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THE GODDESS THEORY : Controversial UCLA Archeologist Marija Gimbutas Argues That the World Was at Peace When God Was a Woman

June 11, 1989|JACQUES LESLIE | Jacques Leslie is a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent

IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE a book less likely than "The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe" to cause a sensation. Its subject matter, the spiritual practices of people living in southeastern Europe 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, usually holds appeal for few people other than a fraction of the world's archeologists. Reflecting the fact that its author, Lithuanian-born Marija Gimbutas, writes for an academic audience, its prose is wooden. Even its publisher, a British firm called Thames & Hudson, was so uncertain of the book's success that it released the work in 1974 without publicity. Although the book was reissued in 1982, it has been out of print since.

Nevertheless, Gimbutas, 68, a UCLA archeologist, is now heralded in some circles as an intellectual pioneer, mainly because of the allure of the ideas in her book. Those ideas have kindled an interest in archeology among an unlikely amalgam of artists, feminists and other spiritually oriented people who find in her work confirmation of some of their most cherished beliefs. Now, when they discuss the possibilities of living peacefully and in harmony with the earth, "we're not just talking hypothetically anymore because of Gimbutas' work," says Eleanor Gadon, whose book, "The Once and Future Goddess: A Symbol for Our Time," is being published by Harper & Row in October.

Simply put, "The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe" argues that the original settlers of southeastern Europe lived in societies that were ideal in many respects. Men and women lived in harmony, Gimbutas says; women ran the temples and in doing so held predominant positions, while men performed such physical chores as hunting, building and navigating. The deities these people worshiped were overwhelmingly female, and their values, emphasizing nonviolence and reverence for nature, came from the feminine realm. It was marauding Indo-Europeans, the forerunners of Western civilization, who destroyed these societies, Gimbutas says. Making incursions from the Russian steppes starting in 4400 BC, the Indo-Europeans were violent, indifferent to nature and dominated by men. Those features, she says, have been part of Western civilization ever since and account for the political and environmental crises that now threaten the planet.

Ironically, Gimbutas' earlier work, which focused on the Indo-Europeans, established her reputation among scholars as one of the world's leading archeologists, while her study of the Old Europeans, whom the Indo-Europeans supposedly ravaged, has caused her standing to decline. For Gimbutas, however, the Indo-European work was misery, while the later research was a deliverance. The sheer tonnage of arms found at Indo-European sites sickened her to the extent that she now says she cannot bear to look at her monumental study of the Indo-Europeans, called "Bronze Age Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe."

"Weapons, weapons, weapons!" she says. "It's just incredible how many thousands of pounds of these daggers and swords were found from the Bronze Age. This was a cruel period and the beginning of what it is today--you turn on the television, and it's war, war, war, whatever channel."

While conducting Indo-European excavations, Gimbutas came across tiny figurines, usually female, from an era predating the Indo-Europeans. "I always questioned what they were and why there was no explanation of them," Gimbutas says. Since the figurines often possessed exaggerated buttocks, breasts and vulvas, some archeologists dismissed them as a kind of prehistoric pornography, but Gimbutas was unconvinced. She tracked down the figurines in museums and led excavations in Greece and Yugoslavia, where she uncovered 500 more of them.

Ernestine Elster, director of publications at UCLA's Institute of Archeology, remembers traveling in Europe with Gimbutas during this period, amazed by Gimbutas' "unending energy." On one leg of the trip, Elster says, the pair visited small museums in Hungary where the figurines were often stashed away. "I soon discovered that while she was photographing the objects, my job was to talk to the museum director so that he wouldn't get bored," Elster says. "My German wasn't very good, but if the director spoke German, I could figure when it was time for me to say, 'mein Gott!' or 'sehr gut. ' That's how we got through."

Gimbutas says she spent most of a decade studying the figurines. Then, trusting her intuition to point the way, she concluded that the figurines were representations of goddesses, whose exaggerated sexual organs had no erotic significance but rather reflected links to reproduction and nature. " 'The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe' was produced really quickly, in about three or four months," she says, "because the preparation was 10 years."

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