The first Mothers of the stone age
Images of the Female Creative Power
by Ruth Hecker
The Beginnings of Religious Thought
At some stage during the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, our Stone Age ancestors must have begun to think about their presence in this world and to ask questions about the beginning and end of life. We do not know when this awareness of the mysteries of life and death awakened. Burials suggest the Neanderthals probably grappled with these questions more than 100 000 years ago.
Only a few durable relics of the spiritual world of the peoples of the later Ice Age have survived the tens of thousands of years since then. Most of the evidence of their intellectual world has been lost, as have been any expressions of their ritual lives, which were primarily manifested in dances, songs or rites. The preserved works of art are thus an important key for understanding how our ancestors mastered the intellectual side of their lives. Today we can only try to comprehend how the Ice Age hunter and gatherers experienced their environment and present possible interpretations based on analogies with present-day or historical hunter-gatherers.
The engraved symbols and decorations or exaggerated characteristics of the small, artistically formed sculptures suggest they had a special meaning and a symbolic character. The oldest as yet discovered animal or human depictions are ca 35 000 – 32 000 years old. Even so the extraordinary perfection and expressiveness of these works of art are evidence that they were not the first human attempts to artistically represent their spiritual and philosophical explanations of life.
Women: The source of life
Among the objects with an evident symbolic meaning are a number of female figures made from stone, antler, mammoth ivory and burnt clay. They have been found in sites of the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) ranging from southwestern France to Lake Baikal in Siberia and dating from 27 000 – 22 000 years ago. The distribution of the female statuettes over very large distances and periods of time and correspondences in their appearance suggest they had similar meanings and functions. This also implies contacts between the widely-dispersed groups of peoples. These female sculptures clearly played an important role in the minds of our ancestors.
The female depictions probably do not portray actual women, but rather the picture which the people of the time had of the creative forces of life. A woman with her ability to produce life within herself mirrors the cycle of growth and decay. She completes and manifests the maternal, life-giving principle of nature.
Most of the figures are naked and have well-rounded bodies, heavy, hanging breasts and often an emphasised pubic region. Their overflowing fullness radiates fertility and the power to give life: most are adult women who are pregnant or have already borne several children. Their heads are often bent and almost always without facial features, the arms lie on or under the breasts or point to the pubic triangle.
The strikingly meditative and introspective posture of many of the figures is an indication of their symbolic character and their special function within cult contexts. Stylisations and abstraction express the more-than-personal meaning of the statuettes.
Ancestral Mothers, Protective Spirits,
The female figures are portrayals of mothers and apparently served a function in day-to-day life. Most of the statuettes wee found in the remains of dwellings, often near hearths. They are small and handy, usually without feet or stands. It is possible that they were held in the hand or worn next to the body as protective charms in life-threatening situations such as illness, injury or while giving birth. Some of the figures have perforations and may have been worn as amulets or hung up in dwellings. It is imaginable that they were portraits of ancestral mothers or mythical tribal mothers, prayed to for the protection and continuation of the clan. As super-natural beings they may have had mythical importance and participated in community life in the form of the figures.
It is highly likely that the small mother figures were associated with female fertility, predominantly in rituals. A few of the statuettes, e.g. the renowned limestone "Venus of Willendorf" from Austria were painted with red ochre, the colour of blood and life. A connection with the menstrual cycle is possible.
The female figures probably also served a function in fertility ceremonies and initiation rites, being passed on from generation to generation along with knowledge of reproduction. Some figures with bisexual forms express the polarity of masculine and feminine.
It is possible that the figures manifested a mythological understanding of the world as symbols of a Great Cosmic Mother from which all life derives and to whom everything returns. Her worship is evidence of the consciousness, that humans are dependent on the powers of nature.
The End of the Ice Age
Only a few female representations have been found during the coldest period of the last Ice Age ca 10 000 years ago when many regions of Europe were uninhabitable. A few thousands of years later during the period from 16 000 to 12 000 years ago they appear again in many regions in the form of reliefs and engravings in caves and on stone slabs or as statuettes.
Once again there are stylistic similarities over large distances. Most of the depictions no longer have voluptuous body forms, but are schematic, silhouette-like and often abstracted beyond recognition. These figures apparently also portrayed the vital forces of women and were used in rituals. Some of them appear to depict events in the lives of the peoples of the time, e.g. the engraved line drawings of what are probably dancing women discovered on stone slabs at Gönnersdorf and Andernach in Germany.
At the end of the Ice Ate ca 11 500 years ago, the living conditions of the hunter and gatherers changed with the increasing forestation and the disappearance of the large herd animals of the steppe. Only a few works of art are known from this transitional time period, known as the Middle Stone Age or Mesolithic. Finds of female statuettes are extremely rare, although it is possible that they were made from wood and were not preserved.
Female Statuettes of Neolithic Farming Peoples
Female figures appear in numbers again ca 8 000 years ago during the New Stone Age or Neolithic. At this time people – beginning in the Neat East – gradually became sedentary farmers and animal breeders. The radical change from an acquiring to a producing mode of life is reflected in their religious beliefs. The statuettes of this epoch are usually made of clay. Although they clearly follow in the tradition of the Old Stone Age ‘First Mothers’ as symbols of the principle of growth and decay, their appearance changed. Most of the figures have sketchy, outstretched arms, small breasts and greatly accentuated hips. The faces are mask-like, sometimes similar to those of birds or with reptilian eyes. A few of the sculptures are so abstract that they can only be identified on the basis of certain characteristics, e.g. a pubic triangle, which identify them as women.
The largest distribution of Neolithic and Bronze Age female statuettes dates from 6 000 to 3 500 years ago and lies in the Near East, Southeast Europe and the Mediterranean area. To cite one example: thousands of terra cotta figurines have been found in Mesopotamia. In Central Europe, most of the finds come from Moravia, Czech Republic. In contrast, almost no figures have been recovered from Western Europe. In this region it appears that the womb of the "Great Mother’ is usually manifested in Megalithic graves, where she is honoured as the dolmen goddess.
Images of Early Goddesses
A ‘Mother Earth’ religion developed during the time of the early farmers. The ‘great Mother’ became a ‘Cereal Mother’, the protectress of plants and animals. The vegetation cycle of growth, ripening and decay personifies the earth as a regenerating, fruitful, but also deadly mother. She brings forth and nourishes all life and then takes it back into her womb so that it can be borne and life cycle can begin again.
It is probable that many of the numerous statuettes were images of a fertility goddess which was increasingly honoured in special cult rooms and temples. The figures were often employed in connection with a cult of the dead. They wee put in the graves of the deceased as grave goods, perhaps even as companions for the dead. The transitions between ancestral figures, holy figures and symbolic representations of goddesses were apparently fluid.
In any case, the sedentary farmers of the Neolithic also expressed their experiences with death and the dependence on a superordinate, female power in their religion: this eventually led to the desire to influence the life forces and their perpetual renewal intellectually and through sacred rites. Although there were some regional developments, e.g. on the Cyclades in Greece, cultural ties and similarities can be seen between almost all regions. They imply active trade and intellectual exchange.
The Neolithic female figures are presumably the forerunners of the numerous goddesses of classical antiquity. These were later supplanted by male deities in all of the advanced civilizations of Europe, with their increasingly hierarchical and patriarchal societies.
25 000 years of the ‘First religion of Femininity'
The search for conceptual possibilities for the creative forces and energies, for a projection of the greater whole in which we live is a very old and central aspect of our humanity. The female figures thus became carriers of the forces which united them with humankind.
Religious beliefs and the form of their expression mirror the society in which they exist. In the male-oriented world of today, all religions conceive God as male. The importance of women for the survival and coherence of the human community and probably also the respect shown them are illustrated in the thousands of years in which representations of women were clearly dominant. Comparisons with peoples living in a natural state imply that women in the less hierarchical hunter0-an-gatherer societies of the Old Stone Age had a respected position, although possibly with another understanding of equality than that of today. Sedentariness, with its radical societal changes led to an increasingly lower social status for women.
For 25 000 years, the almost world wide ‘First Religion of Femininity" moulded the social and cultural development of mankind. Its origins lie in the magical and mythical worship of the Old Stone Age ‘Ancient Mother’. This primitive religion mirrors the deeply feminine regularity of life, which is revealed in the image of the maternal organism, earth. She gives us the chance to understand our past and the roots of our religiousness. She is our spiritual and cultural inheritance.
Posted with author's permission 22 February 2005, www.face.org.za, author: Ruth Hecker.