ANCIENT GODDESSES: The Myths and Evidence
Edited by Dr Lucy Goodison and Dr Christine Morris, published by the British Museum Press at £18.99. Hardback. 208pp. ISBN: 0-7141-1761-7
The controversial writings of the late Marija Gimbutas have, over the past two decades, become the ideological bedrock of the "Goddess Movement", to be accepted as much without question as a Southern Baptist accepts the contents of the Old Testament. Indeed, Gimbutas herself has been accused of many things, from unacknowledged plagiarism of the work and thought of earlier thinkers and archaeologists to willfully and foolishly pursuing an unsustainable feminist prehistoric agenda in the face of contrary evidence.
This book, then, brings together a number of women archaeologists, each expert and experienced in the prehistory and early historical periods of one of the many regions claimed by Gimbutas and her followers as having once been the homelands of "Goddess cultures", to completely reconsider the claimed evidence, especially that presented by the famous "Goddess figurines", and to raise some difficult questions about the nature and interpretation of that evidence including such issues as whether a universal "Mother Goddess" cult ever in fact existed and how we recognise expressions of the sacred in very different societies to our own where we have only the artefacts themselves and their context to assist us.
Their brief was explicitly to remain open-minded about the evidence, and for the most part they are remarkedly so. Variously, they point out that many of the famous figurines were either found on the surface of the ground, ie without a cultural context, or were excavated without proper records being made of the circumstances of their discovery and that Gimbutas chosen interpretation actually serves to close off more meaningful study of the significance of the images within the societies which made them.
Gimbutas herself is openly criticised, not only for concentrating entirely on the female images (which formed a far smaller proportion of the total than she ever admitted) and on those with human or animal forms which she could weave into her reconstruction of prehistory while deliberately ignoring the existence of male and ungendered ones within the cultures she studied, but also for her seemingly cavalier approach to recording the context in which her own discoveries were made. Thus it may come as something of a shock to discover that the majority of the (mostly fragmentary) "Goddess" figurines recently excavated in the heart of Gimbutas "Old Europe" were actually found in rubbish pits along with building rubble and other refuse. Not the treatment one might expect of a sacred image!
The only familiar writer here for the average pagan reader is Miranda Green on images of the female in Celtic cultures, but other excellent essays cover the pre-dynastic origins of the Egyptian goddesses in the Western Desert, traces of the divine female in early Israel, an examination of the origins, development and interpretation of female sacred images in Crete, Neolithic north west Europe, Greece, Malta, Mesopotamia and Anatolia amongst others.
This is a superb book and a genuinely thought-provoking one. Readers without at least some knowledge of archaeology and prehistory are likely to find it fairly hard going at first (but not half as hard as the Gimbutas Groupies will!) but ultimately fascinating and rewarding if they stick with it. For almost everyone, though, a very worthwhile read indeed and strongly recommended.