IDEAS

Challenging history

Peaceful women may have once ruled the world

PATRICIA McGEE February 12 1990
IDEAS

Challenging history

Peaceful women may have once ruled the world

PATRICIA McGEE February 12 1990

Challenging history

Peaceful women may have once ruled the world

IDEAS

For more than a century, some scholars have speculated that, thousands of years ago, Central Europe may have been the home of a peaceable, goddess-worshipping civilization that was dominated by women. With the emergence of feminist thought in the Western academic world during the past two decades, interest in the theory has grown. Archeologist Marija Gimbutas, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, for one, has claimed to have uncovered evidence to support the theory. Gimbutas says that an invasion from the east of warlike Indo-European nomadic peoples who worshipped male gods ended about 4,500 years of peace and set the stage for the eras of conflict that have followed ever since.

Gimbutas’s pronouncements have sparked a controversy in the academic world. Her book, The Language of the Goddess, published last October, centres on 2,000 markings and symbols found on ancient artifacts and in temples

uncovered during 16 years of excavations in Yugoslavia, Italy and Greece. Gimbutas writes that the symbols, which date from 7000 to 2500 BC, prove that “our authentic European heritage” was a nonviolent, earth-avowing culture where “the ruling was in the women’s hands.”

Lithuanian-born Gimbutas, 69, is not the first person to propose that a goddess-worshipping civilization existed. In 1861, Swiss anthropologist Johann Bachofen advanced a similar idea in his book Das Mutterrecht ( The Mother Right). In addition, followers of 20th-century Swiss psychologist Carl Jung have long upheld the same idea. Psychiatrist Jean Shinoda Bolen, a professor at the C. G. Jung Institute in San Francisco, helped to popularize the view in her 1985 book, Goddesses in Everywoman. But Gimbutas, the author of 20 other books on anthropology and mythology, has gone further than any previous scholar in producing evidence to support the theory. Said Gimbutas:

“I’m not interested in theory. The materials speak for themselves.”

In her book, Gimbutas claims that, unlike the later, male-dominated societies that produced weapons and admired warlike qualities, the earlier culture, centred on goddesses, was more interested in building shrines and temples and in making pottery and sculpture. “This was a long-lasting period of remarkable creativity and stability,” she writes, “an age free of strife.” The goddesses worshipped in that period, she says, represented nature. Writes Gimbutas: “The goddesses were mainly life creators, not Venuses or beauties, and most definitely not the wives of male gods.”

Gimbutas speculates that a male-dominated warrior society from the East began to destroy the peace-loving civilization beginning around 4300 BC. Gimbutas says that fewer than five per cent of the figurines she excavated were of male figures and that the more recent artifacts, found at shallower depths, included daggers and swords and were clearly influenced by warrior gods.

Still, many experts in Gimbutas’s field reject her theories as unscientific conjecture. John Hayes, curator of the Greek and Roman department at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, said that the belief in an ancient culture built around goddesses is currently popular. But he said that he does not agree with some of Gimbutas’s interpretations of the ancient symbols she found. Said Hayes: “She’s got a fantastic wealth of knowledge in the Neolithic and Bronze ages. But we’re dealing

with prehistory. There are no written records, and some of her statements are quite dogmatic.”

Other anthropologists and archeologists say that they question whether it is possible to interpret symbols of any prehistoric era. “Many people will say, ‘No, you can’t do that,” said University of Alberta anthropology profes-

sor Ruth Gruhn. “Gimbutas has gone into areas where other archeologists have feared to tread, and some would say she is on thin ice. I would say what she has is a plausible interpretation.” Bruce Trigger, an anthropology professor at Montreal’s McGill University, said that, although Gimbutas’s theories make “reasonably good sense,” they can really only be

considered “hunches.” Added Trigger: “Because she isn’t able to show any direct continuity to a written record, it’s really hard to build up a convincing argument.”

But the interest in goddesses is growing, particularly among North American women. In September, the Royal Ontario Museum drew more than 2,300 people to its four-day series on goddesses, which featured lectures and a screening of an hour-long National Film Board documentary, Goddess Remembered. The film’s director, Donna Read, said that she believes women are drawn to the theory of goddesses because they have difficulty embracing organized patriarchal religions. Similarly, Johanna Stuckey, a professor of humanities and women’s studies at Toronto’s York University, says that the popularity of goddesses can be attributed to people’s growing need to co-operate with nature and with other people.

For her part, Gimbutas herself appears to have no doubts about the accuracy of her theories. And she claims that society should return to its goddess-worshipping roots. “I am saying we should not forget our history,” said Gimbutas. “There are some good things— there is the sacredness of our planet, which in earlier times was really respected.” She denies that The Language of the Goddess is a lament for the loss of a better way of life. But, she added, “It’s a fact that these people lived in much happier times.”

PATRICIA McGEE