Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).


The seeds of this research were sown in a textile exhibition entitled "Goddesses and Their Offspring: 19th and 20th Century Eastern European Embroideries" at the Roberson Center for the Arts in Binghamton, N.Y. in 1986. Similarities between the imagery of Eastern European textiles and the embroideries in Greek folk costume prompted this study. It was part of a larger field research project on Boeotian folk costumes sponsored by Earthwatch in the summer of 1988

A "hot topic" of discussion among feminists of all disciplines is the image of the prehistoric goddess and the ensuing implications for all women everywhere. I refer you to the books The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, and When God Was a Woman.

The most ancient religion was that of the Great Goddess, known as Isis, Astarte and Ishtar, who was worshiped not only for fertility, but as the wise creator, the source of universal order. This theory of primal matriarchy is visualized in prehistoric artifacts in which the female form predominates. In time, goddess worship was suppressed by patriarchal groups. The Venus of Willendorf with her pendulous breasts and pregnancy-swollen belly is one example; other prehistoric statues of goddesses appear small breasted or flat chested with a flat abdomen. These Neolithic figures are often naked with large buttocks and hips. These seemingly non-pregnant goddesses are pregnant in an unusual way — the buttocks are often hollow, sometimes containing seeds or egg-shaped pellets. The faces are often mask-like which lends a more than human dimension to the figures. Goddess images dating back to approximately 1500 B.C. were found in Tiryns in the Peloponnese, with hands upraised as if in prayer. These and other such images are evidence of widespread goddess worship throughout the Mediterranean.

Similar goddess motifs are seen in the embroideries of Eastern Europe, the Ukraine, and Russia as remnants of a former system of belief in the Great Goddess. In a Neolithic figurine one sees a "daughter" perched atop the goddess's head. The same images appear in embroideries, possibly symbolizing not only fertility and sexuality, but the birth of thought and ideas. The goddess is associated with animal images as well, especially the horse and the bird. Her small upper body is attached to an enormous skirt which sometimes becomes a pair of horses — the rough equivalent of the exaggerated hips and buttocks of prehistoric goddesses. Natalie Moyle supports the ideas that the bird image, like the goddess, has multiple meanings, symbolizing life of the spirit, and also physical life and fertility, while the horse may be a soul symbol or soul bearer. The mermaid motif is also seen in these embroideries. She is a water being, but also a creature associated with trees and crop fertility and a prolific producer of babies.