The Origin of the Goddess
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Are you ready to meet the Palaeolithic Goddess?
Never heard of her? Well, that’s because there’s no concrete evidence to prove she definitely existed. Yet there are many many hints. But before I introduce her, let me explain why I’m starting with this controversial choice!
I felt moved to use this blog to share stories told for thousands of years. To bring myths, legends and real-life accounts of goddesses, priestesses, warrior women, witches, wise women, rituals, suffragettes, icons and everyday women, from across the globe into a central, easily accessible space.
These are stories that I find refuge in – like many before me. And they prove that we are standing on the shoulders of giants! But, while I’m passionate and excited to start, the task has felt very daunting.
For one thing, the thought of rocking the boat made me hesitant. Sharing the less popular, female-centric side of the story might make people feel uncomfortable (or angry). But, I’ve made peace with the possibility of being misunderstood.
And I’ve spent hours wondering if I can I relay these stories with the right amount of reverence and respect. I promise that I’ll try my best. I may, of course, make some errors – so, I invite discussion and correction.
Where to begin?
Once I’d plucked up the courage to go ahead and start writing, I came up against another conundrum. Where should I begin?
- Perhaps I should pick a goddess at random, tell you her story this week and another next week?
- Or I could categorise them according to the geographical region: Old Europe, India, China, Egypt, Africa, South America…
- Or how about themes…birth, death, regeneration, war…
- Animals? Birds, snakes, frogs and scorpions?
- Elements might be better – earth, air, fire and water…
You can see my predicament!
So, I’ve decided to start at the very beginning. And we’re about to go way, way back. Deep into prehistory.
I’ll start with a timeline, so you know where we are. I encourage you to approach this exploration with an open mind and a dose of curiosity.
Timeline of Prehistory
Are you ready for a whirlwind tour of the history of man? Just scroll past this section if it’s too much for you. The goddess stuff is straight after this!
1. Stone Age (2,500,000 BC – 3,000 BC)
Humans first made an appearance on Earth in the Stone Age, which spanned almost 2.5 million years! Fortunately, it’s broken into 2 main eras (and 2 transitionary periods), to make it easier to mentally digest.
Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age)
- Lower (early) Palaeolithic: (2,500,000 BC – 100,000 BC)
- 1,800,000 years ago, the first species of human is identified in East Africa, Homo Erectus.
- Archaeologists believe that 100,000 years ago, humans buried their dead in the fetal position. This has been interpreted as a preparation for rebirth.
- Humans used a range of stone tools and fire.
- Middle Palaeolithic (100,000 BC – 40,000 BC)
- Humans lived a nomadic lifestyle, in small groups. They were hunter-gatherers.
- They created stone tipped spears and harpoons.
- Upper (later) Palaeolithic (40,000 BC – 20,000 BC) – THE FOCUS OF THIS BLOG, WHERE OUR STORY BEGINS!
- Nets and bows and arrows were invented. Dogs were domesticated. (Yay!)
- The earliest known example of ceramic art is found, so named ‘Venus’ figurine dated c. 29,000 BC.
- Epipalaeolithic / Mesolithic (20,000 BC – 10,000 BC) – End of Ice Age, a period of transition.
Neolithic (New Stone Age)
- (10,000 – 3,000 BC)
- Humans moved away from hunter-gathering and began farming.
- Settlements and villages began to appear. And a series of cultural and behavioural changes take place.
- Chalcolithic – Copper Age. Transitioning into Bronze Age.
Next, we move into Ancient history – which is documented with written records (3,000 BC – 500 AD) It is broken down as follows: Bronze Age, Iron Age, Middle Ages.
2. Bronze Age (3,500 BC – 1,500 BC)
- Includes Ancient Egypt, Ancient China and Mesopotamia. Sumerian and Egyptian Script develops.
3. Iron Age (1,500 BC – 500 AD)
- Includes Vedic Period in India, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Imperial China and the Nok Culture in Africa.
4. Middle Ages (500AD – 1450)
- Also known as Post Classical, Medieval or Post-Modern Era.
- This is when the 3 main religions emerged, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.
And finally, we reach ‘modern’ history, which spans the period from 1,500 to the present day.
5. Early Modern history (1,500 – 1,800)
- Age of Discovery, Global Trade.
6. Late modern history (1,800 to today)
- The Industrial Revolution, Imperialism, Empires, Slavery, Space Travel, World Wars, Technological Advances.
Phew! Are you still with me?
That was a lot of ground to cover, the scene is now set!
This blog is going to focus on the very early origins of the Goddess, which seemed to begin in the Upper (later) Palaeolithic period (40,000 BC – 20,000 BC), which is why I have named her the Palaeolithic Goddess.
During this period, humans started to express themselves through art – and they were surprisingly skilful! Archaeologists have uncovered a number of small carved figurines from this period all over Europe, the overwhelming majority of which are of the nude female body. They have been dubbed ‘Venus’.
The Venus Figurines
The Paleolithic Figurines were named ‘Venus’ after the Greek Goddess of love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity and victory, who didn’t make an appearance for thousands of years. Although the name doesn’t really fit, it has stuck.
Let’s take a closer look at what has been found:
- More than 200 Venuses have been uncovered across Europe and some parts of Asia.
- The designs are surprisingly similar considering the 30,000-year duration and geographical spread of the figurines.
- They are typically small and can fit into the palm of your hand.
- Mostly carved from mammoth tusk, but also teeth, antlers, bone and stone.
- They are often stylised, not intended to portray a real woman.
- They often have no facial features.
- Most have exaggerated stomach, and breasts, with tapered legs and no feet.
- Some are simply ‘sticks with breasts’.
- Some have holes or loops, suggesting they could have been worn as jewellery.
- The figures are often wearing basket hats, netted snoods, bandeaux, string skirts, and belts, which were not typical Paleolithic day wear. Soffer, Adovasio, and Hyland suggest that “the garments are more likely ritual wear, real or imagined, which served as a signifier of distinct social categories.”
Proof of a Palaeolithic Goddess? Maybe… Let’s look at the popular opinions first.
“These figurines have been described by some scholars as expressions of male eroticism: that is, an ancient analogue for today’s Playboy magazine. To other scholars they are only something used in primitive, and presumably obscene, fertility rites.” ~ Riane Eisler. “The Chalice and the Blade”
“In religious art, the human body symbolizes myriad functions beyond the sexual, especially the procreative, nurturing, and life-enhancing. I believe that in earlier times, obscenity as a concept surrounding either the male or female body did not exist. ” ~ Marija Gimbutas. “The Living Goddesses”
While some of the figurines do appear to be pregnant they include women in all aspects of life. Young maidens, pregnant and older women. And some appear to be part animal, which doesn’t fit the fertility angle.
Some scholars believe they could have been self-portraits of real women, but this is unlikely for a couple of reasons.
- Many of the sculptures are fat, with enhanced breasts, buttocks and bellies. Palaeolithic women would have been typically lean and muscular.
- Most of the sculptures are stylised, with no face, tapered legs and tiny arms. This has been done by choice, rather than lack of skill.
- Almost 98% of the figurines are female. Wouldn’t there be more male self-portraits too?
Are these explanations adequate? Is it really a far stretch to think that prehistoric man would have made an association between new life and women?
The Endless Cycle of Life?
“These figurines, often nude, represented much more than fertility and sexuality. They represented procreation, nurturing, death, and regeneration.” ~ Marija Gimbutas. “The Living Goddesses”
Ooo Marija…I think you’re onto something there…
Wheel of Life
Marija Gimbutas was a Lithuanian-American archaeologist, anthropologist and author who devoted her life to the study of prehistoric culture in what she called ‘Old Europe’. She believed that prehistoric humans enjoyed life in harmony, with women and men living peacefully on the basis of equality. Gimbutas speaks of a time without sin or punishment, when civilisation flourished without war, hierarchical oppression and scarcity. This is a period that she likens to the modern idea of Eden.
Gimbutas believed that the early religion of the Palaeolithic people centred on the constant cycle of the Wheel of Life – birth, death and rebirth. And that this was centred around one Great Goddess.
This Great Goddess was not considered good or bad, for she was nature, and the Earth herself. And they worshipped her through the 3 phases of life, mirrored in the seasons:
- Giving Life
- Taking Life
- Renewing Life
There are many wall paintings, cave sanctuaries, and burial sites intact from this period, which would back up this theory. They show a focus on the cycle of life, which has clear associations with women, who physically bring life into existence.
In one example of a burial site, Cro-Magnon in France, Cowrie shells (reminiscent of the shape of a woman’s vulva) and red ocher pigment (possibly connected with menstruation and fertility) were found, carefully arranged on and around human remains. It could be said that Palaeolithic burial rites were intended to assist with a rebirth that would bring the deceased back.
“These cave sanctuaries, figurines, burials, and rites all seem to have been related to a belief that the same source from which human life springs is also the source of all vegetable and animal life—the great Mother Goddess or Giver of All.” ~Riane Eisler. “The Chalice and the Blade”
So, was there ever a Palaeolithic Goddess? Perhaps will never know for sure.
It certainly makes sense to me that prehistoric humans would have been deeply in tune with nature and her cycles. Nature’s rhythms are mirrored in the monthly, gestational and life cycles of a woman. And we can see echoes of the female form, especially breasts and vulva in the natural world around us. So this could lead naturally to the idea of a Great Goddess.
I am conscious of reflecting my personal opinions on the limited findings that we have from this prehistorical era, but I feel confident in saying that we can find the origins of the goddess here. What do you think?