Power in the Female Body


(This piece is excerpted from the author’s manuscript exploring northern European shamanism.)

“The roots of shamanic activity extend deep into the past and so too do signs that women have been important, active participants…. The skeleton [found in] Dolni Věstonice…is convincing evidence of prehistoric women shamans.”[1]

Dolni Věstonice is an Upper Paleolithic archeological site in the Czech Republic about one hundred miles north of Vienna, Austria. First discovered in the early twentieth century, the site was radiocarbon dated to approximately 28,000 years ago. While this place is now arguably near the geographic center of Europe, during the Upper Paleolithic period, the area was on the edge of the glacial ice. The grave mentioned above was of a woman in her forties–old enough to have been a grandparent.As an elder, she would have been important to her people. Rachel Caspari argues[2] that elderly people were highly influential in prehistoric society. Grandparents assisted in childcare, perpetuated cultural transmission through storytelling and contributed to the increased complexity of stone tools through their practiced experience. In other words, during the Stone Age an elder was a vital repository of all the collected knowledge, history and wisdom of her or his people.

Not simply set apart by her advanced years, the woman of Dolni Věstonice also had a marked facial asymmetry. Her high-status burial and facial deformity suggests that she was a shaman. According to Simon Fraser University archaeologist, Brian Hayden it was “not uncommon that people with disabilities, …[were thought to have]… unusual supernatural powers”[3] This special woman was buried under two engraved mammoth shoulder blades. She and the contents of her grave had been painted with red ochre after her death. Over her head was a flint spearhead and in one hand she held the body of a fox.

12,000 years ago in another part of Eurasia, a shaman in northern Israel was afforded similar honors[4] when she was buried. Relatively old for her time, the nearly 5-foot-tall, 45-year-old woman was placed in a mud-plastered and rock-lined pit in a cave and was buried beneath a large stone slab. She was buried with fifty carefully arranged tortoise shells, parts of wild pigs, an eagle wing, a cow tail, a leopard’s pelvis, two marten skulls, the forearm of a wild boar, which was laid in alignment with her upper left arm and other artifacts, including a human foot.[5]

Approximately 9,000 years ago, a younger female shaman was interred in a foot-thick layer of red ochre in what is now Bad Dürrenberg, Germany. Like her predecessors, she was interred with many extraordinary grave goods including crane, beaver and deer bones as well as antlers and shells. She was also accompanied by a year-old-child. Entering the spirit realms for the final time, she wore her shamanic costume. A spray of feathers was attached to her right shoulder. Over her leather dress, she wore a deerskin cape with the face of the deer drawn up on her head as a hood. Antlers were affixed to the top. A breastplate of leather and split boar tusks hung on her chest and the area above her eyes and around her face was lavishly decorated with suspended slices of boar tusks and other animal bones and teeth. Along her brow, a fringe mask or “eye curtain” of beads and ruminant incisors dangled in front of her eyes.[6] This toothy mask was very similar to the fringe masks that are still worn by the shamans of Siberia and Central Asia.

Throughout Northern Eurasian cultures, shamans were frequently women.[7] The shaman’s grave of Dolni Věstonice has many similarities to others found across the region that range in dates from the Upper Paleolithic to a much more recent past. In the far-eastern Russian Arctic, a grave from only 2,000 years ago and dating from the Old Bering Sea culture held the skeleton of an elderly woman with a wooden mask at her knees. Her grave had been constructed so that she appeared to have been laid to rest in the body of a whale. Many of the artifacts found in this grave are objects would have been used in women’s activities, however her grave also held objects related to healing, rituals, and dance, indicating that this woman was most probably a shaman. From the wide varieties of burial offerings in her grave, it was also clear that her people revered her.

During the early 20th century prior to the Soviet Revolution, the cultural anthropologist M.A. Czaplicka gathered together much of the remaining shamanic knowledge of Siberia tribes. In her 1914 book, Aboriginal Siberia, A Study in Social Anthropology she quotes a Chukchee proverb, “Woman is by nature a shaman.” Indeed, hunter-gatherer tribes across the Arctic, Siberia, Central and Eastern Asia preserved the tradition that the prototypical “first shaman” was female. It is for that reason that both male and female shamans’ ceremonial costumes reflect traditional woman’s garments such as aprons, skirts and caps. Czaplicka said it this way, “Taking into account the present prominent position of female shamans among many Siberian tribes and their place in traditions, together with certain feminine attributes of the male shaman (such as dress, habits, privileges) and certain linguistic similarities between the names for male and female shamans…in former days, only female shamans existed, and..the male shaman is a later development.…”[8]

This information is not meant to suggest in any way that men cannot be shamans or that male shamans didn’t exist in prehistory! Rather it is to suggest that a primeval female archetype is central to the deepest roots of the tradition. In venerating the feminine as a source of power, perhaps the people of prehistory were acknowledging that we have all come into this world from a womb and that our species–indeed all species–were born from the body of Mother Earth. Her elements make our physical life possible and a deep connection with the natural world–with Mother Nature in all her magnificence and abundance–is at the heart of shamanic spirituality.

Within the Earth’s sacred embrace the masculine and feminine energies of life dance together for continuance. New generations of human beings and other creatures are born from this dance. Each new being is then nurtured by the Earth’s air, her water, her plants and animals. When our physical lives are over, we return again to her body. She is pivotal to the sacred circle of existence.

An assurance of abundance.

Evidence suggests that the Upper Paleolithic shaman from Dolni Věstonice was also a potter. This shaman was fashioning and firing clay over twelve to fifteen thousand years before any other pottery vessels were made.She created many ceramic[9] figurines of animals and one particular figure that resembled other so-called “Venus” statues of the time period. These prehistoric statuettes of women portrayed with similar robust physical attributes have been found in Europe and as far east as Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia, near Lake Baikal. The earliest figure found in Hohle Fels near Schelklingen, Germany was dated to approximately 40,000 years ago. These figures continued to be made all across Eurasia. More recent finds in northern France and Romania[10](6,000 years old) and from the Old Being Sea culture[11](2,000 years old) reveal that our ancestors continued creating these mother/grandmother images in bone, ivory, stone and clay for over 38,000 years. That equates over 380 centuries and at least 1,900 generations! For any cultural idea to be transmitted so accurately from one generation to the next for so many thousands of years, it had to have been considered vitally essential to the culture.

A recent study published in the Journal of Anthropology suggests that the figures constitute evidence that a shared cultural tradition existed across northern Eurasia from the time period of the Upper Paleolithic cave painters and persisted into the period when the first megalithic structures were being constructed in the region.[12] Given that most of the figures were created during the extremely challenging climatic conditions that prevailed at this time, it seems likely that only a very few women survived to become corpulent elders as depicted by many of the figurines. Therefore, these portable images of very well nourished, multiparous mature females may have been talismans for success in the very difficult struggle to survive and reproduce.[13] In this way, the figures can be seen as related to shamanic doll-like effigies used by Siberian tribes until the 20th century that were used to protect the people from calamities such as disease, famine or injury. Like those effigies, these female figures may have functioned as spiritual containers that held the essence or spirit of the symbolic mother/grandmother—a symbol of bounty, fertility and nourishment. In other words, these figures were may well have been talismans to assure survival, longevity and tribal continuance.

The spiritual image of elder females lasted for nearly four hundred centuries. Shaman graves tell us that particularly gifted women were also honored. Since these ideas persisted for so long, one can imagine that even after a few generations, they would have formed part of the culture’s primordial past. In other words, a female holy image and the female shaman would have been concepts that had “always been so.”

Stepping back from the brink.

Our ancestors had to endure tremendous climactic changes that involved the destruction of land and the familiar ways of life they supported. Today, we are facing similar a cataclysm only this time on a global scale. Great changes in the climate are changing weather patterns and in turn negatively affecting ecosystems, food production and health. Rising sea levels jeopardize global coastlines and the enormous numbers of people who live there. This time it isn’t the ending of an Ice Age or other natural disaster that is disrupting our way of life and threatening the future of all species. This time, we are facing a life-ending cataclysm or Ragnarök of our own creation.

We have been brought here by the tyranny of patriarchal culture. This ideology has created an small group of individuals and corporations who have sought to control wealth and power at the expense of the natural world, other species, women, children and the majority of men, as well. So what can we do to preserve the biosphere and all the beings who inhabit it—including us?

Since our destructive culture is a reflection of the conflicts that exist inside of us, we need to transform ourselves to shift our patriarchal culture and so correct our cataclysmic trajectory.

Firstly, it means learning to live as powerful shamans of the past have lived. That is, to work in harmony and stay in communication with the other beings around us. We can do this through journeying, ritual, and respectful interactions. Human beings need to remember that we are intimately connected to all beings. We cannot live without healthy ecosystems. All that is necessary for our survival exists on this one tiny world floating in the vast cold vacuum of space. This is the only home that our species knows. We have nowhere to run or hide. No amount of money or power will save us from the demise of our planet. We need to work in harmony with her, NOW.

Secondly, we need to intentionally return sacred feminine to the forefront. Not to supplant men but to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each other to heal the wounds created through a little over six centuries of patriarchal culture.

Anthropological evidence suggests that most prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies were relatively egalitarian, and that patriarchal social structures did not develop until many years after the end of the Pleistocene era, following social and technological innovations such as agriculture and domestication of animals. Agrarian lifestyles depend upon controlling “good” arable or grazing land and also promote the need to control other resources such as water. This gives birth ideas of ownership that differ from the sharing lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. The ideas of “mine/yours” and “us/them” developed into the creation of “haves” and have-nots.” Patriarchy promotes success through domination rather than cooperation and creates a small powerful class that controls the larger population. This in turn creates scenarios in which those in the dominated group seek to gain status by fighting other members of the same strata. The dominant group encourages this behavior so that the larger populace remains disjointed and so incapable of overthrowing those who are oppressing them.

Jungian psychology perceives patriarchy as an expression of a stunted, immature form of masculinity and thus as an attack on masculinity in its fullness as well as on femininity in its fullness. To save our world, this immaturity must end. To change our dire situation, we need to each bring forth our individual brilliance and work collectively. To do this we need to rid ourselves of the poisons of division. We do this by working with shamanic methods of journeying, ritual and communion with nature to heal the places in ourselves that hold onto weakness, jealousy, powerlessness, greed, fear and anger.

As we heal, we then must reenter into a harmonious relationship with the natural world. When we remember that humans and all other species are one family–one large, interconnected organism–then we can pull together to take back our planet from those people, industries and corporations that are destroying all that we need to survive.

As the American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator Carl Sagan once said, “As the ancient mythmakers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure on this planet we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage: propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders, all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we’ve also acquired passion for others, love for our children, desire to learn from history and experience, and a great, soaring, passionate intelligence, the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain.”

What is certain is that if we continue the path we are on or chose to do nothing, our fate and the fate of all other species on our world is sealed. It is time to take up the drum, to dance with the Earth Mother and enter the World Tree to relearn the heart and soul of who we are. That is how we can emerge as new humans to bring forth a verdant, new world.

© 2014 Evelyn C. Rysdyk

Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author of Spirit Walking a Course in Shamanic Power, A Spirit Walker’s Guide to Shamanic Tools, Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path, and contributor to Spirited Medicine: Shamanism in Contemporary Healthcare; Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether through face-to-face contact with individual patients, workshop groups and conference participants, or through the printed word–Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives. Her web site is http://www.evelynrysdyk.com.

[1] Barbara Tedlock, PhD. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body. (New York, NY; Bantam/Dell, 2005.) p. 28

[2] Rachel Caspari, “The Evolution of Grandparents” Scientific American, August 2011. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-evolution-of-grandparents. Accessed March 4th, 2013

[3] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/08/100830-first-feast-science-proceedings-israel-shaman-sorcerer-tortoise/

[4] Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Skeleton Of 12,000-Year-Old Shaman Discovered Buried With Leopard, 50 Tortoises And Human Foot.” ScienceDaily, 5 Nov. 2008. Web. 5 Mar.2013. withhttp://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081105083721.htm

[5] This last inclusion is especially interesting as the woman would have limped and dragged one of her own feet as she walked due to a spinal deformity.

[6] Svend Hansen, “Archaeological Finds from Germany.” (Booklet to the Photographic Exhibition) Institutum Archaeologicum Germanicum, 2010 http://www.dainst.org/sites/default/files/media/abteilungen/eurasien/event/archaeologische_funde_englisch.pdf

[7] The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Arctic Studies Center. http://www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/features/croads/ekven1.html#tomb

[8] M.A. Czaplicka, Aboriginal Siberia, A Study in Social Anthropology. London: Oxford University Press, 1969 reprint of the original 1914 edition. pp. 243-256.

[9] The fired-clay figures at this site pre-date any other ceramic technology by more than 14,000 years. (Vandiver P, Soffer O, Klima B, Svoboda J. 1989. “The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia”. Science. Vol. 246, No. 4933:1002-1008.)

[10] The artifact was from the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, also known as Cucuteni culture (from Romanian), Trypillian culture (from Ukrainian) or Tripolye culture (from Russian), is a Neolithic/Copper Age archaeological culture which existed from approximately 4800 to 3000 BC, from the Carpathian Mountains to what is now modern-day Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.

[11] An Ekven ritual ladle handle carved from walrus ivory (circa 1000 B.C.-1000.A.D.) Bering Strait, Chukotka, Russia may be seen here: http://allcanadaphotos.com/imagedetails/32817991_extInt0/RC.0251-02-ArcticPhoto-Ritual-ladle-handle-carved-from-walrus-ivory-circa-1000-BC.html

[12] Martin Furholt, Friedrich Lüth and Johannes Müller, editors. Megaliths and Identities. The earliest monuments in Europe – architecture and social structures (5000-3000 cal BC). Journal from the 3rd European Megalithic Studies Group Meeting 13th – 15th of May 2010 at Kiel University. Bonn: Dr. Rudolf Habelt GmbH, 2011. (http://www.academia.edu/1346797/Megaliths_and_Identities._The_earliest_monuments_in_Europe_-_architecture_and_social_structures_5000-3000_cal_BC) Accessed October 22, 2013.

[13] Alan F. Dixson and Barnaby J. Dixson, “Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?,” Journal of Anthropology, vol. 2011, Article ID 569120, 11 pages, 2011. doi:10.1155/2011/569120


3 Responses to “Power in the Female Body”

  1. earthcaretakers Says:

    Evie, Beautiful writing. Your weaving of graves across centuries, and what they mean, is powerful. I also thank you because I didn’t know some of those specifics.

    If you don’t know Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring inside Her, and Eisler’s Chalice and Blade, you would love both!

    I hope you get this mss published! You go, girl!

    In shining interconnection, Meg

    “Who will prefer the jingle of jade pendants if he once has heard stone growing in a cliff?” — Tao Te Ching

  2. Andy Says:

    Some of the things you speak of here I encountered at the
    Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum last year. It was fantastic to see those artifacts close-up. Instead of providing answers, it invoked more questions and feelings of wonder. Always a good thing 🙂

  3. Ellen Teveluwe Says:

    Interesting read – thank-you

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