SAN DIEGO — In the beginning, God was a woman--at least according to some ancient folklore.
Max Allen, author of "The Birth Symbol in Traditional Women's Art From Eurasia and the Western Pacific," says in his book that the Akkadians wrote that the Goddess Mami put life on Earth by pinching off 14 pieces of clay, making seven women and seven men.
The Mexican goddess Coatlicue was believed to have given birth to the moon, the sun and all other deities.
The Dahomeans said the goddess Mawu placed life on the Earth, and built mountains and valleys.
The goddess Nu Kwa, according to Chinese legend, patched the Earth and the heavens and restored harmony and balance to the universe.
Indian records show that the goddess Devi could make the entire universe disappear just by closing her eyes.
For 8,000 years, women have been depicted as the "great goddess" through the birth symbol, a diamond-shaped textile pattern, experts say. The motif represents female power and life itself.
The symbol can be seen on dozens of woven textiles from Eastern Europe, Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines at the Mingei International Museum of World Folk Art in La Jolla through July 5. Most items in the exhibition are on loan from the Museum for Textiles in Toronto. Some of the pieces are from the Mingei's own collection and some have been loaned by local art patrons.
Rugs, jackets, cummerbunds, birthing cloths, horse covers and camel-head decorations are among the weavings adorned with the ancient symbol at the exhibition. Each piece has its own variation of the diamond figure, which has squiggly lines representing arms and legs and often encases an X-shaped depiction of a fetus. Historians have found at least 17 techniques used to portray the symbol, according to Allen's book.
"Artists love to take something and embellish it and play with it," museum director Martha Longenecker said as she walked through the gallery pointing out pieces.
"This artist did a literal depiction of a woman giving birth," she said about a large, mid-20th-Century Philippine Abaca cloth, which had geometric stick-figure women woven into the fabric. She said of another weaving from the same country, with rows of the distorted diamond shapes, "This one is a more abstract depiction of the symbol."
She pointed out a tattered horse cover. "All these pieces were woven to be used, and you can see they were. Most of the pieces are not very old--most were made in the 19th or 20th centuries. But the important thing is that the symbol is alive and still being used today."
The migration of the symbol can be traced to the 8,000-year-old town of Catal Huyuk in Anatolia. It then spread from areas near the Danube eastward to Southeast Asia, Indonesia and eastern Europe. The symbol does not appear in Chinese, African or most Indian textiles. However, some historians say the Huichol people (an Indian tribe) in Mexico may use the symbol in their art.
"Before they found the symbol in textiles, they found it on clay pots and on cave walls," Longenecker said. "(Authorities) said Freud had a cover on his couch with the symbol on it. But they say he probably didn't know what it meant."
Longenecker said she didn't know if the women using the birth symbol in their weavings today actually know its iconography.
"It's just something that gets passed down from mother to daughter," she said. "The symbol does not reflect any particular religion but how people feel about the universe and their relationship to it.
"I feel that the show is very appropriate. We thought there was a lot of interest in feminine attributes at this time. It seems to have really interested people and brought a lot of different people to the museum."