Revisiting Marija Gimbutas

Being sick last week had the silver lining of getting to spend a fair bit of time with both Marija Gimbutas’s The Living Goddess and The Language of the Goddess. There is enough accumulated opinion around her work that I might not have otherwise done that had not sickness whittled my world down to a spare space around the couch, where her books, fresh from the library, sat within easy reach. That’s more than a little ridiculous, when you think about the scholarship I would otherwise tolerate from within the greater magical community.

Of course, that’s part of it, isn’t it? The magical community has garnered for itself a sense of academic credibility (at least in its own mind) in part by accepting certain fashionable academic opinions as givens, including the ones that basically suggest Gimbutas is full of it. The spirit of seriousness lures us with the promise of acceptance if only, as Michael Serres observed, we exclude this third man from our dialogue. Or, well, pace Serres, not a third man, but a woman.

It is easy enough to find critical things to say about Gimbutas’s big picture argument. In a spirit of lazy generosity, I could say that anyone taking on as big a project as Gimbutas is going to be wrong on many details, that being wrong on details doesn’t undo the argument. That’s shit charity, though, because it does nothing to actually meet the action of her intellect and subject it to the sort of analysis which would allow her work to live and adjust.

The most damning criticism leveled at Gimbutas seems to be that her concepts are just too vague and posit too much. A ‘goddess’ becomes almost any female figure, a ‘temple’ any structure that stands apart from residential life. I’m not exactly in disagreement with that criticism, but in most cases it is applied so broadly that it itself becomes meaningless and vague.

You can say, yes, that she calls every female figure a goddess, sure, but you also have to acknowledge that she is making all kinds of distinctions within that category. There isn’t one sort of goddess for Gimbutas, but many. While I will grant she is grouping too many things under that term, I have to confess that beneath that term she is doing all sorts of useful comparative work. She is tracing motifs and sculptural styles that group these goddess figures into distinct families. It is within this network of distinctions, traced into the present of her homeland, that she then attempts to make evaluations about the meaning of the figures. Even if some of these ‘goddesses’ are toys (which I have seen suggested), you can read toys this way, too.

Similarly, she uses terms like ‘shrine’ and ‘temple’ fairly loosely, to mark out almost any space that isn’t strictly practical. In at least a few cases, it looks like what she defines as a temple was, at the very least, also part of a system of production. Breadmaking and weaving, for example, seem to be activities undertaken on a large scale in some of her ‘temples.’ Still, as with the ‘goddess’ language, she is making very clear distinctions between different sorts of structures, then proceeding to speculate by comparison. And, too, Gimbutas is having to work against the spirit of her age, which has done its best to segregate off all spiritual matters from practical ones. In calling these practical spaces temples, she is drawing attention to the integration of religious and practical that very likely characterized these spaces.

Gimbutas has a very, very good eye and she spent a lifetime sharpening that eye in the field. The criticisms that kept me away from Gimbutas for so long don’t really appreciate that. They miss that her use of terms like ‘goddess’ delineate a concrete field of objects more than they define a sort of ontological category of being, that a ‘temple’ demarcates particular forms of enclosure more than a specific religious practice. Gimbutas herself slips from concrete object to ontology, from revealing enclosure to hypothesized practice, but less so than the criticisms of her work would have led me to expect.

Her argument can’t always keep up with her eyes and rather than slow down to find the words to catch up with her eyes, she lays hold of some terms and uses them vaguely in order to gesture at what she is seeing with her eyes. While her argument can drift into the vague and general, her stock of evidence is complex, rich, and often well-displayed. It’s easy to snipe, but if I do that I’m not learning from her genius eyes.

So, yes, care is warranted. Gimbutas does ascribe practices and beliefs too quickly, she flattens out her evidence a bit. The trick here is to keep in mind that while human beings do seem to be conservative as regards to signs, we are often more profligate with the meanings we express through signs. There is a tension between sign and meaning, and in Gimbutas’s archaeological material, we can see sign far more clearly than meaning.

The relationship between sign and meaning seems to be one of the productive points through which we can engage both productively and critically with Gimbutas. Her ascription of meaning to her signs can be expanded by comparison with the richness of meaning and sign in the present. Structuralism and dialogical materialism, Claude Levi-Strauss and Mikhail Bakhtin. Signs are the meeting point of sometimes antagonistic meanings, not just the bearers of well-defined singular meanings.

I am thinking about Gimbutas’s ascription of female figures grabbing their breasts as a sign of their authority, and of a critic’s observation that we have good evidence for that sign being one of grief and despair in historical time in the same regions Gimbutas studied. There is a point at which we can consider the two meanings as converging around the sign, as joy and power on one side and despair on the other. And there is a quite modern, West African understanding of this to be had: the image of woman’s breast as understood in some expressions of Ifa under the signs of Obara and Okana Meji.

(There is some rich material around the Yoruba if you keep following that line, btw. Keep walking, keep walking, you’ll find it doesn’t stop there and carries you all the way down into the Bantu lands, and out again, and again.)

That’s part of my interest, too. Once you start thinking about these signs at the timescale Gimbutas does, you join more and more branches of the human tree together in a common trunk. It opens the way for some deep historical hermeneutics as well as resources for signcrafting and speaking in the present toward a future that breaks out of the European frame. That doesn’t necessarily get us much closer than Gimbutas to what these folks way back when meant, but it helps us reacquaint ourselves with meaning and signaling now, to each other, when we have our hands on old signs known far and wide.


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