Learning the Language of the Goddess
“Through an understanding of what the Goddess was, we can better understand nature and we can build our ideologies so that it will be easier for us to live.”
With Marija Gimbutas
Marija Gimbutas is largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in Goddess-oriented religions. Her discoveries were the foundation for Riane Eisler ’s (whom we interviewed in our first volume) highly influential book, The Chalice and the Blade. For fifteen years, Marija was involved with excavations in southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean, which revealed the existence of a prehistoric Goddess-oriented culture. For at least 25, 000 years this peaceful civilization seemingly practiced complete equal rights between the sexes–socially, politically, and spiritually. As Riane Eisler pointed out, the full implications of this discovery have yet to be fully realized by the scientific community, or by society at large.
Born in Lithuania during a time when 50 percent of the population was still pagan, Gimbutas fled to Austria because of the war. In Vilnius, Lithuania, and later in Vienna, Innsbruck, and Tubingen, she studied linguistics, archaeology, and Indo-European cultures, obtaining her doctorate in Tubingen, Germany in 1946. In 1950, as an expert in eastern European archaeology, she became a research fellow at Harvard, where she remained for twelve years. In 1963 she came to UCLA, where she served as emeritus professor of European archaeology for many years. She is the author of more than twenty books, including well-known works such as The Language of the Goddess, The Civilization of the Goddess, and Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe.
We interviewed Marija at her beautiful mountain home–which overflowed with big-breasted wide-hipped goddess figurines and other archaeological artifacts–in Topanga Canyon, California an October 3, 1992. When Marija died on February 2, 1994, we felt very sad bur also fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend time with her before she departed Even though she battled lymphatic cancer for many years, Marija was vitally alive and active right up until the very end. On June 27, 1993, the Frauen Museum in Wiesbaden, Germany dedicated to her an extensive exhibit, “The Language of the Goddess,” and she was there to receive the honor
After spending much of her life in relative academic obscurity, Marija Seemed to be genuinely surprised to discover how popular she had become. For all her accomplishments, she was always humble and gracious. Marija had an incredibly warm, sprite-like spirit, lively eyes, and a way ofl making you feel very comfortable around her She appeared delicate and graceful, yet Jilled with strength. There was something timeless about Marija, for she was a woman of many times and places, and the Goddess seemed to shine right through her.
David: What was it that originally inspired your interest in the archaeological and mythological dimensions of the Goddess orientated religions of Old Europe?
Marija: It has to do with the whole of my life, I think. I was always a black sheep. I did what I saw with my own eyes – to this day, in fact. I was very independent. My mother was also very independent. She was one of the first students of medicine in Switzerland and Germany when there were no other girls studying.
I was born in Lithuania when it was still fifty percent pagan. I had quite a lot of direct connections to the Goddesses. They were around me in my childhood. The GoddessLaima was there, she could call at night and look through the windows. When a woman is giving birth she appears, and the grandmother is there organizing things. She has gifts for the Goddess towels and woven materials are laid for her, because she weaves the life, she is the spinner. She may be on the way to disappear, but fifty years ago she was still there.
Rebecca: When you say pagans, you mean people living in the countryside, close to nature?
Marija: Yes, well Lithuania was Christianized only in the fourteenth century and even then it didn’t mean much because it was done by missionaries who didn’t understand the language, and the countryside remained pagan for at least two or three centuries. And then came the Jesuits who started to convert people in the sixteenth century.
In some areas, up to the nineteenth and twentieth century, there were still beliefs alive in Goddesses and all kinds of beings. So in my childhood I was exposed to many things which were almost prehistoric, I would say. And when I studied archaeology, it was easier for me to grasp what these sculptures mean than for an archaeologist born in New York, who doesn’t know anything about the countryside life in Europe.(laughter)
I first studied linguistics, ethnology and folklore. I collected folklore myself when I was in high school. And there was always a question; what is my own culture? I heard a lot about the Indo-Europeans and that our language, Lithuanian, was a very old, conservative Indo-European language. I was interested in that. I studied the Indo-European language and comparative Indo-European studies, and at that time there was no question about what was before the Indo-Europeans. It was good enough to know that the Indo-Europeans were already there.(laughter) The question of what was before came much later.
Then, because of the war, I had to flee from Lithuania. I studied in Austria, in Vienna, then I got my Ph.D in Germany. I still continued to be interested in my own Lithuanian, ancient culture and I did some things in addition to my official studies. I was doing research in symbolism and I collected materials from libraries. So that is one trend in my interest – ancient religion, pagan religion and symbolism. My dissertation was also connected with this. It was about the burial rites and beliefs in afterlife and it was published in Germany in 1946.
Then I came to the United States and had the opportunity to begin studies in eastern European archaeology and in 1950 I became a research fellow at Harvard and I was there for twelve years. I had to learn from scratch because there was nobody in the whole United States who was really knowledgeable about what was in Russia or the Soviet Union in prehistoric times. So they invited me to write a book on eastern European prehistory and I spent about fifteen years doing this. So that was my background of learning.
Rebecca: Did you anticipate the incredible interest that this research would fuel?
Marija: No. At that time I was just an archaeologist doing my work, studying everything that I could. And after than came the Bronze Age studies, and this gave me another aspect on this Indo-European culture. In my first book I wrote about eastern European archaeology, I started my hypothesis on the Indo-European origins in Europe and this hypothesis still works and hasn’t changed much.
Rebecca: Could you describe your hypothesis?
Marija: These proto-Indo-European people came from South Russia to Europe, introduced the Indo-European culture and then European culture was hybridized. It was the old culture mixed with the new elements – the Steppe, pastoral, patriarchal elements. So already at that time, thirty years ago, I sensed that, in Europe there was something else before the Indo-Europeans. But I still didn’t do anything about the Goddess, about sculptures, or art, or painted pottery. I just knew that it existed but I didn’t really have the chance to dive into the field.
The occasion appeared when I came to UCLA in 1963 and from 1967 I started excavations in south-east Europe, in Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy, and did that for fifteen years. When I was traveling in Europe and visiting museums I was already building some understanding of what this culture was like before the
Indo-Europeans, before the patriarchy.
It was always a big question mark to me; what could it be? This is so different. Painted pottery, for instance, beautiful pottery. And then the sculptures. Nobody really was writing about it. There were so many of them, wherever you went you found hundreds and hundreds. I was just putting in my head what I saw. So then I started my own excavations and I discovered at least five hundred sculptures myself.
Rebecca: How deep did you have to dig?
Marija: It depended. Sometimes at a site of 5,000 B.C, it was on top. You could walk through the houses of 7,000 years ago! Other times you have to dig deep to reach that. Usually you excavate sites which are already exposed, which are known and where people are finding objects of