the matrikas

All these themes are repeated in the classic icons of the neolithic era: the matrikas fashioned in clay and stone and ivory. Like the megalithic women, many place their hands on the belly, or occasionally to the vulva. Some hold up their arms in invocatory postures; others fling them wide. Countless others cup their breasts, in a widespread sign of life-giving power. The breast gesture is already present in paleolithic statuettes from Willendorf, Menton, and Lespugue; in the early Canaanite neolithic; the Naqada period of Egypt and up the Nile in ancient Sudan; at Catal Huyuk and Hacilar in Anatolia; the Sesklo culture of Greece; the Halafian and Ubaidian in Iraq; the Kulli in Pakistan; and in ancient Iran, Lebanon, Cyprus, and western Mexico. Matrikas with hands to breasts survive into the early centuries CE in west Asia, Egypt, France, and much later in some other places, especially the Americas.

Around 4000 BCE, the matrikas of neolithic Sudan (unimaginatively designated as the “A-group”) show similarities to the Naqada figurines in Egypt: hands on breasts, seated with thick legs close together, and big buttocks. But the phallic pillar-heads with diagonal snake-like eyes are distinctive, as are the heavy curved lines flowing around the vulva and hips. The hands-to-breasts motif continues for thousands of years, and remains a central sign of African sculpture, in the maternal ancestor statues of the Yoruba, Bamilike, BaLuba and other peoples. It was the favored female icon in the Nok culture of Nigeria, from about 400 BCE on. These ceramic masterpieces emphasize heavy necklaces, the women’s belt and loincloth, and breasts adorned with dotted lines. This pattern could well represent the African custom of cicatrization, but the question remains: what do the patterns of ritual scarring themselves represent?

It seems to me that the sign-inscribed matrikas reflect ritual acts, and not only in the making and use of the figurines themselves. In fact, painting and incision on the icons are likely to have originated in women’s ceremonies in which they painted, tattooed, or scarified their bodies with sacred signs and substances. Body-painting has been an integral part of Australian women’s ritual for thousands of years. African scar-patterns are typically applied as part of womanhood initiations, and tattooing has similar significance in Samoa and Micronesia. Quite a few matrikas have vertical lines on the chin, a very common tattoo pattern for women around the world, including Maori, Bedouins, villagers in some parts of Syria, and northern Californian peoples such as the Shasta. In tropical South America, aboriginal people use body-painting for ritual, but it has everyday uses too. A person who is painted is clothed.

Matrikas are often nude in modern terms, but not truly naked. Most are clothed in signs, their bodies and faces painted or incised with lines, dots, spirals, swirls, chevrons, zigzags, dotted patterns, or splashes of color. The brilliant red-glazed matrikas of Chupícuaro, Mexico, exemplify this eloquent body-inscription, with their black and white zigzag patterns. The Vinca matrikas are incised with V’s and chevrons, and some have meanders on the belly. So do some Japanese dogu, which are often embossed with spiral patterns. A statuette at Yalangach-depe, Turkmenistan, has legs painted with patterns and sun symbols. Step-patterns and zigzags adorn the hollow matrikas of the Condorhuasi culture in Argentina, and their even larger counterparts in western Mexico wear spirals and dot patterns.

The pubic triangle is often shown as a numinous forcefield rendered with outlines, hatchmarks, swirls and, especially, dot patterns. Vulvas outlined or filled with punched dots occur on ivory and wooden matrikas in predynastic Egypt and Be’ersheva, in stone at Siluca, Bulgaria; in ceramic in Japan, Turkmenistan, and the Balkans. The Jomon people made clay vulva triangles as stand-alone objects, with dot-impressions and, sometimes, with breasts and navels. Giant dotted vulvas with triangle patterns are the focal center of the wooden “paddle dolls” found in 11th-dynasty Kemetic burials, and dot-impressed vulvas appear on clay women at Karanog and Meroë, Sudan, as late as the 3rd century CE.

Vital essence is also expressed—or rather invoked—by painting the matrikas with red ochre, the blood of Earth (in ancient Egypt, Japan, Canaan, Indus foothills, Mexico, Utah, to name a few). Many ancient peoples also painted the bones of their dead with this sign of life-bearing blood. The matrikas themselves were commonly buried with the dead, as signs of rebirth.

The sign of hands-on-belly also evokes this power of the origin and center. It is first seen on paleolithic statuettes, like the mammoth ivory matrikas at Mal’ta, Siberia. A limestone relief from Laussel places one hand on the belly, the other holding a animal horn. In the 7th MBCE, a small marble statuette with hands over belly was created at Catal Höyük, and dozens of alabaster women were carved in the same attitude at Tell-es-Sawwan, Iraq. In the 5th MBCE this gesture is seen in the stone women of the Ozieri culture in Sardinia, the Lady of Paszardjik in Bulgaria, the Vinca matrikas, and many other Balkan icons. Their torsos are inscribed with rich labyrinthine patterns in the Tisza culture of Hungary. In the fourth millennium, the Valdivia figurines from ancient Ecuador and the Hongshan culture in northeastern China also clasp their centers.

Countless examples of the hands-on-belly sign are found in the Americas: in the Paracas and Nazca cultures of Peru; the Condorhuasi of Argentina; the Marajoara in Brazil; Guanacaste-Nicoya, Costa Rica; in El Salvador, and in thousands of examples from Mexico, from Chupícuaro to the western coast. In Colima and Jalisco they are painted with elegant spirals over their wombs. In Veracruz, the Huastec created beautiful stone sculptures of women holding their bellies. The Arawaks sculptured a nearly round zemi stone in this stance at Santo Domingo in the Caribbean. Seated women from a mound at Dayton, Tennessee, are sculptured in stone with hands-on-belly motif. It appears in ceremonial pipes of the Tapajós river in Brazil and of the mound temple cultures of eastern North America. The woman’s belly is the bowl of the pipe. One of these pipes, found at Mt. Vernon, Indiana, was gorgeously carved in stone as a birth-giving woman.

Wooden ancestor statues from Malawi to Senegal make the ancient gesture of clasping the center, as if to say, “I contain, I am brimming with vital power.” This is the classic stance of African sculpture (but that is another article). Centuries ago in Ghana, the Ashanti created clay ancestor effigies, usually representing the heads alone. In more recent times, young women tie wooden akua-ba into their clothing in order to conceive. The small wooden statues retain the large heads of the old ceramic icons, but their overall outline, with arms outstretched, resembles the ancient Egyptian ankh.

The ancestor connection is explicit in the Hongshan culture of the 4th MBCE in northeastern China. Matrikas are found on and around red-painted circular altars in temples that are also funerary sanctuaries surrounded by burial grounds. At Niuheliang, which Chinese archaeologists call a “female spirit temple,” they discovered many small clay figurines and several lifesized unfired clay statues of women, delicately painted with red patterns. All but one of the lifesize clay women await development of a technology that will allow them to be excavated without being destroyed. Another shrine with matrikas has been excavated at Dongshanzui. [Nelson 1991: 302-308; Yang 1999: 76-81, 96-97]

In ancient Japan, people placed dogu figurines on stone altars at the northwest side of their houses. A smaller number have been founded buried in the ground, some inside stone circles. Most have been found in middens, broken, causing Japanese archaeologists to speculate that they were used in healing or magical ceremonies. Other archaeological finds have a clear-cut sacramental context. Marija Gimbutas has called attention to the Moldavian shrine at Sabatinivka, with its altar full of painted matrikas sitting on tiny horned chairs, and a life-sized chair in the same shape. [Gimbutas 1991, 14; 260-62] At Ovcharovo Tell in Bulgaria, archaeologists excavated a similar “cult scene” of painted figurines with their arms raised. They were accompanied by an array of clay furniture, including painted panels, little chairs, tables with tiny lidded vessels, querns and grinding stones, as well as a couple of larger bowls. [Stefanova et al., 2004:7]

Matrikas are also clearly treated as sacred images in 6th millennium Iraq. In the early levels of Tell es-Sawwan, alabaster female icons were found in rooms where thick layers of residue showed that offerings had been burned there over long periods. One matrika stood in a central niche in the wall of the end room. D.G. Youkana thinks the building “had a religious purpose”: the veneration of “a mother deity with prominent buttocks.” He compares this shrine to a building of similar layout at Yarim Tepe, which had “no domestic debris” and “a number of figurines representing a mother deity...” Rooms of similar orientation and contents were excavated in level IV at Tell Hassuna. Another shrine was found at Choga Mami, in a heavily plastered room with three conical pillars in its corners (and traces of a fourth), along with “remains of clay figurines representing seated women” and “highly polished pestles.” [Youkana 1997: 16-17, 50-58]

Matrikas are often found together with animal figurines, especially in the oldest archaeological layers. This association repeats the connection of vulvas with animals in many ancient petroglyphs. Sometimes the matrikas themselves show animal traits, like the vulture-headed icons of Amratian Egypt or the snake-faced nursing mother at al-Ubaid, Iraq. At Vinca, Serbia, a bear-headed mother suckles a bear-baby, and several other icons have duckbills. The famous goddess from a granary at Çatal Höyük sits on a throne flanked by leopards, the prototype for Kybele and her lions many millennia later. At Hacilar, too, a woman sits on a leopard throne, their tails snaking up her back. Another stands with a leopard cub balanced on her hip, the tail dangling. At Lago Valencia, Venezuela, it is snakes that hang from the matrika’s shoulders to her inner thighs. A serpent also crawls over the lap of a seated figurine of the Namazga culture, Turkmenistan.

Matrikas often wear necklaces, headdresses, or caps. Some have elaborate coiffures, like the big hair of the Valdivia figurines or the bitumen topknots of al-Ubaid in southern Iraq. The women at Çatal Höyük wear caps with a rolled edge, while it was pointed hats with concentric rings at Hacilar. Over much of south and central America, the women wear squared, flat headdresses. Sometimes, as in Pakistan, Japan, Mexico and Utah, the matrikas are garbed in ceremonial dress.

The “Fremont” matrikas of eastern Utah wear beautiful necklaces and deer-hoof-rattle belts; their faces are painted with curved lines of red ochre. Jomon dogu often wear robes emblazoned with spirals and other patterns, and occasionally spiralled hats. Certain Mexican styles, such as Zapotec and Remojadas, stand out for their festival attire, with rich headdresses, plumes, and ornaments. The most elaborate costumes are found on matrikas in Pakistan and India. They are festooned with thick layers of necklaces, bangles, long earrings, and towering headdresses laden with discs, flowers, and rolls of cloth. These styles were already well developed before the 3rd millennium, when they appear on the well-known matrikas at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. They carry on through the 2nd millennium in north India, and continue into the Maurya period of the last centuries BCE.

Such cases demonstrate the spread of styles from one region to another. Perhaps the most spectacular case of proven cultural diffusion is the spread of al-Ubaid matrikas and ceramic styles from southern Iraq to Turkmenistan in the Namazga epoch, and from there to Baluchistan in the hills west of the Indus. Another well-known example is the spread of a prototype originating in the area of Halaf, Syria. The Halafian style rapidly swept over much of west Asia at the height of the neolithic era. The spread of its distinctive breast-cupping matrikas and vessels painted with bull’s heads, butterflies, and Maltese crosses, was a veritable cultural movement, and not associated with conquest or ethnic migration.

The spread of artistic styles is likely to have borne along ideas and ceremonial practices as well. The newly adopted features were, after all, used in offering vessels and grave goods. As Marija Gimbutas recognized, “formal repetition” of symbolic elements is a key element of the ancient iconography. [Gimbutas 1974: 38] In fact, all religions employ it. However, a reluctance is still evident, particularly on the part of Anglophone academics, to consider the neolithic female icons as having religious significance.

Diffusion does not explain the trans-historical and intercontinental recurrence of certain themes. “Coffee-bean” eyes are one of the most widespread features; they turn up at Sesklo, Greece; Hacilar, Anatolia; Sha’ar haGolan, Canaan; Chupícuaro, Mexico; in ancient Japan, Pakistan, and India; in the southern Andes and over much of Colombia, Venezuela and the Caribbean. The shape comes naturally to an artist working in clay, who can easily add a blob of clay and make an eye with one horizontal impression. But the coffeebean eyes were also carved with considerable difficulty in walrus ivory in the Okvik culture of St Laurence Island, Alaska, and elsewhere in wood and stone.

Other renditions include slit eyes (Jomon-period Japan; Achilleion, Greece; Valdivia, Ecuador; Santarem, Brazil); inlaid eyes (predynastic Egypt, Tell es-Sawwan, Iraq; Be’ersheva, Israel); painted eyes (notably at Tepe Gawra, Iraq); and round “goggle” eyes (Japan, Pakistan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Brazil). Artists in ancient Louisiana and medieval Georgia rendered eyes with rectangular incisions recalling the faces on Pueblo kachinas. The Vinca icons of Serbia are instantly recognizable by their distinctive angled, convex eyes. “Eye goddesses” of ancient Syria and Iberia placed great emphasis on this feature. At Tell Brak, they were carved in stone, often with eyes in the center of the breasts. Perhaps they signify the “eye of life” that Sumerians, farther down the Euphrates, attributed to the goddess Ninhursag.

In some regional styles, the matrikas are faceless or have very abstract or cursory features. In the Halafian style, the heads are often just a pinched clay tip. Some Sudanese statuettes have the same pinched face, but with tiny incised features. In Baluchistan, ring-like eyes were added to a hand-pinched face; at Gumla, the heads were rendered as flat tabs. Early Hamangia (Romania) and Cycladic icons have featureless pillar-heads. Sharply beaked faces are seen on some early Egyptian, Balkan, Halafian and Cycladic matrikas. Mask-faces are well-known for Jomon and Vinça, but also appear in Martinique and elsewhere.

Some matrikas stand, others sit or, occasionally, crouch with their knees up. Often their legs are close together, tapering to a point, even merged into a single block. (This motif was popular from the Mediterranean to Pakistan.) Or they assume a widelegged stance, especially common in Japan, South America and western Mexico. These regions also favor broad-bodied women, depicted in large hollow clay statues. Some have bulbous legs, as in Japan, Venezuela, and Mexico.

In other places the legs are rounded, as on the little marble Karanovo icon from Tell Azmak, Bulgaria, and elsewhere in southeastern Europe. Sometimes the bulbed legs resemble breasts, especially on the classic Karajá matrikas of Brazil, which terminate in nipples. Halafian matrikas have very round legs that taper to a point. Sometimes they are painted with horizontal lines. This motif of lines painted or incised horizontally on the legs spread over much of west Asia and the Balkans, including the Sesklo and Cucuteni cultures. It occurs as far east as Taxila, Pakistan. An older expression is the segmented legs seen at Kato Ierpetra, Crete, and the Yarmukian sites south of lake Galilee.

A very ancient type of seated matrika has a triangular profile, often with the outstretched legs drawn up in a curved shape, or in their most abstract form, flanged outward. These are among the oldest clay figurines, appearing in the 9th millenium at Tepe Sarab and Jarmo Iran (where one archaeologist calls them “double-wing-based objects.” [Morales 1983: figures 157, 164] Others appear somewhat later at Netiv Hagdud, Israel; Cayönü, Anatolia; and Mehrgarh, Pakistan.

Seated matrikas with outstretched, tapered legs in a triangular pattern were also quite common in southern America many thousands of years later. This is the classic form at Marajó and Santarem in Brazil; Diquís in Panamá, Nicoya in Costa Rica, and Kaminaljiujú in Guatemala. But a wide diversity of styles developed in the Americas. In the Condorhuasi culture of Argentina, the hollow legs are outstretched, while in Illinois and Ohio, they tend to be drawn up to one side. In the Ulúa valley of Hondoras, matrikas are often cross-legged, and from Georgia through Louisiana to Missouri, they sit with calves folded under thighs. Many others stand.

The arms of some matrikas are abstracted to vestigial stubs (classic Vinca, Lengyel, Cucuteni, the “C-Group” in Sudan, some Mexican and Japanese, and many Pakistani and Indian matrikas). A few at Tepe Gawra, Iraq, and Meroe, Sudan, are entirely armless. Occasionally the legs too are missing, with the artist’s attention entirely devoted to a curved torso. Stone images of this shape have been dubbed “fiddle idols.” Pillar-headed “violin” figurines of polished stone have been found at Gilat, Israel, and in the Cycladic islands, dating to the third millennium. Around the same time, violin-shaped matrikas appear in the Namazga culture of Turkmenistan. One from Altyn Depe has coffeebean eyes, a large dotted vulva, and a “tree of life” pattern incised on her torso. An in-the-round Indian version comes from Bilwedi, Madhya Pradesh, circa 1000 BCE. She is entirely covered with red ochre paint.

Classic matrika shapes cross over into other media in some places. Rock art and offering vessels underline their ceremonial context. Silhouettes shaped like matrikas appear in rock art at Beyuk-dasha, in the western part of the former USSR. Eight women stand in front of a large bovine creature; though armless, they are shown as if holding staves or crooks. Abstract matrika outlines were also sometimes painted on the walls of pots. Predynastic Egyptians brushed their armless silhouettes onto zigzag-adorned pots. Or they were modeled in relief, like the woman on the side of a vessel at Maheshvar in the Indian Deccan, 2nd millennium BCE. Another abstract figurine with raised arms was fashioned on a pot at Umm Dabaghiyeh, Iraq, circa 6500 BCE.

The vulture-faced matrikas of Amratian Egypt are famous for their invocational stance, with arms raised in a curve above their beaked heads. This motif is repeated in ochre-painted pots of the Gerzean period, which frequently show a goddess or priestess lifting her arms in a circle-shape. Usually the woman stands in a boat, as the focal point of a tableau of people, birds, and animals. This scene is repeated in a petroglyph in the eastern desert: she stands in a boat that a group of women are towing up the Nile. The upraised curve of her arms is strongly reminiscent of the dances that women in Uganda and Namibia still perform in honor of the cow.

Painted pots are like neolithic canvases that allow glimpses of ceremonial culture. In ancient Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, China, and Greece, they show scenes of women dancing hand in hand. Spirals, animals, plants, quadrants, water and net patterns were painted or incised on ancient vessels all over the world. The symbolism of offering vessels allows insight into the spiritual values of cultures that have not left a written record. Many pay reverence to the principles of nurture and the life-giver.

NEXT >>> Breastpots

Icons of the Matrix © 2004 Max Dashu
This article is posted in three parts, with Notes and Bibliography at the end.