Interpreting Matricultural Patterns: Female Icons, Ancestral Mothers

By Max Dashu of Suppressed Histories Archives

As women re-examine the entire cultural record, our search reveals recurring patterns, deep continuities, in female iconography across space and time. Among these recurring patterns are the ancient female figurines (in stone, ivory, ceramic, bone and wood); rocks engraved with vulvas; ceremonial vessels in the form of women or female breasts, and female statue-menhirs. 

We also find ceramic paintings of the Women’s Dance, and a widespread theme of invoking women. They are depicted in the petroglyphs in Arabia and Niger, the rock paintings of Baja California, the painted pots of predynastic Egypt, the Cretan figurines of the 2nd millennium bce, the haniwa figures of old Japan, and the ceramic sculptures of Veracruz. 

These patterns of feminine potency appear again and again in the symbols and artifacts of diverse cultures: not just in a distant neolithic past, but in recent indigenous societies in the Americas, Africa, parts of Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. And sometimes bits of them survive in European or Chinese or Persian folk tradition, in societies which are patriarchal, but have refused to let go of all their ancient customs, because they are still meaningful and powerful.  These recurring signs reflect the ceremonial life of the people who created them, whether they show dance, ritual paint-up or tattoos, headdresses or other regalia. We can see that their libation vessels were shaped like breasts, or their placement of female icons in graves suggests themes of rebirth. These artifacts and their symbolism belong to philosophies rich in complex meanings, underlain with pulse and flow, myth and mystery. 

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  Scanning through archaeological reports, I found that the farther back in time I looked, the more female figurines appeared in the excavations. In fact, these ancient statuettes—in stone, ivory, bone, and ceramic — turn out to be the central icons of the paleolithic and neolithic. It took decades of digging through obscure specialist journals to find out how global this phenomenon was. Caught up in their search for rulers, chieftains, and weapons, writers and editors disregarded female representations. They often deemed the cultures where the female icons were prominent as unimportant as well. It was common to see the small female icons dismissed as toys, “dancing girls,” and “concubines.” Even now academics persist in reducing them to the flattening stereotype of “fertility idols.”

The term “Venus figurine” also imposes an alien interpretative framework, not only because of its Imageeurocentrism, but because it projects the narrow view of “sex object” onto iconography that possesses a far broader range of meanings. Some will say, “But Venus was a goddess, what’s wrong with that?” Few people are even aware that the naming itself originates from the Marquis de Vibraye’s sardonic description of a small statuette found on Laugerie-Basse estate in Dordogne as a “Vénus impudique.” He called her “immodest” in contrast to the Roman archetype of Venus Pudica, who covers her genitals with one hand and her breasts with the other in a gesture of shame. In fact pudica translates to “shame” as well as “modesty,” and ultimately to “shrinking,” as Venus visibly does in the statues. These icons of a far more ancient era represent the opposite of that mentality. They are self-contained and potent, having grown out of an entirely different cultural reality.

Such classifications foreclose consideration of the real significance of the female icons. They fail to address the probability that they represented female ancestors, as comparison with more recent examples would suggest. They don’t consider the ceremonial context of the figurines, or their connective and collective valence, in contrast to the social hierarchies that so many anthropologists were looking for. The patriarchal assumptions in “processual” analysis have cast a long shadow over interpretation of the ancient icons. They never attempt to address the existence of indigenous matricultures, much less the importance of matrilineal ancestors in those societies, in ceremony as well as iconography. 

Instead, the prevailing nomenclature imposes a lens that is both patriarchalizing and eurocentric. They present us not only with “the Venus of Willendorf,” but also the “Venus of Curayacú” (Peru), “Venus of Kondon” (Manchuria), “Jomon Venus” (Japan), and countless others. (While repudiating this modernist interpretatio romana, I must credit the Italian scholars who, like many Eastern Europeans, have been far more willing to acknowledge the sacrality of the ancient female icons than their Anglophone counterparts.)

But while it’s necessary to analyze the assumptions embedded in the discourse about the ancient icons, that is secondary to making the full archaeological picture known and visible to the public. Our task is to restore women to cultural memory, to learn and reveal what has been hidden from view. It is not about high theory or abstruse terminology. This study of the disregarded female icons leads us into revelatory litanies of placenames and cultural horizons: Badarian, Naqada, Halafian, Chasseyan, Yarmukian, Saladoid, Barracoid; Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Kulli and Merhgarh; Niuheliang, Jomon, al-Ubaid, Samarra and Hassuna, Be’ersheva; Chalcatzingo, Las Bocas, Tlatilco, Chupícuaro; Nicoya-Guanacaste; Valdivia, Marajó and Tapajós, Condorhuasi; Anau, Kultepe, and all the Tepe-mounds of Iran and Turkmenistan.

Going further back in time, we find Hohle-Fels, Dolni-Vestonice, Laussel, Brassempuy, Balzi Rossi, Chiozza, Savignano. Yes, of course, there is Willendorf, and also Kostienki, Gagarino, and Mal’ta. Even earlier come the stone figures of Tan-tan in Morocco, and Berekhet Ram in Israel/Palestine. The well-known artifacts of Çatal Höyuk and Hacilar are supplemented by lesser-known Anatolian sites like Kösk Höyuk and Bademagaci. We scan the better-known horizons of Old Europe — Karanovo, Sesklo,  Cucuteni-Tripillye, Vinca — and of bronze age Mesopotamia, and iron-age Sudan.

Many of these heritages come labeled with colonial outsider names: the “A-Group” of neolithic Sudan, the “Basketmaker” culture of the ancient Pueblo, or the socalled “Fremont culture” of Utah. From Illinois to Ohio, the sites for the figurines are all named after European settlers who took these lands: “Hopewell,” “Turner Mound,” the “Mann site.” There must be a more culturally evocative title for the tiny figurines of “Poverty Point,” Louisiana, or the large ones of the Inland Delta of the Niger in Mali. We may have difficulty identifying site names for those, or for their predecessors in the Nok culture of Nigeria, or the millennia-old figurines in Zimbabwe.

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