Some Critiques of the Feminist/New Age ''Goddess'' Claims
San Jose, CA 95157 USA
Internet: [email protected]
Some Critiques of the Feminist/New Age "Goddess" Claims
on Marija Gimbutas' 'Idyllic Goddess' Theories:
- from "Idyllic Theory of Goddess Creates Storm"
by Peter Steinfels (New York Times, Feb. 13, 1990):
"the skepticism about this thesis by many leading
archaeologists and anthropologists is unmistakable, although it
always comes with expressions of deep respect for Dr. Gimbutas'
other contributions and with concern for her struggles with
Yet the growing acceptance of her theories among nonexperts
has led some of these scholars to feel that they should make
their own criticism more widely known. In the end, they say, Dr.
Gimbutas' work raises sensitive questions not only about
prehistoric civilization but also about the relationship between
speculation and scholarship and between scholarship and social
Her ideas have been welcomed by eminent figures like the
mythologist Joseph Campbell, who wrote a forward to Dr. Gimbutas'
latest volume before he died in 1987, and the anthropologist
Ashley Montagu, who hailed that book as "a benchmark in the
history of civilization."
But many other investigators of prehistoric Europe have not
shared the enthusiasm. Bernard Wailes, a professor of
anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that most of
Dr. Gimbutas' peers consider her "immensely knowledgable but not
very good in critical analysis. "
"She amasses all the data and then leaps to conclusions
without any intervening argument," Dr. Wailes said. "Most of us
tend to say, oh my God, here goes Marija again," he said.
Ruth Tringham is a professor of anthropology at the
University of California at Berkeley, who is an authority on the
same time and geographical area of prehistoric Europe as Dr.
Gimbutas. Choosing pages at random from "The Language of the
Goddess," she repeatedly voiced dismay over assertions that
demanded, she said, serious qualifications.
"No other archaeologist I know would express this
certainty," Dr. Tringham said.
Linda Ellis, an archaeologist at San Francisco State
University ... makes it clear that she thinks Dr. Gimbutas has
gone too far.
David Anthony, an assistant professor of anthropology at
Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., whose area of research also
coincide closely with Dr. Gimbutas's, said that contrary to her
claims, the cultures of Old Europe built fortified sites that
indicate the presence of warfare. There is also evidence of
weapons, including some used as symbols of status, and of human
sacrifice, hierarchy, and social inequality ...
There is also no evidence that women played the central
role, in either the social structure or the religion of Old
Europe, he said. These were "important and impressive societies,"
he said, but rather than Dr. Gimbutas' "Walt Disney version" they
were "extremely foreign to anything we're familiar with"...
"In a way she's a very brave woman, very brave to step over
the boundary and take a guess," said Dr. Ellis. But Dr. Ellis
strongly rejects Dr. Gimbutas' detailed assertions.
Dr. Gimbutas calls the enthusiastic reception of her work by
artists and feminists "an incredible gift" coming late in her
life. But "I was not a feminist and never had any thought I would
be helping feminists," she said.
Still, "The Language of the Goddess" rings with a fervent
belief that knowledge about a Goddess-worshipping past can guide
the world toward a sexually egalitarian, nonviolent, and "earth-
- - - - - - - - - - - -
- from "The Goddess Theory" by Jacques Leslie
(Los Angeles Times Magazine, June 11, 1989)
"Nevertheless, Gimbutas remains a black sheep within
academia; even colleagues who admire her other work express
skepticism about her description of ancient Europe. Edgar C.
Polome, a leading Indo-European scholar at the University of
Texas and co-editor of a volume of essays published in honor of
Gimbutas, calls her portrayal of Old Europe "a bit of a dream-
world." Kees Bolle, a UCLA religion history professor and a
friend of Gimbutas', says she has "a peculiar romantic strand"
that causes her to "overestimate" pre-Indo-European societies.
Most archaeologists think that Gimbutas' interpretation goes
far beyond the tenative conclusions that can be drawn from her
data. Ian Hodder, a Cambridge University archaeologist whose
field of expertise overlaps Gimbutas', calls her work "extremely
important" because it provides a "coherent and wide-ranging view
of the evidence," but he rejects her interpretation of symbols.
"She looks at squiggles on a pot and says it's a primeval egg or
a snake, or she looks at female figurines and says they're mother
goddesses. I don't really think there's an awful lot of evidence
to support that level of interpretation."
Alan McPherron, an anthroplogy professor at the University
of Pittsburgh, buttresses Hodder's view. McPherron says that
after he published a book describing a dig he led in Yugoslavia,
Gimbutas designated one of the excavated structures a temple,
even though it was distinguished from surrounding houses only by
its slightly greater size. "In my opinion, it's no more a temple
than I am a monkey," McPherron says.
Many archaeologists believe that one reason Gimbutas has
caught laymen's attention is that she habitually presents
debatable assertions as fact. Ruth Tringham, an archaeologist at
UC Berkeley, says the evidence from early societies is far too
murky to allow such definitive statements. "I would never write,
'This is the obvious conclusion' - there is nothing obvious about
what we write. Whatever we write is always, 'it could be this, it
could be that'. Our problem is that the public isn't attracted by
that kind of ambiguous thinking."
Since Gimbutas often omits the logical steps by which she
arrives at her conclusions, Tringham says she has no way to judge
the validity of the conclusions, and therefore can't accept them.
Tringham is unconvinced, for example, that Gimbutas' figurines
represent goddesses, or that neolithic cultures were dominated by
Like many other archaeologists, Tringham is reluctant to
criticise Gimbutas because she does not wish to thwart the
feminist objectives with which Gimbutas' ideas are associated.
Nevertheless, she says: "What Gimbutas is trying to do is to make
a generalized stage of evolution type of interpretation, in which
all societies at one time are [dominated by women] and then they
all change to another kind. But prehistory is much more
complicated than that. Anthropologists left that behind a long
In some ways, the controversy reflects a classic conflict
between science and art. To scholars who think that archaeology
is legitimate only to the degree that it is grounded in science,
Gimbutas' grandiose claims are too far-fetched even to merit
consideration. And she considers her colleagues too passionless,
too unintuitive, too alienated from nature to understand the
prehistoric past. Gimbutas' theories are suspect, conceivably
flatly wrong, yet they resonate far more than her colleagues'
arid treatises. Whether or not the world she describes existed,
her advocates feel as if they've glimpsed it, and long for its
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- from "Did Goddess Worship Mark Ancient Age of Peace?
by Jay Matthews (The Washington Post, Jan. 7, 1990)
The Lithuanian-born UCLA professor's work stands as one of
the most breathtaking examples of a new surge of feminist-
oriented scholarship and has inspired some skepticism. Brian
Fagan, archaeologist at the University of California, Santa
Barbara, called the thesis "pretty controversial," and a female
scholar, who asked not to be identified, spoke of "goddess
groupies ... trying to influence modern social change in a
direction a lot of us would like to go" ...
Fagan said the notion of a peaceful, female-centered ancient
Europe dates back at least a century but has enjoyed a resurgence
in the last decade or two as the feminist perspective has
affected the way university scholars are examining old questions.
Margarey Conkey, associate professor of anthropology at the
University of California at Berkeley, said she thinks Gimbutas
has made "important contributions" in emphasising the
"mythological traditions" of prehistoric societies but that she
and others have "a lot of problems" with Gimbutas' sweeping
"Little by little, we became a patriarchal and warrior
society," [Gimbutas] said. "We dominate nature; we don't feel we
belong to her. This warrior society goes back to the Indo-
European conquest of Europe, which eventually led to such people
as Stalin and Hitler. We have to come back to our roots."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- from "The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles"
by Ronald Hutton (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) - p. 37-42
"By the 1950s, prehistorians had achieved agreement upon the
question of their origins [European megaliths]. They were
described as being the result of an idea brought up from more
advanced Mediterranean civilizations, together with the cult of a
Great Goddess or Earth Mother. Both parts of this concept were
shattered at the end of the 1960s, the notion of the Goddess in
circumstances which will be described later, and the belief in a
Mediterranean origin by the discovery of faults in the Carbon 14
dating process... [p. 19]
It was the world of late nineteenth and early twentieth-
century scholarship which extended the idea into principle that
prehistoric peoples had believed in such a universal deity
[Goddess]. Once this decision had been taken, evidence was easily
produced to suubstantiate it, by the simple device of treating
any female representations from the Old and New Stone Ages as
images of this being. Refernce has been made in chapter 1 to the
practice in the case of the Paleolithic 'Venuses'. Any male image
could be explained away as the son and/or lover of the Great
Mother. During the mid-twentieth century, scholars such as
Professor [Glyn] Daniel and the equally celebrated O.G.S.
Crawford extended the Goddess' range by accepting that any
representation of a human being in the Stone Ages, if not firmly
identified as male, could be accepted as her images. Even a face,
or a pair of eyes, were interpreted in this way. Because spirals
could be thought of as symbols of eyes, they also formed part of
the Goddess' iconography, as did circles, cups, and pits. In the
mind of a historian of art like Michael Dames, the process
reached the point at which a hole in a stone signified her
presence. Mr. Dames was doing no more than summing up a century
of orthodox scholarship when he proclaimed that 'Great Goddess
and Neolithic go together as naturally as mother and child' [_The
Silbury Treasure_, London, 1976, p. 51].
As a matter of fact, when Dames published those words in
1976, they were about seven years out of date. In 1968 and 1969
two prehistorians directed criticisms at this whole edifice of
accepted scholarly belief which brought it all down for ever. One
was Peter Ucko, in his monograph _Anthropomorphic Figurines of
Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete_ .... Professor Ucko
reminded readers that a large minority of Neolithic figurines
were male or asexual, that few if any statuettes had signs of
majesty or supernatural power, and that few of them had
accentuated sexual characteristics (the 'pubic triangles' on many
of them could be loincloths). He warned against glib
interpretations of the gestures portrayed upon figures; thus,
early Egyptian figurines of women holding their breasts had been
taken as 'obviously' significant of maternity or fertility, but
the Pyramid Texts had revealed that in Egypt this was the female
sign of grief.... all over the globe clay models very similar to
those of the Neolithic are made as children's dolls. Just as in
the modern West, most are intended for girls and are themselves
female. Another widespread use of such figures is in sympathetic
magic ... there was absolutely no need to interpret them
everywhere as the same female or male deity.
The second attack was made by Andrew Fleming, in an article
in the periodical _World Archaeology_ uncompromisingly entitled
'The Myth of the Mother Goddess.' He pointed out the simple fact
that there was absolutely no proof that spirals, circles, and
dots were symbols for eyes, that eyes, faces, and genderless
figures were symbols of a female or that female figures were
symbols of a goddess. This blew to pieces the accepted chain of
goddess-related imagery from Anatolia round the coasts to
Scandinavia. He was helped by the revolution in the carbon-dating
process, which disproved the associated belief that megalithic
architecture had travelled from the Levant with the cult of the
There was no answer possible to Ucko and Fleming, and during
the 1970s the scepticism which they embodied proceeded to erode
more of the Mother Goddess's reputed range. Ruth Whitehouse
['Megaliths of the Central Mediterranean' in Renfrew, _The
Megalithic Monuments of Western Europe_] considered the statue
pillars of Italy, Sardinia, and Corsica, which had been treated
as part of the deity's iconography, and found that only a few had
any female characteristics; many, indeed, carried weapons. Even
Malta, long considered one of the most obvious centres of
Neolithic goddess worship, fell before David Trump ['Megalithic
Architecture in Malta' in Renfrew, op. cit.]. He pointed out that
although some of the Maltese statuettes were certainly female,
many of the large cult statues were kilted, flat-chested and
However, the same mood of iconoclasm in the late 1960s which
inspired Peter Ucko and Andrew Fleming brought into being a
women's movement bent upon challenging patriarchy in both society
and religion. Professor Ucko's book was an academic monograph
with a forbidding title, while Dr. Fleming's essay was lodged in
a scholarly periodical; the old popular works were still lining
public library shelves (and indeed being reprinted), and they
provided some radicals with precisely the universal female deity
they had been seeking. At the very moment that the concept of the
Neolithic Great Mother crumbled inside academe, it found more
enthusiastic adherents among the general public than ever before.
This tendency was enhanced by the appearance in 1974 of Marija
Gimbutas' beautiful book _The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe_
[Berkeley: University of California Press]. It deserved praise
for two great achievements: it established that the Neolithic
cultures of the Balkans had left a huge trove of figurines,
statues and painted ceramics, and it provided a feast of new
images for historians of art and indeed for artists themselves.
Yet Professor Gimbutas' interpretation of those images caused
much scholarly concern. She accepted Peter Ucko's work to the
extent of speaking of different goddesses and gods instead of
one. But she completely ignored his other criteria by regarding a
very large range of human representations, especially among the
statuettes, as divine, and proceeding to classify them
confidently with no justification other than her own taste. She
explained the significance of geometrical symbols in the same
fashion, and in subsequent works went on to complete her portrait
of a goddess-worshipping, woman-centered, peaceful and creative
Neolithic Balkan civilization, destroyed by savage patriarchal
invaders. There is good archaeological evidence to cast doubt
upon this, but Professor Gimbutas has refused to recognize it.
The mixture of affection and frustration which her work inspires
is neatly summed up by her Festschrift, the collection of essays
by admiring colleagues customarily presented to a distinguished
scholar who is approaching the formal age of retirement. That
delivered to Professor Gimbutas is characterized by both deep
respect for herself and profound dissent from her views...
[Catal Huyuk in Turkey, discovered by James Mellart in the
1950s, is the largest Neolithic settlement yet known.] Mr.
Mellart returned to the subject once more, in a detailed text for
students, _The Neolithic of the Far East_, published in 1975. By
now Peter Ucko's warnings had made their impact upon academe, and
Mr. Mellart scrupulously avoided any interpretations of the kind
which he had made earlier. He now spoke only of 'female
figurines', male statuettes', and ex-voto figures', and raised
the possibility that some were dolls. When he wrote of the
Balkans, in the wake of Marija Gimbutas's book, he carefully
declined to repeat any of her interpretations of the finds there.
But this dry, densely written academic text made no impression
upon the public, whereas his own popular book of ten years
earlier [_Earliest Civilizations of the Near East_] had now been
reissued in paperback. Read with the works of Professor Gimbutas,
it produced strong and escalating interest in Catal Huyuk among
the same sort of feminist writers and artists who were taking up
the Mother Goddess. By the time feminist philosopher Riane Eisler
published in the mid-1980s [San Francisco: _The Chalice and the
Blade_, 1987], the settlement was confidently believed by them to
have been matriarchal in its society as well as its religion, and
also - or rather, 'therefore' - a peaceful community requiring
neither weapons nor defences (a claim contradicted in Mr.
Mellart's original textbook)...
Ian Hodder has recently taken a fresh look at this evidence
and the context in which it is set ['Contextual Archaeology: An
Interpretation of Catal Huyuk and a discussion of the Origins of
Agriculture', _London University Institute of Archaeology
Bulletin_ 1987, 24, pp.43-56]. He notes that women were buried
with ornaments and cosmetic boxes, men with weapons of war and
hunting and implements of agriculture; that women were portrayed
far more often in the figurines, usually nude, while men were
portrayed most often in the wall-paintings, clothed and usually
engaged in hunting; that the art placed a great emphasis on wild
nature and little upon agriculture or domestic tasks; and that
the living spaces around the hearths and the cooking-pots were
never decorated like the rest of the hearth...
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
On Gimbutas' "Kurgan Invasion" Hypothesis:
- from "In Search of the Indo-Europeans" by J.P. Mallory
(London: Thames & Hudson, 1991)
...the present formulation of this theory owes much to the
publications of Marija Gimbutas who has argued for over twenty-
five years that the Proto-Indo-Europeans should be identified
with her Kurgan tradition ... The capsule image of the Kurgan
tradition is a warlike pastoral society, highly mobile ... [p.
The Kurgan solution is attractive and has been accepted by
many archaeologists and linguists, in part or in total ... One
might at first imagine that the economy of argument involved with
the Kurgan solution should oblige us to accept it outright. But
critics do exist and their objections can be summarized quite
simply - almost all of the arguments for invasion and cultural
transformations are far better explained without reference to
Kurgan expansions, and most of the evidence so far presented is
either totally contradicted by other evidence or is the result of
gross misinterpretation of the cultural history of Eastern,
Central, and Northern Europe [p. 185; detailed discussion follows
in next two chapters].
- from _European Prehistory_ by Sarunas Milisauskas
(New York: Academic Press, 1978, p. 183.)
Many scholars, especially Gimbutas (1956, 1965, 1973) have
maintained that the Late Neolithic saw not only the influx of
pastoralists from the steppe regions of the southern Ukraine but
also the appearance of the Indo-European speaking peoples in
various parts of Europe. However, to demonstrate a prehistoric
migration or even the presence of a pastoral economy is not a
simple matter. As we shall see, the migration hypothesis should
be treated with caution.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
on Marija Gimbutas' "Language of the Goddess"
- from Hutton, op. cit., p. 346.
Its many illustrations make it a wonderful gift to artists:
that apart, it is a personal dream-world infused with the
author's political preoccupations. It makes wholly arbitrary and
selective interpretation of the prehistoric symbols which it
reproduces, and tacks onto this an interpretation of the historic
Great Witch Hunt which is based not even upon dubious scholarship
but upon assertions of modern pagans made without research.
Overall, the book is an extended and very beautiful radical
- from a review by Ruby Rohrlich in "The Women's Review
of Books" (Vol. VII, No. 9, June, 1990)
The reknowned archaeologist Leonard Woolley has shown that
in Sumer, the first civilization in the Old World, the earliest
dynastic rulers practiced human sacrifice. Others have made
similar findings. Gimbutas seems to accept human sacrifice as a
corroboration, not a refutation, of hr thesis; she argues that
such sacrifice strengthens the life-force by conveying the energy
of the victim to the sacrificer...
Gimbutas proposes a single, simplistic theory - invasion by
violent, patriarchal Indo-Europeans - to account for the changes
that radically transformed human society in this period...
Despite its theoretical weaknesses, _The Language of the
Goddess_ is a book to cherish for its spectacular reproductions
alone ... If nothing else, Gimbutas' herculean labors have borne
fruit in a magnificent collection of the art of our early
ancestors, a treasure trove for anthropologists, art historians,
teachers, and students.
[RS note: Rohrlich is a feminist scholar who makes the
highly-dubious claim that ancient Crete was a "matriarchy"
(in _Becoming Visible - Women in European History_,
Bridenthal & Koonz, eds., Houghton Mifflin, 1977, chapter
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dubious Assertions by Marija Gimbutas:
- from an interview in the "Whole Earth Review",
" 'Old Europe' is my term for the culture which was
matrifocal, not patriarchal, non-Indo-European.... The social
structure *didn't* change [for 20,000 years]. The matrifocal
social structure continued from the Paleolithic into the
Neolithic and therefore the goddesses were the same.... I
discovered at Achilleion - this is northern Greece - one temple
above another. They were in the shape of houses.... The huge
herds [of the Indo-European pastoral nomads] had to be controlled
by the man, and I think this was the primary cause why patriarchy
Question: How can you tell if you've gone too far in drawing
Gimbutas: Well, this has to do with your intuition and
experience. Just like an art creation you must feel that you are
right in what you are saying.
- from _The Language of the Goddess_
(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989, p. xx - xxi):
The Goddess-centered art with its striking absence of images
of warfare and male domination, reflects a social order in which
women as heads of clans or queen-priestesses played a central
part. Old Europe and Anatolia, as well as Minoan Crete, were a
gylany. [MG footnote: Riana Eisler in her book _The Chalice and
the Blade_ (1987) proposes the term gylyany (_gy_ from "woman,"
_an_ from _andros_, "man", and the letter l between the two
standing for the linking of both halves of humanity) for the
social structure where both sexes were equal.] A balanced,
nonpatriarchal and nonmatriarchal social system is reflected by
religion, mythologies, and folklore, by studies of the social
structure of Old European and Minoan cultures, and is supported
by the continuity of the elements of a matrilineal system in
ancient Greece, Etruria, Rome, the Basque, and other countries of
So the repeated disturbances and incursions by Kurgan people
(whom I view as Proto-Indo-European) put an end to the Old
European culture roughly between 4300 and 2800 B.C., changing it
from gylanic to androcratic and from matrilineal to patrilineal.
The Aegean and Mediterranean regions and western Europe escaped
the process the longest; there, especially in the islands such as
Thera, Crete, Malta, and Sardinia, Old European culture
flourished in an enviably peaceful and creative civilization
until 1500 B.C., a thousand to 1500 years after central Europe
had been thoroughly transformed...
We are still living under the sway of that aggressive male
invasion and only beginning to discover our long alienation from
our authentic European Heritage - gylanic, nonviolent, earth-
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
on Riane Eisler's "The Chalice and the Blade":
- from "The Goddess Theory" by Jacques Leslie
(Los Angeles Times Magazine, June 11, 1989)
"Equally significantlly, a book called "The Chalice and the
Blade," written by Riane Eisler, used Gimbutas' ideas as its
cornerstone for arguing that features of modern civilization such
as patriarchy, warfare, and competitiveness are recent historical
developments, introduced by the villanous Indo-Europeans. Far
from being inevitable, Eisler claims, the ills of modern
civilization can be blamed on its unbalanced embrace of masculine
values. Societies that cherish the Earth, as Gimbutas and Eisler
argue that the Old Europeans did, would not waste their wealth on
nuclear arsenals, nor would they allow life on the planet to be
threatened by environmental problems. Published in 1987, "The
Chalice and the Blade" is now in its seventh printing and enjoys
a kind of cult prominence within the women's movement.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The feminist/New Age "Idyllic Goddess" theory is not an
intellectually-respectable hypothesis. It was invented by
conjecturing far beyond what available facts will permit, guided
by a political agenda, and "validated" by intuition. While a
belief in a universal Goddess of the Neolithic was widely-held by
scholars several decades ago, recent scholarly critiques have
exposed serious difficulties with this view, and it is now quite
discredited within academe. The overwhelming majority of
anthropologists and archaeologists reject Gimbutas' interpreta-
tions and conjectures on "the Goddess"; however, most of them are
reluctant to speak out too strongly, out of sympathy for their
ailing colleague, and for her feminist goals.
Yet in spite of its rejection by scholars, the Idyllic Goddess
theory has found enormous support among certain segments of the
general public, because it appeals to their preconceived beliefs.
Thus Gimbutas' Goddess theories should be placed alongside those
of Velikovsky and Von Daniken: belief-systems which, while
enjoying a cult-like popularity among certain groups of laymen,
are rejected virtually _in toto_ by scholars who have worked in
the field. They are classic examples of pseudo-science.
Robert Sheaffer - Scepticus Maximus - [email protected]