Breast tripods were a common form of ceremonial chalice in ancient northeastern Asia, from China and Mongolia to southern Siberia. A clay tripod from Aginskoye in the Transbaikal bears narrow incisions of parallel vertical lines on the breasts. In neolithic China, the breastpots of the late Yangshao period are painted with spirals and lines. They have been identified as prototypes of the bronze age Li tripods, one of many deep continuities that pulsed through Chinese culture. A variety of unadorned breast tripods continued to be produced in clay during the Shang dynasty. A related style of tripods were beautifully painted with curling flame-like patterns in orange on cream in the Mongolian Xiajiadian culture.

Miguel Covarrubias was one of the first scholars to remark on the stylistic similarities between ancient Chinese and American cultures. He presented a compelling visual comparison of breast tripods from Sha Jing, Gansu and Chupícuaro, Mexico. Both have a narrow band with dot-impressions around the neck. [Covarrubias 1967] These breast tripods are found in a variety of styles from the Mexican plateau through central America into Colombia. A Colombian breast-tripod is decorated with pecked dots and lines, some ending in tiny spirals. It too has the thin dot-impressed band. A more unusual example from Guatemala is glazed and stands on more than three breasts.

Women in the lower Mississippi region created a different style of breastpot. In the area of Nashville, Tennessee, potters fashioned rounded and painted breasts on footed vessels. Some have narrow necks for pouring libations. Others are capped with female heads. Vessels with breasts facing the four directions have been found in farflung locations: in the Philippines at Mindoro, Calapan; as stirrup-top libation vessels in several Peruvian cultures; and in the Lausitz region of Germany.

This last group of breastpots closely resemble an early Cucuteni prototype over three thousand years older, from Negresti, Romania. The vessels are remarkably similar in shape and even in the tender modelling of the breasts. The neolithic pot is set apart by light fingertip swirls that surround and connect the breasts. A later phase of Cucuteni-Tripolye expressed the same motif in a different way. A pot from Levikovsky, Ukraine, has four large breasts incised with spirals that flow toward the nipples. Another variation on the theme comes from Glendora, Arkansas, perhaps 700 years ago; it is skillfully inscribed with sinuous double spirals that feed into each other and swirl around the four breasts. A pot from the ancient Otomanská culture in central Europe is covered with small, pointed breasts (and again here undulating curved lines join the breasts). Rounded breasts entirely cover the surface of a late Chavín vessel from Tembladora, Peru.

African artists created unique styles of breast pots. A late-period Kemetic vessel stands on multiple breasts connected to the Tjet symbol sacred to Isis. The Matakam of Cameroon create “soul pots” (mbulom) with two round breast bulbs and a neck (or necklace) adorned with clay studs. In northern Nigeria, the Nupe make a waterpot-stand as a breasted cylinder adorned with patterned lines and studs. Here the nurturing sign of the breasts is connected with the life-giving power of water and integrated into daily life as part of the home furniture.

An Öllampe pot of the Yoruba has a breasted pillar raised above a bowl by four skirtlike curved bands. Its arms reach up to grasp another bowl where the head would be. The breasts and arms are covered with dotted striations. Another ritual pot shows a human figure—not an infant—suckling at breasts molded into the pot, which represent the goddess of the Ogun river. The Aworri Yoruba also make pots consecrated to river deities; a woman sits on each pot lid, holding between her breasts a small pot filled with stones from the riverbed. Here the sign of the female breast is used for river gods as well as goddesses. A precedent for this exists in Kemetic representations of Hapi, god of the Nile, who was always depicted with the breasts of a woman. These traditions emphasize the sacred meaning of the breast sign as a broad metaphor for life-giving power.

<<< Breast pot from Mindoro, Philippines






People all over the world made ceremonial use of the woman-vessel: Canaanites, Indonesians, and the Nok culture in ancient Nigeria. Some beautiful examples come from the Ozark region of Missouri. Female effigy vessels from Costa Rica and Ecuador show hands on belly. Their bodies are artfully painted, as are their counterparts at Casas Grandes in Chihuahua. One of these shows a sitting woman with one hand to her breast and the other cupping her belly. The vessel opens through the basket on her back. So do the Canastera (basket-woman) pots of Calima, Colombia, in the 8th century BCE. Like the Costa Rican and Chihuahuan vessels, they show very solidly built women with peaceful expressions.

A magnificent vessel from the great Colombian mound at Betancí exemplifies the iconic power of the hands-on-belly gesture. Four women face the directions, cradling their bellies. Their torsos and shoulders are lightly incised with signs, and they wear patterned sarongs slung low around their hips. The women smile, gazing dreamily through half-closed coffee-bean eyes. Probably they represent ancestral mothers, as do present-day female effigy pots of the indigenous Embera. [Labbé 1998: 197] Betancí is a place where predominately female iconography clearly correlates with high female status: “historical sources confirm that women held considerable political power in this region, sometimes ruling entire provinces.” The Spanish were stunned to find that a great cacica (female chieftain) governed the Zenúes from her capital of Finzenú. In true matrilineal style, she is associated with a brother, not a husband. [Labbe 1998: 37-40, 173-178]

Many ancient cultures customarily placed remains of the dead, especially children, in funerary urns shaped like women. Or they filled them with burial offerings of food and drink. At Hacilar, Anatolia, woman-vessels with hands to the breasts are painted in red ochre with lines, spirals, chevrons and zigzags. Around the same time, circa 5500, motherpots appear in a different style at Gradesˆnica, Bulgaria. Breasted ossuaries with mask-faced female heads occur at Azar in the southern Levant circa 4000 BCE. Maternal urns were also favored in early Crete, on Cyprus, and at Troy, where they are modeled with the “ancestor-face,” breasts, and raised arms. In Etruria they hug the belly. Female vessels were laid among burial goods across the Americas, from the great Brazilian ceremonial center of Marajó to the mounds of Arkansas and Illinois.

Fascinating similarities turn up between some of these mother-pots. Around 5500 we find ochre-painted offering vessels at Hacilar with a woman’s head and neck forming the neck of the vessel. This construction appears around the same time at Hassuna in Iraq and in the Starcˆevo culture in Bulgaria. For these a cultural connection is conceivable, but not for the similarities between the Hassuna urn and those of the Diaguitas culture that flourished in the southern Andes some six and a half millennia later.

[Above: Hassuna. Below: Diaguitas]

Both woman-vessels have stovepipe necks enclosing a face framed by patterns, and other designs painted on their rounded bodies. Both faces show the ancestor face: the two arches of the brow connected like bird’s wings over a snub-nose. Both have coffee-bean eyes with lines streaming from them. The triad of vertical lines on the Iraqi urn also appears in South American archaeology, so frequently that it has been given a name: the “crying eye” motif. This sign appears on female urns of the Calchaquí culture in Argentina, at Cunaní in northern Brazil, and as far north as Chihuahua (where three vertical lines were painted below the eyes on the woman-pot described above).

In our Chilean example, the line is diagonal and encloses a zigzag. Woman-urns with diagonals or zigzags below the eyes are also known from Samarra, Iraq; Hacilar, Anatolia; and the early Vinca culture in Macedonia, circa 5100 BCE. Separated as they are by many thousands of years, and even more miles, I can confidently state that no historical diffusion or ethnic connections account for such distinctive resemblances. They appear of their own accord out of the human creative spirit and common cultural meanings. They are icons of the grieving mother and of the ancestral source that people looked to for rebirth.

The “crying eye” sign appears in west African megaliths as well. Stone pillars in the upper Cross river region of Nigeria show lines streaming from their heavily outlined eyes. One has a mask-like lioness silhouette around the face. The gender is not clearly marked, unless the outlined oval swelling on the belly represents pregnancy. The Ekoi people venerate the stones as ancestors.

I came across another stunning resemblance of Diaguitas ceramics to a much older neolithic counterpart. Around 1500 CE Chilean potters made breasted bird-woman vessels, painted with kaolin, carbon and ochres. Their descendants have kept the prototype alive, though they no longer paint them. Their bird-pots express the same concept as breasted vessels in the shape of waterbirds from the Körös group in Hungary, circa 5500 BCE. [Gimbutas 1991:29] Breasted bird decanters of an entirely different shape were made in the ancient Aegean, with a long spout and dotted circles around the breasts. Whatever the style, a nurturant bird-mother is the common theme.

[Illustration on left is the 7500-year-old European vessel; the South American at right.]

An unusual woman-pot comes from Tell Far’ah, Jordan, circa 4000 BCE: a ceramic figure raises her arms toward a pot that sits on her shoulders in place of a head. Occasionally vulvas are highlighted, on round-eyed clay matrikas attached to a Carib pot at Vivé, Martinique, and on a fierce-looking woman sticking out her tongue on an apotropaic Tairona vessel of Colombia. An outright sheila-na-gig turns up at the classic Halaf site in Syria. Some unique pots of the Nazca culture in Peru are molded and painted with a series of large, fully naturalistic vulvas, with clitoris. More abstract vulva forms are painted on pots of the Banpo (China) and Cucuteni-Tripolye (Ukraine) cultures. Vulvas were painted with fine red ochre lines on vessels from Thailand, circa 2500 BCE.

Some are certain to object to this interpretation, so I refer them to a similar fine-lined vulviform on a Hopi pot. In this case, an authentic culture-bearer is present to shed light on the symbolism. The master potter Dextra Quotsquyva explains that she painted this fine-lined symbol to represent the womb of Mother Earth as the source of life, “surrounded by the spirits of all unborn people entering the world.” [Arnold 1982: 603] This does not “prove” that the neolithic Thai symbol is a vulva, but does demand serious consideration of the idea. It is a symbol found in sacred contexts around the world. Matrix icons are still a living tradition, and their custodians unequivocally affirm their sacredness.



1. Clearly not all present-day matrilineal systems are egalitarian. Many, particularly those practicing patrilocal residence, show increased emphasis on patrilineal inheritance and the sexual double standard that goes with it. The historic trend toward patriarchy deserves further analysis not possible in this short article. My use of “matrix” rather than “matriarchy” is a strategic choice, not only because of its multiple resonances, but also for clarity, and to interrupt the misrepresentation of these cultures as another system of domination. But feminist scholars of this subject, whether they use “matriarchy,” “gylany,” or other terms, agree that the egalitarian matrilineages uphold a different paradigm than the hierarchical patriarchal societies.

2. Jacques Cauvin (2000: 205) rightly calls these female icons the “central preoccupation of the Neolithic.”

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Icons of the Matrix © 2004 Max Dashu