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