The Woman & the Bull

“Goddess & Bull”
Digital Collage
Bison-headed man La Gabillou Cave France, ca.13,000 BCE
Bison-headed man
La Gabillou Cave
France, ca.13,000 BCE

In a previous post we looked at the motifs of woman and bull as represented in Paleolithic art. The so-called “Venus figurines” apparently depicting pregnant women are likely related to fertility, while cave paintings of aurochs or wild bulls appear to be primarily associated with the hunt.  Other paintings feature men with the heads of bison, or wearing elk-horns who may represent shamans shape-shifting into their animal spirit-helpers.

The symbolism of the woman and bull would persist into the Neolithic period and spread throughout the Mediterranean world, according to archaeologist Jacques Cauvin. He proposes the woman was associated with fertility–the birth of human infants as well as beasts. She became the “mistress of animals” and universal mother goddess who brought life as well as death. The bull, on the other hand, symbolized brute instinctual force and violence. By braving the dangerous wild bull, males could prove their courage and prowess in combat. Cauvin writes: “The goddess flanked by a male partner assimilated by the bull, will be the keystone of a whole religious system organized around her”. These two symbols in various forms would constellate the primordial couple—the goddess and her consort the god–of the Neolithic, and polytheistic religions to come. It was their mating which was believed to perpetuate the life cycle of nature.

Archaeologist Gimbutas insists the goddess was primary to the cultures of the Neolithic, reflecting a matrilineal social order in which women served as heads of clans or as queen-priestesses, worshipping a great goddess who symbolized the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. She believes women and men shared equal authority in these societies, with neither sex dominating. Based on her extensive studies of Neolithic iconography, Gimbutas concludes the goddess represented not only fertility and nurturing but also the powers of death and regeneration.

“Bird Goddess”
Vinca Culture,
Serbia 5,000 BCE

As birth-goddess she was often represented as woman with a bird’s head or wearing a bird-mask. Migratory water-birds such as swans, geese or cranes, were associated with her, symbolizing life-giving moisture and the annual return of life. As a mother-goddess she was sometimes depicted as a female bear or doe nurturing her young. As death-goddess she commonly appeared in the forms of vultures, ravens, owls and poisonous snakes. As goddess of regeneration she was associated with creatures such as bees, fish, frogs, sows and serpents.

Gimbutas proposes the male god descended from Paleolithic images of half-human, half-animal men found in cave art. She writes: “…the male god’s principle epiphany was in the form of a bull”.  In the Neolithic period from the 7th millennium onward, phallic masked-men, bull-men and goat-men represent, in the words of Gimbutas: “… a male stimulating principle in nature without whose influence nothing would grow or thrive”. Sculptures of hybrid figures combining the features of man and bull appear in the Neolithic Vinca culture of the Balkans from the 5th-4th millenniums BCE. In ancient Greece, orgiastic rites, possibly descended from the Neolithic, were celebrated in winter and spring festivals dramatizing the seasonal cycle of death and rebirth, and attended by ithyphallic masked-men.

Dionysus as bull with Maenads.
Dionysus as bull with Maenads.

Gimbutas insists the Greek god Dionysus, associated with a bull and the powers of annual fertility and renewal, originated in pre-Indo-European cultures of the Neolithic Balkans and Anatolia. He was worshipped by women as a symbol of masculine virility and his orgiastic rites were celebrated by ecstatic worshippers such as the female Maenads.

The motif of the woman and bull became the basis of later Bronze Age myths. In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh the goddess of love Inanna, angry at the hero Gilgamesh for spurning her amorous advances, lets loose the “Bull of Heaven” upon earth which wreaks havoc until killed by Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu. We learn in another myth that the Bull of Heaven was none other than the husband of Inanna’s sister Erishkegal–queen of the underworld. Inanna’s lover and husband Dummuzi, also known as Tamuz, was also mourned in funeral rites as the sacrificial “Wild Bull”  during his semi-annual confinement in the underworld.

“Europa and the Bull”
Greek pottery 480 BCE

In the Greek myth of the Abduction of Europa, the god Zeus fell in love with the maiden Europa, shapeshifting into a beautiful bull and enticing her to climb on his back. He then swam to Crete with her where he ravished her in the form of an eagle. There she became the first queen of the island, giving birth to its future kings.

An even darker version of the woman/bull myth is the story of the Minotaur. The Cretan queen Pasiphae, under the magical spell of the god Poseidon, became enamored with a bull and mated with it, giving birth to the bull-headed Minotaur. The monster was confined to the underground labyrinth where Athenian youths were sacrificed to it. Finally it was slayed by the hero Theseus, with help from princess Ariadne who gave him a ball of thread to find his way out of the maze. The Minotaur, named “Asterios” meaning “the starry one”,  was associated with the constellation Taurus–as was the Bull of Heaven of Mesopotamian myth. As mentioned in a previous post, Taurus was first recorded in cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic where it likely had mythic as well as calendrical associations.

Cernunnos relief carving Paris, 1st cent. BCE photo:ChrisO
relief carving
Paris, 1st cent. BCE

The goddess and the horned-God would persist in witch-cults throughout European history. The horned deity may have been influenced by Dionysus, the goat-horned god Pan, or the Celtic stag-horned god Cernunnos. Historian Carlo Ginzburg proposes the witches Sabbath as well as some of their magical practices such as ecstatic flight on the back of animal-spirits, and use of hallucinogenic mushrooms to induce altered states of consciousness may have originated in Eurasian shamanism, spread by nomadic Scythians to the Celts, Thracians, and other ancient European cultures.

The primordial archetypes of woman and horned-god continue to be revered by contemporary neo-pagans. Although claims by modern Wicca’s founders of an unbroken lineage originating in prehistoric Europe may be disputed by historians, its primary deities the Great Goddess and her consort the Horned-God have nevertheless been inspired by precedents reaching back to the earliest cultures.


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