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Hallowed Be Her Name : THE LANGUAGE OF THE GODDESS by Marija Gimbutas (Harper & Row:) $49.95; 388 pp.

February 18, 1990|Rita Mae Brown | Brown is a free-lance writer

"The Language of the Goddess" represents the life work of Marija Gimbutas, professor of European archeology at UCLA, who excavated Neolithic settlements for 16 years.

Using her main field of inquiry, Gimbutas has woven together comparative mythology, early historical sources, linguistics, ethnography and folklore to prove her case: that the language of the goddess undergirds our entire Western culture. Her large, beautifully illustrated book will keep archeology, religion and classics departments the world over in a tizzy.

Gimbutas has the audacity to present a glossary of motifs and to interpret these bird symbols, snake symbols, etc. as a living language, as a system of religion. That this religion is female-centered will naturally offend male supremacists still clinging to their thunder god or Yahweh. She will also offend the hard-line feminists who insist on seeing anything matriarchal as obviously superior to patriarchy. Gimbutas must be doing something right!

Far too sophisticated to let herself get caught in a male-versus-female trap, the author charts the period from about 9000 to 3500 BC through the use of artifacts and sacred symbols to show the scope of goddess language. The goddess-centered religion was overthrown by the armed horseback-riding Indo-Europeans. Gimbutas' evidence, visually presented and accompanied by a clear text, is impressive, even to her many opponents.

Those familiar with Greek mythology will recall that their solution to the conflicting patriarchal and matriarchal gods was to have Zeus marry many of the local female divinities, thereby including them within the Green pantheon. Other more recent patriarchal societies were not so generous to the female principle and ruthlessly suppressed the Goddess. Judaism and its derivative, Christianity, have proven harshly anti-female.

"The Language of the Goddess" assembles, classifies and interprets more than 2,000 artifacts from Europe. Clearly this highly controversial book is not for the general reader but rather for those already interested in this subject and hopefully well-versed in later European myths.

The author's account of her intention gives a clear road map for the reader's journey: "Some 20 years ago, when I first started to question the meaning of the signs and design patterns that appeared repeatedly on the cult objects and the painted pottery of Neolithic Europe, they struck me as being pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle--two-thirds of which was missing.

"As I worked at its completion, the main themes of the Old European ideology emerged primarily through analysis of the symbols and images and discovery of their intrinsic order. They represent the grammar and syntax of a kind of meta-language by which an entire constellation of meanings is transmitted. They reveal the basic world-view of Old European (pre- Indo-European) culture."

That basic world-view seems to be that the Goddess in all her manifestations was responsible for the birth, life and death of all living creatures and even of the cosmos. She is the giver of forms, the source of all being.

We moderns can possibly apprehend the meaning of the Goddess, but it is debatable if we can ever experience the joy and the terror she provoked in our prehistoric ancestors.

We have so far removed ourselves from the sources of life, from Nature and the Goddess, that since 1900, we have killed more than 100 million human beings and animals beyond counting. We feel no terror nor pity for our deeds. Worse, we tend to forget the murders. This reviewer promises you that when the last survivor of World War II dies, those living will be only too happy to forget that horror. We've already filed away World War I and if we remember it at all, we remember the Germans' spiked helmets.

Is it a hallmark of patriarchy to disregard human life? Even the ministry of Jesus Christ, an attempt to soften patriarchy while still maintaining male supremacy, has failed to instill a reverence for life in modern man.

Will a re-acquaintance with the Goddess, with the female as a divine creator, bring us to a less-lethal method of behavior? Gimbutas believes it will, as did Joseph Campbell, whose work will bear upon the 21st Century as the work of Marx and Freud bore upon the 20th.

Lacking a female iconography, we have no visual representation of female power as did our ancestors to help us reacquaint ourselves. For the last 3,000 years, we have endured a theology of prostitution or the Venus syndrome. As even the grimmest Puritan could not completely kill the comforts of sex, the female principle was reduced to just that. Our iconography then became either the Virgin Mary or the sex symbol, raised to new heights by the film industry.

Oddly enough, a breakthrough to visually presenting the Goddess is happening in Nashville, Tenn., where a sculptor is re-creating the Athena of Phidias in the Parthenon. Will we experience a glimpse of the power of the divine female when we look upon her 40-foot figure?

Whether Nashville is the beginning of our culture's being strong enough to perceive the complexity of spiritual life, of recognizing the Goddess, what is certain is that the language of the Great Goddess has existed for thousands upon thousands of years, far longer than Christianity.

She has left her fingerprints upon our souls. She may return in the next millennium to claim those souls.

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