Marija Gimbutas

The Language of the Goddess

A Conversation with Marija Gimbutas

by James Powell

Marija Gimbutas, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of European Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Curator of Old World Archaeology at the UCLA Museum of Cultural History. She is the author of more than twenty books, including The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe and The Language of the Goddess. In his forward to the latter work, Joseph Campbell says:

As Jean-Francois Champollion, a century and a half ago, through his decipherment of the Rosetta Stone was able to establish a glossary of hieroglyphic signs to serve as keys to the whole great treasury of Egyptian religious thought from c. 3200 B.C. to the period of the Ptolemies, so in her assemblage, classification, and descriptive interpretation of some two thousand symbolic artifacts from the earliest Neolithic village sites of Europe, c. 7000 to 3500 B.C., Marija Gimutas has been able, not only to prepare a fundamental glossary of pictorial motifs as keys to the mythology of that otherwise undocumented era, but also to establish on the basis of these interpreted signs the main lines and themes of religion in veneration, both of the universe as the living body of a Goddess-Mother Creator, and of all the living things within it as partaking of her divinity…

Mother Marija and Child

Marija Gimbutas believes she has proof of an ancient European Goddess-oriented civilization that lived in peace, in harmony with nature, and with a high degree of economic, social and sexual equality, its goddess-centered art exhibiting a striking absence of images of warfare and male domination. It was invaded by aggressive Indo-European nomads from the Russian steppes who worshipped a lightning God, Perun, The Striker, who brings rain to pastures and shapes the universe with His brawny arms and lightning hammer.

And how did He fashion it? He took sprawling valleys, white temples where in dark recesses the Goddess had presided for millenia, whole villages, teeming celebrations, mythologies, artists rejoicing in the supple beauty of their women, dancing limbs circling the fire…and He decided to make them perfect.

He shattered them. With no weapons or chariots to protect themselves, they danced in abandon to His music. The throb of lutes falling to the ground, shrieks of women and children shrill as flutes, thuds of skulls against the temple floor, and always the same silent refrain: eyes, as if in worship, upturned, frozen in their final gaze.

Many contemporary feminist scholars, environmentalists, peace activists, and artists trace the source of current social problems to the spread of domination by the patriarchal Indo-European mind-set. It began in the 5th millenium B.C. by destroying surrounding matriarchal Goddess-oriented civilizations, and has continued unchecked in war-like waves to current times. If one looks at a linguistic map of today’s world, one will see that Indo-European languages are either primary or the official language of state of most of the globe except Africa and China.

The domination was not merely geographical: corporate, military, and family structures were taken over by hierarchical, patriarchal, Indo-European values. Just as in the ancient battle-ax cultures of the oak forests and grassy steppes of southern Russia, contemporary males are inculturated to be living embodiments of the Lightning God: thus, we have Zeus-type bosses, generals, and fathers wishing to establish their own realm over which they are the absolute ruling divinities.

Since the popularization of Gimbutas’ work, the notion of the defeat of harmonious, egalitarian Goddess-worshiping matriarchies at the hands of warlike, Indo-Europeans is fast becoming more than scholarly speculation. It is becoming the germinal axiom of an entrenched social, intellectual, artistic and spiritual movement.

However seductive the theory may be, it is not without detractors. Many of Marija Gimbutas’ colleagues disagree with her methodology and conclusions. Furthermore, they feel compelled to make their criticisms more widely known because of the popularity of her theory. In part they fear a replay of the first wave of scholarly interest in Indo-European, Aryan origins, a major force in late 19th and early 20th century intellectual life. When this interest overflowed the realm of scholarhsip, where wars are carried out in footnotes, and became the subject of politics, where wars are carried out by footsoldiers, the relationship between scholarly speculation and socio-political movements suffered an embarassing chapter. While Hitler proudly asserted the myth of Aryan racial supremacy, he overlooked the fact that in the realm of scholarship “Aryan” was not a racial, but a linguistic category. Only in the hands of Hitler could it be distorted to fit existing prejudices and political aspirations.

Venus of Willendorf, c. 15,000 to 10,000 B.C.

Marija Gimbutas asserts that the people who inhabited Old Europe before the invasions were peaceful, egalitarian, and valued cooperation over strength. David Anthony, assistant professor of anthropology at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., counters that the settlements of Old Europe were fortified. That they had weapons, including some used as symbols of status. He further cites evidence of human sacrifice, hierarchy and social inequality. Gimbutas claims to have decoded the code of symbols found in Old European sites: figurines of females are Goddesses, markings on vases and figurines are symbols of her regenerative power, especially her sexual organs. Her critics say that she sees squiggles on artifacts and then jumps to conclusions without any intervening arguments, that the figurines could just as well be dolls of women as Goddesses. Gimbutas argues that between roughly 4000 B.C. and 3500 B.C. this matriarchal utopia was shattered by Indo-European marauders from the Russian steppes, sweeping in on horseback. J.P. Mallory, author of In Search of the Indo Europeans, states that the identity and origin of the Indo-Europeans is still disputed, that the collapse of Old Europe is not fully understood, that it may have been due to a change in climate or other internal factors, and that the Indo-Europeans may have arrived after the collapse of Old Europe rather than causing it.

Gimbutas remains undaunted by such criticisms. After all, none of her American critics have as much first-hand knowledge of European archaeology as she, and none are able to marshall the impressive linguistic, mythic and folkloristic evidence she wields. She has a tendency to perceive criticisms as myopic shortcomings of the discipline of archaeology. Archaeologists are not really interested in religion, mythology, folklore and language—and she brings all of these into play in order to interpret her findings.

Yet, yearnings for the Goddess may transcend all science. Even sacred science. In the words of an ancient sanskrit hymn:

Alas, I know not the mantra (mystical word) or yantra (mystical diagram), nor do I know the songs of praise to Thee, nor how to meditate on Thee…Nor how to inform Thee of my distress. But this much I know, O Mother, that to take refuge in Thee is to destroy all my miseries.

Certainly the need for refuge is universal. The young Marija Gimbutas must have experienced this need intensely as she fled her native Lithuania, with only her doctoral thesis in hand, having witnessed the atrocities of the Nazis and the Stalinists.

JP One thing I have learned in talking with scholars is that the unique circumstances of their personal lives influence their scholarship.

MG (Laughter) Ah! Certainly!

JP So, first of all, I’d like to know something of your upbringing, any possible influences or gifts it provided you with in your work. Growing up in Lithuania were you a devotee of the Black Madonna?

MG In Lithuania there were dark ones. Mary’s place in my heart was very much. Actually my parents were not believers in going to church. When I was six, seven, eight years old I went to the church, taken by our servants. In May I would go every day to church because I liked the music and flowers. The month of May is dedicated to the Virgin Mary; and that was the most beautiful thing (glowing). I was very excited to be in that special month. But the rest of the year not at all. Just May, because that was the Virgin Mary month, and there were all kinds of flowers and fragrances, and that, to me, was important: nature, the beauty of the Spring. Mary was the Spring Goddess!! She serves the same function as the Goddess of regeneration, or fertility, of harvest and all that. So I had such an experience in my childhood.

The Black Madonna? It wasn’t so clear to me that they were black or not black. Usually, its interesting, the face was never white colored; it was dark. There is a connection with the Earth Mother.

JP But of course, strictly speaking, theologically, the Virgin is not a Goddess. She is the Mother of God! (Laughter)

MG She is the Goddess. In India there is the Black Goddess.

JP Kali!

MG Yes. Maybe she is related to this same thing. In Lithuania it is not very clear. There is no distinction between white or black. In Italy, I have collected paintings of black Madonnas. The connection is with the color of the soil, with fertility, with snakes.

JP You’re from Lithuania…Didn’t you learn a lot of folklore from your parents in Lithuania?

A ritual dance is performed by houglass-shaped figures portrayed within a vulva/seed. W. Ukraine, c. 3800-3600 B.C. The dancing figures on the right have male companions. The tiny head of the figure on the left has two small discs or earrings on the sides. The projections in the middle of the figures which look like double axes probably are portrayals of special ritual belts. N.W. Bulgaria, 4500-4000 B.C.

MG Not so much from my parents, but from the conditions I had. You see, my parents were very busy medical doctors and scholars, and so what I had around me were servants, and that is where I went to collect folklore when I was a teenager, and later from some people who used to come to Vilnius from the provinces, you know, Southeast Lithuania, East Lithuania. It is a very ancient folklore there, so I was extremely passionate collecting folklore at that time, when I was 16 to 20, for four or five years.

JP Did you have a model for the passion you felt in collecting stories? Like a nanny who told you folktales?

MG Nobody said anything. It was a spontaneous thing. I heard some folksongs and beliefs, rituals. That interested me. Why? I am asking now why? I think it was important for me to know the philosophy of peasants. That attracted me. And also in the family there was a sort of a tradition. My uncle was an historian. He collected a lot of folklore. My mother did the same. Then my so-called grandfather (not my logical grandfather, but he adopted my father), he was a great collector of folklore. His collections are published and I keep them to this day looking over certain publications about rituals, about spirits, about all sorts of things which became quite indispensable when I was writing The Language of the Goddess and other things. So that inheritance was really important.

JP Yes, because then it enabled you to bring more of a multidisciplinary, fuller approach to archaeology.

MG Yes! Just to see how people are content with having arrows and axes — I just cannot have it. I have an allergy with these things. There is so much of that. You open anything, you know, thousands of articles — the same, the same.

JP So the role of rote archaeology is to dig a hole and describe what’s in there.

MG And you have to be very scholarly and use statistics and all that. And I did that for 20 to 30 years — just that, because I became bored. I just had to remove myself out of the conditions of what I call the company of technicians. And some of them are very good. I don’t belong to this group because I am not a technician (chuckles).

The gold ring of Isopata near Knossos portraying goddess (right)and three worshippers. c. 1500 B.C.

Archaeology is like playing the piano. You see, you have to start with something. You have to learn styles. You have to know hundreds of strata, and in Southern Europe and Eastern Europe you have to know all that in order to play. That takes a lot of time. I did that for years, for years, for years.

JP But you felt all along the need to offer a more interpretive analysis of your findings.

MG Always, always there was that. Of course, I spent a lot of time on this Indo-European problem. It was a sort of a necessary stage, because that was known on the basis of linguistics and mythology. And then when I moved deeper, deeper, deeper, I also continued to question what mythology was telling us, or linguistics. So it became clear that Europe was not Indo-European from the beginning. The Indo-Europeans are a superstratum.

JP So what you are doing at this time is not strict archaeology. Have you ever considered just transcending your colleagues’ criticisms by saying you’re not doing rote archaeology but religious anthropology, or even religious studies from an anthropological perspective? After all, religious scholars are encouraged to use informed imagination, informed empathy as a heuristic device.

MG Well, for me archaeology is everything together. It is not scientific materialism alone. It is also religion. It is also social structure. Everything is together. It is not only the description of objects. For you can show sculptures to some scholars and to them they will be dolls. But to me, these are not dolls, these are Goddesses. Although there are not only Goddesses represented there, there are worshippers represented also. Some figurines are votive offerings to the Deities. How can they say the Goddess does not exist if there are hundreds and hundreds of temples in Catal Huyuk alone? There are 180 walled paintings preserved. So there is an enormous richness of mythology there. In Europe there are thousands of sites. So only somebody who doesn’t know anything can say that it’s a questionable thing that the Goddess existed.

JP I’ve read The Language of the Goddess, and I’ve also read the criticism various people have leveled against your work. It seems to me that you are looking at the whole thing more completely. Where your critics see only a squiggle on a vase, you see a snake because you see the interconnectedness of the symbol, its “intertextuality,” the meaning of the symbol that emerges as resonant with many interwoven cultural meanings. For you a symbol takes on meaning in light of previous occurrences or similar occurrences in language, folklore and art—as part of a variety of codes within a symbol system—rather than just looking at it as an isolated squiggle.

MG The Language of the Goddess was begun on the basis of collecting objects from various periods and places in Europe—and just looking at the associations of symbols.

JP You saw recurring motifs?

Enthroned Goddess holding a child. Striped and spiral-painted, she may represent a Snake Goddess. Thessaly. Late Neolithic.

MG Recurring motifs, and then I became quite convinced that here it is, something! And I had no idea in the beginning that I should find it. And then this intrigued me, and then I was following more and more and more, and then having one group, then I saw there was another gourp, another complex of symbolic meanings, then a third one, and so, you know, it was like playing a puzzle game. Then I started to understand what I call the language of symbolism of the Goddess.

JP What is the first connection you saw? Do you recall?

MG Well, birds and snakes.

JP The Bird Goddess and the Snake Goddess?

MG Maybe this was the easiest for me to see—there were so many bird-headed figurines. I excavated many of them myself, in Macedonia, in Northern Greece, and especially when I excavated in Switzerland they absolutely dominated. And I know, myself, the snake symbolism. Lithuania has so many snakes around. My mother used to tell me about snakes, how she fed snakes with milk. And the symbolism is very strong. So my experience in my childhbood had an influence in what I saw first.

Then the symbolism of death a little later on. In Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe there is very little about death. And now in Language of the Goddess there is much more. And now I see that the dominating images are regeneration. Everywhere.

JP Yes, because regeneration is both.

MG Yes, both death and rebirth. And this is wherever you go — in the temples of the Goddess throughout are symbols of regeneration. All the Goddesses of Malta are Goddesses of regeneration. With egg-shaped posteriors. It was clearly egg symbolism — and for so long nobody noticed (chuckles).

JP New Age religious consciousness in the United States is synchronistic in that it blends music, “witchcraft,” American Indian shamanism, Goddess worship, East Indian spirituality, Taoism, ecological and peace awareness, feminism and many other currents into, somehow, a unified, somewhat coherent worldview. This movement draws upon your scholarship to redefine how women think about themselves, how men think about women, how we think about the Earth, how we think about divinity and social justice. How do you feel, personally, about your scholarship entering the stream of popular socio-spiritual movement?

MG This is a co-incidence, first of all, it’s a coincidence. I never imagined!! I never imagined that I shall have an influence. But it became very interesting to me to see that I was basing myself, you know, on totally different sources – archaeology, folklore. This American movement is based mostly on Indian mythology and other things, and I was never involved in these groups and movements. I absolutely had no time – doing my own work, excavations, writing one book after another — so I was totally isolated from that movement. Although I had heard of it, I was not active.

I am not a feminist in active form. (laughs) I am a feminist, of course, from my birth, because my mother was a feminist, too. She was the first woman student in Switzerland, so I had this from my very early days, this freedom that I was equal. So I didn’t have to be an active feminist. People now — journalists, especially – think that I am a feminist, active all the time. This is not true. And now, after this book, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, I started to see how much influence I had.

JP Many people take you very, very seriously.

MG Yes, artists especially. I had a really beautiful meeting with about 25 artists. Each of them told me how much I had influenced their work. So I was very happy. I was very happy. So then I started to realize that, indeed, I am making some influence. So it was sort of a satisfaction which was not expected.

JP It’s an amazing coincidence — the coming together of your scholarship and American political thought. It’s like there has always been a Bob Dylan. But at a certain time in history people needed a Bob Dylan — so there was Bob Dylan.

MG Yes. All of a sudden I started to feel that I am needed. And until ten years ago, I never had that feeling. Never. I was doing my work.

JP Hey! I needed you before that — for my Indo-European work! I made many references to you. (laughs)

MG When I was writing about Indo-Europeans, for a long time I never considered them awful people. But I spent maybe 15 years writing about weapons! I never look at these books now. I don’t even keep them here.

JP And when you read about pre-Indo-European Old Europe you don’t see anything about weapons.

MG Nothing.

JP You see art.

MG And this is it! When I started to study Old Europe I felt I was in my own realm now. My own interest sphere. When I was small I liked to carve objects – wooden. I probably had to be an artist, but nobody noticed that. Nobody. Nobody supported me in that. I was learning piano because it was fashionable. Everyone did. So I did, too. But I wanted to carve. I carried a knife all the time. Cut out pieces of my flesh (laughs).

JP Was old Europe a utopia?

MG It was reality! Well, we can call it utopia if we want to use the word.

JP Was the Goddess civilization of Old Europe Dionesian in the sense of being orgiastic?

MG Well, that was still in Greek ritual and was in Old Europe. It had to be. It cannot be proven very well, but I think this is what it was. You can sense it. Because there were no patriarchal families.

JP They obviously weren’t too concerned with population control. Were they able to lead such a carefree existence because they lived in an environment in which they did not have to compete for food and land? Was the cooperative social structure to some degree a function of low population density — an absence of Malthusian constraints?

MG Well, population density was growing. About the 5th millenium it tripled or quadrupled. So at the end there is some competition and the settlements become protected by ditches.

JP But before that?

MG Before that, no personal property. They were collective units. The religion as I imagine it included collective property. The land was around the village and everybody worked there. And the surplus was probably kept in the temples. Just like in Minoan Crete.

JP So there were no real pressures on these villages. They didn’t have to compete with other villages for food or territory.

MG No. There was enough land for a long time, for millenia.

JP Could that same sort of social structure exist in a more populated environment?

MG From what we know, it was functioning from the beginning of the agricultural period for at least two or three thousand years without conflict. But then it coincided with the fact that locally they had more problems. Plus the steppe people arrived at the same time, so then we have a crisis. The steppe people, the Indo-Europeans, had horses. They had weapons. And, of course, they had a different social structure. From the 6th and 7th millenium B.C. the patriarchy had started with them in Southern Russia, so they were different socially.

JP Nomadic people in general are less complex societies than settled agricultural societies. They have less folklore and games dealing with negotiative skills and strategy and more dealing with strength, power, bravery. You can see that in the “barbarian” invasions of China, for instance, as they penetrated south through the Great Wall.

I think one problem (underlying the criticism of your work) is that your work poses a threat…to the whole structure of our civilization, which is based on Indo-European values.

MG With weapons, with hill forts, with war. That is a civilization! Only then we call it civilization (chuckles) – when weapons were used. But if there was beautiful art and another type of social structure, then it was not a civilization. It was “pre-civilization” — or, according to the title of one book, Before Civilization! (Laughs)

JP How about in folklore, myths?…In the Greek mythology and also in Indian mythology you find that the pre-Indo-European Great Goddess becomes the wife or consort or object of rape of the Indo-European Sky God. She no longer is free, self-sufficient.

MG Yes, Hera becomes wife of Zeus…and in my Lithuanian mythology the main Goddess never became the wife of the Indo-European God of the Shining Sky. They were together. Both of them – very important – both of them appeared in the most important ritual, standing, one next to the other. Both are very important. Both are rulers. (chuckles).

JP Why do you think she retained her independence in Lithuania while in Greece the Goddess was subjugated?

MG Well, that’s a good question. The God of the Shining Sky is very well-preserved in Latvian mythological songs. So this God is rather gentle. He is, even though a warrior, such a good-natured male God. He was maybe not so very strong to force the Goddess to marry him (laughs). Well, anyway, we don’t know why it happenned, but both are important.

JP In some books, popular, unscholarly books about the Goddess, there is a dichotomy presented: male-dominated patriarchal religion emphasizes transcendence, spirit. Goddess religion emphasizes the body, the earth, immanence.

MG Well, if we want to classify, maybe this is right. But all these Goddess images are not purely bodies. It’s not so. She is a Deity even if portrayed with breasts and buttocks. These are symbols. This art was purely symbolic, and a symbol is already an abstraction. It is not the flesh. So we shouldn’t actually classify that way. Although…Indo-European and Christian Gods are transcendent, more or less, and the Pre-Indo-European, Old European Goddesses are more earthy. That’s true, but not entirely.

JP Is the Goddess of Old Europe androgynous?

MG Well, yes. Because she embodied in Her all powers of nature, male and female together. They were not separated. There are many sculptures in which she has a phallic head. (laughs) This is her strength — life stimulation. The Old Europeans were really able to use the sex symbolism — phalluses and female genitals. You turn an object one way, you see female genitals. You turn it the other way, you see male genitals. They combined the sexes in one object. Quite exciting.

JP Yes, because if you can do that within yourself, you are complete. But did the Old Europeans know about the birds and the bees? Did they know where babies come from?

MG Well, we cannot reconstruct the role of the father for a very long time. Because in religion we see that the father does not exist, actually. The mother is there because from very early times people observed birth, pregnancy. These were clear facts of life. But the role of the father was unknown. Throughout Paleolithic times, the Old Stone Age…at what time they started to understand, we cannot prove. It is difficult to pin down.

JP So they just saw a thin waif of a girl one day walking down the street and then she just gets bigger and bigger, like the moon, or a pear on a fruit tree.

MG It’s like a fruit tree. This is why birth was celebrated. And as everybody knows, religion reflects social structure. So if there is a Goddess and no Father God…the social structure must be matrilineal. It’s rather clear.

JP Is there an aspect of the Goddess which is your favorite?

MG When I traveled to India, I liked Lakshmi and Saraswati, but I really liked Kali! (laughs)

JP Well, She was a real feminist!

MG In Lithuania we have the same Goddess—Ragana—the Seer. Very important.

JP Why was India more successful in absorbing the Indo-European invaders and pacifying them than the Europeans?

MG Yes, the matriarchal substratum has a stronger influence in India than in many other parts. In Europe, myth is a hybridization: fifty percent patriarchal, and fifty percent Old European myth — Goddess. But in India, maybe seventy-five percent of the old Goddess religion is preserved.

JP Yes, the Goddess religion is big in India, even today.

MG You go to India, you see Goddesses. The most exciting thing I experienced in my life was my trip to India. I loved it very much. The existence of the old religion was very exciting for me to see: the temples, thousands and thousands of Goddess sculptures, wherever you can see. Amazing.

JP Are there places in Europe, “islands” of culture that still have remnants of the Old European civilization to a greater or lesser degree, that have been more immune to the process of Indo-Europeanization, to the patriarchy?

MG There are some. The Basques in the Pyrenees is one. Social structure is still very much matrilineal, even now. Basque religion can be reconstructed as a pure Goddess religion, where they are still worshipping the Mother Goddess.

JP And their language is non-Indo-European.

MG Non-Indo-European. the language is believed to be inherited even from the Upper Paleolithic. the same language without any disturbances, say some 30,000 years old. Linguists believe that this language continued for a long time the same as the religion. If we go through the folkloristic materials, we can find traces of the same religion that we find through archaeology, the Goddess religion. Also in Basque society we have traces of the matrilineal system in the historical records, especially.

If we go back in time, in Scotland, again, matrilineal. And the third would be the Etruscan, before the Romans. These are the main “islands” that are known to history. Then, if we go as far back as Herodotus, fifth centruy B.C., he mentions a number of tribes in the Aegean area and Western Turkey which are all matrilineal. Until Herodotus, the old system was still alive. Not to speak of Crete. Crete is a matrilineal island throughout the Bronze Age and early history.

Today, if you travel through the islands of the Aegean Sea, from one island to the other, you can see the survivals of the matrilineal system. These societies are ruled by the mother and even the mother is the overseer of the church!

In all the North-European, Germanic speaking countries, Baltic speaking countries, Slavic speaking countries — in all of these cultures there is a lot of survival of the Old European system. If you analyze historical records or legends then you will see that a boy or a prince has to wander out from his family and look for a princess — and marry a princess — to become a king…there in the area where the princess lives, not in his home! So what is this?! So that was still alive in the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th centuries.

JP Do you believe that Gods and Goddesses are purely sociological inventions, simply constructs of the human imagination? Or are Goddesses actually divine beings? Do Kali, the Virgin Mary, Aphrodite, and the Great Mother Goddess exist somewhere in their respective Heavens and lokas?

MG (Thoughtful) First of all, religion is a reflection of social structure…The earliest human social structure was matrilineal because of the natural situation of how children were born. The father was probably not known for a very long period in history…The mothers were raising children and this way the matrilineal system grew. The Goddess was a reflection of the mother image, and the woman was giving birth, and the Goddess was giving birth. Also totems, …protectors of families or whatever unit there was — the bird, maybe also the snake — and from these protectresses the image developed also. So there is no one origin, but maybe several.

JP Is that all a God or Goddess is, though, just a reflection of social reality?

MG Not just a simple reflection, but a philosophical thought — from where does life come? Where do we go? All that was asked. So the woman was creating life…

JP But who created the woman? Do Gods and Goddesses really exist?

MG For hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions, in lower Paleolithic objects we find symbols. They are there already, so they developed for a very, very long time. The Goddess sculptures start around 40,000 B.C. But then we have in the Middle Paleolithic triangles, etc., which continue in the Upper Paleolithic. If we go to the Lower Paleolithic we find hand axes, triangles. These are symbols! They are miniature in size. They are not tools, they are symbols. They start one million, two million years ago!

JP Do you believe that the image of the Mother Goddess arises because of an inherited image within the psyche such as Jungians believe exist, or is it a cultural inheritance, after birth?

MG It is inherited. It existed for such a long time that we cannot get rid of these archetypes. They are inside, always here. For many millions of years it was a cultural inheritance. Then the patriarchal people arrived and subjugated the whole continent, little by little. But the images that existed for so long did not vanish. They are still there with us. In our dreams. Even if we don’t have churches where we worship Mother Goddesses — we worship Father God — but in our dreams we have images of Mother Goddesses. Some aspects of Her.

JP Do you have an experience of the transcendent aspect of the Goddess? Is she a spiritual being?

MG The Goddess can be touched, the Christian God is high up. You cannot touch this old bearded man — or Christ. But the Goddess, she leaves her footprints, but she also has spiritual dimension. If we go back to the second century, the Golden Ass (see Appendix I).

JP Yes, by Apuleius! In the last chapter, the description of the Goddess is beautiful. That reminds me of Ramakrishna’s experience. In a lot of ways, this debate — does the Goddess exist, did she exist? — is really silly in light of Ramakrishna’s experience. He could not escape Her. Everywhere he turned there she was—this luminous presence within everything, the Mother of the Universe, the Womb of everything, shining 24 hours a day. He couldn’t escape.

MG The same thing.

JP Do you believe that just changing the gender of our object of worship will produce social harmony?

MG I would say so. Social structure is intertwined with religion. Already we have a much more balanced society, so change must come. And in religion, women are priestesses even in Christian churches. In some churches here in California we have already women priestesses. So the change is visible, but still this transformation from male Gods to female Goddesses has not gained wide acceptance. The change has started, the transformation has to come. Only then will we have the balance of power. It’s very important.

Other works based on Gimbutas’ work which may be of interest to the reader are The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler, and a novel by M. Mackey, The Year the Horses Came.

Appendix I

The Golden Ass

One of the first novels was The Golden Ass, written by Apuleius in the second century A.D. In the following passage from The Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers, 1988, Doubleday, NY, p. 179), Joseph Campbell describes the story:

Its leading character, its hero, has been by lust and magic converted into an ass, and he has to undergo an ordeal of painful and humiliating adventures until his redemption comes through the grace of the Goddess Isis. She appears with a rose in her hand (symbolic of divine love, not lust), and when as an ass he eats this rose, he is converted back into a man. But he is now more than a man, he is an illuminated man, a saint. He has experienced the second virgin birth, you see. So from mere animal-like carnality, one may pass through a spiritual death and become reborn. The second birth is of an exalted, spiritually informed incarnation. And the Goddess is the one who brings this about.

James Powell is a religious studies scholar and author, whose previous books include Mandalas: The Dynamics of Vedic Symbolism, The Tao of Symbols: How to Transcend the Limits of Our Symbolism, and Energy and Eros.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.