Prehistoric Religions: Old Europe

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The term Old Europe is used here to describe Europe during the Neolithic and Copper ages, before it was infiltrated by Indo-European speakers from the Eurasian steppes (c. 45002500 bce). The Indo-Europeans superimposed their patriarchal social structure, pastoral economy, and male-dominated pantheon of gods upon the gynecocentric Old Europeans, whose millennial traditions were officially disintegrated. Nonetheless, these traditions formed a powerful substratum that profoundly affected the religious life of European cultures that arose during the Bronze Age. Western Europe remained untouched by the Indo-Europeans for one millennium longer; Crete, Thera, and other Aegean and Mediterranean islands maintained Old European patterns of life until about 1500 bce.

The agricultural revolution spread gradually to southeastern Europe about 7000 to 6500 bce. A full-fledged Neolithic culture was flourishing in the Aegean and Adriatic regions by 6500 bce. The Danubian basin and central Europe were converted to a food-producing economy circa 6000 to 5500 bce. Around 5500, copper artifacts first appeared, leading to the creation of a fully developed copper culture in the fifth millennium bce. The rise of agrarian cultures in western and northern Europe occurred about two millennia later.

The Old European religion of southeastern Europe and the Danubian basin persisted through three millennia, 65003500 bce; the Neolithic period extended from 6500 to 5500 bce, the Copper Age from 5500 to 3500 bce. In northern Europe, the Neolithic period continued to about 2000 bce. (Dates given here are calibrated radiocarbon dates.)

Old European beliefs and practices have been reconstructed primarily through analysis of the archaeological record. The evidence examined includes temples, temple models, altars, frescoes, rock carvings and paintings, caves and tombs, figurines, masks, and cult vessels, as well as the symbols and signs engraved or painted on all of these.

Cult objects, particularly figurines, provide some clues to the types of rituals performed by Old Europeans and the deities they worshiped. The richest finds have been unearthed in southeastern and Danubian Europe, as far north as the Carpathian Mountains. This region encompasses present-day Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, the western Ukraine, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, as well as the Aegean and Mediterranean islands. The second region yielding cult relics is western Europe (present-day Spain, Portugal, France, and the British Isles). The best-preserved monuments are megalithic tomb walls engraved with symbols and images of deities, stone stelae, and figurines associated with burials.

Despite the multitude of culture groups in Old Europe and the diverse styles of their artworks, the pantheon of deities was the same throughout the vast landmass. Old European religious beliefs stemmed from the gynecocentric Paleolithic and early agricultural world, created by a birth giver, mother, root gatherer, and seed planter and concerned with feminine cycles, lunar phases, and seasonal changes. Skylight and stars, prominent in Indo-European mythology, hardly figure in Old European symbolism.

The images of Old Europe are those of the earth's vitality and richness. The transformative processes of nature are symbolically manifested in sprouting seeds, eggs, caterpillars and butterflies, and in such "life columns" (symbols of rising and spontaneous life) as trees, springs, and serpents, which seem to emerge from the earth's womb. Sacred images represent both the miracle of birthhuman, animal, and plantand the awe and mystery surrounding the cyclic destruction and regeneration of life.

Most Old European sacred images symbolize the ever-changing nature of life on earth: the constant and rhythmic interplay between creation and destruction, birth and death. For example, the moon's three phasesnew, waxing, and oldare repeated in trinities of deities: maiden, nymph, and crone; life-giving, death-giving, and transformational deities; rising, dying, and self-renewing deities. Similarly, life-giving deities are also death wielders. Male vegetation spirits also express life's transitional nature: they are born, come to maturity, and die, as do plants.

Goddesses and Gods

The Old European evidence reveals clear-cut stereotypes of divinities that appear repeatedly throughout time and geography in sculptural art. The stereotypes include anthropomorphic deities and innumerable epiphanies in the form of birds, animals, insects, amphibians, stones, and hills.


The principal goddesses are composite images, encompassing an accumulation of traits from the preagricultural era.

The water-bird goddess appears with a beak or a pinched nose, a long neck, a beautiful head of hair or crown, breasts, wings or winglike projections, and protruding female buttocks outlined in the shape of a duck, goose, or swan. Her epiphany is a water bird, most frequently a duck. There is an association between this divinity and divine moisture from the oceans, rivers, lakes, bogs, and the skies. Meanders, streams, V's, and chevrons are her principal symbols. (The V sign, duplicated or triplicated in the chevron, probably derives from the shape of the pubic triangle.) They can be found on objects that are associated with her and also as decorations on her images. She is associated with the number three (triple source, totality) and with the ram, her sacred animal. The symbols give a clue to her function as a giver of life, wealth, and nourishment. She is of Paleolithic origin. Since the early Neolithic she also was a weaver and spinner of human fate and giver of crafts and was worshiped in house shrines and temples.

A related image of the life-giving goddess appears in the shape of a water container (large pithos), decorated with M's, nets, brushes, meanders, and running spirals. She also appears in figurines marked with net-patterned pubic triangles and squares, symbolic of life-giving water.

The snake goddess has snakelike hands and feet and a long mouth and wears a crown. The snake spirals and snake coil are her emblems. She is life energy incarnate. As a symbol of fertility and well-being of the family she is worshiped in house shrines. Her crown very likely was a symbol of wisdom as it still is in European folklore. The horns of a snake, resembling a crescent moon, link this deity with lunar cycles. In megalithic tomb-shrines of western Europe, the winding snake figures as a symbol of regeneration. In symbolism, the snake coil is a source of energy comparable to the sun; and both are metaphors of the regenerating eyes of the goddess.

The birth-giving goddess is portrayed in a naturalistic pose of giving birth. She is well evidenced in Paleolithic art in France (Tursac, c. 21,000 bce) and in all periods of Old Europe (from the seventh millennium onward). The vulva, depicted alone (known from the Aurignacian period, circa 30,000 bce, and throughout the Upper Paleolithic and Old Europe), may have served as pars pro toto of this goddess. Her epiphanies were the doe (both deer and elk) and the bear, stemming from an early belief in a zoomorphic birth-giver, the primeval mother.

The nurse or mother holding or carrying a child is portrayed in hunchbacked figurines or, in more articulate examples, as a bear-masked madonna carrying a pouch for a baby and as a bird, snake, and bear-masked mother holding a child. Images of her date from the early Neolithic and appeared throughout the Copper Age and into historical times.

The vulture or owl goddess, a maleficent twin of the birth-giving goddess, appears as Death in the guise of a vulture, owl, or other predatory bird or carrion eater, yet has qualities of regeneration. A vulva, umbilical cord, or labyrinth is painted or engraved on her images. Hooks and axessymbols of energy and life stimulationare engraved on western European stone stelae and on passage-grave slabs representing the owl goddess. In one of the Çatal Hüyük shrines of central Anatolia (seventh millennium bce), the beaks of griffins emerge from the open nipples of female breasts. The owl goddess's breasts, depicted in relief on slabs of megalithic gallery graves in Brittany, also suggest that regeneration is in her power.

The snowy owl appears in a number of engravings on the Upper Paleolithic (Magdalenian) cave walls of France, probably already as an epiphany of Death. There is rich evidence of the owl goddess throughout the Neolithic, Copper, and Early Bronze ages. During the last period, the owl form became the usual shape of urns. Burials of birds of prey as sacrifices to this goddess are known from the Paleolithic (Ksar Akil, Lebanon, mid-Paleolithic; Malta, c. 15,000 bce), earliest Neolithic (Zawi Chemi Shanidar, northern Iraq, more than 10,000 years before our time), the Neolithic, and the Bronze Age (Isbister, Scotland). It is clear that large wings had enormous symbolic importance for millennia.

The White Lady, or Death, is portrayed with folded arms tightly pressed to her bosom and with closed or tapering legs. She is masked and sometimes has a polos on her head. Her abnormally large pubic triangle is the center of attention. A reduced image of her is a bone. Her images are made of bone or of such bone-colored materials as marble, alabaster, and light-colored stone. She dates back to the Upper Paleolithic, has been found throughout Old Europe, and appears in the Aegean Bronze Age as the Cycladic marble figurines. Most of the White Ladies were recovered from graves and found singly, in threes, or in groups of six or nine.

The goddess of regeneration appears in myriad forms, the most prominent of which are fish, toad, frog, hedgehog, triangle, hourglass, bee, and butterfly. All these appear in art as amphibians, animals, insects, and hybrids: fishwoman, frog-woman, hedgehog-woman, hourglass with bird's feet or claws, bee and butterfly with a human head.

The peculiar relationship, even equation, of the fish, frog, and toad with the uterus of the regenerating goddess accounts for their prominent role in European symbolism. The importance of the hedgehog probably derives from its equation with a wart-covered animal uterus. As life and funerary symbols, hedgehogs continued to appear throughout later prehistory and history. When manifested as a bee, butterfly, or moth, the goddess is thought to symbolize reborn life. Frequently, these images emerge from a bucranium, also the symbol of the female uterus as evidenced from the earliest Neolithic. The key to understanding the equation of the female uterus with the bucranium lies in the extraordinary likeness of the female uterus and fallopian tubes to the head and horns of a bull (Cameron, 1981, pp. 4ff.).

The Pregnant Goddess (Mother Earth ) is portrayed naturalistically as a nude with hands placed on her enlarged belly. The abdominal part of her body is always emphasized. She is also depicted as a bulging mound and oven. In the infancy of agriculture, her pregnant belly was apparently likened to the fertility of the fields. Her image was associated with lozenges, triangles, snakes, and two or four lines. Her sacred animal is the sow. She is the Mother of the Dead: her uterus or entire body is the grave (hypogea of Malta and Sardinia, passage graves of western Europe, and court tombs of Ireland) or temple (Malta).

Although evidence of her exists from the Upper Paleolithic, it was probably not until the Neolithic that she became the earth mother and bread giver, appearing enthroned and crowned. She is the dominant figure in the early phases of the Neolithic. Her figurines are found on oven platforms (as at Achilleion, Thessaly, c. 6000 bce; author's excavation, 1973), never on altars in house shrines, which were used exclusively for bird and snake goddesses.

Pairs of larger and smaller figurines known from all periods of Old Europe represent both the major and minor aspects of the goddess, sometimes as a mother-daughter pair (an analogy to Demeter and Persephone). Furthermore, the major temples of Malta consist of two constructions, one larger and the other slightly smaller, both in the anthropomorphic shape. This suggests again the dual or cyclical nature of the goddess as both summer and winter, old and young.


There are only two certain stereotypes of male gods: (1) the Sorrowful Ancient and (2) the mature male holding a crosier.

The Sorrowful Ancient is portrayed as a peaceful man sitting on a stool, hands resting on knees or supporting his face. Since the Sorrowful Ancient appears together with seated pregnant figurines that probably represent harvest goddesses, it can be assumed that he represents a dying vegetation god.

The bull with a human mask and the goat-masked male sculptures of the Vinca culture (fifth millennium bce) may portray an early form of Dionysos in the guise of a bull or a he-goatthe god of annual renewal in full strength. However, lack of documentation from other culture groups warrants his preclusion as a stereotype.

The mature male holding a crosier and seated on a throne, from Szegvár-Tüzköves (Tisza culture, Hungary), may be a relation to Silvanus, Faunus, and Pan, historical era forest spirits and protectors of forest animals and hunters who also are depicted with a crosier. This image, as well as representations of bearded men, is probably of Upper Paleolithic origin (cf. bison men and other half-man, half-animal figures from the French caves of Les Trois Frères, Le Gabillou, and others). The type is poorly documented; only single examples of sculptures are known. The majestic posture of the Szegvár-Tüzköves god, however, suggests its importance in the pantheon.

Other images of the masculine principle, such as nude men with bird masks in leaping or dancing posture, were probably portrayals of participants in rituals, worshipers of the goddess. Male images are rare among the Old European figurines; usually they constitute only 2 to 3 percent of the total number recovered in settlements.


The concept of a divine feminine principle is manifested in human, animal, and abstract symbolic form: woman, water bird, bird of prey, doe, bear, snake, bee, butterfly, fish, toad, hedgehog, triangle, and hourglass form. Her manifestations are everywhere; her worship is attuned to the infinite round of life, death, and renewal.

Judging by the stereotypes that recur in figurines over the millennia, the religion of Old Europe was polytheistic and dominated by female deities. The primary goddess inherited from the Paleolithic was the Great Goddess, whose functions included the gift of life and increase of material goods, death-wielding and decrease, and regeneration. She was the absolute ruler of human, animal, and plant life and the controller of lunar cycles and seasons. As giver of all, death wielder, and regeneratrix, she is one and the same goddess in spite of the multiplicity of forms in which she manifests herself.

The prehistoric Great Goddess survives still in folklore. She appears as Fate (or sometimes as the three Fates), who attends the birth of a child and foretells the length of its life. She appears as White Lady (Death) with her white dog. Sometimes she is recognized in the toad or frog that brings death and regeneration, in the water birds and snakes that bring well-being and fertility, or in the crowned snake, whose crown grants the power of seeing all things and understanding the language of animals.

Although degraded to the status of a witch, the Old European Vulture (or Owl) Goddess lives on in fairy tales as an old hag with a hooked nose who flies through the air on a broom. She can slice the moon in half, cause cows to go dry, tie blossoms into knots, destroy human happiness, and inflict illness.

In European folklore as well as in prehistory, witches and fairies most often appear in groups with one the most important, the queen or "lady." This pattern reflects an ancient gynecocentric and matrilinear social structure.

As a consequence of the new agrarian economy, the Pregnant Goddess of the Paleolithic was transformed into an earth fertility deity in the Neolithic. The fecundity of humans and animals, the fertility of crops and thriving of plants, and the processes of growing and fattening became of enormous concern during this period. The drama of seasonal changes intensified, which is manifested in the emergence of a mother-daughter image and of a male god as spirit of rising and dying vegetation.

Let us note here that fertility is only one of the goddess's many functions. It is inaccurate to call Paleolithic and Neolithic goddesses fertility goddesses, as the fertility of the earth became a prominent concern only during the food-producing era. Hence, fertility is not a primary function of the goddess and has nothing to do with sexuality. The goddesses were primarily creatresses of life; they were not Venus figures or beauties and most definitely not wives of male gods. It is also inaccurate to call these prehistoric goddesses mother goddesses, a misconception found often in the archaeological literature. It is true that there are mother images and protectresses of young life, as well as a Mother Earth and Mother of the Dead, but the other female images cannot be categorized as mother goddesses. The bird goddess and the snake goddess, for example, are not mothers, nor are many other images of regeneration and transformation, such as the frog, fish, and hedgehog. They personify life, death, and regeneration; they represent more than fertility and motherhood.

Shrines and Sanctuaries

Much of the corpus of information about the Old European religion comes from shrines, which have been found as models, within homes, or standing free. They demonstrate the close connections between secular and sacred life, especially in relation to functions performed by women.


The fifty or more clay models of temples discovered so far allow us to see the workings of Old Europe's shrines in striking detail. Usually found in front of or near the site of a former altar, these miniature shrines, generally small enough to be held in a person's hand, were probably gifts to the goddess of the temple. They are doubly revealing: in addition to reproducing the temple's configuration, the models are often elaborately decorated with symbolic designs and inscribed with religious symbols. Frequently a divine image in relief adorns the gables, rooftops, or roof corners of the temple.

Among the earliest models discovered are several from the Neolithic Sesklo culture of Thessaly in Greece. Dating from about 6000 bce, they portray rectangular buildings that have pitched or saddle roofs, painted checkerboards or striated rectangles on their walls, and decorated gables. Noteworthy openings in their roofs and sometimes in their sides make them look, perhaps not coincidentally, like tiny birdhouses. A group of clay models from a slightly later date was found in a mound of the Porodin settlement near Bitola in Macedonia, southwestern Yugoslavia. Produced by the Starcevo culture of the central Balkans, dating from about 5800 to 5600 bce, these models are capped with unusual features. Cylindrical "chimneys," located in the center of their roofs, bear the mask of a goddess; a necklace spreads down over the roof. The temple building below seems to have been constructed as the literal "body" of the deity; the structure, with the cylinder head on top, seems to be essentially a deified portrait bust. Perhaps for a mythologically related reason, a number of these shrine models have mysteriously shaped entrances, either inverted T's or triangulars.

Other temple models from the Vinca culture of the central Balkans (late sixth millennium bce) and from the Tisza culture (around 5000 bce) in present-day eastern Hungary are often distinctly bird shaped and have numerous incisions on their sides to indicate plumage. Their entrances have a round hole on their top halfagain, like those found in birdhouses. Motifs of a bird goddess are found throughout the Vinca culture and Old Europe in general, and it seems likely that these openings were fashioned as symbolic entrances for the visiting goddess in the epiphany of a bird.

An exquisite, unusually large model of a temple with numerous large, round openings was discovered in the settlement on the island of Cascioarele on the Danube River in southern Romania. Dating from about 4500, this model has dramatically enhanced knowledge of Copper Age architectural and cult practices. The shrine model itself consists of a large substructure supporting four individual temples, each of which has a wide, arched portal crowned with horns. The facade is pierced by ten round apertures and is decorated with irregular, horizontally incised lines. This detailing suggests wood construction. The top surface of the substructure probably constituted a terrace that could hold a large congregation. Presumablyif this was, as it seems to be, a model of an actual structurethe whole temple complex was at least ten meters tall, with the individual roof temples measuring about three meters in height. The structure is clearly of European tradition, and no close parallels to this configuration exist.

Other models of two-story temples have been found at Old European settlements at Ruse on the lower Danube River in Bulgaria, Izvoarele in Romania, and Azmak in central Bulgaria. Still another model, this time from the Ros River Valley at Rozsokhuvatka in the western Ukraine, depicts a two-story sanctuary standing on four legs, with the second floor constituting a two-room temple. This model is from the Cucuteni culture, dating from about 4300 to 4000, the farthest outpost of Old European civilization in the northeast. This culture has been made famous through systematic excavations of entire villages, whose spacious, two- to four-room houses include altars and platforms, as well as by its magnificent ceramic art. The model has wide entrances on both floors and a platform, adorned with bull horns and perhaps used for worship, in front of the large portal on the second floor. A round window appears in the rear, and horizontal beams that support the roof are indicated in relief.

The walls of many models of temples were painted and decorated with incisions, excisions, and encrustations in symbolic motifs. Often these were arranged into panels in the same manner as on cult vases. The parallels between these forms are often particularly revealing. One dominant Old European motif, for example, found repeatedly on the models, cult vases, and other votive objects, is the meander, or the figurative representation of a snake; sometimes an abstract derivative of this image, in the form of single or pairs of spiraling lines, will appear.

A model of a Vinca temple unearthed in Gradesnica in northwestern Bulgaria, dating from about 5000 bce, is a good example of the use of these symbolic decorations. Each wall and roof of this model constitutes a separate panel, each marked with a different design of meanders or sinuous lines, chevrons, and dotted bands. The vertical panels on either side of the entrance are inscribed with signs in a configuration that may comprise some sort of formula associated with the temple's goddess. Above the entrance to the temple are bands of dots and zigzagssnakeskin designsfurther suggesting that the shrine belongs to a deity, perhaps the Snake Goddess. Above the facade, a schematic head in the center probably represents the actual goddess, and the masked heads on the corners may symbolize her divine associates.

Still other models, although otherwise complete, are roofless, so it is possible to peer into the scene of the cult activities. Such open models have a dais along the back wall and a bread oven on the side wall. A model of a roofless temple from Popudnia, a late Cucuteni settlement north of Uman in the western Ukraine, sits on four cylindrical legs and consists of a main room and vestibule; between them is a rectangular entrance with a threshold. On the right side of the large central chamber are benches and a large rectangular oven on a raised platform. To the right of the oven sits a female figurine with her hands on her breasts; near the outer wall another female figurine is grinding grain, and close by is a depression for storing flour. Almost in the center of the shrine stands a raised platform in the shape of a cross.

Among the actual temples is a two-story temple uncovered in Radingrad, near Razgrad in northeastern Bulgaria, by Totju Ivanov of the Archaeological Museum, Razgrad, from 1974 to 1978. Probably similar to the four-legged Rozsokhuvatka model from the Ukraine, this Karanovo culture temple dates from about 5000 bce. Its first floor had a ceramic workshop with a large oven to one side; on the other side was a clay platform with tools for making, polishing, and decorating pots. Flat stone containers for crushing ocher stood nearby. Exquisite finished vases and unbaked ones were also found in the room. The second floor, like that of the Rozsokhuvatka model, comprised the temple proper. Inside was a large rectangular clay altar seventy-five centimeters high, and to its left stood a vertical loom and many figurines and temple models. A number of the vases near the altar were filled with clay beads.

One important discovery was that of a pillar temple, unearthed in the village of Cascioarele. Excavated by Hortensia and Vladimir Dumitrescu of the Institute of Archaeology, Bucharest, from 1962 to 1969, this Karanovo culture sanctuary, found just below the model of the edifice, dates from the early part of the fifth millennium bce. Rectangular in plan, the sixteen-by ten-meter temple was divided into two rooms by six rows of posts. The interior walls of one room are painted red with bands of cream-colored curvilinear designs; above the entrance is a striking terracotta medallion with a red snake-coil outlined by a thin line of cream. This room contains also two hollow pillars, both measuring about two meters in height, that were originally modeled around two tree trunks. The thicker one was encircled by posts and, like the walls, had been painted three times with different designs. Near it lay an adult skeleton in a crouched position. The thinner pillar, measuring about ten centimeters in diameter, stood close to the interior wall and was painted with cream ribbons on a reddish brown background. Next to it was a terracotta bench or dais about forty centimeters high with painted curvilinear ribbons of cream color. Nearby lay numerous fragments of painted vases and of large vessels decorated with excised motifs. Rituals or mysteries performed here were probably connected with the idea of regeneration and the invocation of the vital source of life. The pillars, decorated with the running angularized spiral or snake motif, can be interpreted as life columns. The tradition of the life column motif can be traced as far back as the seventh millennium bce, when it appeared in Çatal Hüyük frescoes, and in the Sesklo temples of Thessaly around 6000 bce. In representations on Old European vases, life columns are usually shown flanked with horns, whirls, spirals, male animals, and uterus symbols.

The remains of an early Cucuteni shrine in Sabatinivka in the southern Bug River Valley of the Ukraine present an even more dramatic picture. A rectangular building of about seventy square meters, this temple has a clay-plastered floor and an entrance area paved with flat stones. The center of the room contains a large oven with a female figurine at its base. Nearby stood an incense burner and a group of vessels; these included a dish containing the burned bones of an ox and a channel-decorated pot with a small cup inside, once used for libations. Also nearby was a group of five concave grinding stones and five seated terracotta figurines with their bodies leaning backward. Along the rear wall, sixteen other female figurines were seated in low, horned-back chairs on a six-meter-long altar. In the corner adjacent to the altar stood a clay throne with a horned back and a meter-wide seat that had originally been covered with split planks. Altogether, thirty-two of these nearly identical, armless figurines with massive thighs and snake-shaped heads were found in this sanctuary. Oddly, several of them had been perforated through the shoulders, and one held a baby snake.

The Sabatinivka sanctuary demonstrates that bread ovens, grinding stones, and storage vessels played a fundamental role in the cult rites performed at Old European shrines. The seated figurines strongly suggest that temple worshipers participated in a ritual grinding of grain and baking of sacred bread and that these ceremonies were supervised from a throne, at least at Sabatinivka, by an overseer, probably a priestess. It seems likely that sacred cakes were dedicated to the goddess at the conclusion of the rites. Also the clay figurines on the altar may have been presented as votive offerings to the goddess or used as effigies to celebrate her presence.

These images of cult practices are further illuminated by a site near Trgoviste in northeastern Bulgaria, excavated by Henrieta Todorova of the Institute of Archaeology, Sofia, in 1971. This house shrine site at Ovcarovo, a product of the Karanovo culture, dates from about 45004200 bce. The site yielded remains of twenty-six miniature cult objects, including four figurines with upraised arms, three temple facades or possible altar screens, decorated with chevrons, triple lines, and spirals around a central motif of concentric circlesnine chairs, three miniature tables, three vessels with lids, several large dishes, and three drums. It seems possible that this large collection of objects may have been used in different groupings at various times according to the required tableau of each particular ceremony.

The four figurines were painted with meanders and parallel lines. But most interesting was the presence of drums, which suggests the ritual use of music and dance in Old Europe. Other cult objects include miniature vessels with lids, found on small tables where they may have been used as sacrificial containers. Slightly larger than the figurines, these dishes or basins may have been used in some form of lustration or spiritual cleansing during the ceremony. The nine chairs, finally, may have been used to seat three of the figurinesthe fourth is larger than the othersalternatively at the three altars, three tables, or the three drums. These miniature replicas are particularly important because lifesize Old European altars and tables holding sacrificial equipment have rarely been preserved.

A very interesting cache of twenty-one figurines, probably used for the reenactment of earth fertility rites, came to light in an early Cucuteni shrine at Poduri-Dealul Ghindaru, Moldavia, northeastern Romania. The figurines were stored in a large vase. In addition, there were fifteen chairs or thrones on which larger figurines could sit. The figurines are from six to twelve centimeters in height. The different proportions, workmanship, and symbols painted on the figurines suggest a clear hierarchy in this tableau. The three largest ones are painted in red ocher with symbols that are typical of Mother Earth: antithetic snakes coiling over the abdomen, lozenges on the back, and dotted triangles and lozenges over the ample thighs and legs. The medium-sized figurines have a striated band across the abdomen and stripes across their thighs and legs. The small figurines were rather carelessly produced and are not painted with symbols. Such differences may reflect different cult roles ranging from dominant personages (goddesses or priestesses) to assistants and attendants.

Although merely a selection in themselves, these Old European temple sites demonstrate that a long and varied list of cult paraphernaliasacrificial containers, lamps, altar tables and plaques, libation vases, ladles, incense burners, and figurinescould have been employed in worship rituals. While the sacred rite of breadmaking appears to have been among the most consecrated and pervasive practices, there may well have been many additional distinct categories of religious ceremonies.


In the tradition of their Upper Paleolithic ancestors, the people of Old Europe used caves as sanctuaries. An excellent example of an Old European sanctuary is the cave of Scaloria in southeastern Italy, which dates from the mid-sixth millennium bce. It consists of a large cave that is connected by a narrow tunnel to a lower-level cave containing a pool of water. The upper cave, which shows signs of seasonal occupation, contains a mass grave of 137 skeletons. The cave yielded stalagmites, stalactites, and pottery decorated with crescents, snakes, plant motifs, and egg or uterus shapes. These decorative symbols indicate that the cave was a sanctuary where funerary and/or initiation rites of mysteries took place, associated with the idea of regeneration and renewal. Many as yet unexplored cave sanctuaries have been discovered along the Adriatic coast and Greece's Peloponnese Peninsula.


In central Europe, a sacred place of tombs and shrines has been discovered at Lepenski Vir in the Iron Gate region, northern Yugoslavia, during the excavation of 19651968 (Srejovic, 1972). The trapeze-shaped (i.e., triangular with the narrow end cut off) structures with red lime plaster floors of Lepenski Vir, dating from the late seventh to the early sixth millennium bce, are dug into an amphitheater-like recess in the bank of the Danube. The essential feature of the shrine is the rectangular altar built of stones, which has an entrance in the shape of the open legs of a goddess, similar to that found in Irish court tombs. At the end of the altar stood one or two sculptures representing the fish goddess and a round, or egg-shaped, stone engraved with a labyrinthine design.

Fifty-four red sandstone sculptures were found. The dead were buried in similar triangular structures; they were placed on the red floor with their heads in the narrow end and positioned so that their navels were in the very center of the structure.

The main activities at Lepenski Vir were ritual sacrifice and the carving and engraving of sacred sculptures and cult objects. Paleozoologists were astonished to find a very high proportion of dog bones in the early phases of the site, when there were yet no herds to be watched by dogs. The bones were not broken up, indicating that dogs were not used for meat, and the often intact skeletons lay in anatomical order. Large fish bones (carp, catfish, sturgeon, pike) were identified in almost all structures; one exceptionally large catfish may have weighed from 140 to 180 kilograms! Twenty shrines contained a red deer skull or shoulder blade, which often was associated with the bones of dogs and boars. In three cases human bones were found in hearths. It can be seen from the above that the sacrificial animals at Lepenski Vir were fish, deer, dogs, and boarsthe animals known from prehistory and early history to be associated with the life-giving aspect of the goddess (deer, fish) and with her death aspect (dog and boar).


That the preponderance of figurines found in Old European shrines are female suggests that religious activities during this period were largely, if not exclusively, in the hands of women. Although men participated in religious ceremoniesfor instance, as bird- or animal-masked dancersit is women who are portrayed in the overwhelming majority of figurines as engaged in cult activities or as supervising these events from thrones. Furthermore, the rituals mirror daily secular tasks associated with women, most importantly, preparation of bread from grains, manufacture of ceramics, and weaving.

In the process of sacralizing their creative lives, women in Old Europe developed many religious practices whose occurence in later periods is taken for granted. For instance, the four elements so central to ritual historicallyair (incense), earth (bread and clay objects), fire (lamps and ovens), and water (liquid contents of vessels)were represented in Old Europe. Also integrated into rites were music and dance, the use of masks, sacrificial offerings, lustration, and rites involving bread and drink.

See Also

Birds; Caves; Goddess Worship; Megalithic Religion, article on Prehistoric Evidence.


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Prehistoric Religions: Old Europe

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