Robert Sheaffer - roberto at debunker dot com

revised August, 1999

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 lymphatic cancer. [Dr. Gimbutas died Feb. 2, 1994 at age 73].

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 movements....

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 knowledgeable 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-worshiping past can guide the world toward a sexually egalitarian, nonviolent, and "earth- centered" future.

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 tentative 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 anthropology 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 women.

Like many other archaeologists, Tringham is reluctant to criticize 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 time ago".....

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 return.

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 emphasizing the "mythological traditions" of prehistoric societies but that she and others have "a lot of problems" with Gimbutas' sweeping conclusions....

"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 "Sophia and Feminist Theology" by Stephen Goode
Insight Magazine, July 25, 1994, p. 14

Even Vice President Al Gore has gotten into the act in his book Earth in the Balance: Healing the Global Environment. He writes: "A growing number of anthropologists and archaeomythologists argue that the prevailing ideology of belief in prehistoric Europe and much of the world was based on the worship of a single earth goddess, who was assumed to be the fount of all life and who radiated harmony among all living things." But goddess claims are very dubious at best and rest on very thin evidence, according to Philip G. Davis in the journal Academic Affairs. A professor of religious studies at Canada's University of Prince Edward Island, Davis concludes that even where there is evidence of goddess worship in earlier societies (which is rare), the goddess-centered societies were more violent than patriarchal societies: "Its claim that spirituality focused on an immanent female deity will necessarily foster peace, harmony and equality can be positively disproven." (Prof. Davis expands upon his critique in his 1998 book Goddess Unmasked )

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 substantiate it, by the simple device of treating any female representations from the Old and New Stone Ages as images of this being. Reference 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 traveled from the Levant with the cult of the Great Mother...

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 generally androgynous...

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-worshiping, 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...

From "The Death Cults of Prehistoric Malta"
By Caroline Malone, Anthony Bonanno, Tancred Gouder, Simon Stoddart, and David Trump.
(Scientific American, December 1993 pp. 110-117)

New archeological excavations reveal that as the ancient island societies suffered from environmental decline, they developed an extreme religious preoccupation with life and death. ...Traditionally, archaeological discoveries in Malta have been interpreted- or perhaps we should say misinterpreted- against a backdrop of broad conjecture about the significance of mother goddesses. Figurines fitting that general description date from the Upper Paleolithic era (about 25,000 years ago) to the dawn of metal-using societies in the Neolithic era. A few have been found in western Europe, but the yields have been much richer at sites in Egypt, the Levant, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and the Balkans. The most elaborate figures come from the islands of Malta in the third millennium B.C. Unfortunately, many of these figurines are far less informative than they might once have been because of the unscientific ways in which they were collected. The dating of the figurines is often inaccurate. The records of where and how they were situated are often incomplete, so we cannot know whether the figures were peculiar to burial sites, shrines or houses... The discovery of similar figurines at far-flung sites and from disparate eras inspired a long tradition of scholarly speculation about a widespread prehistoric religion based on the worship of the mother goddess. In the middle decades of this century, for example, some archaeologists tried to show that a cult of the Eye Goddess (so called because of eye motifs on Mesopotamian idols) diffused throughout the entire Mediterranean. More recently, claims have been made that the Balkans were the center of an Old European religion.

Most modern scholars appreciate that the early cults were radically different in each prehistoric society and that the cults of domestic life were distinct from the cults of death and burial. The example of Malta demonstrates that variation most emphatically. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the cults generally involved simple domestic rituals; little effort was invested in religious art or architecture. In Malta, however, the worship of corpulent images gradually blossomed into a consuming passion...

The great number of figurines from both the temples and the ornate burial hypogeum of Hal Saflieni have fueled ideas (some plausible, some fantastic) about the supposed fertility cults and rituals of Malta. Some archaeologists have hypothesized that Maltese society may have been a powerful matriarchy dominated by priestesses, female leaders and mother goddesses. Those theories were always based on an implicit faith in the meaning of the artifacts- a faith as devout, in its way, as the prehistoric religion itself but lacking much scientific foundation.

During the past five years, a new excavation at the site of the Brochtorff Circle on Gozo has uncovered important evidence about the prehistoric rituals of death...

On the ground surface, at the monumental entrance leading down into the caverns, another pit was also filled with human remains. Among them were many males whose body parts had been rearranged after being taken from some other burial place. Almost no grave gifts accompanied the bones. Small altars at either end of the megalithic pavement beside the burial pit may have been used for preliminary sacrifices and obeisances before the priest and the assembled mourning community ventured down into the foul, reeking caves of the dead... Unprecedented discoveries at the Brochtorff Circle have encouraged us to reconsider the whole basis of ancient cults and religions in prehistoric Malta and Gozo. As the old ideas had supposed, the worship of fertility may well have been a component of the prehistoric religion. But the recent findings argue that it would be a mistake to concentrate exclusively on any one facet or historical period: the prehistoric religion of Malta was not only an infatuation with fat females.... Cult activities seem to have reached a feverish pitch in the final phases of the Tarxien period around 2500 B.C. The society was becoming increasingly dominated by a religious hierarchy in which cult specialists or priests controlled much of the industry of the people. Vast amounts of human time and energy were invested in temple building, artistic endeavors and ritual feasts. The dead were honored within cults and linked to animals and human obesity. The people seem to have expended relatively little effort on the building of villages or domestic structures, on terracing or on farming methods. The obsession with the cults of the temples seems to have been complete. Such obsessions are dangerous, and so it proved to be on ancient Malta. By about 2500 B.C. the community of the temple builders had ceased to build and perhaps even to use the monumental burial sites prepared by earlier generations. By 2000 B.C. the entire culture had disappeared and been replaced by very different religious practices that favored cremation burials. The burial hypogea, the cult of the "fat ladies" and the other symbols of the living and the dead were completely abandoned.

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. 182-3]

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.

[RS Note: The "Kurgan invasion" hypothesis is different from most of Gimbutas' other Goddess-related claims, in that there are some reasonable arguments to be made on its behalf, and more than a few scholars support it. However, this hypothesis, on which Gimbutas' Idyllic Goddess scenario depends, is far from the foregone conclusion that she represents.]

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 feminist tract.

from a review by Ruby Rohrlich in
"The Women's Review of Books" (Vol. VII, No. 9, June, 1990)

The renowned 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 her 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 2) ]

Dubious Assertions by Marija Gimbutas

from an interview in the Whole Earth Review, Spring, 1989

" '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 became established.

Question: How can you tell if you've gone too far in drawing conclusions?

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 a videotaped lecture, The World of the Goddess
(Green Earth Foundation production, 1990)

"The Goddess religion was universal. In all parts of the world we find the Goddess before the Patriarchal stage."

[No serious scholar could possibly defend such an assertion. Simplistic nineteenth-century theories about "stages of civilization" were abandoned long ago. - RS]

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: Riane Eisler in her book The Chalice and the Blade (1987) proposes the term gylany (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 Europe... 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- centered culture.

On Claims of Supposed "Egalitarianism" of Minoan society

From: (Bob Ingria)
Newsgroups: sci.skeptic [USENET newsgroup]
Subject: Minoica (Was: Re: Is Male Dominance Universal? ...)

Date: 3 Mar 93 02:20:10
In article <1mtf3m$> () writes:
Where is a magnificent mural of the Minoan prototype of King Minos? There doesn't seem to be any. Nothing even remotely resembling depictions of Egyptian monarchs, despite contacts with Egypt.
On the other hand, the Agia Triadha coffin does portray what looks like a deified dead man, being paid obeisance by the living. And please don't say that this coffin is too late to tell us anything about the Minoans proper, since Gimbutas and the author of the Minoan Crete chapter of Becoming Visible, two sources you have cited incessantly, both use this coffin for constructing portraits of Minoan Crete; if they can use the short side panels in their arguments, I can use one of the long side panels for mine.
And there don't seem to be any great Minoan royal tombs, either. Nothing like the kurgans or the early Mycenaean shaft graves, let alone the Egyptian pyramids.
Ahem, what about the so-called Temple Tomb at Knossos and the Isopata Royal Tomb? See, e.g. A. W. Lawrence Greek Architecture, Penguin Books, Baltimore, Maryland, 1967, pp. 49--50; James Walter Graham The Palaces of Crete, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, pp. 160 172, 215; see also Plate 136 M. in the same volume for a Minoan artist's rendering of a door to a chamber tomb. These certainly seem to be on a par with the Minoan shaft graves and even some of the smaller tholos tombs. Was it Gimbutas who told you that there were no Minoan royal tombs? Whoever it was, perhaps you had better rethink her reliability on other Minoan matters?

on Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade

from "The Goddess Theory" by Jacques Leslie
(Los Angeles Times Magazine, June 11, 1989)

"Equally significantly, 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 villainous 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.

from "The Twilight of the Goddess" by Mary Lefkowitz, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College (The New Republic, Aug. 3, 1992, p. 29)

...the New Agers in America have found in the Goddess their customary enjoyments, that is, the archaic and the esoteric. They have also found in the Goddess another opportunity for what might politely be called syncretism, but is really a kind of pseudo- mystical mixing and matching of symbols and ideas that have nothing in common with each other except the contemporary use to which they may be put....

To make sense of all the different data at her disposal, Gimbutas must resort to speculation and imagination at almost every stage of her discussion. How else could one discover what these thousands of objects may have meant to their creators and their first owners and admirers? ... For all the artistry of Gimbutas' work, one cannot help feeling that the conclusion with which she ends is really the assumption with which she began. In her reconstruction of prehistoric goddess religion, alternative and un-archetypical explanations are not accepted. Instead the Jungian template is everywhere.... As a historian of antiquity, in any event, I am suspicious of any confident and coherent placement of the few pieces that survive of the lost and mangled jigsaw puzzle that remains of prehistory. And what Gimbutas and Eisler have to say about ancient Greece, about the corner of the puzzle that I know best, does not inspire my confidence.

From "Myths and Matriarchies" by Sally R. Binford (a Marxist-Feminist anthropologist),
in The Politics of Womens Spirituality, Charlene Spretnak, editor
(Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1982).

...The myth of Eve's apple, Pandora's box, and Freud's penis envy have been replaced by the myth of Former Matriarchal Greatness and the Overthrow of the Mother Goddess. The tenacity with which many women cling to this belief is enormous. As an anthropologist, I am fascinated and can explain it only as a religious phenomenon...

In many discussions I have had with partisans of this myth over the past several years, I am persuaded that logic, reason, and arguments based on knowledge of the data cut no ice at all. The only experience I have as an anthropologist that is analagous in its lack of suceptibility to reason is trying to argue the evidence for biological evolution with hardcore fundamentalists, whose faith also renders them impervious to information.

These beliefs are not limited to a lunatic fringe of the women's movement. Academic institutions have recently become involved in the Mother Goddess/Matriarchy madness...Amid charges of a conspiracy by the anthropological establishment, author Merlin Stone - a leading proponent of the faith - urged untrained women to march through Europe and the Middle East on their own excavations in order to discover long-suppressed truths...

[Did "matriarchy" evolve into "patriarchy"?]...The resurrection of the misguided thinking of the opening decades of the nineteenth centuries by the propagators of the faith has done little to enhance the reputation of feminist thought... As prehistoric archaeologists and cultural anthropologists gathered more and more data, the simplistic notion of a matriarchal stage in the human past had to be discarded.

In recent years, several women authors such as Elizabeth Gould Davis in The First Sex and Merlin Stone in When God Was a Woman have revived the notion that humanity experienced a golden age of matriarchy in the past. This belief has been combined with the assertion that there is a conspiracy against its acceptence, making those who question the faith subject to suspicion of being co-conspirators. I am the last to deny that anthropology - perhaps even more than other academic enterprises - is dominated by sexist males. I am, however, equally persuaded that if a male anthropologist discovered evidence of past matriarchies, he would publish his findings rather than suppress them. The existence of a past stage of matriarchy would lend support to the thesis that patriarchy is the more advanced cultural form in evolution; it would also support the notion that matriarchies had inherent weaknesses that allowed them to be replaced by patriarchies...

The confusion of matrilineality (reckoning inheritance and descent through the female line) with matriarchy (the rule of women) is an almost essential component of the New Fundamentalist faith... In most matrilineal societies, the authority figure is the mother's brother rather than her husband. This may make for decisions that favor the woman's family rather than her husband's, but decision-making still rests with males...

To assume that the representation of the female figure in art signifies matriarchal power is so fraught with fallacy that I find it difficult to take it seriously as an argument. Does Playboy's artwork imply that it represents a matriarchal cultural system? The Venus figures of the Upper Paleolithic appear to be the earliest example of a common human fascination with the female form. There exists, by the way, a great deal of cave art from the same period that is not discussed either by male art historians or by women seeking to document the existence of the Mother Goddess - representations of female genitalia that would be right at home in any contemporary men's room...

I can find no valid reason for the need to believe in a golden age of matriarchy. Certainly, if we did once live in matriarchal societies, we blew it by letting the patriarchs take over. How did this happen? One of the most intriguing "explanations" is offered by Elizabeth Gould Davis: Because of their carnivorous diet, men grew enormous penises, and women were so turned on that they voluntarily surrendered their power. I cannot accept this as a serious piece of history - only as a thoroughgoing putdown of women.

The overwhelming body of evidence from anthropology and from history argues against a universal stage of matriarchy. There are those who will contend that this statement simply indicates how brainwashed I have been by my male colleagues. This must mean that my female colleagues have also been intellectually victimized. Another putdown of women!...

The true believers in the fundamentalist faith of the Fall from Matriarchy and the Overthrow of the Mother Goddess contribute nothing but confusion and misinformation... The assertion of a mythic past as history and questioning the goodwill of those who doubt its validity constitutes an attitude that has much in common with the orthodoxy of Freudian psychology, fundamentalist Christianity, and other religions based on blind faith.

In a brief response to the detailed critique above, the "Goddess" author Merlin Stone wrote that questioning the supposed Goddess evidence "is much like inviting us into a discussion of whether or not World War II actually occurred.... how can her statements even be considered seriously?"

from "Archaeology and the Goddess: Exploring the Contours of Feminist Archaeology"
by Margaret W. Conkley and Ruth E. Tringham

in Feminisms in the Academy, Domna C. Stanton and Abigail J. Stewart, Editors (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995)

...Despite the seemingly feminist archaeological accounts of Goddess-centered prehistoric life presented by such archaeologists as Marija Gimbutas and her followers (e.g. Eisler 1987; Gadon 1989), we take issue with the "feminist essentialisms" and with the way in which archaeological data are deployed, invoked, and interpreted. We come to this project as practicing feminist archaeologists whose long-term research has primarily been about the Upper Paleolithic (Conkey) and Neolithic (Tringham) societies of Europe: precisely the societies and contexts that have been most frequently drawn upon in many goddess accounts that reclaim a female-centered, eco-harmonious world that "once existed" in prehistoric Europe....

Upon closer inspection of the historical and contextual information and interpretive complexities surrounding certain of the so-called goddesses of the ancient Near East, the secondary sources - those on which many Goddess advocates and scholars draw - portray a so-called fertility religion, that is really just a "euphemism for ritual sex, for ritual prosecution" (Hackett 1989, 68). Thus, to embrace this fertility religion is to "approve of ritual prostitution, of selling women's (and more rarely, homosexual men's) bodies to feed the treasury of some fertility deity's temple" (74). Even what appears to be a new and gynocentric vision may be more complicated and problematic than followers realize.

There are other problems with the Goddess hypothesis and its use. First, the unilineal evolutionary schemes of the sort proposed by Bachofen and reinterpreted - but not per se problematized or challenged - by Goddess advocates have long been critiqued and discredited in most of the social sciences (e.g. Harris 1968, 180-216). There is no one single evolutionary scheme for all of human history, whether marked by "progressions," as Bachofen and his contemporaries would have had it, or by "devolutions," as the Goddess movement would see for the period of patriarchy...

First, any archaeological reader of Gimbutas' narratives would be struck immediately by a style of "argument by assertion," instead of an explicit linking of specific data to the inferential narratives, as in standard archaeological style of interpretation. The narrative is presented in an authoritarian way in which the process of inference from artifact to interpretation are hidden...And yet other leading figures in the Goddess literature accept these ideas unquestioningly, reproduce them, and widen their distribution as facts (Eisler 1987; Gadon 1989; even Lerner 1986).

Second, Gimbutas treats the whole of European prehistory as a homogenous unit from the point of view of religion and social organization...

Third, an entire body, or "class," of material culture - clay figurines - is given a single interpretation: representation of the Goddess. Their formal variety (fig. 3) is interpreted as "Her" variable manifestations, while the basic interpretation as deity remains intact. The very concept of representation is not defined, defended, or explored. Fourth, as the previous points imply, Gimbutas uses modern categories and terms to interpret the past without considering the intentional action and thoughts of the past actors nor the presentism of her labels. For example, she uncritically and problematically uses terms such as religion, temples, shrines, rituals that imply, among other things, the clear separation of sacred from profane that is characteristic of modern western belief systems...These are highly varied and complex but rarely, if ever, considered by Gimbutas.

from "Nazi and eco-feminist prehistories:
ideology and empiricism in Indo-European archaeology"
by David W. Anthony (Department of Anthropology, Hartwick College, Oneota, NY)
in Nationalism, Politics, and the practice of archaeology.
(Philip L. Cole and Clare Fawcett, eds. Cambridge University Press, 1995).

This study presents a case of interpretive abuse. One unfortunate archaeological data set has been forced to yield two diametrically opposed interpretations in the service of two ideological movements, one heinous (the Nazis) and one innocent (eco-feminism). Oddly, both interpretations share the same theoretical and logical form; it is only a politically motivated reversal of the "good" and the "bad" that separates them. Neither interpretation can be empirically justified...

The concept of a central European (German) homeland for the prehistoric Aryans was encouraged and disseminated by Nazi propagandists, largely on the basis of the research of Gustaf Kossina... [he] used it to argue for a central European origin for many of the innovations of the European Neolithic and Bronze Age - even the prehistoric Greeks were ultimately perceived to be transplanted Germans...

Gimbutas disagreed with Kossina over the nature of the invading Aryan and indigenous non-Aryan societies: for the latter the invading Indo-Europeans were interpreted as heroic crusaders bringing culture to the primitives, and for the former as uncivilized herders bringing patriarchal violence to a world of peace and equality... both views are demonstrably wrong.

...This powerful [Goddess] message, like the earlier myth of the Aryan master race, is familiar to and believed by many more people than have been reached by any mainstream academic interpretation of the southeast European Copper Age (e.g. Tringham and Krstic 1990). Yet professional archaeologists, whose manner of discourse has left them increasingly detached from the public, have ignored it, perhaps because it is merely "popular." No professional prestige can be gained by discussing it. Social responsibility should require that we discuss and publicize the empirical inadequacies in popular or utopian views of the past.

For example, the gynocentric societies of Copper Age "Old Europe" are described in the accepted mythology as peaceful and non-violent. Why is it, then, that many Copper Age settlements, particularly in the east Balkans, were heavily fortified throughout the late Copper Age?... In addition, status weapons such as mace heads made of exotic porphyry were symbols of authority in the Copper Age...the cemeteries at Varna, Durankulak, and other east Balkan sites contain clear evidence of hierarchal status differences, and the richest sexable graves are of males (Renfrew 1986; Lichardus 1988).

Why is the "Goddess Movement" Being so vehemently promoted?

from the column "Spiritually Speaking" by Zsuzsanna Budapest (DYKESPEAK Magazine [a lesbian magazine published in San Francisco), June, 1994], describing the first International Goddess Festival in Santa Cruz, CA

"...Lesbians came from all over the country, just two from San Francisco. The world came to our back yard and lesbians from the City didn't;... and if Judy Grahn didn't bring you out, I must turn to the straight sisters who offer to come to California to volunteer. That hurts. I remember when we spawned the Womens Spirituality Movement in Los Angeles. Dykes were excited back then. They understood what it meant to change the gods, to dethrone the male god and embrace the multicultural Goddess. They understood there is no real revolution without a spiritual component We knew it then; our inner lives are sacred, equally important to marches & petitions. "... Do lesbians need the Goddess? The Goddess is no longer auditioning. Would you ask this same question about God? Without a female identified inner life, there is no female future for us."

[Thus the motivations for promoting "the goddess" are largely ideological/sexual, and not disinterested scholarship -RS.]


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 and sexual 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 the late Prof. Gimbutas' interpretations and conjectures on "the Goddess"; however, most of them were 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. Like the "Afrocentric" history being promoted by certain professors of Black Studies, "Goddess-centric" history is motivated by politics, not scholarship, and grossly misrepresents history to promote a political goal. Gimbutas' Goddess theories, like those of Velikovsky and Von Daniken, are 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

More Information Debunking "Goddess" Claims