Barnaby Thieme's Reviews > The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe: Myths and Cult Images, New and Updated Edition

The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe by Marija Gimbutas
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Nov 18, 09

bookshelves: history, religion-mythology, europe, pagan, archaeology
Read in November, 2009

Gimbutas's survey of Bronze Age and Chalcolithic religion in South-Central Europe is a tour de force of scholarship that revolutionized our concept of the evolution of religious culture when it first appeared. Reviewing archaeological evidence from around 7000 - 3500 BCE she argues for the existence of a fairly homogeneous sedentary agricultural cultural zone with a continuity of religious symbols primarily based around different forms of the goddess. In this book she briefly mentions but does not much argue on behalf of the controversial thesis that these cultures were matriarchal and matrilineal. Her chief focus in this book is establishing and documenting different forms of the goddess and deciphering the fragmentary record of pottery, sculpture, and painting to partially reconstruct the religious ideology these items represent.

Gimbutas sees remnants of this symbolic complex persisting in some latter-day European mythological systems and makes a particularly persuasive case that key features remain intact in the belief systems of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. However for the most part this worldview was displaced by the Indo-European complex that spread across Europe with its predominantly male pantheon centered around the Sky God. The Indo-European Earth Mother figure has an entirely different character from the "Old European" fertility and vegetation goddess, being subordinate to the sky god and requiring his active participation to become fertile. Nevertheless they may be easily confused as they may serve overlapping ritual functions based on the ritual reiteration of natural fertility cycles aimed at guaranteeing the continued fecundity of the land.

The primary symbols of the Old European Earth Goddess are the moon, the snake, the bird, the bee, the butterfly, the doe, the dog, and other sundry animal powers. These find expression primarily in the period under analysis, but some aspects of the Earth Goddess may extend back and are perhaps continguous with the much earlier Aurignacian goddess of the "Venus of Willendorf" type.

The book is lavishly illustrated with numerous delightful images of various archaeological relics, and is cogently and coherently argued for the most part. The degree to which Gimbutas is willing to read individual artifacts in the light of her overarching thesis is continually distracting, however, and somewhat troubling. If she has a technique for distinguishing between similarities of form or symbol that owe to cultural diffusion from all the other factors that could produce similar symbols in different cultures -- such as the self-evident appropriateness of depicting certain features of our world in relationship to certain animals, for example, or perhaps archetypal images of the unconscious that are part of a shared human biological heritage -- then she keeps it to herself. This is very troubling.

Equally troubling is the certitude with which she reads highly ambiguous forms. For example, she insistently reads pottery painted with central cross figures surrounded by projecting spiral lines as cosmogonic depictions representing the emanation of the creative powers of the universe out from a central figure. To my eyes this reading goes far beyond the data, and these may simply represent decorative motifs. But again and again she interprets ambiguous signs as clearly depicting this or that.

In the light of these two errors I can understand why Gimbutas has been criticized for being ideologically motivated by a feminist, revisionist agenda, by which she coerces the fragmentary data into a picture of an idealized pre-patriarchal egalitarian culture, opposed to the mean old Indo-European dominator culture that took over. I do not entirely agree with that criticism, because in the course of the book Gimbutas does provide an enormous amount of converging evidence for her general theory. In the main I believe her core argument for an Old European goddess culture supplanted by a patriarchal Indo-European cult is not problematic.

This is a strong, important, and beautiful book that is beautifully illustrated and a delight to read, although it is fairly technical and not really for complete beginners. Over all it's a fine volume.
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