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GODDESSES OF
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ARTEMIS AND AMAZONS

Vicki Noble

© 1998, All rights reserved.

Twenty-odd years ago I started my research on the Goddess cultures of the ancient world. My scholarly research was supported by my own shamanistic awakening, making my work experiential as well as intellectual. I have been particularly interested in the areas around the Mediterranean and the Black Seas, primarily Greece (including Crete and the Aegean Islands), Malta, Egypt and North Africa; Turkey (and to some extent Syria, Palestine, Israel, Iran and Iraq), the Balkans and what Marija Gimbutas named Old Europe (prior to the entry of the Indo-Europeans). I have always been fascinated by what appeared to be migrations of whole peoples from one place to another, as witnessed in the artifacts, motifs and characteristic expressions which appeared in different areas simultaneously or at different times. Due to a twentieth-century bias against "cultural diffusion," I was told again and again, "Vicki, you can't say that!" Nowadays, however, archeology—after twenty years of intense digging and the use of more precise and accurate dating methods—is corroborating many of the opinions I presented in my first book, Motherpeace: A Way to the Goddess, which although cast as a tarot book (to accompany the Motherpeace tarot deck of 78 images created by me and Karen Vogel in the late 1970's) is really an intuitive history of the ancient world.

The Motherpeace images focused mainly on North and South America, Europe and Africa, with Central, Eastern and South Asia remaining somewhat of a lacuna. My chronological focus was especially on the period from the 7th millenium BCE until the Bronze Age, and I lost interest around the beginning of the 3rd millenium when patriarchal militarism replaced the earlier peaceful agricultural lifestyles all over the area I've just described. In the last three years I have become focused on the question of women's activities during the Bronze and Iron Ages as well as investigating the female presence in Central Asia amongst the nomadic people.

The lens through which this current research has taken shape is the question of the Amazons—those female warrior women Herodotus and the other classical historians told us about. Western history has treated the Amazons as myth—even Marija Gimbutas didn't believe in them! Yet the first time I went to Turkey, I learned that historians there understood Amazons to have been real women who not only rode but also bred horses, fought military battles, and founded many important cities named after their Queens around 2000 BCE. In an exhibition in Istanbul called "Nine Thousand Years of the Anatolian Woman" I had my first experience of seeing weapons excavated from a female warrior's grave. Since that time I have discovered many amazing connections between these Bronze Age Amazon Queens and the later classical Amazons of the 5th century BCE, as well as hypothetical links beteween them and pre-Buddhist yoginis and dakini-witches all over Central Asia and into Tibet.

The place that has most fascinated me is Catal Hüyük in Neolithic Anatolia (modern day Turkey). Here the archeologist James Mellaart found beautiful female sculptures and beautifully-painted frescoes of a great Mountain Mother Goddess and her priestesses. It seemed apparent to me from the artistic images alone that these early peaceful agricultural people (7th-millenium BCE) could also be found in Crete in the form of the neolithic Snake Goddess found there dating to 6000 BCE. That idea—treated as no more than a feminist fantasy at the time—has now come to be accepted as more or less the archeological truth. Likewise when I was first introduced to the 5th-millenium culture of the Mediterranean island of Malta near Sicily, with its early standing stone temples shaped like a Double Female and famous "Fat Ladies of Malta" in the form of figurines discovered in temples there, I thought more than anything they resembled the fat Buddha-women from Catal Hüyük. A time gap of more than two thousand years made that almost impossible within standard archeological views at the time.

Robert Graves captured my imagination in his book, The White Goddess, in which his own research led him to state his conviction that as militaristic patriarchal tribes moved in on the sedentary agricultural communities who worshipped the Mother Goddess, the priestesses of this ancient religion migrated to sacred caves and secret islands for refuge taking the icons and practices with them into safety. Islands like Malta, Crete, the Cyclades, Cypress, Ireland and Scotland, even Iceland could fit that picture. Graves described the priestesses as having responsibility or ownership of the sacred scripts and alphabets, especially the vowels which they never wrote down but used in "mantra" or chant. These ancient scripts he maintained were written on round clay tablets carried in goat-skin bags with a gorgon face on the outside as a warning to the uninitiated. I recently visited Italy and saw that Etruscan artifacts include inscribed mantras, early undeciphered texts, and Gorgon faces carved on many of the thousands of tombs.

The first contemporary work to appear which corroborated my research was Merlin Stone's When God Was A Woman, which appeared at the end of the 1970's just as Karen and I were making the Motherpeace deck. Then in the 1980's I discovered the work of Marija Gimbutas. Her book, Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, was later reprinted as Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, bringing the title into alignment with the content of the material. It was Gimbutas who presented the first coherent archeological overview that put the pieces together and made sense of the visual material. Although her radical work has been the target of complaints and near-hysterical accusations from within the archeological establishment, as the years go by her conclusions are thoroughly supported by recent excavations.

The problem (scietifically speaking) has been that huge gaps have existed in the archeological and written records, making it difficult to prove certain things that might be true about ancient people. Linguists have recently been helping to fill some of these gaps by determining to some extent the range of various language groups and in many cases the timing (from dialects) of when tribal divisions might have taken place. It would seem from linguistic sources that ancient people had enormous trade contacts around the ancient world, and that they migrated frequently and to fairly distant places. As linguistic evidence is weighed alongside of archeological artifacts, the picture that emerges is one of an ancient culture of the Mother Goddess that was very widespread and continued to exist throughout many millenia first as a running river, and later as a continuous underground stream.

Twenty years ago Karen Vogel and I used to discuss the probability of a connection between Egypt (especially the Hyksos intrusion) and Crete, which has been proposed recently by Martin Bernal in his Black Athena volumes. For the last year I have had two fullsize color xeroxes tacked up over my desk: a gold necklace of Double Goddesses from Alacahöyük in Bronze Age Turkey juxtaposed next to a gold necklace of double eagles from Mycenae (Greece) later during the Bronze Age. Even for me it was a stretch to consider that these two pieces might be literally linked, yet they were remarkably similar and related to a widely-shared concept of queens ruling in "dual queenship" popular at the time and mentioned by Herodotus in relation to the Amazons. Imagine the synchronicity at work for me when I read Bernal's theory that the Hyksos were a steppe people who established Alacahöyük and then briefly ruled Egypt until being expelled from there, whence they went on to colonize Crete (Knossos, that is) and create the famous gold burials at Mycenae! (This simultaneously confirmed several of my intuitions, while explaining the 500-year gap in the archeological record separating Alacahöyük from early Mycenae.)

Twenty years ago one of my favorite texts was a captivating coffee-table book called "From the Land of the Scythians" presenting photographic material from some burials in Russia and Siberia that completely engaged my imagination. Especially I was enthralled with the skeleton of a woman wearing a high gold crown and hundreds of gold plaques that had been originally sewn on her clothing. The authors didn't call her a queen or a priestess, but for me she was a clear indicator that Robert Graves and earlier scholars like J.J. Bachofen and Robert Briffault had been on the right track with their ideas of matriarchy and Mother Right. I fantasized that a colorful felt saddle blanket depicting griffons could have been mine in a past life, and later I serendipitously acquired an out-of-print book called Frozen Tombs of Siberia that described the now-famous Pazyryk burials in more detail. Imagine my delight at being in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg last year and seeing with my own eyes these treasures.

When I met Berkeley archeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball three years ago and heard her lecture at UC Berkeley on the Russian Amazon burials she had been excavating for four years, it was like an epiphany for me. She showed slides from 6th-century BCE female burials of the Sauromatian tribes from an area between the Black and Caspian Seas to the Ural Mountains (not far from my "gold woman" whose burial was just north of the Black Sea in what we know as the Ukraine). She described the range of Sauromatian burials as including "normal" women with their customary artifacts (e.g. shells and spindle whorls), priestesses with their cultic items (altars, spoons, mirrors and lumps of white gypsum), warrior women with their weapons (including bronze and iron arrowheads), and a few men buried with their swords. I wanted to jump for joy.

The rest is history. I made contact with Jeannine, she was open to connecting and exchanging information with me which has led to a mentoring relationship in which I am learning about the nomadic people who live in the Eurasian steppes today and who are surely some of the living descendants of Amazon cultures from twenty-five hundred years ago. Our amazing investigatory trip to southern Russia last August involved three weeks of travel from the Black Sea (and more particularly the Sea of Azov, anciently known as Meot Lake) to the Don River (called Tanais in ancient times), and up the Volga River into the foothills of the Ural Mountains that technically divide Europe from Asia. In museums and archival basements we met with Russian archeologists and looked at artifacts from female burials, many of them rich with gold, silver and other valuables, as well as weapons and so-called "cultic" items like portable altars, beads, bone spoons, and later incense burners. Significantly over time the burials show fewer "animal art" objects and more weapons, showing the gradual militarization of the area and assimilation of the more peaceful sedentary peoples.

In preparing for the trip I decided to color xerox the photo of the so-called "Scythian queen" as I thought of her, whose burial at the Seven Brothers mounds near the Sea of Azov turned out to be one of the burials we investigated. I couldn't get it out of my mind that the way her leg was bent for burial made me think of the classic pose of the dakini in Tibetan Buddhism images. I used the Black Dakini on the cover of my book, Shakti Woman, and have been doing practices related to her for more than ten years. One of the things about intuitive research is you have to trust even the most whimsical associations in case it might lead to something. So I also color xeroxed two dakini images alongside of the skeleton of "the Queen" and took it with me to Russia.

The second archeologist on the trip was a Russian woman named Maria Goryeva, a Kalmyk archeologist from the autonomous region of Kalmykia whose people are Mongol and Buddhist in the Tibetan (lamaist) tradition. Maria Goryeva is the director of the museum in Elitsa, the capital of Kalmykia. Her museum was filled with Buddhist collections alongside histories of the Kalmyks and the more ancient archeological artifacts from the Sarmatian burials found so prevalent in the area. By the time we had visited seven or eight museums along the Volga and Don Rivers and looked at many archeological reports on female burials of the Sauromatians (and later Sarmations) who appear to be precisely the Amazons Herodotus was writing about, even the two archeologists on our trip were calling the bent-leg position "the dakini pose." Not all the females were buried in this position, to be sure—but enough that we couldn't help but be struck by it.

I went on the trip to Russia assuming that almost certainly the Amazons were a late remnant of the earlier Goddess cultures I had been researching for twenty years, and hoping I would find documentation to support such a position. It seemed no accident that the earliest shamanism—originating in Siberia—was female shamanism, connected with the Great Bear constellation and the Great Goddess Artemis; and that Artemis was also the name applied to the Great Goddess of Catal Hüyük in the 7th millenium BCE as well as the Amazons in the 5th century BCE—seventy centuries later!

I have been working on a book called The Double Goddess beginning with double-headed lifesize female statues from an 8th-millenium BCE site in Palestine where the earliest agriculture was practiced, and then Double Goddess images from Catal Hüyük where farming was spread in the 7th millenium BCE. Double Goddesses have also been found in Greece and the Balkans from the Neolithic period (6th-5th millenium) and again in the Bronze Age in Anatolia and northern Syria. Turkish archeologists report that Amazon queens founded major cities named after them in Turkey during the Bronze Age (2000 BCE), and later historians such as Herodotus (450 BCE) describe the Amazons as ruling in "dual queenship" with a military queen and a domestic one. It's my theory that "dual queenship" and the Double Goddess represent women's egalitarian way of governing and represent female sovereignty.

Not only did the trip support my suppositions with the rich burials of warrior women and priestesses, but it opened me to see that the Amazons themselves were part of a huge "confederation" of tribes living all across the Eurasian steppes from at least the Bronze Age through the classical period and into the early medieval period to the time of the Silk Route and the early beginnings of Tibetan Buddhism with its marvelous female imagery built around the retinues of supernatural dancing "sky walkers" called dakinis. I am now absorbed in the study of Tibetan texts that refer to pre-Buddhist living "Bon yoginis" and "yogini Queens," linking Tibetan ancestry to a cross between a "demoness" and a yeti, and alluding to earlier wild female practitioners known as "dakini witches." The religion in Tibet that immediately predates Buddhism and bitterly fought its formation is called "Bön," a name which refers to "the reciting of mantras," the magical spells cast for achieving health and happiness. Tibetan Buddhism took form between the 8th and 12th centuries at the same time that tantric "yogini temples" were in use in Northern India, and no doubt the Vajrayana practices came in part from there (as scholars have assumed). Miranda Shaw has already shown how central women were to the formation of Buddhist tantric practices in her comprehensive book on Indian yoginis called Passionate Enlightenment which describes the songs of the yoginis as well as their outfits of bone ornaments.

I have a strong sense that the roots of the whole dakini iconography may be found in Central Asia and the Amazons, as well as the powerful female queen-priestesses buried in the frozen tombs of Pazyryk, the Altai mountains, and the Tarim Basin of the Tien Shan. The continuous thread of connection has to do with the female oracular voice, and the practices of female shamanism which date from ancient origins. Clearly all these diverse peoples were in contact through the Silk Route and undoubtedly earlier, and the steppe people are reported to have entered India from the north at that time if not before. In addition, it appears that neolithic Indus Valley (Harappan) cultures influenced the steppe people during the time of their long development in southern Central Asia in the first place.

The female skeletons and mummies found in the steppe burials are consistently buried with spoons (for the sacred mare's milk koumiss), mirrors (for healing and divination), gypsum (Robert Graves said the priestesses painted their faces with white gypsum before rituals), portable altars for offerings, and often with their own weapons as well—swords, daggers, and arrowheads. Some wear headdresses (sometimes as grand as three feet high) and they are frequently depicted in images of a man on horseback with a "rhyton" (horn-shaped vessel) coming to a throned Goddess to receive an oracle. Such images are found in the famous Pazyryk carpet (the earliest-known knotted carpet, 4th century BCE), on gold plaques sewn onto the clothing of people buried at Pazyryk as well as other so-called "Scythian" sites, in Thrace (Balkan Europe), Etruscan Italy, and throughout Anatolia. This oracular function of the female is still alive and active in East Asian cultures such as Korea and Japan, as well as all across Siberia, Mongolia, and Tibet where it is obscured under the rubric of shamanism (or more negatively, trance mediumship).

Most likely the Eurasian oracular priestess function was cross-fertilized by Africa through its profound, direct influence on Egypt, and from there reaching Greece, Anatolia, and the Middle East. The concept of two Queens—a Queen Mother and a Queen Sister—ancient in Africa, was still noted in the last century. Furthermore African Amazons are reputed to be older than Eurasian Amazon tribes, with legends linking them to islands which one historian took to mean the sunken continent of Atlantis and another the Canaries. The original Gorgons were tribes of warrior women in North Africa, reduced later to the three sisters (including Medusa) whom most of us know from classical Greece. The fierce Gorgon with snakes for hair (having come to represent women's women and the female fighting spirit) is widespread all over the Mediterranean as far as the Russian steppe. African Gorgons were an orgiastic tribe of Libyan oracular women connected to the Python who wore snake-skins and carried Double Axes—all themes that carried over to the island of Crete during the Bronze Age. Athena who also originated in Africa often wears the Gorgon face on her breastplate.

My research methods are unorthodox as far as academic expectations go, but I am a passionate scholar. I have vivid dreams that illuminate my scholarship, as well as profound and remarkable synchronicities that cause me to believe that my research into this area is a kind of "spiritual calling" rather than simply an academic inquiry. The associations my mind makes seem wild even by my standards, but my ability to concentrate and focus on the subject at hand leads me inevitably into territories that cross the boundaries between disciplines and cover vast time periods as well as overwhelming geographical terraines. Even on the trip to Russia I had a dream on the first morning in Rostov-na-Danu (Rostov on the Don) wherein I was reminded about the "daughters of Danu," those steppe tribes that migrated to Ireland and colonized it sometime prior to the Christian era. The name Danu refers to a Goddess whose name was given to all the rivers flowing into the Black Sea (the Danube, the Dneister, the Dneiper, the Donets, and the Don) and archeologists agree that the Celtic Irish were descended in some way from the Indo-European steppe tribes. There are also perplexing links between India, Tibet and Ireland that can be perceived in the name of Tara, simultaneously a Goddess in India and Tibet and the place in Ireland where kings were crowned by virtue of the sovereignty Goddess.

When I became interested in Maenads (those wild Dionysian women involved in ecstatic snake-handling rites and orgiastic dancing around the Mediterranean), they appeared to have connections to the Amazons—and both Amazons and Maenads seemed linked to the image of the Gorgon; and all three of them somehow seemed related to Norse Valkyries and Tibetan dakinis, who share attributes with the Etruscans! The "Caucasian" mummy recently uncovered in a frozen tomb in the Altai Mountains shares iconographic attributes with women buried at Catal Hüyük thousands of years earlier and thousands of miles away. And Tibetan dakinis whose practices are linked to cemeteries and charnel grounds seem to be connected with Amazon warrior priestesses buried in a dancing pose a thousand years earlier in Western Central Asia.

According to Indo-Tibetan scholar David Snellgrove, most of the translators of Buddhist texts into Chinese were Central Asian rather than Indian. History has it that the first transmission of Buddhism into Tibet is due to two wives of the 7th-century King of Tibet, one from China and one from Nepal, both of whom are said to have introduced Buddhism into Tibet through those marriages. This is particularly interesting in light of archeological verification that the Saka excavations of the easternmost steppes (later Buddhist areas) unearthed mostly Eurasian males and mostly Mongolian females—clearly mixed marriages. According to Joseph Needham, ancient Chinese women shamans called Wu were active in facilitating religious rites in China from at least the Shang Dynast—time of the famous oracle bones—until the time of Confucianism (200 BCE) when they were kicked out of the courts. I've always wondered, where did they go? The Chinese character for Wu was modified and came to mean "witch" rather than healer, while the character for healer was attached to a different radical meaning "alcohol" and pertaining to the later system of Chinese herbal extracts.

An eastern steppe people described by the Chinese as "Yüeh-chih" are believed to be the Massagetae ("Great Getae") about whose female-egalitarian customs Herodotus wrote (they wore men's clothing, hunted, and rode horses like the men even into battle). These Massagetae/Yüeh-chih are buried in the Pazyryk mounds, and were pushed westward in the 2nd century BCE towards the lands of the Scythians (Eastern Europe north of the Black Sea, west into Thrace) and south into India as the Saka according to Snellgrove who links them to the Kushana Dynasty, supposedly the greatest Central Asian dynasty ever, and who also may be related to the Tocharian mummies buried in the Tien Shan Mountains. Those female mummies wore tall pointed conical black hats a foot high and share shamanistic attributes with other mummies buried in the Altai and at Pazyryk. Chinese and Tibetan texts from the time of the T'ang Dynasty (7th century AD) describe at length a "Western Country of Women" which some scholars have thought was eastern Tibet but might also refer to the Tien Shan.

Last spring I had a very vivid dream in which the top of my head erupted like a volcano and a "stupa" emerged from the hole, created out of wedding cake frosting. Since then I have noticed depictions of stupas coming out of the heads of many different Buddhas, as well as similar protrusions emerging from the heads of female figurines and statues from various pre-Buddhist cultures. On our trip to Russia, we saw numerous female "Babas" dating from as early as the Bronze Age (2000 BCE) and as late as the Middle Ages, and many of them have protruberances coming from the tops of their heads that later marked Shiva or the Buddha. Etruscan priestesses have strongly defined pointed hats which could be related, and Etruscan museums sport what look like stone "stupas" or "omphalos" from the 5th century BCE (same date traditionally given for the Buddha's birth).

The ancient origins of female shamanism lie in the Paleolithic period with its Venus figurines, lunar calendars, horses, reindeer, and extraordinary rock art. Nomadic people in Siberia—although prevented for many generations from practicing their religion openly—still have shamans and use oracles even today, many of them women. While in Russia I saw several shamanistic healers referred to as "extra-sense" who used divinatory and clairvoyant skills as well as channeling the "heat that heals." I believe that the "dakini-witches" and yoginis predating the Bon and Buddhist male dynasties left a legacy to all of us through the Tibetan concept of the "terma" or hidden mind-treasure, written in the secret dakini script, and awaiting the modern "tertrons" (terma-finders) whose destiny it is to find and reveal such treasures in the vernacular of our time.

For more information on the research of Jeannine Davis-Kimball http://eurasia98.stanford.edu/essayframe.html or http://www.csen.org/WomenWarriors/Womens.status.html

 

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