Le critiche alla teoria della Grande Dea della Gimbutas


Vi sono state diverse critiche alla teoria della Grande e Unica Dea Madre in età neolitica proposta da Gimbutas, tra cui:
– “The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future” di Cynthia Eller;
– “The Neolithic great goddess: a study in modern tradition” di Ronald Hutton (ma anche altri suoi lavori, come “The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles”);
– “The Myth of the Mother-Goddess” di Andrew Fleming;
– “Anthropomorphic figurines” di Peter J. Ucko;
e molte altre.

Perchè ne parliamo in un blog di Stregoneria Tradizionale? Perchè molte persone confondono questo culto, che ha a che vedere con le rimanenze pagane in epoca cristiana, soprattutto medievale e della prima età moderna, con il culto “alla Dea”. In primis, anche se fosse effettivamente esistito un monoteismo femminile in età neolitica, perchè mai sarebbe dovuto riemergere nel medioevo? Perchè mai sarebbe stato più diffuso nel medioevo, nonostante in età antica non sia attestato, rispetto a rimanenze di culti romani, greci, nordici, celtici, ecc.? E’ evidente che l’idea “la stregoneria medievale è l’erede del culto neolitico” non regge.
Ma soprattutto, è opportuno chiederci: tale monoteismo femminile è realmente esistito?
Per rispondere a questa domanda, citeremo qui, tra gli articoli critici citati sopra, “The Neolithic great goddess: a study in modern tradition”. Ecco a voi:


Modern belief in the veneration of a single Great Goddess in the European Neolithic is often accompanied by the notion that those cultures of “Old Europe” were woman-centered in society as well as religion. The history and the development of these notions are discussed.

Modern belief in the veneration of a single Great Goddess in the European Neolithic is often accompanied by the notion that those cultures of ‘Old Europe’ were woman-centred in society as well as religion. What is the long history which precedes these contemporary notions? What is the complex history of their political development? A chain runs from Classical times to Marija Gimbutas (Meskell 1995) and our own day.

Glyn Daniel once remarked, `it is obvious to any historian of archaeology and ideas that Cyril Fox’s views were based on Halford Malkinder’s Britain and the British seas and the writings of Vidal de la Blanche, the French human geographer who invented the idea of geographical personality’. Yet when Daniel put this to Fox, the latter replied that he `had never heard of, let alone read any of the works of, either Malkinder or Vidal de la Blanche!’ (Daniel 1981: 167). If the relations between archaeological ideas and the cultural values even of other academics are not simple to trace or prove, those to a wider society will be even less clear. Nevertheless, some suggestions can be made in the particular case discussed here.

Sources amongst the Classical pantheon

An important shift in the way in which goddesses were treated in European letters took place towards the end of the 18th century. Until then, as in the classical ancient world, they had been regarded mainly as patronesses, or allegorical figures, of civilization. Eric Smith’s Dictionary of Classical reference in English poetry (1984) provides a quick guide to their relative popularity in English literature between 1350 and 1800. Most favoured was Venus, mentioned in 66 works, followed by Diana in 42, Minerva in 32 and Juno in 26, with the other ancient female deities trailing far behind. What they represent between them is love, maidenly chastity, wisdom and majesty. Only Diana is shown in any connection with the natural world; in these cases (which are rare), she is represented mainly as goddess of hunting, the chief recreation of the nobility. In a different tradition, the Christian God had created a female figure identified with the starry heaven, who stood between him and the earth and acted as a World Soul. This notion, derived ultimately from the very unusual and late Graeco-Roman writings of Apuleius and the Corpus Hermeticum, remained the preserve of a proportionately small world of scholars interested in alchemy and related occult sciences; notable examples are in Robert Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi historia (1617) and Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus aegyptiacus (1652).

It is more significant to our present purposes that the ancient Greeks had spoken of the earth as being female in gender and the sky as male (in direct contrast, for example, to the ancient Egyptians); this language became embedded in western science which derived from Greek roots. It was reinforced by the mind-set of the patriarchal societies which occupied medieval and early modern Europe, in which intellectuals in general, and those who dealt with the sciences in particular, were overwhelmingly male. Carolyn Merchant has led a number of writers in emphasizing the development of a scholarly language which identified the author and reader as male adventurers occupied in exploring and exploiting a female natural world (Merchant 1980). A concomitant was that from the high Middle Ages scholastic writers sometimes used a female figure to personify that world, and occasionally this got into creative literature. Its most famous appearance is probably in Chaucer’s Parlement of fowles, where he felt sufficiently self-conscious about the use of it to cite his source, the 12th-century cleric Alanus de Insulis.

The Romantic impact

This was the pattern which prevailed, with remarkable consistency, until the decades around 1800, when it was altered permanently by that complex of cultural changes known conventionally and loosely as the Romantic Movement. One aspect to it was the exalting of the natural and the irrational, those qualities which had conventionally been feared or disparaged and characterized as feminine. Cultural historians have devoted many works to tracing the course of this revolution in taste, which for the first time gave emphasis to the beauty and sublimity of wild nature and of the night. None has yet made a study of its impact upon western images of the divine feminine.

That impact is clear enough in English letters, and Smith’s Dictionary once more provides an easy means of tracing it in the realm of poetry. Between 1800 and 1940 Venus (or Aphrodite) retains her numerical supremacy in appearances, with Diana (or Artemis) still coming second. Juno, however, almost vanishes, and so does Minerva after 1830. The third place is now taken by Proserpine, as goddess of the changing seasons, and the fourth by Ceres or Demeter, lady of the harvest. A reading of the texts listed discloses a much more striking alteration. Venus now appears not merely as patroness of love but in relation to natural surroundings. Diana, no longer primarily a symbol of chastity or hunting, stands for the moon, the greenwood and wild animals. Furthermore, when a goddess is made the major figure in a poem, instead of the subject of a comparison or reference, the supremacy of Venus is overturned. In these cases, by the 1810s the divine feminine is personified either as the moon (apostrophized with particular religiosity by Keats) or the spirit of the green earth (for whom Shelley makes an equivalent, especially in `Song of Proserpine’). In the latter capacity she often sheds any classical label altogether, becoming simply `Mother Earth’ or `Mother Nature’.

These new emphases remain absolutely constant through the remainder of 19th-century English literature. They are reproduced in the parallel world of opera libretti, where we see them in the most famous opera of the century to treat of Druids, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831). Here the librettist, Felice Romani, broke with the tradition of Druids as sun-worshippers to make the heroine, standing in a sacred wood, pray to a moon goddess. So, in effect, does one of the period’s most celebrated heroines of a novel, Jane Eyre (1847). Jane was made to be as conventionally devout a church-going Christian as her creatrix, Charlotte Bronte, was in real life. Emotionally, however, Jane operates within a cosmology by which a single supreme God has created Nature to be a divine mother for living things. It is to this mother (and not to Jesus) that Jane turns for comfort when in serious trouble, and who appears to her out of the moon, in a dream-vision, to give her advice. Bronte’s work is a very effective sign of how far this image had been internalized in the Victorian subconscious. It only remained for Swinburne to take the final stage of development, in 1867 when he apostrophized the goddess of nature under the German name of Hertha. This poem knocked God out of the structure altogether, by making her the single mighty deity who created and maintains the universe.

It would be interesting and easy to show how the same themes remain stable long into 20thcentury English letters, and to provide parallel examples from the Continent. Also relevant from the 18th century is a different sort of cultural phenomenon, a debate among European intellectuals over the nature of prehistoric religion. Crudely speaking, this was divided between those who suggested that primitive religious belief was a superstitious compound of ignorance and fear, and those who viewed it as an embodiment of sublime truths, which had degenerated and been forgotten among most modern tribal peoples. The first, ignoble theory was especially popular among thinkers of the French and Scottish Enlightenments, the second and noble view among the German Romantics, such as Herder, Tieck and the Schlegels. The Germans assumed that one of these eternal truths consisted of monotheism, and usually linked it to an instinctual understanding of the processes of nature and of human life.

The notion of a single great goddess

So it makes good sense that in 1849 a German scholar, Eduard Gerhard, advanced the novel suggestion that behind the various goddesses of classical Greece stood a single great goddess, venerated before history (1849: 103). As the century wore on, other classicists, such as Fr. Lenormant, M.J. Menant and Ernst Kroker, began to adopt this idea, drawing support for it from the assumption that the cultures of Anatolia and Mesopotamia were older than, and in some measure ancestral to, those of Greece. Those cultures did contain some figures of pre-eminent goddesses, identified with motherhood or the earth. This tendency of thought was given an additional impetus at the end of the century when excavation began to turn up figurines, many apparently feminine, on prehistoric sites in the southeast of Europe and the Levant. It was possible to interpret these as representations of the original single goddess, and this is what sometimes occurred (Ucko 1968: 40912, and sources listed there). It is worth stressing that most classicists and Near Eastern archaeologists did not adopt the concept, but equally significant to recognize that among those who did were some major figures. In the British context the most important was probably Sir Arthur Evans, who made something of a personal conversion to it. In his writings of the 1890s he did not connect the statuettes found in his excavations on Crete to any specific deity, but in 1901 he identified them firmly with the Babylonian Mother Goddess. By 1921, and the publication of his celebrated volumes on Knossos, he was convinced that all must be images of a prehistoric Great Goddess, at once Virgin and Mother (Evans 1895: 124-31; 1901: 185; 1921: ii: 45-52). This compound was achieved by blending together those historic goddesses who represented separately these two apparently exclusive characteristics. For those used to a Christian culture, of course, there was no difficulty in doing so; behind the emerging figure of the prehistoric deity now stood not only Mother Nature but the Virgin Mary.

By the mid l9th century this image was already starting to combine with another, which had emerged from a debate between lawyers over the origins of society and of the human family. One of the contesting theories in this exchange, articulated first in 1862 by the Swiss J.J. Bachofen, was that the earliest human societies had been woman-centred, altering to a patriarchal form before the beginning of history; what was true in the human sphere had apparently to be true in the divine one. The notion of a primitive matriarchy was first fully expressed in Britain by J.F. MacLellan’s Primitive marriage (1875), and from 1903 Jane Ellen Harrison combined it with that of the Great Goddess to produce a full-blown vision of how prehistoric southeastern Europe should have been. A major figure among British classicists, she was the pivot of a well-known group of Cambridge scholars. Her work, both celebrated and controversial, posited the previous existence of a peaceful and intensely creative womancentred civilization, in which humans, living in harmony with nature and their own emotions, worshipped a single female deity. The deity was regarded as representing the earth, and as having three aspects, of which the first two were Maiden and Mother; she did not name the third. In Harrison’s vision, male deities existed only as sons and consorts of the Great Goddess. This happy state of affairs, she proposed, had been destroyed before the opening of history by patriarchal invaders from the north, bringing dominant male deities and war-like ways. She believed that European humanity had never recovered from this disaster (Harrison 1903: esp. 257-322; 1912).

Significant in Jane Harrison’s interpretation was its being both feminist and conservative; a life-long Tory and an opponent of female suffrage, she preferred women to devote themselves to education and to fostering culture in the broadest sense, leaving politics and government to men (Peacock 1988; Africa 1991). Following her work, the idea of a matristic early Europe which had venerated such a deity was developed in books by amateur scholars such as Robert Briffault’s The mothers (1927) and Robert Graves’ The white goddess (1946). In the same years, acceptance of the concept of the single prehistoric goddess continued to grow among experts in the prehistory of Greece, the Balkans, and the Near East; in 1929 the British archaeologist G.D. Hornblower gave it a backward projection by linking it to the figurines, again often feminine, found on a scatter of European sites from the early period of the Upper Palaeolithic (Hornblower 1929: 31). After this these statuettes were regularly cited as evidence that a Great Goddess, Mother Goddess, or Earth Mother had been venerated all through the Stone Ages (Ucko 1968: 409-12).

The Goddess and British prehistory

She remained, however, very much a concern of specialists in the Balkan, and Mediterranean regions: Those concerned with the emerging field of western European prehistory, and especially of the British Neolithic, reserved judgement; the evidence was not comparable, and no parallels had been found to the figurines abundant in the southeast. The western Neolithic tradition included the very widespread megalithic monuments. Some French tombs contained the carved figure of a female being, which gave some grounds for arguing in favour of a goddess cult; but the decisive evidence for one was lacking, and archaeologists did not feel able to pronounce upon the matter without it. Between 1920 and 1940 Gordon Childe, Grahame Clark and O.G.S. Crawford all published surveys of prehistoric Britain which scrupulously avoided pronouncing upon the nature of its religions. Childe and Crawford suggested that the megalithic tombs had been monuments of a single faith, and Childe even characterized it as spread by missionaries from the Near East (another comfortable fit with Christian tradition); both declined to identify the being or beings upon which it had been focused (Childe 1925: 208-24; 1935: 22-105; 1940: 46-118; Clark 1940: 103; Crawford 1925: 23-4). By the end of the 1930s some of their colleagues were starting to fidget over the restraint, most notably the young expert in the western Neolithic, Jacquetta Hawkes. In 1938, restating the idea of a single `megalithic religion’, she added, rather irritably, that she could not speak about its nature as `caution has been enjoined and must be observed’ (Hawkes 1938: 172).

No such caution, of course, restrained nonacademic writers. Briffault has already been mentioned, and by 1910 Rudyard Kipling had already absorbed enough of the arguments of thinkers such as Bachofen, MacLellan and Harrison to portray a prehistoric England run by priestesses in his book of children’s stories, Rewards and fairies. From the present perspective, the most revealing of these authors was H.J. Massingham, best known for his intensely romantic descriptions of the English countryside, evoking its deep roots into the past. What drove Massingham was an unusually bitter detestation of modern, industrialized, urbanized civilization – an `utter darkness and savagery’ (Massingham 1944: 49). In opposition, he evoked the spirit of traditional Christianity; viewing it as a purified version of ancient paganism, he saw that as rooted in a primeval communion with Nature which had to be renewed if humanity was to be saved. In this profoundly reactionary vision, the favoured period was the Middle Ages, when society was ordered, contented and infused by spiritual values; the contemporary institution which Massingham most admired was the Roman Catholic Church, purely because it resisted so many features of modernity. When he wrote a book about the Cotswolds in 1932 he took his information about their long barrows straight from the famous survey by O.G.S. Crawford with this difference; whereas Crawford had avoided characterizing the deity of the megalithic culture, Massingham repeatedly declared, with perfect confidence, that she had been Mother Earth (Massingham 1932; 1932; 1943; 1944).

For scholars who wanted to think like Massingham, the barrier was apparently removed at last in 1939, when A.L. Armstrong claimed to have found the unequivocal proof of the worship of an Earth Goddess in the British Neolithic. At the bottom of one flint mine at Grimes Graves, he allegedly uncovered a female figurine, seated upon a crude altar and with a vessel (apparently for offerings) placed before her. From that moment onwards, the statuette appeared in works upon the New Stone Age in general and Grimes Graves in particular, interpreted as a deity. The Ministry of Works, as custodians of the site, placed a picture of it upon the cover of its official guide-book and reconstructed its ‘shrine’ for visitors to see.

From its reported discovery, rumours circulated quietly within the archaeological community to the effect that it was a fake, planted either by or upon Armstrong. Such was the discretion of that community that not until 1986 did one of its members, Stuart Piggott, raise the matter in print (Piggott 1986: 190). An investigation into the matter was carried out by Gillian Varndell, as part of a general reappraisal of the Grimes Graves material, and in 1991 she reported the following points: the excavation was never published; Armstrong’s site notebook stopped abruptly on the day of the vital discovery, without recording it properly; on the day of the find, most unusually, he had directed all other experienced excavators to leave the site; the figurine and vessel look suspiciously freshly-carved; and somebody on Armstrong’s team was an expert carver, because similar objects made from the same chalk rock, like an Egyptian sphinx, were among his possessions from the dig (Varndell 1991: 103-6).

As no method exists for dating chalk objects, Varndell added, the authenticity of these cannot be objectively tested; but not surprisingly, she concluded that the circumstantial evidence made their status extremely dubious. This doubt is increased by the fact that since 1939 not a single other figurine has been found in an unequivocally sacred context from the British Neolithic. It looks as if the Grimes Graves `Goddess’ was a fraud; like the Piltdown skull, it had success because it represented precisely what some were hoping to find at that moment. Its effects could be seen in the 1940s, upon a wife-and-husband team very prominent among them, Jacquetta and Christopher Hawkes. In 1945 and 1940 respectively, they published textbooks in which they suggested that the megalith builders of western Europe had been converted to the religion of the Great Goddess of fertility, by missionaries moving through the Mediterranean form the old centre of her cult in the Balkans and Levant. This religion was replaced in turn, so both argued, by new cults introduced by the Beaker People, conquering westward from central Europe (C. Hawkes 1940: 84-9, 153, 180,198; J. Hawkes 1945: 16-18.

Jacquetta Hawkes and a goddess religion By the early 1950s they had parted, in every sense. Christopher Hawkes did not return to the topic, concentrating instead upon later prehistory; Jacquetta developed it with passionate enthusiasm, having become a professional writer of novels, plays and poetry as well as popular works of archaeology and history. The latter earned her an enormous readership, even while she continued to command affection and respect among archaeologists of her generation. She was awarded the OBE and an honorary doctorate, and became one of the two British members of UNESCO (along with the scientist Sir Julian Huxley). By 1951 she had developed a view of the Neolithic which she was to elaborate far into the 1960s – essentially the view of Jane Harrison and Harold Massingham, with an explicit acknowledgement of the poetic vision of Robert Graves. Her New Stone Agers were also woman-centred, peaceful, creative, and living in harmony with Nature, worshipped as a single goddess. This happy religion united the figurine-makers of the southeast and the megalith-builders of the west, with a chain of cult centres such as the temples of Malta. Like her predecessors, Hawkes declared that it had been destroyed by war-like patriarchal invaders worshipping sky gods: she gave a further apparent precision to this process by identifying these conquerors with the Indo-Europeans, regarding the Beaker People as their western manifestation (Hawkes 1951: 158-61; 1954a: 20-1,198, 243-4; 1954b; 1962: 57-87; 1963: 204-344; 1968a).

Her politics were likewise of a piece with those of Harrison and (more particularly) Massingham. Her favourite period was the 18th century, the last time in her opinion at which civilization and nature were harmoniously intertwined in England; to understand how provocative this concept would be to a socialist in the 1960s it should be remembered that the century concerned was also the time of the Atlantic slave trade, rotten boroughs, the Bloody Code of capital offences and the golden age of aristocratic oligarchy. With the industrial revolution, as Hawkes saw it (1951: 143,198, 2001), England grew `hard, dirty and hideous’, and the `Great Goddess was seen in her aspect as Cinderella, with soot in her hair and dust on her skirt’. Modern science was ‘a Frankenstein’s monster’, leaving the present world `in helpless expectation of a searing death’, and the computer ‘a parasite of the Apollonian mind’ (Hawkes 1968b: 260; 1962: 240-1). Her hatred of technology was joined to an intense suspicion of socialism. It is not surprising to find her going out of her way to condemn communism, but there is a startling moment when she describes the American nuclear weapons research station at Los Alamos as the exemplar of `what socialism would achieve if it had its head’ (Hawkes 1954: chapter 8; 1955: 277). Salvation, for her as for Massingham, lay in a renewed sense of kinship and unity with Earth, the Great Goddess (Hawkes 1954b: 245-9). All these emotional impulses were legitimized, for her general readership, by her authority as an archaeologist. Small wonder that she was so popular, for she provided the prehistoric counterpart to the sentimental conservatism represented in the same period by the histories written by Sir Arthur Bryant and guides to English counties produced by Arthur Mee.

The universal goddess

Within the British scholarly community, Jacquetta Hawkes was only the most passionate and overtly ideological representative of a broader trend. Whether or not there ever was an Age of the Goddess in Neolithic Europe, there certainly was one among European intellectuals between 1951 and 1963. During the mid 1950s three giants of British archaeology, Gordon Childe, O.G.S. Crawford and Glyn Daniel, declared their belief in the veneration of a single female deity by Neolithic cultures from the Atlantic littoral to the Near East (Childe 1954: 64-5, 268; 1958: 21, 46, 58,124-39; Crawford 1957; Daniel 1958: 74). Childe was the most tentative, Crawford the most enthusiastic, having been converted to the notion in 1953 and later devoting a large and euphoric book to it (Crawford 1955: 301-2; 1957). Both projected the image into later ages; Childe asserted that it lay behind the medieval Christian veneration of female saints, while Crawford found traces of his goddess in a range of folk customs, such as corn dollies. Specialists in the history and theory of religion now took the former existence of such a figure as proven fact, and incorporated it into their own works (Levy 1948: 54-164; James 1959; Maringer 1960). Works on the history of art absorbed the same idea, and it governed the initial interpretation of fresh excavations in the Near East, such as those of James Mellaart at Catal Hoyuk (Mellaart 1965; 1967).

The most remarkable illustration of a wider impact on intellectual culture came in the field of psychology. Freud seems to have said nothing directly about the matter, although his work did emphasize the universal importance of mother figures. Jung, in view of his famous theory of archetypes, was surprisingly offhand when dealing with that of the Mother Goddess. Declaring that the essential archetype was that of the mother, he saw the goddess as merely one derivation from it – not of immediate concern to psychiatrists because the image of her was rarely encountered in the modern world; indeed, he seemed to imply that he only considered her at all because historians of religion had made such a fuss about her (Jung 1959: 75-102, passim). It was left to his devoted disciple Erich Neumann to argue in 1963 that the evidence for the universal goddess indicated that the archetype of the Great Mother had been a constant `inward image at work in the human psyche’. Neumann developed this argument into an elaborate theory of human spiritual development, in which the goddess stood for `the archetypal unity and multiplicity of the feminine nature’ and even now `determines the psychic history of modern man and of modern woman’ (Neumann 1963: esp. 1-2, 336). The process now set up was circular; Neumann had based much of his argument upon the data assembled by archaeologists who had developed the notion of the Great Goddess; and his work inspired Jacquetta Hawkes to declare that depth psychology had proved that such an image was natural to human beings – the last evidence she needed to establish its existence in prehistory (Hawkes 1968b: 260).

The goddess questioned

So it was that belief achieved the sort of apogee which comes before a fall. In 1962 a young scholar, Peter Ucko, published an essay questioning the interpretation of the Near Eastern figurines as images of a single female deity, and so rocked the foundations of the whole structure of theory (Ucko 1962). His arguments inspired a leading figure in the profession, Stuart Piggott, who more than a decade before had apparently been the only one to view the Neolithic as patriarchal with the same instinctual leap of faith which had carried others towards a matristic interpretation (Piggott 1949: 82-95). Even Piggott had briefly been carried away by the rush to accept that it venerated a goddess (1954: 46); after Ucko’s work he felt able to attack the whole idea (Piggott 1965: 114-15). Ucko himself pressed forward his critique at the end of the decade (Ucko 1968); he was joined by another rising scholar, Andrew Fleming, who uncoupled the chain of reasoning which had supported the notion of the Goddess at the other end, by challenging the idea that the western European megaliths could definitely be associated with such a cult (Fleming 1969). Neumann’s extrapolation of the image into Jungian psychology was subsequently attacked in its own right, by feminist thinkers who pointed out, convincingly, that it actually provided a pseudo-history to justify male domination (Reuther 1975: 154-7).

The effect upon professional prehistorians was to make most return, quietly and without controversy, to that careful agnosticism as to the nature of ancient religion which most had preserved until the 1940s. There had been no absolute disproof of the veneration of a Great Goddess, only a demonstration that the evidence concerned admitted of alternative explanations. Nobody put up a determined fight against this shift of opinion; Jacquetta Hawkes referred to it irritably in condemning the whole so-called `New Archaeology’ of the 1960s (Hawkes 1968b: 255-62); later she was content to declare that as the former existence of the Goddess had not been actually disproved, she would continue to believe in it as a personal opinion (Hawkes 1978: ix).

The goddess and feminist thinking

The change of view took longer, of course, to filter through to other disciplines which had absorbed the former orthodoxy; it has still not reached many members of the general public. A significant example of this insouciance was the work of Michael Dames, who in the late 1970s wrote a pair of popular books (Dames 1976; 1977) which interpreted the Avebury ritual landscape in terms of the cult of the Great Goddess, relying heavily upon the ideas of Hawkes, Briffault, Graves and other writers in that tradition, and blissfully unaware of any re-interpretations which had been made since. He had so little grasp of archaeology that he made errors which would have appalled somebody such as Jacquetta Hawkes, assuming (for example) that long barrows were in use at the same period as henges and failing to notice that to Hawkes the divide between woman-centred and male-centred cultures had actually separated these classes of monument. By claiming the most spectacular structures of British prehistory for a single `age of the Goddess’, however, he gave immense pleasure to the increasing number of people who were now actively seeking a feminist alternative to Christian or Hebrew monotheism.

One of these was Marija Gimbutas, the only major figure in professional archaeology to ignore – or rather to reverse – the shift of opinion characterized above. As she was the foremost western expert in the prehistory of eastern Europe, a status largely achieved through her superlative command of the languages of that region, her pronouncements commanded attention. Three aspects of her work are relevant in this context. In strict archaeological terms it was amazingly conservative. Her view of prehistoric Europe remained based firmly upon the theory of invasions first elaborated by Gordon Childe, while her notion of a continentwide veneration of a single prehistoric goddess was an elaboration of the orthodoxy of the midcentury. In an important sense, her ideas developed in a straight line from the 1950s onward, ignoring all criticisms and counter-models made after that time (Gimbutas 1956; 1963;1971; 1973; 1974; 1977; 1980; 1982; 1989; 1990; 1991). She may have been encouraged in this by the necessarily close co-operation which she made with scholars from what were until recently the Warsaw Pact states, upon whose monographs she depended for much of her data. Their attitude to the prehistoric past was likewise bound by relatively inflexible ideological models, which included a belief in primitive matriarchy based upon the admiration which Friedrich Engels had conceived for the theories of Bachofen.

If her work was conservative in a technical sense, its political import was not. Since the opening of the 20th century, as indicated, the prehistoric Goddess had been most often associated with a reactionary literature and a rhetoric of hatred for modernity. Marija Gimbutas, retaining that rhetoric, gave it a radical feminist tone. This aspect of her thought emerged slowly. Her first contribution to the field of prehistoric religion came in 1974, over 20 years into her professional career, when she published The gods and goddesses of old Europe, an interpretation of the data from southeastern Europe which built implicitly on the work of Jacquetta Hawkes and explicitly upon that of Erich Neumann. In harmony with the prevailing reaction against the concept that a single goddess had been honoured there, she classified female deities in the plural. In 1982 she republished this text, reversing its title to give goddesses precedence over gods, but it was only in the books brought out at the very end of her life, in 1989 and 1991, that she began to speak, in the old fashion, of one Great Goddess venerated throughout Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe, of whom all apparently differing female representations were merely aspects.

She carefully remodelled the image of this being to conform with evolving feminist opinion, reducing the association with motherhood, fertility and sexuality to emphasize her far more as a mighty creatrix, presiding over all life and death. Whereas in 1974 she had acknowledged her debt to Neumann, in 1989 she distanced herself from him by criticizing the limitations of his concepts (Gimbutas 1974: 238-9; 1989: 316). She sharpened the sense of moral outrage with which the destruction of the matristic cultures had already been invested by previous writers, portraying the whole period from that time until the present as a patriarchal dark age. Her Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures were allowed no vices, the succeeding ages no virtues (Gimbutas 1989: 316-21); 1991: vii-xi, 4). Above all, she claimed for the presentation of these ideas the shock of a brand-new revelation, challenging existing orthodoxies and assumptions. She allowed Joseph Campbell, a psychologist famous for popular books on mythology, to declare in a foreword that she had deciphered the Neolithic as Champollion had decoded the hieroglyphs of Egypt (Gimbutas 1989: xiii-xxi; 1991: vii-xi).

The third great characteristic of her later work was that, like Jacquetta Hawkes, she ceased to direct books at fellow scholars and aimed them instead at an inexpert general public, with impassioned and moving eloquence. She was correspondingly indifferent to professional criticism. Her behaviour after 1985 was that of a convert to a faith, preaching it in order to save a threatened world while there was still time, and only too ready to emphasize the distance at which she stood from most other archaeologists (Noble 1989: 5-7). A language of revelation coloured the interviews which she gave to feminist periodicals; in one of these she recalled how, on commencing her famous excavations at Achilleion, she picked up a figurine `of the Goddess’ which had been washed to the ground’s surface by rain, and thought this `surely a blessing on her work and her destiny’ (Noble 1989: 6). The same atmosphere informed her two last, largest and most popular books.

When the latter dealt with southeastern Europe, she was able to draw upon her own immense expertise in the prehistory of that region. It was necessary for her polemical purpose, however, to argue as Jacquetta Hawkes had done, that the whole of Europe had once been the realm of the Goddess; in extending her claim to the west of it, she relied upon a patchy and selective reading, in which a writer such as Michael Dames was accorded equal status with that of professional prehistorians, and some of his mistakes were repeated. Her notions of how a matristic society should have been caused her to attribute the Linkardstown cist culture of Ireland, dated to the 4th millennium, to the ‘patriarchal’ Indo-Europeans, while the great Wessex henges – almost a thousand years younger – were assigned to the woman-centred `Old Europe’ alleged to have preceded them (Gimbutas 1991: 206-19, 341). Such errors were almost inevitable, given the fact that she was working against the clock of a debilitating and ultimately mortal illness. She died hailed by her followers as the avatar of a rediscovered religion; it is suggested here instead that the rediscovery – or discovery – of that religion was a long time in the making, and that it proceeds from the very essence of modernity.


* Department of Historical Studies, University of Bristol, 13-15 Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1TB, England.



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