Marija Gimbutas: Unearthing the Beauty of a Woman

posted in: Essays | 32

“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.

Living Goddesses
Marija’s last book

“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.

Woman of Laussel
Woman of Laussel

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.

Perhaps.

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.

With gratitude to August McLaughlin. This is my contribution to her Beauty of a Woman blogfest.

32 Responses

  1. coleen patrick
    | Reply

    Great post! I love– you live each day like it’s the first–b/c a last day would be spent in a completely different way!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Coleen. Of all the things she said to me, that one sticks out the most. I was still young enough to be shocked by her candor, but now I finally understand.

  2. Kali Nata
    | Reply

    As a 41-year-old woman who is finally feeling like I can embrace my power and path, I appreciate your blog so much. These stories are so inspiring. I especially love the women, like Edith Wharton. However, it is even more exciting to hear your personal connection to Gimbutas. Please write more. We need to document her life!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you so much, Kalyani. After Marija died, many people in the community asked me to tell my story, but I was too numb. Then, a few years later, Mitch Ablom published “Tuesdays With Morrie,” which became a bestseller. Coincidentally, Tuesday was my day with Marija. It was too close. Last Thursday, Brigit, marked the 18th anniversary of her death. I lit a candle in her memory and suddenly knew it was time. I was ready. We’ll see what happens!

  3. Prudence MacLeod
    | Reply

    Marija Gimbutas is a familiar name in our home, for her book is now, and has always been, prominently displayed on our book shelf. A courageous and beautiful woman. Thank you for sharing those special moments.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Oh, Prudence. That warms my heart. I’m so happy you know of her work.

  4. Patricia
    | Reply

    What a lovely post, Debra! You ladies involved in this beauty blogfest are awesome!

    You shared some interesting perceptions about beauty and the value of women.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Patricia! I was so surprised by this piece. I intended to write something else altogether. I thank August from the bottom of heart.

  5. Ginger Calem
    | Reply

    I read every word with goosebumps and wet eyes. What a cherished experience to hold close to your heart. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you, Ginger. It’s been so amazing to finally tell it!

  6. Serena Dracis
    | Reply

    Such a heartwarming story, and how wonderful you were able to share that time with her.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks Serena. It was very cathartic writing it.

  7. Debra Kristi
    | Reply

    Oh Debra, I love this post. What it must have felt like to be there and hear those stories. I loved hearing them through you. You have captured my interest. Now I want to know more.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you, Debra. I might write a memoir of that year, but need to think about not making it another “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

  8. Kourtney Heintz
    | Reply

    Amazing post. You are a very talented writer. And you’ve given me something to think about from a new perspective of feminine beauty. 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Glad you enjoyed it, Kourtney. I often forget that historically (or prehistorically) there was a completely different way of looking at things.

  9. sharon k owen
    | Reply

    What a lovely inspiring story. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Sharon! Marija was possibly the most unusual woman I’ve ever known.

  10. Julia Whitmore
    | Reply

    This made me cry. Such passion and clarity of mind are rare. Thank you for giving us a glimpse. Best wishes.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you, Julia. She was a singular woman.

  11. Joanna
    | Reply

    Debra, it’s a beautiful piece. So glad you are no longer silent about your experiences. Thank you thank you for writing this!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I have you to thank on so many levels, Joanna. Your words mean so much to me.

  12. Lindsay
    | Reply

    This blog felt so real, so close to the bone; it is utterly extraordinary.

    “for tens of thousands of years people held a worldview we can’t fathom.” This must be true.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thank you so much, Lindsay. Marija has been somewhat deified in recent years. I really wanted to depict her as I remember her, an extraordinary woman with a mission, racing that final clock.

  13. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Ooh, I love that there is no dates on you site Debra, although you and I know that I am so late to the party. Please forgive. I’ve been trying to make my way around to everyone’s posts and found yours truly interesting. Live each day as if you’re dying. Good advice. Thank you for sharing your experience with all of us. 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Hi Karen, considering my subject matter, I like to cultivate a sense of timelessness on my site :). I too am behind on the Blogfest, and I truly appreciate that you stopped by and enjoyed it. Hopefully August will put out a volume with all the posts. It’s been mentioned here and there.

  14. renie
    | Reply

    thank you! thank you! thank you!

    needed to find this today — the books listed as resources, the stories about late bloomers and lastly the intimate portrait with your mentor.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      So happy to hear that, Renie! Marija was a great woman. She doesn’t qualify as a late bloomer, but she contributed so much to my blooming.

  15. Donna
    | Reply

    This is beautiful. I hope it is a sample of your book to come!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thanks, Donna! I think the book will be part memoir, part popular archaeology, so yes. It’s still in the formative stages!

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