The pre-Nuragic mother goddess of Sardinia

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The development of cultures in pre-Nuragic Sardinia reveals an inner search,through rituals and beliefs new metaphysical frames of meaning, new interpretations of existence are delineated. The primitive feeling of an order beyond nature, which transcends into the sphere of the sacred, is realised in the archetypal image of a female deity related to fertility. That of the pre-Nuragic mother goddess is a recurring theme in the Island’s statuary representations. The numerous sculptures found by archaeologists suggest, in fact, the existence of a widespread religiosity, deeply rooted among different cultural facies [1].

The ritual aspects associated with this cult, other than the material ones, are unknown for obvious reasons, but we can suppose that the ancient Sardinians worshipped the mother goddess as a metaphysical transfiguration of the earthly mother. She, therefore, had the extra-empirical function of guaranteeing re-birth beyond death, or more simply the continuation of life. Among pre-Nuragic cultures, the deceased were believed to continue their daily activities in the afterlife, as the grave goods and funerary architecture of those peoples demonstrate.

The Venus of Macomer

A first attestation of the pre-Nuragic mother goddess is found in a statuette from the Riparo S’Adde in Macomer, which also reveals the primitive anthropomorphic features of Sardinia. It is a Venus, possibly dating from the Upper Palaeolithic [2], sculpted inside a block of basalt. The Venus of Macomer seems to emerge from the rock, not as a sculpture, but as if it were generated from the earth; whoever made it almost seems to have freed the goddess from the material that imprisoned her.

The Venus of Macomer, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

This idol has the body of a woman – the sinuous legs and abundant buttocks are contrasted by the left breast only and the lack of upper limbs – but the head belongs to a rodent. Therefore, the Venus of Macomer is a representation of a totemic animal: it was identified in the Sardinian pika [2], now extinct, but very prolific at the time. The pika ideally acted as the guiding spirit of the community, sacred guarantor of life that is generated beyond death.

The pre-Nuragic Mother Goddess in the Middle Neolithic

By means of different figurative types, the sculptures of the mother goddess characterise especially the pre-Nuragic cultures of the Neolithic period. At the necropolises of the Bonu Ighinu culture (4000-3500 B.C.) – the one at Cuccuru S’arriu in Sinis is cited for the number of finds – dozens of female statuettes were discovered. They were placed inside graves, pit tombs often covered in red ochre, and in some cases even in the hands of the deceased. The mother goddess sculptures were made using a variety of techniques and finishes, in clay or stone (marl, plaster, tuff), and ranged in size from approximately three to eighteen centimetres [3].

pre-Nuragic Mother Goddess
Some representations of the pre-Nuragic mother goddess of Sardinia. Museo nazionale archeologico ed etnografico G. A. Sanna of Sassari

The Bonu Ighinu mother belongs to the figurative type known as volumetric: the head, disproportionate to the rest of the body, often has a headdress, shows facial features in relief, the nose and eyebrows form a ‘T’, and the mouth is carved in an archaic smile; the torso is divided into chest and belly by sharp lines; the arms assume static poses behind the back or near the hips. A later variant of the Bonu Ighinu mothers is attributable to the San Ciriaco culture (3400-3200 B.C.), in which there is a more pronounced tendency to a steatopygia of the buttocks and a naturalism of the forms.

The geometric style of the mother goddess in pre-Nuragic cultures of the Recent Neolithic

During the Recent Neolithic, the figurative style of the Sardinian mother goddess undergoes a process of geometrization, sculptures become flattened and features are stylised. In the Ozieri culture, the manifestation of the sacred is almost conceptual; the presence of female attributes is reduced to essentiality, as can be seen in the small breasts. Nonetheless, the inheritance of the ancient pre-Nuragic cultures is evident, reflected in the same postural patterns and sculptural techniques. In the geometric style, the ancient somatic trait of steatopygia is also evoked by the shaping of forms.

Pre-nuragic mother goddess from Senorbì, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

An absolute stylistic innovation is instead the “perforated plate” characterisation. In some statuettes from the Abealzu-Filigosa culture the material between the torso and the upper limbs is removed, accentuating the geometric component of the figure. The disc-shaped head often rests on a slender neck; the face encloses globular eyes and a rectangular nose. These artefacts were found in archaeological contexts mostly related to the domus de janas, the characteristic pre-Nuragic tombs excavated in the rock, but also near monumental buildings, such as the sacred altar of Monte d’Accoddi.

pre-Nuragic Mother Goddess
Pre-nuragic mother goddess from the hypogeic necropolis of Monte d’Accoddi. Museo nazionale archeologico ed etnografico G. A. Sanna of Sassari

The cycle of life

Although changing figurative typologies, the pre-Nuragic mother goddess, primitive fertility deity, has preserved the same cultic aspects across cultures. In the prehistory of humanity, not only in Sardinia, the female capacity to procreate represented a profound mystery, concealing the intimate secret of existence. Like an unfathomable gift, woman conceived, brought new lives, generated and nourished like Mother Earth. The process of fertilisation, however, was still obscure to the consciousness of that time [4]. Divine mechanisms were believed to underlie female power, that creative and disruptive force intrinsic to the nature of the universe. This life impulse expressed through cycles of continuous rebirth: the appearance of light at dawn beyond darkness, the spring awakening during the year, the periodic return of the stars and the life beyond death.

The ancient Sardinians believed that existence continued in the afterlife, that the human being was reborn not from a mother of flesh, but from the earth itself. In the cave of Cuccuru s’Arriu, the deceased were buried curled up in a fetal position. Like children in a woman’s womb, they were preparing to be reborn in a new dimension. The bodies were covered in red ochre, a symbolic colour that recalls the first image of the unborn child after birth, so as to ensure the moment of re-birth in the afterlife. In their hands was placed a statuette of the goddess, a mother who accompanied her children on their final journey.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1] Giovanni Lilliu, La Civiltà dei Sardi dal Paleoltico all’Età dei Nuraghi, Nuova Eri Edizioni, Torino, 1988

[2] M. Mussi, La Venere di Macomer nel quadro del Pleistocene superiore finale europeo, 2012. Dagli atti della XLIV Riunione Scientifica dell’I.I.P.P. “La Preistoria e la Protostoria della Sardegna”, 23-28 novembre 2009, Firenze.

[3] G. Paglietti, La madre mediterranea della Sardegna neolitica. Nel volume: A. Moravetti, P.Melis, L. Foddai, E. Alba, La Sardegna Preistorica, Corpora delle antichità della Sardegna, 2017, Carlo Delfino editore & C.

[4] A. Moravetti in G.Lilliu, Arte e religione della Sardegna prenuragica, 1999, Carlo Delfino editore & C.

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