemporary archaeology when she reconstructed goddess-centered cultures that predated historic patriarchal cultures by many thousands of years. This volume, which was close to completion at the time of her death, contains the distillation of her studies, combined with new discoveries, insights, and analysis. Editor Miriam Robbins Dexter has added introductory and concluding remarks, summaries, and annotations. The first part of the book is an accessible, beautifully illustrated summation of all Gimbutas's earlier work on "Old European" religion, together with her ideas on the roles of males and females in ancient matrilineal cultures. The second part of the book brings her knowledge to bear on what we know of the goddesses today--those who, in many places and in many forms, live on.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrationsp. vii
Editor's Prefacep. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Editor's Introductionp. xv
Religion in Prepatriarchal Europep. 1
Images of Goddesses and Godsp. 3
Symbols, Signs, and Sacred Scriptp. 43
The Tomb and the Wombp. 55
Templesp. 72
Sacred Stone and Wood Ceremonial Centersp. 99
Matrilineal Social Structure as Mirrored in Religion and Mythp. 112
The Living Goddessesp. 127
The Minoan Religion in Cretep. 131
The Greek Religionp. 151
The Etruscan Religionp. 165
The Basque Religionp. 172
The Celtic Religionp. 176
The Germanic Religionp. 188
The Baltic Religionp. 197
Editor's Afterwordp. 215
Editor's Notesp. 217
Glossaryp. 231
Selected Bibliographyp. 235
Indexp. 261
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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