There is a strong possibility that in prehistory – in Old Europe and perhaps elsewhere – our ancestors lived for centuries in peaceful, matrilineal societies that revered an all-powerful Nature Goddess. To illustrate what life might have been like in such a Neolithic society, we can focus on an archaeological site called Çatal Hüyük (also spelled Çatalhöyük and Çatalhüyük). One of the largest Neolithic sites ever discovered (the Neolithic era generally dates from ca. 8000 to 3000 BCE), it is located in south-central Turkey and was at its peak between 6500 and 5650 BCE. It is well-excavated and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012.
The Town and the Findings
Archaeologists who dug one of its 32 acres were astounded at what they uncovered: 13 building levels with houses, temples, murals, reliefs, sculptures, trade items, etc. This town continued for more than a thousand years. It was an orderly settlement that reflected remarkable stability. It is estimated that 7,000-10,000 inhabitants could have lived there at one time. (See photos here.)
As described by the late archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (see especially Civilization, 7-9), the houses at Çatal Hüyük were densely grouped; many were built against existing structures and open courtyards occurred randomly. They were built of mud brick with flat roofs and no doors: people entered their houses through the roof. Interiors were clean and sparsely furnished. None of the houses probably held more than eight persons. Kitchens occupied about a third of a house’s total floor space and ovens were set low in the walls. Storage rooms contained baskets for grain, tools and other supplies.
People here cultivated wheat and barley and grew or gathered green and root vegetables and fruits. They ate meat from cattle, kept goats, and hunted deer and wild pigs. Throughout its existence, the town traded obsidian and flint. Obsidian – volcanic glass – was used for cutting tools and mirrors. They also traded in alabaster (used for jewelry and figurines), white marble, iron oxides for pigments, and various rocks used for beads.
Temples were found in the living area in structures similar to houses in which people lived; 49 shrines or sanctuaries have been excavated. Of 300 excavated rooms at the site, 88 had painted walls, with each painting usually about 12 to 18 m long. The main themes were the Goddess of Regeneration, often as a frog-shaped woman giving birth, and the Goddess of Death in the form of a vulture. Images of the vulture are juxtaposed with those of human skulls, bulls’ heads, the lower jaws of boars, and female breasts. Such contrasting images of life and death may well indicate the inevitable cycle of being “eaten back” into that primordial source that gives birth and nourishment to all life.
The dead themselves were buried under platforms in the houses after their skeletons had been stripped of flesh and internal organs through exposure to birds. Burials of women painted with ochre were found under the floors of temples and under wall paintings. One woman was buried with three tusked lower jaws of wild boars arranged around her head; this richness, combined with the fact that her grave was underneath the largest temple, suggests that she may have been a queen-priestess. The richness of female burials is consistent throughout Old European cemeteries; there are no male graves with such extraordinary symbolic items.
Women and Priestesses
Reconstructions of cultic scenes at Çatal Hüyük by James Mellaart, the excavator, show priestesses conducting funerary rites, which indicates an all-female priestly class. (It should be noted that Dr. Mellaart, who died in 2012, was very controversial and had his dig permit rescinded by the Turkish authorities in 1965 following accusations of forgery. Prof. Ian Hodder took over the excavations in 1993, and his findings largely support basics of the earlier digs.)
Another aspect of life which would have been under women’s control was agriculture, and it is likely that craft activity was also in women’s purview. At any rate, wooden and stone vessels were made with great skill. It is difficult to know exactly how men and women related, but it seems from the evidence that women and men participated in the production and consumption of a variety of goods and that the social and ceremonial life of these people, while dominated by women, was fairly fluid.
Agricultural rituals would have been enacted by priestesses to ensure a successful crop. Other rituals centered around birth, healing, and death. These rites often included dancing, pouring libations or offerings to the Goddess, chanting and singing, playing musical instruments, reciting spells, conducting liturgies, and possibly sacrificing an animal.
Elise Boulding, in The Underside of History, asserts that the Çatal Hüyük priestesses presided over three types of rites: a) marriage, in the Goddess’ aspect of youth and beauty; b) giving birth, in the Goddess’ aspect of life-giver; and c) funerary rites. The priestess probably had a full-time occupation due to all the things she would need to know to perform this role. She would have been one of the few women in a given village who did not undertake a wide variety of tasks in her daily life.
Since women had charge of agriculture, they would have known a great deal about plants and herbs. Thus it would have been women who made various concoctions to treat different ailments. Women were skilled in the use of medicinal herbs and were skilled in balancing human, animal, and plant vitality.
Women were also highly involved in the creation of the exquisite ceramics, pottery and other art that have been found at Çatal Hüyük. As Boulding argues, “Women had extensive pottery and basket-making areas” in villages such as Çatal Hüyük. “Special attention would be given to the making of figurines to be placed in the cult center building, and time would be spent caring for that building. Women also made figurines for their own homes.” (Boulding, 105, 107)
In sum, the extremely important site of Çatal Hüyük is a primary example of life in the Neolithic era. The village was, as far as can be determined from the evidence, a place of peaceful co-existence where women played major social and economic roles and where it was a female deity that was revered.
Abrahamsen, Valerie A. Goddess and God: A Holy Tension in the First Christian Centuries. Marco Polo Monographs 10. Warren Center, PA: Shangri-La Publications, 2006.
Boulding, Elise. The Underside of History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1976; rev. ed., Sage Publications, 1992.
Çatalhöyük Research Project, http://www.catalhoyuk.com/project/history.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Çatalhüyük, archaeological site, Turkey,” https://www.britannica.com/place/Catalhuyuk.
Evans, Arthur. The Palace of Minos: The Neolithic and Early and Middle Minoan Ages, Vol. 1. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1921.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess, ed. Joan Marler. San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1989.
Mellaart, James. Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967.
Sjöö, Monica and Mor, Barbara. The Great Cosmic Mother. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987.