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She Gives the Gift of Her Body

The archetype of selfless or altruistic giving—without attachment to outcome or any concept of “reciprocity”—belongs originally and most fully to the Goddess, the Great Mother of All Things. Whether we see it in the bountiful harvests of the agricultural fields of Mother Earth, or the life-giving nurturance of a mother’s body supporting a pregnancy and nursing her baby, “the feminine force is active and life-producing” (Gimbutas 1999: 8). The female body in ancient times was perceived as “parthenogenetic, that is, creating life out of itself” (Gimbutas 1999: 112). As creator of the universe, known scientifically as the “Big Bang,” her boundless creativity gave rise to the endless and diverse forms found in Nature whose beauty is impossible to replicate and whose primary expression is unceasing, dynamic, cyclic growth—birth, death, and regeneration. I see the Goddess as a great spider spinning the world from her center, patiently reweaving the web of life again and again, through eons and ages. This cyclic continuity should be enough to give us hope in our current situation, no matter how bad it gets.

First Woman and the Gift of Life

Since the first vulvas were inscribed on cave walls and rock outcroppings tens of thousands of years ago, the female has been formally imaged as gift-giver par excellence. In Australian rock art, she is known as “First Woman.” The gift she gives, of life and all that sustains it, made a lasting impression on early humans coming to consciousness, beginning to express themselves through language and art. So-called “Venus” figures from the Eurasian Paleolithic period, with their huge breasts and buttocks emphasized over any distinguishing personal features, demonstrate the acknowledged gift-giving capacity of the ancestral matrix figure later to be called Great Mother, Mother Earth, Pachamama. The vulva—that sacred doorway—was the original glyph of the human species becoming literate as far back as 30,000 years ago. It is a sign expressing gratitude, reverence, and awe toward the female body and its marvelous ability to create life, sustain it, and even—in death, as Mother Earth—to receive it back. Vulvas carved in rocks and painted on walls all over North and South America are known to have been used for female blood mysteries and “puberty rites” since the most ancient times (Marshack 1991). Images of females dance among the pregnant animals that predominate in caves and rock shelters used by humans during the Ice Ages (Bahn 1997 [1988]). The female mysteries of periodicity and nature were at the center of whatever religious rites were practiced by early humans, whose lunar menstrual calendars document their interest in cyclic reality (Marshack 1991). Upright, our ancestors walked out of Africa and journeyed east and west, bringing their metaphorical “Dark Mother” with them, and eventually peopling vast continents (Birnbaum 2001). The first acts of human worship appear to have been in honour of this original ancestress, the Mother of Life, inside of whose mystery we had awakened to ourselves. Tens of thousands of years later, clan structure is still organized around the mother of an extended household in modern matriarchal societies, such as the Mosuo in China or the Maninkabau in Indonesia, where she is perceived as the central “pillar” of the home (Sanday 2002).

At the end of the last Ice Age, the weather warmed over much of the planet and our ancestors left their caves. Many of them developed the ability to settle, grow food, and domesticate animals. Cultivation, rather than being a sudden “revolution” as once thought, apparently unfolded in a fairly natural way from the sophisticated gathering that had gone on for millennia. (Harris 1996) The development of agriculture marks the beginning of the Neolithic period around 10,000 years ago. One important center of agriculture (“Nautufian”) emerged in northern Africa, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Middle East, from which it later was carried to other places, including the female-centered early civilizations of Greece and Anatolia (ancient Turkey). Archaeologists, linguists, and biologists have tracked the spread of agriculture eastward beyond the Caspian Sea and along the trade routes that would much later be known as the Silk Road (Harris 1996). Centers of agriculture also arose—perhaps independently or maybe through dif- fusion, this is currently still being debated—in China as well as in the Americas (Diamond 1999).

Women and Agriculture

Women are usually credited with having invented agriculture, particularly the deliberate cultivation of plants and the various complex processes that accompanied it, such as cooking, processing, and food storage—extending to basketry, pottery, and other forms of vessels, as well as granaries allowing for a surplus of food for whole populations. The granary is a metaphor for the womb of the mother, as well as representing the literal ownership by the communal female group of the property in agricultural societies. The Dogon of Mali equate the Sirius star system with the “granary,” seeing it as a “reservoir and source of everything in the world” (Temple 1976: 43). Egyptians called the same star “Sothis” (“to be pregnant”) and represented it as the Great Goddess Isis (Temple 1976: 71). At Catal Hyk, a seventh-millennium town in ancient Turkey, an important female figure, perhaps pregnant herself, and sitting enthroned between two leopards, was found in the granary (Gimbutas 1989: 107). Ceramic vessels crafted with breasts or in the shape of a female body emphasize the biological functions of pregnancy and lactation, womb and breast—the female’s concrete gift of life. Breasts on ceramic vessels used in ritual emphasize the female body “and by extension the body of the divine female, as a vessel of nourishment or renewal.” (Gimbutas 1999: 7)

Shamanism Was Originally Female

The common equation of women with “hearth and home” links to the evolu- tionary act of harnessing fire for cooking and warmth, as well as referring to the sacred nature of the hearth as altar and the woman as shaman-priestess. Portable offering tables or altars have been found in female burials since the beginnings of civilization, documenting the ongoing function of the sacred woman. By the first millennium BCE, portable altars were buried with every priestess in central Siberia, and these altars or offering tables, along with certain other predictable items such as mirrors, are among the defining features of shaman priestess burials across Central Asia (Davis-Kimball 2002).

“Among several tribes traditions exist that the shaman’s gift was first bestowed on women. In Mongolian myths goddesses were both shamans themselves—like the Daughter of the Moon—and the bestowers of the shamanistic gift on mankind” (Czaplicka 1914: 244). A Russian ethnographer from the early twentieth century states that “Neo-Siberians” all have different (later) words for “male shaman,” but a common (original) word for female shaman from the most ancient times which has etymological links to the words “bear,” “earth-goddess,” “housewife,” and “wife” (Czaplicka 1914: 244). Shamanism is understood to be a sacrificial (or “gift”) vocation, in which one heals the sick, dispenses wisdom, performs magical rituals and communal ceremonies, and is generally available to the community in beneficial ways. Although male shamans are more often featured in contemporary ethnographic studies and shamanism is generally equated by scholars with male- ness, Czaplicka’s 1914 book suggests otherwise.

Among the Kamchadal [in Kamchatka] there are no special shamans... but every old woman and kockchuch (probably women in men’s clothes) is a witch, and explains dreams.... [T]hey used no drum, but simply pronounced incantations and practiced divination. (171)

Female Biological Mysteries and the Baking of Bread

Birthing, ritual ceremonies, and the baking of bread happened more or less side- by-side in the early Neolithic temples of northern Greece. Ovens were created in the shape of a womb with an umbilicus, and pregnant female figurines were found nearby (Gimbutas 1999: 16). Evidence of bread offerings are found in most sacred sites in Europe, from as early as 12,000 BCE in the Ice Age caves of France, down through the Neolithic, and into the classical period when Dianic priestesses baked crescent-shaped cakes for the Moon Goddess. Today it is the Catholic nuns who still bake wafers for communion, and we still say “she has a bun in the oven” when a woman is pregnant (Noble 1991: 24) Before this altruistic and communal nature of women was colonized and exploited, it functioned for the good of the whole and society was able to sustain itself for several thousand years in peace. Even now remnants of these ancient practices exist all over Europe, as I witnessed recently at Lepinski Vir in Serbia where a village man brought a freshly baked loaf of bread to show the assembled group of scholars. The bread was decorated with Old European symbols of the God- dess and formed in the shape of a mandala not dissimilar from those used for meditation by contemporary Tibetan Buddhist practitioners.

Mandala-shaped loaf of freshly baked bread, brought to Lepinski Vir archaeological site by local Serbian man the day author visited with tour group sponsored by the Institute of Archaeomythology. Photo: Vicki Noble

Paradise Lost

It is a fatal error to assume, as many people do these days, that the development of agriculture itself was the beginning of private property and domination of nature (Noble 2004). Ancient female-based agriculture was practiced in harmony with nature and presents us with an almost utopian model of sustainability and peace on earth, compared with everything that has occurred since these civilizations were first disrupted during the fourth millennium BCE. At that time—with the introduction of male-dominance, kingship, war, slavery, and private property—the peaceful agricultural societies began to disappear (along with their languages, scripts, art, and rituals). The incredibly beautiful artwork of a society like Sumer, for instance, which in the opinion of art historians has never again been equaled (Giedion 1962), was quickly replaced by mass-pro- duction and the values of the economic bottom line, while images of women dancing and performing rituals diminish and were eventually replaced by men (Garfinkle 2003: 269).

Organic and biodynamic farmers today are instinctually groping their way back to what was once an intact system of complex and intelligent relatedness with all of life. Our ancestors (and ancestresses) left us many images, artifacts, and physical signs of the successful continuity of culture, which they created and in which they existed successfully for several thousand years. Their central icon was the Goddess—the Mother of All Things—whose centrality begs to be re-established today along with women in leadership as her ministers. If progres- sives could begin to look at this legacy with open eyes, we could stop confusing the agribusiness of today with the agriculture of the past, and instead recognize matriarchal agriculture as the holistic model it is. We would then be forced to stop claiming, ignorantly, that “there has always been war, and there will always be war, it’s just the human condition.” Perhaps this realization would give us the impetus to refuse and reject the efforts of powerful corporations like Monsanto currently involved in dangerously altering our food at the DNA level, as well as taking out patents (private ownership) on life.

Womb as Tomb: She Gives the Gift of Death and Rebirth

As mentioned earlier, I had the good fortune to visit Lepinski Vir, the oldest Neolithic site in Europe, which was originally situated on “an inaccessible” ter- race overlooking the Iron Gates region of the Danube River separating Romania from Serbia (the former Yugoslavia). The site, on the Serbian side and once fac- ing a “tumultuous whirlpool” (Gimbutas 1999: 56), had to be moved when the river was dammed in recent years. Dating from the mid-seventh to the mid-sixth millennia, and composed of “tombs and shrines in the shape of the female body” (Gimbutas 1999: 55), the site was “not meant for habitation, but for rites of death and regeneration” (Gimbutas 1999: 57). The trapezoidal shrines, which clearly represent vulvas (the sacred pubic triangle of the Goddess), were accompanied by enigmatic rock sculptures that archaeologists have called “Fish Goddesses,” but which are also undeniably an expression of the much later “Sheela-na-gigs” found all over the British Isles. The sculptures, many of which were covered in red ocher, show a wide-eyed (entranced) female figure with legs spread and hands pointing to (or opening) her triangular vulva. And like the earlier paleolithic period, some of the rocks at Lepinski Vir had only a vulva incised—referring in the most abstract and refined way to the Great Goddess in her dual manifestation of life and death, death and rebirth.

Because the human skeletons found at the site were mostly “disarticulated” and the skulls “set aside for special care, often protected with a box of stones,” we can assume that the people practiced secondary burial rites in which they “laid out their dead in front of the shrines for excarnation.” After the defleshing of the human bones by carrion birds, whose bones have also been found at the site, the remains were buried in the shrines (Gimbutas 1999: 59). The earliest im- ages of such “sky burials” are found in wall murals from Catal Hyk in Turkey dated to the sev- enth millennium BCE. One painting shows two towers—one where the headless body has been placed, and one with a head—with vultures ap- proaching each. A second painting shows vultures “with ‘human’ legs and a headless corpse” (Mel- laart, Hirsch and Balpinar 1989: 59-60). Rites of excarnation (“secondary burial”) were practiced all over Old Europe and the Mediterranean region for millennia, and in Central Asia as well, and remnants of this practice are carried on in some places today.

Fishlike female stone deity (“Ancestress”) found at Lepinski Vir (6000 BCE). Reproduction. Courtesy Iron Gates Archaeological Museum on the danube in Serbia. Photo: Vicki Noble

Marija Gimbutas (1991) documents such practices in Italy, the Near East, Anatolia, Greece, and even as far north as the Orkney Islands, with skulls routinely buried separately and skeletons “disarticulated” (283). The famous hypogeum of Malta, for example, contains the remains of 7000 human skeletons that were deposited there over a period of 1500 years. The site was si- multaneously used as a gathering place for funerary rites and communal rituals, a widespread custom of ancient prepatriarchal people.

Frequently these finds (skulls and disarticulated bones, some with cut marks) have led archaeologists to conclude that “cannibalism” and “human sacrifice” were practiced. Yet in Tibet the ancient rite of “sky burial” is still practiced, where a corpse is taken to a “specially designated area outside the town or village, often at the top of a mountain,” and “bodybreakers” (domdens) chop the body into pieces and feed it to the vultures who are considered to be incarnate dakinis. Recent films about Tibet (e.g. Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun, and Himalaya) show graphic rep- resentations of these funerary rites, where pieces of flesh are laid out as a banquet and the giant screaming birds come to feast ravenously on the remains. We in the West tend to view such practices with alarm, judging them as primitive, barbaric, unnatural or gruesome. Tibetans, on the other hand, view a three-day-old corpse as lifeless, “its purpose fulfilled. The manner of disposal is considered as a final act of generosity, enabling other animals to be nourished by one’s remains” (Batchelor 1987: 65, my emphasis). This funerary gift-giving seems to reflect a remnant of the ancient matriarchal understanding of our embeddedness in nature, quite counter to the dualistic phobia of death we have cultivated in the modern West.

A pre-Buddhist rock painting at an important site in Tibet sacred to the Goddess Tara shows a bird-like female identified as a “khyung,” a mythical figure sacred to Tibetans and perhaps a precursor to contemporary “sky women” or dakinis. (Bellezza 1997: 185) This harks back to megalithic sites all over Old Europe where excarnation was the main burial rite, “skulls received special attention” (Gimbutas 1999: 66), and birds of prey were associated with the megaliths (Gimbutas 1999: 71). Bird Goddesses and shamanistic “sky-walking women” (dakinis) are ubiquitous in the matriarchal strata in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas, suggesting a particular function of the female. The function of flight is widely celebrated, perhaps pertaining especially to funerary rituals but also generally related to the spirit journeys of shamanism. Valkyries were winged “corpse choosers” who carried the souls of the dead off the battlefields, and Ovid describes Scythian women as rubbing their bodies with flying ointments just like later European witches were purported to do.

Miranda Shaw (1994) reports on the “siddhis” (powers) of famous yoginis, who “could become invisible, had mastered the ritual gazes, and had the power of fleetfootedness, the ability to traverse vast distances in a matter of minutes” (79). As I wrote about Medea of Colchis, a Bronze Age shaman woman or “sorcer- ess” known for her regenerative magic (Noble 2003), her lineage may continue even today in a group of mostly women and girls living in the Caucasus who are “called messulethe and described as sorceresses” according to a report by Jeannine Davis-Kimball (1997/98). They live among tribes considered to be descendants of Scythians and Sarmatians, and they “fulfill a role very similar to that of Altaic shamans, falling into trances, escorting the dead to the underworld, or reincar- nating them” (42).

Dakinis and Yoginis Carry on the Tradition of the Gift

Shamanism is a service vocation. Once exclusively a women’s province (Czaplicka 1914), shamanism is a sacrificial practice in which the shaman uses her body as a vessel for powerful energies to flow through her for healing and magic. In the most ancient times, women performed this function collectively in ecstatic rituals and communal ceremonies involving (and on behalf of) the whole community. Female Buddhas and high-ranking shaman priestesses are pervasive in the artifacts and images from female-centered civilizations of Old Europe (6000 BCE). [il- lustration] Later during the Bronze Age (3500-1200 BCE), as agricultural civiliza- tions were disrupted and scattered by violence, a special African-European-Asian amalgam of the shaman priestess emerged in the Mediterranean region (known as “Maenads”) with counterparts in the Indus Valley and northern Tibet (China’s Tarim Basin).

Possession is the norm in “women’s religion” around the world, as elucidated in I. M. Lewis’s classic text, Ecstatic Religion (1989 [1971]). Just as a pregnant woman gives over her body for the duration of her incubation, a shaman gives over her body for the temporary use of an incarnating spirit or ancestor. Denigrated today as “merely mediums,” descendants of these special women are still able to make way for more powerful healing energies to inhabit and work through their bodies. Female shamans are officially still active in the contemporary societies of Japan and Korea, as well as in isolated regions of Russia and Mongolia. They can also be found in Nepal, India, Indonesia, and Central and South America, to name only a few places.

The ability to become “empty” is a formal goal of meditation practice, highly valued in Tibetan Buddhism, and embodied by the Tibetan Dakini (sky-going woman). Her selflessness is said to be “compatible with activity in the world ... with, or for, the sake of others” (Klein 1995: 123). The Wisdom Dakini is de- scribed as “fully awakened and acts to awaken others.” (Simmer-Brown 2001: 64) Although it mostly goes unrecognized, Dakinis are believed to take human form as women, so any woman could potentially be acting as a Dakini at any time. As Judith Simmer-Brown puts it in her book, dakini’s Warm Breath (2001), human “women are the display that emptiness takes when it expresses itself in form” (40). The dakini gives “the blessing of her own body,” referring especially to the “subtle yogic body” with its “vital breath, channels, and essences.” In a tantric sexual encounter, the dakini blesses her partner “with her empty and radiant body, a direct transmission of her nature” (Simmer-Brown, 2001: 249). But the dakini’s “empty and radiant body” can also be given in bodywork, healing, and other forms of interaction that are sacred, magical, and nonsexual.

According to scholar John Vincent Bellezza (1997), the Medicine Buddha (“sman lha”) has a female precursor in Tibet, a pre-Buddhist group of Tibetan female dei- ties who “often form sisterhoods.” He describes them, sadly, as “no longer popular and nearly extinct in the region.” The Tibetan word (“sman”) pertains to “both medicine and women,” is “defined as benefit, use or beneficence” (111), and is also “an honorific term for women.” (Bellezza 1997: 130) Put simply, women embody the gift. Bellezza states that, “Women and the sman share the same qualities ... [and] sman also came to mean medicine by virtue of its connection with the feminine qualities of nurturer and healer” (1997: 111). As in Siberian shamanism, the female “sman mo” (“benefactress”) predates the later “sman pa” or male doctor (111). Recognizing the long continuous female lineage that runs like an underground stream through Tibetan Buddhist literature and territory, Bellezza states that, “Though the appearance, theology, and culture of the great goddess could be altered, she was never eliminated” (1997: 117).

Today Dakinis and Yoginis are treated mainly as abstract deities or “yiddams” in the texts, interiorized into Indian and Tibetan Buddhist tantric visualization practices. Nonetheless, their historical reality is strongly attested to. Bellezza and others mention references to “Eastern and Western Kingdoms of Women,” where “women held dominant social and political roles in the autocracy and author- ity that was matrifocal” (Bellezza 1997: 134). The area to the immediate west of Tibet was once known as Oddiyana, the “Land of the Dakinis.” This is the place from which the great guru, Padmasambhava, arrived in Tibet in the eighth century. Dudjom Rinpoche, a high Lama and head of the Nyingma Lineage, is quoted as saying in the twentieth century that “the women of the region belong to an ancient race of dakinis and still ‘have power over the arts of magic gaze, transformation of objects by means of certain gnostic spells, and some minor sorcery’” (Simmer-Brown 2001: 55). “Bodily offerings appear to be the province of all dakinis,” says Simmer-Brown (2001: 247).

In India, the so-called “cult of the Yoginis” embodied many of these same con- cepts. In tantra, the transformative quality of the female fluids was perceived as source and nourishment for the tribe. “(W)hen she is not a mother, its excess is discharged as menstrual blood; when she is pregnant, it becomes the ‘uterine milk’ that feeds the embryo in her womb; when she is a mother, it becomes the milk that feeds her child” (White 2003: 92). Women’s blood is described in tantric texts as the “supreme fluid” and the “font of life itself” (White 2003: 93). “Female [menstrual] discharge is the ‘milk of the vulva,’ and a Yogini’s menstrual blood, which has its origins in her breast, is nourishing” (White 2003: 91).

The Yoginis, also known as Matrikas or “Circles of Mothers” (White 2003: 136), were famous for their “eight siddhis” or supernatural powers. They represent an ancient lineage going back to the Indus Valley and Central Asia, continuing in some form to the present day in self-proclaimed shaman women (“Devi”) like Ammachi. In our day, Ammachi embodies the feminine ideal in her gift-giving expression of divine love. People come to her by the thousands for “darshan” (blessings) which consists of standing in line and getting hugs from this giant of a woman who performs her hugging function for many hours at a time without (apparently) becoming tired. People describe her energy transmissions as power- fully electric, emotionally moving, and consciousness-altering.

Much of my research in the last decade has been to document the unbroken lineage of female shamanism across Afro-Eurasia, from ancient times to the present. The continuity of practices, rituals, and artifacts identifying the sacred women who have functioned as religious leaders in their communities all across the Silk Road for thousands of years is a main theme in my 2003 book, The double God- dess: Women Sharing Power. A major subtext of the book demonstrates direct links between Greek Maenads, Central Asian Amazons, Indo-Tibetan Dakinis and Yoginis, and European Witches. All of these assemblies of women were known for their abilities to fly through the air, heal the sick, resurrect the dead, brew sacred intoxicating fermented beverages (such as Soma), and perform sexual and divina- tion practices for which they have been misunderstood, maligned, peripheralized, and demonized in the modern world.

A timely example of this negative bias is a Russian article describing a rich female burial recently excavated in the Crimea. The Sarmatian woman, who died in her mid-40s, was buried with symbols of great wealth or rank, including her “lavish dress, massive golden earrings decorated with garnets, golden necklace, and golden medals sewn to her dress.” But it was the “occult inventory” (“nine bronze rings, the same number of bells ... [and] a whole array of different amulets” and beads) buried with her that caused the archaeologist to jump to the incredible conclu- sion that she must have been a “witch” (in the pejorative sense). Because “all the relics date back to a much earlier period than the woman’s corpse,” he imagines: “The witch must have dug out those accessories from ancient burials in order to intensify her magic powers.” (“Archaeologists discover witch burial in Crimea”). In fact, heirloom artifacts are commonly found in important female burials from all over the ancient world, and were most likely passed down as “cult” items from one priestess in a lineage to the next, or from mother to daughter—another form of the gift.

The Patriarchal Transition: Stealing the Gift

The shift from a gift economy to a commodity culture can be seen in the tran- sition that occurred from matriarchal cultures to patriarchal ones everywhere. Under patriarchy, shaman priestesses became “witches,” “ogresses,” “demonesses,” “sacred Harlots,” or “temple prostitutes,” and what was once freely given became a commodity controlled by male authorities in male-dominated social structures. Just as the Earth has been harnessed by modern agricultural methods to produce without pause, women’s natural gift-giving capacities have been exploited and colonized for the use of men and male society.

Most recently the transition can be seen in India where the Devadasis (“temple dancers”) were still—until the 1950s—giving the gift of their bodies by danc- ing for the deity in temples, cooking food to be shared communally with the worshippers in attendance, and performing the sacred sexual rites to benefit all beings. Because the British conceived of them as “prostitutes,” the Devadasis were outlawed and forced to stop practicing their ancient rites (Marglin 1985). The visible outlawing of this ancient female tradition of gift-giving goes hand-in-hand with the further colonization of women as witnessed in the systematic use of rape in war, as well as the catastrophic rise of sex work and female sexual slavery around the world in recent decades. In 2004, Amnesty International decreed these pervasive crimes against women to be the worst human rights violations in the world—a pandemic of domestic violence being the number one contemporary global problem named in their report.

When research scholars in the women’s spirituality movement plead for a return to the Goddess, it is not a frivolous or peripheral issue as compared with some supposedly “larger” issues of the day. It is a call to remember the core model of gift-giving that belongs innately to the human species—our evolutionary birth- right—which has been gradually diminished and forgotten over several thousand years of patriarchal domination. As Genevieve Vaughan (2004) often reminds us, we all received the gift of life from a mother—she who gives the gift of her body. The memory of gift-giving exists within us, individually and collectively, and needs only to be remembered and reinvigorated.

Vicki Noble is a healer, artist, scholar, and writer, co-creator of Motherpeace, author of Shakti Women and the Double Goddess. She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality Program at New College of California in San Francisco.


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