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Max Dashú

Reaching into archaic times for the long view of human culture, we are presented with deep continuities across space and time. Striking commonalities recur in the symbols and ritual artifacts of diverse neolithic cultures. These international patterns are not limited to the 6th millennium BCE, but also appear in more recent indigenous societies in the Americas, Africa, and certain parts of Asia. Once we break out of a fixation on “the West” and its claimed antecedents, a much more varied chronological picture appears.

In-depth regional studies are important. There is no substitute for the rich detail they offer, and an understanding of historical continuity over long periods of time is indispensable. But a broad comparative perspective also has the potential to enrich the regional studies, highlighting similarities that transcend known patterns of historical relationship or cultural diffusion. What is most significant about these resemblances is not stylistic but thematic.

Several key themes of the iconic woman repeat on a global scale: vulva signs, female figurines, ancestor megaliths, and ceremonial vessels in the form of women or female breasts. These recurring signs reflect the spiritual concerns and ritual life of the people who created them. They belong to animist consciousness and philosophies, rich in complex meanings underlain with myth and mystery, pulse and flow. Sign is especially important to cultures based on oral tradition, conveying meaning on multiple levels. Where the transmission of orature has been interrupted or severed, signs remain as primary testimony to the cultural life of ancient cultures.

The concept of Matrix exemplifies the multivalent capacity of the sacred sign. By Icons of the Matrix I mean several things. One is the matrix of time and space, which various cultures call Mother Nature, Priroda, Prakriti, Aluna, or Tao. The Tao Te Ching describes it as “the creating Mother of everything that exists under heaven, upon which myriads of beings depend for their birth and existence.”

The Latin word matrix originally meant “womb,” from the same Indo-European root that gives mother, mater, meter, matr, mat’ and other equivalents. Matrix also encompasses a sense of kinship systems based on “mother-right,” that are matrilineal, matrilocal, and egalitarian. I call them “matrix cultures” because for many people “matriarchy” implies a mirror image of patriarchy’s relations of domination and subordination.(1) The social sense of “matrix” connotes other meanings: a life-support network within the maternal kindreds, which are cooperative and communal, and circles of exchange that reach beyond it. These are core values in the matrix cultures.

Any discussion of the nearly omnipresent female figurines must address the vexed problem of interpretation, the storm center of much controversy. Much current analysis still subscribes to doctrines that relations of domination and subordination are unavoidable and that human society has always functioned on patriarchal principles. These beliefs entail assumptions about who women are, what they must be and do, and perhaps more crucially, what they have or have not done. (And even though men get credited with creating civilization, they are also cast as natural bullies.) To contradict these assumptions by asserting that patriarchy was a historical development is to risk accusations of “golden age” utopianism. Nor is it considered realistic -- or acceptable -- to speak of the ancient female iconography as sacred.

Polarized conceptual constructs have a compelling magnetic power. The computer world calls it the “snap-to-grid” command. Philosophers know it as the “bifurcation fallacy”—if it’s not this, then it could only be that—which forces information into predetermined, polarized categories. Even the terminology has a built-in bias; everyone knows about phallic symbols, but what is the name for symbols of female potency? Insistence on terms like “fertility idols” or “Venus figurines” flattens our perception according to well-worn cultural scripts of female shame and anti-paganism. The old Eurocentric standard of interpretatio romana still holds sway in the common usage of “Venus figurines” (like the famous “Venus of Willendorf,” the “Venus of Malta,” the “Jomon Venus” of Japan, and many others). The Roman goddess Venus calls up patriarchal notions of the feminine; her power is fixated on seducing the male, or evading his gaze. But the Greco-Roman statues of women attempting to cover their nakedness with their hands have little in common with the potent, self-contained icons of the neolithic.

This unmediated female power evokes a huge discomfort, ambivalence and even hostility. The negative baggage piled on “goddess” over the past millennia is still influential. Medieval theologians defined “goddess” as heretical and demonic; postmodernist critics call it “essentialist” and “dangerous.” In popular culture the term has been thoroughly desacralized and diminished, to the point where it is mainly used to signify Hollywood starlets, sex goddesses and “divas.” But even the Barbie doll is a vanquished and colonized relic of much older impulses.

We need a name for the female icons; they are the defining human image in early archaeology. The term “female figurines,” although nakedly descriptive, is an inadequate designation for a cultural phenomenon that is so widespread and important in the iconography of archaic cultures.(2) “Idol” is loaded with pejorative connotations, remnants of the ancient culture-wars against pagans. “Fertility idol” is offensively reductive. Paula Gunn Allen says it well, objecting to misinterpretations of the Laguna creator Thought Woman: “to assign to this great being the position of ‘fertility goddess’ is exceedingly demeaning; it trivializes the tribes and it trivializes the power of woman.” [Allen 1986: 14]

We could name the figurines teraphim, after the household deities that Rachel smuggled out of her father’s house in the Bible. Or we could call them dogu, after the Japanese name for the Jomon-period figurines. I like the term matrika (an Indic diminutive of “mother”) because these icons seem to represent the maternal ancestor, life-giver, and cultural founder celebrated in traditions of living matrix cultures. And matrika is congruent with cultures based on the Matrix.

Many call the figurines “goddesses,” and this sacral designation is not off the mark if a narrow definition of “goddess” is not insisted on, as it often is in academia today. Rather “goddess” can emphasize a continuum of sacrality and life essence; such a perspective is characteristic of many aboriginal cosmologies. For example, the Bambara assign multiple meanings to their Gouandousou statues, ranging from “female ancestor,” either individual or collective, to Moussou Koroni, the white-haired old woman who created plants, animals, and humans, and who personifies air, wind, fire, and exuberant vitality. [Imperato 1983: 30, 42-43] Much the same has been said of the gramadevi (village goddesses) in India. [Pattanaik 2000: 152] The neolithic statuettes are likely to have carried this kind of multivalent meaning .

Matrikas were kept in shrines, household altars, or granaries. These last, as repositories of future vitality, are animist shrines in their own right. In Peru, “the fertility goddess (sic) is often shown in a granary watching over the harvest.” [Trimborn 1968: 127] Figurines are also found, often broken, in middens and refuse pits. Many scholars think that they were ritually broken, as the Mimbres people in southern New Mexico “killed” pots they buried with the dead. A great many matrikas have been excavated from burials. In some cultures, such as Badarian Egypt, they were placed in every grave. Possibly they were also used in conception rituals or as votive offerings. Frequently the matrikas are painted with red ochre, signifying the life-giving blood of the mother, and of Earth. They encompass the potency of women, who are shown as replete with vital essence, and embodying its origin and flow. Matrikas seem to reference the maternal ancestor as the visible, self-evident progenitor of a motherline, a lineage or clan, even a people.

Some call this an “essentialist” interpretation, and dispute the religious significance and ritual use of these icons. They see such finds in stoutly secular terms shaped by postmodern fears of biological determinism. But the recent jeremiads against essentialism force interpretation into a narrow field of predetermined and all-too-theoretical definitions. They treat the signs of “mother” as reductively biological, not perceiving their multivalent cultural meanings. But scientistic analysis offers little insight into indigenous cultures, which often address and describe divinities as “mothers”.

In Brazil, “the Tupians believe that every animal and plant species has its ‘mother’ (cy).” The Mundurucú make offerings to Putcha Si, the “Mother of Game,” to the “Mother of Fish,” and to mothers of species such as the tapir, peccary, deer and monkey. The Camayura venerate similar animal mothers (mamaé), as do the Canelo of Ecuador and many South American peoples. Manioc and corn also have “mothers,” like the Quechua mamasara in Peru. Corn Mothers are venerated over most of the Americas. [Zerries 1968: 264-5, 279]

An ancient reverence for spirit mothers also persisted in the Baltic region of Europe. Latvians revered fifty-some animist essences which they called mate: Mother Fire, Mother Sea, Mother Forest, and so on. [Andersons 1953: 270] Estonians chanted to “the old woman, mother of the forest.” In the 1920s the Livonians south of Irben Strait worshipped the sea mother (mjer-ämä) as their “greatest benefactress.” [Paulson 1971: 77, 88. See Adrian Poruciuc’s article on the Romanian Wood-Mother in this volume.]

In Nigeria, the Yoruba invoke awon iya wa, “our mothers,” which is “a collective term for female ancestors, female deities, and for older living women, whose power over the reproductive capacities of all women is held in awe by Yoruba men.” These Mothers are also called “the owners of the world.” [Pemberton 1989: 210] Sometimes the kinship emphasis is on elders. In Chile, Mapuche ceremonies begin by invoking “the grandmothers and grandfathers” of the directions. Even more to the point of the matrikas, the Lenape used to make small wooden images which they called odas, “grandmother.” [From an exhibit of the North American collection at the Museum of the American Indian, New York, 1976]

Modern theoretical preoccupations should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that some peoples did (and do) venerate a female creator or great Goddess. For the matrilineal/local Kogi in Colombia, the Mother is the source, the sea of consciousness from which all emerged. She is Aluna, the essence of reality. “This is the Law of the Mother, the First Woman, the Mother of the Elder Brother and the Younger Brother, the feminine fertility, life itself.” [In Parques Arqueológicos de Colombia, 1990] Kogi people see indigenous humanity as the Elder Brother, and the industrial, colonial, patriarchal “civilizers” as the Younger. They are children of the same Mother, as the Kogi say.

Western Civilization has designated their world as “primitive” and, in historical terms, classifies such cultures as the Prehistoric, Predynastic, Formative or Preclassic. But the older orders have their own classical eras. (For the Kogi it is the rich Tairona culture.) The indigenous world tells history in its own way, a history without documents, without king-lists. It keeps a record, what the Iroquois call Keepings, in stories handed down over countless generations. [Mann 2000: 29ff] And when those have been lost, their memory endures in signs.


vulva rocks

Inscription of vulva signs on boulders and rock shelters goes back to the paleolithic in Australia, Africa, the Americas and Europe. These include painted vulvas at Tito Bustillo, Spain, and deeply carved reliefs at Le Roc-Aux-Sorciers, France. La Ferrassie in the Dordogne is especially rich in vulva petroglyphs. Some are carved on stone blocks; one has an animal head sculptured on one side and a high-relief vulva on the other. Another boulder has a vulva prominently placed beneath an animal’s belly.

A group of vulva-incised rocks are the centerpiece of the Brazilian site Abrigo do Sol (Sun Shelter), circa 10,000 to 7,000 BCE. The stones show both surface markings and deep gouges, some of which were used for milling or tool-sharpening, and others for the widespread animist custom of grinding out rock dust for ritual use. On some rocks the vulvas are accompanied by symbols such as footprints and solar signs. The Wasúsu people say that these signs are “tokens of a long-vanished tribe of warrior women,” all killed long ago. [von Puttkamer 1979: 60-82]

Multitudes of deeply-engraved vulvas cover a section of Carnavon Gorge, one of many very ancient rock shelters in Australia bearing this sign. A sacred rock at Ewaninga, Alice Spring, is covered with similar carvings. Thick clusters of vulvas, possibly hundreds of them, are carved into rock faces at San Javier in Baja California. Vulvas are also scooped out of the stone at Phalai Phupayon cave in northeast Thailand. Painted a vivid crimson, they appear amongst myriads of lines and shapes. The local people still call this place the Cave of the Yonis. [Chareonwong 1988: 49-49. Thanks to Pairin Jotisakulratana for her translation of this title and relevant captions.]

Mesolithic vulvas are deeply engraved at Helan Shan in the mountains of Ningxia. Rounded vulvas surrounded by concentric circles appear on a rock wall in the Wa country of Yunnan, southwest China. A modern Chinese publication identifies them as “Imprints of the Maternal Worship.” [Wen 1995] Vulvas are finely incised into a rock called Batu Pina at Betengan, Minahasa in eastern Indonesia. They also appear among petroglyphs along the Lena river bluffs in Siberia.

Vulva petroglyphs are scattered around north Africa; at Taouz and Adrar Metgourine in Morocco they are outlined with layers of curved lines. A rock wall at Tiout in the Algerian Sahara shows a woman lifting her arms in a ceremonial stance; a line is drawn from her vulva to a hunter raising a bow and arrow. In another connection to the masculine, vulvas are superimposed on “bird-man” petroglyphs at the ceremonial center Mata Ngarau, Orongo, on Easter Island. The vulva motif (komari) is the single most prevalent design on the island, with 564 recorded. [See Lee, Georgia, “Rock Art of Easter Island.” Online: www. bradshawfoundation.com/easter/rockart2.html]

A boulder deeply carved with some thirty vulvas sits near a salt spring sacred to the Chimane people in Patene, Bolivia. They make an annual pilgrimage to this sanctuary, stopping to pray at the stone and make offerings to the Salt Mother before descending to the water to ritually gather salt. Vulvas, lines, and animals are painted in a cave near Corinto, Morazan, El Salvador. The sacredness of this ancient site was retained since the Spanish conquest; people call it Gruta del Espiritu Santo (Cave of the Holy Spirit).

A graceful vulva is engraved beside the entrance to a cave at Rock Spring, Wyoming. Rocks along the rivers of southeastern Minnesota are inscribed with vulvas. They are engraved on boulders at Cape Alava, Washington, and at many sites in Nevada and California, such as Hickson Summit in Nevada and Council Rocks in the Chemehuevi country of southern California. Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra is full of inscribed rocks sacred to the Paiute people. They bear a diversity of hieroglyphs including many kinds of circular signs, vulvas, deer, bird tracks, and human footprints. Vulvas and cupules are especially common in the stone circles that ring village encampments.

The Teaching Rocks at Kinomagtewapkong (Peterborough, Ontario) incorporate a deep crack in the stone as the vulva of an outlined woman. At Piedras Grandes, east of San Diego, natural rock formations look like vulvas, and some have been carved to enhance the resemblance. The place is sacred to the Kumeyaay, who hold womanhood initiations and other ceremonies there. [See McGowan 1991] In the same way, the Chumash sculpted a vulva around an opening in the rock inside Swordfish cave, which is filled with petroglyphs. Another place where vulvas were carved to enhance natural formations is the Empie rock outcropping north of Scottsdale, Arizona. More than twenty vulva signs are sculptured into the stone, some connected along fissures. One rock face splits into a labia shape, and above it a vulva is carved near the top of the rock. A few yards away, another is connected to a sinuous carved snake. [Empie, Online]

The cave of Kamakhya at Nilachal Hill in Guwahati, Assam is a living shrine of the vulva. It is famous all over India as a Devi Pitha (Goddess sanctuary) where the yoni of Shakti fell to earth. Inside the grotto, a natural stone vulva is watered by a spring. When the monsoon begins, the rains flush red ochre from the soil and the waters turn red. Everyone observes menstrual taboos, and women celebrate mysteries that men are forbidden to watch. (Legend says that an Ahom king was turned to stone for defying this taboo.) The women dance to drums and conch-blowing until the Devi descends into the entranced dancers. Afterwards, the entire community celebrates a great festival. Kamakhya and its environs are a major center for Goddess reverence today.

The early neolithic saw a trend toward freestanding sculptures. Vulva-sculptured stones appear at the hearth altars of Lepenski Vir in Serbia circa 6000 BCE. One is simply adorned with a curvilinear vulva; another larger stone shows a fish-faced woman placing clawlike hands beside her vulva. The icons bear traces of red ochre. These sculptures and their terrace of hearth altars overlooking the Danube are unique in Europe. A much more widespread development was the erection of megalithic statues: monumental stones, usually carved in low relief, associated with collective burials in womb-tombs built of colossal rocks.


megalithic women

The custom of engraving vulvas onto rock walls and boulders was carried over to some megalithic statues of women. A number of west European megaliths, such as those in Huelva, Spain, and the capstone known as Le Déhus at Guernsey Island, bear these vulva signs. So do some of the Cycladic marbles. A vulva is the most prominent feature on a rough, high-relief statue from Thera, circa 1600 BCE. Her face is abstracted to a beaked nose.

Megalithic women with hands clasped around a large vulva are found in the Bada valley of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia. They too have abstract mask-like faces, somewhat concave with upturned edges, and no mouths. Menhirs known as bülbül (“grandmother”) are scattered across the central Asian steppe, from Mongolia to Ukraine. Some place their hands over the womb; others hold a chalice there. The Yakut people still make carvings of women holding a ceremonial choron in this manner; in their religion, it is women who preside over the great spring festival in which people gather in great circles to dance around chorons elevated on pillars.

On a series of impressive stelas at Cerro Jaboncillo, Ecuador, women proudly display their vulvas, as if emanating power. They have clear shamanic overtones: one woman’s hands are modelled to look like birds, while others are flanked by spiral-tailed monkeys. Fantastic lizard-beings are carved on the obverse side of the stelas. Some of the women are seated on curved thrones. Carved stone seats have been found at hilltop sites. Though some commentators are quick to assign the thrones to male chieftains, only women are depicted sitting on them. [Little historical attention has been paid to these stelas; Saville 1907 still seems to be the best source, with many photos. The first image in this article is from Cerro Jaboncillo.]

In the San Agustín complex of Colombia, megalithic women clasp their breasts or hold a child in front of their body. One smiles broadly, showing jaguar teeth. Some of the female megaliths of Pasemah in southern Sumatra also carry children; others ride on the backs of water buffalo, a symbol of the living matriarchaat of the neighboring Minangkabau. The women wear necklaces, earhoops, and circular leg-bands. They belong to a megalithic complex that includes dolmens, burial cists and stone basins.

Breasts and necklaces are a distinctive theme in megalithic art of northern Africa and western Europe. They appear in the Aveyron region of southern France and in the Paris basin, Marne and Oise regions of northern France; at Arno in the Italian Tyrol; and at Silté in southern Ethiopia. A megalith at Pedras Mamuradas in Sardinia has breasts but no necklaces, while others have necklaces but no breasts (at Toninuelo and Bulhôa in southern Portugal and Tabelbalet in the Algerian Sahara). The famous Sardinian marble from Senorbi has breasts and a sketchy necklace (though at 42 cm. she is hardly a megalith).

Breasts and necklaces were the iconographic focus in northern France, with the faces rendered simply as brow-over-nose. Women were carved as freestanding stone statues as well as in dramatic rock-cut reliefs in the hypogea of Collorgues, Gard region. These ancestral women stand like guardians at the entrances to underground funerary sanctuaries cut out of the living rock. [See von Cles-Reden 1962; Gimbutas 1991; and Twohig 1981 for pictures and discussion of the European megaliths. Documentation for the Sahara and the rest of Africa is sparse; much more research needs to be done.]

The face of the ancestor, defined by a schematic brow-and-nose, turns up in many places. It is extensively used in the Jomon figurines of ancient Japan, in neolithic sites in western Asia and the Balkans, and in the classic cultures of Brazil and Argentina, to name a few. One of these ancestor-faces surmounts a clay shrine-house in Macedonia, circa 6000. Another appears on a female megalith from Georgia (Caucasus) around the 7th century BCE. This motif is sometimes described as an owl-face, which fits in some cases, like the offering vessels in Danish megaliths or the Jomon “horned owl” dogu. But frequently the eyes are not rounded—sometimes they’re barely marked—and most lack a beaked nose. Mouths are often entirely missing (as at Tabelbalet in Algeria and Collorgues in France). As folklore attests, this sign often indicates a connection with the dead. These are not portraits of individuals, but ancestral presences. In megalithic Europe, they are usually associated with collective burials.

The female ancestor represented with hands on belly is another common megalithic theme. She is common in western European megaliths (Fivizzano, Liguria; Toninuelo, Portugal; Collorgues-du-Gard and many other French sites). The ancestral woman is represented in over fifty megaliths from the Aveyron region of southern France. Again, the face is a spare geometric mask. It is framed by multiple necklaces on the most impressive of these megaliths, a cloaked figure from St Sernin. The horizontal patterns on her cheeks may represent face-paint or tattoos.

The St-Sernin icon bears a strong thematic resemblance to Ethiopian megaliths planted in the earth at Silté, in the mountains south of Addis Ababa. Both groups are dressed slabs decorated in low relief that highlights the breasts, thick layers of necklaces, and hands over belly. The Ethiopian women are larger and more richly carved with other symbols and patterns. Sorghum, the staff of life over much of north Africa, appears in the lower body of several. (On one megalith it doubles as a vulva.) Another statue holds staves in her hands and wears a cup suspended from her necklace. Most of the Silté monuments appear to have have been decapitated, although at least one survivor shows a head carved in the round. Many bear rows of cupules (circular borings into the stone). [Crawford 1991: 134-5; plates 39-41]

Cupules (or “cup-marks”) are also found on European megaliths, and on petroglyph stones all over the world. This animist ritual practice originated in very ancient times. It persisted into the middle ages, when it was practiced even on the walls of certain Christian churches, such as the cathedral of Nuremburg. Devotional scrapings have also hollowed out the vulva of a medieval serpent-woman at Sanchi, India. Many of Irish sheila-na-gigs (sculptures of women displaying their vulvas) show clear traces of this boring or scraping process. [See photos in Anderson 1977]

The old statue from Seir Kiaran is an archtypical Irish sheila: a hairless crone, with prominent ribs and small, pendant dugs (a far cry from the porn queen favored by some post-structuralist interpretions of vulvan iconography). Like the Cailleach Bhéara, a woman of legendary age who was remembered as the mother of nations and peoples, the Seir Kiaran sheila is old, a progenitor and ancestor. A ring of borings circles her womb, with the deepest, representing the vaginal portal all sheilas display, at the base. Atop the sheila’s bald head are two holes, placed as if to attach a headdress, or a pair of horns.

Rock dust from these icons was revered as potent in healing, blessing, conception, and protection. [Flint 1991: 257] Present-day accounts report that in some parts of Ireland, the sheilas still figure in devotional “patterns” that involve walking around sacred sites. Sometimes, even today, these ritual courses include touching or rubbing the stone vulva, as Mara Freeman witnessed at an old church at Ballyvourney, Cork. She was amazed to see a devout Catholic matron who had been performing the Stations of the Cross reach up through a window and rub the vulva of a sheila perched above it. [Mara Freeman, “Sheelas,” Online: The Celtic Culture List, Celtic-L@listserv.hea.ie, March 1, 1998]

These archaic devotions persist within the conservational gravity field of folk culture. Even in modern times, women in some districts of Europe went to sacred stones and megaliths said to confer the power to conceive. They rubbed their bellies or vulvas against the rock, or lay in a rock “bed,” often sleeping in it overnight. [Sebillot 1904: Vol IV, 56-57] Or they slid down a boulder, as Scottish women did on the Witches’ Stone near Edinburgh, which was carved to resemble a vulva, and as Estonian women did on the cupule-studded Sliding Stone of Kostivere. Animist practices of this kind draw on the sacred power of the living rock. The vulva stones and megalithic icons express this power through signs of female generativity, sexuality, nurture, and immanent vitality.


NEXT >>> Megalithic Women, and the Matrikas

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