Before he told the story of how his people received the sacred pipe, Black Elk said:
So I know that it is a good thing I am going to do; and because no good thing can be done by any man alone, I will first make an offering and send a voice to the Spirit of the World, that it may help me to be true. See, I fill this sacred pipe with the bark of the red willow; but before we smoke it, you must see how it is made and what it means. These four ribbons hanging here on the stem are the four quarters of the universe. The black one is for the west where the thunder beings live to send us rain; the white one for the north, whence comes the great white cleansing wind; the red one for the east, whence springs the light and where the morning star lives to give men wisdom; the yellow for the south, whence come the summer and the power to grow.
But these four spirits are only one Spirit after all, and this eagle feather here is for that One, which is like a father, and also it is for the thoughts of men that should rise high as eagles do. Is not the sky a father and the earth a mother, and are not all living things with feet or wings or roots their children? And this hide upon the mouthpiece here, which should be bison hide, is for the earth, from whence we came and at whose breast we suck as babies all our lives, along with all the animals and birds and trees and grasses. And because it means all this, and more than any man can understand, the pipe is holy. [italics added]
In this passage Black Elk illustrates the multivalency of symbols: the sacred pipe does not have a single meaning, but many meanings, in fact, more meanings than anyone can understand.
The idea that symbols have more than one meaning can be difficult for scholars trained in rational analysis to comprehend. Several years ago, I sent the blog I wrote about The Turtle Goddess of Myrtos to a colleague. When I saw him a few months later, I asked what he thought of my interpretation. He responded: “I did receive the link but I deleted it because the image is a Goddess, not a turtle.” For him, apparently, it could not be both a turtle and a Goddess.
I wonder if scholars of classics and archaeology dismiss the work of Marija Gimbutas in Language of the Goddess in part because they do not grasp the concept of the multiplicity of meanings encoded in symbols. When she deciphered “the language of the Goddess,” Marija Gimbutas did not find one meaning per artifact; rather she found many meanings in each of the images she studied.
Today I would like to discuss the meanings of an ancient Cretan vessel dated c. 2200 BCE found in a cemetery near the Sacred Center (or Palace) of Malia.
Gimbutas offers the following interpretation:
The beaked and winged figure has nipples that are actually spouts, she is covered in bands of white-painted zig-zags and parallel lines. Note her enormous eyes, another Divine Source. (38)
This reading is found in a chapter of Language of the Goddess titled “Breasts of the Bird Goddess.” Close readers of the book as a whole will know that female images from Paleolithic and Neolithic Old Europe frequently have “pinched” faces that represent the “beak” of the bird Goddess. The fact that this vessel has “wings” rather than “arms” supports this interpretation.
The “breasts” of this image are not birdlike, for birds are not mammals. But birds make nests, lay eggs, and feed their young, causing humans to view them as “good little mothers.” Gimbutas provides many images of birds with breasts. What ties “breasts” to “birds” is that both symbolize the “Source of Life.”
In the second chapter of Language of the Goddess Gimbutas states that the zig-zag is one of the earliest symbols created by human beings. It is found on artifacts created by Neanderthals c. 40,000 BCE. Amassing many artifacts and comparing the symbols on them, Gimbutas concludes that the zig-zag is a symbol for water. This connects the zig-zags on the vessel with “water” itself as the Source of Life. In a later chapter, Gimbutas discusses the “Eyes of the Goddess” as a Source from which water flows.
What we can see happening in Gimbutas’ interpretation is well expressed by Black Elk when he says, “But these four spirits are one Spirit after all.” The four symbols of bird, breast, water, and eyes, all point to Source of Life.
I would like to add a new interpretation: I suggest that this vessel is a symbol of the Mountain Mother. Those who have visited Crete are well aware of the high mountains that surround the hills and valleys, framing the landscape as people go about their daily tasks.
In her autobiography, environmental activist Wangari Maathai describes her people’s traditional understanding of Sacred Mount Kenya thus:
Mount Kenya, known as Kirinyaga, or the Place of Brightness, and the second-highest peak in Africa, was a sacred place. Everything good came from it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water. … As long as the mountain stood, people believed that God was with them and that they would want for nothing.
There are several reasons for thinking that the vessel from Malia is an image of the Mountain Mother. First, the overall triangular shape of the vessel suggests a mountain peak. Second, the coloring of the vessel—grey with white patterns—mimics the bedrock of Crete, a grey marl with cracks filled with a white crystalline mineral. Third, the series of rectangles with lines at the bottom of the vessel can be seen as the fertile fields at the foot of the mountain. Fourth, we know that the ancient Cretans worshiped on mountain tops all over Crete in the well-known Peak Shrines. Some say the King ascended to a high place to survey his realm, but isn’t it more likely that the ancient Cretans were honoring the Mountain Mother as the Source of Life?
This interpretation of the vessel does not detract from, but rather adds to the meanings offered by Gimbutas. I imagine that when the ancient Cretan priestesses poured water from this vessel in ceremonies in a cemetery, they were invoking the Source of Life and asking that the cycles of birth and death be followed by regeneration in their communities and in nature. Perhaps the priestess said something like this before she began the ritual:
I know that it is a good thing I am going to do; and because no good thing can be done by anyone alone, I will first make an offering and send a voice to the Source of Life, that She may help me to be true. See, I fill this sacred vessel with water from the river; but before I pour from it, you must see how it was formed and what it means.
This vessel has the beak and wings of the birds of spring, the breasts that nourish life, and the eyes from which flow the waters of renewal. But these sacred powers are one power after all, for this vessel has the form of Mountain Mother: the birds fly above her and nest in the rock crevices of her body, the clouds gather around her head, and the rivers and streams flow down from her eyes into to the villages and fields below. She is made of clay that comes from the Earth, as we come from the Earth, at her breast we are nourished all our lives, along with all the animals and birds and trees and grasses. And because it means all this, and more than anyone can understand, this vessel is holy.
Carol’s new book, written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.
Join Carol on the life-transforming and mind-blowing Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Space available on the fall tour. Early bird special until June 15.