Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization by Marija Gimbutas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Gimbutas' seminal (I use the word ironically) work is a beautiful, yet flawed, artifact. The plethora of images showing carvings and etchings on neolithic pottery and statuary, for the most part, is astounding and worth the price of the book alone. Gimbutas provides a taxonomy of these neolithic (and some paleolithic and some bronze age) patterns and representations based on her idea that there was once a Mother Goddess cult that spread from Anatolia into Eastern Europe between the 8th and 3rd centuries, BC.
As a catalog of neolithic imagery, the book is commendable. One can even accept that several of the themes represented were common across large geographical areas and over long periods of human history. The universally-awe-inspiring notions of life, death, and rebirth seem to have inspired much of this art. An obvious example of the neolithic understanding of these themes comes in the form of a burial of an older community member in a fetal position within a womb-shaped tomb. This theme is repeated at several locations over the course of thousands of years.
But at a certain point, Gimbutas' theoretical notions become questionable at best. For example, her claim that "Whirls and four-corner designs are symbols of becoming and the turnings of cyclical time." OK...says who? Says you? Give me some documentation. Show me your line of reasoning. I want EVIDENCE!
This is the book's fatal flaw - the scientific method here has been flirted with, then abandoned. Gimbutas puts forth several suppositions that are sketchy, at best, and completely unfounded, at their worst. Especially in her longer essays, Gimbutas flies off into a new-age, clearly agenda-driven never-never land without providing hard evidence for her claims, many of which are based on assumptions of cultures long-dead onto which she maps her own interpretation of Greek (particularly Minoan) myth and, sometimes, even modern Jungian psychological analysis (I'm not kidding).
Nevertheless, the book is a valuable jumping off point for further research and, for myself, ideas that inform my own fiction (as opposed to her's). In fact, some of the symbolism of my current novel in progress is derived directly from Gimbutas' interpretation of the Mother Goddess cult artifacts. So I'd be dishonest if I didn't say the work was inspiring and that I stand on the shoulders of fictional giants disguised as legitimate scientists.
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