Lately, I haven’t had much that I wanted to post here; I’m trying to decide if this is because I am winding down what I am doing here or if I may need to overhaul what I am doing here. No good answers to those questions yet, but while I have been sick these last few days, a few notebook-worthy observations have crossed my mind. Pardon the mess; I’m still feeling a little logy.
The inspiration of the moment is an excerpt from Marija Gimbutas’s The Living Goddess (pp. 33–37) where she suggests that the bull iconography of Çatalhöyük derives from a (matriarchal) aesthetic identification of the uterus with the bull’s head. For Gimbutas, the repetition of the bull’s head in the art of the period represents an exteriorization of the uterus as source of life. The uterus, which she imagines being exposed by vultures during the excarnation of female corpses, becomes stylized in art as bull’s head.
The Living Goddess is breezy and broad speculation alongside a rich trove of images drawn from the span of thousands of years. It seeks out deep continuities in that record and it isn’t always clear where those continuities actually exist in the record and where Gimbutas imagines them; not infrequently, she drifts into presenting speculation as fact. Around the bull’s head as uterus, there is room to see both deep continuity and distorting speculation.
In drawing a distinction between patriarchal (bull as symbol of virility and power) and matriarchal (bull as locus of death and rebirth) uses of bull imagery she does her subjects a bit of a disservice. There is nothing that prevents a bull from being both a symbol of virility and a symbol of death and rebirth, especially since we know that some of these bull-birthing women were associated with hunting scenes. Especially since we know hunters, too, would have had opportunity to observe the anatomical details of the uterus in the wild animals they butchered.
The antiquity of this connection between women, rebirth, death, hunting, and hunters, suggests another route of speculation, one that joins what is going on in the Anatolian and Mediterranean worlds with what develops in the world of sub-Saharan Africa. Whether you look to the centrality of the ox to the iconography of Oya and her special affiliation with hunters in Yorubaland (see, for example, Judith Gleason’s Oya: In Praise of an African Goddess) or the bull’s importance to the hunting societies of the Angolan world (called empaqaseiros by the Portuguese after the society’s special relationship to the mpaka; see Joseph Miller’s Kings and Kinsmen), there seems to be a deep connection between female figures and hunters.
This fits, too, with the broader iconography of the Lady of Beasts, a liminal mystery that mediates between wild and civil life, upon which civil life depends. A mode of being that consciously integrates person, community, and ecosystem, something a bit more ecologically-minded, even if not what we would presently term environmentally-conscious. Might still be a better foundation for that awareness than many current models.