The Neolithic Goddess

neolithic goddess

This week we’re travelling forward in prehistory to take a glimpse at the very first symbols of the goddess. Let’s move beyond the Palaeolithic era, into Neolithic Europe. Here we pick up the earliest threads of many goddess stories.

I’m going to take you on a journey through birth, death and regeneration. I’ll introduce you to the Great Goddess ‘in disguise’. She hides in many complex and fascinating guises. Some of her forms are sure to surprise you. Let’s dive in!

The New Stone Age

The Neolithic, 10,000 – 3,000 BC, was the birth of agriculture when settlements became more extensive.

We’re lucky to have a wealth of artefacts from this period, more than 100,000 figurines (compared with only 3,000 from the Upper Palaeolithic which came earlier). We also have the remains of tombs, cemeteries and settlements to explore. This extra context makes it far easier to decipher the symbolism from this era.

Neolithic art depicts the great goddess in many complex ways. I’ll attempt to unravel the symbolism here today (with the help of Marija Gimbutas, quoted below).

“The sophisticated, complex art surrounding the Neolithic goddess is a shifting kaleidoscope of meaning: she personified every phase of life, death, and regeneration. She was the Creator from whom all life, human, plant, and animal – arose, and to whom everything returned.”

We’re going to focus on the three main interpretations of the goddess in Neolithic art: life, death and regeneration.

Neolithic Goddess as Life-Giver & Sustainer

There is an apparent association between pregnant/ birthing figurines and the life-giving properties of the divine feminine. 

Birthing Figurines

Many figurines are in the birth-giving position. Their knees are bent, heads raised and vulvas swollen.

And Archaeologists have found extraordinary temples, created for women to bear their children.

The walls were painted red and adorned with stylised engravings of women giving birth – along with circular forms and wavy lines. Perhaps these were to symbolise the cervix, umbilical cord and amniotic fluid?

Mother and Child

Many Neolithic artworks include touching images of the mother cradling and sometimes nursing her infant. We can liken this image to many modern deities, including Isis and Horus from Ancient Egypt (pictured below) or Mary and Jesus from Christianity.

neolithic goddess

Water

Water was connected to new life, thanks to the mysterious watery womb full of amniotic fluid. Lakes, rivers, springs and even rain clouds were considered sacred. Artworks included varied references to water (including nets).

This thread can be picked up in many historical goddess stories too. Oshun is the Yoruban goddess of the river (pictured below). In Greek mythology, Naiads were a type of nymph who guarded fountains, wells, and springs. In Ireland, natural springs (holy wells) are often presided over by the Christian Saint Brigid. Who, by the way, was originally a pagan goddess!

Goddess history is undoubtedly a tangled web. And we’re only just starting!

neolithic goddess

Bear/Deer

The Neolithic made a connection between life-bringers and the bear/deer.

Why? Because the bear endures a death-like sleep each year, before rising with a new cub in the spring. And the deer can regenerate its antlers.

So, the artwork includes women wearing a bear mask or antlers. Or sometimes, a bear with female features. And occassionally symbols representing these animals.

Tracing these connection forwards in history we can find Celtic goddesses, Artio, the bear goddess and Flidais, the deer goddess.

neolithic goddess

Birds

The Neolithic connected birds with new life for a couple of reasons.

Firstly because they lay eggs. And that’s synonymous with new life to this day (Easter). But also, because of their annual migration – a mysterious disappearing act.

Neolithic goddesses sometimes had a beak or wore a duck-billed mask. They often leaned forward in a hunched position, with stumpy wing-shaped arms and exaggerated buttocks. It made them appear bird-shaped.

Some bird-goddess figurines had small holes drilled into them. We presume the holes were for feathers. And in some instances, we only find the symbols of birds, such as feathers or even chevrons.

We see a lot of Waterbirds (ducks, geese, swans, herons). We can trace this symbolism forwards in time to the Indian Goddess Saraswati, who rides a swan-drawn chariot. And also the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who travelled on a swan or goose.

neolithic goddess

Snakes

Are you surprised to see snakes associated with new life? We tend to connect them with sin and destruction.

But, snakes lay eggs, hibernate and shed their skin. So that was enough to cement the link to new life.

Neolithic art sometimes depicts the goddess with snake-shaped limbs or gives her snake eyes. We can also see snake symbolism in artworks with images such as coils, spirals, wavy movement lines and diamond skin patterns.

The Minoan snake goddess figurines in Crete are an obvious continuation of this theme. And there’s also Nü Gua, the mother goddess of Chinese mythology, the Egyptian goddess Renenutet, the Phoenician goddess Tanit and the Indian goddess Manasa.

neolithic goddess

Vegetation

The growth cycle of plants echoes the life, death, rebirth, which was embodied by the goddess.

They connected the vegetation goddess with grain and bread. So, Neolithic figurines were often found near or under bread ovens.

Sometimes we find the vegetation goddess with her consort the vegetation god in Neolithic art. They are young and virile in the spring. In this season, the god uses his strength to wake the world from winter slumber. And the pair is also depicted in old age. Old Father Winter is still found in folklore and mythology today.

neolithic goddess

Neolithic Goddess as Death Wielder

It’s thought that Neolithic people did not fear death. They believed that the goddess ruled life and assured birth. So, death was not the end.

Stiff White Nude

The Neolithic people portrayed the death goddess as a stiff-white-nude. And they carved her she from marble or alabaster. The colour of clean bones, these ‘dead’ goddesses had their arms folded across their torso. Yup, that’s the way that they positioned corpses.

Plus, they had small breasts but exaggerated (often enormous) pubic triangles. This downplayed the life-giving aspects and focused on the rebirth part of the cycle.

neolithic goddess

Birds of Prey

A lot of goddess art included references to birds of prey. We find owls’ eyes, raptors’ feet and vultures’ wings on figurines with human breasts and vulvas.

Complete paintings of birds of prey are also found painted at sacred Neolithic sites.

Neolithic villages practised excarnation – where they placed exposed dead bodies onto a platform so that birds of prey could strip the flesh. They buried the bones once they were clean, ready for the next phase of the life cycle.

The role played by the birds of prey was essential.

There are many connections between birds of prey and more modern goddesses, including Hecate (Owl, Greek), Lilith (Night-bird, Sumer), Nekhbet (Vulture, Egyptian) and Blodeuwedd (Owl, Welsh).

neolithic goddess

Poisonous Snake

It looks as though the Neolithic people connected snakes with death because Archaeologists have found Neolithic masks that look like snake-heads. They have round staring eyes and long mouths with their tongues sticking out.

(Much like the Hindu goddess Kali!)

These masks are almost identical to the heads of the Gorgon sisters from Greek mythology, although they had snakes for hair. Frightening stuff! 

They were typically placed alongside symbols of life-giving energy, promising the rebirth to come.

neolithic goddess

Neolithic Goddess as Regenerator

The final part of the cycle was the rebirth. The Neolithic people saw evidence of renewal in the world around them. And they believed that they would be regenerated.

Water Creatures

Fish and Frogs/Toads often appear in goddess imagery, making that connection with water and amniotic fluid.

The Neolithic people revered Frogs for their striking life cycle and annual spring reappearance. We can find many female-frog hybrids in Neolithic artwork. Sometimes a woman with frog legs, or a frog with a human vulva. And in some instances, we see only the letter M.

Fish and frog reappear in later goddess stories too. The frog goddess Heqet is from Ancient Egypt. Hatmehyt (Egyptian) and Amphitrite (Greek) are fish goddesses. Plus, of course, mermaid folklore remains as popular as ever.

neolithic goddess

Wolves/Dogs

The regeneration goddess was sometimes represented as a dog or with a dog. The howling dog, in particular, was symbolic of regeneration and growth. Dog skeletons were often found in Neolithic cemeteries, as possible guides through the final part of the regeneration cycle.

Bull’s Skull

The bull’s skull (bucrania) was often used to represent the uterus and fallopian tubes. They do look very similar. And I suppose the Neolithic people would have seen the female reproductive anatomy due to excarnation.

In Neolithic artworks, we find the goddess with a bull’s skull and horns placed on her lower abdomen, making the connection hard to deny.

Bucrania are also found sculpted onto sacred buildings. So it appears that they were a symbol of regeneration, connected with the womb.

neolithic goddess

Phallus

The Neolithic people included the phallus in many artworks associated with rebirth. This powerful, surging male force energy is, of course, an essential part of new life. Sometimes shown as a snake, a tree, ‘the column of life’ and even a cave stalagmite.

Sometimes the goddess’ body is the shape of a phallus, with the testicles for her buttocks. 

Triangle

The triangle and double triangle (hourglass) represent the pubic triangle – the portal through which new life enters. This image is used heavily in Neolithic artwork.

There are even substantial triangular stones, covered in intricate carvings, with a central vulva.

neolithic goddess

Bottom Line

Neolithic artwork created beautifully and skilfully. And wow, there is a LOT of variety. The Neolithic people represented the goddess in many ways, with complex abstract symbolism and hybrid human/animals. It can be confusing to decipher. 

It looks almost random on the surface. But as we follow the thread of the birth-death-regeneration cycle, it starts to make sense. We can see combinations of all aspects of the wheel of life in several pieces. It cements the idea that the cycle was connected and flowing endlessly.

It’s fascinating to find these ancient symbols in almost every story of the goddess throughout history. It’s as though these Neolithic beliefs were ingrained deep in the human psyche.

They form the basis of many archetypes that we can learn from today, for empowerment, compassion, strength and more.

I’d love to hear your opinions!

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