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False goddess

Despite what believers in prehistoric matriarchy proclaim, women never ruled the Earth.

By Lawrence Osborne
June 28, 2000
Salon Magazine

At the beginning of this skeptical investigation of feminist goddess movements, Cynthia Eller describes browsing through the magazine On the Issues. Inside she stumbled across an ad for a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "I survived five thousand years of patriarchy." Eller, an independent scholar affiliated with Princeton University and author of "Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America," was struck not only by the strident confidence of this announcement, but also by how precisely the number of years of male oppression had been counted, and how often she'd encountered this particular number before.

Hadn't she heard the same figure tossed off by Gloria Steinem in her 1972 book "Wonder Woman"? "Once upon a time," wrote Steinem, "the many cultures of this world were all part of the gynocratic age. Paternity had not yet been discovered." How many feminists, Eller set to wondering, actually believe that long ago the world was ruled by a benevolent, peace-loving matriarchy? Quite a few, she eventually concluded. In certain circles, she claims, the notion of an ancient matriarchy is a booming business. This although there's no evidence to support the theory that women once ruled the world, or any human society.

In outline, the matriarchal story line goes like this: Prior to about 3000 B.C. horticultural, Neolithic societies were dominated by goddess worship. War was unknown, as was social strife. Women ruled and men accepted it. Ecological balance went hand in hand with a primitive sexual equality. Matriarchalists (as they are known) point to societies like Minoan Crete or Neolithic Malta to support their view of sophisticated, sensual ancient cultures centered on goddesses. Both the curvaceous snake-goddesses of Crete and the massive "fertility temples" of Gozo in Malta have fueled romantic speculation about a golden age of goddess worship.

But then, believers claim, this hypothetical female Eden was shattered by some kind of patriarchal revolution. Along came male rule, war and sexism, and things have gone catastrophically downhill ever since. Female hoes were replaced with male swords. Like all activist literature, it makes for a thrillingly depressing read.

The myth of a remote past dominated by matriarchy is not a contemporary invention. Its originator in the modern academy was the great Swiss philologist Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887). In his monumental work "Mutterrecht und Urreligion," first published in 1926, Bachofen declared what he called "mother-right," or the sanctity of matriarchal privilege, to be the origin of all culture. Indeed, his minute study of Roman funerary art in the 1840s persuaded Bachofen that Roman law itself -- that supposed bastion of Western patriarchy -- was characterized by matriarchal origins. "She guides," wrote Bachofen mystically of Woman, "the wild, lawless existence of the earliest periods towards a milder, friendlier culture." Following earlier scholars like Joseph-François Lafitau and Arnold Lewis, Bachofen believed in the superiorite des femmes.

In the United States, meanwhile, prehistoric matriarchy was popularized first by Erich Neumann in "The Great Mother" (1955) and then in the 1970s by the Lithuanian émigré archaeologist Marija Alseikaite Gimbutas at UCLA. In 1974, Gimbutas (who died in 1994) published "Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, 6500-3500 B.C.," in which she laid out an ecstatic vision of the prelapsarian Balkans ruled by women, goddesses and goddess worshippers. These supposedly "gynocentric" societies, such as the Vinca culture of the Danube and the Sesko of Northern Greece have indeed yielded mysterious artifacts: heads of sacred pigs, figures in bird masks, vases with painted bees, delicate stone mushrooms and female statues equipped with egg-shaped buttocks and bull horns. But are they proof of matriarchy?

Gimbutas was a curious character. A product of the German academic system of the '30s and '40s, she was heavily influenced by the German ethnologist Ernst Kassener and his theory of "culture circles" -- that is, waves of cultural influence radiating in great circles from a distantly ancient point of origin. For Kassener (and the Nazi regime), the most interesting originating point was the primeval Aryans. Gimbutas took this model and simply turned it upside down: For Aryans she substituted an Indo-European horse-riding warrior culture known as the "Kurgans," who supposedly poured out of the Asiatic steppes around 5000 B.C. and overran the peaceful matriarchies of Old Europe by fire and sword. In other words, patriarchy was installed by the Kurgan invasion. Reassuringly, it arrived at a specific time and place -- and therefore can be called neither normal nor inevitable.

This apocalyptic vision has offered the wilder fringes of feminism a comforting vision of the past. Gimbutas' most vociferous devotee has been Riane Eisler, whose popular "The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future" (1987) sets out a lushly hysterical account of the rise of wicked, war-loving patriarchy. Unfortunately, as Eller sets out to show in her book, Eisler's theory has about much hard fact behind it as the tale of Little Red Riding Hood.

Eller's arguments would not be disputed by most experts, and indeed she is hardly the first to do the debunking. Lotte Motz, in her 1997 book "The Faces of the Goddess," covered much the same ground, as has Lauren Tallalay at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Eller observes that feminist matriarchalists "find evidence of goddess worship in virtually every scrap of prehistoric art," even though the images they seize upon are enigmatic at best. How, for example, can anyone be sure that all female figurines from the Stone Age are indeed goddesses? Motz, like Eller, has concluded that images of men and animals were just as numerous as those of "goddesses."

Eller also echoes Motz's argument that "there clearly was no imposition of a patriarchal system." If the Kurgan invasions might explain patriarchy in the Middle East and Europe, they surely can't be the source of patriarchy in, say, Borneo or Andean Peru. And while Minoan Crete might look like a matriarchy from the scattered evidence of its few artifacts, nothing is thereby proved. There's not a shred of evidence that government and war in Crete were not the exclusive province of men.

Nevertheless, Eller claims, belief in ancient matriarchy is popular among middlebrow feminists: gushy pundits like Steinem, women's studies advocates and sundry activists. Although she names noted academic Gerda Lerner among the tacit -- if not outright -- matriarchy-supporters, Eller maintains that matriarchy is a part of the general feminist atmosphere rather than a tenet of a specific school. She may be right; it is difficult to say one way or the other. But in unraveling the pretensions of matriarchalists, Eller also seeks to show that wider matters are stake. Thus, her book takes off in several tangential directions.

Matriarchal myth, Eller argues, is actively harmful at worst and at best unnecessary. In the first place, she points out, matriarchalists tend to glorify "female essentialness" -- that is, to portray women as innately and naturally good, kind and loving human beings, and to emphasize the undying differences between the sexes. (This latter is of course a no-no among social-constructivist American feminists, who insist that gender differences are mostly a social invention.) Second, Eller claims, the need that romantic matriarchalists have for some kind of precedent for either female dominance or equality between the sexes in the distant past is both wishful thinking and a superfluous craving. "Whether patriarchy is our only history," she writes, "or merely one history, we are not in either case bound to clone the past."

Eller claims correctly that matriarchal myth is largely driven by ideology. But of course the same is also true of much of the "enlightened" feminism that Eller herself speaks for. The term "gender" itself, repeated ad nauseam, is a nugget of ideological implications, going hand in hand with a whole set of assumptions about the so-called construction of sexuality. While the notion of the innate moral superiority of women is troublesome, the suggestion that any innate differences between the sexes is immaterial is equally unconvincing. Eller claims that human cultures have demonstrated a dizzying variety of such constructions and that little in sex is not socially contrived.

"Sex roles," Eller writes, "and gender expectations are extremely diverse from one culture to another, to the point of being completely arbitrary." And she goes on, "Heterosexual sex, present in all cultures for reproduction, is sometimes the norm, the only approved sexual activity, and at other times accepted only as a grudging necessity. Gender, another cross-cultural universal, varies from being tremendously significant to comparatively minor." She also asserts that some cultures have a "third gender."

These assertions are also pure ideology, rather than cultural observation. They express the quintessential Western (and especially American) belief in the optimistic possibilities of social engineering. In which culture, pray, is gender relatively "insignificant"? We are not told. In which culture is heterosexuality regarded only as a "grudging necessity"? We are not told. And if "gender expectations" are really so diverse why is there such a thing as ... universal patriarchy? Feminism, essentially, has no answer to these questions.

The explanations offered by feminist anthropologists like Sherry Ortner, that men more or less "lucked out" because they don't bear offspring, are hardly eye-opening, if reasonable enough. As for the "third gender," it is as mythical as the matriarchs of Eden. It is the irresolvable love-hate agon between men and women that drives all cultures, not a whimsically benign rainbow of artificially manufactured gender hues.

Behind all this is what Eller approvingly calls "gendered archaeology." By this, I think, she means the rewriting of the past according to feminist principles. She contrasts this worthy aim with "the archaeology of gender," which I assume would include the work of Gimbutas. Gendered archaeology would view gender in terms of its "variability, permeability, changeability and ambiguity," while matriarchalists seek the Eternal Feminine under every ancient stone. It's a tossup, though, which is the more woolly.

For whatever the obvious sillinesses of the matriarchalists, it is not clear either what "gendered archaeology" would have to tell us about ancient times. Feminist archaeology and anthropology are long on hot air, but rather short on empirical detail. So far, neither has fundamentally revised anything in our view of prehistory. I admire the work of Elizabeth Barber on the history of textiles, for example, but the insights we gain into the lives of ancient Mesopotamian women by studying their relation to looms are necessarily limited. Shards of pottery, meanwhile, are not especially eloquent about "gender relations." What feminist disciplines have done, on the other hand, is to impose large amounts of parochial contemporary obsessions upon our reading of later, historical societies like classical Greece.

Eller is fond of quoting ideologues like classicist Eva Keuls, whose rabid and often foolish pronouncements about Greek "phallocentrism" are more an excursion into the grim hinterland of American sexual politics than a measured assessment of the Greeks themselves. Erecting wholesale moral condemnations of long-distant cultures because of your one-sided reading of their sexuality is a dubious enterprise at best. At worst, it is purely philistine. The Greeks are largely unknown for us. What can we categorically pronounce about them? Extreme sensitivity and meticulously evenhanded erudition are needed, and by and large feminism is not especially adept at either. Politics is not scholarship.

And here arise paradoxes in Eller's otherwise deft exposé. She correctly accuses feminist matriarchalists like Gimbutas and Eisler of being fast and loose with facts and of being overly given to grand, sweeping assumptions. But could not the same thing be said of people like Keuls or Kate Millett, whom Eller quotes approvingly? Both Keuls and Gimbutas, after all, share a remoralizing about the past in terms of an obsessive preoccupation with victimhood. Neither has much credibility among real scholars. All of these writers are adept only in the use of the intellectual machine gun, not of the patient knitting needle.

Furthermore, if Eller can diagnose matriarchalists as being a pretty homogenous group of mainly white, educated, middle-class women from a tiny number of mainly rich countries (the U.S., Britain, Germany, Australia), then exactly the same can be said of feminism in general. Eller's use of the cozy pronoun "we," when addressing her presumably female (and probably white, educated, middle-class) readers seems clubby and a touch smug to me.

At the same time, however, Eller makes another kind of argument about matriarchalists: namely, that their myths might have some value when understood purely as myths. That is, they might have some value as boosters of feminine self-esteem.

This seems both understandable and a tad condescending. Condescending, because women in reality have no need of self-esteem myths -- and if they do they can always turn to Oprah, not to classical scholars. But sympathetic, too, because goddess-mongering is also a kind of confused, blind attempt to reclaim some form of earthy femininity in a culture that fundamentally recoils from it -- today's divas and Hollywood stars are a pretty sapless bunch.

As our corporatist society becomes increasingly sexless and blandly androgynous, pathological reactions inevitably set in. Matriarchalism could be seen as one of these. Eller herself seems to admit as much. "Messages of female specialness," she notes, "are perhaps especially appealing now, in an era of feminist stocktaking." However, this is not a problem of feminism per se but of the wider culture: Another such reaction can be seen in the romantic masculinism and warriordom of Robert Bly.

Eller is perfectly right that matriarchalists are woozy, sexist romantics. But there's a rub. Liberal feminism itself has missed the boat on many fronts. Art, sexual love and religion, for example, seem somehow to be completely beyond its ken. Nor has feminism exactly eroticized the culture, as it might once have promised to do -- quite the reverse. And despite its endless, droning perorations about gender, feminism has produced little deep imaginative insight into what transpires between men and women. The result has been volcanic frustrations -- or just boredom.

It's possible, then, that in an odd way the sentimental, gawky matriarchalists, with their gung-ho celebrations of seething procreation and female fecundity are addressing something that mainstream feminism ignores or arrogantly trivializes. The resentnik myth is largely twaddle. But its emotional roots may not be so easy to dismiss.

About the writer: Lawrence Osborne is the author of "Paris Dreambook" and "The Poisoned Embrace," both published by Vintage. He lives in New York City.

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