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Keynote address delivered at The Green Goddess Conference April 23-25, 2010
The Association for the Study of Women and Mythology
Kirkridge Retreat Center, Bangor, PA

The earth of late has been plagued by extreme disasters—storms, floods and hurricanes. In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times of Sunday, February 28, 2010, Al Gore wrote: “The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture in the atmosphere—thus causing heavier snowfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.”

Eyjafjallajokull, the Icelandic volcano

The White House

Palisades, NY

Gaia’s balance and equilibrium has obviously been affected by human interference. In the 1960s, scientist James Lovelock proposed the Gaia hypothesis, something that we need to pay attention to now. The Gaia hypothesis is the theory that living organisms and inorganic material are part of a dynamic system that shapes the Earth’s biosphere. The earth is a self-regulating environment: a single, unified, cooperative and living system, a super-organism that regulates physical conditions to keep the environment hospitable for life. Evolution, therefore, is the result of cooperative, not competitive, processes.

I believe the Great Goddess, as She is seen in many representations from the Paleolithic in art and mythology, is a symbolic manifestation of all that is, including our living, breathing planet.

I will open my illustrated presentation with a discussion of the archaeological, mythological and anthropological evidence indicating that the Great Goddess was probably the principal deity worshipped along the Mediterranean, throughout Europe, the Near East, much of Russia, North Africa, India, and even parts of China during the Upper Paleolithic (30,000 to 10,000 BCE) and Neolithic ages (roughly 7,000 to 2,500 BPE).

While the Goddess was still present in the Bronze Age during the rise of the Big Kingdoms, She became subsumed in their general pantheons, acquired different names and was conquered, raped or married off to various newly emergent and vigorous gods, including Tiamat and Marduk in Mesopotamia and Hera and Zeus in Greece.

Beginning in the 1960s with the birth of the modern feminist movement, in part sparked by Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, there has been a powerful resurgence of interest in the place of women in history and the role of the Goddess. I will discuss the prevailing view of the Goddess as an embodiment of the feminine sensibility evident in both sexes and especially noteworthy in this time of escalating militarism when the negative fruits of patriarchy have become so glaringly apparent.

I will present and discuss important images of the Great Goddess from the earliest times to the present, connect worship of Her from Her Paleolithic manifestations to current ecological impulses, and draw a chronological line from the practices of Paleolithic peoples to those of Australian Aborigines and other contemporary peoples.

I’ll begin with a question: How and why can we claim that the Goddess is the original environmentalist? The Great Goddess was the personification of the reproductive energies of nature—birth, death, fertility, motherhood and regeneration—all cyclical qualities. By being cyclical—by continually recycling resources, the Goddess is an environmentalist, the first environmentalist.

The Goddess in all her manifestations is a symbol of the unity of all life in nature and hence she is the original environmentalist.  “Her power was in water and stone, in tomb and cave, in animals and birds, snakes and fish, hills, trees, and flowers.  Hence the holistic and mythopoetic perception of the sacredness and mystery of all there is on earth.” (Gimbutas, 1989, 321.)

According to this definition, “the Goddess is not imagined as an external being with a specific personality who dominates the human sphere, but as a human perception of and reverence for the interconnected sacredness of  ‘all life in nature.’  This sacred wholeness, as an overreaching metaphor, is teeming with multiplicity. The metaphor itself becomes diversified according to various contextual associations.  For instance, the figure of the Creatrix in the Eurasian context, the mythical Ancestral Mother, proliferates into the numerous guardian spirits of nature which may be reflected in different styles and forms of female imagery.” (Haarman and Marler, Introducing the Mythological Crescent, 136)

Here are some inspiring quotations about the Goddess from my second book, In the Footsteps of the Goddess: Personal Stories.

She [the Goddess] is One. She is Many. She is the Earth and the cosmos. She is creative intelligence and beauty. She is death and decay, change and rebirth. She is in the corn and in the seed and in the stalk. She is the highest sky and the heat at noon. She is rats as well as butterflies. She is all possibilities and all there is. She is truth.” (Footsteps, p. 27)

“I always define the Goddess in Earth-based forms—mud earth, rock, water. I approach the many phases of female divinity in very grounded forms. And in meditation, I receive a flow of language from multi-layered personas of a Goddess’ energy.” (Footsteps, pp. 24-25)

“The primordial goddess represents the feminine principal rather than a personified deity who is out there independently, acting willfully in the world. She is undifferentiated. Everything is in Her as potential, and because She is so prehistoric, there are no words written about Her so She really has no name. Imagine the differentiated Goddess as stars. Then imagine the stars as pinholes in the vault of heaven. Beyond the pinholes are the archetypes, the spirits, and the divine beings, and the stars let their intelligence and consciousness come into the world.” (Footsteps, p. 24)

The Goddess thus represented the personification of Human Beings’ first numinous impulses. Following is a discussion of these impulses and visual illustrations of them. In the beginning were caves. Caves were the first places of worship of our ancestors, the first cathedrals. Caves were considered to be spaces in the body of the Great Mother—her being, her essence. Cave entrances were the openings into Her sacred being, Her womb—the ultimate mystery, the ultimate emerging.

Niaux cave

The earth was considered alive and sacred by our ancestors. Trees and rocks were manifestations of Her bounty. Rocks are considered her sacred bones in some mythologies, including the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrah.

On Kangaroo Island in South Australia, next to the city of Adelaide, is the Remarkable Rock site that is considered sacred to Aboriginal people, a place where they performed rituals. Admiral Arch nearby, was also a sacred site, a sacred gateway. Our ancestors probably cherished certain sites as sacred just as the Australia Aborigines and other native people, who are closely connected with the earth, still do.

The Remarkable Rock site, Australia

The Remarkable Rock site, Australia

The Remarkable Rock site, Australia

The Remarkable Rock site, Australia

Admiral Arch, Australia

The reverence for caves and cave mouths—the mouths and vulvas of the earth—goes back to our Neanderthal cousins. Shanidar Cave in Iraq is the site of Neanderthal burials. Sixty thousand years ago our Neanderthal cousins reverently buried their dead, covering them with red ochre, the color of rebirth, and surrounding them with flowers.  Fifty thousand years ago Neanderthals produced cup marks and triangles at their burial sites in La Ferrasie Shelter in the Dordogne region of France.

Shanidar Cave, Iraq

La Ferrasie Shelter, France

If anyone has ever spent time in a cave, one will have noticed several things. On the physical realm, the temperature in a cave is fairly constant throughout the seasons of the year. This probably would have been considered miraculous and evidence of a cave’s aliveness as the body of the earth. Entry into a cave was probably seen as virtually indistinguishable from entry into the mental vortex that leads to the experiences and hallucinations of deep trance (David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, p 209). The subterranean passages and chambers were the entrails of the nether world—the Goddess—and entry into them was seen as both a physical and psychic entry into the underworld. Spiritual experiences were then given topographic materiality. Entry into a cave was, for Paleolithic people, entry into the spirit world. Australian Aboriginal people also claim certain sites and rock formations as sacred areas imbued with spirit where contact with the ancestors is possible under certain conditions.

The surface areas inside caves were thought to embody magic and connection between reality and the spirit world.  In the Pech Merle Cave in France’s Dordogne region, some of the mammoth paintings are painted on projecting rocks that recall woolly mammoth shapes. In the dim light of a flickering torch, the painted mammoths appear as if they are moving.

Pech Merle cave, France

I visited Pech Merle with my son John in January of 1985, having pre-arranged a special tour for just the two of us. Outside the cave it was snowing and very cold.  Inside the cave it felt warm. I was moved to tears when the mammoth images, lit by a torch, appeared to be moving. I felt a direct connection with our ancestors who had also seen this phenomenon.

Another cave that I visited in the mid-80s with my late partner Pat was Font De Gaume, a small but very intense cave.  We had a wonderful female guide—a real feminist. As we were entering this jewel of a cave, she announced, “Cette grotte est une grotte femmelle. Elle est pleine de vulve.”  Translation: “This cave is a female cave; it is full of vulvas.”

Fonte De Gaume, France

Vulva carving, Fonte De Gaume, France

Vulvas

FIGURINES

Female figurines abound in the Paleolithic.  Over 2000 figurines, reliefs and sculptures of female images from the Paleolithic have been found in caves and habitation sites extending from Europe to Asia. There are some male figures in caves as well as in La Marche in France , but there are very few male statuettes that I am aware of—very few penises, but an abundance of vulvas.

La Marche cave, France

Last year the Venus of Hohle Fels, dating from 35,000 BPE, was found in a cave in Germany by the archaeologist Nicholas J. Conard. He named it the Venus of Hohle Fels.  It is 4 cm high and is covered with designs such as chevrons, which are a feature of Paleolithic and Neolithic art. The Hohle Fels Venus is one of the oldest known examples of figurative art in the world. It is estimated to be about 5000 years older than the famous Venus of Willendorf.

Hohle Fels Venus, Germany

The red ochre rock found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa (70,000 BPE) seems to have similar chevron designs on it, suggesting a continuation of similar symbology from our Neanderthal cousins to our direct ancestors, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, who took over the earth 30,000 years ago.

 

Carved rock found in Blombos Cave, South Africa

There are many different types of female figures found throughout Europe and Asia ranging in size and created in stone, bone or clay. Some are realistic and some are more abstract. Some are slim and some are ample. Some show merely the parts of woman such as the vulva disks from Brno in Moravia or the breast images from various parts of France.

Bron Disk

Double breast Pendant

Perhaps different images related to different functions and meanings that the Goddess projected. Some images are small and were meant to be worn around the neck, probably in a prophylactic capacity, to insure health or to ward off evil influences. The figures with large breasts that they cup in their hands may relate to the nurturing aspect of the Goddess.

The mythic connection between woman and animal is represented in a number of images from the Paleolithic. Two of these images are the life-sized figures from the La Madeleine cave in France. These relief figures are almost life size and depict female figures reclining naturalistically. One figure has an animal lying at her feet, which might suggest that she is displaying her power over animals as the mistress of the hunt. The cult of the animals was not only concerned with their killing but with their resurrection as well.  The worship of the animal was not only transference to an image, but also to different parts of its body which, in the eyes of Paleolithic humans, signified a particular strength. This attitude, killing animals in order to eat them but with reverence, has also been observed in the present era among Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert in Africa and among the Australian Aborigines.

La Madeleine cave, France

 

La Madeleine cave, France

THE WEB AND THE NET: UNIVERSAL SYMBOLS OF CONNECTION

The web is a powerful ancient archetypal symbol derived from animal art found in Paleolithic and Neolithic art in various forms and also in Aboriginal art. Since the web is an archetypal symbol of connectedness, I believe it is a primal environmental symbol of the Goddess as Green Goddess. It is a symbol of life, death and renewal.  All that lives must die and from its death is set the stage for new life—for transformation and renewal.

The spider is the premier and most ancient architect of webs. Surely our Paleolithic ancestors, who were totally immersed in the observance of animals and natural phenomena, observed spiders weaving their spectacular webs and were inspired by them. The spider, in fact, became an important deity in many mythologies.

Weaving was invented in the Paleolithic before the establishment of year-round settlements. The oldest weaving to date was found in the Pavlov Hills in the southern Czech republic—fabric imprints in clay from 25,000 years old (Barber, 1994, 83). The importance of string and weaving to women from earliest times is attested by the raison d’etre of some of the goddesses such as the Fates of classical Greek mythology and the Norns of Teutonic mythology. In Greek mythology there is Clotho the spinner, Lachesis the oracle, and Atropos the cutter.  These goddesses are of very ancient lineage, perhaps an archaic version of the Triple Goddess, spinning and weaving the cycles of life.

Once the string had been invented in the Paleolithic, it was not difficult to envision creating nets that appear in the late Gravettian period (22,000 BCE).  It is difficult to point to actual artistic representations of the spider’s web in the Paleolithic and Neolithic. Rayed circles, which look like webs, have been found at Cape York in Australia, adjacent to 13,000-year-old deposits (Burenhult, 1993, 163) and the web appears in related forms such as the net (Geidion, 1957, 249), meandering lines and what the famous French archaeologist Abbe Breuil calls tectiforms, rayed lines, or  “sorcerer forms” because to him they recalled the ceremonial costumes of African shamans. (Marshack, 1976, 304). Marija Gimbutas calls these tectiforms “the comet motif” and claims they are common in the Paleolithic and Neolithic. She suggests that such intercepting lines symbolize the flow of water, of life and healing (Gimbutas, 1980, 44). Female figures decorated with net-like striations found in the Paleolithic are said to be filled with divine moisture (Gimbutas, 1980, 44.)There appear to be Paleolithic web-like images in Parpallo in Valencia, Spain. (Pericot-Garcia 1967, 88). These images were probably not meant to represent actual webs, but rather indications of process or ritual involving time and lunar notation.

Cape York, Australia, Rayed Circles

Comet Motif

Parpallo, Spain


Weaving could have developed out of netting techniques (Barber, 1991:259). Marshack states that in the Paleolithic, the zigzag, another form of the net, is probably a sign of water (Marshack 1976, 314). “While the image may represent ‘water’ in one aspect, the intent was not representative but rather an indication of process, sequence and relation.” (Marshack 1976, 315.)  In addition to the Solutrian and Magdalenian examples from Spain, net-like patterns were found in a number of Magdalenian caves in Southern France and Spain from the period 12,000– 9,000 (Gimbutas, 1989, 81).

Net-like patterns, Altamira

 

Cave painting may have been related to the pursuit of contact with a parallel spiritual universe. “Certain geometric images on cave walls are thus interpreted as representations of hallucinations experience in a state of trance” (White, 2003, 57).  In a state of trance, our ancestors’ view of the world would have been inspired by natural forms around them such as spiders’ webs—the original connecting lines.

Crosshatched designs 77,000 years old, which are related to nets, have been found on rocks of the Blombos Cave in South Africa. This suggests that, perhaps just as their European counterparts, prehistoric people of South Africa perceived caves as sanctuaries dedicated to a numinous deity. “From the earliest times, human beings have worshipped in caves, because the cave epitomizes those states of transition which are of compelling and universal interest.…” (Dames, 1976, 107). Net designs are also found in the Mousterian period, c. 35,000 BCE, connecting our Neanderthal cousins to our period.  Intercepting lines have been discovered on cave walls in the Koonalda Cave in the Nullarbor Plain in Australia dating from 22,000 BCE (White, 2003, 183).  There are also the net-like dilly bags used for foraging in Australian Aboriginal art that are depicted in some of the Kakadu rock paintings from Arnhem Land, some dating to 25,000 BCE (White, 2003, 186).

Koonalda Cave, Nullarbor Plain, Australia

The carrier bag and women’s gathering activities could have been the master pattern in human evolution . . . the use of the carrier bag facilitated the accumulation of botanical information. Hominid females would communicate the whereabouts of a rich strand of fruiting bushes, when seeds or nuts could be picked from grass or trees and where they grew, so that a whole store of knowledge of different kinds of plants enlarged the human brain, which in turn enabled the developing hominids to classify and investigate the natural world about them, in the classic model of the feedback mechanism that shaped the evolution of humanity.” (Weigle, 1982, 279)

Carrier Bag

What is the importance of the net symbolically? Net patterns appear in association with clusters of parallel lines and Xs in European Paleolithic caves. Usually these designs are seen in conjunction with animals and, according to Gimbutas, “are emblematic of the worship of the regenerative Goddess in caves” (Gimbutas, 1989, 82). Some net patterns appear in Paleolithic sites in the Ukraine in conjunction with fish and could be symbolic of water (Gimbutas, 1989, 82). “The net is linked with Aqua cosmology, the life source, and the birth of humans, animal and plant life” (Gimbutas, 1989, 81).  Net images could have also had to do with ritual process or images acquired in a state of trance. Any activity that is repetitive such as drumming, chanting, some types of dancing and possibly weaving can be said to be ritualistic and therefore could presumably be used to induce trance. “Duplication and multiplication has, perhaps, invocative or magical intent” (Gimbutas 1991, 316).

Web patterns are found in the Neolithic all over the world. Woven threads appear in the Jarmo culture of Japan in 7,000 BPE (Barber, 1994, 77-78). In the Neolithic village of Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia, there is evidence of weaving. Woven pieces found there “show knotting resembling a fishnet pattern” (Mellaart, 1967, 219). These have been preserved from burn burials where the cloth that was under the skeletons survived intact (Mellaart, 1967, 210, 219).  A number of frescos have a Kilim-like pattern (Mellaart 1967, 219) that could be a derivation of the net pattern. “The relation between the Bird Goddess and the art of spinning is evidenced by the chevron and the chevron combined with meander found in the Neolithic and Copper age spindle whorls” (Gimbutas, 1989, 67). The link between weaving and the Goddess is evidenced by the appearance of Her signs and features on loom weights of the Neolithic. Many loom weighs are covered with a net pattern (Gimbutas, 1989, 68). The vulva and womb areas of numerous Paleolithic figurines are marked by net patterns (Gimbutas, 1989, 100). In Greece the women were known to weave collectively at the looms, singing together as they wove, and making “story cloths” that were oracular when a child was born. Possibly this practice originated in the Paleolithic. James Mellaart, the original excavator of Çatal Hüyük, believes that numerous wall paintings found at the site reflect associations with the Neolithic Goddess who, like Athena after her, was already regarded as the patroness of weaving (Gimbutas, 1989, 68).

Neolithic and Copper Age spindle whorls

Neolithic and Copper Age spindle whorls

Net-patterned bands, lozenges, triangles and circles were painted on Neolithic vases from the end of the 7th millennium and through the Copper and Bronze ages (Gimbutas, 1989, 83). One of the most eloquent images of the Goddess with a net pattern comes from Boetia, 700–675 BCE (Gimbutas, 1989, 85). There are net-patterned fish in her womb suggesting the intimacy between the net, fish, amniotic fluid and uterus (Gimbutas, 1989, 87).   Artemis Diktynna-Britomartis of Crete was associated with fishing nets; one of her titles is “the lady of the nets,” and her myth and ritual are related to childbirth (Gimbutas 1989, 87). The net pattern persisted among the Indo-European Kurgans in the later Neolithic, such as the Cortaillod culture of Switzerland where the net pattern is found on spindle whorls (Gimbutas, 1991, 198).

 

Artemis Diktynna-Britomartis of Crete

In conclusion, the web and net can be said to be related symbolically. In my own work, I have created a number of webs as a reminder of our interconnection with all living things on this beautiful earth, our Mother. They represent the cyclical qualities of the Goddess as a Green Goddess. I have created eight giant webs in the United States and in Europe. These webs were composed of ropes of different widths and hues and were usually installed outside in different venues. Their finished shape was dependent on the availability of trees or other perpendicular objects in the environments. The first web, however, was installed during the fall of 1990 at the Thorpe Gallery in Sparkill, New York, an indoor gallery where 31 women participated in its five-day creation. Approximately one mile of different colored ropes in various widths, lengths, and textures were woven, using the walls and ceilings as anchors. The effect on the space— measuring 127’ x 34’ x 14’—was both dramatic and inspiring. Ropes were hung from all angles and heights, encouraging the viewer to interact with the piece.

The Web, side I

The Web, side II

The 3-D Web Thorpe Gallery, Sparkill, NY

The 3-D Web, Rockland Center for the Arts, W.Nyack, NY

When the Web was created outside it took on a new meaning.   As the work weathered through the seasons, one was struck by the play of light and dark, the surrounding colors of the woods, the trees and the snow. I created webs at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, at the Parco di Villa Tigullio in Rapallo, Italy and in the Parc de Derriere Bourges in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The 3-D Web, Mt.Holyoke College, MA

The 3-D Web, Parco di Villa Tigullio, Rapallo Italy

The 3-D Web, Parc de Derriere Bourges, Lausanne, Switzerland

In its latest manifestation, the web has come to symbolize the present wave of the women’s movement.  In 1980 webs were woven in connection with the Women’s Pentagon Action. Webs were woven on the fences surrounding the Pentagon as a symbol of women’s unity in a common purpose. The web was considered to be a powerful symbol of the worldwide women’s movement, emphasizing women united in the protest against the nuclear industrial complex and in the desire for world peace.

Web on fence at the Women's Pentagon Action

Women's Pentagon Action

THE BIRD

The mythic link between Goddess and the bird is evident in many depictions of birds as women from the Paleolithic and Neolithic. Some of these images that incorporate female with animal/bird characteristics suggest a deep resonance of mutual participation and kinship with the animal world. The bird is the aerial avatar of the Goddess as the snake is her chthonic or earthly manifestation from the Paleolithic through the Neolithic. “Since birds inhabit the upper air where weather originates, the bird was believed in primitive times to magically command the weather, bringing rain and controlling thunder and lightening. Water birds were responsible for rain. Avian symbolism is found all over the world.” (Buffie Johnson, 8). Birds were also thought to be psychopomps between this world and the next—between life and death. One of Hermes’ duties was to conduct souls from this world to the next, hence the bird wings on his cap. In ecology, the bird is responsible for pollination and composting.

The connection between woman and the bird can be seen in this image of bird figurines from the Ukraine from 22,000 BPE.  A triangular vulva is etched on its outstretched wings and snaking serpentine lines decorate the rest of its body.   These designs that appear in profusion in the Neolithic period are, according to Gimbutas, regenerative signs connected with life energy and perhaps even to death and rebirth. We find almost the same exact shape in the abstract Bird Goddess figure from Anatolia from the 4th millennium.  Approximately 19,000 years separate these two representations, hence the persistence of this important mythic connection between woman and animal, Goddess and bird.

Bird Goddess

Bird Goddess

 


There are numerous two- and three-dimensional representations of female figures in the so-called buttocks position from the late Magdalenian period (15,000–9,000 BCE) when human representations tended to be more abstract. According to Gimbutas, these figures are precursors of the Neolithic Bird Goddess whose buttocks are meant to hold eggs such as these representations from Starcevo, Yugoslavia from the 6th millennium.   Note the similarity in conception between the Pedersfeld pendant (15,000 BPE) and the Vinca image (6,000 BCE)—despite 9,000 years apart.

Starcevo, Yugoslavia

Starcevo, Yugoslavia

 


The Bird-Goddess-Creatrix expresses the idea of creation taking place from the Universal egg laid by the deity. This visual evidence, from the Paleolithic through the Late Neolithic periods, testifies to a widespread belief that the Cosmic egg was carried in the posterior of the Bird Goddess. The primordial life substance, the germ of matter, grew inside her body until it no longer needed protection, and then the universe burst forth (Buffie Johnson, 17).

The Nike images of Classical Greece are descendants of the Paleolithic Bird Goddess as are the Genii figures of Assyrian art that have been transformed, because of patriarchy, into super muscular male figures. Medieval angels are also the descendants of the Paleolithic Bird Goddess.

Genii Figure

 

In my own work, I have been inspired by the primordial Bird Goddess. During the last twenty years I have created a series of what I call Human Nests. With these nests, obviously inspired by avian architecture, I present concepts of interconnection and similarity between the architectural feats of birds and that of some types of human housing found in tropical rain forests. These dwellings are ecologically friendly. When they have ceased being of use, they naturally disintegrate into the environment, providing compost for the continuation of life.  By presenting an enlarged version of these avian architectural feats, I hope to motivate viewers to increase their awareness and admiration of other living things who share our beautiful earth. Like avian architects, I employ natural materials—vines and leaves—in a cogent aesthetic fashion to create a harmonious whole.

Human Housing

Human Nest Installation, Rockland Center for the Arts, NY

Human Nest Installation, Woodstock, NY

The Vilnius Nest, Europos Parkus, Lithuania

 

With my new Nike Figure Series numbering three so far, inspired by the Paleolithic Bird Goddess, I illustrate the connection between woman and bird.

Nike Figure I

Nike Figure II

Nike Figure III

 

THE SNAKE

As the bird is Her aerial manifestation, the Snake is the Goddess chthonic or earthly manifestation. The snake was thought to possess regenerative powers, not only because it sheds its skin in the spring and is thought of as reborn, therefore making it a perfect metaphor for the Goddess’ cyclical nature, but also because the bite of certain snakes will cause hallucinogenic states. The snake as a telluric avatar of the Goddess appears universally in the art and mythology of the world. Every mythology has some form of the World serpent. The energy exuded by the snake’s coiling and spiraling transcends its boundaries and influences the surrounding world. This same energy is in spirals, vines, growing trees, and phalluses (Gimbutas, 1989, 121). The snake was considered primordial and mysterious, coming from the depths of the waters where life begins. Its seasonal renewal by sloughing off its old skin and hibernating made it a symbol for the continuity of life and of the link to the Underworld. The symbols surrounding the anthropomorphic snake Goddess can be seen in chevrons, Xs, and aquatic symbols—zigzags, meanders, and streams. They must have been the springs of life in prehistory, as they still are in European folklore. The vital influence of the snake was felt not only in life creation, but also in fertility and increase, and particularly in the regeneration of dying life energy. Combined with magic plants, the snake’s powers were potent in healing and creating life anew.  A vertically winding snake symbolized ascending life force, viewed as a column of life emanating from caves and tombs, and was an interchangeable symbol with the tree of life and spinal chord (Gimbutas, 1989, 121), Kundalini energy in yogic practices imagines a snake crawling up the spinal column and exuding from the head.

Representations of snakes are known since the Upper Paleolithic and continue into the Mesolithic and Neolithic. The association of the snake with water or stream symbols is highly visible during the Neolithic. Entering the magnificent early Neolithic tomb of Gavr’Inis in Bretagne, France, feels like entering into a cathedral of regeneration. Regeneration seems to be the main theme in this tomb. The snake seems to be incorporated with repeated concentric circles with navel-like protrusions that suggest that the creativity of the Goddess is inexhaustible. Power lines emanate from her head like flowing hair, like an aura or like KI energy. The wavy lines are snake energy and echo the waves—the water that surrounds the island of Gavr’Inis. The Minoan Snake Goddess of the Late Neolithic is a well-known example.

Gavr'Inis, Bretagne, France

Gavr'Inis

Gavr'Inis

Minoan Snake Goddess

 

I have amply used the snake motif in my own work with my Medusa series. In the Patriarchal myth of Perseus and Medusa, Perseus kills Medusa by looking at her through a mirror so that her staring eyes don’t turn him into stone—kill him—transforming him into a gravestone. Because Medusa is also a Goddess of Death, her staring eyes are connected with owl eyes, the bird of death, while the snakes in her hair bespeak of her connection with the magical snake. Medusa is a very powerful ancient Goddess and she combines both of the Goddess’ avatars, the bird and the snake.

Over the last thirty years I have created a number of Medusas. My first Medusa was created out of yew wood in 1976. My sister came to my house to help me walk my dogs and, upon seeing that a yew bush had fallen in my driveway, she exclaimed, “Cris, what are you going to do with this dead tree? It looks just like a Medusa.” My mind raced and I could suddenly see the sculpture in the tree.  After 108 hours of hard work, I finished the piece. Medusa is depicted as fierce, but she is also laughing as if to reiterate the bumper sticker, “She who laughs lasts.” I exhibited this piece in a 14-foot black tent that I constructed for her so she appeared 7 feet above one’s head like a disembodied apparition. Her sacred space, the tent, was meant to be a place removed from time and space, a space where the viewer was asked to confront whatever she/he needed to face.

Yew Medusa

 

In the mid-80s, I went through a very political phase of my life during which I was rediscovering the power of women—actively participating in protests against the military industrial complex, visiting Peace camps at Seneca Falls, Comiso and Greenham Common and taking part in actions. I had finished my doctoral dissertation and realized the deep connection between Medusa and the Great Goddess. The Black and Red Medusas are reflections of this period. I based The Black Medusa on my face. With a sardonic grin, she stares outward along with a background of supporting women who also stare out at the viewer.  The Red Medusa is a portrait of my daughter, and depicts Medusa with her full-blown power and her laughter, superimposed on a sea of laughing women. Laughter is a powerful tool for survival, for change and for health. Hence the aforementioned bumper sticker, “She who laughs, lasts.”

Black Medusa

Red Medusa

 

In 1999 I created The Raging Medusa, using as the model a photo of Maria Callas hitting a high C while singing Bellini’s Norma at the Met. Here Medusa represents the rage of women duped and enslaved by patriarchy and the deepest rage of the earth herself at being so cataclysmically devastated.

Raging Medusa

Maria Callas

Raging Medusa detail

 

ENVIRONMENTAL ART

And now I’d like to talk about certain artists whose works show the deep connection between the Goddess and the environment—the Green Goddess.

Even though Plastiki is not technically a piece of art, I include it here because I feel it is very important. The Plastiki Expedition is the brainchild of David de Rothschild, and the goal is audacious: to sail 12,000 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Sydney in a boat made entirely out of plastic bottles and recycled waste products. De Rothschild and his crew of scientists are planning to sail through the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii—a floating man-made disaster consisting of plastic bottles and twice the size of Texas. The aim of this work and of the expedition is to raise the consciousness of the world concerning the environment and our role in it. In De Rothschild’s words, “It is our aim to captivate, inspire and activate tomorrow’s environmental thinkers and doers to take positive action for our Planet and to be smart with waste. Ultimately we hope to inspire people to rethink waste as a valuable resource. One person’s waste could be another’s person’s treasure.” How green is the boat? Their craft is a catamaran made from 20,000 plastic bottles injected with CO2 packed into pontoons. The pontoons are strapped to a rigid plastic tube running the length of the hull, and the whole structure is assembled without glues or resins so, when the trip is over, the entire boat is recyclable.

Plastiki

 

Agnes Denes was one of the pioneers of both the environmental art movement and conceptual art. In 1982 she carried out what has become one of the best-known environmental art projects when she planted a two-acre field of wheat in a vacant lot in downtown Manhattan.  Titled Wheatfield—A Confrontation, the artwork yielded 1,000 pounds of wheat in the middle of New York City as a statement on human values and misplaced priorities. The harvested grain then traveled to 28 cities worldwide in the “International Art Show for the End of World Hunger” and was symbolically planted around the globe.

Agnes Denes' "Wheatfield-A Confrontation"

 

In 1981 Ana Mandieta created a series of female figures carved into the walls of two caves in Jaruco State Park in Cuba. Of note, these images recall some of the Paleolithic figures I have talked about in this lecture. Mendieta worked in nature, exploring the relationship between her body, the earth and art. As her works were site-specific and ephemeral, they became known primarily through the photographic documentation she exhibited in galleries and museums. In these works she wanted to bring attention to the culture of the Tainan people who were native inhabitants of the pre-Hispanic Antilles. As a Cuban American, she considered herself a “cultural inheritor” of Tainan culture, and she evoked some of their myths by naming each of her sculptures after a Tainan Goddess. Most of the Tainan myths were tied to the phenomena of nature. For instance, the Tainos believed in a supreme being who had no beginning yet had a Mother. This goddess was called by five names.  One of these names was Guabancex, goddess of the wind, whose myth was a metaphor for the effects of the hurricane, a phenomenon familiar to The Antilles. When Guabancex became angry, she would move wind and water, throw houses to the ground and rip out trees.

Ana Mandieta wall carving created at Jaruco State Park, Cuba

Ana Mandieta wall carving created at Jaruco State Park, Cuba

Ana Mandieta wall carving created at Jaruco State Park, Cuba

Ana Mandieta, wall carving created at Jaruco State Park, Cuba

 

The movie “Avatar” inspired a lot of interesting reflections and comments among the Goddess community. Kelley Hunter’s comment particularly resonated with me:

“I saw Avatar and loved the imagery and color, Goddess theology and powerful blue people who tune into the nature of their planet in a conscious, loving way with respect for all creatures; the storyline of the wounded warrior becoming a spiritual warrior, transformed into a healed, empowered and conscious level of himself. This was bravery on many levels, this hero’s journey, being taught by the female, a letting go of his old patriarchal life and a lesser version of himself. This was a vision of a new human, blue like Krishna, like the blue-faced Kali. I write about Lilith, who appears of old in the tree of life.  I love that the Na’Vi lived in the tree and that a tree was their most sacred place.… I liked those floating angel-seeds that gathered around the hero as a blessing and augur.”

And my own reflection on this movie is that I would love to die like Sigourney Weaver did, surrounded by tendrils of light and saying, “ I am with Her, She is real.”

From the movie Avatar

From the movie Avatar

 

The final piece of art I would like to discuss is my own proposed piece, The Goddess Mound, a sculpture of the Great Goddess constructed as a temple that can be entered. The sculptural thrust of the piece will be an outside earth mound and an inside negative shape of a female figure giving birth. The exterior earth mound will be covered with wild grass and will be approximately 25 feet in height and 74 feet in diameter. The inside figure, made of concrete or a similar material, will measure approximately 22 feet high and 14 feet wide. The figure will appear in a squatting-birth-giving position, her legs spread apart and drawn to the sides, her arms tightly clenched under her knees. The floor of the figure will be three and a half feet underground and will be entered through a passageway leading from the outside doorway directly into the figure’s vagina. The inside will be painted an overall red ochre with swirling black spiral designs and possible pictographs.

The Goddess Mound-elevation

The Goddess Mound-side elevation

The Goddess Mound - in plan

 

IN CLOSING

I hope you have enjoyed my presentation of the Goddess as the original environmentalist. There is so much more to be said. This is only a beginning.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Biaggi, Cristina.  In the Footsteps of the Goddess: Personal Stories.  Manchester, Ct: Knowledge, Ideas and Trends, 2000.

Burenhult, Goran.  The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 B.C.  New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1993.

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Giedion, S. The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art.  Washington D.C.: Pantheon Books, Bollingen Series, 1957.

Gimbutas, Marija, “The Temples of Old Europe,” Archaeology 33, 6:41-50, 1980.

Gimbutas, Marija.  The Language of the Goddess.  New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Gimbutas, Marija.  The Civilization of the Goddess.  San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

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Johnson, Buffie.  Lady of the Beasts.  San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988.

Lewis-Williams, David.  The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art.  London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Marshack, Alexander.  The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation.  NY: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1972.

Mellaart, James.  Catal Huyuk.  London: Thames & Hudson, 1967.

Pericot-Garcia, Luis.  Prehistoric and Primitive Art.  NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1967.

Weigle, Martha.  Spiders and Spinsters.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

White, Randall.  Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind.  NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2003

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