|I'd rather be a
|Suckled in a creed outworn
|Fiction over fact
|How it didn't happen
Goddess movement and the Matriarchal religion are all terms for a post-feminist movement (1970) to "reinvent" religion to glorify the woman. It is often tied into Wicca, neopaganism, or other New Age beliefs. This religious and cultural movement is based on a pseudohistorical claim that all cultures were once matriarchal, and that matriarchal cultures would clearly have been superior to the war-mongering, penis-worshiping patriarchal cultures that quickly dominated the world with the advent of technology.
Claims of the historical religion
- All religions in the world started with a goddess religion
- The vast majority of ancient agrarian cultures not only worshiped goddesses, but were run by women.
- These cultures were more peaceful than their male counterparts, since women respect love and emotions, and men are war mongers.
- It is likely that one of the first deities in the world was "woman" because she brings new life into the world and because she bleeds without being ill or dying. Both of these could well appear to be magical to a population that didn't know any better. Some of the earliest religious artifacts are in fact female fertility figures (Venus figures) with large breasts, large hips, and often with child.
- Goddesses were important to agrarian religions. Male and female come together to make babies. It is not at all clear that a goddess translated into a matriarchy, though in some cases it might have (but there's little clear evidence for it).
- Many of the early goddesses were bloodthirsty, such as Ishtar (the Semitic deity of sex, war and ultra-violence) or The Morrígan (the Celtic goddess of war, death, and sovereignty), or outright murderous, such as Kali, Cybele, Persephone, or Hecate (even if, to be fair, the last one was described in myths as rather compassionate and nice).
- Even in cases where there were women in charge or shared power (some recent examples include the Oneida, the Onondaga, the UK under Margaret Thatcher, and India under Indira Gandhi), there is no indication that they are less warlike, more successful, or more egalitarian, nor that this uplifts women as a whole.
Pseudoarchaeological claims and statuettes
Much of the basis for the claims of an ancient matriarchy are based on the arguments put forth by the late archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (although Gimbutas herself preferred the term "matristic" to denote a sense of egalitarianism). Gimbutas' claims are recycled in many works of Goddess pseudo-scholarship, most famously Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade. Proponents relate it to finds at Çatalhöyük, a settlement in southern Turkey inhabited from 7500 BCE to 6400 BCE, home to around 8000 people at its peak, and one of the oldest neolithic settlements in the world. A large number of statues and other images of women were found there, notably the "Seated Woman of Catalhöyük" found by James Mellaart in the 1960s; Mellaart hypothesised that these were signs of a matriarchy.
The matriarchy hypothesis is widely regarded as crackpot within both "mainstream" and gender/feminist archaeology. It relies on a specious interpretation of ancient "Venus" statuettes and figurines. One of the glaring problems with this is that the artifacts range greatly in their depictions — the "Venus of Willendorf," pictured at right, is a famous example but not wholly typical. Positing a single religion and social structure on this basis would require a massively speculative hypothesis that much of the peoples of the Eurasian landmass shared either a unified or very similar social structure and religious ideology over a period of approximately 30,000 years from the Late Paleolithic to the Neolithic.
Besides this tiny complication, there is also no reason to assume that all the figurines represented a goddess. For one, not all the figures are actually female — many are male figures and a number are ambiguous in terms of sex. The context that some of the figures were found in (e.g., trash pits) does not suggest that they were sacred items. In fact, there is no definitive consensus on how the various statuettes should be interpreted. Often these finds were not supported by later, more in-depth work: subsequent more detailed excavations at Catalhöyük failed to find any indication that the society was indeed matriarchal. In addition, even if they were meant to represent goddesses, that doesn't necessarily imply that these societies were matriarchal or matrifocal. The ancient Greeks and the Catholics produced many depictions of Athena and the Virgin Mary, respectively, but neither came out of a matriarchal society. This interpretation also ignores the numerous depictions of animals, violence, and death in Neolithic-period art. Animals were widely depicted in prehistoric art, therefore our ancestors worshiped and were ruled by animals, QED.
Snake Goddess statuettes
Another set of statuettes claimed to be evidence supposedly depict a "Minoan Snake Goddess." The original Snake Goddess figurines were found in Crete during the early 20th century by Arthur Evans. What, exactly, the figurines represent is also unknown, but Evans claimed them to be central to a Minoan religion of goddess worship. Contemporary reanalysis demonstrates that many of the them were forged or made to conform more to Evans' idea of the alleged goddess during restoration, though a couple of the statuettes and some shards appear to be legitimate. After Evans had completed his excavation, claims for the existence of the Minoan goddess religion were further inflated by a cottage industry of Snake Goddess forgeries and other fake "Minoan" artifacts.
On the plus side, some studies on legitimate Minoan art suggest at least the possibility that it could have been an actual matriarchal culture, though the idea that it was a peaceful paradise has been debunked with archeological evidence showing that it was as violent and warlike as any other Greek civilization, up to and including evidence of human, especially children, sacrifice.
Before the modern iteration of this idea came about, it was originally popularized by J.J. Bachofen in his 1861 book Das Mutterrecht ("Mother-Right"). Bachofen, however, did not view this ancient matriarchy as a golden age, but as a dark age before patriarchal systems arose due to the "natural superiority" of men. And so the story is today repackaged and sold as a tale of empowerment to women.
In fact, the idea of "matriarchy" fuses two types of nineteenth century racist myth-making. The first of these comes from nineteenth century armchair anthropologists, who concluded on the basis of travellers' tales that there existed societies so primitive that they did not know about the birds and the bees: they did not understand that there was a connection between sexual intercourse and childbirth. These tales in turn were the result of primitive techniques of field work: when oddly dressed foreigners roll into town and ask where babies come from, you're likely to tell them about storks and cabbages. This "matriarchy" was a purely hypothetical state that supposedly existed before the "discovery" of fatherhood. When paternity was discovered, men realized that they were the fathers and instituted male dominion over women. These ideas were popularized by Johann Jakob Bachofen and later made it into influential books like Friedrich Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. It has also been used with the popular prehistoric fiction series Earth's Children, with Stone Age peoples portrayed as wholly unaware of biological fatherhood before main character Ayla discovers it. They are also portrayed as more egalitarian and sexually liberated, with the realizing of paternity implied to cause later male dominance near the end of the series.
The second strain of nineteenth century racial mythology that created the Goddess is more familiar: it involves Aryan supermen. These handsome white devils are imagined to have put an earlier pastoral and egalitarian utopia worshipping a universal Goddess to the sword, imposing warfare, male dominance, and male deities in its stead. This tale was popularized by Robert Graves's well-known work of pseudohistory, The White Goddess, and more recently by Marija Gimbutas. There is simply no archaeological evidence for this tale of conquest, but in addition to the new religion, it's also become a stock trope of historical fantasy fiction.
Female gods don't mean high status for actual women
There is no necessary relationship between the worship of female deities and the status of women in a culture. Hinduism worships a large number of goddesses, but a number of Hindu sects throughout history have been associated with practices like sati and male polygyny. Even nowadays, feminism has made noticeably fewer strides in India (where the majority religion is Hinduism) than it has elsewhere.
In the seventeenth century Netherlands, worship of female cult images was rigorously suppressed, and no one prayed to goddesses. Women enjoyed relative autonomy in this commercial, bourgeois society. They were considered competent to own property and to manage businesses, unlike in many Western European societies of the period. By contrast, in seventeenth century Spain, female quasi-deities were prominent in popular devotions. The idealization of women (and of female chastity) promoted by the deified women simply did not translate into autonomy and high regard for living women. Rather the opposite: the ideals embodied in the goddess were themselves a part of a network of social control, and living women would always fall short of the idealized virgin.
History of the idea
Although today it is associated with feminist circles and equality of the sexes, the concept has had no single ideological association, and has been advanced by everyone from communists to Nazis. It was formerly popular in right-wing Germanic circles studying Celtic and Teutonic culture: one of the original sources was Johann Jakob Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right, 1861), which drew on the Hegelian concept of history as a conflict between opposing forces, in this case the masculine and feminine. Bachofen remained a minority interest for decades, although the communist Engels mentioned him critically in his Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which linked the matriarchal family with communism. Carl Jung, who wrote extensively on the masculine and feminine sides of the mind and informed later debate about gender roles, knew Bachofen's work via the dissident Freudian psychoanalyst Otto Gross. In the USA writing in the mid 19th century, Lewis Henry Morgan described matriarchy in Native American culture, and while Engels was also familiar with his work, Morgan did not have a wide influence until he was picked up by late 20th-century feminists.
While little-known in the English-speaking world, in Germany the concept of humanity's pagan matriarchal roots was popularised in the early 20th century by Ludwig Klages and Alfred Schuler, whose paganism was tied in with an antisemitism that despised Christianity for its Jewish taint. They viewed the goddess in deeply sexist terms, seeing the division between the masculine and feminine as between the intellectual and animal and seeking a return to the latter. Bachofen's work was rediscovered in the 1920s and became a key source for protofascist philosophy. Fascist ideology celebrated blood and soil, conceptualised as female, alongside an idealised womanhood centred around the home, while often deprecating stereotypically masculine knowledge and reason. (Although some thinkers, such as Alfred Bäumler, preferred Nietzsche's virile masculinism to a gynocentric viewpoint.)
The Nazi philosopher Ernst Bergmann managed to twist the concept of patriarchal vs matriarchal societies to argue that matriarchal societies were warlike and belligerent (good) while patriarchal societies were intellectual and pacifist (bad); he believed women were better leaders of families because they were able to decide on issues of racial hygiene, select strong breeding partners, and kill weak children at birth. He spoke of ending conflict between the sexes, and wrote in 1934, "it is more just and truthful to interpret the ideas of National Socialism and social anthropology in the spirit of matriarchy". Some people see any recourse to myth, even matriarchal myth, as essentially reactionary and conservative, as these links to Nazism would suggest, but according to Cynthia Eller, the myth of matriarchy can be used for widely contradictory purposes owing to its vagueness and indeterminacy, seen in its use by everyone from Engels' communism to liberal feminists.
Pseudohistory of the European witch-hunts
Goddess worshippers rely on a pseudohistorical account of the European witch-hunts, often inflating the number of casualties to the absurd figure of nine million. They are also fond of calling it the "burning times" or "patriarchal genocide," selectively leaving out male victims of witch-hunts (around a quarter were males).
- Good old days
- Marija Gimbutas
- Noble savage
- Pagan survivals
- The Chalice and the Blade
- The Golden Bough
- The White Goddess
- Oera Linda Book
- Amarie Tinuviel — woman who claims to be the Goddess
- Did a Peaceful Matriarchy Once Rule the Earth? The Straight Dope
- Goddess Worship: That Real "Old Time Religion?", Religious Tolerance
- The Scholars and the Goddess, Charlotte Allen, The Atlantic
- Women and Men at Catalhoyuk, Ian Hodder, Scientific American
- Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and Evidence, Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris (eds.), review by Cosma Shalizi
- The Goddess Lives, Sara Olchowski, Pseudoarchaeology Research Archive (directory of goddess websites)
- Richard G. Lesure. A Comparative Perspective on Figurines from Early Villages. Sixth Gender and Archaeology Conference Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Oct. 6-7, 2000. (An actual attempt at interpreting Venus figurines.)
- Lynn Meskell. Goddesses, Gimbutas, and New Age Archaeology. Antiquity 69, 1995: 74-86 (Available to subscribers or on pay-per-view basis)
- The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller
- Idyllic Theory of Goddesses Creates Storm, New York Times
- Beth Grindell. Rewriting the Past to Save the Future: A Review of The Chalice and the Blade. Arizona Anthropologist 10:119-130.
- The Ascent of Women: Catalhöyük: an example of true gender equality?, BBC, accessed October 6, 2021
- Ruth Whitehouse. "The Mother Goddess Hypothesis and Its Critics," in Handbook of Gender in Archaeology, Sarah Milledge Nelson (ed.), pp. 756-758
- Margaret Conkey and Ruth Tringham. "Archaeology and the Goddess: Exploring the Context of Feminist Archaeology", Ch. 8 in Feminisms in the Academy, Domna C. Stanton (ed.)
- Ian Hodder. Catalhoyuk in the Context of the Middle Eastern Neolithic. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2007. 36:105–20
- Breathing New Life Into Old Art: The Minoan Snake Goddess Meets the Internet, Melissa Benne, Drury University
- Kenneth D.S. Lapatin. Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses. Archaeology, Volume 54 Number 1, January/February 2001
- ART, RELIGIOUS ARTIFACTS SUPPORT IDEA OF MINOAN MATRIARCHY ON ANCIENT CRETE, RESEARCHER SAYS by
- GOODBYE, MOTHER: THE WARRIORS OF CRETE By Rebecca Bradley, January 26, 2013, The Lateral Truth
- The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, ch. 2
- Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (ISBN 0192854496)
- Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future (ISBN 0807067938)
- See Dijkstra, Bram, Idols of Perversity (Oxford, 1986; ISBN 0195037790), pp. 1-15; see also generally Warner, Marina, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (Vintage, 1983; ISBN 0394711556).
- Matriarchy and the Volk, Cynthia Eller, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 81, No. 1 (MARCH 2013), pp. 188-221 (34 pages), via JSTOR
- See the Wikipedia article on Lewis H. Morgan.