Radical Dollmaking, From Willendorf to Today: The Relevance of An Ancient Tradition
This essay was published in She Rises. How Goddess Feminism, Activism and Spirituality published by Mago Books, full details given at the end of article.
When I look at the ancient stone female figurines (such as the Woman of Willendorf), I wonder at about the people who made them and how those people experienced the world. While we will never know for sure there are many theories out there offering varying perspectives.
Some of these lead to damaging mindsets while others offer life giving outlooks. As a doll maker I suggest that these prehistoric figurines were the beginnings of the practice of doll making. This paper will examine the relevance of the doll in a tradition of Goddess honoring spirituality.
All cultures have dolls which serve a whole host of purposes. These range from Egyptian dolls accompanying the dead on the journey to the otherworld and Guatemalan worry dolls to which a person can tell their worries and facilitate a letting go, to Russian Matryoshka dolls, Hopi Kachina dolls, British corn dollies, traditional Vietnamese and Australian Aboriginal dolls and the sympathetic magic use of poppet and voodoo dolls.
The oldest dolls in the world are thousands upon thousands of years old. So old in time that we don’t fully know the reason for their purpose. These are the so called ‘Venus’ figurines.
The figure known as the woman of Hohle Fels is dated to around 35,000 BCE while probably the most well known of these figurines, the Woman of Willendorf, dates to 25,000 BCE April Nowell and Melanie L. Change (2014).
A Birthing of Culture
Holding replicas of these figurines in my hands, I can’t help but wonder about the intentions and the ritual carried out in the creating of these figurines as well as considering the relationship of these people to the world around them. While we all live on the same planet theirs was a very different world.
In later dates these figurines became carved with stylistic symbols, chevrons and spirals, zigzags and lines. Archeologist, Marija Gimbutas (1989) interpreted these as symbols of water and vulva and life giving which she explained were symbols of the Goddess.
I turn what I call my stone Goddess figurine over in my hand. She is an oval piece of rock with several layers of mica. She is yet to be carved, to take form. She came to me one Imbolc eve. Standing by the river in darkness listening to the song of the rushing water, I had noticed her mica glinting in the moonlight. Like I needed another rock I thought being responsible and leaving her in her place. Later that night she called me back and I picked her up, surprised how well she fits into my hand. She is my stone goddess. She is my connection back to those most ancient ancestors who I feel selected their rocks with great care and intention.
A Female World
I wonder if the ancients chipped their rocks within ritual, possibly holding a deep intention as the rock took on the honored figure of the female. Their entire world was female. She, the mother, nature gave birth and after the harshness of winter she retuned, life began to flourish out over the land. She, the mother, nature, gave birth and after the harshness of winter she returned and life began to flourish out over the land. She then grew with the growing sun through greening while plants and trees offered bountiful fruits and harvests until the sun started to wane. Then her energy went back down to her roots in an outward death and she became the old one ensuring death took place in order for the promise of rebirth. Over and over the cycle repeated – birth, life, death and renewal – within the earth, within plants and animals and the people themselves.
Gatherers and Hunters
We all are descendants of these ancient women and both you and I are linked by a red cord back to the Seven Daughters of Eve and Eve herself, our Mitochondrial mother. Theirs was a world of gathering and hunting – the gatherers providing the daily sustenance with the hunters providing the occasional kill. This sustenance way of life allowed for much free time and with their creative inspiration, interesting finds were plated and woven. Ursula Le Guin (1998), discussing Elizabeth Fisher’s work, explains that it was at this time that some of the earliest cultural inventions came about and, like the sustenance practices, it was women who birthed them. Containers such as a type of sling or net to hold those things that were gathered were made from the women’s creative inspirations. Further evidence of the role of women in developing culture is seen today in archeological finds. From counting sticks which measured the phases of the moon and marked the gestation of a pregnancy to dark recesses of caves adorned with magnificent artwork and the familiar red ochre outline of handprints, recent studies analyzing these say the majority were created by women – National Geographic (2013).
Sacred Becoming the Political
In looking into the theories of the stone goddess figurines and the artists of the cave art, it doesn’t take long before we become entangled in archaeological dogma. In 2009 the Woman of Hohle Fels was found, a carved female figurine dating back to 35,000 BCE. Nowell and Chang (2014) reviewed the scholarship around this finding as well as the mass media reporting. As news of the figurine was reported in the mass media, she was reported with headlines such as “World’s first Page 3 Girl”, “Smut carved from Mammoth Tusk”. Even respected journals such as Nature reported her as a “Prehistoric pin-up” and “35,000 year old sex object”. The locale where she is on display describes her as “Early Mother or Pin-up Girl” as if there are no other possible explanations. Nowell and Chang (2014) explain that the dangers of interpreting these figurines in a purely sexual context obstructs any objective scientific study and results in unintended social consequences such as giving the message that objectification of women is acceptable.
Our Choice of Story
Le Guin (1989) highlights the importance of the story we tell of these ancient ancestors, as the story to which we connect, whether we follow the gatherer’s story or the hunter’s story, can have huge implications. The gatherer’s story is one of creating the first containers and of bringing back extra to share. This extra might be offered in thanks at the shrine, the holy place or the sacred place. The focus here was on ritual and the community. In contrast, in the hunter’s story which focused around the hero retelling a story of the blood and guts of the slaying, the focus was more on the wounds and the deaths of other hunters. When interpreting the practices of both into the context of modern culture, the first may be seen as the beginnings of caring for each other and communal rituals while the wounds and the deaths of other hunters extends itself to the bashing, raping killing story that is now the dominating story in modern mainstream culture.
I am in recovery. I was born into a warring culture who celebrates the hero’s story – the raping and pillaging story of the land, her resources, the animals, plants and people. I am traumatized by this culture – I have had bad things happen to me but also sometimes my mind fills with an even worse scenario of what could happen.
Radical Doll Making
I call myself a radical doll maker taking this practice back to its roots. Back to roots of dolls as tools of magic, of holding intention, created and used within ritual. In a world that views female stone figurines as male pornography this is indeed a radical art!
I choose the gatherer’s story. I choose to spend time with my sisters in a sacred creative circle where together we weave magic envisioning it stretching out through space and time to encompass those old ones. I claim the story of my ancestors as the gatherer’s story of a world imbued with ritual and creativity. I choose the story of my ancestors as the creators of the female stone figurines and, that through dance and drum and song and trance we can ask these old ones for guidance. And from our dances between the worlds I take back that wisdom and recreate it through writing, drawing and art. I sit in circle and share stories with my sisters where we share our insights but also discuss how we can weave this wisdom into our lives.
In trance we ask these old ones for wisdom and guidance and then we dance with them, between the worlds. Creating dolls to house this vision, to remind us of the connection and a focus to keep that relationship with the old ones alive.
The Making Process
My experience of making dolls is in weaving a relationship. Through the red cord of my female linage back to the seven clan mothers and then Mitochondrial Eve herself who lived 200,000 BCE in Africa, Bryan Sykes (2001). Dolls begin with an intention and then the visions and ideas flow. In shaping the wool, I can turn off my head and let the repetitive movements lull me into a creative zone. Selecting pendants and embellishments, offerings to She that is taking shape, She becomes a vessel – carrying intention, filling up with possibility, guidance and direction. She is a portal for she sits on the threshold of this everyday reality and the otherworld. In this process I get to know the olds ones through honoring in creating, drumming in their stories and dancing these stories. Strengthening the connection even more, I hold space for other women to explore this connection while learning and resonating from each other’s experience and insight.
The Dolls of Our Ancestors
For all the stone figurines across the eons that did survive, I wonder about all the personal dolls that didn’t survive. The dolls made from fur and bone, stick and feather. I imagine our ancestors made dolls and some for the very same reason we also make dolls – to honor the great mother that birthed them and walked with them through life sustaining them through all sorts of experiences. Perhaps their dolls were a way of giving thanks to her and petitioning her to aid the sick and women giving birth. Maybe it was to ask for the return of the reindeer herds and petitioning for the rains to come or to hold all manner of hopes and thanks and rites of passage. In the end, probably like us, dolls were something to mark their personal relationship with Her and to acknowledge that we aren’t alone in this world – to recognize She who births us into being, walks with us in life and then when at last we return to her, midwife’s us back to the otherworld with the promise of rebirth.
Geri Olsen (1998, p.47) offers this insight, ‘‘the making of dolls and the rituals surrounding them embodies a deep ancestral path to make the invisible life visible, to honor significant life events and make them special through art. Art-making could also be fitness enhancing and help ensure survival through shared ceremony and a strong community.”
It’s here deep within the process of creating that we are in a very receptive state and a place of co-creation. We are connecting with the old ones, spirit, source, and ancestors. Things become clear in this space, things get worked out, questions get answered. We enter into a theta state of brainwaves, a state similar to deep meditation. Here we’re able to access information beyond our normal state of consciousness and really access our intuition. This process can be part of our ritual, as it’s here I believe we can talk to these old ones. As we create, we are building a container, a vessel for the divine. A vessel we can invite divinity into and the dolls themselves become spiritual beings.
Tina Forster (2015, p.42) reflects on this co-creating, “Even as I work, there is no plan…no design in advance. Only the need to stay very, very present. Listening and depending on an inner knowing to do what’s next. To place the next piece, to take the next step. And all the while, being held by the one. The one who holds all things together. The one who weaves, sews, gathers, still creates. Even as in the very beginning…it is now, and ever shall be. I am the partner, although small, of the One who creates. Working with, working alongside, listening…for the next step. Anxious sometimes, when I am called to wait. To let be…to sit..while the bigger work goes on outside myself. In all this, I am held. To know that brings peace.”
Dolls have played an important role in Forster’s healing process and I recognize that they can open and soften our hearts and then from this healing can occur. One early route to my doll making was after the death of my younger brother aged 35. Consumed by grief we do not know what will be good for us, what will soothe our soul. Forster says she didn’t know how to name the grieving process and that really what she was looking for was a form of ritual. I began making small birds through a wet felting process – there is the set up and the process and a wonderful repetitive movement which brought me into centre, a calm and grounded centre. I created many little birds – different colors and as they found homes and got mailed out there was a comfort in having created them, having a connection and in a letting go. That small gesture representing the bigger picture of what was happening.
Forster (2015, p.42) quotes Rupp to explore this ritualization as an essential element of the grief process. I also feel this idea can be applied to many other reasons we turn to art and doll making to explore our connection, healing, inspiration, longings and gratitude’s. ‘We search for images or symbols that speak to us at the centre of ourselves. Then we take our image or symbol and create same gesture of expression, some significant movement, out of which comes a connection with god, ourselves and our life.”
Doll in Folklore
Before she died, Vasalisa was given a doll by her mother and advised to feed the doll and ask its advice when she needed it. Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1995) explains that the relationship between Vasalisa and her doll symbolizes a form of empathic magic between a woman and her intuition. While many women find their intuition weak, she explains that this is something which through practice can be strengthened and regained. When this occurs, it is as if the handing down of intuitive reliance between a woman and all females of her lines who have gone before her, this long river of women, has been dammed.
In the tale Vasalisa feeds her doll, to which Estes (1995, p. 93) describes as “an essential cycle of the wild woman archetype, she who is the keeper of hidden treasures”. Vasalisa feeds the doll in two ways, firstly, with bread and more importantly, secondly by finding her way to the old wild mother, the Baba Yaga. She explains the very role of the doll, which is a talisman, is a reminder of what is felt but not seen.
Jeri Studebaker (2014) wonders if the doll in this story can tell us anything about how the Neolithic Europeans might have used their female figurines? Like Vasalisa could it have been a tradition to carry a doll around with you and, like Vasalisa, tell no one about it? She explains that with the Medieval Church in Europe forbidding Goddess worship this practice would then have been a very secret one. She then ponders whether or not this tale contains a secret code describing a pre-patriarchal initiation rite for girls. After Vasalisa’s ordeal, Studebaker (2014) suggests that maybe she is now a fully ordained priestess of the great Crone, Baba Yaga.
The doll has traditionally been seen in therapy as a transitional object, easing the transition in childhood as a child begins to separate from its mother. Susan Napier (2008, p.260) notes the emergence of the theory of adults requiring transitional objects at certain times of their life. In a modern world removed from any notion of the planet as mother or nature as providing for us, she suggests that the doll is a fitting transitional object bridging us back towards the notion of mother and her life giving aspects ‘‘straddling the mysterious boundary between human and other, between concrete reality and the virtual worlds of imagination and play, they open up a bridge between reality and its other, be that supernatural, sacred, or virtual.”
I feel that the doll with its long use through time and across cultures offers us a wonderful tool of transition to rejecting the hunter’s story of our society and adopting the gatherer’s story. This sacred vessel, a house for our prayers and desires, hope and dreams, gratitude’s and connection can be our transitional object as we forge a new path, one away from a society that sings the hunter’s song to one where we sing the gatherer’s song. The path that connects our villages and leads us to our sacred circles where we weave magic and intention, work throughout the wyrd web shamanically and empower each other in the work we each do on our lives and our communities.
Whether fashioned from clay or two sticks wound together with yarn and embellished with fabric, fur, feathers or shells, dolls are part of a tradition which stretches back over countless generations. In a world which has countless issues needing mediation the doll is a very relevant transitional object for those working to create new ways of working and living which honor the sacredness of life. The process of the art itself is a meditation which allows itself to be created with a weaving of intention. The doll offers many insights from how it is used to what it stands for. For those wishing to rebirth a Goddess spirituality the doll is a figure whose roots lie in the very people who saw the world as female and that the doll can act as that figure to honor that outlook and allow an inspiration in embodying those ancient values into a modern world.
Forster, Tina. Soul Friends: Doll Making as a Spiritual Practice. Presence. An International Journal of Spiritual Direction. Vol 21.1, June 2015, pp. 41-47.
Gimbutas, Marija. 1989. The Language of the Goddess. Thames and Hudson, USA.
Le Guin, Ursula. 1989. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Grove Press, USA.
Napier, Susan. Lost in Transition: Train Men and Dolls in Millennial Japan, pp. 259-261. Contained in: Lunning, Frenchy (Ed). (2008). Mechademia 3: Limits of The Human. University of Minnesota Press, USA.
National Geographic. 2013. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131008-women-handprints-oldest-neolithic-cave-art/ Accessed online 03/01/2016
Nowell, April and Chang, Melanie, L. (2014). Science, the Media, and Interpretations of Upper Paleolithic Figurines. American Anthropologist, Vol. 116, No.3, pp. 562-577.
Olsen, Geri. (1998). Dolls: Protection, Healing, Power and, Play. Somatics, pp 46-50.
Pinkola Estes, Clarissa. 1995. Women Who Run With the Wolves. Ballantine Books, USA.
Studebaker, Jeri. 2014. Breaking the Mother Goose Code. How a Fairy-Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years. Moon Books, UK and USA.
Sykes, Bryan. 2001. The Seven Daughters of Eve. The Science that Reveals our Genetic Ancestry. W.W. Norton & Company, USA.
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