The Vessel of Old Europe
There is a vessel in each of us, a vessel we have been carrying across millennia, across mountains and valleys, across oceans and continents, passed on from mother to daughter for thousands of years. It is the vessel of our inheritance as women of earth-knowing, from a time before the snake and the soil and the female body were down-trodden and objectified, even reviled. Once, women shaped vessels from the clay of riverbanks to offer oil and seeds and milk to the regenerative powers of the earth, and danced the powers of that earth, and were honored for what they knew, and how they knew it. In each of us that vessel is still whole, though it may have been half submerged for millennia, or shattered into a hundred shards. But every shard is still within you, and in the act of piecing them back together again, something even more beautiful and powerful than we could ever have imagined might very well spiral forth.
As Mohawk seed keeper Rowen White says in her powerful spoken-word piece, “Together We Rise,” may our words and stories and songs be the gold and silver lacquer that repair these shards of ancestral story that are held in our hearts into a magnificent seed vessel of resilience, that perhaps in some ways is more beautiful and exquisite for being nearly broken and courageously put back together, in our fierce and determined ways in which we find our way home.
We are laying the groundwork in this first Unit, carefully trying to piece together the broken vessel of our pre-patriarchal heritage. We are looking into the deep past. Most if not all women of European descent carry mitochondrial DNA from their mothers that stretches back at least as far as the last Ice Age, thousands of years before the Indo-European invasions that brought increased warfare, social hierarchy and the subordination of women to the ancient peoples of Europe. However, the most common paternal Y-DNA chromosomes in Europe came directly from the 2nd and 3rd millennia BCE and the Indo-European invasions; most of the pre-Indo European men were killed off, while the women intermarried. Men also carry the mtDNA of their mothers, but women do not carry the Y-DNA of their fathers. Thus it is that in our bodies we literally still carry Old Europe, and the indigenous, earth-honoring ways of a pre-colonial, pre-patriarchal, pre-authoritarian West. We have been carrying these vessels in us for millennia, passed on from mother to daughter and also from mother to son. It is time we uncovered them, brushed them off, and listened for the wisdom that they have been sheltering for all these thousands of years.
This Unit will be a deep dive into the archaeology and material culture of Old Europe (the early Neolithic period across southern, central and northern Europe, from roughly 7000 BCE through 3000 BCE), as well as the lifework of Marija Gimbutas and the controversy that surrounds her still. Marija Gimbutas literally shone a light into the earth and drew forth the remains (pot sherds, figurines of goddesses and animal powers, inscribed loom weights and spindle whorls) of the world of Old Europe—of a matristic, earth-worshipping, egalitarian people whose culture long predated the Indo-Europeans from whom we have inherited most of our Western languages and patriarchal structures. Gimbutas spent the last 25 years of her career studying the artifacts and ways of Old Europe, using both meticulous scientific methods as well as an interdisciplinary knowledge of linguistics, mythology and folklore.
The work of Marija Gimbutas was, and is, ground-breaking. So we will spend this first Unit on the ground of Old Europe, among the pot sherds and the earth, trying to imagine our way into the materials and manifestations of daily life for these people, our ancestors. We will take an in-depth look at Gimbutas' books, the evidence she presented and the depictions of social, religious and material life that she put forth, in order to dispel the incredible miasma that has shrouded the power of her work, which Joseph Campbell called a veritable Rosetta Stone, so that we can see it, and Old Europe, more clearly. I will also bring in a number of other sources, some more recent, some in direct opposition to Gimbutas' claims, so that we are equipped with a well-rounded understanding of this rich material.
I will post weekly questions or writing prompts on our online forum every Wednesday. Participation is up to you; this is a resource to help guide our readings and a place to raise questions as they come up for us between in-person meetings. I will do my best to respond to these as they arise. Our first Wednesday forum will be posted on February 14th, two weeks before the first in-person session, as a kind of orientation to the material, and a welcome.
Our four in-person sessions will be held at a private studio in Point Reyes Station from 10 am to 3 pm, every 3rd/4th Sunday (see below for exact dates).
Note that the organization of these themes may shift; I want these meetings to be shaped around your passions and threads of inquiry as much as mine. The creative writing prompts and handcrafts (possibly clay pot making!) will thus be born out of group interest. However the readings will roughly follow this structure.
February 25th - CLAY
Soil, silt and quartz—the nitty gritties of the archaeological record and material culture on the ground; pot sherds, ovens, middens; a deep look at Gimbutas' archaeological legacy, site reports, and cultural overviews. Also we will get oriented to the unconscious biases at work in mainstream academia, and some of the heated backlash against Marija's work. These threads will continue through subsequent readings but will be introduced here.
March 18th - SPIRAL
Creatrix, regeneratrix: Who were the women and men who shaped these vessels, figurines, houses & temples? What can we begin to understand about their rituals, dances and beliefs through the symbols and designs they painted and carved on the ceramic pieces they left behind?
April 8th - SOIL
Hearth, home, womb, field of rye; what can we infer about the social structures and patterns of daily and agricultural life for the people of Old Europe? We will explore readings about contemporary indigenous permaculture & seed-tending as a lens through which we might better understand the possible practices of Old Europeans based on the extant evidence, as well as the shards of Old European thinking found in the Eleusinian mysteries of Greece.
May 6th - FIRE
Transformation, life-death-life cycles, metallurgy, & the Bronze Age. How did the people of Old Europe conceive of the powers of transformation, of death and rebirth? What patterns changed with the arrival of Indo-European riders (as evidenced by stark shifts in burial practices), and which remained the same, albeit buried? What was this process of colonization like over time on the ground for the people of Old Europe?
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Readings will be drawn mainly from the following academic sources:
The Civilization of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas
The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC, ed. by David Anthony
From the Realm of the Ancestors: An Anthology in Honor of Marija Gimbutas, ed. by Joan Marler
Achilleion: A Neolithic Settlement in Thessaly, Greece, by Marija Gimbutas, Shan Winn, Daniel Shimabuku
Ancient Goddesses: The Myths & the Evidence, ed. by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris
The Great Cosmic Mother, by Barbara Mor & Monica Sjöo
With poetic pages spun through that orient us toward a more intuitive way of thinking about the material, such as ...
Centering, by M.C. Richards
The Serpent of Stars, by Jean Giono
Crow Mother and the Dog God, by Meinrad Craighead