It is not surprising at all that new evidence of the “sacred feminine” is continually discovered in archaeological sites. “Several Neolithic sites with female representations have been seen as ‘sanctuaries of the Goddess’, including…Bronze Age discoveries on both Malta and Crete” (Nelson 130), and it seems likely that more will be unearthed. Gender plays a huge role in even the earliest religions and rites because, ultimately, gender roles have always been primal elements in the creation and worship of divine beings.
On a very basic level, religion seeks to make sense out of the great mysteries and universal forces governing life, and it can be safely assumed that this has always been mankind’s motivation in establishing religion in structured, definable ways. The idea of an afterlife of some kind has been present in virtually all known mythologies because man’s consciousness requires a sense of meaning to mortal existence; so, too, was birth a mystery of profound significance, and it is logical that the female, as the giver of life, would be transformed into a goddess shape. Then, as with the Greek Ceres and other agricultural deities, the power to give birth took on meaning beyond human life, and before this the New Stone Age celebrated this female power: “…The Neolithic Goddess is a shifting kaleidoscope of meaning: she personified every phase of life, death, and regeneration” (Gimbutas, Dexter 5).
However mankind shapes its religions, it invariably bases the divinities on masculine and feminine models, and the Neolithic religions were marked by worships of gender qualities taken to extreme proportions. As males were warriors and builders, so too were the masculine deities physically powerful, and often identified with animal representations of virility, as in bulls and stags. Conversely, the Neolithic goddess, as were the later female deities, was the bringer of the harvest and the source of all things related to new life and growth.
The element of sacredness most definitely can be found in the traces of the Neolithic period, and this in turn both substantiates and explains the presence of Neolithic ritual, as well. The two elements are largely interdependent, and there is substantial evidence of both within the New Stone Age.
The site of Catal Huyuk, where present-day Turkey is located, has been a rich source of Neolithic findings. The remains of sacred birthing shrines, where pregnant women sought the protection of the goddess, have been clearly identified, and there is no mistaking the sacred essence of the places. As the Neolithic peoples revered the goddess as the source of new life, they established her as the protector of it, and this is a sacred belief which would later be manifested in most European mythologies, as well as in later, Judeo-Christian religions.
As noted, the presence of the sacred virtually demands an accompanying form of ritual; as the shrines were dedicated to the goddess, giving birth within them was a ritual of itself. There are further proofs of how sacredness and ritual co-existed; in the East Balkans, a Neolithic sculpture was uncovered revealing a man and woman apparently about to engage in sexual union, and “…This may be one of the earliest representations of the hieros gamos, the ‘sacred marriage’ – a rite of sacred sexual union that survived as an important mythical theme well into historic times” (Eisler 62).
Clearly, an establishing of certain acts and concepts as sacred, or beyond mortal control or dominance, was as central to Neolithic life as were the rituals built around the worship of them.
Not unexpectedly, much of what was sacred was based on procreation: “It seems likely that neolithic ritual included elaborate initiation rites for particular age and sex groups, as a mechanism for maintaining social boundaries…” (Barker 128). For the Neolithic people, sacredness and ritual were derived from, and reflected, gender roles and connections.