Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Earthly Fertility Figurines

Reading with care is a useful activity. Consider this writeup of an exhibition concerning an early European culture in the Danube Valley:

Before the glory that was Greece and Rome, even before the first cities of Mesopotamia or temples along the Nile, there lived in the Lower Danube Valley and the Balkan foothills people who were ahead of their time in art, technology and long-distance trade.

For 1,500 years, starting earlier than 5000 B.C., they farmed and built sizable towns, a few with as many as 2,000 dwellings. They mastered large-scale copper smelting, the new technology of the age. Their graves held an impressive array of exquisite headdresses and necklaces and, in one cemetery, the earliest major assemblage of gold artifacts to be found anywhere in the world.

The striking designs of their pottery speak of the refinement of the culture's visual language. Until recent discoveries, the most intriguing artifacts were the ubiquitous terracotta "goddess" figurines, originally interpreted as evidence of the spiritual and political power of women in society.

Bolds are mine, dear reader. You may have heard about Marija Gimbutas who wrote several books on her theories about these small female figurines. She saw them as evidence of a Mother Goddess religion. But that's not the view this article seems to support:

An entire gallery is devoted to the figurines, the more familiar and provocative of the culture's treasures. They have been found in virtually every Old Europe culture and in several contexts: in graves, house shrines and other possibly "religious spaces."

One of the best known is the fired clay figure of a seated man, his shoulders bent and hands to his face in apparent contemplation. Called the "Thinker," the piece and a comparable female figurine were found in a cemetery of the Hamangia culture, in Romania. Were they thinking, or mourning?

Many of the figurines represent women in stylized abstraction, with truncated or elongated bodies and heaping breasts and expansive hips. The explicit sexuality of these figurines invites interpretations relating to earthly and human fertility.

An arresting set of 21 small female figurines, seated in a circle, was found at a pre-Cucuteni village site in northeastern Romania. "It is not difficult to imagine," said Douglass W. Bailey of San Francisco State University, the Old Europe people "arranging sets of seated figurines into one or several groups of miniature activities, perhaps with the smaller figurines at the feet or even on the laps of the larger, seated ones."

Others imagined the figurines as the "Council of Goddesses." In her influential books three decades ago, Marija Gimbutas, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, offered these and other so-called Venus figurines as representatives of divinities in cults to a Mother Goddess that reigned in prehistoric Europe.

Although the late Dr. Gimbutas still has an ardent following, many scholars hew to more conservative, nondivine explanations. The power of the objects, Dr. Bailey said, was not in any specific reference to the divine, but in "a shared understanding of group identity."

All the bolding is mine. I wanted to point out the contradictions in those paragraphs, beginning with the possibly "religious" context of the figurines, so carefully qualified, and then quickly moving to the argument that the sexuality of the figurines invites an interpretation of them as earthly and having to do with fertility. But of course that interpretation is carried out by people who live today, not by members of the old civilization itself. In that it shares all the problems of Dr. Gimbutas' theories.

I also find it hard to see why non-divine explanations are necessarily any more conservative than divine ones. They leave the purpose of the figurines undefined, true, but at the same time they have nothing much to say about the greater prevalence of female figurines. Are they indeed just earthly fertility symbols, prehistoric porn, if you like? If so, why are they found in graves and shrines? How would such figurines be interpreted if they were mostly male?

Now I'm all irritated. In my opinion Gimbutas' theories reach too far from the available evidence. But I see almost the reverse taking place in this writeup.