Posted by Louis Dubreuil on 04-03-2004 10:09 AM:

irregular and ancient berber motives, their link with other cultures

Bonjour à tous

As I was telling about in the thread of David about berber motives here are some pictures that illustrate the thesis of a "great female art" in berber and other cultures. The main motive is the "without name motive" (WNM) that is in reality a picture of the genital female organ, the vulva, that is painted in a well known painting of Edouard Manet as "the origine of the world". In berber weavings (see weavings from Beni Jelidassen 1 and 2, Boujad 1 and 2) the motive is quite realistic. It is matched with zig zag motives that are known to be the representation of the childbirth's spasmodic contractions.

This type of representation is also shown on persian weavings like Afshar sofrehs 1, 2 and 3,

or Kurd, Bidjar (1 to 4), even in Seneh.

(kurd and afshar, bidjar 1 and 2, seneh pictures)

The WNM is transformed but is still visible. In some weavings the ecoinsons of the field make also an other great vulva figure around the central WNM.

In other cultures the same motive is also used but with more geometric style, like in AZERI weavings.

In the weaving Azeri 2 we can see in A the WNM with a more destructured shape that rejoin the Afshar and berber mode.

The motive B that is visible on this weaving and on the detail (Parviz Tanavoli's book's jacket) is also a motive that we can find in berber weavings and potery (the pronged triangle, see David's post). This motive and the WNM of vulva shape are very old ones that can be found in neolithic culture in Anatolia and around the Mediterranean sea (see schemas from the book AZETTA).

It is possible to extend this argument to other weaving cultures and especially to the turkmens. It is possible to see in the guls a derivation of the female sexual WNM, the shape being stylised in order to crypt the first meaning. If the guls are female symbols (encapsulated shapes), then the minor guls as "tchemche" with teir ram's horns hooks (pointed shapes) could be male symbols.
The ashik figure is also a goog female/vulva/WNM symbol.
The turkmen (tekke, arabachi) motive made of an ashik in which a vertical cylinder penetrates is so sexualy explicit that it is impossible the first meaning of it could not be copulation/fertility.

Voilà, c'est tout pour ce soir

Meilleures amitiés à tous.


Posted by R. John Howe on 04-03-2004 11:45 AM:

Hi Louis -

Some interesting thoughts here; perhaps even more so once we have the images.

I'm particularly struck by your suggestions about what Turkmen motifs might denote. I am fairly familiar with much of the standard English language literature on Turkmen weaving, but cannot recall encountering anyone else who has made similar suggestions.

If you look at the summary of Elena's Tzareva's lectures on possible sources of Turkmen designs that Tom Cole recently provided in a Hali link

you will see that she made allusions (some of them fairly extended) to stars, animals, flowers, etc. in the weaver's environment but does not suggest, as also I think other Turkmen specialists also have not, that there is the depiction of female sexual organs in these designs.

It is true that tribal folks are no "hung up" about sex. It is openly seen as a societal concern to provide for the next generation. So I have seen images in Turkmen weavings of male animals in wedding processions with rather full erections, but not anything that would support the suggestions you have made here. Tribal weavers would be capable of making quite explicit, although not salaciouis, sexual references in their work.

Fred Muskat, who collects tribal bands avidly, led us in a related interesting discussion of the sexual themes that sometimes occur in them not long ago in Salon 90.

I can't recall that your suggestion was mentioned in that discussion either.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 04-04-2004 04:22 AM:

Hi Louis,

The first examples are quite convincing but seeing every lozenge motifs or central medallions as
depictions of vulvas - like seeing every oblong motifs as phallic - is a bit outstretched in my opinion.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting theory. Freud would have loved it.


Posted by Louis Dubreuil on 04-04-2004 08:01 AM:

tell it with flowers...

Bonjour à tous

I am not sure that we could not interpretate any losangic shape in weaving art as female symbol. Of course there are other meanings for this shape, as "eye" for exemple, but in my opinion the main sens is in relation with the female sexual figure as a symbol of the procreation and its mysteries. Fecondity is the main preoccupation of the traditional societies, as for the womens themslves than for the flocks and the crops.
Traditional weaving is always deeply charged of magical meanings, protection against the evil eye, wishes of prosperity and fecondity...
Women have the keys of this symbolic language. In the tribes they are the main persons concerned by fecondity problems and they traditionaly express their wishes in their weaving work. The symbolic vocabulary of this fecondity preoccupation is very old as we can see vulva symbols in carved pictures in neolitic remains. In some tribal cutures it seems that there is no break between the present and the neolitic roots, as in the berber weaving art with the very realistic vulva figures. In other cultures the symbols have progressively changed in order to hide a little the obvious meaning according to artistic modes of representation that are characteristic of each culture. Despite those changes the main features remain : losange medalions for female symbols and pronged or hooked shapes for the male symbols (the ram's horn in sheep culture).

It is true that this question has never been studied for the turkmen' woven art. But there no objective reasons for those tribes who are in the same general cultural background not to share the same symbolic vocabulary or references than anatolian or other iranian tribes, even non turkoman originated.

The first time this question went to my mind is with the magnificent Ersari ensi that is on the jacket of the Jourdan's book and in the Brian MacDonald's (page 53). In the upper part of the elem there is a row of big and very simple ashik motives that are for me obviously "sexual" with their red inner losange. It is a perfect shape of the "toothed vagina". Their place in the composition and their strong visual impact is not an "innocent" feature. The symbol is strong and clearly exprimed.
This ensi is also exceptionnal because of the use of plant motives in the quartered field in place of the kush traditinnal motives (we can see here also a fertility meaning).

In the following picture of a beshir rug we can see also the strategic disposal of the three octagonal guls that put them in evidence in the general composition of the drawing. These octagons can also be interpreted as female figures. The thema is also developed in the main border.

An other strong sexual motive is for me the figures that are made with a kind of ashik that is penetrated by a vertical pole often with a kochak shape at the top. I do not know how we can interpretate this figure without thinking of an explicit sexual symbol. We can find this motive in numerous Tekke rugs, ensi and main carpets and also chuvals (see the exemples from the Wiedersperg coll.) We can also see this motive particularly well drawn in some arabatchi ensis and also in yomut items.

I think it is possible to make a new analysis of the typical turkmen's gul feature with this sexual/fertility symbolism. The two pages of schemas I have made from the O'Bannon's book explain my hypothesis. In the most numerous cases rugs with guls have two kinds of guls : primary and secondary. The first ones are quite always made of an encapsulated shape (octagonal, romboid...) that contains several objects or devices in wich we can recognise animals, flowers, foetus and geometric/abstract shapes).
This encapsulated device could be a symbolic representation of the female uterus/belly. The diverse object/devices that it contains can also be easily interpretated as explicit foetus/baby (see the O'Bannon drawing of the Yomut "C" gul with the human male shape in it), or as explicit animal figures meaning the wish of sheep fertility, or even explicit flowers figures (for the fertility of the earth).
The "Mary" Salor gul could also be seen as a combination of two symbols : the inner octagon without the pronged devices and with its toothed perimeter is easily readible as a standard "toothed vagina WNM". The geometric feature in its center can be seen as a symbolic representation of the foetus, and, because of its quartered drawing, also of a cosmogonic symbol of the "world" (woman as the "origine of the world").
The pronged triangles that surround the octagon can be seen as male symbols. The same pronged triangles into the octagon could be the expression of the woman of her wish to have male babies.

Other guls can be have the same reading (ex Kedjebe guls, with male figures inside it for the wish of male babies).

The other secondary guls are more often non encapsulated devices with numerous horned shapes, the best one being the tchemtche gul that could depict the "triumphal male erection".

I think that this subject was never touched by turkmen's scholars because of a kind of prudery and because these specialists have never seen the berber designs that can open eyes (even of blind scholars !) on the subject.

It would be interesting to make a serious work on that subject that deserves in my opinion a principal "salon". I can prepare a good discussion but that needs a little time to search in divers directions as symbolism, metaphysics and psychonalysis.

P.S I have made an error in the attribution of the painting "l'origine du Monde", the painter is Gustave Courbet. This picture now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, was before the property of the french famous psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan)

Meilleures salutations

Louis Dubreuil.

Posted by Louis Dubreuil on 04-04-2004 10:30 AM:


Here are some pictures that complete the previous post.

First the arabachi ensi with its field covered with "that could be considered as sexual conjunction" motive.

Second three pages of the Güran Erbek's book about anatolian kilims (Selçuk A.S., Istambul, 1990) on which we can see several pictures of classified anatolian motives. Among them we can recognize that there are affinities with some berber motives and some turkmen ones.

Third one page from a french catalog of an exhibition of algerian folk art (in Paris this winter) named "Algérie, mémoire de femmes au fil des doigts".

In these four pages we can see strong similarity between the berber and the anatolian motives.

The drawings are known by the weavers under names that can not fit with the shape. There are multiple reasons for that : the secret of the magical meaning of the motives can oblige the weaver to employ an other name for naming the motive to a non initiated person, the memory of the original name and meaning is lost but the motive is always here with its unconsious meaning, Some motives can have several meanings.

The reading of a symbolic motive can always be made at different levels : consious and unconsious. The sexual signification is often hiden in the unconsious level : the social taboos are strong. This can explain that a losangic motive has a consious meaning as "eye" while having the unconsious "vulva" meaning, if telling about sex or human reproduction is taboo in the tribe culture. It could be the case in turkmen culture, maybe from the begining of the islamisation. Contrary it seems not to be a great taboo in beber culture, due to the realistic drawing. When a thing (important thing as sex cannot be definitively hiden) becomes taboo there remains other ways for telling them : transformations, sublimations ...
This is undoubtly the reason of the existence of the "without name motives" : the motive does exist on, but nobody can pronounce its name (it could be the continuation of the "mother goddess" 's fear). That is in my opinion the case of turkmens and the reasons of the development of the "gul" style that is an aestetical technic of hiding and disguising the sexual matter that exists on, in the weavers' unconsious, throught her wishes of marriage and fecondity.

Voilà, c'est tout pour aujourdh'ui.

Louis Dubreuil

Posted by Steve Price on 04-04-2004 12:11 PM:

Hi Louis

Nobody can deny that Courbet's painting refers to female sexual elements, and its title makes the perception of their importance clear.

Not so obvious with the other motives you present. Your interpretation is plausible, but not much beyond that, in my opinion. The importance of producing children is undeniable, not only in "primitive" (technologically) people. Until only 50 or 60 years ago, not having children made survival into the later years pretty dicey in many societies. Your line of argument, in essence, is as follows (unless I misunderstand it):
1. Childbearing results from sex.
2. Childbearing is vital to the individual and the community.
3. Various symbolic representions of sexual elements were, therefore, incorporated into the arts of the people.
4. You recognize which symbols those are.

It's step 4 that gives me pause. Others have made arguments of similar form to reach the conclusions that motives (in some cases, the same ones to which you refer) on weavings represent great mystical birds, elephants trumpeting, bows and arrows, horses standing up, horses lying down, stars adorning the heavens, Nile river boats, and on and on and on. In the absence of better evidence, I think it has to be treated as pure speculation. Field reports from weavers would be helpful, or course, and to the best of my knowledge, such confirmation doesn't exist. You accommodate your hypothesis to this fact by adding the hypothesis that the weavers are committed to keeping this secret, and always have been. It appears to me that you have generated an untestable hypothesis (the category into which I place the other concrete interpretations of the motives) by doing so. I recognize, of course, that those who interpret the motives as representations of the other things also insist that this is a secret language that the weavers won't share with anyone except each other.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 04-04-2004 03:37 PM:

Louis -

Your argument reminds me of Gantzhorn's suggestion that the deepest thread of design influence in oriental rugs is not Islamic, but Christian, and who then goes on to see "crosses" everywhere.

Lots of men aspire to seeing vulvas, but this tendency can be taken too far.

I remain unconvinced, although I admire the effort you put into your argument.


R. John Howe

Posted by Randall_Morris on 04-04-2004 08:10 PM:


I believe that for the most part your observations are not so out of reach and are indeed borne out in a very important book by Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter called "Patterns That Connect: Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art". I feel this book, which is currently very difficult to find should be required reading for anyone who ever touches a textile of any ethnographic derivation. Carl Schuster was one of the 4 men who founded the Museum of Primitive Art in New York and which of course became incorporated into the Rockefeller Wing at the Met. He collected thousands upon thousands of images to show the linkages between Neolithic peoples. The above book is a shortened version of a book with over 12000 images collected by Schuster (still not all of them) and printed in a six volume edition of 600 which were placed in libraries around the world.

The premise is that the symbology of textiles and sculpture etc etc comes from ancient modes of recording, honoring, protecting, and furthering records of geneology. Louis mentions childbirth but childbirth is merely a way of perpetuating the geneologies. In the book also is discussed the fact that it is not necessary fore the individual to know or remember the meanings of the marks she weaves or embroiders although some do. The reason so many universal images exist is because the designs perpetuate themselves.
To me this includes and expands upon the theory often mentioned here that the physical demands of the methodology and process dictate the forms.

I do not believe, either, that just because no one has brought this up before in reference to Central Asian textiles, the theory is invalid. The fact is, that without going into New Age Goddess stuff, which immediately sets skeptics on edge, and without theorizing a 'Mother Religion' there is enough information extant to make a convincing empirical case for what Louis has proposed. It is too facile to bring Freud up everytime a vulva is mentioned. In fact that is probably very Freudian..(evil grin).
These are not symbols of repression or neurosis. It is dangerous to dismiss these ideas without delving more into ethnographic theory and studies....


Posted by Steve Price on 04-04-2004 09:08 PM:

Hi Randall

When I expressed skepticism about whether Louis' hypothesis about the origins and meanings of motifs could be supported by evidence, I noted four steps that led to it. They are:
1. Childbearing results from sex.
2. Childbearing is vital to the individual and the community.
3. Various symbolic representions of sexual elements were, therefore, incorporated into the arts of the people.
4. You recognize which symbols those are.

Of these, I have no problems at all with numbers 1-3, which seem to me to be the part that you support as well. Number 4 is a lot stickier. Agreeing that some of the iconography is probably related to procreation is a very different matter than identifying it unless one makes the assumption that it represents all or almost all of the motif vocabulary. I don't think that assumption is warranted. But I agree that the basic notion, as embodied in numbers 1-3 above, should not be ignored and most likely contains truth.


Steve Price

Posted by Louis Dubreuil on 04-05-2004 03:18 AM:


Bonjour Steve

Babies come into cabbages, it is well known isn't it?

Guls look like flowers.

The guls are cauliflowers ! I was so blind that I had no seen it.

Thank you Steve.

I think, more seriously, that this subject has to be more deeply worked. For a first time we have to recentrate the discussion on the subject of this salon, the moroccan weaving art.

Meilleures salutations.

Louis Dubreuil

Posted by Steve Price on 04-05-2004 05:25 AM:

Hi Louis

I agree that the topic you raised is worthy of further exploration. Would you be interested in hosting a Salon about it some time?


Steve Price

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 04-05-2004 06:25 AM:

Frederico Fellini Anyone?

Dear Louis and All- I am sure both Fellini and Freud would approve, but what of Margaret Mead? Granted all the symbols are there and seem to line up, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and I suspect this to be the circumstance here.

It does seem that these simple geometric shapes, in one form or another, are common to many people, both what we would refer to as primative as well as ancient, and it is my understanding that some of these may well represent what are refered to as "pubic triangles" ,"evil eyes"and such and may have had some form of symbolic or representational significance. Fertility, childbirth,talisman, etcetera. Here we are on fairly certain ground. It is my understanding that it is when we attempt, as members of a different and foreign culture, to interpret these symbols and try to elaborate upon their meaning and significance, that our attempts to interpret culture fall short of a factual representation. It is only those members of this said cultural set who are adequately versed in the symbolic language of this same said culture to full comprehend and understand it. This is of course not an all or nothing proposition, greater familarity will yield better understanding, but symbols are culturally specific to a high degree.

But don't misinterpret what I am saying. If substantive evience, as in self reporting from some of these weavers might be obtainable hypothesis might well move closer to theory. My own feelings are that it seems more a construct of a western mind, and hence western interpretation than an authentic representation of the thought processes and meanings of weavers.It's been years since anthropology class, but if memory serves, the construction of class and set are especially of cultural relivance.

In short, while there might be something to this, nothing short of real research will get us any further- we could speculate forever.
This strikes me as rather more a western type of construct and class to be honest. People in the rough as it were are fairly practical and straightforeward- Dave

Posted by R. John Howe on 04-05-2004 07:36 AM:

Dear folks -

The concern that David mentions in this last post is what would worry me too, about this line of interpretation.

Although it may not be necessary for the weavers to be able to "say" what meanings the designs they use are intended to convey, it's hard to see how, without something like that, we will be able to distinguish an accurate description of what a given set of symbols my denote from the possible projection of our own Western notions on these weavers and their societies.


R. John Howe

Posted by Randall_Morris on 04-05-2004 10:14 AM:

Dear Steve, John, David et al....

To try and make my simple point more clear?:

The information and proofs that you are talking about needing are already out there in non Van Daniken form. Because it might be new to a rug forum does not mean it hasn't been broached significantly either anthropologically or art historically.

It is important also to separate this line of thought from the 'Goddess' debates seen so frequently here and in Hali for example. The beauty of Schuster's argument is that it is very visually concrete. Childbirth is merely one aspect of geneology. He is not creating an ur-religion that is responsible for everything. The need to honor ancestors etc is a universal one...the need for nomads, hunters and gatherers etc to survive and continue the line was a universal one....the first places to mark this geneology was the isn't a secret that textile design developed from tatooing and skin marks...Thos emarks had meanings.

And yes, John, it would help for there to be sources speaking of the menings and there have been. But description of a motif shape is not necessarily the same as its meaning and that has to be diced in as well...

This could be a wonderful salon

Thanks Louis


Posted by Steve Price on 04-05-2004 10:29 AM:

Hi Randall

If the supporting information is out there it is unfamiliar to most ruggies. A Salon to introduce it to us could be of extraordinary interest and educational value.

You are evidently familiar with the published material. Would you and/or Louis be willing to generate a Salon essay presenting it?


Steve Price

Posted by Randall_Morris on 04-05-2004 12:23 PM:


I am constricted in the next few months by a schedule from hell but I would chime in as much as possible if someone else directed the salon. I am actually still absorbing a lot of the material in the Carpenter/Schuster book which is almost deserving of a salon on its own.


Posted by Louis Dubreuil on 04-05-2004 02:14 PM:

Bonsoir Randall and other ruggies.

I am happy that my reflexions about an other way to see the rug motives has uncountered some echo in the rug "community". I was sure that there would be with some difficulty and some opposition in suggesting a non orthodox way of interpretation of some classical motives as guls. I have read again the chapter of the book AZETTA, by Paul Vandenbroeck, about the "without name motive". In his development the author speaks a little of the possible exitence of this motive in persian, in caucasian and in turkmen weaving art. I share completly this type of approach of the artifacts produced by traditional cultures, approach that needs an encyclopedical and a transversal knowledge. I strongly encourage those who can read french to get this book. I'll try to find the book of Schuster and Carpenter as Randall suggested.
We have to work hard if we want to make an innovating salon on this subject ("guls' revolution "! ).

Avec toutes mes amitiés

Louis Dubreuil