I don’t know that there is any book that changed my life more than Marija Gimbutas’ The Language of the Goddess. I cannot remember what my life was like before I opened this book, before I knew these images, these cultures. Most probably they were always there, buried deep in the layers of my consciousness—women’s prehistory—haunting my dreams and moments of deep repose. Marija’s book offered them context. And that was not a small thing. That was everything.
That is but one part of the importance of her work. It gave these “memories,” these images, that lay at the core of my soul, context. That is the only way I can make sense of how this book changed my life. It made visible the invisible as a shrine does. In fact, if I were to really think about it, this book, The Language of the Goddess is a shrine to European prehistory, our ancestresses and ancestors, ones long forgotten, whom many of us never even knew existed. It is sacred. It is holy. It is to be revered. It is difficult to even call it a book.
As she states in the introduction to The Language of the Goddess:
“The purpose of this book is to present the pictorial “script” for the religion of the Old European Great Goddess, consisting of signs, symbols, and images of divinities. These are our primary sources for reconstructing this prehistoric scene and are vital to any true understanding of Western religion and mythology.” (The Language of the Goddess, xv)
Most history and prehistory is only about men—a woman cannot find herself there. She has to try to insert herself, her reality, inside this history of men and it doesn’t work, is crazy making—but here, finally, are the women of prehistory and they are fabulous.
It shocks me when I meet a person who has not heard of Marija Gimbutas. To me, her books are on the same level as the Bible, Shakespeare, the Koran, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. For women, especially of European descent who are interested in the Goddess, these are, or should be, our “Bible.”
At the very least her findings should be included in history courses. This is a huge part of European prehistory that most of us do not learn about. Most of us know who Alexander the Great was, learn about Stonehenge, ancient Greece and Egypt, Sumeria, Rome and the Vikings. We have heard of Julius Caesar and the fall of Troy. Then why don’t we know about this?
The feeling of empowerment these books offered to me, the freedom, the liberation is unsurpassable. Yes, there was a time on the planet when there were no wars. A very long time, when women and men lived in balance, when humans knew harmony, when respect and reverence for the natural world were the norm, when all was viewed as enlivened and enspirited, when life was an experience of being deeply embedded within the numinous.
All this Marija Gimbutas, and her body of work, gave to me. I wish it for everyone. I don’t want to convince people of anything. I just want to show them this work that they too may have their worlds opened by it the same way I did mine.
Marija Gimbutas was an archaeologist who had the special distinction of having grown up in Eastern Europe enmeshed in the still prominent folk traditions based on pagan beliefs so that when she found the same themes in the archaeological remains, she recognized them. She understood their context and was able to gift that back to us.
Gimbutas’ career was long and very successful. Studying in Europe in a time of War, she moved around to try to complete her education amid this unrest. She left her home in Lithuania in WWII when the Soviets took over and finally completed her PhD work in archaeology in 1946, graduating from the Tübingen University in Germany. She moved to the U.S. in 1949 where she received a position in Harvard University, eventually moving to UCLA in 1963. She co-founded the Journal of Indo-European Studies, oversaw five archeological digs and published 13 books, among them: The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, (1974), The Language of the Goddess (1989), and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991).
The story that is told about Marija Gimbutas is that this intelligent, successful woman was a scholar when many women weren’t, studied in University when many women could not, and worked as an archaeologist, leading digs, when it was rare for a woman to do so.
Eventually, this exceptional woman begins to experience a theme. She begins to see female images, female artifacts, images of ancient women—a worldview—being excavated from the Earth, in the form of clay vases, figures, shrines, burial urns, which were then subsequently ignored.
These items that were clearly female were literally carted away after being deemed, “unimportant,” “meaningless,” “non-essential,” while the more clearly “male” items where taken to further examination and study. But this woman, who happened to be there to witness this, knew these female items were important. And so she dedicated the later part of her career gathering and cataloguing these tossed away images, from many cultures spanning Northern Europe to the Mediterranean.
Drawing on her upbringing in Lithuania, her knowledge of mythology, and archaeological background, she was able to classify them according to recurring themes and beliefs, and decode the similar shapes and markings upon them into what she called, The Language of the Goddess. Devoting herself to this specific time period on the planet—prehistoric Europe—Old Europe—she gave voice to the long forgotten civilization uncovered there—The Civilization of the Goddess.
I ask you to pause here for a moment to understand the importance of this decision on her part, this act of what we may now call “resistance” or a woman being “#nasty.” The act of a true “Wonder Woman.”
Imagine a woman on archaeological digs in the early part of the 20th century, having the experience over and over of seeing female icons being called unimportant and carted away to a trash pile. Imagine a woman who saw this and felt a “no” growing within her. Imagine a woman who felt this “no” and decided to take action and do something about it, to let the world know about these treasures—this entire worldview—systematically ignored, marginalized, hidden disappeared. Imagine that woman: her courage, her bravery, her nerve, her chutzpa.
Marija Gimbutas is that woman.
I do not want to imagine a world without her.
What Gimbutas was able to do by saying “no” to the establishment’s handling of female prehistory was monumental; leading to work that is groundbreaking and explosive. With this act and her arduous work after to publish this to the general public, she can be credited with starting what is now called The Goddess Movement. Her work encouraged and inspired scholars from other places and cultures all over the globe so this kind of research could spread and become inclusive of the prehistory of all cultures. The prehistory of all women buried in the earth everywhere.
As stated previously, she gathered the images together and began to see themes and meaning—a language. A language about water and creation, about death, about a life-giving, generative and regenerative Goddess. The cosmology of a Universe held by an all powerful, nurturing, sustaining Mother, concerned with the cycles of life and death, the cosmology of a people who populated Old Europe in Paleolithic and Neolithic eras.
“The main theme of Goddess symbolism is the mystery of birth and death and the renewal of life, not only human but all life on earth and indeed in the whole cosmos. Symbols and images cluster around the parthenogenetic (self-generating) Goddess and her basic functions as Giver of Life, Wielder of Death, and, not less importantly, as Regeneratrix, and around the Earth Mother, the Fertility Goddess young and old, rising and dying with plant life. She was the single source of all life who took her energy from the springs and wells, from the sun, moon and moist earth. This symbolic system represents cyclical, not linear, mythical time. In art this is manifested by the signs of dynamic motion: whirling and twisting spirals, winding and coiling snakes, circles, crescents, horns, sprouting seeds and shoots.” (The Language of the Goddess, xix)
She also saw in the layers of history, in the archaeological record, a time when everything changed and a different cosmology appeared—one that more closely mirrors the one we inhabit today.
She created a thesis about why this happened which is still being argued about today, but is as valid a theory as any other and has also inspired scholars that have come after her to continue to research this “why.”
“It is a gross misunderstanding to imagine warfare as endemic to the human condition. Widespread fighting and fortification building have indeed been the way of life for most of our direct ancestors from the Bronze Age up until now. However, this was not the case in the Paleolithic and Neolithic. There are no depictions of arms (weapons used against other humans) in Paleolithic cave paintings, nor are there remains of weapons used my man against man during the Neolithic of Old Europe.” (The Civilization of the Goddess, x)
As I said in the beginning of this piece, I don’t think I can ever truly express what the work of Marija Gimbutas has meant to me. For her bravery I am eternally grateful, to her wisdom, I offer humility, to her ambition I offer my praise, for her success, I offer my love.
Marija Gimbutas is a #NastyWomanWriter.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2017
Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, (N.Y., Harper & Row, 1989)
Marija Gimbutas, The Civilization of the Goddess, (N.Y., HarperCollins, 1991)