Neolithic Art & The Goddess

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We’re travelling forward in prehistory this week to take a glimpse at the very first symbols of the goddess. Moving beyond the Palaeolithic era, into Neolithic Europe, we can pick up the earliest threads of many goddess stories.

In this post, I’m going to take you on a journey through birth, death and regeneration. I’ll introduce you to the Great Goddess ‘in disguise’, symbolised in many complex and fascinating ways. Some of her guises 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 larger and villages appeared for the first time.

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 gives us more context, so it’s far easier to decipher the symbolism from this era.

Throughout the Neolithic, we find the Great Goddess depicted 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.”

In this post, we’re going to focus on the 3 main interpretations of the goddess in Neolithic art: life, death and regeneration.

The Goddess as Life-Giver & Sustainer

There’s an obvious association between pregnant/ birthing figurines and the life-giving properties of the divine feminine. We see it illustrated in Neolithic art in a few ways.

Birthing Figurines

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

Birth appeared to be celebrated as a sacred event. Archaeologists have found special 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 Art & The Goddess Isis

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, springs, streams, and brooks. 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 certainly a tangled web – and we’re only just starting!

Neolithic Art & The Goddess Oshun

Bear/Deer

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

The bear, after enduring a death-like sleep each year rises with a new cub in the spring. And the deer because of its ability to regenerate its antlers.

Artwork includes women wearing a bear mask or antlers. Or sometimes, a bear with female features – or even 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 Art & The Goddess

Birds

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

Firstly because they lay eggs – 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. Sometimes they leaned forward in a hunched position, with stumpy wing shaped arms and exaggerated buttocks to make them appear bird shaped.

Some bird-goddess figurines were found drilled with small holes, into which we presume feathers could be placed. And in some instances, we only find the symbols of birds, such as feathers or even chevrons.

Waterbirds are particularly prevalent (ducks, geese, swans, herons) and this is a thread that continues through to the Indian Goddess Saraswati, who is often found in a swan-drawn chariot, and the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who was regularly depicted riding on a swan or goose.

Neolithic Art & The Goddess

Snakes

It might come as a surprise to see snakes associated with new life when we are more used to connecting them with sin and destruction.

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

We find the goddess depicted with snake shaped limbs or face, with snake eyes. The snake is echoed in symbolism, including coils, spirals, wavy movement lines and diamond skin patterns.

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

Neolithic Art & The Goddess

Vegetation

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

The vegetation goddess was especially connected with grain and bread – and Neolithic figurines were often found near or under bread ovens.

The vegetation goddess is often accompanied by her consort, the vegetation god in Neolithic art. They are found young and virile in the spring when 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 Art & The Goddess

The Goddess as Death Wielder

It’s thought that the Neolithic people did not fear death as we do. They believed that although the goddess brought death and decay, she also ruled life and assured birth – so death was not the end.

Stiff White Nude

The death goddess was sometimes portrayed as a stiff-white-nude, usually carved from marble or alabaster. The colour of clean bones, these ‘dead’ goddesses mostly had their arms folded across their torso, the way that corpses were buried.

They had small breasts but exaggerated (often enormous) pubic triangles, representing the rebirth aspect of the cycle.

Neolithic Art & The Goddess

Birds of Prey

A lot of goddess art included bird of prey references, coupled with the female form. 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 in order for birds of prey to strip the flesh. Once the bones were clean, they were buried, ready for the next phase of the life cycle.

The role played by the birds of prey was essential.

We can find 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 Art & The Goddess

Poisonous Snake

Along with their life-bringing properties, the snake was strongly connected with death. Archaeologists have found Neolithic masks that look like snake-heads. They have round staring eyes, 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.

As frightening as these images are, they were almost always placed alongside symbols of life-giving energy, promising the rebirth to come.

Neolithic Art & The Goddess

The Goddess as Regenerator

The final part of the cycle was the rebirth. The Neolithic people saw evidence of renewal in the world around them. So, they were confident that regeneration was promised.

Water Creatures

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

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

Both the fish and frog reappear in later goddess stories. We have Heqet, the Ancient Egyptian Goddess of creation and regeneration after death. She is often represented as a frog or a woman with the head of a frog.

Then there is have Hatmehyt (Egyptian) and Amphitrite (Greek) who are fisg goddesses. Plus, of course, mermaid folklore remains as popular as ever.

Neolithic Art & The Goddess

Wolves/Dogs

The regeneration goddess was sometimes represented as a dog or was accompanied by a dog. The image of a 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 next association was hard for me to accept at first. The bull’s skull (bucrania) was used to represent the uterus and fallopian tubes. But, they do look very similar in design. And I suppose the Neolithic people would have seen the female reproductive anatomy due to excarnation.

In Neolithic artworks, we can 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 may well have been used as a symbol of regeneration, connected with the womb.

neolithic bucrania

Phallus

The phallus was represented in many artworks associated with rebirth. This powerful, surging male force energy is, of course, an essential part of new life. It was sometimes depicted as a snake, a tree, ‘the column of life’ and even a cave stalagmite.

There is even a carving of the goddess, where her body is the shape of a phallus, with the testicles doubling as her buttocks. Her face, breasts and vulva are displayed on the shaft.

Triangle

The triangle and double triangle (hourglass) represent the pubic triangle – the portal through which new life enters. We see this symbolised heavily in Neolithic artwork.

There are even huge triangular stones, covered in intricate carvings, including a central vulva.

Neolithic Art & The Goddess

Bottom Line

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

On the surface, it may look almost random. But as we follow the thread of the birth-death-regeneration cycle, it starts to make sense. We see all aspects of the wheel of life combined in many pieces, cementing the idea that the cycle was connected, flowing endlessly.

What I find most fascinating, is the way that these very early symbols continue to be found in almost every story of the goddess. It appears to me that these Neolithic beliefs were ingrained deep in the human psyche.

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

I’d love to hear your opinions!