“Do you believe you’ve rediscovered Neolithic goddess worship?” I asked her.
“No, I have reconstructed Neolithic religion,” she replied. “Lift up my pillow.” I raised the pillow while she positioned herself against the head board.“Religion is not correct either, but it is perhaps the best we have,” she continued. “In the Neolithic, the goddess was a philosophy, a way of life…”
English was not her first language, just one of seven she spoke fluently. She could read another 17. Still, sometimes the right word eluded her.
“A worldview?” I offered.
“Hmphh, perhaps. Let me see what I’ve written.”
I perched near her pillow and turned my laptop toward her. Her lips moved silently as she read.
She wore a blue velour turban, like an ancient gypsy fortune teller. She spoke with the inflections of eastern Europe and possessed a seer’s charisma. The whole effect belied how ill she was. The turban hid the ravages of cancer.
“Insert this here.” She pointed to the screen and dictated:
Some figurines show exaggerated body weight, and some scholars have interpreted them as “fat ladies.” Undoubtedly, this exaggerated body weight is valued, since it appears on female figurines from several different cultures.
Her voice was hoarse. Her eyes weary, but determined. She caught me studying her.
“Type, type!” She pointed at the screen. “There is still much work. Any day could be the last.”
Sometimes it made me uncomfortable, her blunt confrontation with death. But she tackled everything head on. Some days I’m still bemused that death won. “They say we all should live each day like it’s our last,” I said.
“Yes, but they are not dying. When you’re dying, you live each day like it’s the first. Otherwise I would not have started this book I will not be the one to finish.”
Her name was Marija Gimbutas, born in Lithuania, 1921. She escaped Soviet occupation with a babe under one arm and her dissertation under the other.
When I worked for her, she was professor emerita of European Archaeology at UCLA. Her theories became the eye of a cultural storm that sundered her from her peers and set her on a controversial course.
Marija’s scholarship contributed to the rise of modern goddess worship, but she was no feminist. From her bed, she regally introduced me to visitors as “the secretary,” despite the prestigious academic grant that paid me. She was a labyrinth of contradictions.
“You will finish the book,” Marija said. “Promise me.”
I met her eyes. “I will see it published.” At that point, I had no idea how.
“Good. Move the blanket. My feet are cold.” She adjusted herself and winced. “I hate the bedsores. Now, I have a thought, but I do not know where it goes.”
“That’s what cut and paste is for. Just talk.” I placed my fingers at the keyboard and waited on wonder.
She loved to dictate — books, letters, articles. I didn’t mind. I sat by her side, gazing over the treetops of Topanga Canyon, recording her thoughts and meetings like a scribe of old.
I could write a book about that year and a day, but this is my first attempt. For 19 years, grief and guilt have tied my tongue.
I saw Marija’s last manuscript published, but couldn’t fulfill her final legacy-changing wish.
In the grand scheme of time, my failure doesn’t matter. Come, walk with me. Forget 20,000 years of history and look there, inside the cave of lost memory. On its walls, someone has carved a woman. Just a woman.
Her thighs are pillowy, her breasts pendulous. She holds a horn incised with 13 lines.
We call her the Venus of Laussel. But that’s not quite correct. Venus is a millenia-old fertility deity. The Woman of Laussel is a transcendentally ancient being.
What can we really know about her?
- It’s cold where she lives. Those big thighs tell more than one story.
- She’s unashamed of them.
- Someone thought her important enough to render for eternity. For eternity.
For tens of thousands of years, people held a worldview that we today, with all our technology, can’t even begin to fathom.
Can you blame Marija for chasing that mystery with the best we have? For choosing the word “Goddess” to describe this representation and thousands more? For concluding, unequivocally,
She represented the full cycle of the life continuum.
Epilogue: A beloved former Ph.D student agreed to complete Marija’s book. Marija’s daughter Zivile oversaw publishing logistics. I organized the illustrations, contributed several drawings, and did much of the copy editing. It is titled The Living Goddesses.