The discovery of the tiny Orkney Venus statuette in 2009 revived decades-old debate about whether the religion of prehistoric peoples on Shetland and Orkney Islands north of Scotland traced back to a pan-European religion. Discovery of another two feminine figures since has only added to the discussion.
Champions of the Great Goddess theory believe that prehistoric people worshipped a female, life-giving force. The evidence to substantiate this includes over a thousand stone and bone representations of female images from the Paleolithic period found in caves and habitation sites extending from Europe to Asia.
Some are realistic, some more abstract, and they vary greatly in size.
Malta and Shetland Link
Cristina Biaggi’s 1994 book, Habitations of the Great Goddess, references Charles Calder’s 1960s-era note that the Shetland Neolithic sites he excavated had similarities in plan with a site interpreted as a temple in Malta.
With this in mind, Biaggi argued that the Orcadian and Shetlandic “temples,” or stone circles, tombs and houses, related to the Great Goddess, highlighting their internal shapes. He believes we can interpret the chambers within tombs — with their circular, figure of eight, or more irregular shapes — as representing wombs.
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In her 2006 internet paper, “The Great Goddess and Her Influence Herstorically and in the Present,” Dr. Biaggi asserted that: “According to archaeological, mythological and anthropological evidence, the Great Goddess was probably the principal deity worshipped along the Mediterranean, in Europe, the Near East, much of Russia, North Africa, India and even parts of China during the Upper Paleolithic (30,000-10,000 BCE) and in the Neolithic (roughly 7,000 to 2,500 BPE).”
The Face of Neolithic Religion
Biaggi cites artefactual evidence such as eye-like circles drawn onto pottery or picked into stone in six examples in Orkney and other artefacts in Shetland. Dr Alison Sheridan, head of Early Prehistory in the National Museums Scotland archaeology department, points out anthropomorphic qualities in the Orkney figurine.
She cites “striking similarities” between the Orkney Venus’s heavy, wavy eyebrows and dot eyes, and a design on three chalk “drums” found in a youth’s grave at Folkton, Yorkshire. This motif also appears on a lintel in the tomb on the island of Holm of Papa Westray and on a star-shaped piece of flat stone from Skara Brae.
Dr. Sheridan warns it is much less possible to know that these designs are necessarily intended to show human features, but says in “First Thoughts from Experts,” “The other finds of the ‘eyebrow and eye’ motif suggest that it had special meaning to Late Neolithic society, so it may be that this is also a representation of a goddess or ancestor figure.”
Richard Strachan, of Historic Scotland’s cultural resources team, said in a later statement to the BBC: “Initial comparisons do show a similarity in use of this eyebrow motif and may point to the possibility that the markings in the cairn are meant to show human eyebrows and eyes, as the style is very similar to the figurine. Alternatively, we may be seeing the re-use of a motif familiar to the carver and applied to different contexts with different meaning.”
Great Goddess at Heart of Neolithic Orkney
The 5000 year-old Orkney Venus found in August 2009 is tiny, measuring only two inches tall and half an inch thick. The features faded over the centuries, experts say, but they are still possible to see on this earliest carving of a human face found in the UK. This face launched a renewed debate among anthropologists and others, especially since the discovery of a similar, headless clay version nearby in 2010 and the finding of a third, larger stone-carved version in 2012.
Evidence for a female oriented religion is not lacking on Orkney, even ignoring the womb-like qualities of chambered cairns and tombs that predate the figurines. The third Westray figurine was particularly carefully sealed away in a “secret” interior compartment of a house. Orkney’s earliest buildings had female skeletons buried under the hearths.
Why were the settlements and temples on Orkney, at Westray and the Ness of Brodgar, totally “decommissioned” – filled in with midden and sacrificed cattle carcases – and abandoned? Malta’s temples were also abandoned, the entire island left as deserted as it had been before the great goddess temple builders arrived.
Did Climate Change or New Technology End Orkney’s Religion?
In the 2009 article, “The Re-emergence of the Great Mother Goddess,” Louis Laganà cites Veronica Veen’s 1992 suggestion in “The Goddess Of Malta – The Lady of the Waters and the Earth,” that one probable hypothesis is a “combination of over-population, over-cultivation of the land, erosion by deforestation and a climatic change that can be traced for the whole southern Mediterranean.”
Perhaps similarly drastic climactic or population changes also affected Orkney.
Or possibly the arrival of advancing technologies in copper working followed by cultural change in the Bronze Age encouraged the advance of the phallocentric or male-oriented religious beliefs that were to hold sway within a couple of millennia. A trace of that in Orkney was found in a baked clay anthropomorphised phallus recently, dubbed the “Brodgar Boy.”
The 5,000 Year-Old Venus Statue
This tiny statue continues to inspire debate between anthropologists about the religious leanings of the prehistoric people living on the Shetland and Orkney Islands.© Copyright 2014 Val Williamson, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past
Graham Hill says
Yes, look at the figurine from Clodgy Moor in (Google)’Through the wall: part3 of Clodgy Moor Boat Slate. I did not know of ‘The Goddess religion until I researched my finds and the symbols on them. Main stream archaeologists please catch up!
Francis Beswick says
an innteresting and informative article
Val Williamson says
Thanks Graham and Francis for your feedback. There are thousands of finds of ‘goddess’ effigies (statuettes) from all across Europe. Spain has quite a few. Some do argue that this lack of awareness of ancient goddess worship is part of some deliberate misogynist intention, but I tend to think that one layer of history gradually overlays another.
Frank Beswick says
I have just returned to this article, having read it a while ago. I suggest that you cannot separate the cult of “am bodach agus an cailleach” [the old man and the old woman] from this goddess cult. There is evidence from Glen Lyon, where a shrine is preserved, that this couple and their daughter [ probably a corn deity, Persephone/Ceres] were worshiped. There is also a shrine of this divine family on the isle of Gigha. It seems likely that the goddess is the old woman. Grigsby, writing in Beowulf and Grendel, argues that across Europe there was the cult of the deities whom the Norse knew as the Vanir, Neolithic deities who operated in male-female pairs. I suggest that the goddess of Orkney can be understood as a Vanir deity, the same as the ancient palaeolithic goddess was, worshiped with a male partner.
The womb theory of the temple sanctum confirms my view that for these people death was a return to the womb of the goddess, and therefore a possible path to rebirth. This can support, but not confirm an inference that reincarnation was a belief in this ancient faith.
I do not think that male deities pushed out the goddess, because she was worshiped in many European societies contemporaneously with a pantheon of male deities.. Humans cannot do without the divine feminine, for the sacred has masculine and feminine aspects.. In Catholicism the divine feminine has returned as the cult of Mary, probably because we have overplayed the masculine description of God, through the limitations imposed by pronouns, but in truth God is as feminine as masculine.
Partha Shakkottai says
Shows the mangala sutra,descended from the Paleolithic earth mother with symbols MM for the waters of life, breasts, vulva , symbols conch and chakra for Vishnu and so on. Hindu temples are from Paleolithic burial of clan leaders , later worshipped as ancestors, later for temples in general, referred to as garba grha in Sanskrit for womb.
This is why Hinduism is so female-centered. Every God has his female counterpart.
It is certain the first God was goddess Earth mother called Cybele Europe and Budevi on India.
Graham Hill says
Picking up this conversation, Thanks Frank for your guidance in the matter of a group of ancient identities in the ‘Goddess’ as I put it. The object from Clodgy Moor appears to be wearing something like a horned head about her neck; which might be a Male companion. The decorated slate from that site I interpret as including different aspects including a male sacrifice and a cycle of rebirth that includes an old widwife and a mother giving birth to a baby girl or boy. The latter slate plaque will be on display in The Royal Cornwall Museum in 2017. It will de described as ‘Medieval’ and ‘graffiti’ on the card and likely be dimly lit, so bring a pencil light to find additional details. The Goddess idol is under negotiation to be on display at another museum with the offer of an A4 sized card with essentially my description on it. Please, holders of the figurines from Orkney and elsewhere make preliminary reports and commit to publishing full details soon.
H. Robertson says
Re the Goddess theory for Ness of Brodgar. I visited Orkney in 2009 and by chance stopped to see the site excavations. At that time, those on site said they still had no idea what the site had been for, or why it was there. Before we left I stood with my back to the site looking out over the water and was stopped in my tracks at the view of those 2 hills with smaller rounded hill between. I immediately saw that view as a female (on her back with knees up) giving birth to the mound which I interpreted as the earth. It was a VERY powerful feeling and I felt too embarrassed to offer it up as a possible explanation for the site at that time!. However, landscape came before man and his monuments. There is every possibility that those hills (in that beautiful location) were viewed as symbolic back in Neolithic times.