Iconography in Berber Rugs, Jewelry, and Matriarchal Societies

Berber kilim, from turkotek.com

Berber kilim, from turkotek.com

A person who reads and comments on this blog, Berowne, a fine writer and photographer in his own right, raised this question about the Christian cross tattooed on the head of the Berber woman in the photograph dated c. 1910.  Berowne got me thinking about symbols, in particular crosses and their cross-cultural meanings.

Looking at the one Berber rug I have, I started to notice patterns I had only been vaguely aware of before. My husband (non Berber) gave this rug to me 20 years ago for a wedding present. It was a ‘modern’ kilim, but unusual because it was of very light colors. Basically it was on a cream background and I loved the floral and geometric designs. Though I say ‘modern’, it was really of an ancient design, simple but full of symbols.  They only became apparent to me with some further study, and within this particular rug, there are ram’s horns, spiders and crosses.  Quite a mixture of symbols.

I happened upon a site that took up the argument of Christian iconology in kilims and the exploration of this was amazing. It was not actually only Christian symbols, but Jewish, Muslim, and pagan symbols woven into these rugs….and formed into Berber jewelry. It was surprising at the far ranging influences played out in these Berber crafts.

I will try to illustrate with a few photos I found, and with thanks to Sophia Gates and Marla Mallet, a friend here in Atlanta.

(For the complete article by Sophia Gates at http://www.turkotek.com/salon)

I thank Ms. Gates in advance for the quotes used from her   amazing article:  It is the basis of a lot of deep research and understanding and her writing  adds so much to the general research on “Tin Hinan”.

Most obviously, the cross shape is one of the most natural designs for a weaver to make. Whether a pile weaver or a flatweave weaver (oi) – the geometry of warp and weft lends itself with complete ease to the use of cross shapes as decorations. Plain crosses, diagonally crossed crosses, crosses in negative space – all are relatively easy for weavers to produce and I think it’s a stretch to assume that they all are meant to indicate a Christian icon.

More importantly, however, the cross as a symbol is used almost universally, in many cultures, in many media, all over the world. It shows up in painted pottery in America, it’s woven into Berber and Navajo blankets. Almost universally, it carries the meanings star/sun/light/protection. It has been argued that Christianity built the symbol(s) of Jesus right into an existing iconography that is both ancient and powerful. This symbolism extends beyond the cruciform to include others that Gantzhorn mentions, including floral/leaf (boteh, lily) symbols of Mary and the ubiquitous trees, which he also assumes have a Christian meaning.

And this:

“The Turkic ram’s horns! There’s the Turkic influence Daniel mentioned! The 8 pointed star, formed by a cross diagonally crossed by another cross, a symbol of the light-filled cross, a Christian Star! – bearing the square shape of the Kaaba, surrounding the ancient ram’s horn motif – perhaps this one goes all the way back, to the ancient Shofar of the Hebrews?

Aren’t we seeing into the past? Aren’t we actually viewing layers of iconography, from the ancient times represented by the horns, to the square Islamic symbol, back to the Christian star, the whole surrounded by a field of flowers, and a border of stars and crosses and trees?

(Well, the Ram’s Horn was a symbol of Amon, and the Berbers were early worshipers of Amun, or Amon. JKB)

For many years, I’ve been thinking and reading a great deal about women’s issues. These have been brought to everyone’s attention by the war in Afghanistan. Recently, however, my reading has gone in a different direction, back to the ancient religions, social structures, and art of North Africa, North America, and Asia Minor.

Some historians theorize that the monotheists who have flourished in the Middle East, may actually have swept down upon an essentially matriarchal and agricultural society from outside the region, from the north in approximately 3,000 bce. These were male dominated, patriarchal pastoralists – nomadic or semi-nomadic people who depend upon animal husbandry – and include the ancient Semitic people – Hebrews among them – and they altered or virtually eradicated, by Mohammed’s time, the matriarchies and the goddesses who were their deities.

Occasionally, however, we still see remnants of these ancient goddesses and their symbols: Isis, The Queen of the Heavens, Astarte, Ishtar, Hecabe, Diana – they’ve been subsumed into Mary, the Panagaia – great mother; Mary, the Immaculata – eternal virgin. Yet their symbols continue to appear. . .

The crescent moon, often associated with Hecabe, Diana, and Isis, is here superimposed upon the cross form. Perhaps it represents a remnant of those ancient beliefs in a mother-goddess? The “S” forms in the field

that Gantzhorn says mean “God” may in fact still carry their ancient meanings: rain dragon, serpent, goddess, woman. Who’s to say that this rug wasn’t woven by a devotee of The Goddess? The small subversive acts of women in a domineering patriarchal world: the schools of ROWA in Taliban Afghanistan; the cryptic poetry of Bedouin women, singing to each other of forbidden loves and heartaches they dare not speak aloud – who’s to say that women didn’t weave their hopes and dreams and heartfelt beliefs into their rugs?

The main thing, which has troubled me about certain theories concerning Turkmen and other Oriental rug iconography, has been their overwhelmingly male nature. Arrows, mushrooms, and signs supposedly drawn in the sand by MALE shamans celebrating male deeds such as war and hunting – well. As I’ve written before, one of the joys of symbol-art is its ability to carry many meanings within one “glyph”. But – just perhaps – the guls ARE flowers; they’re eggs; the hunting birds curling up inside them are babies. The trees aren’t arrows – they’re TREES, sheltering, protective, and cool. Those aren’t drawn bows – they’re lady spiders, weaving!

And do we still see anything of The Goddess?

A few matriarchies still survive, among them the Berber and Tuareg of North Africa and the Hopi of North America. The Dineh – the Navajo, are matrilineal if not outright matriarchal – land stays with the woman’s family and the husband moves in with the wife’s family. These groups, interestingly, are still active and highly productive in the ancient arts of weaving and potmaking and jewelry manufacture; and although they are under extreme stress from modern times, Christianity, Islam, and Arabism, their art flourishes still.

Right away, we can see that the iconography of these Berber pieces differs considerably from what we’ve been looking at so far. Serpents, no longer shy little “s” forms, wriggle potently across the field. The stars are open blossoms, their petals wide open to the rain. The dominant forms are diamonds – eyes – even the “cross” forms are dominated by eyes.

Eyes – and the weavings they appear on – have amuletic power. The weavings themselves are gigantic amulets of protection. They aren’t “meant” to have power; to the weavers and their families, they DO have power. These women have POWER! And these pieces, although they are essentially contemporary – all of the pictures are of 20th century shawls and blankets, continue to exhibit in their iconography and form absolutely traditional and ancient symbols and the beliefs that accompany them. It occurs to me that the Kurdish pieces – the Jaf bags – might have a similar meaning. They are not just random, abstract diamonds. Similarly, one finds eye-diamonds in Caucasian pieces – even in the cross-filled, possibly Christian-made, Shirvan prayer rug!

Sophia Gates: extracted from her article at www: turkotek.com/salon

In writing “Tin Hinan” I became aware of the embroidery patterns that early Berber women would have used and created. They were full of symbols, but I was only seeing part of the picture: these symbols in the above rugs speak from centuries of cross cultural influences.  But of course, “Tin Hinan” come from the 5-6th century, and I was focusing on the more Egyptian symbolism.  I need to extend my understand of the dominant and subdominant influences here.

And then I came across this, in the Tuareg Jewelry (Berber). I almost fell off my chair.

Southern Crosses in Berber Jewelry

Southern Crosses in Berber Jewelry

And then this and,

Star of David in middle of hand pendant

Star of David in middle of hand pendant

and this:

Egyptian "eye" in Berber piece?

Egyptian "eye" in Berber piece?

Ms. Gates has made a believer of me!  I recommend the entire article to be found at the above site.  Amazing and profound research done by Sophia Gates.

Lady Nyo

All photos from Sophia Gates illustrations of her article on www. turkotek. com/salon

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10 Responses to “Iconography in Berber Rugs, Jewelry, and Matriarchal Societies”

  1. Berowne Says:

    Made me look! I found crosses in a woven Zapotec and one Navajo rug in our house. Though interestingly only one; the Two Gray Hills style seems to favor crosses, while others like Wide Ruins are series of triangles and stripes. Of course deriving meaning from that (other than “decorative and convenient to produce”) is, as you and Ms. Gates say, a stretch. And speculation on prehistoric matriarchal cultures and their symbologies more so. I think Marija Gimbutas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurgan_hypothesis#Invasionist_vs._diffusionist_scenarios), and Robert Graves in his _The White Goddess_, have written extensively on this but alas there is no way to verify their theories, provocative as they are. Interpreting woven S shapes as “the small subversive acts of women in a domineering patriarchal world” reminds me of the story about someone who told Dr. Freud “You know Sigmund, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. I suspect “sometimes” is the operative word here; the difficulty is in determining centuries later from a widely disparate cultural base which S is an act of protest and which one a squiggle.


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Always the provocateur! LOL!

    Well, you made me look, too! And I agree with your point about “S”….I KNEW that would come up…but cess la pool. LOL!

    I am familiar with Robert Graves, but not Gimbutas…..more research…thank you, Berowne.. Always welcome here….you push my brain around….LOL!

    In art, the ‘s’ shape has particular meaning….balance? perfection? something…can’t remember….neighbor’s acting like a rooster, complete with crowing and invades the thoughts here….but in weaving and embroidery…(cross stitch..again with those damn crosses….at cross purposes! LOL)!…the ‘s’ is an easy weave…

    But it’s nice to resurrect some feminist theory sometimes, especially since it is MIA in D/s and other issues…though I did yesterday come across a feminist BDSM site. Talk about convolution.

    So perhaps like a cigar…and s is just like an s. Except when it’s not.

    Thank you for reading and for your comments and sites, Berowne.


  3. Berowne Says:

    A quick technical P.S.: http://www.turkotek.com/salon gives me a “Not Found”; I think the URL that works for the Sophia Gates article is
    or you can go to the home page at
    and navigate through “Archives: Salons and Selected Discussions” on the left for it.

    Interesting site, BTW; I think I’ll mention it to a friend.


  4. ladynyo Says:

    Oh! It’s an excellent site…and the other posters are just as knowledgeable.

    Thank you, Berowne, for the sending the proper path.



  5. Malcolm Says:

    Fascinating material that makes your excellent blog compulsory daily reading. Keep up the good work.


  6. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you, Malcolm.

    This one, though,..well, the hard work was done by Sophia Gates….I have no knowledge of the things she wrote. It was an education for me and I want to learn more.

    And thank you for reading the blog. I learn much from those comments, private and to the blog. We need two lifetimes to continue learning…never enough time to read and write.



  7. ladynyo Says:

    Since Lady Nyo is Half-Hungarian, she is delighted to see her writing translated into Romanian!

    Blessings and Good Health!

    Lady Nyo


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  9. ladynyo Says:

    Thank you for reading and your comment!
    Lady Nyo


  10. Jewelry Software Free Says:

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    Iconography in Berber Rugs, Jewelry, and Matriarchal Societies | Lady Nyo's Weblog


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