by Theresa C. Dintino
Fascinating artifacts depicting beliefs about the Archetype of the Womb are bread ovens created in the shape of a pregnant human uterus, images of female hips as wide, encircling alchemical ovens and temples of worship that contain bread ovens as a focal point.
In the Neolithic Cucuteni culture of Eastern Europe we find profound illustrations of this concept. The Cucuteni culture (circa 4800-3500 BCE) located in areas of Romania, Russia where it is called Tripolye and Ukraine where it is Trypillia, was a pre-patriarchal culture that grew to enormous size and left a wealth of artifacts. Their ceramic pottery and designs are among the most elegant in human prehistory.
The largest Cucuteni village, Tal’noe, south of present day Kiev had up to 20,000 people and 1500 houses on 700 acres. Here, the earliest cultivation of cherry trees is found, as well as other orchards of fruit, and fields of cultivated grains. They raised cattle and pigs and engaged in hunting and fishing. Cucuteni villages were often circular with the tallest buildings positioned at the outer ring for protection from wild animals and a meeting place at the village center.
Cucuteni villagers lived in rectangular houses with 2-3 rooms each containing a large hearth and separate bread oven. There were many two story buildings, some of these were ceramic workshops: ceramics stored on the top floor, and a work area with kilns below. In one of these workshops archaeologists discovered an early version of a pottery wheel, and one of the first two tiered ovens for baking earthenware. Burials of women with pottery tools were uncovered and all depictions of people creating pottery were female. It may be that this was female craft.
Within the Shrine of the Bread Goddess
What does it mean to bake bread in worship? What does it mean to bake bread as worship to Her? To bake bread in the many shapes and manifestations of Her? To bake bread in adoration of Her regenerative womb?
What would it be like to gather together to roll and shape dough into female forms, the uncooked dough sticking to your fingers as you shape it into the likeness of Her nurturing womb space. As your hands shape warm dough into rounded loaves, the ripe and potent dough pushes against your fingers—responds. You stamp the bread dough with a symbol of regeneration. Spiral, seeded triangle, meander: symbols of moving energy, transformation, sacred process of the Goddess.
Imagine the shrine, a large central oven fired by wood felled by your axes, carried by your arms, stacked by your hands in the process of clearing trees to maintain the health of the forest, your immediate neighborhood, your ecosystem, your village. The firewood itself and the fire created from it yet another manifestation of the alchemical process of the universe.
Can you feel the warmth of the shrine room where dough is rising, where bread is baking, your body hot on the inside? Can you smell the rich dough baking, transforming becoming? This is not a sit down and be quiet kind of church, in this temple activity is taking place. I imagine low humming, group singing, quiet conversation about people in need. Soft prayer is being spoken. Perhaps someone has an instrument, a drum, there could be slight dancing, hips moving with the beat. You grind grain that you have planted and sown from seed you collected from previous seasons of your own labor, you are witness to this whole process—bread is the ultimate outcome, is the culmination: food. Eating the bread is the reward—pleasure and engaged participation in the creative process of the universe. I want to go to this church!
I believe that early people had an intuitive, if not more informed, way of knowing that the process that turns galactic clouds into stars, births planets and lifeforms is the same one that turns grass that starts from a seed into edible, warm velvety bread. It is the alchemical process of the universe—which they envisioned as the Goddess. The alchemical process of baking bread, molding and heating clay into pots, metallurgy, weaving, horticulture, giving birth, these are all ways of participating with that process. Early people understood this and so they baked bread to honor the force they saw as responsible for the universal process of becoming. They saw this force as female. How do we know they envisioned Her as a Goddess, a female force? Because they baked images of female in clay, because they created temple models with breasts, because they created ovens in the shape of the human uterus.
Baking bread in ritual fashion is a custom well known in European cultures where it is a continuous tradition still active today. We are sure that ancient Goddess worshippers carried on this practice for there is a reference in the bible to the pagan women who baked bread (cakes) to the Queen of Heaven.
In Dreams of Isis, Normandi Ellis tells us that in Egypt, “hieroglyphically, all goddesses are indicated by the t phonetic sign, which was the image of a loaf of bread, and that the ancient Egyptian bread of heaven was originally the Goddess Nut.” Nut is the sky Goddess who swallows the sun, RA, every night to be reborn through her body into the morning. Each night RA is transformed within the body of the Goddess, traveling through her interior darkness, birthed back into the light. Here again is evidence of sacred eating, being ‘devoured’ by the Goddess coexisting with ideas of death and rebirth, transformation.
In my own Italian American tradition my Grandmother baked bread ritually every Easter creating what she called an Easter baby with an egg in its center. Curiously the baby always had large breasts. This was no baby.
Many Goddesses in all cultures are associated with grain: Demeter (Greek), Ceres & Annona (Roman) Ukemochi (Japanese) Quinoa-Mama (Peru) Zaramama (Peruvian corn goddess) The most famous Goddess image from Çatal Hüyük, a Neolithic village in Anatolia, large bellied and seated between two lions, was found in a grain bin.
Clay stamps have been found in the shape of loaves that were probably stamped onto the top of bread either before baking or when they came out of the oven. The symbols on the stamps are often spirals, seeded lozenges, meanders and labyrinths; symbols identified with regeneration.
One bread oven found in Hungary (circa 5000 BCE) has the shape of a pregnant human uterus with an umbilical cord on the top. The oven is marked with energetic lines. Could these be contractions?
The Neolithic revolution which brought about a more settled lifestyle and the development of the cultivation of crops gave rise to the conscious awareness of this transformative force which humans found they could participate with in ways before unknown. In the Cucuteni Culture (Trilpolye/Tripallia) of Eastern Europe, predating Dynastic Egypt, we find potent illustration of this consciousness arising in humans and the sacred ritual they used to honor it.
From Popudnia, in Western Ukraine, north of Uman, there is a Cucuteni model of a shrine with the bread oven as focal point. In this truly astounding shrine model not only is the baking honored but the process of grinding the wheat into flour as well. On the bench to the right of the oven was found a female figurine with her hands on her breasts, there is another sculpture on the far side of a woman grinding grain, there are pear shaped vases on a platform, perhaps for grain storage, offerings, or yet another metaphor for the womb. In the middle of the room is a “raised platform in the shape of a cross decorated with grooves….such cross shaped platforms also occur in the actual houses of the Cucuteni settlements and are known to be places for votive offerings.” The shrine has a separate entryway and a threshold over which one must cross to enter. One wonders who was allowed in this special place.
The posture of a woman with her hands on her breasts is a prevalent one throughout cultures that honored the Goddess. It is an honoring of the sacred life force which moves though a woman’s breasts upon pregnancy and nursing her young. The Goddess not only births you and takes you back when you die but sustains you through life with her nourishment. This is a sacred act, this gesture of putting ones hands to ones breasts, it is a gesture saying ‘I recognize and honor the Goddess within’. Did it incorporate a slight bow? Here we have the Goddess being honored as the universal nurturing force in combination with a shrine to the Bread Goddess. Eating bread baked within the context of these shrines is yet another ritual honoring the transformational process of the universe. Eating itself yet another part of this process, an act of transmutation.
In the early Cucuteni settlement of Sabatinovka II in the western Ukraine we find a full scale temple with an oven as the focal point, dating from 4800-4600 BCE. Covering most of the far wall is a long bench altar. Next to the altar is an oversized, horned seat. Wide hipped, female figurines are found on the stone steps of the entryway; inside by the oven and on the altar where sixteen sit within horned chairs, mirroring the life sized one beside them. I wonder over these chairs. Were they birthing chairs? Initiation chairs? Clearly Hathor, the horned Cow Goddess, is also in this room. Some of the figurines held baby snakes in their arms. They sit upon wide, egg shaped hips and buttocks which are accentuated and match the recurring theme of the culture which crafted their female figurines with emphasis on the womb center. If we were to crack open these hips, would there be eggs held within them as in other sculptures in this culture?
A human woman probably sat in this chair but to what purpose? Unfortunately this horned chair is often called a throne. The word throne is problematic in that it implies a style of hierarchy—pomp and circumstance, power over—which I do not believe early people engaged in. Possibly a wise woman or a priestess sat in this chair to carry out a ritual. I believe it was a chair that every woman sat in at certain transitional stages of her cyclic female life. The chair is a meter wide and originally had split planks covering it. One meter is large, especially for a time when people were smaller. Perhaps more than one person sat here at a time, mother daughter, sisters, maiden friends, crone friends, a large pregnant woman. Was this a chair to bless the microcosm of the universal alchemical womb held within each individual female’s hips, and all the power that implies?
The large hipped women signify the ability to generate, regenerate, to transform, her hips yet another metaphor for the oven—the alchemical urn. The oven yet a metaphor for her hips. One wonders whether bread was baked in a similar shape to these wide hipped, fat thighed women, then offered up and eaten in ritual fashion.
When people speak of “fertility Goddesses” many go directly to the process of birth and reproduction, to insemination. Honoring of ‘fertility’ is so much more. It is a complex honoring of the life process of generation, death, regeneration, becoming, dissolving, becoming again. This includes honoring ovulation, and the absolute magic of the process carried out by the human female ovaries every moon, itself a cyclical process of generation, death and rebirth. Honoring fertility includes an honoring of the Archetype of the Womb which includes the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. The ‘horns’ are the fallopian tubes and ovaries. The Archetype of the Womb includes all of these components of woman’s womb center. The Archetype of the Womb is horned or, as I like to refer to it, ‘winged’, the fallopian tubes and ovaries that which allow it to ‘take flight’.
The female sculptures found in the remains of this culture are particularly provocative and tie into the overall cosmology of these people which was very much concerned with the generative force of the universe as embodied in the female form. They are large hipped women with the top portion of the body deemphasized. Frequently the buttocks protrude backward as though the woman is thrusting them out to add even more emphasis in case we missed the point, which we clearly have for over two thousand years. The figurines are marked with various symbols. Energy lines run up and down the body, opposing spirals spin and whirl at the place of the back of the hips, a large elongated spiral moves and swirls over the breasts, as though to accentuate the sustaining and nourishing energy found there. These markings honor and represent forces moving within the woman, within her body, and within the body of the Goddess. I use the word within because when found, some of these figurines were broken open revealing within the hip space two neatly nestled eggs. Double egg image abound in this culture, painted onto vessels and onto the base of large plates and platters. Double eggs, within the hips, “within her hips there were eggs baking”.
Often I think these Goddesses are images of the body of the universe and the markings indications of the creative power in the Cosmos. Like Nut She is the cosmos, the stars live upon her skin. Some have interpreted these markings as tattoos the actual Cucuteni women had on their bodies. What are these ‘energy lines’? Even if they were tattoos they had to be representative of something. They could be indicative of hormonal changes a woman’s body goes through every month and then extremely at puberty and menopause. Interestingly, hormonal changes in a woman are primarily orchestrated by the ovaries, the dual eggs nestled within her hip center. Perhaps Cucuteni sculptors understood on a fundamental level the power of the hormones created by the ovaries and the energy patterns generated and moving out from the dual eggs at women’s cores.
Herbalist Susun Weed sees the ‘energy lines’ as exact depictions of menopausal hot flash energy which she calls a Kundalini awakening. Kundalini is the term Hindus give to the energy of the serpent of the base of the spine waiting to be awakened. The awakening of this serpent leads to enlightenment. In the shrine of Sabatinovka II some of the figurines on the altar where holding ‘baby’ serpents. It is increasingly clear that the kundalini force in a woman lives in the uterus and ovaries, rather than the base of the spine as is always suggested. It is often orchestrated by the female hormones of which the ovaries are main producers. Women have spontaneous kundalini experiences at birth, puberty, and menopause, times of intense hormonal activity. Kundalini is a natural part of a woman’s body chemistry, not something we need to strive for or ‘achieve’. Ancient women knew this. Kundalini has been called many things by different cultures. Sekhem, numen, chi, serpent of fire, life force. Kundalini permeates the cosmos and also a woman’s womb center within the furnace of her nurturing hips. Fire. heat, the heat which transforms, the womb and ovaries as the internal oven-transformer-generator.
Are these shrines and wide hipped women a depiction of the oven/generator at our cores literally heating things up and ‘baking’ us, getting things ‘cooking’? The ovaries and uterus are the storehouse and generator of kundalini energy, the energy of enlightenment. Our ovaries and wombs within are transmutational centers. Cucuteni people also worked in metallurgy, they understood the fire which transforms. The saw that this ‘serpent energy’ is generated at our cores. They knew that women carry the Holy Grail within their hips.
Women embody the alchemical womb oven of the Goddess at all times, whether or not we are still fertile and bleeding, whether or not we have had a hysterectomy. The power center is still there. We are microcosms of the Archetype of the Womb. We hold this power within us, it sits at our centers, these days largely ignored and unappreciated, or even hated and reviled. The truth is, the Goddess created us in Her image. Ancient women, Cucuteni women, our ancestresses, honored this knowing in their shrines and with their womb ovens. The imagery they left behind, the language and markings, the art and the passion these artifacts emit palpably still, almost seven thousand years later, can lead us back to this knowing. Thank you Cucuteni Mothers of the past.
When the bread is baked we gather together and eat Her, Her body nurturing our bodies that we may feed other bodies, transforming us that we may in turn transform.
©Theresa C. Dintino
- Marija Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) p.34
- Normandi Ellis, Dreams of Isis: A Woman's Spiritual Sojourn, (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1995)p.354
- Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess , (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989)p.148
- The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, p.70.
- Ibid., p.73
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