In prehistoric and early historic periods of human development, religions existed in which people revered their supreme creator as female.
The Great Goddess, the Divine Ancestress, was worshiped as far back as the Upper Paleolithic about 25,000 BC -- not 7000 BC as had been previously believed by archaeologists and scholars based on archaeological evidence. The last Goddess temples were closed about 500 AD.
Little has been written about the female deities who were worshiped in the most ancient periods of human existence and still today, the material there is has been almost totally ignored.
Most of the information and artifacts concerning the vast female religion, which flourished for thousands of years before the advent of the classical age of Greece, Judaism, Christianity, was dug out of the ground after the Second World War. It is these more recent excavations which have changed our view of our most ancient history.
Archaeological evidence proves that the Goddess religion existed and flourished in the Near and Middle East for thousands of years before the arrival of the patriarchal Abraham, first prophet of the male deity Yahweh.
Who was this Goddess? Why had a female, rather than a male, been designated as the supreme deity? How influential and significant was Her worship, and when had it actually begun?
Though goddesses have been worshiped in all areas of the world, we will focus on the religion as it evolved in the Near and Middle East, the cradle of western civilization. The development of the religion of the female deity in this area is intertwined with the earliest beginnings of religion so far discovered anywhere on earth.
The archaeological evidence for the existence of this ancient religion comes in the form of statues, murals, inscriptions, clay tablets and papyri that recorded events. Legends and prayers revealed the form and attitudes of the religion and the nature of the deity. Many ancient legends often refer to ritual dramas. These were enacted at religious ceremonies of sacred festivals, coinciding with other ritual activities.
Comments were often found in the literature of one country about the religion or divinities of another. Most cultures have myths that explain their origins. However, these are not always the oldest.
There are numerous accounts of the antagonistic attitudes of Judaism, Christianity and Islam toward the sacred artifacts of the religions that preceded them, especially in the case of the Goddess worshiped in Canaan (Palestine).
Accounts of Sun Goddesses were found in the lands of Canaan, Anatolia, Arabia and Australia, among the Eskimos, the Japanese and the Khasis of India.
Most astonishing of all was the discovery of numerous accounts of the female Creator of all existence, divinities who were credited with bringing forth not only the first people but the entire earth and the heavens above. There were records of such Goddesses in Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Africa, Australia and China.
In India the Goddess Sarasvati was honored as the inventor of the original alphabet, while in Celtic Ireland the Goddess Brigit was esteemed as the patron deity of language. Texts revealed that it was the Goddess Nidaba in Sumer who was paid honor as the one who initially invented clay tablets and the art of writing.
Most significant was the archaeological evidence of the earliest examples of written language so far discovered; these were also located in Sumer, at the temple of the Queen of Heaven in Erech, written there over five thousand years ago.
In agreement with the generally accepted theory that women were responsible for the development of agriculture, as an extension of their food-gathering activities, there were female deities everywhere who were credited with this gift to civilization.
In Mesopotamia, where some of the earliest evidences of agricultural development have been found, the Goddess Ninlil was revered for having provided Her people with an understanding of planting and harvesting methods.
In nearly all areas of the world, female deities were extolled as healers, dispensers of curative herbs, roots, plants and other medical aids, casting the priestesses who attended the shrines into the role of physicians of those who worshiped there.
The Divine Ancestress was known as Astarte -- the Great Goddess, the Queen of Heaven, Innin, Inanna, Nan, Nut, Anat, Anahita, Istar Isis, Au Set, Ishara, Asherah, Ashtart, Attoret, Attar and Hathor. Each names denotes in the various languages and dialects of those who revered Her, different aspects of the Great Goddess.
Why do so many people educated in this century think of classical Greece as the first major culture when written language was in use and great cities built at least twenty-five centuries before that time?
And perhaps most important, why is it continually inferred that the age of the "pagan" religions, the time of the worship of female deities, was dark and chaotic, mysterious and evil, without the light of order and reason that supposedly accompanied the later male religions.
It has been archaeologically confirmed that the earliest law, government, medicine, agriculture, architecture, metallurgy, wheeled vehicles, ceramics, textiles and written language were initially developed in societies that worshipped the Goddess.
We may find ourselves wondering about the reasons for the lack of available information on societies who, for thousands of years, worshiped the ancient Creatress of the Universe.
The Upper Paleolithic period, though most of its sites have been found in Europe, is the conjectural foundation of the religion of the Goddess as it emerged in the later Neolithic Age of the Near East.
Since it precedes the time of written records and does not directly lead into an historical period that might have helped to explain it, the information on the Paleolithic existence of Goddess worship must at this time remain speculative. Theories on the origins of the Goddess in this period are founded on the juxtaposition of motherkinship customs to ancestor worship. They are based upon three separate lines of evidence.
The first relies on anthropological analogy to explain the initial development of matrilineal (mother-kinship) societies. Studies of "primitive" tribes over the last few centuries have led to the realization that some isolated "primitive" peoples, even in our own century, did not yet possess the conscious understanding of the relationship of sex to conception. The analogy is then drawn that Paleolithic people may have been at a similar level of biological awareness.
Accounts of descent in the family would be kept through the female line, going from mother to daughter rather than from father to son, as is the custom practiced today. Such a social structure is generally referred to as matrilineal, that is, based upon motherkinship. In such cultures not only the names, but titles, possessions and territorial rights are passed along through the female line, so that they may be retained within the family clan.
The second line of evidence concerns the beginnings of religious beliefs and rituals and their connection with matrilineal descent. There have been numerous studies of Paleolithic cultures, explorations of sites occupied by these people and the apparent rites connected with the disposal of their dead. These suggest that, as the earliest concepts of religion developed, they probably took the form of ancestor worship. An analogy can be drawn between the Paleolithic people and the religious concepts and rituals observed among many of the aboriginal tribes studied by anthropologists over the last two centuries.
THE UPPER PALEOLITHIC VENUS FIGURES
The third line of evidence, and the most tangible, derives from the numerous sculptures of women found in the Gravettian-Aurignacian cultures of the Upper Paleolithic Age. Some of these date back as far as 25,000 BC.
These small female figurines, made of stone and bone and clay and often referred to as Venus figures, have been found in areas where small settled communities once lived. They were often discovered lying close to the remains of the sunken walls of what were probably the earliest human-made dwellings on earth.
Niches or depressions had been made in the walls to hold the figures. These statues of women, some seemingly pregnant, have been found throughout the wide-spread Gravettian-Aurignacian sites in areas as far apart as Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Russia. These sites and figures appear to span a period of at least ten thousand years.
It appears highly probable that the female figurines were idols of a "great mother" cult, practiced by the non-nomadic Aurignacian mammoth hunters who inhabited the immense Eurasian territories that extended from Southern France to Lake Baikal area in Siberia.
"The earliest agriculture must have grown up around the shrines of the Mother Goddess, which thus became social and economic centers, as well as holy places and were the germs of future cities," writes Mellaart.
But just as the people of the early Neolithic cultures may have come down from Europe, as the possible descendants of the Gravettian-Aurignacian cultures, so later waves of even more northern peoples descended into the Near East. There has been some conjecture that these were the descendants of the Mesolithic (about 15,000-8000 BC), Maglemosian and Kunda cultures of northern Europe. Their arrival was not a gradual assimilation into the area, as the Goddess peoples' seems to have been, but rather a series of aggressive invasions, resulting in the conquest, area by area, of the Goddess people.
At the site that is now known as Jericho (in Canaan), by 7000 BC people were living in plastered brick houses, some with clay ovens with chimneys and even sockets for doorposts. Rectangular plaster shrines had already appeared.
Hacilar, some sixty miles from the Aurignacian site of Antalya, was inhabited at about 6000 BC. Here, too, figures of the Goddess have been found. And at the excavations at Catal Huyuk, close to the Cilician plains of Anatolia, near present day Konya, Mellaart discovered no less than forty shrines, dating from 6500 BC onward.
The culture of Catal Huyuk existed for nearly one thousand years. Mellaart reveals, "The statues allow us to recognize the main deities worshipped by neolithic people at Catal Huyuk. The principal deity was a goddess, who is shown in her three aspects, as a young woman, a mother giving birth or as an old woman."
Mellaart suggests that there may have been a majority of women at Catal Huyuk, as evidenced by the number of female burials. At Catal Huyuk too red ochre was strewn on the bodies; nearly all of the red ochre burials were of women. The religion was primarily associated with the role of women in the initial development of agriculture, and it seems extremely likely that the cult of the goddess was administered mainly by women.
One of the most significant links between the two periods are the female figurines, understood in Neolithic societies, through their emergence into the historic period of written records, to represent the Goddess.
The sculptures of the Paleolithic cultures and those of the Neolithic periods are remarkably similar in materials, size and, most astonishing, in style. Hawkes commented on the relationship between the two periods, noting that the Paleolithic female figures ". . . are extraordinarily like the Mother or Earth Goddesses of the agricultural peoples of Eurasia in the Neolithic Age and must be directly ancestral to them."
Perhaps most significant is the fact that Aurignacian sites have now been discovered near Antalya, about sixty miles from the Neolithic Goddess-worshiping community of Hacilar in Anatolia (Turkey), and at Musa Dag in northern Syria (once a part of Canaan).
These Neolithic communities emerge with the earliest evidences of agricultural development (which is what defines them as neolithic). They appear in areas later known as Canaan (Palestine [Israel], Lebanon and Syria); in Anatolia (Turkey); and along the northern reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Iraq and Syria).
These northern invaders, generally known as Indo-Europeans, brought their own religion with them, the worship of a young warrior god and/or a supreme father god. Their arrival is archaeologically and historically attested by 2400 BC, but several invasions may have occurred even earlier.
The pattern that emerged after the invasions was an amalgamation of the two theologies, the strength of one or the other often noticeably different from city to city.
As the invaders gained more territories and continued to grow more powerful over the next two thousand years, this synthesized religion often juxtaposed the female and male deities not as equals but with the male as the dominant husband or even as Her murderer. Yet myths, statues and documentary evidence reveal the continual presence of the Goddess and the survival of the customs and rituals connected to the religion, despite the efforts of the conquerors to destroy or belittle the ancient worship.
Russian paleontologist Z.A. Abramova, quoted in Alexander Marshak's recent book Roots of Civilization, offers a slightly different interpretation, writing that in the Paleolithic religion, "The image of the Woman-Mother . . . was a complex one, and it included diverse ideas related to the special significance of the women in early clan society. She was neither a god, an idol, nor the mother of a god; she was the Clan Mother . . . The ideology of the hunting tribes in this period of the matriarchal clan was reflected in the female figurines."
The connections between the Paleolithic female figurines and the later emergence of the Goddess-worshiping societies in the Neolithic periods of the Near and Middle East are not definitive, but are suggested by many authorities.
At the Gravettian site of Vestonice, Czechoslovakia, where Venus figures were not only formed but hardened in an oven, the carefully arranged grave of a woman was found. She was about forty years old. She had been supplied with tools, covered with mammoth shoulder blade bones and strewn with red ochre. In a proto-Neolithic site at Shanidar, on the northern stretches of the Tigris River, another grave was found, this one dating from about 9000 BC. It was the burial of a slightly younger woman, once again strewn with red ochre.
Although the earliest examples of written language yet discovered anywhere on earth appeared at the temple of the Queen of Heaven in Erech in Sumer, just before 3000 BC, writing at that time seems to have been used primarily for the business accounts of the temple.
The arriving northern groups adopted this manner of writing, known as cuneiform (small wedge signs pressed into damp clay) and used it for their own records and literature. Professor Chiera comments, "It is strange to notice that practically all the existing literature was put down in written form a century or two after 2000 BC."
Whether this suggests that written language was never considered as a medium for myths and legends before that time or that existing tablets were destroyed and rewritten at that time remains an open question. But unfortunately it means that we must rely on literature that was written after the start of the northern invasions and conquests.
Yet the survival and revival of the Goddess as supreme in certain areas, the customs, the rituals, the prayers, the symbolism of the myths as well as the evidence of temple sites and statues, provide us with a great deal of information on the worship of the Goddess even at that time. And to a certain extent, they allow us, by observing the progression of transitions that took place over the next two thousand years, to extrapolate backward to better understand the nature of the religion as it may have existed in earlier historic and Neolithic times.
The deification and worship of the female divinity in so many parts of the ancient world were variations on a theme, slightly differing versions of the same basic theological beliefs, those that originated in the earliest periods of human civilizations. It is difficult to grasp the immensity and significance of the extreme reverence paid to the Goddess over a period of either twenty-five thousand (as the Upper Paleolithic evidence suggests) or even seven thousand years and over miles of land, cutting across national boundaries and vast expanses of sea. Yet it is vital to do just that to fully comprehend the longevity as well as the widespread power and influence this religion once held.
Much the same religion that Graves discusses existed even earlier in the areas known today as Iraq, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel (Palestine), Egypt, Sinai, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Italy as well as on the large island cultures of Crete, Cyprus, Malta, Sicily and Sardinia.
There were instances of much the same worship in the Neolithic periods of Europe, which began at about 3000 BC. The Tuatha de Danaan traced their origins back to a Goddess they brought with them to Ireland, long before the arrival of Roman culture.
The Celts, who now comprise a major part of the populations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany, were known to the Romans as the Gauls. They are known to have sent priests to a sacred festival for the Goddess Cybele in Pessinus, Anatolia, in the second century BC. And evidence of carvings at Carnac and the Gallic shrines of Chartres and Mont St. Michel in France suggests that these places were once sites of the Great Goddess.