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The Double Goddess Shrines of Çatal Höyük

by Vicki Noble

Many of the earliest images of the Double Goddess were sketched in colour by archaeologist James Mellaart from wall paintings he uncovered in shrine rooms at Çatal Höyük, a site whose importance with regard to the Double Goddess cannot be overstated. Even with only the one acre that James Mellaart excavated in the 1960s (out of thirty acres still to be examined), the numerous and diverse representations of the Double Goddess unearthed there already provide a kind of universal template for the Double Goddesses that show up everywhere else after that. Not only was matrilineal descent undoubtedly practiced, as in other Neolithic (agricultural) civilizations around the world, but it was expressed as a divine foundational formula through a variety of artistic media.

A magnificent sculpture of the Great Goddess can be seen in the monumental enthroned Queen Mother of Çatal Höyük with her flanking leopards as armrests—a variation of the Two-in-One Double Goddess that continued to be portrayed in Anatolia for the next several thousand years. Mellaart and others have described this now-famous figure as giving birth, as there is something between her legs that could possibly be taken as an emerging child. I have never personally thought it looked anything like a birth scene (surely the baby would be squashed) and prefer to think of her as an enthroned Female Ancestress, her fleshy corpulence representing the round fertile Earth itself.

Throned Goddess

Surely in the largest sense this figure represents Mother Nature, the Mistress of the Beasts, ruling the world in tandem with her special shamanistic animal familiars. The leopards bespeak her awesome authority. One has only to think of the strength card in a tarot deck, traditionally portrayed by a woman who, gently through her magical will alone, is in the act of subduing a lion or leopard.

Like Marshack’s concept of the “Clan-Mother” or “sovereign mistress,” she was originally the “owner of the elements of nature.” In the long transition from hunter-gatherer cultures to the beginnings of agriculture, the ancient Goddess of the Paleolithic became the keeper of the abundance for the whole for the whole Neolithic community, protecting and blessing the harvest by her magical presence in the granary. That this sculpture was found in the community grain bin suggests that she represents the collective female ownership of the agricultural production of “surplus,” an expression of the abundance of Mother Earth that made it possible for humans to settle in one place, cultivate food, and create civilization. Many of the shrines and altars that Mellaart uncovered in the early excavations probably relate to the sacredness and gratitude expressed bythe newly settled agricultural community.

In a long horizontal wall painting from Shrine A.III/11 at Çatal Höyük, a variety of Goddesses are centered in cave niches with various flanking animals that could be taken almost as prototypes of the later Goddess-with-Animals figures so popular in Greece and Anatolia. One of the paintings replicates the sculpted Great Mother with her leopards, showing a Goddess sitting within a cave niche with two spotted cats in front of her facing in opposite directions, their tails creating a sense of her legs as being in a crossed-leg yoga posture. A second thinner Goddess stands holding two leopards out to her sides by the scruff of their necks. Next to her, in another cave niche, stands another thin figure who seems to wear a belt or skirt and perhaps a hat, holding two vultures by their necks. Mellaart calls this one Artemis, perhaps partly because of the resemblance to much later Artemis figures in Greece during the archaic period (eighth century BCE.). As ancient female shamanism (a collective rather than individual phenomenon) wasconnected to the Great Bear constellation in the sky known as “Arktos” (Bear) or Artemis, the ancient derivation supports this name. In between each of these scenes are pairs of Double Axes, symbolizing— along with the leopards—female power, sovereignty, and rank.

Wall murals painted in bright colours—looking unmistakably like flat-woven kilims (carpet rugs)—depict a variety of Double Goddess images (both figurative and stylized) that have one (or more than one) woman on top of, next to, or underneath the other. Numerous sketches of these Double Goddesses by James Mellaart are reproduced in a four-volume art set that shows the chain of mothers and daughters in every possible aspect.Two Goddesses, each giving birth to a visible baby, stand upside down in mirror relation to one another; fat Buddha-women sitting with leopards and bears in a cave niche are reflected, one upside down to the other; Goddesses grasping totemic animals on either side are also shown in mirror reflection upside down; and sometimes the two upside-down mirror images of the Double Goddess are shown inside a cave niche, at the center of which is a Double Axe. In one painting, the niches in mirror image actually form imposing Double Axes themselves. Goddesses on top of holy mountains are also seen upside down to each other, as are groups of trees and ibexes. Another wall painting shows the Goddess (or central woman) wearing a skirt or dress created in the style of an hourglass (related to the Double Axe), repeated several times vertically with the ubiquitous flanking leopards in each repeated image.

Anatolian Twin Goddesses

Anatolian twin Goddesses [banner by Lydia Ruyle]

All of the motifs seen in the murals at Çatal Höyük can be clearly seen in stylized form in tribal rugs from Turkey today. And since it is still (and always) women who weave the rugs (except recently in a few urban commercial workshops), one could conclude that the kilims (carpet rugs) are explicit vehicles for the matrilineal chain or unbroken female lineage referred to by textile expert Mary Kelly in her discussion of Ukrainian embroideries.

Kelly emphasizes the “repetition of pattern to engender power” that is clearly expressed in the mirror images, as well as birthing images, and even four-part figures that double the already Double Goddess. She focuses on the cult power and talismanic magic of the textiles and women’s weaving practices, reminding us that kilims, for example, were used in religious ceremonies rather than simply as decorative floor or wall coverings.This is important to remember, since the whole idea of “shrines” at Çatal Höyük is now under scrutiny in the archaeological community. Kelly’s observation that the cumulative effect of the repetition of images on the borders of embroidered cloths “intensifies the efficacy of the protection” granted by the image is reminiscent of the power of repeated mantras used in Eastern religions and clearly understood to be magical spells. Emphasizing the female lineage depicted in the mirror images, Kelly describes “chains of mothers and daughters” establishing a “matrilineal chain” that can still be seen on belts made by Ukrainian weavers today.

A striking example (and perhaps prototype) of this form comes from a complex Çatal Höyük wall painting that depicts several pairs of Goddesses side by side; two pairs, one beneath another as if (metaphorically) being birthed, and one small Goddess emerging from the crown of the larger one in the centre of the whole composition, which takes the form of an artist’s triptych. Mellaart describes this as “three niches with Goddesses giving birth.” The archetypal birthing Goddess in the form of a leopard actually takes the shape of, and is symbolically interchangeable with, a frog, with her arms and legs out to the sides and curled up.This is the complex image that greets the viewer in the shrine room that is reproduced inside the Museum in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, which houses so many of the original finds from Çatal Höyük including the enthroned Goddess with leopards.

In a disturbing about-face from traditional archaeological assessment, the current excavation team at Çatal Höyük, headed by Ian Hodder from Cambridge, England, is referring to the birthing image as a “splayed animal” and calling into doubt its status as a “Goddess.” Yet the frog is linked to birthing and fertility all over the world, and this abstract image of the woman-as-leopard, stylized as a frog—the alter ego of the birthing woman—is widely recognized by experts in the field. It is these frog-shaped “splayed” leopard Goddesses that are reproduced in duplicate repeated images in this powerful triptych. On the left panel,additionally a pair of leopards is shown eye to eye; and on the right panel—the only singular image in the whole piece—a black bird like a raven is portrayed. None of these Goddesses actually appears to be in the act of giving birth (as compared with other images at the site, in which clearly a baby is emerging from between the legs of a birthing Goddess), which is why, like Kelly, I feel that in the most basic sense these are images of matrilineal descent (chains of mothers and daughters) rather than representing strictly physical fertility. And because they are found at the same site as two sculpted images of Double Goddesses that share a girdle,or are close enough to be Siamese twins (see Fig.3), I would go even further and posit that they represent matriarchy, authentic female sovereignty (what feminist theologian Mary Daly calls “gynocracy”).

Çatal Höyük remains the most important Goddess site (and early city) in the world, as I hope will become clearer now that the site is once more open for excavation. In his 1960s dig, Mellaart unearthed dozens of exquisite female statuettes. The figurines (mostly housed in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara,Turkey) are carved from alabaster and stone, many of them in meditation or yoga postures, others wearing tall headdresses. If these images had been found in India or Tibet, they would automatically be taken as sacred or religious icons of a female deity. In the West these implications are often dismissed or ignored, especially nowadays.

Mellaart also unearthed the burial of an old woman with a convex polished obsidian mirror. It was only women who were buried with mirrors, which are known to be the oracular tools of shaman women and priestesses throughout the centuries. In a huge shrine he found the “rich burial of a woman, interred with three tusked lower jaws of wild boars arranged around her head.” Just the ritualistic arrangement of the boar’s jaws suggests the high status reserved for those holding an office of importance, but beyond that, the boar’s tusk was a female accoutrement down through the ages, found buried with women in Central Europe, Crete, and along the steppes down to the Iron Age Amazons recently unearthed in Russia. The mirrors, boars’ tusks, wall paintings, and female figurines from the site can be seen beautifully displayed in the National Archaeological Museum in Ankara. Clearly, in these shrines to the Goddess, the people of the time created artistic ritual and food offerings for her, adorned her statues with woven and naturally dyed gowns, performed rituals of birthing and prophecy in her temples, and used mirrors for healing and scrying (clairvoyance), which, when they died, were buried with them.

Another form of Double Goddess found at Çatal Höyük is a tiny side-by-side figure that bears a strong resemblance to another of the earliest side-by-side Double Goddess figures. The prehistoric Sesklo Double Goddess (Fig.4 above) comes from eight thousand years ago in northern Greece, at Achilleion in Thessaly, where Marija Gimbutas leaned down and picked up the first of the many Goddess figures she would come to examine so carefully. The sixth-millennium Sesklo culture in northern Greece contained artifacts that would remain consistent in Goddess sites over the next several thousand years, such as portable offering tables, bird-shaped vases with breasts, miniature clay temple models, bread ovens, grinding stones, and female figurines wearing headgear indicative of their special rank or office. The Dimini culture that followed in the same place (fifth millennium B.C.E.) contained figurines “that may suggest a hierarchical order among temple priestesses or other ritual performers.”

The Çatal Höyük figurine comes from the same time period, although it is softer and rounder than the more robust, angular one from Achilleion. Both sculptures show two fleshy Goddesses with their arms around each other’s shoulders, like dear friends or equals, comrades in some enterprise, Divine Twin Deities modelling a profound sharing of power.

Like the Siamese-twin figures from Çatal Höyük, side-by-side Double Goddesses may have metaphorically expressed the duality we have come to expect of the feminine archetype, such as opposite seasons (winter and summer, spring and fall/autumn); the alternating rhythm of day and night; the integration of death and life; or the female twin deities of Moon and Earth. But rather than a merged pair, these two almost-identical women sit or stand side by side more like equal comrades in a work project, co-leaders in government, or blood sisters (perhaps demonstrating a kinship connection) Of course, the image could still be used to express the relationship of lovers, but without the psychic fusion we saw in the two women sharing a girdle or one body.It is more likely that the standing and enthroned side-by-side Double Goddess figures represent the work of running the government. They radiate authority.

Extracted from a forthcoming book by Vicki Noble on ‘Double Goddesses’ to be published by Inner Traditions, USA. Distributed in Britain by Deep Books. [sales@deep-books.co.uk].