Marija Gimbutas

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Gimbutas in 1993
I'd rather be a
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Suckled in a creed outworn
The Goddess in all her manifestations was a symbol of the unity of all life in Nature. Her power was in water and stone, in tomb and cave, in animals and birds, snakes and fish, hill, trees, and flowers
—Marija Gimbutas

Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994) was a Lithuanian-American archeologist and scholar of the Indo-European languages who had a significant impact on the New Age and Goddess movements with her later work.

Early life and work: Indo-European origins[edit]

Gimbutas was born in Vilnius (which was rapidly changing hands between Poland, Lithuania, and Russia at the time, and would have been in Poland during her childhood) in 1921, grew up there and Kaunas, Lithuania, and left after the Soviet Union occupied Vilnius for the second time during World War II. She received a doctorate in archaeology from Tübingen University in 1946, and settled in the United States in 1949, where she found work translating Eastern European archeological texts at Harvard University.

In 1954, Gimbutas published her Kurgan hypothesis,Wikipedia about the origins of the Indo-European speaking peoples. This proposed that the Indo-Europeans might be identified with a group of cultures including the Sredny StogWikipedia and Yamna cultureWikipedia that existed on the Pontic-Caspian steppes north of the Black Sea in contemporary Ukraine and Russia. She proposed to identify the Indo-European speakers with the archeological expansion of "kurgan" burial customsWikipedia and a distinctive sort of tomb and grave goods that appears, first north of the Black Sea, and that later appears in the Balkan region and Central Europe. This hypothesis has received wide, but not universal, acceptance among Indo-European scholars.

Late work: the goddess culture of old Europe[edit]

Gimbutas at the site of Newgrange, Ireland. She interpreted the curlicues carved into the stone as feminine symbols emblematic of goddess worship.

Starting with her 1974 book The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, followed by The Language of the Goddess (1989; 2nd edition introduced by Joseph Campbell) and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991), all popular coffee-table sized books profusely illustrated with archeological finds, Gimbutas's work took a strongly speculative direction that has been far less well received by the academic community, but is considered to be one of the foundations of "feminist archeologyWikipedia".

The basic outline of the big story told in these works was already well established by the time Gimbutas wrote about them. Prehistoric "Old Europe" was an idyllic culture of matriarchy, or at least gender equality. It had a fairly advanced culture which Gimbutas did not hesitate to call a "civilization". Evidence of this shared culture was found, not only in enigmatic and faceless statuettes or dolls, which Gimbutas interpreted as goddess images; but also in the presence of various spirals, concentric circles, and similar curvilinear shapes found on pottery and stone carvings, which Gimbutas likewise interpreted as symbols of the universal mother goddess.

The Kurgan hypothesis places the origin of the Indo-European languages to the north of the Black Sea.

The Civilization of the Goddess establishes the essential utopianism of her vision. She considered the late Neolithic Old Europe culture, which she envisioned as essentially a single entity, to be goddess- and woman-centered (gynocentric), while the Bronze Age Indo-European patriarchal society that supplanted it was "patriarchal" and "androcratic", ruled by men. According to her interpretations, gynocentric (or matristic) societies were peaceful, they honored homosexuals, and they espoused economic equality; the Indo-Europeans rejected these values. There would appear to be an uncanny correspondence between Gimbutas' vision of prehistoric antiquity and several contemporary political tendencies.

Sadly, this civilization collapsed in short order with the appearance of Aryan conquerors, whom she identified with the Kurgan cultures. Their appearance on the scene ended the goddess paradise and introduced war and "patriarchy" to their defenseless victims. It's hard to imagine a more feckless utopia. It's hard to imagine actual human beings that helpless. Maybe they were all stoned or something.[citation NOT needed]

As noted above, this tale was old when Gimbutas retold it. It is essentially the same story of prehistoric Europe that was told by Robert Graves in The White Goddess. It is, in fact, the founding myth of Nazi Germany, re-imagined for a world that was likelier to see conquerors as villains rather than heroes.[1] Gimbutas' contribution was her announcement that she had discovered archeological confirmation of the story that the Aryan supremacists made up and that Graves poetically imagined.

Gimbutas gets it exactly wrong[edit]

The world as Herodotus knew it. He said that the Scythians and Sauromates were descended from the Amazons. They occupy the territory of the Kurgan culture.

Nowhere in the Bronze or Iron Ages really counted as an ideally feminist society, nor should we retroactively apply contemporary political values to past societies. However, more recent archeological finds would appear to indicate that women enjoyed a relatively high status among the Kurgan people, and occupied leadership roles in those societies. "About 20% of ScythianWikipedia-SarmatianWikipedia 'warrior graves' on the lower Don and lower Volga contained women dressed for battle similar to how men dress, a phenomenon that probably inspired the Greek tales about the Amazons."Wikipedia[2] Some of the women buried in these graves appear to have died violently.[3] These people dwelt in the same territory and practised the same burial customs as Gimbutas' Kurgan people.[4]

Herodotus and other ancient writers uniformly locate Amazon societies in an area spanning from contemporary Georgia to north of the Sea of Azov, and note that contemporary ethnic groups in the area (the Sarmatians, Scythians, and Saka) were descended from the Amazons. And, as noted, several Kurgan burials contain the tombs of women who were buried with grave goods containing all of the trappings of leadership, including weapons and chariots. Women enjoyed a far higher status among the Kurgan people than they did among the ancient Greeks. Current classical scholars suggest that these women leaders startled the strongly patriarchal Greeks, giving rise to the legends of Amazons and their location in Gimbutas' Kurgan homeland.[5] Female warrior characters, including a queen named Amezan, also figure in the Nart sagas,Wikipedia the heroic epics of the Ossetian peopleWikipedia of Russia and Georgia, who are directly descended from the ancient Sarmatians.[3]


Archeologists generally reject these claims of Gimbutas' late work, and generally consider her claims to find evidence of a shared mother-goddess deity, common theologies, and elaborate complexes of cultural values among potsherds, decorative stone carvings, and faceless images to go far beyond the facts on the ground. Ian HodderWikipedia of Cambridge has said that "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."[6] Similarly, Ronald HuttonWikipedia has written of The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, that:

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.
—Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (Oxford, 1991) - pp. 37-42.

Notwithstanding their over-interpretation and unlikeliness, Gimbutas's work has found favor among the usual suspects, "by feminists, by women and men in the growing earth-based spirituality movement, by artists, dancers, novelists…"[7] Her vision of an idyllic Goddess worshipping community deeply influenced Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, and as such has penetrated fairly deeply into Wicca, specifically Dianic Wicca, and allied religious movements. Her work also forms part of the alleged historical underpinning of Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade, which in turn furnished some of the pseudohistory featured in The Da Vinci Code. As Carla Selby has put it, "Gimbutas's myth of the all-encompassing goddess culture served as a powerful rationale for women's empowerment and gave 'the emerging feminist movement a mythological underpinning without peer.'"[8]

External links[edit]


  1. Compare Ralph Bakshi's film Wizards (1977).
  2. Anthony, David W. (2007). The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-05887-3.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, (Princeton University Press, 2014)
  4. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, "Warrior Women of Eurasia", Archeology, Volume 50 Number 1, January/February 1997.
  5. Joshua Rothman, The Real Amazons, The New Yorker, October 17, 2014
  6. Leslie, Jacques; "The Goddess Theory" (Los Angeles Times Magazine, June 11, 1989)
  7. Starhawk and Donna Read, About Marija Gimbutas, The Belili Project.
  8. Burda, Gwen, "The Battle Between Political Agendas and Science" Skeptical Inquirer, v. 21 no. 6 (1997)