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.
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]
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
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