Friday, 8 June 2012

The Prehistoric Figurine Debate - Critical Essay


“…There is no fossil of social organization”[1]
- Juliette Wood



Wood’s concise statement indicates the problematic foundation of theories devised around the cultural and contextual usage of prehistoric items, as speculation is inevitably employed when venturing into the unknown. This essay aims to present the debate surrounding prehistoric goddess figurines by outlining and forming opinions on positions taken in literary works by Marija Gimbutas, Douglas. W. Bailey, Juliette Wood and Lauren. E. Talalay among others.


Gimbutas constructs a civilization of Old Europe[1] dependent upon domesticated plants and animals. She analyses the small idols present in this area, concluding communal worship occurred through them.[2] The idols enacted myths and seasonal drama, which centered on agricultural life and reproductive fertility. She interprets the majority of idols as female due to possible connections to myths and visual clues. She formulates an argument concluding the civilization was matrifocal, idolizing the female’s life-bearing abilities. This society is presented as superior and egalitarian. An indo-European masculine society conquered this civilisation and it was “savagely destroyed,” along with the cult surrounding life-giving Great-Goddess idols.[3]


Female Figurine (front and back), Cucuteni, Drăguşeni, 4050-3900 BC, Botoşani County Museum, Botoşani (Photo: Marius Amarie)

Describing Gimbutas’ theory as psychoanalytic anecdotal and full of analogies and sweeping statements is Bailey, who presents his own psychological study.[4] He explains modern scientific testing has revealed- “things made miniature affect the ways in which people experience the world,” so when experiencing figurines in human form, people subconsciously enter other spiritual worlds.[5] He claims they also gave people deeper levels of reality, community and defined cultural identity.[6] In his text Reading Pre-historic Figurines as Individuals, Bailey reinforces what the title precipitates. He rightfully criticizes Gimbutas’ claim of androgynous figurines as female and the generalising term ‘Goddesses,’ rejecting her totalising tendencies, and infers that each figurine is unique and should be examined as such. He also notes prehistoric agricultural societies: “…were not slaves to the short-term gathering or long-term production of vegetable and animal resources,”[7] countering a desperate need for regeneration Goddesses. Bailey insightfully indicates flaws in Gimbutas’ theories, however his own fail to paint an equally vivid picture.

Wood offers further criticisms of the Goddess concept. She analyses creations of a utopian, matrifocal dream world of enlightenment, non-material perfection and harmony as a way of searching for an alternative spirituality suggesting possibilities of humankind being perfectible. Wood points out Gimbutas’ problematic use of folklore as evidence, complicating deciphering myth from reality. Wood’s own theory is a concept of “centre and periphery,” where a primary group defines a weaker group based on its own ideologies.[8] Wood creates a framework to view the ready adoption of the Goddess paradigm and how viewpoints of today (centre) have helped create these theories of the past (periphery). Feminist theorists such as Carol Christ would argue, however, that Gimbutas suggests the inhabitants of Old Europe were more civilized than their conquerors, disrupting and questioning the “myth of progress.”[9] This means that the Goddess theory is rejected because it does not conform to present-day beliefs, instead of being informed by them. Wood’s theory, however, is much more tangible.



Talalay contributes another viewpoint through critical analysis of clay legs believed to belong to goddess figurines.[10] She suggests the legs never possessed bodies, and some had ‘split legs’ where the left and right leg could be detached, perhaps purposefully to create parting objects for physical confirmations of agreements. She admits a definite hypothesis is futile, however her contribution to the debate exemplifies the multitude of obscure possibilities for misread goddess figurines and expresses a possible multifunctionality, highlighting the importance of reanalysis.





The debate surrounding prehistoric goddess figurines is not one that can be concluded. Gimbutas and like-minded feminist scholars support the romanticized idea of a utopian matrifocal civilization where these figurines emulated Goddesses, however they rely on folklore and imaginative conclusion to formulate arguments. Theorists such as Bailey and Wood offer criticisms to these ideologies and disagree with idols being classified as goddesses, but understandably cannot formulate a cohesive and concrete counter-argument themselves, as there is not enough evidence available to devise solid theories. Instead, as Talalay illustrates, a plethora of readings and constant reanalysis should be encouraged, as “…there is no fossil of social organization,” therefore speculation and opinion will inevitably obscure every position.



[1] Juliette Wood, “The Concept of the Goddess,” The Concept of the Goddess, (London: Routledge, 1996), p14
[2] Gimbutas identifies Old Europe as occurring during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods (5500-3500 B.C.E.) in Eastern European and North Mediterranean societies.
[3] Marija Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe 6500-3500BC, (Thames and Hudson, 1974, 2982), p12
[4] Douglass W. Bailey, “Reading Prehistoric Figurines as Individuals”, World Archeology Vol. 25, No. 3 Reading Art, (Web: Taylor & Francis Ltd, 1994), p322
[5] Bailey explains that the idols were everyday objects, interacted with on a daily basis as a way of identifying ones self or identifying with a group and ones navigating daily existence.
Ibid. p124
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid. p322
[8] Ibid. p12
[9] Theory (Myth) of Progress: that civilization evolves progressively.
Carol P Christ, “A Different World: The Challenge of the Work of Marija Gimbutas to the Dominant World-View of Western Culture,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 12, No. 2, (Web: FSR Inc, 1996), p57
[10] Lauren E. Talalay, “Rethinking the Function of Clay Figurine Legs from Neolithic Greece: An Argument by Analogy,” American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 91, No. 2, (Web: Archaeological Institute of America, 1987)

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