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

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By Lawrence Osborne

June 28, 2000 | 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.

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future

By Cynthia Eller

Beacon Press 304 pages

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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.

. Next page | How to explain the universality of patriarchy?
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