Yesterday I visited the magnificent new Harvard Art Museums. I saw hundreds of objects but the one that has stayed with me is not a Cassatt, Matisse, the Monet, or monumental Greek or Roman statue of a deity and ruler, or piece of provocative modern art but a simple tiny female torso. This object is in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Art section. Someone carved it of steatite or chorite about 8,000 years ago, in the Neolithic era. It is only about an inch and a half long, but the details are familiar to anyone who has seen photos or examples of the thousands of statues of women or goddesses from that time. The torso is without a head, arms, or feet, focusing all attention on the torso and triangle from which all human life comes.
While we can never know exactly how these statues were used, the small size, in particular, strikes me as evidence that this object was created for daily use by ordinary people who might, for example, need to pick up and move often. Perhaps it was carried in a small bag or set carefully on a small household altar, much as many women I know place objects that remind them of the sacred within themselves, or of qualities of goddessness that they would like to develop, or of the faith of their foremothers that makes them feel at home in this world. I think that such an object would perhaps have been passed down from a woman to her daughter or niece or granddaughter or maybe an apprentice or priestess-in-training over many generations. Then, at some point, it came to rest somewhere until it emerged in our own time and came back to us.
I think of the lives of the women who first used it. While I imagine they had moments of great joy and love when they would come upon an especially beautiful landscape or gaze at the face of a beloved, I think that, like many of us in the 21st century, they also knew times of hunger and mortal danger and hatred and violence. They also suffered from serious illness and felt their life force ebbing from their bodies, yearning for a few more moments on earth. There must have been days when they felt as if waking up to face one more day was not worth the challenges of getting through it.
But they did. No matter where our personal ancestral lines take us in the world, and for most of us that would be many continents, whether or not the genes of the women who actually used that statue still live in some of us somewhere, we are all the result of generations and generations of women who go back to that Neolithic time and beyond. We all carry within us the flesh of women who lived in that time and, most likely, cherished some object like that on the 3rd floor of the Harvard Art Museums.
When I gaze at that object, I see not just a small piece of stone carved thousands of years ago, but all that my foremothers overcame in the strong, unwavering belief that life on earth is not only worth living for themselves, but passing on to future generations, including me. The statue is not just an object, but a message from the women who lived all those thousands of years ago – “Go forth. Make this Earth a place where my great-granddaughters and great-grandsons can live better lives than I or you did. Know that every morning you wake up is a good morning, no matter what your circumstances on that day. Revere the life that comes from me and make all that I went through for you to be here worth my while.”
Photo credit: Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Louise M. and George E. Bates