Books: More than Homer let on

ANCIENT GODDESSES Eds Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris British Museum Press pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
HOW SHOULD we interpret a Neolithic wall sculpture of a moulded breast, shaped like a bull's muzzle with the head of a vulture encased within, is a question asked by a contributor to this collection of new archaeological essays.

One of many intriguing objects, including figures of boys riding leopards, and a set of clay miniatures fit for a doll's house, it was found at Catalhoyuk, the Neolithic settlement in Turkey that astounded its excavators in the 1960s.

As with so many archaeologists before and since, they interpreted their finds in the light of a Great Goddess theory. Her presumed, archetypal presence, however, lay mainly in the eye of the beholding archaeologist, who then promoted myth as fact, reversing the omnipresent, patriarchal monotheism of Judaeo-Christianity. They also made claims that the society so blessed was matriarchal and peaceful.

Recent work on the site reveals they were wrong. The occupants of this ancient settlement were more likely to have been establishing ritual connection with their ancestors. They put little female figurines between the walls of their buildings, but they also inserted some of young people and of animals. And they buried their dead in their living spaces, thus making a kind of domestic necropolis. It is very unlikely that they worshipped a great, fecund mother deity.

The 12 contributors to this book re-examine sites where claims have been made for the adoration of a primal female deity during the 50,000 years of ancient Europe and the Near East. Figurines, orphaned from their background, evoke empathy and emotion and seem to speak for themselves. Re-contextualised, along with new evidence in situ, they suggest other uses. They might be initiation guides, guardian spirits, concubine figures, primitive contract objects, territory markers, or identity tokens. They might also be priestesses, or attempts by worshippers to portray themselves. Far from revealing a harmonious society, they might be objects of sexual insult, silent rebukes made to taunt the dominant class, men.

They range from tubby anthropomorphs to the lustrous faience snake-charmer, bare-breasted and bell-skirted, of Bronze Age Crete. They include rotund, inscrutable twins sitting on a couch carved sometime between 3200 and 2500BC on the rocky island of Malta, and the spirals or diagrammatic patterns, like lungs and sternum bone, or breasts, cut into stone menhirs of Iron Age Europe. The contributors also cover eras when written evidence (epigraphic, hieroglyphic, literary, religico-mythic) can be used to compare with the archaeological.

What emerges, too, is a fascinating kaleidoscope of ancient goddesses whose deified qualities reflect the needs and concerns of their communities. While the transitional periods of childbirth and marriage are ritualised, the experiences they symbolise range far and wide, and cannot be reduced to the biological cycles of reproduction, birth and death.

A goddess might, for example, celebrate the crocus harvest. As well as sanctifying the fertility of nature, the stamens scattered over her body indicate that her divine guardianship extended to the culinary, medical and dyeing qualities of the yellow saffron and its economic value as an exchange commodity.

The sacred merges into the profane. Modern gender demarcations or other differentiating categories, such as those between protection and threat, simply don't fit. Innana/Ishtar, the most famous goddess of ancient Mesopotamia, carries both the alluring magic of young woman and the aggressiveness of a youthful warrior, beauteously bearded. She signified order and disorder, the ontological boundaries that she transcended.

In his pre-classical guise, Apollo received offerings of women's jewellery, for he, like the female goddesses, was there to help women. Athena, who we know as sternly clever and the defender of the city was, in her earlier incarnation, more supple-minded. A nurturing goddess, and Mistress of the Animals, she was masculinised by the emerging urbanisation, when the Greek polis defined its parameters through a policy of exclusion (of women, slaves and foreigners). Hera, too, had more multifarious powers than either Homer or Hesiod let on.

All the goddesses were worshipped in their own right, apart from Asherah (or Anat), the Queen of Heaven, consort of Yahweh. New finds in Israel have provided evidence that this official cult, although condemned in the Bible, was widespread. Asherah was the human face of god, worshipped because of, not in spite of, her subordinate status.

This is an enchanting collection, scholarly without being dull, challenging without being nitpicking. While one or two of the psychologising explanations chosen by the editors are, it seems to me, misapplied, it's to the credit of the British Museum that it is hereby engaging with wider debates in the public mind. Not only is this a book to interest those who, perhaps star-struck by the Egyptian Isis, by her otherness of symbol, of sun, milk and creative agency (apparently the present-day Fellowship of Isis, based in Ireland, has 15,000 members) may make pilgrimage to her image, it will also appeal to the general reader. Anyone questioning the canonisation of Diana or how to choose iconic items for the Millennium Dome, will find concepts to chew over here.