I can claim heritage in two diverse cultures; one east European, the other, west. It’s an odd intersection of cultures actually; skin colour is the sole common characteristic. The language is different, the food is different, and the ancient myths are different. While we joked about our mixed cultural heritage, as children of immigrants, we still felt something missing, a cultural connection that included extended family members and neighbours who shared common cultural understandings, particularly of the place of women in both the family and in the larger social system.
The Second World War erased millions of memories, of stories that would have been told by people who then, well, couldn’t. Some of my family history disappeared, memories that vanished with the people who held them.
What I do know is that through my father’s east European genealogy I can claim a connection to the ancient cultures of the mother goddess, whose remains are detailed in the work of archeologist Marija Gimbutas. The artifacts excavated at various sites in eastern Europe date back 9,000 years or more and are among some of the oldest material remains discovered. They leave record of a culture that saw the form of woman as propitious and connected with the fertility of nature and the sustenance of life.
In the symbology painted on the pottery vases, platters and urns, we see spirals of beginning swirl around the four corners of the world; the snake of knowing embrace the egg of creation. These images continue with us today, their primary meaning lost as successive cultures imposed new meanings on old symbols. There are thousands of small clay figurines of women found of varying fertile shapes and incised with markings to represent clothing, jewelery, and other accessories.
Gimbutas posits a theory, one that details a distant past that venerated the form of woman. This civilization flourished until its destruction around the fourth millennium BC by invading northern tribes, ancestors of the Indo-Europeans. Traces of its artistic influences can be seen in the art and decoration of the Minoan civilization around the palace of Knossos in Crete, 2,500 BC, marking its cultural connection to the world of the ancient Greeks and down to us today.
The artifacts were found in “tells”, ground mounds of cultural debris, the accumulation of generations and evidence of a “marked intensification of spiritual life in general” (p 24). Gimbutas further elaborates:
Art reveals man’s mental response to his environment, for with it he attempts to interpret and subdue reality, to rationalize nature and give visual expression to his mythologizing explanatory concepts. (p. 38)
The figures and diagrams found are striking (click on image below to reveal provenance).
The culture that I live in has fought, and continues to fight, a long war for gender equality. It’s a struggle that began multiple millennia ago, so long ago that its roots are tangled and twisted in myth and long lost memories. It’s been a tough an arduous fight, a fight many people today take for granted as a done deal. Maybe you, dear reader, live a privileged 21st
century western life, as I do. But many of our sisters live in appalling conditions all over the world due to the suppression of the female principle, to its devaluation in everyday as well as spiritual life. Gimbutas details a culture that privileged the feminine principal and celebrated life in connection with nature.
It’s all about balance.
The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500 – 3400 BC. Marija Gimbutas (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982)