Volume 38, No.3 - Fall 1992
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas, University of Rochester 
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright 1992 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Marija Gimbutas. The Civilization of the Goddess. The World of Old Europe. San Francisco: Harper, 1991. (Cult and Religion in Pre-Christian Times Europe from 7000 to 2000 B.C.)

The decisive step in the historical development of the geographic area termed "Europe" was occasioned by the warming up of the climate which ushered in the end of the glacial period. From about 10,000 B.C. on, living conditions changed considerably. The receding ice opened up new living-areas. Because living conditions had improved so radically, the number of human beings increased. While hunting, and gathering plants and berries had been the means of subsistence for humans in earlier times, from the Neolithic (Younger Stone Age) onwards, the preconditions for sedentary life existed. It goes without saying that any evolution must have proceeded very slowly and gradually. Animals were domesticated. The domesticated wolf lives on in the dog. Sheep and cattle were also domesticated, but the domestication of the horse apparently belongs to a somewhat later period. The changed and changing environment certainly brought about changes in the structure of human society. What came about was, in effect, a new mixed form of living.

The investigation of periods reaching far back into the past and lying beyond any written documentation falls within the precincts of archaeology. Excavations give us information about life in former times. The following lines are meant to briefly characterize a recent publication in this field: The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe published by Harper, San Francisco, in 1991. This hefty 520-page tome contains a wealth of photographs (both color and black and white) in addition to numerous drawings. The author of the book, Marija Gimbutas, was born on January 21, 1921, in Vilnius (Lithuania), fled the Baltics at the time of the Soviet Occupation and earned her PhD degree at the University of Tubingen (Germany) with a monograph on Burials in Lithuania in prehistoric time (1946).

After a stay at Harvard University, she finally moved to California and has for years been attached to the University of California, Los Angeles. An earlier work that deals with her native country is The Baits (New York, 1963).

An informative essay on Gimbutas' life and work (together with full listing of her publications) can be found in the volume Proto-lndo-European, the archaeology of a linguistic problem, edited by Susan N. Skomal and E. C. Polome (1987). Marija Gimbutas is a world-famous archaeologist. But her book on the Civilization of the Goddess ranges beyond the precincts of archaeology. Gimbutas wishes to present an interpretation of the finds and thereby to allow us glimpses into the every-day life of people at that period. It is largely the social structure that she tries to depict. In order to achieve that purpose, she must draw on material from anthropology, history of religion, cultural studies and historical linguistics. It may be said right away that in general, the picture she draws seems quite convincing. The following paragraphs will analyze a few details in the rich material; some critical remarks will also be voiced.

When sedentary life developed, it is to be expected that also some type of religious cult came into existence. The basic idea of any early (sometimes, but rather misleadingly, called "primitive") religion lies in the awe-struck admiration of cyclic renewal in nature and man. Gimbutas uses the term "goddess." Conceivably it would be better to use the sexually neutral term "godhead" in this context and to avoid the clearly "female" goddess. The starting-point for religious cult is the sexually neutral incarnation of fertility, certainly not a personified female goddess.

The rise of sexually distinct female goddesses may well have occurred in a somewhat later period. The world of the Goddess is analyzed in a very convincing way in Gimbutas' book. Instructive material can also be found in her 1989 volume The Language of the Goddess. In accordance with the central figure of the goddess the civilization of that period was certainly matriarchal, matrifocal, matrilinear. It is to be stressed, however, that these terms should not necessarily be viewed in the context of the "patriarchal" order, which is largely typical of the modern world. The mother goddess had naturally to appear as the center of life; she was the metaphorical expression of the cycle of birth - life -death - birth - life - death. Human beings began to express the concept of this everlasting cycle in metaphorical terms. This led to the birth of religion and cult.

Gimbutas provides an intriguing account of life from around 7000 to 2000 B.C. in Europe by analyzing find objects from numerous excavations. The religion of the early period must be considered as strictly monotheistic, since clearly the metaphorical representation of fertility was the single focus for veneration. This religion must have been free of fear and anguish. But soon other "individual" gods appeared on the scene. These "other" gods originated from natural phenomena like wind, water, fire, sun, moon, etc.

The "other" gods could be sexually distinguished as either male or female. Natural phenomena, like wind, water, fire, were ambivalent in their functions. They were necessary for every-day life, but at the same time they could be dangerous. Therefore a totally new attitude to these gods and to their cult developed. The aim of veneration must be to make these gods propitious. The gods could expect sacrifices. If the sacrifices pleased them, then they would favor those offering them; but if the gods were not satisfied with the sacrifices, they could wreak havoc on humans. Fear became an essential ingredient of religion.

One could assume that these developments occurred gradually. But Gimbutas is of the opinion that the period of the mother goddess ended abruptly when the world of Old Europe clashed with the incoming hordes of Indo-Europeans. According to her, the militarily superior Indo-Europeans came from the East. The main problem here lies certainly in difficulties of definition. Nobody will deny that population movements occurred in the millennia before Christ. One may, however, doubt whether our modern concepts are in any way suitable for describing population movements in prehistoric times. But what is certainly not acceptable is the identification of "invaders" with speakers of a reconstructed language. To identify the "Indo-Europeans" as invaders from the East or indeed to seek to define "Indo-European" in terms of its supposed speakers is incorrect and useless. Indo-European is a strictly linguistic term and applies to a number of languages which descend from a common ancestral language. The ancestral language underwent a long and certainly very complicated development. But at any rate, we should definitely avoid any attribution of military superiority to the "Indo-Europeans." This terminology smacks of the ominous parlance of Nazi Germany and should be laid to rest once and for all.

Alfred Bammesberger
Katholische Universitat Eichstatt