In the cash-strapped days following independence, a trio of Ukrainian businessmen watched in horror as illegal digging and the black-market antiquities trade threatened to denude Ukraine of its historical patrimony. The three began to buy up antiquities before they could leave the country, and so assembled the world's largest private collection of artifacts from the Copper Age Trypillian culture (4500-2700 BCE).

I saw a traveling exhibit from this collection at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis in early March 2011. What I saw there forced me to reassess my analysis of the work of Lithuanian-born archaeologist (and feminist ideologue) Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994). Although none of the ceramics in the collection had been excavated before her death, I found that the analytic vocabulary of symbols that she articulated in her 1989 book The Language of the Goddess again and again produced cogent readings of the art.

Let me take one particularly striking example. The not-quite-life-sized (6¼ x 2½ inch) clay phallus and testes (shown above), from the Khmel'nitska region of Ukraine, dates from the Trypillian BI period, roughly 4500-3500 BCE. Above the testes is a small, inset cup; the clay wedge that supports the phallus gives the entire piece a rather droll, and probably not unintended, resemblance to a quadruped. (“I like the kickstand,” I overheard one visitor say.)

Note the engraved “decoration.” Twin spirals adorn the sides of the testes. There are parallel lines engraved along the phallus itself. Rows of evenly-spaced dots ring the top of the scrotum and run down the length of the shaft.

To slightly over-simplify, in Gimbutas' reading of Old European symbolism, lines = energy/energy flow, spirals = concentrated energy, and dots = seeds. All of these readings make perfect sense here. Power infolds upon itself and concentrates in the testes, and flows down the shaft of the phallus in the form of semen: seed. Virtually every traditional society that practices agriculture draws an analogy between seeds and semen; although we cannot prove that the ancient Trypillians did so, it seems entirely likely.

In this simple piece, then, we see simultaneously both the external form of the phallus and its internal workings. I find myself both moved and impressed by the depth, elegance, and droll humor of the piece, as well as by its larger cultural implications of the male as both bearer and sower of seed.

The latter-day theoretical excesses of Gimbutas' work—prehistoric Goddess monotheism, pacifist matriarchal utopias, and sexist cultural caricatures—should not blind us to the insights to be gained from her sensitive readings of the nuances of Old European symbolism, art, and ideology. The true, lasting value of her work for contemporary pagans lies not in her overall cultural theorizing, but in her profound understanding of the internal logic of ancestral symbolic thought.

The magical and prayerful purposes of this little clay phallus I leave to the reader's imagination. We will never, of course, be able to prove what manner of offering went into the little clay cup that rests on top of the testes.

But I think that we can be pretty sure what it was.



 Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (1989). Harper & Row.