Interview with Marija Gimbutas
original article posted on www.webcom.com/gimbutas/
David: What was it that originally inspired your interest in the
archaeological and mythological dimensions of the Goddess orientated religions
of Old Europe?
Marija: It has to do with the whole of my life, I think. I was
always a black sheep. I did what I saw with my own eyes - to this day,
in fact. I was very independent. My mother was also very independent.
She was one of the first students of medicine in Switzerland and Germany
when there were no other girls studying.
I was born in Lithuania when it was still fifty-percent pagan. I had
quite a lot of direct connections to the Goddesses. They were around me
in my childhood. The Goddess Laima was there; she could call at night
and look through the windows. When a woman is giving birth she appears,
and the grandmother is there organizing things. She has gifts for the
Goddess towels and woven materials are laid for her, because she weaves
the life, she is the spinner. She may be on the way to disappear, but
fifty years ago she was still there.
Rebecca: When you say pagans, you mean people living in the countryside,
close to nature?
Marija: Yes, well Lithuania was Christianized only in the fourteenth
century and even then it didn't mean much because it was done by missionaries
who didn't understand the language, and the countryside remained pagan
for at least two or three centuries. And then came the Jesuits who started
to convert people in the sixteenth century.
In some areas, up to the nineteenth and twentieth century, there were
still beliefs alive in Goddesses and all kinds of beings. So in my childhood
I was exposed to many things, which were almost prehistoric, I would say.
When I studied archaeology, it was easier for me to grasp what these sculptures
mean than for an archaeologist born in New York, who doesn't know anything
about the countryside life in Europe. (Laughter)
I first studied linguistics, ethnology and folklore. I collected folklore
myself when I was in high school. And there was always a question; what
is my own culture? I heard a lot about the Indo-Europeans and that our
language, Lithuanian, was a very old, conservative Indo-European language.
I was interested in that. I studied the Indo-European language and comparative
Indo-European studies, and at that time there was no question about what
was before the Indo-Europeans. It was good enough to know that the Indo-Europeans
was already there. (Laughter) The question of what was before came much
Then, because of the war, I had to flee from Lithuania. I studied in
Austria, in Vienna, and then I got my Ph.D. in Germany. I still continued
to be interested in my own Lithuanian, ancient culture and I did some
things in addition to my official studies. I was doing research in symbolism
and I collected materials from libraries. So that is one trend in my interest
- ancient religion, pagan religion and symbolism. My dissertation was
also connected with this. It was about the burial rites and beliefs in
afterlife and it was published in Germany in 1946.
Then I came to the United States and had the opportunity to begin studies
in eastern European archaeology and in 1950 I became a research fellow
at Harvard and I was there for twelve years. I had to learn from scratch
because there was nobody in the whole United States who was really knowledgeable
about what was in Russia or the Soviet Union in prehistoric times. So
they invited me to write a book on eastern European prehistory and I spent
about fifteen years doing this. So that was my background of learning.
Rebecca: Did you anticipate the incredible interest that this research
Marija: No. At that time I was just an archaeologist doing my
work, studying everything that I could. And after than came the Bronze
Age studies and this gave me another aspect on this Indo-European culture.
In my first book I wrote about eastern European archaeology, I started
my hypothesis on the Indo-European origins in Europe and this hypothesis
still works and hasn't changed much.
Rebecca: Could you describe your hypothesis?
Marija: These proto-Indo-European people came from South Russia
to Europe, introduced the Indo-European culture and then European culture
was hybridized. It was the old culture mixed with the new elements - the
Steppe, pastoral, patriarchal elements. So already at that time, thirty
years ago, I sensed that, in Europe there was something else before the
Indo-Europeans. But I still didn't do anything about the Goddess, about
sculptures, or art, or painted pottery. I just knew that it existed but
I didn't really have the chance to dive into the field.
The occasion appeared when I came to UCLA in 1963 and from 1967 I started
excavations in southeast Europe, in Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy, and
did that for fifteen years. When I was traveling in Europe and visiting
museums I was already building some understanding of what this culture
was like before the Indo-Europeans, before the patriarchy.
It was always a big question mark to me; what could it be? This is so
different. Painted pottery, for instance, beautiful pottery. And then
the sculptures. Nobody really was writing about it. There were so many
of them, wherever you went you found hundreds and hundreds. I was just
putting in my head what I saw. So then I started my own excavations and
I discovered at least five hundred sculptures myself.
Rebecca: How deep did you have to dig?
Marija: It depended. Sometimes at a site of 5,000 B.C, it was
on top. You could walk through the houses of 7,000 years ago! Other times
you have to dig deep to reach that. Usually you excavate sites, which
are already exposed, which are known and where people are finding objects
of great interest. Many things have been destroyed in this way. Some interesting
excavations were made, especially in Greece and I started to understand
more and more about sculptures. I don't know how it happened, at what
moment, but I started to distinguish certain types and their repetitions.
For instance, the bird and snake goddess which are the easiest to distinguish.
Rebecca: Your work appeals to a very broad audience and even people
who don't have an academic background often feel they have an intuitive
sense of what you're saying.
Marija: The intuitive people are always the first to say that.
Then eventually academia catches up, because these are the least intuitive.
Rebecca: Could you briefly describe to us the major differences between
the old European Goddess traditions and the Indo-European patriarchy which
came to dominate, and what aspects of the patriarchal culture caused it
to want to control the matrifocal one?
Marija: The symbolic systems are very different. All this reflects
the social structure. The Indo-European social structure is patriarchal,
patrilineal and the psyche is warrior. Every God is also a warrior. The
three main Indo-European Gods are the God of the Shining Sky, the God
of the Underworld and the Thunder God. The female goddesses are just brides,
wives or maidens without any power, without any creativity. They're just
there, they're beauties, they're Venusís, like the dawn or sun maiden.
So the system from what existed in the matristic culture before the Indo-Europeans
in Europe is totally different. I call it matristic, not matriarchal,
because matriarchal always arouses ideas of dominance and is compared
with the patriarchy. But it was a balanced society, it was not that women
were really so powerful that they usurped everything that was masculine.
Men were in their rightful position, they were doing their own work,
they had their duties and they also had their own power. This is reflected
in their symbols where you find not only goddesses but also, Gods. The
Goddesses were creatrixes, they are creating from themselves. As far back
as 35,000 B.C, from symbols and sculptures, we can see that the parts
of the female body were creative parts: breasts, belly and buttocks. It
was a different view from ours - it had nothing to do with pornography.
The vulva, for instance, is one of the earliest symbols engraved, and
it is symbolically related to growth, to the seed. Sometimes next to it
is a branch or plant motif, or within the vulva is something like a seed
or a plant. And that sort of symbol is very long lasting, it continues
for 20,000 years at least. Even now the vulva is a symbol in some countries,
which offers a security of creativity, of continuity and fertility.
Rebecca: Why did the patriarchal culture choose to dominate?
Marija: This is in the culture itself. They had weapons and they
had horses. The horse appeared only with the invaders who began coming
from South Russia, and in old Europe there were no weapons - no daggers,
no swords. There were just weapons for hunting. Habitations were very
different. The invaders were semi-nomadic people and in Europe they were
agriculturists, living in one area for a very long time, mostly in the
most beautiful places.
When these warriors arrived, they established themselves high in the
hills, sometimes in places, which had very difficult access. So, in each
aspect of culture I see an opposition, and therefore I am of the opinion
that this local, old European culture could not develop into a patriarchal,
warrior culture because this would be too sudden. We have archaeological
evidence that this was a clash. And then of course, who starts to dominate?
The ones who have horses, who have weapons, who have small families and
who are more mobile.
Rebecca: What was daily life like, do you think for the people living
in the matrifocal society?
Marija: Religion played an enormous role and the temple was sort
of a focus of life. The most beautiful artifacts were produced for the
temple. They were very grateful for what they had. They had to thank the
Goddess always, give to her, appreciate her. The high priestess and queen
were one and the same person and there was a sort of a hierarchy of priestesses.
David: Was the Goddess religion basically monotheistic?
Marija: This is a very difficult question to answer. Was it monotheistic,
or was it not? Was there one Goddess or was there not? The time will come
when we shall know more, but at this time we cannot reach deep in prehistory.
What I see, is that from very early on, from the upper Paleolithic times,
we already have different types of goddesses. So are these different Goddesses
or different aspects of one Goddess?
Before 35,000 or 40,000 B.C there is hardly any art but the type of the
Goddess with large breasts and buttocks and belly, existed very early
in the upper Paleolithic. The snake and bird Goddess are also upper Paleolithic,
so at least three main types were there. But in later times, for instance,
in the Minoan culture in Crete, you have a Goddess, which tends to be
more one Goddess than several. Even the snake Goddesses which exist in
Crete, are very much linked with the main Goddess who is shown sitting
on a throne or is worshipped in these underground crypts.
Perhaps, even in the much earlier times, there was also a very close
interrelationship between the different types represented. So maybe after
all, we shall come to the conclusion that this was already a monotheistic
religion even as we tend now to call it - the Goddess religion. We just
have to remember there were many different types of goddesses.
Rebecca: Do you see remnants of the Goddess religion in different
religions throughout the world today?
Marija: Yes, very much so. The Virgin Mary is still extremely
important. She is the inheritor of many types of Goddesses, actually.
She represents the one who is giving life, she is also the regenerator
and earth mother together. This earth mother we can trace quite deep into
prehistory; she is the pregnant type and continues for maybe 20,000 years
and she is very well preserved in practically each area of Europe and
other parts of the world.
David: Do you see the Gaia hypothesis as being a resurgence of the
original Goddess religion?
Marija: I think there is some connection, perhaps in a Jungian
sense. This culture existed so deep and for so long that it cannot be
uninfluential to our thinking.
Rebecca: It must have conditioned our minds for a long time. How
do you respond to criticism that the Goddess religion was just a fertility
Marija: How do I respond to all these silly criticisms? (laughter)
People usually are not knowledgeable who say that, and have never studied
the question. Fertility was important to continuity of life on earth,
but the religion was about life, death and regeneration. Our ancestors
were not primitive.
David: Did you experience a lot of resistance from the academic community
about your interpretations?
Marija: I wouldn't say a lot, but some, yes. It's natural. For
decades archaeologists rarely touched the problem of religion. They probably
accepted the existence of the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic religion,
but the training was such that the students have no occasion to be exposed
to these questions. There was no teaching about prehistoric religion.
Only in some places, like in Oxford University, sixty or seventy years
ago, Professor James was teaching a course on the Goddess. Nobody at that
time was resisting. Now we have more resistance because of the feminist
movement. Some people are automatically not accepting.
This kind of criticism (i.e. rejection of the Goddess) is meaningless
to me. What is true is true, and what is true will remain. Maybe I made
some mistakes in deciphering the symbols, but I was continually trying
to understand more. At this time I know more than when I was writing thirty
years ago. My first book was not complete, therefore I had to produce
another book and another book to say more. It's a long process.
Rebecca: Wasn't it incredibly difficult to find written sources and
references for your research?
Marija: There was so little, it was amazing! There were some good
books in the 1950's. In 1955 a Jungian psychologist, Eric Neumann, published
a book on the mother Goddess. Then there were very good works on symbolism
by Mircea Eliade.
David: Were you surprised in yours and others' excavations by the
advanced designs of the habitats and the settlements of the Goddess religion?
Marija: Yes, I was. This was a revelation, to see that the later
culture is much less advanced than the earlier one. The art is incomparably
lower than what was before, and it was a civilization of 3,000 years,
more or less, before it was destroyed. For thirty years now we've had
the possibility to date items, using carbon dating. When I started to
do my research, chronology was so unclear and we were working so hard
to understand what period the object belonged to. Then in the 1960's it
became so much easier. I spent a lot of time doing chronology, which is
very technical work.
That gave us a perspective on how long lasting these cultures were, and
you could see a beautiful development from the more simple to the really
sophisticated, in the architecture and the building of temples. Some houses
and temples were two stories high and had painted walls. Catal Huyuk was
such a great discovery in Anatolia. The wall paintings there were only
published in 1989, twenty-five years after Myler's excavation. One hundred
and forty wall paintings - and archeologists don't believe him because
it's so sophisticated. And this is from the 7th millennium!
Rebecca: Do you think the matrifocal society could have sustained
cities, or do you think that the nature of the religion and the lifestyle
kept it small, usually no bigger than the average village?
Marija: It would have sustained cities. It did start to develop
into an urban culture, especially in one area of the Cucuteni civilization,
which is presently Romania, and the western part of the Ukraine. There
we have cities of ten to fifteen thousand inhabitants in around 4,000
BC So urban development began, but it was truncated.
Rebecca: You have said that you think the meaning of prehistoric
art and religion can be deciphered and that we need to analyze the evidence
from the point of view of ideology. Do you think that we can honestly
do this without being unduly biased by our own ideologies?
Marija: That's always difficult. Most archaeologists have great
difficulty in accepting that the life was so different. For instance,
an excavator publishes a plan of a village. This is a circular village
in a concentric circle of houses and in the center there is a house also.
The explanation at once is, here is a chieftain's house and around him
is his retinue and then the last ring around is everyone else.
And then, when you analyze the material, it is totally the reverse. The
large ring of houses were the most important houses, the largest houses
with the best floors and so on, then growing into the inside the smaller
houses are in the middle. So you can write anecdotes about the interpretation
because we see only through the twentieth century prism.
David: What does your research indicate about the social status of
women in the pre-Indo-European culture?
Marija: Women were equal beings, that is very clear, and perhaps
more honored because they had more influence in the religious life. The
temple was run by women.
Rebecca: What about the political life?
Marija: My findings suggest that the political life - of course,
it's all hypothesis, you cannot reconstruct easily, but we can judge from
what remains in later times and what still exists in mythology, because
this again reflects the social structure - was structured by the avuncular
system. The rulers of the country; the queen which is also the high priestess
and also her brother or uncle. The system is therefore called avuncular,
which is from the word, uncle. The man, the brother or uncle, was very
important in society, and probably men and women were quite equal. In
mythology we encounter the sister-brother couples of female goddesses
and male gods.
It is wrong to say that this is just a woman's culture, that there was
just a Goddess and there were no Gods. In art the male is less represented,
that's true, but that the male Gods existed, there's no question. In all
mythologies, for instance in Europe, Germanic or Celtic or Baltic, you
will find the earth mother or earth Goddess and her male companion or
counterpart next to her.
Also there are other couples like the Goddess of Nature, Regenerator,
who appears in the spring and gives life to all earth animals and humans
and plants. She is Artemis in Greek mythology. She is called Mistress
of Animals, and there are also male counterparts of the same kind called
Master of Animals. His representations appear in Catal Huyuk in the 7th
Millennium BC and they are there throughout prehistory, so we shouldn't
neglect that aspect. There is a balance between the sexes throughout,
in religion and in life.
David: Is there any evidence that the takeover was violent and how
much did the people try to defend themselves?
Marija: It was violent, but how much they defended themselves
is difficult to tell. But they were losers. There was evidence of immigration
and escape from these violent happenings and a lot of confusion, a lot
of shifts of population. People started to flee to places like islands
and forests and hilly areas. In the settlements you have evidence of murder.
Rebecca: What about the Kurgan, invading culture, were they always
patriarchal, when did the patriarchy begin?
Marija: This is a very serious question which archaeologists cannot
answer yet, but we can see that the patriarchy was already there around
5,000 B.C for sure and the horse was domesticated not later than that.
Rebecca: The `sacred script' that you translated from the Goddess
culture, did it ever develop, as far as you know, into sentences or phrases?
Marija: Again that's for the future to decide. It is possible
that it was a syllabic script and it would have probably developed into
something if it were not for the culture's destruction. The script is
lost in most of Europe and it is the eastern and central Europe where
we have most signs preserved. In the Bronze Age, in Cyprus and in Crete,
the script persisted which is much related to what it was earlier in the
5th Millennium BC Some is preserved but we do not have very clear links
yet because of this culture change.
Scholars are looking into this question and I hope it will be deciphered
somehow. The difficulty is that this pre-Indo-European language is studied
very little. People study substrates of languages in Greece and Italy,
but mostly what they can reconstruct are place names like Knossos, which
is a pre-Indo-European name. The word for apple, for instance, is pre-Indo-European
and so linguists little by little, word by word, discover what words are
not Indo-European. Names for seeds, for various trees, plants, for animals,
they're easily reconstructed. And also there exist several pre-Indo-European
names for the same thing (like for the pig) and both are used; some languages
use pre-Indo-European, some languages use Indo-European names, or both.
This is a field of research which should be further developed in the
future and I think I am creating an influence in this area. It's extremely
important to have inter-disciplinary research. For a long time in the
universities, there was department, department, department, and no connection
between departments. Archaeology was especially so, with no connection
to linguistic studies and no connection with mythology and folklore.
Rebecca: You've talked about the need for a field of archeo-mythology.
Marija: Yes. And when you don't ignore the other disciplines,
you start seeing many more things. That is such a revelation, to see in
mythology really ancient elements that you can apply to archeology. To
some archeologists this is not science, well, all right, let it not be
science! It doesn't matter what you call it. (Laughter)
Rebecca: Many people used to believe that language started with men
in the hunt, and now there's more leaning towards the idea that it began
in the home. When and how do you think language first developed?
Marija: Early, very early - lower Paleolithic. And it developed
in the family. Some linguists are doing research in the earliest known
words, and some formations show that certain words are very, very old
and they exist all over the world.
David: You've collected a lot of European folk-tales. As creation
myths are found in almost every culture in the world, have you found any
that are relating to this theme?
Marija: Yes. Like, the water bird and the cosmic egg. The world
starts with an egg and the water bird is bringing the egg, then the egg
splits and one part of it becomes earth and the other part becomes sky.
Rebecca: There are so many transmutations of the Goddess in mythology
and folklore developing from a positive image into a negative one. Do
you see this as a conscious attempt to distort the feminine?
Marija: Yes it is. This is really Christianity's doing, because
they felt the danger. They demonized the one who was the most powerful.
The one who could perform many things, who was connected with the atmospheric
happenings, with rains and storms. So this is the Goddess who rules over
death and regeneration, the one who became the witch. So she was really
powerful and in the days of the Inquisition, she is described as really
From various descriptions you can sense that there was fear. She could
control male sexuality, for instance, she could cut the moon and stop
it growing, she was the balancer of the life powers. She could do a lot
of damage, this Goddess. But you must understand why she was doing this.
She could not allow things to grow forever, she had to stop, she caused
the death in order to have the cycle from the beginning. She is the main
regenerator of the whole world, of all of nature.
Rebecca: So the patriarchal culture had to make people afraid of
her, so they would abandon her.
Marija: Yes. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which are
critical for this change, she became a Satan, a monster. This image is
still with us. In each country she is more or less preserved. In the Basque,
she is still there and very much alive. She is a vulture, she lives in
caves. And sometimes shepherds arrange Christian Science crosses to remove
the vultures. (Laughter)
David: You have been largely responsible for the reemergence of Goddess
consciousness in the western hemisphere. How do you feel about the way
that this perspective is being interpreted socially and politically?
Marija: The interpretation of Goddess in some cases is overdone
a little bit. I cannot see that the Goddess as she was can be reconstructed
and returned to our lives, but we have to take the best that we can seize.
The best understanding is of divinity itself. The Christian God punishes
and is angry and does not fit into our times at all. We need something
better, we need something closer, we need something that we can touch
and we need some compassion, some love, and also a return to the nature
Through an understanding of what the Goddess was, we can better understand
nature and we can build our ideologies so that it will be easier for us
to live. We have to be grateful for what we have, for all the beauty,
and the Goddess is exactly that. Goddess is nature itself. So I think
this should be returned to humanity. I don't think that Christianity will
continue for a very long time, but it's just like patriarchy, it's not
easy to get rid of. (Laughter) But somehow, from the bottom up, it's coming.
Rebecca: The patriarchy has been around for about five thousand years
compared to the Goddess culture which was around for possibly millions.
Why did it endure for so long?
Marija: Because of what I've been talking about. It was natural
to have this kind of divinity and it is absolutely unnatural to create
a punishing God and warriors who are stimulating our bad instincts.
David: A lot of the major themes you discuss: life giving, the renewing
of the eternal earth, death and regeneration, energy unfolding, are well-known
archetypal themes that occur during a psychedelic experience. I'm curious
about whether you think that the Goddess-orientated cultures incorporated
the use of mushrooms or some kind of psychoactive plant into their rituals,
and do you take seriously Terence Mckenna's notion that the use of psychedelics
was the secret that was lost at Catal Huyuk?
Marija: I'm sure they had it. This knowledge still exists in rituals
like Eleusis in Greece where now it's clear that psychedelics were used.
From the depiction of mushrooms, maybe you can judge that his was sacred,
but this was perhaps not the most important. From Minoan engravings on
seals, for instance, you have poppies very frequently indicated. Also,
poppy seeds are found in Neolithic settlements, so they were conscious
about that, they were collecting, they were using and maybe growing poppies
like other domestic plants.
David: Do you see it influencing the culture?
Marija: Yes. From Dionysian rituals in Greece which can go back
to much earlier times you get all this dancing, excitement, always at
the edge, to a frenzy, almost to craziness. That existed even in the Paleolithic
times, I would guess, but what they used is difficult to reconstruct.
We have the poppy seeds, all right. Mushrooms? Maybe. But what else? The
hard evidence is not preserved by archaeological record. It's disappeared.
Rebecca: What do you think are the signifying differences between
a culture, like the Goddess culture, which views time as cyclical, as
opposed to a culture like ours which sees time as linear, progressing
towards some waiting future?
Marija: It's much easier to live when you think of this cyclicity.
I think it's crazy to think of a linear development like in the European
beliefs in life after death - if you're a king, you will stay a king,
and if you're a hero, you'll stay a hero. (Laughter)
Rebecca: That aspect of the Goddess culture, the idea that things
do travel in cycles. Do you think this made them much more philosophical
Marija: Much more philosophical. And it's a very good philosophy.
What else can you think? This is the best. And the whole of evolution
is based so much upon this thinking, on regeneration of life and stimulation
of life-powers. This is the main thing that we're interested in. To preserve
life-powers, to awaken them each Spring, to see that they continue and
that life thrives and flourishes.
David: What relevance do you think that understanding our ancient
past to dealing with the problems facing the world today?
Marija: Well, it's time to be more peaceful, to calm down, (laughter)
and this philosophy is pacifying somehow, bringing us to some harmony
with nature where we can learn to value things. And knowing that there
were cultures which existed for a long time without wars is important,
because most twentieth-century people think that wars were always there.
There are books still stressing this fact and suggesting such crazy ideas
that agriculture and war started at the same time. They say that when
villages started to grow, the property had to be defended, but that is
nonsense! There was property, but it was communal property. Actually,
it was a sort of communism in the best sense of the word. It could not
exist in the twentieth-century. And also they believed that in death you
are equal. I like this idea very much. You don't have to be queen or a
king once your bones are collected and mixed together with other bones.
David: As rebirth is one of the major themes of your work, what do
you personally feel happens to human consciousness after death?
Marija: Maybe in the way the old Europeans were thinking. That
the life-energy continues to a certain degree, it does not disappear.
Individual forms disappear and that's the end.
Rebecca: Are you optimistic that a partnership society can be achieved
Marija: I don't know if I'm optimistic. In a way I think I am,
otherwise it would be difficult to live - you have to have hope. But that
the development will be slow, is clear. It very much depends on who is
in the government. Our spiritual life is so full of war images. Children
are from the very beginning taught about shooting and killing. So the
education has to change, television programs have to change. There are
signs for that, there are voices appearing. So you should be optimistic
- read biography -
Marguretie Rigoglioso, a Boston-based writer is working on a book
about the Goddess pilgrimages to Greece and Sicily. Her email address