Tenacity in religion, myth, and folklore: the neolithic Goddess of Old Europe preserved in a non-Indo-European setting

Michael Everson

This paper was given at the Second Conference on the Transformation of European and Anatolian Culture 4500-2500 B.C., Dublin, 15-19 September 1989, and published in the Journal of Indo-European Studies 17 Numbers 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 1989, pp. 277-95.

Studies of prehistoric European religion interpret the testimony of archaeological evidence as reflected in the abundance of neolithic art, monumental architecture, and settlement paraphernalia discovered and described especially in the past twenty years. The interpretation of these mute materials has rested chiefly upon the evidence offered by documented Indo-European mythologies and those folkways and the folktales associated with them which are preserved throughout Europe, especially in peripheral areas. The folkloristic and mythological evidence for a pervasive neolithic goddess cult throughout Europe is in itself so striking that the burden of disproof lies on the critics of this interpretation, and a heavy burden it would be even if things remained as they are at present. But we have as well a treasure house of supporting and corroborating evidence available to us from the folklore of the one indigenous European people which was able to remain isolated and apart from the relentless influence of Indo-European culture which came to dominate Europe in every sphere: language, religion, social organization, economy, and attitude toward the world -- the Euskaldunak, the Basques of the Pyrenees. This paper will offer an introduction to the Basque goddess, her forms, habits, and attributes, and will demonstrate that, despite even the influence of Christianity in most recent times, the Great Goddess has never yet left the landscape of Europe. While in some areas of Europe she was transformed and absorbed into Indo-European mythologies, in the Basque country she only retreated into those places in which her power and mystery had always been great: into the caves, wells, and mountains of the high Pyrenees.

A systematic description of the nature of the indigenous religion of neolithic Europe was offered first over two decades ago by Marija Gimbutas, and since that time our discipline has seen her work and the work of others elaborate a schema both elegant and convincing.[1] Today we may characterize Old European religion as a labyrinth of conceptually-related symbols emphasizing a dialectic of formation, destruction, and reformation. Growth, withering, and regeneration are the realities of agricultural economy, and it is not surprising that the relation of early farmers to their livelihood found expression in their religion: and so they would understand life to be cyclical, in the pattern of birth, death, and rebirth. One might suggest that such a symbolic system could simply be a methaphor for the patterns of day-to-day neolithic (or palaeolithic!) life, and, as has been suggested in the past, that the images and symbols found throughout the prehistoric period were a form of "sympathetic magic". But early human symbolic systems are no less subtle (and indeed may sometimes be more subtle) than our own; the distinction between "primitive" and "modern" is a notion which should have been discredited and discarded long ago. A symbolic system of the complexity of the Old European type is not a simple metaphor responding to the patterns of early agricultural life -- such a suggestion is needlessly utilitarian -- though it should certainly find its roots in such patterns. But there is in their religion a great subtlety of symbol, and I maintain that, for these prosperous, successful, and creative people, the dynamic and vital Old European symbols reflected a living, generative metaphor, a set of archetypes which informed their lives and their perceptions of their lives: not as a credo of belief, but as a grammar of spirituality.

In order to understand the religious and symbolic systems of prehistory effectively, we must approach them diachronically, to see them as the dynamic and living entities they were. Scholars of the present day who concern themselves with the thorns and the flowers of human spirituality are used to the relative ease of discussing recent, text-based, religions; we have become accustomed to thinking of our documents in terms of synchronic, momentary, and even personal religious experience.[2] The analysis of individual archaeological sites and objects and the analysis of mythological and folkloric materials can give us the kind of diachronic overview of the situation from which we may extrapolate a coherent picture of the spiritual emphasis both of individual cult sites (such as Lepenski Vir) and of larger cultural groups (such as the temple builders on Malta or the Megalithic cultures of the Atlantic coast).

If our purpose is to come to a genuine understanding of the lives of our ancestors and the cultural and spiritual legacy left us by them, we may find it necessary to reevaluate our understanding of the terms religion, myth, and folklore. These terms define a model which can be visualized as a spherical continuum, the center of which any people would call simply, "our way", "the way things are", or "dharma". Such a Way is composed of the totality of symbolic, habitual, individual, collective, and environmental concerns which make up what we call culture; where these concerns touch upon questions of Being and the place of humans in the Cosmos, they make up what we call spirituality. It is we who determine that an element which deals with what we call the Transcendent belongs to the one of the three zones of the sphere called "religious", while something that has to do with some "mundane" utility such as herbal healing or morality tales should be placed into the zone called "folkloric".[3] In what follows if I speak of Old European religion it is because that term appears to encompass the most with the least sense of belittlement[4]; but still I am not happy with the term. To be sure, we must call it something. But thought is not symbolic system is not religion is not belief is not belief system is not mythology is not dharma (etc.). It seems to me that we must unlearn the inherited habits of our imprecise use of such terms. What our scholarship is about, in my view, is the simple and straightforward attempt to understand how our ancestors looked at things and lived their lives, in order to see how we got where we are, and to see if they have anything to teach us. I think it is pretty clear that they do, and that we have quite a lot of work ahead of us working our way through the labyrinth of reconstruction and comparison.

We will not find Old European religion to be always and everywhere uniform in its treatment of sacred space, time, action, or motif; it spans a continent and many millennia. The archaeological record suggests that an emphasis on tradition and continuity could well characterize the Old European complex at its core, prior to the Indo-European incursions. To describe, as we do, a labyrinth of conceptually-related symbols emphasizing a dialectic of formation, destruction, and reformation is not to describe a single culture or cultural complex. Rather, returning to the notion of the generative metaphor, we find instead in Old Europe a cultural multiplex built and building around these cyclical entities.

Now in the Basque country we have a situation unique on the European scene: a test case against which to measure our present interpretations, and with which to assist in shaping our work in future. In Euskaleri we have what to all appearances is an indigenous community which preserves many cultural elements of a non-Indo-European character. We should hope for the Basque material to function as evidence to confirm or deny our beliefs about the nature of Old European religion and its pervasiveness in ancient Europe. Looking at the Basques, we must remember that they are now a modern people, far removed from the Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples we study; yet what we discover in so looking is that what they do seem to preserve is astonishingly familiar.

The name by which the primary deity in Basque mythology is chiefly known is Mari.[5] She is chief of many spirits -- most of whom are female -- found throughout the mythology. Mari is both a proper name and a generic title (that is, "Mari" vs. "the Mari"). It is accompanied by the name of the place with which she is associated. In Amézqueta, Txindokiko Marie is 'the Mari (or Mistress) of Txindoki'. She is known by many other names: Marie Labako 'Mari of the Oven' (in Ispáster), Marije Kobako 'Mari of the Cave' (in Marquina), Andre Mari Munoko 'Madam Mari of Muno' (in Oyarzun), Muruko Damea 'the Lady of Muru' (in Atáun), Anbotoko Dama 'Lady of Anboto' (in Zarauz), Anbotoko Sorgiña 'the witch of Anboto' (in Durango), Aketegiko Sorgiñe 'the witch of Aketegi' (in Cegama), and so on.[6] Numerous places are named after her: Marizulo 'Mari's cavern' (on the mountain of Larrunarri above Amézqueta), Marijenkobia 'Mari's cave' (in Anboto), and Marikutx 'Mari's tomb' (a dolmen in Izarraitz) are examples.[7] Her husband, Maju, also bears the names Sugaar and Sugoi, which mean 'snake'. He often appears as a sickle or half-moon of fire; his passage is said to forebode a storm. Maju visits Mari each Friday to comb her hair, according to legend in Zarauz.[8]

Although Mari's name is reminiscent of the Christian name María, we might easily consider the syncretism to be at least partly coincidental; for there are resonances within the native Basque in other contexts. José Miguel de Barandiarán, the foremost scholar of Basque folklore and mythology, remarked that

The activities of these minor beings support the claim that the functions of the goddess Mari must predate the Christian era. Both the Mairi and Maide are associated with megalithic structures; such structures are known elsewhere in Europe to be ritual centers associated with the principle of death and regeneration. The carrion-eating bird of prey (appearing as vulture, owl, eagle, or raven) was symbolic of this Bird Goddess in the mode of Wielder of Death[10]; we shall see below that Mari can often be connected with such birds. The Bird Goddess is associated with megalithic monuments both in art and grave goods throughout western Europe. For example, of some 725 identifiable bird bones excavated in a chambered tomb at Isbister in Orkney, 90% of them represented the white-tailed eagle Haliaetus albicilla, and belonged to the 800-year period of the tomb's use (ca. 3200-2400 B.C.).[11] Images from Brittany and western Iberia are decorated with the eye-and-eyebrow indicative of the Goddess as an owl, and often with enlarged vulvas, sometimes schematized simply as a single pubic triangle or as multiple triangles and chevrons.[12] The impressive rock engraving from Luffang in Brittany is also highly schematized: the eyes are surmounted by a fierce, angular chevron indicative of the eyebrows and beak seen elsewhere, and the large vulva below emphasizes the Goddess' regenerative aspect.[13]

If we can connect Mari with the Mairi and Maide, we may hypothesize the transformation of history into myth: the sacred places once known to have been built for the Goddess now appear to have been built by her and her minions. That the Maindi are ancestor spirits is not insignificant. It seems clear that the connection of the symbols of bird-of-prey and vulva in the Goddess is evocative of the cycle of formation, destruction, and reformation.

Basque folklore is full of references to a type of creature called the lamiñak, who, as we have seen, are the female counterparts of the cromlech-building Maide. The lamiñak are beings with human form but the feet of a chicken, duck, or goat. There are any number of caves, caverns, and wells named after the lamiñak, who are said to live chiefly in such places. Some place-names of note: Laminen-ziluak 'caverns of the lamiñak', Lamiarrieta 'place of the stones of the lamiñak', Lamiñosin 'well of the lamiñak', Lamiñen-eskaatza 'the kitchen of the lamiñak', and so on.[14]

The lamiñak act in many ways like the little folk throughout European folklore: the brownies of England and Scotland, the Russian domovye, the kaukai of Lithuania, the Scandinavian nisser, and other mostly-benevolent house goblins of Europe are known to help with the chores if fed but make life difficult if ignored; but perhaps the most interesting difference here is that these other spirits are almost universally male, while the Basque lamiñak are female.

Lamiñak possess combs of gold, and many of the mythological poems and songs in the Basque country tell a story in which a woman (and only rarely a man) has stolen this comb; at night the lamiñak approaches the home of that person, demanding the stolen comb back and threatening punishment of various kinds:

Numerous stories are told about rewards given to humans who help lamiñak through labor pains; often the human midwife is given a spindle and distaff of gold.[16]

Mari's own manifestations support our connection of her with the Goddess' death-bringing and regenerative functions. Like her servants the lamiñak, she appears as a woman with the feet of a bird (according to belief in Garagarza); she has been seen of the form of a crow (in Cegama); she and her companions have appeared in the form of vultures in the great cave of Supelegor on the mountain of Itziñe (in Oñate). She is a woman mounted on a ram (in Cegama and Oñate); she has the shape of a male goat (in the cave of Auza in Baztán); she takes the form of a horse (in Arano) or of a heifer (in Oñate); she has the feet of a goat (according to Count don Pedro de Barcellos' 14th-century Livro dos Linhagens). She appears as a tree that looks like a woman or a tree emitting flames (in Oñate). She is a gust of wind (in Escoriaza), a white cloud or rainbow (in Durango and Ispáster), or a ball of fire in the air (in Oñate, Segura, and Orozco). Mari's symbol is the sickle, especially the sickle of fire, as which she appears crossing the sky (in Atáun, Cegama, and Zuazo de Gamboa). She has been seen as a woman emitting flames (in Zaldivia); she is seen seated in a chariot pulled by four horses moving through the air, (in Amézqueta); she has been seen enveloped in fire, lying down horizontally, moving through the air (in Bedoña). In the grotto of Zelharburu (in Bidarray) she is represented by an anthropomorphic stalagmite.[17] Mari is related to the moon: in Azcoita she was seen as a woman whose head is encircled by the full moon; in Escoriaza, she appeared in the figure of the full moon emitting flames.[18] Mari has zoomorphic and energy (flame/light) radiating forms.

Mari's many forms remind us at once of the myriad of forms we know the Goddess to take elsewhere in Old Europe. Like the Goddess, whose forms and emblems vary according to her functions, the forms which Mari takes depend on the realm in which she manifests. According to Barandiarán,

The variations in Mari's manifestations find their roots in the complex symbols and metaphors related to the birth-death-rebirth cycle which was at the heart of Old European religion as we can the reconstruct it. The Bird Goddess presided over the realm of birth and fate in the form of ducks, swans, storks, and other waterfowl; as a Wielder of Death, she found expression in the birds of prey; a Source of Life and Regeneration, she was associated with eggs, and with non-avian forms such as the snake. Coiled and serpentine spirals denote the energetic, life-giving aspect of the Goddess; such spirals are sometimes found as birds' eyes, and can be seen in the horns of a ram, which animal is therefore sacred to her. We should not be surprised, then, to see the Goddess Mari appear as a ram or as a related animal such as the billy goat; nor should we be surprised to find that her consort is Sugaar, the snake. Mari's manifestations as such animals offer us further confirmation of the proposed reconstruction of the Goddess' habits elsewhere in Old Europe.

There are a number of "rules" for approaching and dealing with Mari which are preserved in Basque lore and which may be helpful in reconstructing Old European ritual and religion. For example, one must only use the familiar form of the pronoun and verb with her. Yet one never sits in her presence. One must leave her cavern in the same way in which one entered; that is, if you entered facing inward, you must back out, also facing inward. This is the same condition to be observed, according to Basque tradition, when the soul of a dead person appears; one must never turn one's back to it.[20]

Mari condemns lies, thievery, pride, and boasting, the nonfulfillment of one's given word, the failure to respect others, and the failure to give help to others. Those who transgress will usually be stripped of whatever it was that they lied about, or boasted about, or stole, and so on. If they are shepherds, she will take one of their rams.[21] It is said that Mari bestows her dispensation on those who deny what is and affirm what is not; Mari lives ezagaz eta baiagaz 'from the yes and the no'. In this same way mutual assistance is given between the human world and the otherworld: if one has twenty eggs but claims only sixteen, the four that are left undeclared are said to feed the lamiñak.

One must never damage Mari's habitation, never enter it without invitation, and never take from it; for punishment in such situations is swift and definite.[22] The story is told of woman who stole a golden comb from Mari's cave; that same night a valuable piece of arable land belonging to her was covered completely with stones.[23]

Mari's habitations are by and large subterranean. The Basque country is mountainous and wild, replete with caves and chasms. It is generally believed that Mari's habitations are richly adorned with gold and precious stones. In Cegama it is said that in the cave of Aketegi there are beds of gold. A legend of Cenaruzza tells that Mari gave to one of her Captives a piece of coal, which, later, when taken from the cave, was transformed into purist gold. On the other hand, in Zarauz it is said that in the cave of Anboto there are many objects which appear to be of gold; but when taken outside, they become rotten pieces of wood.[24] Here the Goddess is shown with the power to give or withhold abundance. Her power is both of herself, and of her realm, the Earth. The Basques tell that the Earth is immensely vast and limitless, a plane extending in all directions. The surface of the Earth is alive, and mountains are believed to grow just as living beings do. Inside of the Earth there are immense districts, with flowing rivers of milk. These regions are inaccessible to humans while they live on the surface; but at certain wells or shafts, chasms, and caverns, there is access to this domain. The shaft of Urbión, the chasm at Okina and at Albi, and the caves of Anboto, of Muru, and of Txindoki are known to be such portals. Certain atmospheric phenomena -- chiefly storm clouds and hurricane winds -- proceed from such subterranean regions.[25] Mari is the deviser of many storms. She destroys many trees by lightning at Muru, according to belief in Albístur. In Carain it is said that her appearance at Aketegi causes days of storms. In Cegama, it is believed that Mari hurls storms from the cave at Aketegi or from the one at Murimendi.[26]

In Cegama, it is said that many times Mari can be seen seated by the fire in her kitchen, arranging her long hair. She has been seen spinning at Oñate. Others have seen her combing herself, seated in the sun at the threshold of the cave of Murumendi. In Albístur, she has been seen combing her hair while mounted on a ram. In Goyaz, she spins thread outside her habitation at Muru, especially when it is sunny and there are storm clouds about. In Zuazo de Gamboa, they say that Mari makes skeins of golden thread in her cave of Anboto, gathering the hanks on the horns of a ram, which serve as her bobbins. She spins thread with a golden spindle, in Zarauz and Amézqueta.[27] As we have seen, the motifs of combing and spinning as sacred work of the Goddess echo these same motifs found throughout Europe. Combs and spindle-whorls from the Vinca, Tisza, Gumelnita, Starcevo, and Karanovo cultures are decorated with images of the Goddess or are miniatures of the Goddess herself[28]; fate goddesses weave the tapestries of human life from Scandinavia and the Baltic to Greece.[29]

One thing must be said about the status of Basque mythology in present-day Basque culture: the Basques themselves give it an ambiguous importance. For example: the lamiñak, according to Barandiarán, are spoken of today

It is interesting to note Barandiarán's mention of the opposition of Christianity and the belief in Mari. In fact, the Basque goddess herself takes a rather adversarial stance against Christianity and its proponents; she does not tolerate the intrusion of Christian elements into her domain. There are a number of tales in which a Christian fares rather poorly when he encounters Mari; a representative one, recounted in 1922 to Barandiarán by Manuel de Ugariza of Orozco, tells how the Lady of Anboto and her companions dealt with a shepherd who offended her:
The system of symbolization in Old European religion has been found to be extremely dynamic, flexible, and inventive. It seems that the Old Europeans sought and saw in their world its great patterns: they celebrated the connections between things, and were perhaps not concerned, as we have been, with the differentiation of things one from the other. We should expect to find Old European taxonomies to have much more in common structurally with Navajo taxonomies that with Linnaean ones.[32] It may be that the Old Europeans looked for unity in the things of their world, for the commonality uniting their lives one to another and with the Source of Life itself. The most successful methodology to deal with the reconstruction of the kind of data we have from prehistoric Europe will be found to take not only archaeology and linguistics into account, but anthropology and poetry, and the study of archetypes in mythology, mysticism, and religion. A certain amount of considered intuition is therefore vital.

We know from their art that the Old Europeans worked with an elegant sense of the interconnectedness of symbols and the balance of forms; our reconstruction must be no less elegant and balanced to be convincing. We would do well to look for the subtle to understand these subtle people. It is not safe to attempt to be both seer and scholar, poet and historian -- but we find that a proper archaeomythology must make explicit use of the once-suspect tools of intuition and feeling. This is a heretical notion to many historians of religion -- and doubtless to many archaeologists and linguists -- but recognizing that we have made use of these tools in our reconstruction is, at the very least, honest. Valid connections between Basque folklore collected in the late 2nd millennium A.D. and neolithic artifacts dated to the 4th millennium B.C. can reasonably be made -- and I trust that I have suggested this convincingly -- but it remains true that in some measure those connections have less to do with "algorithms" than with "leaps of faith". Unsubstantiated theory and musing are practices which our Romanticist predecessors have taught us not to employ; but statistical analyses of grave goods and arguments about glottalic phonemes -- though pursuits both noble and necessary -- are not enough either. The great synthesis of Indo-European and Old European studies is yet to be born. As synthesists working between disciplines, we must learn to be poets, and look with our hearts as well as our heads. We know that this is not easy to do -- but our efforts will surely continue to bear fruit.

There is one final word which may serve to remind us of the importance of the Goddess in prehistory as a legacy and heritage in our own mythology. It is a word which is fitting in the most literal sense: for it could fit easily into the folklore of any European culture of the present day, be it Basque, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, or Slavic. Fittingly too, it is the word of a woman, the word of our own Mother Goose:


[1] See especially Marija Gimbutas 1982 and 1989.Back to text.
[2] Our intimacy with the individual affects us whether the work we are reading is anonymous or not. Cf., as examples, the Madhupindika sutta and the Revelations of Julian of Norwich; their textuality, as might go without saying, gives us the immediacy of personality unavailable to us in textless traditions. It seems to me that it is this immediacy which we seek even as we endeavor to make sense of this textless material -- but that we must be aware that what we bring to the material from within makes as much difference to our interpretations as the evidence which comes to us from without. This is what makes speculation about prehistory so difficult and so rewarding. Back to text.
[3] Western post-Romantic scholastic categories like these do not seem to fit real human culture -- even that of Western post-Romantic scholars -- very well. Many traditions do not endeavor to make the distinction between the "secular" and the "religious" that Western intellectual tradition does, or believes that it is able to do. All traditions understand in some sense the notion of Transcendence, but the interface between that Transcendence and "the sacred", "the mundane", and "the profane" is rarely as neat as our categories imply and lead us to believe. Back to text.
[4] Superstition was a category advanced by wily medieval Christian missionaries and other prescriptivists with axes to sharpen, and its legacy -- throughout much of the lay and the scholastic worlds of the present day -- has given a connotation of "ignorant gullibility" to the terms mythology and folklore (see "Superstition" in the Oxford English Dictionary).Unfortunately, despite the work of profound observers of humanity like Joseph Campbell, notions of "primitiveness" still pervade the assumptions which many mythologists, folklorists, and students of religion -- as well as other scientists -- bring to the study of ancient cultures. As I hope to suggest, this sad situation may be only for want of a little imagination. Back to text.
[5] José María Satrústegui 1980:110. Back to text.
[6] José Miguel de Barandiarán 1972:157. Back to text.
[7] Barandiarán 1973:419. Back to text.
[8] Barandiarán 1972:155, 220-21. Back to text.
[9] Barandiarán 1972:158. 'It is possible that the name Mari owes its origin to the Christian María, but other precedent cannot be discounted. There might be some relation with the names Mairi, Maide, and Maindi with which other legendary personages of Basque mythology are designated, even if the themes associated with these are different. The Mairi are the builders of the dolmens; the Maide are mountain spirits, of male sex, builders of the cromlechs, while their female counterparts are the Lamiñak or spirits of fountains, rivers, and caves; the Maindi are perhaps the souls of ancestors which at night visit their old hearths....' (My translation here and below.) Back to text.
[10] Gimbutas 1982:158-63, 1989:187-95. Back to text.
[11] Hedges 1983:78-79, 145-147. Back to text.
[12] See figures 1-5. Back to text.
[13] Gimbutas 1986:11. Back to text.
[14] Barandiarán 1972:138-40. Back to text.
[15] Barandiarán 1973:431-32. 'If you do not give me the winnowing fork and the comb, I will take the nursery of Torrontegi from you.' 'Give me my comb for if not, I will kill you.' 'Give me the comb; if not, I will take your life.' 'Lady of Lanbreabe, give me my comb; if not, I will have your descendents.' 'Kinsman (?) of Intxus, give me my comb; if not, I will take the largest cow in your stable.' 'If you don't give me my comb, I will destroy all your descendents.' 'Maidservant of Matxine, give me my comb; if not, I will give you pain in your bones all of your life.' Back to text.
[16] Barandiarán 1973:448. Back to text.
[17] Barandiarán 1979:102-04. Back to text.
[18] Barandiarán 1972:158. Back to text.
[19] Barandiarán 1972:159. 'Mari generally takes on zoomorphic shapes in her subterranean abodes; she takes the other forms when she is on the surface of the earth or when she crosses the air.
'The animal shapes like that of the bull, ram, billy goat, horse, serpent, vulture, etc., referred to in the mythical tales about the underworld, represent, therefore, Mari and her subordinates, that is, the terrestrial spirits or telluric forces to which the people attribute earthly phenomena. The shape-changing mentioned in various myths confirms this idea.' Back to text.
[20] Barandiarán 1973:417. Back to text.
[21] Barandiarán 1973:417-18. Back to text.
[22] Some may be tempted to appeal for the canonization of Mari as patroness of archæologists. Back to text.
[23] Barandiarán 1973:418. Back to text.
[24] Barandiarán 1972:160. Back to text.
[25] Barandiarán 1979:51-54. Back to text.
[26] Barandiarán 1972:163. Back to text.
[27] Barandiarán 1979:160, 163. Back to text.
[28] Gimbutas 1989: figs. 104-08. Back to text.
[29] Elizabeth Barber, whose Wörter-und-Sachen investigations into the development of textile-culture in prehistoric Europe are paradigmatic for their interpretative incisiveness, has suggested to me that there is a distinction made between spinning and weaving where divinities are concerned. The goddess who spins is in a real sense a maker: for she creates, ex nihilo vel ex ipsa. The goddess who weaves, rather, is a shaper: for she takes what is and imposes form onto it. There is a difference in the connotation of power between she weaver of the tapestry of fate and the spinner of the stuff (that is, Stoff) out of which such fate is woven. It is significant, perhaps, to our comprehension of Mari's place and power in the Basque world, that she Spins, rather than Weaves. Back to text.
[30] Barandiarán 1972:140. 'as imaginary beings of another time. There are, nonetheless, people who, in response to a question about the existence of such beings, remember this traditional Basque phrase or sentence: Izena duan guztla omen da "Whatever has a name exists". Such a notion, and the Christianity which is opposed to it, has given place to an attitude of compromise which appears in many popular stories, and which is found stereotyped in the following phrase, alluding to mythical beings or spirits: Direnik ez da sinistu bear: ez direla ez da esan bear "You don't have to believe that they exist; you don't have to say that they don't exist."'
Barandiarán gives another version of this story in 1973:423; his 70-year-old informant Catalina Erri-Eyerabide related that her father, as a child on the way to catechism, had seen the lamiñak on the road, passing by a river. Later, when he mentioned it to the priest, the priest told him: Todos (los seres) que se habla existen; pero guarda para tí el secreto, no hay que decir que existen 'All (the beings) which are named exist; but keep the secret to yourself -- it isn't necessary to say that they exist.' Back to text.
[31] Barandiarán 1972:290. 'A shepherd built his hut near the cave of Supelegor. Fearing the evil of his neighbor Mari, he fixed crosses and blessed candles on either side of the mouth of the cave. But then a flock of vultures came to him, and alighting on the roof of his hut, they told the shepherd to remove the blessed objects from the cave. They kept insisting until the shepherd, fearing some act of vengeance, gave in to their demands.' Back to text.
[32] Gladys A. Reichert's trenchant analysis of the web-matrices making up Navajo religion may serve as a template for further investigation into the nature of Old European conceptual matrices; see Reichert 1983. Back to text.
[33] Mother Goose 1978:13. It is worthwhile to make one last comment regarding the tenacity of folk tradition. When Blanche Fisher Wright illustrated this collection of Mother Goose rhymes in 1916, she chose to watercolor a woman seated outside of her cave in the act of darning (see figure 6). (This happy happenstance cannot in all probability be reasonably connected to Basque folklore.)
Nursery-rhyme scholarship is not particularly revealing as to the content of this particular poem. Iona and Peter Opie cite its appearance in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, ca. 1744, "the earliest known book of nursery rhymes" (Opie and Opie 1951:432, plate VII [facing p. 154]). Their comment that "'the self-evident proposition, which is the very Essence of Truth' appealed to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century minds" (1951:432), is, if taken to have anything to do with the rhyme's origins, fairly weak and not particularly convincing in light of the tenaciousness of goddess belief in Europe. A delight in self-evident drollery may have preserved the rhyme through the 17th and 18th centuries, but I suggest that the rhyme itself has a more profound ancestry, not unlike that of the ambiguous Basque sentiments about the existence of named beings (Izena duan guztla omen da; direnik ez da sinistu bear: ez direla ez da esan bear) mentioned above (cf. note 30). Somebody first spoke these sentiments aloud, and we may not be wrong to suppose that it may have been someone who saw the encroachment of a new religion onto their own. That, after all, is the kind of explication for transformational process which the members of the 1989 conference sought.
The personage of Mother Goose herself does not extend back into deep antiquity, but rather about three hundred years: Gloria T. Delamar cites a French collection of fairy tales, published in 1696 or 1697 by Charles Perrault, a member of the Académie Française, and entitled "Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités (Histories and Tales of Long Ago, with Morals). The frontispiece showed an old woman spinning and telling tales, with a placard on the page which bore the words Contes de ma Mère l'Oye (Tales of My Mother the Goose)" [Delamar 1987:2-5]. Doubtless we may think that a connection between a spinning or darning grandmother and the telling of folk tales and rhymes was made independently by both Perrault and Fisher Wright. Back to text.


Owl-beaked goddess with breasts and necklace
Figure 1: Owl-beaked goddess with human breasts and necklace, 60 cm tall, engraved on the wall of an antechamber in Hypogeum 23, ca. 3000-2500 B.C., of the Razet cemetery at Coizard, south of Épernay (Marne) in north-central France (after Gimbutas 1989:192 [fig. 295]).
Goddess with beaked eyebrows and vulva
Figure 2: Goddess depicted with beaked eyebrows above and prominent vulva below, 180 cm tall, engraved on stone slab in an angled passage tomb, ca. 3000 B.C., near Luffang on the river Crac'h, south of Auray (Morbihan) in southwestern Brittany (after Gimbutas 1989:193 [fig. 298]). The placement of this powerful abstract image along the passage into the tomb (Shee Twohig 1981:181 [fig. 139]) must have been awesome to those who took part in ritual there. Certainly that placement makes it clear that she was meant to be seen (O'Sullivan 1986:81).
Owl-faced figure with hands at pubis
Figure 3: Owl-faced figure with hands at the pubis, engraved on a stone plaque and found in a megalithic passage grave, ca. 3500 B.C., from Montemor-o-Novo, west of Évora (Alto Alentejo) in west-central Portugal (after Almagro Gorbea 1973:219 [fig. 202]). The goddess' hands often meet at the pubic triangle or lie across her belly (cf. Gimbutas 1989 figs. 307, 309, 320, etc., and figs. 4 and 5 below).
Beaked figure with large eyes, wing-like arms, and chevrons
Figure 4: Beaked figure with large eyes, wing-like arms, and "energetic" chevrons, 7.2 cm high, engraved on a schist plaque and found in a megalithic passage grave, ca. 3500 B.C, from Horta Velha do Reguengos by Barbacena, southwest of Monforte (Alto Alentejo) in central Portugal (after Leisner & Leisner 1959:57-58 [Taf. 34.10]).
Beaked goddess with hands touching the pubic triangle
Figure 5: Beaked goddess with hands touching the pubic triangle, engraved on a light sanddtone plaque found in Dolmen 1, ca. 3500 B.C., at Vega del Guadancil, southeast of Garrovillas de Alcometar (Cáceres) in west-central Spain (after Leisner & Leisner 1959:323 [Taf. 55.1]). Angular zigzags on side and back may be connected symbolically with the regenerative energy of the vulva and of this goddess.
The Old Woman under a Hill
Figure 6: The Old Woman Under A Hill, seated before her subterranean habitation, engaged in typical creative activity (after Mother Goose 1978:13).


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From The Journal of Indo-European Studies Volume 17, nos. 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 1989, pp. 277-295.
Michael Everson, Evertype, Cathair na Mart, 2001-09-21