Female Icons, Ancestral Mothers

a worldwide array of female figurines in clay, stone, ivory, all shapes, some abstract, others naturalistic

A visual presentation by Max Dashu

The ancient female figurines are the classic icons of ancient cultures over most of the planet. Why are they so little known?

In this visual presentation Max Dashu explores recurrent symbols of female potency: hands to the breasts, ochre paint, the numinous triangle. Abstract or naturalistic or plaques, from burials or shrines or middens, these primal figurines offer a window into ancient ceremony, in all its diversity and myriad global connections.

A look at the longstanding neolithic figurine traditions of Egypt, Pakistan, Japan, the Balkans, Ecuador, Mesopotamia and the Levant, as well as more unpublicized figurines from Utah, Argentina, Nigeria, the Caribbean, France, Italy, Alaska, and Louisiana.

90 minutes (or 60 minute option)

    Shown, from left top: Italy, Sudan, Egypt, Russia, Ecuador, Siberia, France, Morocco, Alaska, Japan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Mexico, China, Zimbabwe, Manchuria, Iraq, Iran, Peru, Turkey, Brazil, Utah, Hungary, Chad, India, Greenland, Mexico, Honduras, Argentina, Britain, Israel, Chile, Ecuador, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Illinois, Kurdistan, Sulawesi, Louisiana, Brazil, Kenya, Sudan.
More on the places, dates, and contexts of these images.

ecuadorian figurine with hands to breasts"Any discussion of the ubiquitous female figurines must address the vexed problem of interpretation, the storm center of much controversy. Not a few scholars find it unacceptable to speak of the ancient female iconography as sacred, even as they use stereotyped phrases like “fertility idol.” Such terminology has a built-in bias that flattens our perception according to well-worn cultural scripts of female shame and anti-paganism. The late Paula Gunn Allen objecting to these offensively reductive 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]

clay figurine from Santarem Brazil"The old Eurocentric standard of interpretatio romana still holds sway in the common use of the label  “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 attempting to cover her nakedness with her hands. Such imagery  has little in common with the potent, self-contained icons of the neolithic. 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. “Idol” is loaded with pejorative connotations, remnants of the ancient culture-wars against pagans. Everyone knows about phallic symbols, but what is the name for symbols of female potency?" -- Max Dashu, "Icons of the Matrix"

Shown above: clay icons from ancient Ecuador and (lower) Santarem, Brazil.


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