Thursday 11 April 2019

Gimbutas on Stone-Age Eastern Europe

A few days ago I posted a brief history of my current work-in-progress, where I mentioned I set it in a magical Bronze Age. When I created (am creating?) my society, I was (have been?) thinking about a long-lost article I read once that claimed an anthropologist named Marija Gimbutas found evidence that the culture of neolithic eastern Europe was matriarchal – and that her work was out of favour. It seemed to me that didn’t matter, since “the world doesn’t work like that” can sometimes be succesfully refuted by saying “this is speculative fiction; that’s one of the things I deliberately changed.” So I went looking for more material, and am glad I did. Here’s some of what I found.

First, it turns out maybe anthropologists shouldn’t have been so quick to reject Gimbutas. Author Charlene Spretnak wrote a journal article about the attack on Gimbutas’ work, which systematically mischaracterized what she had done. Turns out she actually said the culture was egalitarian, neither patriarchal nor matriarchal; it was matrilineal, meaning descent was through the female line – so my main character names herself “Belora, daughter of Inadora, daughter of Corada.” Moreover the culture was peaceful and stable for a couple of millenia, until it was invaded by a patriarchal warlike civilization with more social strata, particularly chieftains buried with substantial treasure. This seemed to me like an interesting bit of worldbuilding for my novel.

I found several fascinating things in my readings. Excavations at Catalhöyük showed little difference between male and female burial sites, and no signs of substantial economic stratification until near the end of the town’s history. Houses and communities were well-built. There were no signs of weapons and organized warfare, and no fortifications except possibly ditches to bar passage of animals. They viewed Nature as a supreme female godhead – possibly one goddess, possibly several – and figurines were primarily female (both animal and human). Their society (and that of their invaders) was structured around religion instead of economics.

I made my way through one of her books, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization, published in 1989 by Harper & Row. This is a rich dense book, which I’ll possibly go back to mine for more details. One key aspect was that the Great Goddess was immanent: always present, not transcendent and remote; she wasn’t just a mother figure. During the Paleolithic (old stone age, quite a bit further back than my story), there apparently wasn’t a father god figure. Celebration of life was central to art and ideology, celebrating the current world, not the next. Gimbutas characterized their symbology according to four themes I may need to go back and reread to really understand. A key element is that their death iconography was about regeneration more than death.

This aspect of my worldbuilding is still ongoing, but it’s never going to appear in an infodump. Instead it’s the sort of thing where from time to time I’ll drop a tidbit that fits the context – like how people name themselves via their female ancestors. I don’t need to explain it or make a big deal about it, just use it. Similarly I don’t have to explain the egalitarianism, just show it in action (such as a more-or-less democratic council with both male and female elders, instead of a king with male advisors).

I’ve already had quite a bit of fun playing with this material, and look forward to doing more.

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