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Helene Bowen Raddeker

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About the author

Hélène Bowen Raddeker is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Languages at The University of New South Wales. Her last book was Sceptical History:  Feminist and Postmodern Approaches in Practice (Routledge, 2007). This article is also related to her current research project on spirituality, history and ecology in fantasy-writing especially by Australian women authors.


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Volume 31, November 2014


Goddess ‘Remembered’?  Pure Origins in the Historical Metanarrative of Goddess Feminism


The spiritual journey of earth’s peoples began with the idea of a Goddess, universally called the Great Mother …. Only recently [the last 6000 years]…has the earth and the female perspective been ignored. A growing number of people are looking to the past through women’s spirituality to find new visions for the future. (Donna Read, director & narrator of Goddess Remembered)

In this paper I focus on scholarship associated with the western goddess spirituality movement, paying particular attention to the construct of world pre/history found therein. Nina Lykke alludes to this when describing ‘the goddess metaphor’ as a ‘common landmark for the international wave of spiritual ecofeminism’ involving a ‘modern nostalgic construction of a “good” (non-existent) origin to return to’ (1996: 23).  The mythological origin in question is a pre-patriarchal world comprised of matriarchal or, rather, matrifocal goddess cultures. Many goddess feminists now prefer terms such as ‘matrifocal’ or ‘gynocentric’ due to ‘matriarchy’s’ implication of domination by women rather than egalitarianism;  either way, however, the narrative of a world decline for ‘women’ after ‘prehistory’ still depicts a universalized and ‘overly utopian past from which women “fell’’’(Merchant 2003: 30).  On terminology, it should also be noted that ‘spiritual ecofeminism’ can be used more broadly to include Hindu, Christian and Jewish feminists (for eg., by Ruether 2005: 307). In addition, goddess feminists are not necessarily ecofeminist in their concerns in a sustained way, while many ecofeminist scholars are not goddess feminists. It is therefore clearer to use the phrase ‘goddess feminism’ to designate spiritual feminism’s goddess wing.

Goddess Remembered (1989) was part one of a three-part film series entitled ‘Women and Spirituality’ (National Film Board of Canada, 1989–92), which could now be regarded as a classic statement of goddess feminism. I screen the documentary in a world gender history course I coordinate, in a week on the original ‘matriarchy’ debate; and student responses to it are thought-provoking. The series featured a San Francisco feminist meeting (date unstated) of leading North American scholars and activists associated with goddess spirituality that included Charlene Spretnak, Starhawk, Carol Christ, Luisah Teish and Merlin Stone.

Goddess spirituality has become especially strong in North America, but has been indebted to various inspirations from abroad. One author emphasizes that well before the 1970s there were British influences on the growth of goddess worship in the U.S.; by the seventies, the Dianic pagan Wicca of Hungarian-born Zsusanna Budapest was also playing a leading role in spreading the faith (Husain 2003: 152-530). Both Cynthia Eller (1991: 281) and Wendy Griffin (1995: 35–6) comment on the difficulty of estimating the size of the neo-pagan goddess spirituality movement in the United States. One survey cited by Eller indicated that in San Francisco in the eighties around 30% of feminists defined their religion as pagan. Shahrukh Husain’s estimate of around 100,000 neo-pagans in the U.S. by the 1990s, about half of whom identified with witchcraft, was probably a conservative one (151). Apart from neo-paganism and feminist ‘Wicca’ or witchcraft, goddess feminism has drawn on other expressions of spiritual feminism;  and ecofeminism as well. Today it still owes much to Second Wave radical feminism and to its offshoot of cultural feminism that was centred on building a ‘woman-identified’ culture—an obvious example being the embracement of woman-centred alternatives to patriarchal religion such as goddess worship and engaging in spiritual/’magical’ rituals that are intended to valorize and empower women.

The discourse on a matriarchal or gynocentric prehistory, on the other hand, extends back to nineteenth century works such as the far-from-feminist Mother Right by Jacob Bachofen (1861). In contrast, Friedrich Engels in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) set out to locate the origins of women’s oppression in order that ultimately it could be overcome—under socialism/communism. For Engels, the subjugation of women followed the rise of property ownership and class hierarchies, so his approach differed substantially from the primacy accorded (institutionalized patriarchal) religion by goddess feminists. The latter is unsurprising given radical feminism’s efforts to define itself against traditional leftism and so-called ‘male-identified’ socialist feminists. Yet in my own view, any attempt to trace the complex and variable history/s of women around the world must accord both idealist (eg., religion) and material factors serious consideration. What I recommend is a partial return to a materialist approach to history at least in the sense of recognizing that economic factors such as class, subsistence roles and access to property could be more decisive in a woman’s situation than religion. Engels may have put forward his own egalitarian utopia (‘primitive communalism’) that preceded the rise of property, class distinctions, slavery and so on;  and the Marxian metanarrative of ‘historical materialism’ he applied to women’s history was undeniably premised on a purportedly universal schema founded on western models and claims to world leadership. Due to his emphasis on class differences, however, he was not guilty of homogenizing women. In contrast, the goddess feminist metanarrative of regression in ‘the’ history of women is markedly difference-blind.
The goddess feminist vision hinges on the idea that prehistory was ‘the era of The Goddess’ and thus gynocentric; hence the opening quote’s reference to a Great Mother worshipped in the ‘goddess cultures’ of the ‘first 25,000 years’ of human history. An apparently world-historical decline for women began around 3000 BCE, however, when patriarchal forces are said to have overrun these harmonious cultures. To cite the narrator of Goddess Remembered, by 1500 BCE natural disasters and armed invasions had ‘buried the last great goddess culture’ (Minoan Crete):

All over the western world waves of conquerors descended on the peaceful, goddess worshiping cultures;  and at Delphi, too, the gentle temple became a male-dominated hive of exploitation, with the gentle voice of the priestess buried under layers of hierarchy.

One of Charlene Spretnak’s contributions to the film was to equate patriarchy with a celebration of war involving respect for ‘the conquerer…[rather than] the nurturer’: ‘Suddenly everything was fortified, the warrior was honoured, we follow a Sky God, and we have a patriarchal social system.’

This construct of an apparently global ‘Fall’ from peace-loving matrifocal goddess cultures to patriarchy in ‘Neolithic times’ is still widely adhered to. Carol Christ, for example, has continued to emphasize the egalitarianism and harmony in pre-patriarchal gynocentric cultures (Ruether 2005: 289). In Goddess Remembered Spretnak observes that in matrifocal culture ‘the female has a place of honour and respect, and that doesn’t mean domination.’ This implies that matriarchy, literally meaning female domination, is not the only possible alternative to patriarchy, as Riane Eisler has acknowledged as well (1987: 24). Occasionally, other advocates of the thesis have even admitted that a dominant goddess in any given culture need not signify social power or high status for women (Stone 1976: 30).

Cautions such as these, however, do little to render the grand narrative of a dramatic and relatively sudden decline for ancient ‘women/goddess cultures’ more convincing.  Although in the documentary Starhawk objects that the transformation to militaristic patriarchy ‘happened over thousands of years,’ it still seems that once ancient Greeks credited the male with procreation and female inferiority was ‘forever proclaimed by the book of Genesis’, ‘total domination’ was soon asserted by men. While the film’s narrator had preceded this with a justifiably cynical reference to how Greece’s golden age is held to be the ‘dawn of civilization’ in (western) history books, she follows with the rather sweeping statement: ‘for the man it was the beginning, for the woman it was the end.’  Apart from the generalization, we might also note the determination by ideas (‘idealism’), as if only religion or philosophy were decisive in bringing about ‘woman’s’ end.

We can see why one critic has noted that from the 1970s feminist scholars were faced with more than the ‘formidable task’ of countering androcentric versions of history. As Sally Binford (in Spretnak 1982: 542) put it, now they also had to contend with ‘the flip side of the myth-as-history coin’ already ‘in vogue in some feminist circles’. The debate between her and Charlene Spretnak and Merlin Stone that was included as an appendix in this work, The Politics of Women’s Spirituality, was at times heated, as has been the case with the ongoing polemic. Binford’s anthropological critique of the vision of a Mother Goddess-centred gynocentric prehistory was dismissed by Spretnak as the patriarchal false consciousness typical of ‘Marxist feminists’ (554, 560) and by Stone even as ‘bigotry’ (551). Yet non-Marxist critics of the metanarrative such as the Christian feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether have taken a rather materialist approach, as we will see, while also acknowledging the increasingly ‘nuanced’ arguments of some goddess feminist scholars (2005: 289). She discusses Christ’s Rebirth of the Goddess (1997) in this connection.

Amongst the goddess feminist reactions to challenges mounted by other feminist scholars, a notable one is the acknowledgement that their history is ‘mythological’. Christ’s defence of this is that contemporary feminism must be creative in ‘reshaping the [spiritual] resources of the past’ (2003: 231). Similarly, Starhawk seemed to want to dispense with the claim to writing ‘history’ when in the introduction to the 1999 edition of Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess she admitted that goddess feminist history is founded on an ‘origin myth’ (4). Another example is The Goddess: Power, Sexuality, and the Feminine Divine (2003) by British-based author, Husain, who also intimated that historicity is not the point in modern goddess worship’s ‘construction of a glorious female past’; for this should be seen as ‘a legitimate exercise in fantasy and myth-making for the purpose of self-empowerment’ (148). So of course admissions like these have barely affected their representations of pre/history.  Instead of revising her Spiral Dance, Starhawk did little more than complain that it is as if by discrediting ‘our history…[critics] can invalidate our spirituality’ (4). Critics of the history thesis, however, do not dismiss any emphasis on the divine feminine;  nor deny that for some feminist spiritualities can be ‘life-affirming, personally empowering, and collectively constructive challenges’ to patriarchy (Warren, in Adams 1993: 124). When screening Goddess Remembered, I do encounter some students who find it inspiring; many more, however, respond to it with a scepticism that suggests that a representation of history which is patently a fiction may be counter-productive for feminism.

The remainder of the paper is devoted to an in-depth analysis of historiographical and other conceptual problems associated with the original goddess worship=gynocentrism model. It is divided into sections in which I elaborate on four main weaknesses in the thesis: i) its recourse to conventional gender constructs; ii) its universalist-ethnocentric (Western-derived) approach to ‘the’ ostensibly primordial goddess religion; iii) a cavalier treatment of, empirical evidence; and iv) a difference-blind treatment of ‘women’.

i. Gender Essentialism

If the analyses of some goddess feminist authors have become more ‘nuanced’ over time, it is clearly due both to feminist critiques of its constructs of pre/history and to developments in gender theory. Amongst Starhawk’s later disclaimers is an admission that she had tended to attribute specific ‘qualities or predispositions’ to maleness and femaleness (1999: 20). Carol Christ, too, has become more inclined to resist ‘any simple reversal of patriarchal dualisms’ (Ruether 2005: 290). Christ now calls for new positive images both of female and male divine power (2003: 228), emphasizing that there is a sacred power within women and men only in the sense that ‘we are part of Goddess/God’s body,’ which is actually the whole world or universe (88).

Traditional gender binaries have continued to inform the original goddess-gynocentrism thesis, however. Seeking ‘to ask and answer origins questions about sexism…is fraught with danger[s]’, Cynthia Eller notes, such as reducing ‘historically specific facts and values to timeless archetypes’, for example of ‘femininity’ (2000: 183). The logic of inversion that troubles the thesis is apparent in its glorification of ‘the era of’ The Goddess, Woman, and feminine values, even if prehistorical goddess cultures are not envisioned as patriarchy inverted but rather as egalitarian communities built on a life-affirming harmony between the sexes and with nature. This approach may represent a challenge to the way in which ‘patriarchal culture has emphasized the connection between women and nature in order to exploit both’ (Rose, in Adams 1993: 150). Nevertheless, its replication of conventional binarisms can be seen even in the frequent contention that it was ‘patriarchy’ that was responsible both for the subjugation of women and environmental decline.

Attributing environmental destruction to ‘patriarchy’—rather than to agriculture, expanding populations, producing for exchange or profit, capitalism, industrialism, colonialism etcetera—is reminiscent of 1970s radical feminism in one further way.   The suggestion is that sexism was the original oppression: more fundamental than and even determining of racism and (as Marxists would have it) class domination. It came to denote in radical feminist thinking much more than gender discrimination: ‘Patriarchy, it turned out, was also about racism and heterosexism and capitalism;  it was about technological excess, the irresponsible use of natural resources, and the exploitation of the Third World’ (Eller 2000: 18-19). The totalistic picture of patriarchy painted by some feminists has long been contested by others. In the late seventies, for example, Sheila Rowbotham and other British socialist-feminist historians questioned the efficacy of the term ‘patriarchy’, partly because of the term’s universalistic implications (reproduced in Morgan, ed., 2006: 51-58). With goddess feminism, however, to one overarching world vision of patriarchies at their worst was added another monolithic vision, of a pre-patriarchal benevolent hegemony of women and women’s values.

Because of their idealized vision of ‘the’ gynocentric ‘age’ of the Goddess, modern goddess feminists commonly pin their hopes for the planet’s survival on a ‘return to the Great Mother.’ One work observes that men, assisted by the ‘false dualistic symbolism’ and ‘phallic psychology’ of patriarchal religion, could:


then go about the earth raping nature, exploiting resources and human labor….  In patriarchy man separates from earth, emulating some aloof and disconnected Sky God of his own creation, and this intellectual separation makes him feel ‘free’ to devastate the natural world…. patriarchy exists by destroying the original holism (Sjöö and Mor 1991: 16).

Apart from its attribution of environmental decline to patriarchal religion, what is noteworthy in this passage is the pure origins theme: that is, ‘in the Beginning’ all was a ‘holistic’ unity between each other, The Goddess and Earth/Nature. This again implies the ‘biology is destiny’ approach that takes as given, social constructions of gender such as male aggression and women’s pacifism and nurturing qualities. It is this recourse to traditional gender constructs that led one ecofeminist critic to suggest that ‘eco-feminine’ would better describe the approach of authors such as Starhawk and Riane Eisler than ‘eco-feminist’ (Davion 1994: 17).

Radical and then cultural feminism always contained some emphasis on women’s intrinsic closeness to nature. Yet, with the development of ecofeminism, the tendency to attribute environmental degradation to male domination was strengthened. By the mid-1990s, ecological feminists were in agreement about there being ‘important connections between the domination of women … and the domination of nature’, though the precise nature of these connections and ‘root sources of the twin dominations’ have been subject to debate (Warren 1996: x). In goddess spirituality, however, we not only find a vision of prehistoric ‘goddess cultures’ as harmonious socially and attuned to Nature and the environment; women’s subjugation and environmental degradation are also seen as two sides of the same coin and, furthermore, both grounded in patriarchal religions (Griffin 1995: 39).

Not unreasonably, what is often critiqued by ecofeminists and goddess feminists alike is the Biblical licence given ‘Man’/humanity to exploit Nature and its creatures. Starhawk therefore finds ‘the foundation of the institutions of domination’ in the God of patriarchal religions (1988: 4) who was responsible for our estrangement from the world, nature, other human beings and even ourselves (5).  The roots of this long historical process, she says,


lie in the Bronze-Age shift from matrifocal, earth-centered cultures whose religions centered on the Goddess and Gods embodied in nature, to patriarchal urban cultures of conquest, whose Gods inspired and supported war. Yahweh of the Old Testament is a prime example, promising His Chosen People domination over plant and animal life, and over other peoples …. (5).

It was the removal of ‘goodness and true value’ from Nature/the Earth that allowed for its rampant exploitation, Starhawk adds (5-6);  once men exercised a ‘monopoly on spirit’ and spirit was separated from matter, it became idolatrous to see the groves and forests as sacred.

A common feature of modern goddess spirituality has been to view not only nature as sacred, but woman as well. In an early paper, Carol Christ acknowledged that for some the meaning of the Goddess symbol ‘reflects the sacred power within women and nature’ (in Spretnak, ed. 1982: 76). She had no apparent objection to this or the view that in its ‘cycles of menstruation, birth, and menopause’, the female body represents ‘the direct incarnation of waxing and waning, life and death, cycles in the universe’ (79). The cover description of The Great Cosmic Mother by Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor (1991) also paints the religion of the Goddess (‘humanity’s heritage’) as ‘tied to the cycles of women’s bodies, the seasons, the phases of the moon, and the fertility of the earth.’ 
At least in Christ’s account this feminine connectedness with nature is not only because of biology—women’s ‘unique position as menstruants, birthgivers’—but also because women ‘have traditionally cared for the young and the dying’ (77). That is, her emphasis was on cultural traditions of nurturance, too. Nevertheless, feminist critics have still been uncomfortable with a ‘tendency to consider femininity and masculinity as innate characteristics rather than social constructs’ (Griffin 1995: 38). Like Wendy Griffin, Ruether is wary of essentialist constructs of ‘the female as embodiment of nurturing, life-affirming values’, as opposed to ‘the male as paradigm of aggressive militarism’ (2005: 4). Similarly, Eller may appreciate the goddess feminist attempt to revise androcentric narratives of patriarchy as a civilizing and progressive force, but questions its:


reconstruction of standard Western history [that] places female-ruled or equalitarian societies at the dawn of human civilization, traces their overthrow by patriarchal powers from 4500 to 2500 B.C.E., and looks forward to a coming millennial age in which society will be returned to ‘gynocentric’, life-loving values. (Eller 1991: 281)

The thesis that prehistorical goddess cultures were overthrown stems from archaeologist Marija Gimbutas whose first major work was The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500–3500 BC, Myths and Cult (1974). In works of goddess feminism her scholarship has long been drawn upon and defended (Christ 2003: 235; Starhawk 2004: 26; Orenstein, in Adams 1993: 173). Gimbutas emphasized invasions of the Near East and nearby areas by horse-riding (apparently nomadic pastoralist)  ‘Indo-europeans’ who brought with them their male gods of conquest and patriarchal customs. Her thesis has been highly controversial, often challenged even by feminist scholars (Eller 2000: 48 ff; Talalay 1994: 165-83).

Like Carol Christ, other goddess feminists have apparently tried to soften the implication of biological determinism in their Woman=Earth/Nature equation.  Hence, the maternal (‘creative, life-giving’) aspect of the Goddess often dwelt upon may encompass ‘arts of civilization’, too, as is the case in Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman. It refers to how ancient texts and mythologies credited goddesses (implicitly women) with innovations in ‘healing, writing, and the giving of just law’, and in agriculture and animal husbandry (1976: 3-4). Sjöö and Mor (1991: 7) and Goddess Remembered feature a similar emphasis. The documentary attributes to ‘The Goddess’ the invention of the stylus for writing and ‘numbers so that sheaves [of grain] could be measured.’ Yet, even with the emphasis on women’s cultural contributions as well as their ‘body rhythms’, this approach still amounts to a binary of male destructiveness versus female creativity and nurturance.

An historical irony is also implied in this emphasis on women’s cultural innovations. Granted, it makes sense to believe that girls and women, who amongst foragers have typically done most of the gathering, were primarily responsible for the first planting and perhaps even animal domestication; but one wonders how lauding women’s nurturance of nature can be squared with celebrating their development of cultivation. After all, deforestation, soil salination, and so forth resulted especially from intensive agriculture—ie., often irrigated and invariably landowning, large-scale (‘plough’) agriculture. Goddess Remembered is quite right to remark on how the agricultural revolution that began about 10,000 years ago ‘changed everything’: for, ‘no longer did people just accept what nature provided;  now we sought to control the awesome forces of the natural world.’ 
World historians often agree that in early settlements agricultural surpluses paved the way for inequities in wealth and thus social stratification (Ponting 1990: 57ff; Stearns 2006: 10ff). Those who pay attention to gender issues concur that it was in systems based on agriculture that  ‘both class hierarchy and male domination’ eventually became the most entrenched (Ruether 2005: 39;  cf., Stearns 3). Yet, still we are asked to celebrate The Goddess/women for originating systems of measuring (and distributing) crop yields? And what of the claim that it was patriarchy that was responsible for ecological destruction?  Advocates of feminine pure origins cannot have it both ways:  if one is going to embrace a model of historical change that posits a Fall from a golden age both for women/humanity and Nature heralded by the onset of male domination, it might be wise to avoid dwelling on women’s likely development of plant propagation.

ii. Ethnocentric Universalism

After thousands of years of life-denying and anti-evolutionary patriarchal cultures that have raped, ravaged and polluted the earth, She returns….
Based in matricide, the death of all nature, and the utter exploitation of women, Western culture has now run itself into the ground, and there is no other way but to return to the [‘Great’] Mother who gives us life. (Sjöö and Mor 1991: xviii)

First, one should acknowledge that goddess feminism has been a large field of study subject to various debates. Notably, North American womanists such as Luisah Teish and Andy Smith have been suspicious of white feminist attempts to be more inclusive in their incorporation of non-Western goddesses and spiritualities;  this, however, can be seen as an attempt to appropriate ‘our ancestral traditions’ (Riley in Adams 1993: 203). One might also ask whether such inclusiveness still adheres to the same sort of ethnocentric metanarrative. One author notes how ‘women involved in the feminist spirituality movement may also turn to shamanic practices’ in indigenous religions in order to ‘get in contact with the spirit of the earth mother’ (Orenstein in Adams, ed. 1993: 173). This is said to be because shamanism


takes us outside the historical frame of reference of patriarchal history—back to prehistory and even to the civilization of the Goddess, a civilization which, at least in old Europe… accorded women more prestige and equality than we do, was earth revering, and did not engage in war (173).

The author may have been cautious in limiting her generalization to old Europe, though whether it can accurately be designated a ‘civilization of the Goddess’ is questionable; however, her linking of shamanism with ‘prehistory’ and also necessarily with worship of an earth mother (or any deity) is problematic. Hence, attempts to avoid ethnocentric universalism can still effectively be working from western (mono-)theistic models.

In the above passage from The Great Cosmic Mother, Sjöö and Mor repeat the claim in Goddess Remembered that (just ‘western’?) patriarchy’s few thousand years of dominance is but a drop in the ocean: for ‘God was female for at least the first 200,000 years of human life on earth’ (49). It is not only the common archetype of the earth as ‘mother’ that they are referring to, moreover, but rather a Mother ‘God’. This is a large and unverifiable claim, which I shall address below.

Concerning goddess worship, Eller reminds us that what adherents ‘are proposing for prehistory is…goddess worship that is culturewide, exclusive, and consistently supportive of women’s power and independence’ (2000; 105). Yet Eller and Ruether (300 ff) contend that in the cultural areas usually focused upon (especially Neolithic Southwest Asia, the Middle East and Mediterranean) goddess worship was not as generalized as is claimed; male gods were also venerated; and ‘the’ so-called Goddess was usually not dominant. Eller insists that the assumption that goddess worship was even extensive is problematic (2000: 103).

Furthermore, adherents of the original goddess religion-gynocentrism thesis have often spoken as if the many ancient goddesses worshipped were just the primordial Great (Earth) Mother in different guises. It is not merely a few goddesses worshipped in areas not far from each other that are taken to be variants on one theme; often all known goddesses are treated as merely different aspects of ‘The Goddess’.  As a participant in Goddess Remembered puts it, ‘She has had many names.’ Sjöö and Mor also express the view as follows:


Isis, Mawu-Lisa, Demeter, Gaia, Shakti, Dakinis, Shekhinah, Astarte, Ishtar, Rhea, Freya, Nerthus, Brigid, Danu—call Her what you may—[the ‘Great Mother in her many aspects’] has been with us from the beginning and awaits us now. (xviii)

Husain also reiterates this theme (2003: 6). In contrast, however, Eller cites the example of classical Greeks who worshipped both gods and goddesses, and did not see the latter as  ‘aspects of a unitary goddess’ since they were all rather different and had quite ‘different roles and functions’ (2000: 103). Even where the assumption is that it was before Greece’s classical era during its Neolithic age (c.6000 to 3000 BCE) that Greeks followed Near East prototypes in venerating a Great Earth Mother, it is based upon the slimmest of evidence—particularly, so-called ‘goddess’ figurines (Talalay 1994: 167).

Many authors utilize a logic of inversion in implying that a universally dominant Great Mother Goddess was forerunner to the patriarchal One-God (Eller 2000: 93 and 103). Not only that, they extend goddess worship back to the beginning of human time. In contrast, prehistorian Margaret Ehrenberg rightly reminds us that the oldest of the figurines date back to Palaeolithic times when people were all hunter-gatherers; and foragers even much later have generally been shamanic and animist, worshipping spirits of nature, not personified ‘gods/goddesses’. If personified deities were the product of (agricultural) ‘stratified societies’, it is highly unlikely that female figurines which predated the Neolithic age by tens of thousands of years would have represented deities (73-74). Ruether also emphasizes that: ‘The idea of gods and goddesses…enshrined a concept of cosmological hierarchy that itself was built on and reflected the development of class hierarchy’ (301).

Other aspects of the goddess metanarrative have been targeted for ethnocentrism. First, adherents typically generalize on the basis of a few examples from ‘the’ Neolithic era only in the ‘cradle of Western civilization’. The examples referred to most often are Minoan Crete, Malta, Catal Huyuk (Turkey) and sometimes pre-classical Greece or ‘old Europe’. Furthermore, the dates that are routinely given are from around 6000 to 1500 BCE, but with particular emphasis on the last millennium or so as heralding the consolidation of patriarchy. It is as if the whole world had worked to one chronology. If our focus happened to be on the eastern side of Eurasia, we would have to amend such dates; since even China’s Neolithic transition began a few thousand years later than West Asia’s (Ponting 1990: 53).
What also underpins the original goddess cultures=gynocentrism argument conceptually is a teleological approach to history: the backwards causation involved in taking some phenomenon that apparently existed in one century as the end-result of some distant origin assumed to be, in essence, the same thing. Hence, it is not only that Great Mother worship is extended spatially from areas where textual evidence indicates it did exist (in parts of the Near East) or possibly existed (Minoan Crete); but also that,  temporally, something that purportedly existed, say, in Bronze age Greece is extended eons back in time. Speaking of Crete, Talalay questions the ‘logical jump’ involved in assuming cultural continuity there across many millennia (1994: 167-68).
Jacques Derrida’s critique of thinking ‘structurally’ is apposite in this connection. For, typically, when a phenomenon is conceptualized as a structure an arbitrary centre/essence is assigned to it; which is the same as the structure’s origin and ‘telos’ or end, since the essence is ascertained with hindsight and then projected back to an assumed origin (1990: 278-93). The problem with this, he noted, is that the centre functions to limit ‘the play’ of, or rigidify or reduce the structure (278-79). This formula can be used to critique a myriad of examples of thinking structurally, but where the object of study is the world at some particular point in time, it is perceived as centred on some unchanging essence that is determined teleologically—the defining core of the goddess feminist ‘structure’ (the prehistorical world) being goddess-worshipping gynocentric cultures. The same applies to the way in which ‘the’ (apparently singular) historical era is represented where ‘history’ is defined by an undifferentiated vision of world patriarchy.  We might recall the propositions in Goddess Remembered that classical Greece represented the end for ‘women’. All women everywhere? This construct is comprised of two conceptual structures that greatly reduce variation in the world: one of ‘world’ prehistory and another of history to which opposite essences and meanings are ascribed, matristic egalitarianism and Nature-loving harmony, on the one hand, and patriarchal hierarchy and aggression on the other together with ecological destruction.

iii. Lack of Evidence

Problems concerning evidence pervade this feminist origin myth: especially, repeated generalizations with little empirical evidence to substantiate them. Feminist critics have even disputed the designation of Minoan Crete, Catal Huyuk and pre-classical Greece—so often taken as representative of the pre-patriarchal world— as matrifocal (Eller 2000: 34, 100-101; Ruether 2005: 28 ff; Talalay 1994: 166 ff). Another failing is a tendency to look at evidence with ready-made interpretations. One begins, that is, with the hypothesis that cultures centred on Mother-gods preceded patriarchies centred on Father-Gods; and then any archaeological or textual evidence of goddess-worship is taken as confirmation of the hypothesis. 

In short, the cavalier approach to evidence in goddess feminism includes the suppression of other interpretative possibilities. A glaring archaeological example of this is the treatment of virtually any female figurines derived from ancient times as goddesses, regardless of their age and other differences. Thus, Husain first claims a similarity between ‘some’ Palaeolithic and Neolithic figurines she takes to be goddesses—without specifying how many, or clarifying which ones—and then takes that as suggestive of ‘a coherent religion that continued from one age to the next’ spanning over 20,000 years (2003: 13). Ehrenberg is amongst those who have questioned this approach; and she does so on multiple grounds, among them the issue of what to make of the male or unsexed figurines found at various sites (1989: 63-76). She also recommends that we consider the different sorts of sites in which these ‘goddess’ figurines were found: for example, in temples, domicile hearths or rubbish tips. Where there is no textual evidence to support the notion that figurines were goddesses, we cannot overlook other possible interpretations. The Palaeolithic ones in particular may have been fertility fetishes, or toys, or communication devices, or signifiers of human status and wealth (Ehrenberg; cf. Talalay 1994: 168-69). Much has been made of the generous (‘pregnant’?) proportions of the oldest figurines, but another explanation has been that being well fed could have symbolized human health or high tribal status. Though the famous Willendorf ‘Venus’ (sic) and some others look obese rather than pregnant, goddess feminists have read them as symbolizing the veneration accorded to women by the earliest peoples for their miraculous ability to give birth.

A further point about the lack of empirical evidence is related to the metanarrative’s gendered idealization of women in its glowing representations of goddesses and goddess cultures built on ‘women’s values.’ Eller objects that ancient goddesses were often not the loving, benevolent, pacific and life-affirmative ‘Mothers’ depicted;  some were rather bloodthirsty and functioned largely to justify violence and war (2000: 104). While some goddess feminists do emphasize the ‘many faces of The Goddess,’ including the ‘raging warrior’ and ‘death-dealing’ crone, this does not stop them from generalizing about the nurturing beneficence of ‘The Goddess’ who purportedly acted to maintain a healthy balance in the natural cycles of life and death (see Sjöö and Mor 1991: xviii).

Finally, one should also ask whose material interests goddess-worship served. Ancient goddesses could be used to support patriarchal political leadership, utilized by men in men’s interests—for example, in cases of a goddess and her priestesses whose cultural significance was as kingmakers, not representatives of women’s leadership or even equality (Ruether 2005: 301). Even worship of an actual mother goddess such as the Egyptian Isis did not necessarily serve women’s interests.  Hence, the goddess feminist proposition that ‘if the goddess is female, then females are goddesses’ is merely wishful thinking (Judy Mann, qtd in Eller 2000: 103).

iv. Homogenizing Women

Repeatedly, in goddess feminist works we find ‘women’ being spoken of in universalistic terms similar to the Goddess Remembered proposition that ‘for women [everywhere?] it [Neolithic Greece, c.3000-1500 BCE] was the end.’ Women on both sides of this West-derived temporal dividing line are thereby homogenized, irrespective of differences between them, especially in the multiple modes of subsistence in operation once people began to replace foraging with planting and a reliance on animal domestication. In Southwest Asia, the Middle East and Mediterranean, sedentary communities practising plant and animal domestication began around 9000 BCE and this was spreading to other areas such as Egypt by about 5000 BCE. For this reason, as Eller implies (2000: 40), it seems strange that the communities most often cited by goddess feminists as exemplifying the ‘height of matriarchal [or matrifocal] culture’ had enacted their Neolithic transition a millennium or two before.  Surely, in the wake of agricultural surpluses’ appropriation by elites and landed property’s establishment, differences of status amongst people and between women and men would already have taken root. 

At times authors do emphasize that their focus is on early, ‘proto-’ Neolithic cultures (Stone 1976: 14-19), meaning communities based on horticulture. This has long differed from intensive agriculture in often not being fixed in one place nor necessarily based on land ownership. Such authors may be influenced by what we know of contrasting gender arrangements in the different modes of subsistence even centuries later. There is a substantial body of evidence to indicate that around the world sexual inequalities have been most pronounced in states built on intensive agriculture:  for example, commentaries in ancient Greek and medieval Chinese texts that emphasized the strange ways of the ‘barbarians’ (actually, often horse-riding and herding pastoralists) and their too-free or respected women; as well as in later European accounts of foraging and other colonized peoples who exhibited non-patriarchal customs (see world gender histories such as Stearns 2006; Weisner-Hanks, 2000; Hughes & Hughes, 1995 & 1997). On the one hand, where people did not understand reproduction or marriage not formalized, family units would have been centred on mothers and their offspring, as goddess feminist writers often point out (Stone 1976: 11; also Sjöö and Mor 1991: 8). On the other, it is unsurprising that the gender arrangements practised by comparatively unpropertied non-agriculturalists more often retained matrilocal marriage, matrilineal or bilateral inheritance; and more varied sex roles involving more sharing of communal authority between women and men than was generally the case with agriculturalists. However, just as later non-patriarchal customs usually did not amount systemically to matriarchy or even gynocentrism, we cannot simply assume that, overall, social authority in such tribes or communities was necessarily vested more in mothers/women.

I acknowledge that the common differences between agricultural and non-agricultural peoples suggest that a model of regression for ‘women’ has some basis in world historical realities. There have been recurring patterns that indicate that transitions at different times around the world from foraging to other, more propertied lifestyles resulted in greater status distinctions amongst men and between men and women (Stearns 2006: 10-19). Typically, with intensive agriculture came unequal access to surpluses, then the ownership of land, beasts and tools, and production increasingly for exchange or profit rather than personal use (Kelly Gadol 1987: 22). Of course, the spread of text-based and increasingly powerful religions dominated by men also contributed to the patriarchalization of different peoples at different times. As is illustrated by Old Testament stories that enshrined paternal control of polygamous families and sexual double standards favouring men, some of these institutionalized religions were vitally concerned with controlling reproduction and women’s sexual autonomy in the interest of secure paternity in patrilineal succession and property inheritance. But, patriarchal religion could also fail to affect or take a very long time to dislodge customary economic or familial practices amongst non-agricultural peoples that accorded women more authority and autonomy than in strict patriarchies.

Undeniably, when Engels posited a regression metanarrative for women he could have paid more attention to non-economic determinants of women’s subjugation. A narrow materialist determinism was clear in Origin of the Family where he wrote that, once social classes had developed, the ‘family system [was] entirely dominated by the property system’ (1884: 26). Nevertheless, at least Engels did not imply that there was one synchronous world timeline:  one universal ‘prehistory’ or ‘Neolithic age’. Furthermore, many non-Marxist feminist scholars and world historians have recognized unpatriarchal economic and familial patterns that have recurred often enough down through world history to mean something. While it is not uncommon for goddess feminists to pay some attention to material/economic changes in ‘ancient times’ (sic), it is not in any sustained way since patriarchal religion is their primary focus.  This is typically accompanied by an emphasis on the spread of warfare as more decisive in the development of patriarchy than new property relations when, clearly, the two are not easily separable. As I have intimated, an anti-Marxist and thus wholesale dismissal of a materialist approach to global history can lead merely to a different and even more problematic form of reductionism.

It is understandable that feminist scholars would posit a world decline for women. After all, this was a critical response to androcentric universalist metanarratives of a necessary progress for ‘humanity’ attending the ‘ancient’ spread of civilization and patriarchy. Many Second Wave and later feminists have therefore embraced a model of historical regression for women. However, feminist metanarratives of regression can be equally monolithic when their focus is narrowly western, and they fail to recognize temporal, subsistence, cultural and/or class diversity amongst women. Even recent critics of the regression thesis such as Judith Bennett do not circumvent the model’s universalism entirely. In her approach the emphasis is on a lack of change under patriarchy: ‘Broad swathes of the past might have been shaped by a dynamic of ‘patriarchal equilibrium’,’ she says (2006: 80). However, any swathe of the past could well bring change/progress for one class or type of woman and either regression or continuity for another.

Feminist Origin Myths — Concluding Thoughts

The four objections to the original Goddess-centred matriarchy/matrifocality argument that I have focused upon are not the only possible critiques of the thesis, though in my view they are the most significant. Certainly, the model of a world-historical regression for women that attended ‘the’ Neolithic transition from prehistory to history would be more plausible if it included a clearer recognition that there have been multiple Neolithic Ages in the world, and several prehistories. Similarly, if we are studying a point in time when it might seem that patriarchy was universal, we need to be sure not only to investigate differences amongst women in class-stratified societies, but also recognize the varying gender arrangements in different subsistence patterns. I hope my discussion has shown that these sorts of considerations can be more relevant to the question of a woman’s situation in any given society at any given time than the question of whether a god or goddess was the main object of worship. 

The question of the political utility of this origin myth for feminism is moot. Clearly, by ‘re-imagining the divine as female’ and thereby challenging the denigration of women and women’s bodies in the dualisms of ‘classical theism’ (Christ 2003: 227), the goddess spirituality movement has contributed to many women’s sense of empowerment. I do, moreover, empathize with those who seek feminist alternatives in the realm of spirituality, in order to combat over two millennia of religious misogyny in the major religions. It cannot hurt to contest traditions of androcentrism in both religion and works of history by acknowledging (preferably the multiplicity of) long-ignored traditions of goddess worship around the world that pre- and long post-dated the rise of the major patriarchal religions. Yet, projecting an idealized and universal, beneficent Great Mother Goddess back to the beginning of time and seeing all ancient and later goddesses as faces of ‘Her’—when they were sometimes not benevolent nor necessarily symbols of women’s social power—merely represents a ‘feminist fundamentalism’ (Ruether 2005: 307), the corollary of which is a ‘totalizing image’ of the ubiquity of patriarchy (Eller 2000: 183). Even if we accept that around the world patriarchy tended to be on the rise after the ‘prehistory’ of the world’s many different cultures, the question remains of whether we really want ‘to write women out of the picture, to exclude them…from all history’ (my emphasis)? (Georgoudi, in Duby and Perrot 1992: 463)

As a feminist historian, my concern is with a construct of pre/history that I see as glaringly ethnocentric, generally fictive, and also politically counter-productive. For, even where proponents admit the mythic nature of their history, this has had little effect on their descriptions of purported goddess traditions in ‘prehistory’; or their tendency to use universalistic language about the implicitly synchronous global ‘era of the Goddess’ (Spretnak, in Adams 1993: 275).  No doubt the problem for such authors is that if more were to be explicit about the mythological nature of the glorious female past presented, and then actually apply that admission to their constructs of history, it would lose the vision much of its popular appeal. I noted earlier that some students who view the film Goddess Remembered find it inspiring, but most dismiss it as complete fantasy, even when I have done no more than warn them of its essentialism re ‘Woman’ and universalizing tendencies. Their reaction seems to stem from the view that if some of it is invented, then none of it can be taken seriously. The legitimate aspects of its feminist critique of patriarchal religions may therefore be falling on deaf ears.




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