The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

Postby admin » Mon Oct 15, 2018 9:24 pm

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future
by Cynthia Eller
© 2000 by Cynthia Eller




"Fascinating ... Eller carefully clips every threat from which this matriarchal myth is woven." -- Natalie Angier, the New York Times Book Review


Women's Studies
According to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, men and women lived together peacefully before recorded history. Society was centered around women, with their mysterious life-giving powers, and they were honored as incarnations and priestesses of the Great Goddess. Then a transformation occurred, and men thereafter dominated society.
Given the universality of patriarchy in recorded history, this vision is understandably appealing for many women. But does it have any basis in fact? And as a myth, does it work for the good of women? Cynthia Eller traces the emergence of the feminist matriarchal myth, explicates its functions, and examines the evidence for and against a matriarchal prehistory. Finally, she explains why this vision of peaceful, woman-centered prehistory is something feminists should be wary of.
"Passionately argued, engagingly written, this visual book is certain to inspire wide -- and much-needed -- debate." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"[An] engaging critique of a popular but perhaps self-defeating belief." -- Mark Odegard, Utne Reader
"In unraveling the pretensions of matriarchalists, Eller seeks to show that wider matters are at stake ... Matriarchal myth, [she] argues, is actively harmful at worst and at best unnecessary." -- Lawrence Osborne,
Cynthia Eller is the author of Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America, a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 1994, and of Conscientious Objectors and the Second World War. She is assistant professor of women and religion at Montclair State University.

For Jon and Sophie

Over the last few months, this untaught history had become a lump in my throat, a forgotten piece of my female heart that had begun to beat again. Now here in the stone circle I felt it even more, like a sad, sad sweetness, like a sorrow and a hope melded into one.

-- Sue Monk Kidd

The real political question ... as old as political philosophy ... [is] when we should endorse the ennobling lie .... We ... need to show not that ... [these lies] are falsehoods but [that] they are useless falsehoods at best or -- at worst -- dangerous ones.

-- Kwame Anthony Appiah


• CHAPTER 1: Meeting Matriarchy
• CHAPTER 2: Popularizing the Past
• CHAPTER 3: The Story They Tell
• CHAPTER 4: The Eternal Feminine
• CHAPTER 5: Finding Gender in Prehistory
• CHAPTER 6: The Case Against Prehistoric Matriarchies I: Other Societies, Early Societies
• CHAPTER 7: The Case Against Prehistoric Matriarchies II: Prehistoric Art and Architecture
• CHAPTER 8: Was There a Patriarchal Revolution?
• CHAPTER 9: On the Usefulness of Origin Myths
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Re: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

Postby admin » Mon Oct 15, 2018 11:11 pm

CHAPTER 1: Meeting Matriarchy

Once while I was browsing through On the Issues, a feminist magazine, I happened upon an advertisement for a T-shirt: "I Survived Five-Thousand Years of Patriarchal Hierarchies," it proclaimed (see Fig. 1.1). This same birthday for patriarchy, five thousand years in the past, was mentioned several times in a lecture I attended in 1992 in New York City. I heard this number very frequently in the late 1980s and early 1990s; I was researching the feminist spirituality movement, and five thousand is the most common age spiritual feminists assign to "the patriarchy." Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to hear it yet again. But I was: the speaker was Gloria Steinem, and I hadn't figured her for a partisan of this theory.

As I later learned, Steinem had been speculating about the origins of the patriarchy as early as 1972, when she told the readers of Wonder Woman this story:

Once upon a time, the many cultures of this world were all part of the gynocratic age. Paternity had not yet been discovered, and it was thought ... that women bore fruit like trees -- when they were ripe. Childbirth was mysterious. It was vital. And it was envied. Women were worshipped because of it, were considered superior because of it .... Men were on the periphery -- an interchangeable body of workers for, and worshippers of, the female center, the principle of life.

The discovery of paternity, of sexual cause and childbirth effect, was as cataclysmic for society as, say, the discovery of fire or the shattering of the atom. Gradually, the idea of male ownership of children took hold ....

Gynocracy also suffered from the periodic invasions of nomadic tribes .... The conflict between the hunters and the growers was really the conflict between male-dominated and female-dominated cultures.

. . . women gradually lost their freedom, mystery, and superior position. For five thousand years or more, the gynocratic age had flowered in peace and productivity. Slowly, in varying stages and in different parts of the world, the social order was painfully reversed. Women became the underclass, marked by their visible differences. [1]

Fig. 1.1. T-shirt dating the advent of patriarchy to 3000 BCE.

In 1972, Steinem was a voice in the wilderness with her talk of a past gynocratic age; only a handful of feminists had even broached the topic. The second wave of feminism was young then, but for most feminists the patriarchy was old, unimaginably old.

Too old, some would say. The patriarchy is younger now, thanks to growing feminist acceptance of the idea that human society was matriarchal -- or at least "woman-centered" and goddess-worshipping -- from the Paleolithic era, 1.5 to 2 million years ago, until sometime around 3000 BCE. There are almost as many versions of this story as there are storytellers, but these are its basic contours:

• In a time before written records, society was centered around women. Women were revered for their mysterious life-giving powers, honored as incarnations and priestesses of the great goddess. They reared their children to carry on their line, created both art and technology, and made important decisions for their communities.

• Then a great transformation occurred -- whether through a sudden cataclysm or a long, drawn-out sea change -- and society was thereafter dominated by men. This is the culture and the mindset that we know as "patriarchy," and in which we live today.

• What the future holds is not determined, and indeed depends most heavily on the actions that we take now: particularly as we become aware of our true history. But the pervasive hope is that the future will bring a time of peace, ecological balance, and harmony between the sexes, with women either recovering their past ascendancy, or at last establishing a truly egalitarian society under the aegis of the goddess.

Not everyone who discusses this theory believes that the history of human social life on Earth happened this way. There is substantial dissension. But the story is circulating widely. It is a tale that is told in Sunday school classrooms, at academic conferences, at neopagan festivals, on network television, at feminist political action meetings, and in the pages of everything from populist feminist works to children's books to archaeological tomes. For those with ears to hear it, the noise the theory of matriarchal prehistory makes as we move into a new millennium is deafening.

My first encounter with the theory that prehistory was matriarchal came in 1979 in a class titled "Minoan and Mycenaean Greece." While on site at Knossos, our professor -- an archaeologist with the American School of Classical Studies in Athens -- noted that the artifactual evidence on the island of Crete pointed toward Minoan society being matriarchal. I don't recall much of what he said in defense of this assertion or what he meant by "matriarchal." All of this is overshadowed in my memory by the reaction of the other members of the class to the professor's statement: they laughed. Some of them nervously, some derisively. One or two expressed doubt. The general sentiment went something like this: "As if women would ever have run things, could ever have run things ... and if they did, men surely had to put an end to it!" And, as my classmates gleefully noted, men did put an end to it, for it was a matter of historical record, they said, that the civilization of Minoan Crete was displaced by the apparently patriarchal Mycenaeans.

There were only a dozen or so of us there, ranging in age from teens to forties -- Greeks, Turks, expatriate Americans -- about evenly divided between women and men. The men's reactions held center stage (as men's reactions in college classes tended to do in 1979). I don't know what the other women in the class were thinking; they either laughed along with the men or said nothing. I felt the whole discussion amounted to cruel teasing of the playground variety, and I was annoyed with the professor for bringing it up and then letting it degenerate from archaeological observation to cheap joke. I left that interaction thinking, "Matriarchal? So what?" If a lot of snickering was all that prehistoric matriarchies could get me, who needed them?

Having thus washed my hands of the theory of prehistoric matriarchy, I didn't encounter it again until the early 1980s, when I was in graduate school doing research on feminist goddess-worship. I heard the theory constantly then, from everyone I interviewed, and in virtually every book I read that came out of the feminist spirituality movement. This matriarchy was no Cretan peculiarity, but a worldwide phenomenon that stretched back through prehistory to the very origins of the human race. These "matriarchies" -- often called by other names -- were not crude reversals of patriarchal power, but models of peace, plenty, harmony with nature, and, significantly, sex egalitarianism.

There was an answer here to my late adolescent question, "Matriarchal? So what?" -- a thoroughly reasoned and passionately felt answer. Far from meaning nothing, the existence of prehistoric matriarchies meant everything to the women I met through my study of feminist spirituality. In both conversation and literature, I heard the evangelical tone of the converted: the theory of prehistoric matriarchy gave these individuals an understanding of how we came to this juncture in human history and what we could hope for in the future. It underwrote their politics, their ritual, their thealogy (or understanding of the goddess), and indeed, their entire worldview.

As a student of religion, I was fascinated with this theory, with its power to explain history, to set a feminist and ecological ethical agenda, and incredibly, to change lives. Of course I knew theoretically that this is precisely what myths do -- and this narrative of matriarchal utopia and patriarchal takeover was surely a myth, at least in the scholarly sense: it was a tale told repeatedly and reverently, explaining things (namely, the origin of sexism) otherwise thought to be painfully inexplicable. But to see a myth developing and gaining ground before my own eyes -- and more significantly, in my own peer group -- was a revelation to me. Here was a myth that, however recently created, wielded tremendous psychological and spiritual power.

My phenomenological fascination with what I came to think of as "the myth of matriarchal prehistory" was sincere, and at times dominated my thinking. But it was accompanied by other, multiple fascinations. To begin with, once the memory of the derisive laughter at Knossos faded, I was intrigued with the idea of female rule or female "centeredness" in society. It was a reversal that had a sweet taste of power and revenge. More positively, it allowed me to imagine myself and other women as people whose biological sex did not immediately make the idea of their leadership, creativity, or autonomy either ridiculous or suspect. It provided a vocabulary for dreaming of utopia, and a license to claim that it was not mere fantasy, but a dream rooted in an ancient reality.

In other words, I had no trouble appreciating the myth's appeal. Except for one small problem -- and one much larger problem -- I might now be writing a book titled Matriarchal Prehistory: Our Glorious Past and Our Hope for the Future. But if I was intrigued with the newness and power of the myth, and with its bold gender reversals, I was at least as impressed by the fact that anyone took it seriously as history. Poking holes in the "evidence" for this myth was, to rely on cliche, like shooting fish in a barrel. After a long day of research in the library, I could go out with friends and entertain them with the latest argument I'd read for matriarchal prehistory, made up entirely -- I pointed out -- of a highly ideological reading of a couple of prehistoric artifacts accompanied by some dubious anthropology, perhaps a little astrology, and a fatuous premise ... or two or three.

When I picked up my research on feminist spirituality again in the late 1980s and early 1990s, [2] I got to know many women involved in the movement, and I felt largely sympathetic toward their struggles to create a more female-friendly religion. But I continued to be appalled by the sheer credulousness they demonstrated toward their very dubious version of what happened in Western prehistory. The evidence available to us regarding gender relations in prehistory is sketchy and ambiguous, and always subject to the interpretation of biased individuals. But even with these limitations, what evidence we do have from prehistory cannot support the weight laid upon it by the matriarchal thesis. Theoretically, prehistory could have been matriarchal, but it probably wasn't, and nothing offered up in support of the matriarchal thesis is especially persuasive.

However, a myth does not need to be true -- or even necessarily be believed to be true -- to be powerful, to make a difference in how people think and live, and in what people value. Yet even as I tried to put aside the question of the myth's historicity, I remained uncomfortable with it. It exerted a magnetic appeal for me, but an even stronger magnetic repulsion. Eventually I had to admit that something was behind my constant bickering about the myth's historicity, something more than a lofty notion of intellectual honesty and the integrity of historical method. For certainly there are other myths that I have never felt driven to dispute: White lotus flowers blossomed in the footsteps of the newly born Shakyamuni? Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments carved into two stone tablets? Personally, I doubt that either of these things happened, but I would never waste my breath arguing these points with the faithful. Truth claims seem beside the point to me: what matters is why the story is told, the uses to which it is put and by whom.

I have been a close observer of the myth of matriarchal prehistory for fifteen years now and have watched as it has moved from its somewhat parochial home in the feminist spirituality movement out into the feminist and cultural mainstream. But I haven't been able to cheer at the myth's increasing acceptance. My irritation with the historical claims made by the myth's partisans masks a deeper discontent with the myth's assumptions. There is a theory of sex and gender embedded in the myth of matriarchal prehistory, and it is neither original nor revolutionary. Women are defined quite narrowly as those who give birth and nurture, who identify themselves in terms of their relationships, and who are closely allied with the body, nature, and sex -- usually for unavoidable reasons of their biological makeup. This image of women is drastically revalued in feminist matriarchal myth, such that it is not a mark of shame or subordination, but of pride and power. But this image is nevertheless quite conventional and, at least up until now, it has done an excellent job of serving patriarchal interests.

Indeed, the myth of matriarchal prehistory is not a feminist creation, in spite of the aggressively feminist spin it has carried over the past twenty-five years. Since the myth was revived from classical Greek sources in 1861 by Johann Jakob Bachofen, it has had -- at best -- a very mixed record where feminism is concerned. The majority of men who championed the myth of matriarchal prehistory during its first century (and they have mostly been men) have regarded patriarchy as an evolutionary advance over prehistoric matriarchies, in spite of some lingering nostalgia for women's equality or beneficent rule. [3] Feminists of the latter half of the twentieth century are not the first to find in the myth of matriarchal prehistory a manifesto for feminist social change, but this has not been the dominant meaning attached to the myth of matriarchal prehistory, only the most recent.

Though there is nothing inherently feminist in matriarchal myth, this is no reason to disqualify it for feminist purposes. If the myth now functions in a feminist way, its antifeminist past can become merely a curious historical footnote. And it does function in a feminist way now, at least at a psychological level: there are ample testimonies to that. Many women -- and some men too -- have experienced the story of our matriarchal past as profoundly empowering, and as a firm foundation from which to call for, and believe in, a better future for us all.

Why then take the time and trouble to critique this myth, especially since it means running the risk of splitting feminist ranks, which are thin enough as it is? Simply put, it is my feminist movement too, and when I see it going down a road which, however inviting, looks like the wrong way to me, I feel an obligation to speak up. Whatever positive effects this myth has on individual women, they must be balanced against the historical and archaeological evidence the myth ignores or misinterprets and the sexist assumptions it leaves undisturbed. The myth of matriarchal prehistory postures as "documented fact," as "to date the most scientifically plausible account of the available information." [4] These claims can be -- and will be here -- shown to be false. Relying on matriarchal myth in the face of the evidence that challenges its veracity leaves feminists open to charges of vacuousness and irrelevance that we cannot afford to court. And the gendered stereotypes upon which matriarchal myth rests persistently work to flatten out differences among women; to exaggerate differences between women and men; and to hand women an identity that is symbolic, timeless, and archetypal, instead of giving them the freedom to craft identities that suit their individual temperaments, skills, preferences, and moral and political commitments.

In the course of my critique of feminist matriarchal myth, I do not intend to offer a substitute account of what happened between women and men in prehistoric times, or to determine whether patriarchy is a human universal or a recent historical phenomenon. These are questions that are hard to escape -- feminist matriarchal myth was created largely in response to them -- and intriguing to speculate upon. But the stories we spin out and the evidence we amass about the origins of sexism are fundamentally academic. They are not capable of telling us whether or how we might put an end to sexism. As I argue at the end of this book, these are moral and political questions; not scientific or historical ones.

The enemies of feminism have long posed issues of patriarchy and sexism in pseudoscientific and historical terms. It is not in feminist interests to join them at this game, especially when it is so (relatively) easy to undermine the ground rules. We know enough about biological sex differences to know that they are neither so striking nor so uniform that we either need to or ought to make our policy decisions in reference to them. And we know that cultures worldwide have demonstrated tremendous variability in constructing and regulating gender, indicating that we have significant freedom in making our own choices about what gender will mean for us. Certainly recent history, both technological and social, proves that innovation is possible: we are not forever condemned to find our future in our past. Discovering -- or more to the point, inventing -- prehistoric ages in which women and men lived in harmony and equality is a burden that feminists need not, and should not bear. Clinging to shopworn notions of gender and promoting a demonstrably fictional past can only hurt us over the long run as we work to create a future that helps all women, children, and men flourish.

In spite of overwhelming drawbacks, the myth of matriarchal prehistory continues to thrive. Any adequate critique of this myth must be based on a proper understanding of it: who promotes it and what they stand to gain by doing so; how it has evolved and where and how it is being disseminated; and exactly what this story claims for our past and our future. It is to this descriptive task that the next two chapters are devoted.
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Re: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

Postby admin » Mon Oct 15, 2018 11:17 pm

Part 1 of 2

CHAPTER 2: Popularizing the Past

Many different types of women are attracted to the idea that prehistoric societies were goddess-worshipping and woman-honoring. Among the myth's adherents are academics and artists, career-minded women and stay-at-home moms, longtime feminists and young women just beginning to entertain the idea that they are living in a man's world. Generalizations one might want to make about feminist matriarchalists almost always fail: most are white, but not all; most are middle class, but some are working class or poor; many are well educated, but some are not; most were raised as Christians, but then most Americans are. They are married, single, lesbian, bisexual, and straight, with no one status dominating. The way in which the myth of matriarchal prehistory extols motherhood is clearly attractive to mothers of young children who feel they do not get the respect they deserve, [1] but then some of the myth's most vocal partisans are childless. Many feminist matriarchalists are religiously inclined, especially those who are affiliated with the feminist spirituality movement, where feminist matriarchal myth first came to be articulated in the early 1970s. But other feminist matriarchalists are quite secular: they see religion playing a key role in the past but they themselves remain religiously unaffiliated and spiritually inactive. Demographically, feminist matriarchalists run the gamut. Still, it is fair to say that the myth is most at home in white, middle-class, well-educated circles, and particularly among women who are interested in religion and spirituality.

Matriarchal myth is primarily a Western phenomenon, most popular in the United States, England, Germany, and, to a lesser extent, Italy. The story itself is almost always centered on European prehistory, but there are exceptions:
for example, Riane Eisler has recently inspired a search for matriarchal prehistory in China, which has resulted in the publication of a substantial anthology titled The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture. [2]

This study is based almost entirely on texts produced by those who champion the myth of matriarchal prehistory. This is a rich and varied literature ranging from glossy art books to novels to poetry, and including paintings, conference talks, performance art, music, and even email. In general, I make no distinction between the tenured professor examining cuneiform tablets, the novelist spinning out imaginative fantasies of prehistoric Europe, and the New Age practitioner writing impassioned letters to spiritual feminist publications about her past lives as a priestess in Neolithic Europe. Once one is immersed in this literature, it becomes clear that the distinctions between these women are not so great as they at first seem.Underneath their variety lies a clear and consistent narrative that no amount of archaeological research, fictional imagination, or recovery of past lives changes very much. Indeed, what substantive differences there are between feminist matriarchalists rarely cause much internal dispute. Those who enunciate the most peculiar theories -- that men evolved from extraterrestrials or that human females reproduced parthenogenetically for most of the history of the species -- are more often the object of benign neglect than vitriolic attack. The only reason then that I give greater authority to one voice over another is because it best captures the most popular version of feminist matriarchal myth, not because the professional status of the author demands any special respect.

There are undoubted differences in the importance this story has for the various women who tell it. Because this book relies on those who invest significant time in telling the myth of matriarchal prehistory in prose, poetry, art, or song, it focuses mainly on the myth's enthusiasts: women whose experiences with matriarchal myth have been deep and profound, sometimes leading them to rethink their most basic life choices, if not to spend years studying archaeological artifacts and ancient Sumerian texts. Feminist matriarchal myth reaches well beyond the inner circle of its devotees, however. This more mainstream audience holds the myth a good deal more lightly, though at the same time giving it a cultural prominence it would not otherwise have.

None of the women who champion this version of Western history call themselves "feminist matriarchalists," and none refer to the story they tell as "the myth of matriarchal prehistory." The terms "feminist" and "prehistory" would probably not raise many eyebrows, but "matriarchy" and "myth" are much more controversial.

The term matriarchy has had a tortured history. As classicist Eva Cantarella points out, those using the term have meant everything from the political rule of women to matrilocal marriage to the worship of female divinities. And that is just those who have used the term. Those who have been accused of talking about "matriarchy" cut an even wider swath. Partisans of the myth usually resist the term because of its connotations of "rule by women" -- a mirror image of patriarchy. As Mary Daly puts it succinctly, matriarchy "was not patriarchy spelled with an 'm.'" Most feminist matriarchalists are quick to explain that matriarchy should be understood instead as "the ascendancy of the Mother's way," or as "a realm where female things are valued and where power is exerted in non-possessive, non controlling, and organic ways that are harmonious with nature." [3]

Substitute terms are frequently offered ("gylany," "gynocracy," "matricentric," "gynocentric," "matristic," "gynolatric," "partnership," "gynosociety," and "matrifocal" have all been proposed), and they are intended to capture various shades of meaning: that prehistory was a time when mothers were the hub of society; or that women were powerful whether or not they had children; or that women and men shared power. But none of these substitute terms has attained common currency. The term prepatriarchal has been advanced recently,  [4] but it is too vague to capture the specificity of the prehistoric societies feminist matriarchalists imagine. These societies are not just whatever happened to exist before patriarchy arrived on the scene. Even if sexually egalitarian, they are said to have been characterized by strongly differentiated sex roles. And however "female" and "male," "feminine" and "masculine" are defined for prehistoric societies, whatever is female or feminine has pride of place. A few partisans of matriarchal myth have complained about the imprecision and unfortunate connotations of the term "matriarchy" but have used it anyway, and I follow their lead here. [5] "Matriarchal" can be thought of then as a shorthand description for any society in which women's power is equal or superior to men's and in which the culture centers around values and life events described as "feminine."

The term myth is even more difficult to reinterpret to suit feminist matriarchalists' self-understandings. Probably the most commonly intended meaning of "myth," at least when it is used casually, is "not true."
(For example, if a women's magazine promises on its cover to reveal "six myths about male sexuality," what you will learn when you look inside is that what you thought you knew about male sexuality is false.) But the theory that prehistory was matriarchal and goddess-worshipping is presented as fact, not fiction. It is only omitted from standard history texts, feminist matriarchalists say, because academics are trapped in a patriarchal worldview, suffering the consequences of a huge cover-up of matriarchy that started with the patriarchal revolution and has continued right up to the present. [6] Given these views, it would seem more accurate to call matriarchal prehistory a "hypothesis" or "theory." However, some feminist matriarchalists back away from the stronger truth claims suggested by these terms. As Anne Carson remarks, "Let it be myth then .... Whether the Golden Age of Matriarchy ever existed in history is not important: what is important is that the myth exists now, that there is a story being passed from woman to woman, from mother to daughter, of a time in which we were strong and free and could see ourselves in the Divine, when we lived in dignity and in peace." [7]

This suggests another layer to feminist matriarchal thought: that the story is sufficiently important to some feminists that they are unwilling to discard it simply because its status as historical truth is insecure. Mara Lynn Keller illustrates this by laying out the matriarchalist vision of prehistory and an "androcratic" one and asking, "which would be the more truthful, reliable, morally valuable and wise theory to choose?" "Truth" is thus only one consideration among others. Besides, "metaphoric truth," says Donna Wilshire, which "speaks to such a deep core of our common humanity and the meaning of life" is "more real than factual reality [her emphasis]." [8]

In other words, feminist matriarchalists know how badly they want their myth to be true -- badly enough that they are willing to continue to believe it (or at least make use of it) even if the evidence does not really support it. But they also typically believe that it is true, and that they don't need to engage in any deceit to promote it as such. [9] This is a level of historical truth that is very characteristic of myth in the contemporary West. For us, myth seems to work best if we can at least provisionally believe it to be true. For example, the vast majority of practicing Christians believe that a man named Jesus lived, was crucified by the Roman authorities, and rose from the dead. Most Christians do not demand historical documentation of these events because it is the promises the Passion narrative makes about God's forgiving love that make the story valuable. But the story could be historically true, and those who find it useful generally believe it to be so, even if they must resort to faith rather than evidence. Similarly, the majority of practicing Jews, while not necessarily swearing by every boil and frog and locust in the Exodus story, nevertheless believe that the Jewish people were in captivity in Egypt and were led out by Moses into their own land. This story is generally told to illustrate the steadfastness of God's covenant with the Jewish people -- not to establish the factual nature of this historic migration. But it could be true, and again, it is believed to be true by most of those who relate the story.

Going on these examples, contemporary myths need not have the sort of ontological certainty that we assign to things like gravity or mathematical formulae, but to carry the sort of psychic weight they are asked to bear in people's lives, they must be, at the least, plausible.

In theory, the golden era of prehistoric matriarchy may have happened just as feminist matriarchalists say. The scattered remains left to us from prehistoric times are open to a variety of interpretations, and there is simply no evidence that can definitively prove the matriarchal hypothesis wrong. But is the myth of matriarchal prehistory plausible to those not already ardently hoping that it is true? I will argue that it is not. It does not represent historical truth; it is not a story built or argued from solid evidence, and it presents a scenario for prehistory that, if not demonstrably false, is at least highly unlikely. But to stop at this is to miss a much deeper truth about the kind of story that feminist matriarchalists are constructing. Scholars of religion are more apt to think of myths as stories that impart profoundly value-laden messages in dense, image-rich language. And by this definition too, the myth of matriarchal prehistory is myth. It is a narrative designed to grasp hold of an audience's consciousness and thereby fulfill certain social and psychological functions: in this case, feminist functions. [10]


Women who respond enthusiastically to matriarchal myth do so at least in part because it offers them a new, vastly improved self-image. It teaches them about their "innate goodness," their "own natural majesty." It has, says Charlene Spretnak, "reframed our conceptualization of femaleness" and given us "the gift of ourselves." [11] This basic message of female self-respect is brought home again and again in feminist matriarchalist art and literature. Martha Ann and Dorothy Myers Imel set it out as the dedication to their massive reference work, Goddesses in World Mythology:

To all the women in the world who were unaware of their heritage.
You are descended from a long line of sacred females
who have been respected and honored for thousands of years.
Remember and make it so. [12]

In encountering the goddess of prehistoric times, women are said to be given "imagery and permission to see the divine within ... as a woman." [13]

This has been a key function of feminist matriarchal myth from the outset: to redeem and revalue "the feminine," a task that seemed particularly timely since liberal feminism, associated with the early women's liberation movement of the 1960s, spared little attention for the special qualities of women. Liberal feminism focused on winning women the same rights that men were already believed to have: to pursue and succeed within a full range of careers, to combine work with childrearing; to have full legal rights; in short, to be recognized as citizens of the democratic state, heirs to the promise of equal opportunity for all. For many feminists, this agenda did not go nearly far enough. And so deeper analyses were ventured from at least two quarters: radical feminism and cultural feminism. [14]

Radical feminists, many of them fresh from the male-dominated New Left movements of the I960s, were dismayed at the prospect of women attempting to assume roles equal to men's within late industrial capitalism. This, in their thinking, would merely lend more support to an economy and government that was poisoned at its roots, not only in terms of race and class -- issues with which the New Left was already engaged -- but in terms of sex. What emerged from radical feminist analyses was the assertion that hatred, exploitation, and brutalization of women were not mere epiphenomena in patriarchal capitalist society -- easily cured by admitting women into the ranks of the powerful -- but were the very foundations upon which the system was built. Radical feminists like Ti-Grace Atkinson, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin, and Mary Daly zeroed in on issues of misogyny and sexual violence as the bottom line of patriarchal society and counseled that a feminist revolution could never be won simply by putting women in factory lines and boardrooms alongside men.

In the course of making this analysis, radical feminists reflected at length on how women were placed in society vis-a-vis men, and how specifically female roles in sex and reproduction were implicated in and incorporated into structures of male dominance. But it was cultural feminists who turned most forcefully to the question of who women are. Like radical feminists, cultural feminists were appalled at the thought of women inadvertently buying into patriarchal culture by taking on men's traditional roles. But the key source of their distress was the fear that women would be distanced from their true, female selves. The consequences of this loss were not onIy personal, but deeply communal, and therefore political. Femininity, traditionally defined, was simply better than masculinity. It was the morally preferable alternative to be followed in creating a new social order. And women, as the carriers -- whether by biology or history or both -- of these "feminine" values, had a vital role to play in forging a more peaceful, harmonious, beneficent world. [15]

Feminist matriarchalists have their deepest kinship with cultural feminism (also called "difference feminism" owing to its analytical reliance on differences between women and men). In the tradition of first-wave feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (who all also referred to a past age of gynocentrism), feminist matriarchalists believe that the values and dispositions associated with women -- if not women themselves -- need to play a key role in reforming society. [16] Much of feminist matriarchal myth is given over to identifying and celebrating "the feminine" and searching for ways in which women can more fully be it and model it for society. Prominent among the arenas where "feminine" values are supposed to restore proper balance is environmental policy. Like other ecofeminists (some of whom, it must be noted, are hostile to matriarchal myth), feminist matriarchalists draw parallels between the treatment of women and the treatment of the environment, an analogy that is underlined by the contrast between prehistoric matriarchal societies, which lived in harmony with nature, and patriarchal societies, which exploit natural resources, in effect "raping the earth." [17]

But feminist matriarchalists have roots in radical feminism as well. [18] Interest in matriarchal prehistory was in part a direct outgrowth of radical feminism. And over the past three decades, feminist matriarchalists have retained a lively concern with issues at the heart of radical feminism -- sexual harrassment and violence toward women (rape, child abuse, wife battering) -- and have been comparatively less interested in issues of equal employment, government-subsidized day care, or legal nondiscrimination, matters more closely tied to liberal feminism.

Messages of female specialness, appealing in the early 1970s, are perhaps especially appealing now, in an era of feminist stocktaking. Many of the basic demands of liberal feminism have either been met or acknowledged as valid concerns. Women are employed outside the home in steadily increasing numbers; they have been admitted to previously all-male colleges and are making significant inroads into previously male professions such as medicine and law. "Sameness feminism," that which argues that the only thing women require is equal treatment with men, has achieved a knee-jerk acceptance in many quarters of the popular media: "Look," television commercials seem to proclaim, "girls can wear cleats, women can carry briefcases! It is a brave new world!" The other side of the coin remains pertinent though: the same popular media that champion women's athleticism and economic success continually run talk shows and made-for-television movies about female victims of incest, rape, and spousal abuse. And cleats and briefcases aside, women are still relentlessly judged -- by themselves as much as or more than by anyone else -- against ideals of femininity and motherhood. In such an environment, "equality with men" seems neither attainable nor especially desirable. Liberal feminism is then easily regarded by many feminists as a failure (though, in fairness, it has had little time in which to prove itself). Now, as we begin a new millennium, women are still women, and men are still men. Arguably then, feminists need a way to recognize inequities between women and men and recommend policies to rectify them within the highly gendered universe we continue to occupy.

This is just what feminist matriarchal myth does in assigning to male values a troubling interlude of violence and abuse of women, and to female values a long, prosperous era of peace and harmony with nature and a glorious coming era of the goddess's return. The myth provides an analysis of sexism, a social agenda, and a mechanism for social change that is not nearly so beset with failure and frustration as political activism. Feminist matriarchalists certainly engage in political activism, usually individually rather than as a group; the key exception being their use of what might be called "spiritual activism." This spiritual activism is enacted effortlessly every time the story of matriarchal prehistory is told, every time the name of the goddess is spoken. For the aspect of prehistoric matriarchies that feminist matriarchalists are most seeking to reinstate in the present is their value system, embodied in goddess religion, which honors women and nature as sacred.

Question: Is nature "sacred"? Maybe for killers.

In contrast, patriarchal religions are held accountable, more than any other single factor, for instituting a social order oppressive to women and nature.

That religion should have had such an impact in making both matriarchies and patriarchies what they were (and are) is no accident. This is simply the nature of religion, feminist matriarchalists say, which is deeper and more basic than other social institutions. [19] Though on one level this is frightening (religion seals the triumph of the patriarchy), it is also encouraging. One could scarcely ask for a better ally in the feminist revolution: without guns or seats in Congress, feminist matriarchalists can hope to change the world; and not just superficially, but profoundly.

The note of hope sounded here points to what is probably the central function of the myth of matriarchal prehistory. It takes a situation that invites despair -- patriarchy is here, it's always been here, it's inevitable -- and transforms it into a surpassing optimism: patriarchy is recent and fallible, it was preceded by something much better, and it can be overthrown in the near future.

In this way, matriarchal myth provides a solution for a problem that radical feminism, to some extent, created. In radical feminist analyses, patriarchy was not simply the practice of sex discrimination or male dominance. Instead "patriarchy" became the one-word alias for an entire system of thinking, living, and being, of which the oppression of women was only the tip of the iceberg. 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. This was on the macro level. On the micro level, patriarchy ran even deeper. It infected the way people thought and felt, discouraging intimacy and sensitivity in favor of logic and rationality.

This vision of "the patriarchy" is truly horrific. Patriarchy is monolithic, it is universal, it permeates everything. Clearly, one needs to juxtapose something equally large and solid against it if there is to be any hope of dislodging it.

For feminist matriarchalists, that something is matriarchal prehistory. The long era of matriarchal peace and plenty is the bulwark feminists can rest upon as they regard the patriarchal present and hope for a new age. It roots feminism "in the nature of being" and declares that "inevitable warfare and man's famous inhumanity to men, women, children, and everything else on this planet is not our only heritage." This connection between past precedent and future possibility is stated explicitly in narrations of the myth of matriarchal prehistory. If no precedent is available, feminist matriarchalists tend to conclude that the "feminist onslaught on the fortress of 'It has always been so'" is doomed to failure. [20]

As precedents go, the one offered by the myth of matriarchal prehistory is remarkable. It does not say that in the very distant past, there was a small group of people who were able for a short time to construct a society that gave women status and freedom and did not make war on other people or the natural world. Quite the contrary: according to feminist matriarchal myth, matriarchy was universal, it endured for all the millennia in which we were human, and was only supplanted very recently. It positively dwarfs the patriarchy, which is, in contrast, a "relatively short, albeit melodramatic, period." [21]

This is the preeminent way in which feminist matriarchalists combat the terrible strength of the patriarchy: they set it alongside the matriarchal era and comment on its diminutive size. Heide Gottner-Abendroth, author of a four-volume opus on matriarchal prehistory, imagines a timeline of human history two meters long, on which "man's rule" occupies only the last millimeter. As if the disproportion in matriarchy's favor weren't already commanding enough, feminist matriarchalists seem to experience an unstoppable desire to expand it even farther. In their voluminous work The Great Cosmic Mother, Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor tell us on page 46 that "the mysteries of female biology dominated human religious and artistic thought, as well as social organization, for at least the first 200,000 years of human life on earth." By page 235, "the original Goddess religion" is said to have "dominated human thought and feeling for at least 300,000 years." On page 424, as they arrive at the end of their recounting of the myth of matriarchal prehistory, this number has increased to 500,000 years. Some feminist matriarchalists go even farther. Diane Stein says the matriarchal era began on the lost continent of Mu, when "people began incarnating on the earth plane ten and a half million years ago." Meanwhile, Matthew Fox contrasts the "original blessing" of the 18 billion years of the cosmos's existence as over against the appearance of sin "with the rise of the patriarchy some four thousand to six thousand years ago." [22] Patriarchy is thus reduced to a veritable blip on the radar screen, inspiring in feminists great hope for its future overthrow.


Feminist matriarchalists get this encouraging word out in a variety of ways, from ostensibly dispassionate popularizations of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas's findings to much more impressionistic means.

Art plays a special role in tellings of the myth of matriarchal prehistory. This is in part because the most compelling evidence of matriarchal prehistory for contemporary feminist observers is that of prehistoric female figurines. But art is attractive for reasons beyond its evidentiary power. It is an excellent medium for communicating mythic themes, and for reaching larger audiences. With this in mind, matriarchal myth has become the subject of museum exhibits, slide shows, glossy art books, and even "goddess cards" intended for divination or meditation. [23] Some of these media draw on feminist art of the past thirty years. in addition to the more typical fare of prehistoric "goddess" figures. This feminist art is itself a way in which matriarchal prehistory is communicated to a contemporary audience. For example, Monica Sjoo's painting God Giving Birth, first exhibited in London in 1968, consists of a large woman, face half-black and half-white, in the act of childbirth, her child's head emerging from between her legs. This painting initially touched off a storm of controversy, which only encouraged the production of art pieces expressing similar themes. Increasingly, this art has incorporated images from archaeological sites believed to date to matriarchal times. This trend was already evident in 1982, when Helene de Beauvoir painted her Second Encounter with the Great Goddess, in which a naked woman holding a snake in each hand is positioned alongside the prehistoric Minoan "snake goddess" (see Fig. 2.1). More recently, Ursula Kavanagh, an Irish artist, has created a series titled Matriarchal Listings based on her travels to "ancient Goddess sites" in Ireland, England, Italy, Sardinia, Malta, and Sicily. [24]
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Re: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

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Part 2 of 2

FIG. 2.1 Helene de Beauvoir's Second Encounter with the Great Goddess, 1982.

The myth of matriarchal prehistory is also communicated in performance art. The most notable example of this is Mary Beth Edelson's Your Five Thousand Years Are Up (premiered in La Jolla, California, in 1977), in which eight shrouded female figures circled a ring of fire, chanting about women's rebirth and the end of patriarchy. A more recent example is Donna Wilshire's Virgin Mother Crone, still being performed and now published in book form. In this piece, Wilshire assumes three personas of the ancient goddess. Singing, dancing with scarves, and playing drums and rattles, she invokes a prepatriarchal world into which she invites her audience. [25]

Though visual art predominates, there are other artistic renderings of matriarchal myth as well. Roberta Kosse's oratorio, "The Return of the Great Mother," composed for women's chorus and chamber orchestra (released on the Ars Pro Femina label in 1978), tells the story of matriarchal prehistory musically. Drummer Layne Redmond and her New York-based group the Mob of Angels find inspiration in ancient images of women playing drums, women they believe to have been priestesses of the goddess performing a vital function for cultures that respected women's power. Matriarchal myth has even entered the alternative rock world through two albums by the band Helium: Pirate Prude and The Dirt of Luck. [26]

More common than musical renditions of matriarchal myth are poetic ones, some of epic length, and fictional tellings such as Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists if Avalon, set in Arthurian Britain, and June Rachuy Brindel's Ariadne, set in Minoan Crete. [27] The most ambitious fictional telling of matriarchal myth is Mary Mackey's Earthsong trilogy, consisting of The Year the Horses Came (1993), The Horses at the Gate (1995), and The Fires of Spring (1998). In these novels, based on Marija Gimbutas's work, goddess civilizations carpet Neolithic Europe, living in peace and harmony with nature, only to collapse under the violent onslaughts of nomadic horse-riding invaders (the "beastmen") from the Russian steppes (the "Sea of Grass"). Like other fictional accounts, Mackey's trilogy focuses on the moment of culture contact, when the matriarchal civilizations find themselves under attack (not surprising when one considers that there is no plot to the myth of matriarchal prehistory until there is trouble in paradise). Marrah, a young girl descended from a matrilineage of priestesses, and newly initiated into womanhood, becomes attached to Stavan, son of a great chief from the Sea of Grass. She quickly converts Stavan to the ways of the goddess people (great sex proves an excellent teacher), and together they struggle to keep the patriarchal nomads from invading the goddess lands. [28]

Another potent vehicle for matriarchal mythology is the" goddess pilgrimage." Some feminist matriarchalists have crafted their own itineraries for these trips, no longer a heroic task with the publication of Goddess Sites: Europe, a travel guide offering "breathtaking descriptions of hundreds of sacred sites ... complete with maps, photos, and detailed travel instructions." In addition, there is now a mini-industry of pre-packaged tours led by experts in matriarchal myth such as Donna Henes, Joan Marler, Vicki Noble, Willow LaMonte, and Carol Christ (see Fig. 2.2). The Spring 1997 issue of Goddessing Regenerated lists twenty-seven separate "goddess tours" for 1997 and 1998. Favorite sites are Malta, Crete, Turkey, England, and Ireland, though there are also tours to Hawaii and Latin America. Tours are mainly led by American women, though there is also at least one German-led tour to Crete and Malta. [29] Not all women who embark on these adventures are committed matriarchalists, but few return from their summer vacations as agnostic toward prehistoric matriarchies as they may have been when they left.

FIG.2.2 Sample advertisement for a "goddess pilgrimage" from AnaTours.
Home of the Great Goddess
Sacred Sites in:
Catal Hoyuk
and more ...
Encounter the Great Goddess in her ancient homes.
Experience the riches of Anatolia.
Visil Konya's Sufi center.
Four Star Hotels.
August and December departures
Dr. Rashid Ergener, lecturer/guide
AnaTours -- Mythic Travel
1580 Tucker Road
Scotts Valley, CA 95066
Visit our website

When what we should term the historical age emerged from the twilight of tradition, the Ana were already established in different communities, and had attained to a degree of civilisation very analogous to that which the more advanced nations above the earth now enjoy. They were familiar with most of our mechanical inventions, including the application of steam as well as gas. The communities were in fierce competition with each other. They had their rich and their poor; they had orators and conquerors, they made war either for a domain or an idea. Though the various states acknowledged various forms of government, free institutions were beginning to preponderate; popular assemblies increased in power; republics soon became general; the democracy to which the most enlightened European politicians look forward as the extreme goal of political advancement, and which still prevailed among other subterranean races, whom they despised as barbarians, the loftier family of Ana, to which belonged the tribe I was visiting, looked back to as one of the crude and ignorant experiments which belong to the infancy of political science. It was the age of envy and hate, of fierce passions, of constant social changes more or less violent, of strife between classes, of war between state and state. This phase of society lasted, however, for some ages, and was finally brought to a close, at least among the nobler and more intellectual populations, by the gradual discovery of the latent powers stored in the all-permeating fluid which they denominate vril.

Vril. I should call it electricity, except that it comprehends in its manifold branches other forces of nature, to which, in our scientific nomenclature, differing names are assigned, such as magnetism, galvanism, etc. These people consider that in vril they have arrived at the unity in natural energetic agencies, which has been conjectured by many philosophers above ground, and which Faraday thus intimates under the more cautious term of correlation:

'I have long held an opinion,' says that illustrious experimentalist, "almost amounting to a conviction, in common, I believe, with many other lovers of natural knowledge, that the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest, have one common origin, or, in other words, are so directly related and mutually dependent that they are convertible, as it were into one another, and possess equivalents of power in their action. These subterranean philosophers assert that by one operation of vril, which Faraday would perhaps call "atmospheric magnetism", they can influence the variations of temperature -- in plain words, the weather; that by operations, akin to those ascribed to mesmerism, electro-biology, odic force, etc., but applied scientifically, through vril conductors, they can exercise influence over minds, and bodies animal and vegetable, to an extent not surpassed in the romances of our mystics. To all such agencies they give the common name of vril.'

Zee asked me if, in my world, it was not known that all the faculties of the mind could be quickened to a degree unknown in the waking state, by trance or vision, in which the thoughts of one brain could be transmitted to another, and knowledge be thus rapidly interchanged. I replied, that there were amongst us stories told of such trance or vision, and that I had heard much and seen something in mesmeric clairvoyance, but that these practices had fallen much into disuse or contempt, partly because of the gross impostures to which they had been made subservient, and partly because, even where the effects upon certain abnormal constitutions were genuinely produced, the effects when fairly examined and analysed, were very unsatisfactory -- not to be relied upon for any systematic truthfulness or any practical purpose, and rendered very mischievous to credulous persons by the superstitions they tended to produce. Zee received my answers with much benignant attention, and said that similar instances of abuse and credulity had been familiar to their own scientific experience in the infancy of their knowledge, and while the properties of vril were misapprehended, but that she reserved further discussion on this subject till I was more fitted to enter into it.

The government of the tribe of Vril-ya I am treating of was apparently very complicated, really very simple. It was based upon a principle recognised in theory, though little carried out in practice, above ground -- viz., that the object of all systems of philosophical thought tends to the attainment of unity, or the ascent through all intervening labyrinths to the simplicity of a single first cause or principle. Thus in politics, even republican writers have agreed that a benevolent autocracy would insure the best administration, if there were any guarantees for its continuance, or against its gradual abuse of the powers accorded to it. They have a proverb, the pithiness of which is much lost in this paraphrase, 'No happiness without order, no order without authority, no authority without unity.'

-- The Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton


"God is the reconciliation of opposites" says the Sufi Karras ...

The name of Ibn Mansur Al Hallaj awakens a deep resonance in the heart of every Sufi, for his was the living example of the essential truth underlying Sufi doctrine. This "Qu'ranic Christ" as Professor Massignon has called him, was condemned for heresy, excommunicated, tortured and crucified for having publicly given voice to an expression which shocked the orthodox Moslems of his time ...

What then is that prodigious saying whose mere pronouncement set in motion the tremendous trial in Baghdad on a raised platform, somewhat resembling that of Joan of Arc? The trial lasted nine years. What was the human utterance that, owing to the importance of the doctrinal positions it opposed and the vehemence of the passions involved, almost split Islam and in fact dealt the Khalifat a blow from which it never recovered? It was nothing other than the Muslim Advaita ... The dangerous and fatal ejaculation of Al Hallaj -- "Ana'L Haq" (I am the truth)

Only One

That if God alone exists, all things, and man in particular, must necessarily exist in God; they are therefore in their essence God, or truth -- the Arabic name for truth being merely a privileged name for God. If Hallaj had said Allah Al Haz -- God (in his transcendental aspect) is the truth, or "Huwa al Haq" (He is the truth) it would have been a common statement. However Al Hallaj declared that God alone exists: therefore he is the one subject and thus he alone can witness his existence...

If there is no other I than God, then every realization and affirmation is made by God and the tongue that pronounced it is the tongue of God. Hence the logic of Al Hallaj who cried out "Ana'L Haq", for the only subject who can affirm a predicate is God.


Behind the scene of manifestation is a great drama, and the great battle is fought between the forces of light and darkness wherein the archangel Michael -- the angelus victor -- plays the leading role. Man also is involved in this battle and can be awarded a decoration for his gallantry in the form of a robe of light, the royal Xvarnah of the Zoroastrians, that is the aura. The battle for light is the exodus from exile in the Occident typified in the tradition by the flight from Egypt. It is the confinement in space that is exile. So space must be overcome by reaching the "place of nowhere" (Nakuja Abad) by reaching beyond the space limited by the categories of the body. This exile had its purpose, for it was here that light was able to burst out. Suhrawardi calls this "The Great Breakdown", referring no doubt to the tradition according to which the Prophet causes the moon to split on the sacred words "Ana al Shams" (I am the sun). The breaking of the receptacle of light is symbolical of the passage from the exterior (Zaqhir) to the inteterior (Batin) -- it is the freeing of light, reminiscent of the Ismailian tradition of the bursting of the column of light, or the trembling of the columns of the temple seen by Isaiah in his vision, or again the tearing of the veil in the sanctuary at the time of the crucifixion.

I want to be free

It is the mission of the prophets and magi to free the light imprisoned in men at their exile and to turn them towards the dawning light at its source. This mission started with Adam and is continued by those who work for the archangel of the human species, Gabriel, who inspired the prophets and sages -- "The guardians of the divine proofs upon the earth." "Deliver the people of light and lead light to the light" he exclaimed in prayer.

-- Toward the One, by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan

[Gozer the Gozarian (The Traveller, the Destroyer, the Gatekeeper)] "Are you a God?"

-- Ghostbusters, directed by Ivan Reitman, starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver

Those without the money or time to make such pilgrimages can go along in spirit by watching Goddess Remembered, a video recounting the myth of matriarchal prehistory through conversations with prominent feminist matriarchalists and footage of sites in Malta, England, and Crete. This video, sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada, is one of its most popular ever and continues to be featured as a part of pledge campaigns. Study guides are also available to introduce newcomers to the myth of matriarchal prehistory. Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, a curriculum originally developed under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has spread to many more mainstream churches. Like The Partnership Way, developed as a study guide for Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade, Cakes familiarizes participants with matriarchal mythology through slides, art projects, meditations, rituals, and discussions. [30] Those who want to incorporate their newfound knowledge of goddesses and matriarchal myth into their daily lives can choose from a number of illustrated journals, appointment books, and calendars, or subscribe to periodicals such as Metis, Goddessing Regenerated, or Matriarchy Research and Reclaim Network Newsletter. Goddess reproductions are also quite popular and available from a number of sources (see Fig. 2.3). For some users, these no doubt carry a spiritual significance unrelated to matriarchal mythology, but for most they are tangible representations of a time when all women were held in high esteem. [31]

If most of these books, videos, pilgrimages, and so forth seem to cater to a group of insiders, it is important to note that they all include an element of outreach. And certainly there is evidence that these efforts have borne fruit in more mainstream social locations. For example, Megatrends for Women, published in 1992, proclaims "The Goddess Reawakening" to be one "megatrend" and recites the basics of matriarchal myth in the relevant chapter. The National Organization for Women (NOW) has gotten in on the act as well, producing a pamphlet titled "Goddess Cultural Beliefs," which includes assertions about prehistoric women's control of "religious, social, political and legal institutions," their work as priestesses, their sexual freedom, and their close connection "to nature, its cycles, power and beauty." As recently as March 1999, the Lexington, Massachusetts NOW chapter celebrated Women's History Month with a presentation titled "Unearthing Pandora's Treasure: Voices of Women Proclaiming Our Sacred Past," which aimed to show how "feminist scholars in archeology, history and theology [have] reviewed the ancient past to find evidence of a time when god was a woman." [32]

FIG. 2.3 A page from the Star River Productions catalogue showing a range of goddess reproductions.

Goddess of the Underworld
This fearless and winged Goddess is approximately 4,000 years old. As the "Night Owl" she represents chthonic wisdom and death as a natural cycle of life. Exquisitely carved and detailed.
Hand Colored, Tan. 8" x 10' x 1/2". Ready to Hang. Gypsum.
Original: (Terra Cotta. found in Sumer. Private Collection.)

Other than the "Mind and Earth" essay in Keyserling's 1927 book, perhaps the most nakedly volkisch essay Jung ever wrote was "Uber den Unbewusste" (translated as "The Role of the Unconscious" in the Collected Works), which appeared in a popular Swiss monthly in two parts in 1918. [80] This essay is important not only because of its volkisch theories, but also because it is the first major new piece to be published by Jung after his 1916 proposal of a collective unconscious, which he refers to in this 1918 essay as the "suprapersonal unconscious" as well. According to Jung, "Christianity split the Germanic barbarian into an upper and a lower half, and enabled him, by repressing the dark side, to domesticate the brighter half and fit it for civilization." This is, of course, the familiar distinction that runs throughout Germanic culture since the time of Goethe between the natural man and his contemporary, imprisoned civilized counterpart. In volkisch contexts, speaking of the Germanic barbarian is not necessarily an insult but may be an idealization of the purely instinctual man. "But," Jung adds, "the lower darker half still awaits redemption and a second spell of domestication." [81] This lower half of the Germanic soul is rooted to the earth (its "chthonic quality," Jung terms it) and "is found in dangerous concentrations in the Germanic peoples." [82]

-- The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement, by Richard Noll

Earth Mother
This seated Goddess embodies the fecundity of the earth. Her incised throne-like body powerfully represents the pregnant Goddess. She is approximately 4,500 years old.
Light Brown Earth Tones. 7-1/2" in Height. Gypsum.
Original: (Clay. Found in Thrace [Bulgaria]. Neolithic. Sofia Museum.)

Goddess of Renewal
This Egyptian Bird or Serpent Headed River Goddess is approximately 5,000 years old. She is associated with life-giving, renewing waters.
Tan in Color. 7" in Height. Gypsum.
Original: (Predynastic, Egypt. Brooklyn Museum.)
Finely handcrafted walnut and brass stand available for Nile River Goddess.
Add $12.00

Goddess of Inspiration
This Dreaming Goddess is approximately 6,000 years old. She was found in the Hypogeum Temple on the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean. She portrays a monumental presence.
Terra Cotta in Color. 7-1/2" x 4" x 4", Gypsum.
Original: (Clay. Neolithic. Valletta Museum, Malta.)

"Your Goddesses are gorgeous! The Dreaming Goddess from Malta is one I've never seen before -- especially evocative."

One of the most fascinating populist feminist works advancing the myth of matriarchal prehistory is Judy Mann's The Difference: Growing Up Female in America. Mann, a columnist for the Washington Post, undertook the task of investigating girlhood in America when she became concerned about the effect adolescence might have on her daughter (the much-discussed "Ophelia" syndrome, in which previously confident and brave little girls become timid and insecure teenagers). [33] Mann tells the story of her investigation as a series of encounters with theories and experts, focusing mainly on how girls are treated in educational settings. But Mann is restless to get to the root of the problem, and this drives her straight to prehistory. As she explains:

It took a year of research before I learned this: If I really wanted to know why girls come out feeling second best, if I really wanted to know what makes it possible for rock musicians to make fortunes writing songs about dismembering women, for girls to be ignored in classrooms, in churches, in medical schools, in governments, I had to go backward in time to the dim memories that lurk on the borders of human beginnings. As I kept going further back into history, into antiquity, and finally into prehistory, I began to find out how things once were between men and women, and where and how men rose to dominance over women. [34]

The cult of irrationality will forever remain the primary distinguishing characteristic of every fascist movement, regardless of which predicates it might otherwise employ.

-- The Hitler Book, edited by Helga Zepp-LaRouche

The urge to return to roots is what drives many feminist commentators into the arms of matriarchal myth, almost in spite of themselves. If an author wants to give a sweeping chronological account of her topic, the first chapter is logically about prehistory: and the reigning feminist story these days is that prehistoric societies were goddess-worshipping and matriarchal. Thus Rosalind Miles's Women's History of the World tracks feminist political gains in terms of suffrage, divorce laws, and so forth, but begins "In the Beginning," with chapters on "The First Women," "The Great Goddess," and "The Rise of the Phallus." Nickie Roberts's Whores in History documents the history of prostitution in the West but starts with "sacred prostitution" in goddess-worshipping cultures. Shari Thurer's The Myths of Motherhood seeks to decenter current views of motherhood by showing how mothers have been regarded at other times in Western history, but she too begins with "the beginning of time," when "woman was an awesome being" who "seemed to swell and spew forth a child by her own law." [35]

Matriarchal myth is even making its way into school curricula. While it is true that one can go through twelve years of primary and secondary education, or even a college or graduate school career without being taught that prehistory was matriarchal (particularly if one majors in, say, engineering), the academic world is far from immune to the enticements of matriarchal mythology. Young women have told me that the myth of matriarchal prehistory has been presented to them as historic truth in high school classes in world history, religion, and women's studies. Women's Roots, by June Stephenson, now in its fourth edition, is a rendition of matriarchal prehistory designed to be read by high school students. At the college level, courses are offered about or with the premise of matriarchal prehistory, with titles like "Reclaiming the Goddess," "Herstory of the Goddess," and "The Goddess and the Matriarchy Controversy." [36] A 1995 text, Women and Religion by Marianne Ferguson, purporting to cover the broad terrain of interactions between women and religion, is actually a straightforward telling of the myth of matriarchal prehistory, from the mother goddesses of prehistory to the father gods of patriarchy.

Increasingly, matriarchal myth is being given some credence in college texts. For example, Rita Gross critiques the myth of matriarchal prehistory in her religion textbook, Feminism and Religion, viewing it as "extreme" and not well grounded in archaeological evidence. Yet she comes quite a distance to meet its partisans, arguing that it is reasonable "to conclude both that women were less dominated than in later societies and that female sacredness was more commonly venerated" in prehistoric times. [37] Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy, though not strictly a textbook, is widely read in college courses. Lerner spends very little time discussing the nature of prehistoric societies, and she cannot, in fairness, be counted as a champion of matriarchal myth, since she explicitly disclaims a former stage of matriarchy. And yet it is impressive how even this careful and scholarly study ends up endorsing most of the major points of feminist matriarchal myth:

• patriarchy didn't always exist;
• unless we are aware of this fact, we cannot effectively combat it;
• patriarchy is now ending as a result of the planetary crisis to which it has brought us;
• the future is not determined, and could bring either improvement or disaster;
• women's involvement is crucial to lead the future in a more positive direction. [38]

The myth of matriarchal prehistory has not been adopted as the one true account of human history, taught to first graders and graduate students alike. But it is nevertheless making itself felt, and, especially in feminist circles, it is hard to avoid. It earns new converts every day, especially among a younger generation of girls and women not formerly exposed to it. There are even dedicated resources available to teach the myth of matriarchal prehistory to younger girls. For example, Jyotsna Sreenivasan's The Moon Over Crete is a novel for young readers that relates the story of eleven-year-old Lily and her flute teacher, Mrs. Zinn, who takes Lily 3,500 years back in time to ancient Crete where "Lily finds out what it's like for girls to be important." In Why It's Great to Be a Girl, Jacqueline Shannon offers fifty points of comparison between women and men in which women emerge superior: Point number 8 is that "anthropologists and archaeologists credit females with the 'civilization' of humankind"; point number 50 is that "only females can give birth." Though Shannon does not explicitly invoke matriarchal myth, she asserts two of its familiar themes -- women's invention of civilization and the female monopoly on childbirth -- and quotes one of its earliest feminist proponents (Elizabeth Gould Davis) to support the first of these points. [39]

The myth of matriarchal prehistory is not without its critics. Some populist feminists have included critiques of matriarchal myth in recent books, and a number of more academic critiques have been included in books, articles, or reviews. Archaeologists and students of ancient history, long silent on this topic, have recently spoken out more frequently about matriarchal myth, almost always negatively. Matriarchal myth is also refuted on the Internet, in broadsides delivered mainly by a pair of self-appointed defenders of the universal patriarchy thesis: Steven Goldberg, author of The Inevitability of Patriarchy, and Robert Sheaffer. Goldberg systematically addresses any and all purported exceptions to patriarchal social relations as they surface; Sheaffer, in his turn, suggests that "the Goddess promoters" are "suffering from a case of False Memory Syndrome." [40]

But criticism of matriarchal myth has, for the most part, been restrained. It has not felt this way to the myth's proponents, of course; in 1991, Vicki Noble lamented the fact that though feminists have been uncovering "the ancient matriarchal past" for twenty years, "even fairly recently the New York Times was still able to find a female professor of history who would ridicule rather than review Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade, making her position sound like a fantasy rather than documented fact." A recent festschrift for Marija Gimbutas is full of defensive reactions to criticisms of the myth of matriarchal prehistory, both perceived and real. Feminist matriarchalists worry that there is "a not-so-subtle backlash" against the work of Gimbutas, and that in due time "her name will be deliberately 'disappeared' in the quagmire of academic 'scholarly' discussion." [41]

Matriarchal myth is a source of some controversy then, but it is also a cultural resource that is tapped into by many who are not feminists, or not primarily feminists. This use of matriarchal myth is especially prominent among environmentalists. It can be found in books like Thomas Berry's The Dream of the Earth, Jim Mason's An Unnatural Order, and even in Vice President Al Gore's book, Earth in the Balance: Healing the Global Environment. [42] Some Afrocentrists claim that Africa was not only the source of ancient Mediterranean culture, but also of the matriarchal social order that was eventually obliterated by patriarchal Europeans. [43] The most recent appropriation of feminist matriarchal myth is Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, which argues that it is was literacy -- the development of written language -- that led to matriarchy's demise. By requiring greater effort from the left brain, which Shlain terms "masculine," language undercut the work of the image-oriented, "feminine" right brain, which had produced matriarchal, goddess-worshipping civilizations.

The myth of matriarchal prehistory is proudly proclaimed by some feminists, tacitly acknowledged by others, and studiously ignored by probably the majority, who may not find it plausible or appealing but don't wish to break feminist ranks. Given that this story has become (if mainly by default) the feminist account of prehistory, and given too its increasing currency among environmentalists, Afrocentrists, and even cultural theorists like Shlain, it is imperative that we take the time to see how this story developed and found its way into feminist circles, and to examine the picture feminist matriarchalists paint of prehistory, the explanations they offer for its demise, and the hopes they hold out for the future.
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Re: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

Postby admin » Mon Oct 15, 2018 11:22 pm

Part 1 of 2

CHAPTER 3: The Story They Tell

The myth of matriarchal prehistory speaks to what seems to be an extremely common human need to trace the origin of important, and sometimes controversial, social institutions. [1] Feminist matriarchalists are not the first to seek an origin story to account for the principal institutions of male dominance -- government, religion, marriage. They were anticipated in this by at least five generations of matriarchalists before them. The story of women's glorious past, it turns out, has a past of its own, a rich, ambiguous, multilayered past that in its broadest contours dates back to classical Greece, and in its more recent genealogy reaches back through a 140-year-old conversation about the respective roles of women and men in prehistoric times.

When I began my research, I was under the impression that while there had been a few nineteenth-century scholars who broached the subject of matriarchy, the myth was really a late-twentieth-century feminist invention, heavily indebted to archaeological finds that nineteenth-century scholars knew nothing about. What I found was that the story preceded the archaeology -- and the feminism -- to a surprising extent. Furthermore, an enormous array of individuals turned out to have spent some time -- or a lot of time -- with matriarchal myth. There were names I knew: J.J. Bachofen, Friedrich Engels, E. B. Tylor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Robert Graves. And there were names I had to learn: Julius Lippert, Lothar Dargun, August Bebel, Alfred Baumler, Uberto Pestalozza, Iu. I. Semenov. From the shadowy background of matriarchal myth in medieval cartographers' efforts to sketch presumed matriarchal lands onto their maps, through to late-twentieth-century feminist workshops on the sacred symbols of prehistoric goddess religions, stretches a vast territory of conservatism and radicalism, archaeology and poetry, economic determinism and mystical goddess worship, all embodied in a recognizably single myth. The myth of matriarchal prehistory has found adherents among socialists, anthropologists, communists, fascists, psychoanalysts, sexologists, folklorists, religionists, and a whole host of other notable characters. It has been used to justify patriarchy and to overthrow it, to hustle women back to hearth and home and to place them at the helm of the ship carrying us into the future.


Until the late nineteenth century in Western Europe, matriarchy served more as an occasional literary trope than a purported history. All this changed in 1861 with the publication of Johann Jakob Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht (Motherright). Drawing on classical Greek sources (which, as we will later see, were full of references to women's rule), Bachofen postulated an era of matriarchy ending in classical times with the rise of men and the "male principle." He was quickly joined by a whole group of scholars pioneering the new discipline of anthropology along evolutionary lines (including John Ferguson McLennan, William Robertson Smith, Sir John Lubbock, Herbert Spencer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and E. B. Tylor, among others). Here matriarchal myth attained a status of cultural dogma for thirty years or so in the late nineteenth century, a status that it did not again approximate until its adoption by feminists one hundred years later. With little need to protect themselves from outside criticism, evolutionary anthropologists were free to concentrate on such burning questions as whether fraternal polyandry preceded patriarchy and whether the Omaha-Crow system of kinship terminology indicated group marriage. So firmly did the myth of matriarchal prehistory grip late nineteenth-century European and American intellectual life that even someone like Sigmund Freud -- whose origin myths are primarily a fantasy of fathers, sons, and brothers murdering, cannibalizing, and repressing knowledge about one another -- felt compelled to find a place for matriarchy, sandwiching it somewhere in between the "brother horde" and the patriarchy. [2]

In the late nineteenth century, the myth attracted not only anthropologists, but also others with less mainstream political agendas: specifically, socialists and feminists. Karl Marx had become interested in anthropology in the last few years of his life and was apparently, at the time of his death, working his way toward his own view of prehistory. His fragmentary notes were taken up by Friedrich Engels, and between these notes and a wholesale adoption of Morgan's earlier Ancient Society, Engels produced The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. [3] This, along with a handful of other works, served to institutionalize the myth of matriarchal prehistory as a socialist origin story. Soon after, first-wave feminists began to see the myth's potential to dislodge the idea that patriarchy was universal and inevitable, and several European and American women -- most influentially, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman -- wrote their own accounts of matriarchal myth, based on the anthropological treatises of the time. [4]

Anthropologists dropped the idea of matriarchy rather abruptly around the turn of the century (with the important exception of Soviet anthropologists, who stuck close to matriarchal myth -- in the tradition established by Engels -- until at least the 1950s [5]). The matriarchal thesis was discredited not through attacks on the evidence underlying it (though there were some), but through challenges to its assumptions. The universalizing premises of evolutionary anthropology came under fire, and the armchair anthropology upon which the matriarchal thesis relied was rejected in favor of a new emphasis on fieldwork. But when anthropologists dropped matriarchal myth, there were others waiting to pick it up. Between 1900 and 1970, the myth found some interesting champions. Within the academy, classicists such as Jane Ellen Harrison and George Thomson found echoes of a prior matriarchal time in Greek myth and ritual; archaeologists and art historians (including some very prominent ones like O. G. S. Crawford) discovered the footprints of matriarchy and goddess worship in the artifacts they studied; and a few maverick anthropologists, particularly E. S. Hartland and Robert Briffault, refused to let go of matriarchal theories, in spite of the jeers of most of their colleagues. Sir James George Frazer's wildly popular study of comparative mythology, The Golden Bough, included in its later editions much speculation on prehistoric goddess worship. Meanwhile, psychoanalysts studiously wove matriarchal threads into their emerging theories. Erich Fromm used matriarchal myth to argue against the inevitability of violence, aggression, and war; Wilhelm Reich used it to buttress his claim that sexual freedom, even promiscuity, would result in more peaceful and harmonious, less repressed and patriarchal societies; and in the Jungian wing of psychology, Erich Neumann (The Great Mother) and others added even more layers of archetypal symbology (beyond those already provided by Bachofen) to the supposed prehistoric transfer of power from goddesses to gods. Well-known poet Robert Graves sang the praises of the "White Goddess" and foresaw an apocalypse in which patriarchal repression and rampant industrialization would give way to a return of the prehistoric goddess. [6] Most of this use of matriarchal myth came from the political left or center, but those on the extreme right invoked it also. Neo-romantic philosophers and protofascists in Germany, working from 1900 to 1930 (and even through the years of the Third Reich), spoke of the matriarch and the goddess, steeped in blood and soil, and yearned for their return. [7]

This was a relatively quieter time for matriarchal myth than what preceded and followed it. There were many pockets of interest in matriarchal myth, but no entire disciplines given over to its seductive power. And yet it is impressive to note the tenacity with which matriarchal myth clung to thinking about human prehistory during these years. Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, a standard reference work in print for more than two decades (from the 1930s to the 1950s) restated themes that most anthropologists had dispensed with by 1905: "Since it was the mother who fulfilled most of the functions," Durant argued, "the family was at first (so far as we can pierce the mists of history) organized on the assumption that the position of the man in the family was superficial and incidental, while that of the woman was fundamental and supreme." Like matriarchalists before and since, Durant gave women credit for inventing agriculture, weaving, basketry, pottery, woodworking, building, and trade, and claimed that "it was she who developed the home, slowly adding man to the list of her domesticated animals, and training him in those social dispositions and amenities which are the psychological basis and cement of civilization." [8]

In 1963, a multivolume History of Mankind was even more outspoken about the possibility of prehistoric matriarchy. In her chapter on Paleolithic and Mesolithic society, Jacquetta Hawkes admitted that "today it is unfashionable to talk about former more matriarchal orders of society," but in her chapter on the Neolithic, Hawkes claimed that "there is every reason to suppose that under the conditions of the primary Neolithic way of life mother-right and the clan system were still dominant .... Indeed, it is tempting to be convinced that the earliest Neolithic societies throughout their range in time and space gave woman the highest status she has ever known. The way of life and its values, the skills demanded, were ideally suited to her." [9]

Matriarchal myth emerged with new vigor in the early 1970s, as second-wave feminists began to take it over in earnest, engineering a decisive shift in its meaning in the process. Prior to this, most matriarchalists regarded the patriarchal revolution as either a signal improvement over matriarchy, or at least a necessary, if regrettable, step toward the progressive civilization of humankind. But by the mid 1980s, the myth of matriarchy had definitively become a myth of regress, of paradise lost. These days it is virtually impossible to speak of ancient matriarchies and their overthrow by invading patriarchs without drawing feminist, or at least quasi-feminist lessons from the story. [10]

The contemporary feminist version of matriarchal myth was not adopted wholesale from earlier sources. As matriarchal myth was disseminated within and outside the feminist community in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was tweaked and prodded, growing through trial and error, assertion and retraction. Some of the earlier feminist matriarchal narratives appear, from the vantage point of the late 1990s, distinctly quirky. For example, Elizabeth Fisher, writing in 1979, used the early Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk to illustrate patriarchy's gradual encroachment into human society. Today every matriarchalist "knows" that Catalhoyuk is one of the very best exemplars of prehistoric matriarchal society. Likewise, Elizabeth Gould Davis's The First Sex, published in 1971, named Mycenaean Greece as matriarchal, a claim that no one has made in the past twenty years. [11] The rough consensus that now reigns-the consensus that, for example, names Catalhoyuk matriarchal and Mycenaean Greece patriarchal-took on its characteristic form under the pressure of three key developments: (1) the steadfast rejection of matriarchal myth by most feminist anthropologists; (2) a burgeoning feminist spirituality movement intent on placing goddess worship in prehistory; and (3) the pioneering archaeological work of Marija Gimbutas.

The first of these developments prevented anthropological versions of matriarchal myth from gaining anything more than a toehold in academia, and indeed had a chilling effect on matriarchal myth in the mainstream women's movement as well. As early feminists looked hopefully to other, "primitive" cultures for signs of matriarchy, they asked for corroboration from their anthropologist sisters. In the main, they didn't get it. Around the same time that Elizabeth Gould Davis was enticing readers with her descriptions of the great women-ruled empires of prehistory, Sherry Ortner, in her highly influential article "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?" was calling women's secondary status "one of the true universals, a pan-cultural fact," and asserting that "the search for a genuinely egalitarian, let alone matriarchal, culture, has proven fruitless." Anthropological denials of matriarchy extended as well to prehistory. "Males are dominant among primates," a group of feminist anthropologists noted in 1971, "and at the 'lowest' level of human social evolution now extant, males are still dominant. There is no reason to assume that in the intervening stages of human evolution the same situation did not prevail." [12]

If this was anthropological dogma, it was not anthropological consensus. A small group of socialist feminist anthropologists were diligently at work throughout the 1970s and 1980s developing a matriarchal myth of their own by updating the work of Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. [13] But this version of matriarchal myth was, in the final analysis, far too tepid to feed appetites whetted by the early women's movement. The best these anthropologists could serve up was the notion that human beings in small-scale "band" societies treated women and men equally, until property ownership, an incipient state, agricultural technologies, or even intergroup trade came into existence. Such a matriarchy was thin to begin with and easily gave way before the smallest signs of what we have come to think of as social progress.

The feminist spirituality movement offered something far more attractive. The position spiritual feminists envisioned for women in prehistory was not the "relative equality" stipulated by socialist feminist anthropologists. On the contrary, prehistoric woman was said to have been respected for her special feminine contributions to the human economy, if not positively revered as an embodiment of the great goddess.

The beginnings of the feminist spirituality movement roughly coincided with the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Feminist spirituality's organizational flexibility and its hostility toward any and all religious dogma defy attempts to define the movement or count its membership. [14] There are no "average" spiritual feminists, but when they gather together, it is most often to celebrate solstices and equinoxes; to perform rituals centering on self-empowerment, nature, and the worship (or embodiment of) goddesses from cultures around the world; to assist one another in divination, healing, magic, and guided meditations; and to teach one another the movement's "sacred history": the myth of matriarchal prehistory.

The centrality of th is last activity should not be underestimated. In much the way the Exodus and Passion narratives serve as synecdoches of Judaism and Christianity, matriarchal myth holds together the otherwise extremely diverse feminist spirituality movement. Not every spiritual feminist believes that matriarchal societies once existed, but then there are Christians -- some of them influential theologians -- who regard the historicity of Jesus's life, crucifixion, and resurrection as immaterial to the true meaning of Christianity. Exceptions notwithstanding, the myth of matriarchal prehistory is foundational for feminist spirituality. Goddess worship itself is sometimes taken as a shorthand for matriarchal myth: goddesses are proof of matriarchy, reminders of it, and calls to recreate it. [15]

Introducing religion into the matriarchal equation, as spiritual feminists did, freed up an enormous amount of imaginative energy for feminist matriarchal myth. The idea that a great mother goddess was our ancestors' first object of veneration had been proposed by archaeologists and historians of religion long before spiritual feminists began to speak of her. [16] Neopagans already believed themselves to be reviving this religion. But spiritual feminists drew new conclusions from ancient goddess worship: first, they argued that it was enormously beneficial to women, who were her priestesses; second, they insisted that the goddess had been worshipped to the near exclusion of gods (on which point they departed from other neopagans); and third, they claimed that the clearest sign of patriarchy's triumph was the end of this exclusive goddess worship.

Merlin Stone was the first to assemble these pieces of the prehistoric puzzle in a convincing fashion. In her 1976 book, The Paradise Papers (later retitled When God Was a Woman), Stone explained that the many names given to goddesses in ancient myths should not obscure the point that "the female deity in the Near and Middle East was revered as Goddess -- much as people today think of God." She reasoned that "a religion in which the deity was female, and revered as wise, valiant, powerful and just" would provide "very different images of womanhood" from those of patriarchy; and she pondered at the close of her book "to what degree the suppression of women's rites has actually been the suppression of women's rights." [17]

Now this was a matriarchal myth worthy of feminist attention. But one link was missing: credibility. Stone aimed to provide this; she did extensive research, but since she did so as an art historian, some doubted the veracity of her conclusions. Real archaeological confirmation, enough to satisfy feminists eager to apply the stamp of authenticity to matriarchal myth, remained a scarce commodity until spiritual feminists discovered and adopted the work of Marija Gimbutas -- who in turn adopted them.

Born in Lithuania, Marija Gimbutas did her graduate work in folkore and archaeology in Lithuania and Germany in the 1940s, and in 1949 immigrated to the United States. Unemployed for a time, she eventually found work translating Eastern European archaeological publications for Harvard University's Peabody Museum. By dint of hard work, tenacity, and undeniable talent, Gimbutas finally began to be recognized as an archaeologist in her own right. She received numerous grants, published lengthy works on Central and Eastern European archaeology, and directed her own excavations there. In 1963, she accepted a professorship at the University of California at Los Angeles which she kept until her retirement in 1989. [18]

Relatively late in her career, Gimbutas began to talk about the goddess, and to describe her reign as an unusually peaceful and harmonious time in which women enjoyed prominence and power. Gimbutas made her way toward these conclusions through her longstanding interest in Indo-European origins, a topic that was very much in vogue in Europe when her intellectual interests were first forming. While working in the United States, Gimbutas began again to ponder the location of the Indo-European "homeland" -- the presumptive place from which speakers of Indo-European languages spread out to conquer many lands (linguistically, if not militarily). She almost couldn't help tackling these issues: she had tremendous linguistic expertise -- she read twenty different languages -- and the sort of encyclopedic knowledge of Central and Eastern European archaeological sites that permitted her to speculate effectively on "big picture" questions. [19]

Working on Indo-European origins led Gimbutas to wonder what Europe was like before the process of" Indo-Europeanization," and excavations she directed in southeastern Europe began to provide clues. Among the artifacts that these and other excavations uncovered were a wealth of female figurines which Gimbutas identified as goddesses. Her first book-length attempt to interpret these artifacts was published in 1974 under the title The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe. Although this work predated Merlin Stone's, it went virtually unnoticed by spiritual feminists, probably because Gimbutas did not write about prehistoric goddesses from a feminist point of view. "I was not a feminist," Gimbutas said of herself, "and I had never any thought I would be helping feminists." [20]

However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that once feminists did begin to support Gimbutas (as they did with the republication of The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe in 1982, under the reversed title The Goddesses arid Gods of Old Europe), it did not affect the course of her work. Her later books, The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess, went further and further to meet the ambitions of spiritual feminists in search of a prehistoric golden age for women. [21] Gimbutas is now routinely hailed by feminist matriarchalists as the brilliant polymath who has scientifically proven the claim that prehistoric societies were woman-centered and goddess-worshipping, and destroyed only recently. She is, Vicki Noble says, the "archeological Grandmother of feminist scholarship." Feminist matriarchalists cite Gimbutas, thank Gimbutas, and intimate that they would be nowhere without her work. Judy Grahn, a feminist poet, reports that she sometimes places one of Gimbutas's books on her home altar and whispers, "Marija, may we understand where you were going as quickly as possible." [22]

It is hard to overestimate the significance of Gimbutas and her work to the contemporary feminist myth of matriarchal prehistory. Gimbutas loaned her impressive archaeological credentials to the myth at a time when other academic archaeologists were steadfastly unwilling to do so. Though there are many intelligent and well-read partisans of the myth, Gimbutas is the only one who is an archaeologist. Her very existence -- to say nothing of her work -- has done much to enhance the credibility of feminist matriarchal myth in the eyes of the more mainstream audiences that feminist matriarchalists have been diligently endeavoring to win. As some have put it, in parody of a Christian bumpersticker, "Marija said it, I believe it, that settles it." [23]
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Re: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

Postby admin » Tue Oct 23, 2018 1:15 am

Part 2 of 2


Just when and where do feminist matriarchalists believe that matristic societies flourished? The standard answers to these questions are "since the beginning of time" and "everywhere." Some feminist matriarchalists assert that society itself -- the grouping together of human beings on an ongoing basis -- was a female invention, built up around women and their children, with men playing little or no role. [24]

Claims to universality aside, however, the story feminist matriarchalists tell of prehistoric matriarchy is much narrower in scope. Some feminist matriarchalists find hopeful glimpses of protomatriarchy among nonhuman primates, and from there make the claim that all species situated evolutionarily between our primate ancestors and modern human beings (australopithecenes, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and so on) had a gynocentric social orientation. [25] Others suggest that the so-called Acheulean hand axes (teardrops of quartz or flint) produced in great numbers by Homo erectus from roughly 1.5 million years ago to 200,000 BCE were actually goddess images rather than the stone tools archaeologists typically take them to be. One Acheulean artifact has generated special interest: found in the Golan Heights region of contemporary Israel, it dates somewhere between 800,000 and 200,000 BCE, was probably made by an archaic Homo sapiens, and is said by feminist matriarchalists to be an image of "the divine feminine, the Blessed Mother." [26]

In general though, feminist matriarchalists find little in this long era of human beginnings to interest them. They are not envisioning bands of near-chimps when they imagine matriarchal prehistory, but rather people like us, creating stable and prosperous societies with women at their center. As a result, feminist matriarchalists typically claim human origins as matricentric, but then fast-forward to the European Upper Paleolithic (beginning around 40,000 BCE), when quite suddenly far more extensive archaeological remains appear, including carved and painted images of women. It is in the Neolithic era, however -- after the development of farming, but before the development of advanced metallurgy, between roughly 8000 and 3000 BCE -- that matriarchalists most often locate the height of matriarchal culture.

Geographically, in its actual tellings, the myth of matriarchal prehistory almost always confines itself to Old (southeastern) Europe, the Near East, and the Mediterranean. [27] Old Europe, though painstakingly treated site by site in Marija Gimbutas's work, generally becomes an amorphous mass in the work of other feminist matriarchalists. In the Near East, several sites are mentioned, but there is only one of any consequence, and that is Catalhoyuk, dating to roughly 6500 BCE and located in Anatolia (present-day Turkey). Finally, the Mediterranean yields up the jewel of matriarchal culture, Minoan Crete, and also Malta, which is increasingly being adopted as another matriarchal homeland. On the infrequent occasions when the myth of matriarchal prehistory moves off this familiar turf, it is most often to Western Europe, especially England and Ireland. The only other place that is mentioned consistently is India, which is said to have been invaded by the same patriarchal tribes that destroyed the goddess-worshipping matriarchies of Old Europe.

It is easy to see the ethnocentrism in these choices: most of the narrators of the myth of matriarchal prehistory are Europeans or Americans of European extraction, and these are the lands they came from or that they regard as their proper cultural origin. Feminist matriarchalists have been self-conscious about their ethnocentrism, but they have rarely endeavored to broaden their scope beyond the lands that most white people think of as their cultural and ancestral home. [28] Most efforts in this direction have been undertaken by those with non-European cultural roots: Latinas and Native Americans have searched the literature on preconquest America for evidence of matriarchy; African Americans have looked to Africa; Asian Americans have explored Asian prehistory; Indians have investigated their own archaeological sites and religious customs for remnants of matriarchal culture. [29] The most significant attempt to expand the myth of matriarchal prehistory beyond its home in the so-called cradle of Western civilization has been undertaken by a melange of matriarchalists all devoted to including Africa within the scope of matriarchal prehistory -- or, more often, to making Africa matriarchy's original home. [30]

Though narrowed somewhat in practice by the chronological and geographical choices that feminist matriarchalists have made, prehistory is still a huge, and, as I will later argue, largely blank canvas. Thus incredibly diverse scenarios can be painted upon it, depending on the predilections of individual thinkers. Amid this diversity, however, a number of themes appear repeatedly in feminist descriptions of prehistoric matriarchal societies: peace, prosperity, harmony with nature, appropriate use of technology, sexual freedom (including reproductive freedom), and just and equitable roles for women and men. These are all thought to be the products of values engendered by the religion of the goddess. Some matriarchalists refer unapologetically to this era as a "utopia" or the" golden age." [31] However, feminist matriarchalists are intent on bringing prehistoric peoples closer to themselves in imagination, so our ancestors are said to have had problems -- there were "temper tantrums and ... tribal scores had to be settled" [32] -- but they did not have our problems, which are overwhelming. In a poem titled "Tea with Marija," Starr Goode recounts an afternoon spent in conversation with Gimbutas at her home in Topanga Canyon, and closes with the lines:

I ask -- what were they, our ancestors?
Marija says -- they were like us, only
happy. [33]

The one feature of matriarchal society that is noted more often than anything apart from goddess worship is the harmony that existed between people and nature. Matriarchal peoples were "attuned to the seasons and to the earth"; they were able to "live together harmoniously, in meaningful and exciting intercommunication with all the creatures of earth, earth herself, and the energy-beings of moon, sun, planets, and the stars." [34] This is sometimes conceptualized as a sort of psychic unity, but usually it is described more prosaically as a responsible relationship between people and the natural resources upon which they depended, expressed in the use of sustainable technologies.

It is crucial to feminist matriarchal myth that these technologies (weaving, architecture, mathematics, and so on) arose in societies that did not discriminate against women. As Vicki Noble explains, "without class stratification, centralized government, taxation, technology, warfare, or slavery, these early Goddess-loving people were able to invent everything we consider relevant today (except plastic and toxic chemicals)." Frequently, the invention of these technologies (including that of written language) is credited specifically to women. [35]

The most important thing women are said to have invented during matriarchal times is agriculture. The standard lore is that women were gatherers (as opposed to hunters) in preagricultural societies, and that through their familiarity with plant life, they "conceived the idea of sowing and harvesting seeds and figured out how to do it successfully where they wanted to." In 1978, Merlin Stone advocated that feminists adopt a new dating system, according to which 1978 was actually 9978 ADA -- After the Development of Agriculture -- emphasizing the fact that, as Charlene Spretnak puts it, "it was women who developed agriculture ... leading all of humankind ... into the Neolithic Era of stable agricultural settlements." [36]

One thing we usually associate with advanced technologies is said to have been lacking in matriarchal societies: private property. Feminist matriarchalists are not unanimous on this point, [37] but the picture they paint of prehistory is one of groups of people pooling most of their resources together. Perhaps more important to feminist matriarchalists is the belief that people pooled their children together. As June Stephenson asserts, "All children were protected and nourished by all women, and all women were therefore mothers to all children." There was "no sharp division ... between home life and societal life," says Jane Alpert. [38] In other words, the distinction between public and private, which many late-twentieth-century feminists have considered a central characteristic of (if not a precondition for) the oppression of women, was utterly lacking in prehistory.

Having friends to help share the burden of work and child care is certainly an appealing vision for many feminist matriarchalists. What is probably more universally appealing is how people had sex in prehistory: which is to say, a lot, with whomever they wanted, and with no harm to their reputation. Sex in the matriarchies was for young and old women alike, and sexuality and motherhood were not regarded as antithetical to one another. If marriage existed, it did not require sexual fidelity to a single partner. Orgasms -- for women, at least -- were multiple and intense, and attained, at times, religious heights. [39] Lesbianism was as easily accepted as heterosexuality, sometimes more so. [40] Certainly rape and sexual abuse were unknown.

Like matriarchal women, the goddess herself was worshipped as a sexual being. Sex is sometimes imagined as having been akin to a positive religious duty in matriarchal societies, institutionalized in the form of "sacred prostitution." As Merlin Stone enthuses, "among these people the act of sex was considered to be so sacred, so holy and precious that it was enacted within the house of the Creatress of heaven, earth and all life." [41] All this sex -- much of it heterosexual -- was remarkably free of the usual consequence. Women bore children, but not constantly or unwillingly.

Just as sex was sacred, so were all other aspects of daily life in matriarchal societies. "Secular and sacred life in those days were one and indivisible," according to Gimbutas. People walked about "filled with awe by the mystery of nature," and" every aspect of the daily domestic routine was considered holy and imbued with ritual intent." This sense of sacrality was concentrated in the figure of the goddess. The goddess had many roles, but she is identified most often as mother. She is the divine creatrix, she who gives birth to the universe and everything in it. Interestingly, she is also linked strongly to death: she is "the wielder of the destructive powers of nature." [42] When Ariadne embodies the goddess during a spring ritual in June Rachuy Brindel's novel, she recites this poem, which sums up the picture of the goddess held by most feminist matriarchalists:

I am She that is Mother of all things
The waters and the earth, the sky and the wind,
The power of life and the power of death;
The fires of heaven and earth, the sun, the moon
And all the stars are My progeny,
Women and men, cattle, eagles, serpents,
Wrathful lion and gentle dove. At My will
All things grow and fill the universe,
die and are renewed. Within my bounds
All beings arise and die, are good and evil,
Merciful and wrathful. All are within my womb [43]

The Oligarchical System

In the oligarchical system, the idea of the state is identical with that of the empire. This is true not only for Sparta, but for its closely related predecessors such as the Assyrian Empire, Babylon, and Persia, as well as Rome, Byzantium, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and the British Empire. A small oligarchical elite rules over a mass of subjects who are deliberately kept in a state of backwardness. The elite claims for itself the right to plunder this population, whether it be through the arbitrary setting of ground rent, control of a usury-based credit system, the mechanism of state power itself, or through the ruthless extraction of the last ounce of labor from their subjects, be they slaves, serfs, or other inferior beings whose death through exhaustion is viewed as a normal event.

Combing the works of most so-called scholars of fascism, one searches in vain for this central economic aspect, which runs like a red thread through every oligarchical empire and system. This economic aspect is in fact the primary and most crucial distinguishing characteristic of Nazism. Such systems are always dominated by extreme forms of monetarism, utilized by an autocratic and scornful oligarchical elite to maintain at all costs their usury-based, economically bankrupt monetary system.

From this perspective we can discern clear parallels with the Egypt of the pharaohs, who had no scruples about wearing out their slaves on the pyramids; Sparta's bloody exploitation of the helots; the practices of the British East India Company; and the Nazis' economic exploitation of forced laborers and concentration camp inmates. For the leading financiers in Switzerland, London, and New York, it was Hjalmar Schacht's argument which clinched the matter: only a drum-beater like Hitler would be capable of imposing the necessary drastic austerity and making it palatable to the masses. This was the principal reason for the massive financial support flowing into Hitler's movement from abroad.

Whenever the maintenance of a currency and credit system is put before the maintenance of human life, we have the clearest evidence that we are looking at a fascist system. Whoever sanctions the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which today is deliberately condemning millions of human beings to death with its infamous credit conditionalities, is morally no better than the Nazi war criminals who were condemned to hang at Nuremburg.

The oligarchical system views the world as a series of great, eternal cycles of birth and death, of construction and destruction. Death and destruction are considered highly desirable, since they have a purifying effect, killing off the weak and enabling the strong to survive. There is no place in this system for scientific and technological progress; indeed, such progress is viewed as the real enemy threatening the eternal cycle.

This corresponds to a conception of man as a creature incapable of change, whose "nature" is fundamentally inclined toward evil. Hence, the rule of men over men is derived not from an ontological natural law, but merely from the ability of this or that oligarchical elite to force its will upon its underlings. Law has no objective basis in this system; all that counts is the power to avoid responsibility for one's own acts.

Such a system is workable, of course, only if the popular masses accept this state of affairs and the ostensible superiority of the oligarchical elite, and conceive of themselves as objects, not as subjects, of events. It is for this reason that the oligarchical system requires more precise and more ingenious mechanisms of mass control in order to protect itself against unwelcome surprises. The preferred mechanism of control is a web of mythology for the masses to believe in. These myths are carefully cultivated and applied by the elite itself, or by a designated caste of priests. Such mythologies, in harmony with the cyclical world outlook, have been interwoven with every pre-Christian "regional" deity -- Cybele, Isis, Shakti, Mother Siva, Mithra, Thor, Wotan, to name a few. The dominant figure in these prevailing myths was usually a goddess who symbolized "Mother Earth" and which thus provided the basis for an ideology of "blood and soil." In northern ideologies, for example, this role was played by the so-called world ash tree, Yggdrasil.

The Republican System

Solon of Athens' republican concept was quite another matter, and through Plato was passed on to the entire succeeding humanist tradition. In the republican state, all individuals are endowed with equal, inalienable rights founded upon natural law. The state is not an instrument of power, but rather serves the exclusive purpose of permitting the maximum unfolding of the potentials of each of its citizens, who, as citizens, are vitally concerned with development of the state as a whole. In the republic, leadership's primary task is not to act as a parasite on the population, depriving it of its livelihood. Its task is to exert leadership on the basis of its acquired wisdom, on the basis of its fully developed understanding of law, and, above all, because of its readiness to assume political responsibility and to act accordingly.

By its very nature, the republican system is the political expression of the physical universe as a negentropically developing continuum, as has been proven by modern science. Whereas scientific and technological progress represents a grave threat to any return to an eternally unchanging state of affairs -- the characteristic feature of the oligarchical system's cyclical world view -- this progress from a republican standpoint is the absolute precondition for the existence of the universe, as it is for human society.

The lawfulness of the universe, its negentropic evolution, is knowable and accessible to human reason and knowledge. Such knowledge, however, is not passive. Man, by virtue of his ability to think the higher hypothesis and make his knowledge increasingly correspond to universal law, is capable of altering this law itself, and in a lawful manner. Scientific progress is only another expression for this interaction between reason and the physical universe; the hypotheses formed by reason are efficient in the real world, and this allows us to conclude that there exists a correspondence between the macrocosm and the microcosm.

A republican state is therefore vitally concerned with the scientific progress of all its citizens, and with the improvement of their standard of living. This especially includes improvements in education and training, which raise the productivity of labor and thereby enrich the source of all social wealth.

For the oligarchical system, the sole source of wealth is the ownership of land and physical resources, the right to extract ground rent, and the ability to lend at usurious rates of interest. The system ultimately depends on maintaining the areas under its control in a state of permanent backwardness, in order to seize raw materials at the cheapest price. The scribblings of the "evil Parson Malthus" are but one of the numerous attempts to provide a rational justification for the oligarchical faction's policies, and to give them at least the veneer of legitimacy.

Anyone who thinks of the land as the only source of social wealth is apt to feel threatened by the arrival of every new individual into the world; such a person fears that the newcomer will want to share these resources with him, thereby decreasing what belongs to the ruling elite. This is the origin of the so-called overpopulation theory, which in turn supplies the oligarchical vision of a fixed system with a corresponding zero-growth ideology.

It is virtually impossible to distinguish any qualitative difference between Malthus's silly "law of population" -- his rationalization for the practices of British colonialism -- and the Nazis' classification of so-called "inferior races" as "useless eaters," and the Club of Rome's recommendation that the alleged population problem in the developing countries be solved by "natural means" such as denying them technology transfers or "raising the death rate" through hunger, epidemics, and deliberately incited regional warfare. Human life has no value in this system, and its proponents consider it their own privilege if they wish to practice genocide, whether it be against Sparta's helots, the Jews, the Slavs, political opponents, three million people in Cambodia, or the 150 million people in Africa who have been "written off' by the IMF.

The republican system does not share this utter disregard for human life. The land and the soil, taken by themselves, have no significance. The sole source of wealth is the rise in the productivity of human labor effected through technological progress. Every newborn child, when viewed in this way, represents a potential enrichment of society, provided that that society develops all the potentials residing within that child. This in turn requires not only a high nutritional level, but a basic education which promotes character formation and a potentially-never-ending higher education.

It has been entirely due to the work of republicans over the millennia that the earth's population potential has grown from approximately five million at the introduction of agriculture, to about four and a half billion today. The earth could easily have a population potential of several dozen billions, if currently existing technologies were vigorously applied.

This long chain of qualitative technical innovations has repeatedly enabled mankind to overcome limitations imposed by so-called natural resources. Human reason has conceived of new sciences and new technologies, defining and developing new raw materials, taking a little piece of dirt and turning it first into iron ore, and then into a transmitter of energy.

Republican society therefore puts the highest premium on that side of man which absolutely distinguishes him from the beasts; no beast has ever independently altered his "natural resources." Within this progress-oriented climate geniuses have developed, men and women whose unique contributions have extended the limits of existing knowledge, and through whose individual accomplishments humanity as a whole has attained a bit of immortality.

This emphasis on the creative faculties of the individual, as was embedded in the legislation of Solon, has been a constant source of irritation to the leadership of the oligarchical faction, and they have always perceived it as a grave threat. It goes without saying that any efforts to instruct the so-called masses in reason calls into question the continued dominance of the oligarchical elite in the medium term. This was the reason for the murder of Socrates, whom his opponents hypocritically accused of seducing the youth of Athens, whereas his sole intention was to encourage them to use their own minds, as Plato reports to us in the Apology of Socrates.

Plato's dialogues contain everything which constitutes the essence of the republican system and European humanist culture: natural law, based on the ordering of existence and permanently guaranteeing the individual's God-given rights to life and personal development, and a cosmology which explains the development of the universe to the present day, along with a corresponding republican constitution which holds the rule of "philosopher kings" to be the prerequisite for social well-being.

But it was Augustine who stated in his famous letter to Marcellinus, that only with the appearance of the person of Jesus Christ was Platonic philosophy able to assume unassailable authority over all other teachings. Christ, by becoming the perfected embodiment of the divine within man, laid the unshakable foundation for the inviolability and dignity of human life. It might seem tautological to state that without the person of Christ, 2,000 years of European Christian civilization would not have been possible; this, however, is of crucial significance for any historical investigation.

Through the idea of Man-become-God, from this time onward every human being participates in God (capax dei), on condition that he, as the Image of the Living God, strives to replicate on earth His most noble quality as God-the-creator. Creation is not understood as a single event -- a "big bang" -- but is rather is a continuous process of creation, in which man's creative capacity can be considered the arm of God.

Man, so understood as the image of God, must by his nature be fundamentally disposed toward the Good. From this flows his obligation to perfect himself. A refusal to develop all the creative faculties residing within him is therefore defined as sin.

Christian philosophy is therefore in perfect harmony with the republican system, and it should therefore come as no surprise that it was bitterly opposed by the oligarchical camp. The most blatant example of this was the Roman Empire itself which, boasting all the characteristics of a fascist state, used the most brutal methods In its attempt to exterminate the Christians.

What followed historically, to oversimplify a bit, were merely variations on either model. It is nonetheless fascinating to observe how conscious the protagonists of each side were of their respective predecessors. To be sure, such information cannot be found in the usual history textbooks; original sources must be drawn upon.

The Italian Renaissance was buoyed by Plato and Greece; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, godfather of the Greens, praised the customs of Sparta. And the dark minions of the British imperialism have always sung exalted paeans to the empire of the Romans.

-- The Hitler Book, edited by Helga Zepp-LaRouche

Since the goddess and human women shared the capacity to give birth, it was only natural that women would hold roles as religious functionaries in prehistoric matriarchies. Feminist matriarchalists imagine women serving as "priestesses, healers, and wisewomen," as "female elders," as "diviners, midwives, poets ... and singers of songs of power": they were "custodians of the spiritual lite" of their cultures.  [44] Whether or not these exclusively female religious roles were complemented by exclusively female political roles is a matter of some debate among feminist matriarchalists. Most downplay the issue of political leadership altogether, seeming to suggest that these cultures functioned so smoothly that they did not require specially appointed leaders. However, if prehistoric societies were not truly "matriarchal" -- ruled by women -- then what was women's status, and how did it differ from men's?

The standard answer to this question goes back again to the issue of motherhood. Matriarchal societies are typicalJy portrayed as being centered around mothers, with households consisting first of a mother and her children, and then possibly extending to include her brothers or her husband. Children took their mother's name and kinship status (matriliny); husbands went to live with their wives or mothers-in-law (matrilocality); women owned or controlled their family's property, insofar as it existed. This is not simply a description of prehistoric social arrangements: it is a statement about what matriarchal societies valued. Matriarchal power is different from patriarchal power, feminist matriarchalists say, because it is based on a natural (as opposed to an arbitrary) kind of power, that of motherhood. "The mother cares for the baby until it is able to move about easily by itself, find food, and protect itself without her," Marilyn French explains. "The mother 'rules' by greater experience, knowledge, and ability, but the intention of her 'rule' is to free the child, to make it independent."  [45] This is finally the answer to who had social power in prehistoric matriarchies: mothers did; and because they were mothers, it was power handled ably, delicately, and benevolently.

Where did this leave men in matriarchal societies? As Phyllis Chesler puts it, "There are two kinds of people: mothers and their children." Men could never become mothers in matriarchal society (or anywhere else, for that matter), so they would then seem to be forever the second kind of person: children. But since, as we have already seen, the women of prehistoric matriarchies were well disposed toward their children, these societies are said to have been good places for men. As Heide Gottner-Abendroth explains, "In the matriarchal world the man is at once son, husband, and hero and completely embedded in the universe of women, who lovingly direct everything." [46]

Men were not necessarily infantilized in matriarchal societies. Different versions of the myth of matriarchal prehistory give men greater or lesser roles to play as adults. Men are thought to have had important male-specific roles in matriarchal societies: usually hunting, trade, and herding. Some matriarchalists suggest that women's and men's worlds were largely separate. They had separate duties, separate social networks, separate religious activities, and sometimes even separate living quarters. [47] But other matriarchalists fantasize a culture in which women and men interacted constantly and harmoniously. Mary Mackey's characters in The Year the Horses Came rarely perform sex-segregated tasks; even trade and hunting are conducted in mixed-sex groups. Crucially, however, men in prehistoric matriarchies are rarely imagined as having any substantive structural power within the family; certainly nothing that could rival the authority of women as mothers.

One of the most common (and longest-lived) explanations for why prehistory was matriarchal is the notion that prehistoric people -- or at least prehistoric men -- were not aware of a male role in reproduction. With no connection drawn between sexual intercourse and conception, matriarchalists argue, children would have appeared to be the miraculous product of women alone. [48] This central attention to the fact of childbirth is the hallmark of virtually all feminist reconstructions of matriarchal society. "Woman, as her name implies," writes Janet Balaskas, "is the human with a womb." When feminist matriarchalists describe women's ability to bear children, they speak of "mystery," "miracle," "magic," and the "awe" and "reverence" that this inspired in prehistoric peoples. Feminist matriarchalists expand this to a more generalized reverence for all the sex-specific functions of the female body, including menstruation, lactation, and female sexual response. Menstruation is "bleeding without injury"; it is "primeval dragontime blood," a "shamanic death and rebirth every month" which indicates women's "intimate relationship with the mysteries of the universe," especially "the swelling and ebbing of the moon." [49] This rhapsody to the female body offered by Riane Eisler is fairly typical:

Our Paleolithic and early Neolithic ancestors imaged woman's body as a magical vessel. They must have observed how it bleeds in rhythm with the moon and how it miraculously produces people. They must also have marveled that it provides sustenance by making milk for the young. Add to this woman's seemingly magical power to cause man's sexual organ to rise and the extraordinary capacity of woman's body for sexual pleasure -- both to experience it and to give it -- and it is not surprising that our ancestors should have been awed by woman's sexual power. [50]

Together, women and the goddess, each the reflection of the other, are thought to have formed a "mysterious female universe" that reached out to encompass nature -- which, feminist matriarchalists note, also brings forth life. Out of this synergy, say feminist matriarchalists, a culture and a religion were born, the finest the world has ever seen.


The narrative of matriarchal myth wheels around abruptly to unmitigated disaster with the rise of the patriarchy, as catastrophic an event as one could imagine. Obviously, the difficult question is the simplest one: Why? Why did this golden age fall, only to see the world plunged into barbarism and misery? Feminist matriarchalists offer two basic types of explanations for what caused the patriarchal revolution: internal and external. In the first model, critical things -- economy, the family -- changed within matriarchal cultures, giving rise to male dominance. In the second model, matriarchal cultures were attacked and eventually defeated by patriarchal invaders, who then substituted their own social institutions for those of the cultures they conquered. These models are often mixed -- certain factors predisposed matriarchal peoples toward patriarchy, but armed attack by patriarchal invaders tipped the balance. In either case, the patriarchal revolution is dated to roughly the same time: 3000 BCE. [51]

Among internal explanations for the patriarchal revolution, one reigns supreme: the idea that men discovered, fairly late in the game, that they played a role in human reproduction. Knowledge came, some say, when humans began to domesticate animals and observed a cause-and-effect relationship between sexual intercourse and conception.  [52] Men, who had long envied the "body mysteries" of women, took this opportunity to seize control of those aspects of reproduction which they could control -- namely, the paternity of individual children -- and debase those aspects they could not control (such as menstruation).

Male discontent -- in this particular explanation for the patriarchal revolution -- turns out to be a bit of a worm in the apple, since men were supposed to be content with their lot in matriarchal societies. Men were happy in matriarchal societies, feminist matriarchalists say, but they were also beseiged with a nagging sense of their own dispensability. They felt "marginal" or "empty," like outsiders; they lacked "the rich sense of herself that women had in those early times, because she was the childbearer"; they suffered a "primal jealousy" of "a woman's total commitment to her infant"; they "felt themselves to be essentially different" from women, not quite "flesh of the mothers' flesh, after all"; and they envied women's ability to menstruate, since it was associated with heightened "psychic awareness and inner vision." Under matriarchal conditions, feminist matriarchalists say, men's sense of inadequacy was carefully contained. As an old woman explains to Ariadne in June Brindel's novel of Minoan Crete, "in the old time, they were in awe and could be gentled." But now, she says, "they are all killers." In the most dangerous mimicry of menstruation, men develop warfare as a "parody of women's monthly bloodshed." [53]

The other leading internal explanation for the patriarchal revolution attributes it to the changeover from small-scale farming techniques (horticulture or "hoe agriculture") to large-scale agriculture ("plow agriculture") and herding. Plow agriculture generally required the use of irrigation systems and domesticated animals to pull plows, and, so the story goes, the superior upper-body strength of men. With the means of production thus effectively placed in men's hands, and farming raised to a level where surpluses could be produced and traded, all the conditions for patriarchal revolution were in place. [54] Then all that was required was for men to acquire the will to amass property and social power, use both to their advantage, and pass them to their own progeny. In this department, men were not lacking, though again it is not clear what prompted their avarice.

Animal husbandry has a particularly insidious role to play in this version of the patriarchal revolution. Not only is it sometimes credited with revealing the truth about paternity (especially to men, who are usually -- though not always -- said to have developed animal husbandry), but it is also thought to have advanced patriarchy by allowing men to practice techniques of oppression on animals that they would later perfect on women. Things previously unthinkable -- forced labor, forced reproduction, confinement -- became not only thinkable but doable once they had been done to animals. Further, by observing animals men saw that it was possible for one male to dominate an entire herd, an observation that they then transferred to human society.

All internal explanations for the patriarchal revolution tend to find fault with men. Of course, the myth of matriarchal prehistory is a highly gendered story, and the transition from "good" prehistory to "bad" history is, in its most unadorned formulations, a change from the peaceful, harmonious world of women to the awful, wicked world of men. And yet narrators of the myth are generally reluctant to blame men -- at least not all men, or men as a class -- for the patriarchal revolution, if only to leave room for a future which will include men without allowing them to dominate. Ironically, when faced with this dilemma, feminist matriarchalists most often turn to external explanations for the patriarchal revolution, particularly invasion theories, in which villains abound.

When it comes to patriarchal invaders, none can rival the popularity of the Kurgans from the Russian steppes (the term Kurgan was coined by Marija Gimbutas to name the invading patriarchs, and is drawn from a form of burial which Gimbutas takes to be the archaeological signature of the group [55]). This was the group situated to wipe out the matriarchal societies most favored in matriarchal myth: those in Old Europe, the Near East, and the Mediterranean. Two key characteristics of the Kurgans (apart from the obvious, that they were male-dominated) are usually mentioned: they were pastoralists, and they were nomads. The tension between the sedentary agricultural economy of the south (the matriarchies) and the nomadic pastoral economy of the north (the patriarchy) is constantly reinforced in tellings of the myth. So are other oppositions, including that the Kurgans were large, blue-eyed, and blond-haired, while the people of the matriarchies were smaller and darker. [56]Another, somewhat curious opposition is that between matriarchal women and Kurgan men. Though there were clearly men in the matriarchal societies, it was women who were central, whereas in Kurgan society, at least as it is narrated by feminist matriarchalists, women rarely surface at all. [57] Once these contrasting cultures come into contact, the result is predictable: the patriarchs "sweep down" on matriarchal cultures in "huge hordes" and "overrun" them, riding in on horses, animals which matriarchal peoples had never seen before.

This story, in its bare outlines, raises several obvious questions, ones which feminist matriarchalists strive -- with varying degrees of success -- to answer: Where did the Kurgans come from? How did they come to be patriarchal? What inspired them to invade the matriarchal cultures? How did they carry out their nefarious mission? How were they able to overwhelm the matriarchal peoples not just for a generation or two, but for all time up to the present day?

The question of where the Kurgans came from has a rote answer: the Russian steppes. Gimbutas has brought great precision to questions of the Kurgan homeland. She centers it in southwestern Russia where the Don and Volga rivers approach one another most closely, extending downward from there toward the northern shores of the Black Sea and eastward toward Kazakhstan and the northern shores of the Caspian Sea. [58] Rhetorically speaking -- apart from any archaeological data confirming or disconfirming this theory -- this is a terrific place to locate the patriarchal homeland. What is required is a territory big enough to be home to a largish population of marauding warriors; a place from which one can, without crossing enormous geographical barriers (such as oceans) reach Europe and the Near East; a region whose prehistory is neither noble nor well documented; and, finally, since no one wants to come from the place where patriarchy began, a land that is sparsely populated today. On all counts, the Russian steppes -- "no man's land" -- fit the profile. [59] Indeed, there is little evidence that most narrators of the myth of matriarchal prehistory know where the Russian steppes are. Maps are rare in feminist matriarchalist literature, and identifying geographical features are typically vague when given at all. [60] This is a notable omission in works whose entire premise hinges on the existence and spread of a group of conquering warriors hailing from a specific location. Furthermore, peaceful prehistoric matriarchies seem to have been everywhere, including Russia, and even, according to some matriarchalists, "on the vast steppes of Russia." Perhaps truer to the spirit of the myth of matriarchal prehistory is Riane Eisler's frequent insistence that the patriarchal invaders came from "the barren fringes of the globe," [61] a place securely off the map of anywhere we might want to call home.

One cannot point to a map or invoke a stock phrase to explain how the Kurgans came to be patriarchal. This more complex question is given a variety of answers, including that herding animals or living in a harsh climate brought out the worst in men. But most frequently, there is no answer at all (which is not to say that feminist matriarchalists do not regard it as a valid question; on the contrary, they consistently state that something must have caused the Kurgans to become patriarchal, since all human societies were originally matriarchaI [62]). As Merlin Stone notes, why the Kurgans became patriarchal is "a moot question," since they only come "to our attention" after they arrive "in the Goddess-worshiping communities of the Near and Middle East." Similarly, Gimbutas does not believe it correct to speak of "Kurgan people" until "they conquered the steppe region north of the Black Sea around 4500 B.C." -- in other words, only after they were already launched on the path of patriarchal conquest. [63]

The Kurgans are the star players in invasion theories, but they did not have to patriarchalize the world all by themselves. They had help, occasionally from nameless nomads in other parts of the world, but most often from the Semites; specifically, the Hebrews. As Elizabeth Gould Davis explains, "it was these people, cultureless and semicivilized, who first upset civilization in the ancient East by overthrowing the city states and later by dethroning the ancient goddess and enthroning male strife in the form of Yahweh." Feminist matriarchalists speculate that the Hebrews, like the Kurgans, suffered the ill effects of nomadic pastoralism and a harsh climate. But they also accuse the Hebrews of having taken especially cruel steps to destroy goddess religion. The anti-Semitism implicit in this thesis -- "blaming the Jews for the death of the Goddess" -- has been much commented upon, but the belief that Semitic invaders helped to crush matriarchal cultures is still very much a part of the myth of matriarchal prehistory. [64]

There are a few remaining explanations feminist matriarchalists give for the patriarchal revolution. Matriarchal culture is sometimes said to have fallen apart owing to "famine, disease, [and] natural cataclysm," when "a series of violent volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tidal waves rocked the Mediterranean world." Men, with their superior physical strength, took on a new importance as economic scarcity produced intertribal warfare. A few feminist matriarchalists offer astrological explanations: patriarchy arises in the martial age of Aries and flourishes in the Piscean Age (which is "concerned with duality"), or else patriarchy is nothing more than the "dark moon phase of the Goddess," who in the immediate past five-thousand-year "lunation cycle" withdrew herself and all "feminine energies" from humanity. Another theory, offered rarely, and more in desperation than in earnestness, is that extraterrestrials landed on Earth in 3000 BCE. They either taught us all how to behave badly, or else joined us, becoming the males of the human species. More common, though still unusual, is the theory that men -- or at least men as they are presently constituted -- are the result of an unfortunate genetic mutation. This theory generally has little explanatory power for the patriarchal revolution because the mutations which created men are thought to have occurred well before 3000 BCE. However, Kristie Neslen, author of The Origin, offers an alternative mutation theory linked directly to the patriarchal revolution: Kurgan men, she suggests, mutated toward "a higher level of androgen and androgen sensitivity" and became more violent and aggressive than the men in the matriarchal cultures to the south, whom they were thus able to defeat with ease. [65]

Part of the problem is that behind the "historical" question of when and why patriarchy arose lies another, more fundamental and disturbing question: How could something as horrible as patriarchy come to exist in the first place and then continue to thrive? This question stems from a deep (and very common) need to explain evil in such a way that it does not swallow up all the good in the world. Feminist matriarchalists face this challenge in a variety of ways. Some claim that the patriarchal revolution was, quite simply, an accident: a very big, very bad accident. The foremost proponent of this viewpoint is Riane Eisler, who consistently refers to the patriarchy as "a bloody five-thousand-year dominator detour" from "the original partnership direction of Western culture." Since then, patriarchy has persisted largely through tradition. People are socialized to accept it as normal, and so they do. The solution is simple: in Eisler's words, we "allow our cultural evolution to resume its interrupted course." [66]

That humanity could descend to such depths of depravity and stay there for five thousand years by accident alone, however, is an inadequate answer for most. So feminist matriarchalists often struggle to find some way of comprehending the patriarchy that makes it, while terrible, nevertheless necessary or useful. One such way is to imagine the switch from matriarchy to patriarchy as a cycle which, over the long span of human history, is relatively benign. Another response is to argue that patriarchy had some redeeming features. Generally, these redeeming features are not specified; rather, there is simply the reassurance that patriarchal institutions "served their purposes, or they wouldn't have lasted as long as they did." More often, the whole question of how -- and why -- the patriarchy came to be is put off as mysterious or irrelevant. Indeed, some claim that dwelling on this question is a diversion, one that serves patriarchal interests. Feminist matriarchalists encourage their readers to stick to the point. As Kristie Neslen says, "Alas, each possible explanation for how patriarchy arose only seems to bring up more questions. Ultimately the 'why' does not matter as much as the 'how.'" [67]

The "how" of the patriarchal revolution is very similar across different versions of the myth of matriarchal prehistory. Once the patriarchal revolution was under way, it proceeded by means of warfare, slavery (including sexual slavery), and religion, through which the patriarchy consolidated its power and staked a claim in Western consciousness that is still deeply ingrained five thousand years later.

What guaranteed short-term victory for the Kurgans was the monopoly of force they commanded. According to feminist matriarchal myth, matriarchal peoples did not manufacture weapons of war; their villages and towns were undefended; and, perhaps most critical, they did not have the moral will to wage war: it went against everything in their value system. When (and if) they learned to fight back and defend themselves, say feminist matriarchalists, they were starting from too far back in the game. Some add that once the matriarchal peoples learned the arts of war, they were no longer what they had been: the virus of violence and male domination had entered them, and it was only a question of time before they became indistinguishable from their patriarchal enemies. [68]

With warfare comes slavery, and with slavery, a more perfect means of oppression. According to Gerda Lerner, when large-scale warfare first began, men who were caught in war were killed, while women, who were easier to control and who could be used to breed children, were enslaved. [69] Gradually, this basic form of relationship -- that of master and slave -- came to infect all relationships between men and women. As men discovered their role in conception, they wished to ensure that their property would go to their biological offspring. But in order to determine paternity with certainty, men had to restrict women's sexual behavior. Once a woman's sexuality "belonged" to one man (or in the case of prostitutes, to whichever man purchased it for the moment), she became, in a real if limited sense, his property.

The final mechanism for perpetrating a patriarchal revolution was religion. Patriarchal religion developed in two directions: the construction of a male-dominated pantheon and worship of a single male god. Feminist matriarchalists sometimes see this as an evolutionary development -- first the patriarchs sapped female deities of their power, then later eradicated them -- but these two types of patriarchal religion are related rather transparently to the two purported sources of patriarchal invasions: the Kurgans and the Hebrews. The Kurgans insinuated their propaganda into the psyches of matriarchal peoples by splitting the matriarchal great goddess into dozens of goddesses, each with her own "department." These goddesses were then married to Kurgan sky gods (or raped by them) to form a dual-gendered, male-dominated pantheon. The Semitic solution (documented, say feminist matriarchalists, in the Bible) was to erect a single male god called "Father" in the place of the great goddess of matriarchal times. Ultimately, this god takes more heat from feminist matriarchalists than do the Kurgan sky gods. It was not until "we began to worship one male god," some feminist matriarchalists say, that we truly "became patriarchal." [70]


How do women and men fare in patriarchy? In a word, poorly. Women's victimization is systemic. But men are banished from the garden as well, according to feminist matriarchal myth. No longer the cherished sons of the goddess, men are subject to cruel hierarchies of status among themselves, alienation from women and nature, and a painfully limited range of role choices. [71]

Feminist matriarchal myth does not imagine much change over time and place in the structure of patriarchy. Women's status has fluctuated over the past five thousand years but has never changed substantially from that established by the patriarchal revolution. However, under this smooth patriarchal exterior lies a subterranean river of goddess religion which emerges in folklore and nonelite religious practices, and even surfaces -- albeit in disguise -- in the patriarchal religions of the West (particularly in the person of the Virgin Mary). Matriarchal myth is replete with accounts of churches built on top of old goddess shrines, Catholic saints who are goddesses in disguise, and Christian holidays that are mere adaptations of pagan festivals. [72]

Most feminist matriarchalists regard the return of goddess-worshipping matriarchal cultures (in one form or another) to be a possibility, and some -- though not many -- regard it as a foregone conclusion. There is a very strong apocalyptic strain in feminist matriarchal myth that shows itself in dire comments about the possible death of the planet. But there is also some confidence that "patriarchal structures are cracking at the seams," that we are reaching "an evolutionary dead end." As Hallie Iglehart Austen tells us, "The world is more ready for her [the Goddess] than it has been for millennia and more in need of her than it has been for all of human existence."  [73] It is an exciting and awful time to be alive.

It is often thought that women will play a special role in bringing about this enormous social revolution. They will balance out men's tendencies to be "aggressive, competitive, and possessive," and allow a new, more cooperative social order to emerge. [74] Others, however, suggest that the solution to the present predicament lies equally with men: either with their ability to recognize the damage they have done and to step aside and let women repair it, or, more positively, to follow in women's footsteps by adopting "feminine" ways of being, working in concert with women for social regeneration. The "rediscovery" of matriarchal prehistory is itself sometimes seen as a sign that the patriarchy will soon collapse and make way for something new. [75]

There is no single vision of what the future will be, but interestingly, there is near unanimity that it will not be a simple recreation of our prehistoric matriarchal past. If nothing else, our "much larger population" and "greater technological complexity" make it impossible, say feminist matriarchalists, to reproduce prehistoric matriarchies in the twenty-first century. [76] Pragmatic considerations are not the only ones operative here; some feminist matriarchalists do not wish to return to prehistoric matriarchies because they regard them as being "out of balance" in a feminine direction, just as patriarchy is imbalanced in a masculine direction. Matriarchy and patriarchy are thought to represent extremes, while the future has the potential of bringing a new, superior synthesis.

Most feminist matriarchalists, however, are unwilling to count the matriarchies as flawed. Certainly they are not as flawed as the patriarchy that followed. The future feminist matriarchalists seek is most commonly a recreation of prehistoric matriarchy on a "higher," more technologically advanced level: completing a circle back to matriarchy, as Barbara Mor and Monica Sjoo describe it, but at the same time, as on a spiral, revolving to "a larger circle." Just where women will stand in these future societies ranges from equality with men to special respect for women to being "dominant and listened to" under a form of government described as "a socialist matriarchy." [77] Some feminist matriarchalists indulge in involved fantasies of what a future matriarchal utopia would include; others never look too far beyond "the matriarchal counterrevolution that is the only hope for the survival of the human race." [78]

This, then, is the story that has given many feminists today an enhanced sense of self-confidence and pride in their femaleness, and a deep hope for the future of us all. With benefits like these, it is no surprise that the myth of matriarchal prehistory has attracted a substantial and enthusiastic following. But before we risk advancing it as either a desirable account of human history or a true one, it is important to explore the myth's gendered assumptions.
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Re: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

Postby admin » Tue Oct 23, 2018 1:15 am

Part 1 of 2

CHAPTER 4: The Eternal Feminine

The myth of matriarchal prehistory is a univeralizing story: once things were good, everywhere; now they are bad. And since the operative terms in matriarchal myth are gendered ones, what emerges by way of explanation is a robust, universal theory of sex difference. Matriarchalist assumptions about how sex determines personality, preferences, and values are sometimes only implicit, but they are always present. Though some interpreters earnestly attempt to avoid these implications of matriarchal myth, the myth continues to feed off of a very reductive notion of who women -- and by extension, men -- are.


Feminist matriarchalist assessments of femininity and masculinity are rooted most strongly in a particular vision of female embodiedness. Feminist matriarchalists frequently refer to their bodies as a source of insight, knowledge, and power, a source more reliable than "what a woman might know with her mind." This embodiedness does not stop with the individual; women's bodies are said to be the "only true microcosm" of the universe. Female bodies are thus the vehicle through which we are supposed to recognize the value of the earth and of nature. [1] With near unanimity, feminist matriarchalists assert that these connections between women, bodies, and nature are not simply poetic metaphors or politically savvy conceptualizations, but a fact of life, based primarily on women's ability to reproduce. [2]

Reproduction. as we have seen, is perceived as miraculous by feminist matriarchalists. It is also thought to teach women an important spiritual lesson that is less available to men. When pregnant, women have "an Other inside." As the boundary between "me" and "not-me" becomes blurred, women come to appreciate that "everything is intimately connected, everything is oneness." [3] Beyond pregnancy, discussion of the skills and traits that mothers must develop to deal effectively with infants and children sometimes makes its way into matriarchalist discourse. Jane Alpert, for example, draws attention to qualities she sees issuing from the practice of motherhood, including "empathy, intuitiveness, adaptability, awareness of growth as a process rather than as goal-ended; inventiveness, protective feelings toward others, and a capacity to respond emotionally as well as rationally." More commonly, however, the emphasis is on childbirth itself. For example, when Marrah gives birth to twins in Mary Mackey's novel The Horses at the Gate, the first three years of the children's lives pass in less than twenty pages. Most of these pages concern the plottings of Marrah's enemies. All we learn of Marrah's first three years as a mother is that "the twins grew fat on Marrah's milk" and that she and her lover Stavan were occupied with training horses. [4] Clearly the actual work of motherhood takes a distant backseat to the miracle of reproduction.

This focus on childbirth has been troublesome to many feminists, even to those who are strongly attached to the myth of matriarchal prehistory. At one level it seems to suggest that unless and until women give birth, they are excluded from this most essential of female "mysteries." This has the potential to become quite a problem, since many feminist matriarchalists -- probably more than the national average -- are childless. [5] As a consequence, much effort is devoted to assuring women that the actual bearing of children is not necessary in order to express feminine creativity, fertility, and closeness to nature. As Meinrad Craighead explains, "whether or not a woman does conceive, she carries the germinative ocean within her, and the essential eggs." Whatever women create, be it "tissue in the womb or pictures in the imagination," it is created "out of our bodies." [6]

Since a female identity centered on childbearing is problematic, feminist matriarchalists have at times attempted to center it elsewhere, typically on menstruation. As Anne Carson explains, menstruation is "one feature of our bodies that all women can share and celebrate, whether we are heterosexual or lesbian, mothers or childless." [7] But the focus does come back unerringly to childbirth, probably because producing menstrual blood is simply not as impressive as producing a human being. Furthermore, childbirth is one of the few remaining fortresses of femaleness in a time when most of the accoutrements of female sex can be purchased for the price of hormones and a surgical operation. The ability to bear children is the only thing of great value that women have that "men could never take from them" [8] -- or at least that they haven't taken yet.

Built on this foundation of childbirth is a larger structure of femaleness which concentrates on such traditional "feminine" virtues as nurturance and compassion. Women "tend to cluster," says Maureen Murdock. They "like being related, helpful, connected." In essence -- and I choose that word with care -- feminist matriarchalists portray women as naturally good, kind, loving human beings. Women "do not use their power to dominate or to subordinate," but rather "to increase the well-being of their environment." They "are naturally inclined to assume responsibility for the welfare of others," and they prefer "a more securely ordered, fruitful, lawful, ethical, and spiritual way of life." [9]

If this is what women are like, what should we expect from men? Mostly, it turns out, the opposite. Charlene Spretnak (drawing on the work of "neuropsychologists") says that men "excel at many visual-spatial tasks, daylight vision, and gross motor movements," but that "when it comes to grasping oneness and at-large bonding (i.e., active empathy with people beyond one's circle), most men are simply not playing with a full deck." Elizabeth Gould Davis puts it more bluntly: "Man is the enemy of nature: to kill, to root up, to level off, to pollute, to destroy are his instinctive reactions to the unmanufactured phenomena of nature, which he basically fears and distrusts." Aggressiveness, possessiveness, and competitiveness are all said to be male traits. Men are as capable of thought as women are, but what distinguishes them from women is that their rationality is the "cold, divisive, or killing calculation of logic." [10]

One matriarchalist vision of men puts them in the role of wild little boys who, under matriarchal control, would become harmless and amusing. Merlin Stone suggests that through goddess spirituality, women are saying to men, "Stop this pretense of glory and importance, and look at the mess you've made!" Barbara Walker imagines that without the monotheistic male God standing behind men, women would "simply laugh at male posturings of self-validation and assertiveness" and would respond to them "with nothing more than her ancient, casual 'Yes, dear, that's nice, run along now.''' Another matriarchalist vision casts men in a considerably more sinister role. In this view, men have no "energy" of their own and so must pirate it from women. They "literally and figuratively plug into" women, casting women in the role of "batteries" or "the Vampire's energy source." [11]

One wonders how women and men ever could have lived happily together, especially when what is wrong with men often seems to be quite permanent. Some feminist matriarchalists have described men as mutants whose "small and twisted Y chromosome" is "a genetic error" resulting from, perhaps, "disease or a radiation bombardment from the sun." [12] Other feminist matriarchalists find men's eternal secondariness illustrated in the development of human embryos. Claiming that all human embryos "are anatomically female during the early stages of fetal life," they conclude, with Rosalind Miles, that women are "the original, the first sex, the biological norm from which males are only a deviation." No wonder a T-shirt proclaims "T.G.I.F (Thank Goddess I'm Female)," for who would voluntarily choose to be male? [13]

Feminist matriarchalist thought is not always characterized by these excesses of misandry. There are other, more prominent strains in matriarchal myth that take a far more accommodating attitude toward men (though not ultimately ones that put men on an equal footing with women). Many feminist matriarchalists emphasize the point that women -- and also the goddess -- give birth to males as well as females. When pregnant with boys, women contain maleness within themselves, and this is taken as a metaphor for the ultimate inclusion of men within a female universe. Men are embedded within nature, just as women are, though owing to the natural limitations of their bodies -- their lack of firsthand experience of menstruation or childbirth -- it is more difficult for them to achieve this insight. [14]

Some feminist matriarchalists try to provide -- or at least allow for the existence of -- positive male role models, the sort of men who might have lived and flourished in prehistoric times. The Motherpeace tarot deck, created by Vicki Noble and Karen Vogel, includes "Sons" in each of the four suits who "represent positive male energy" and who can "help a person imagine positive ways of being male in a culture where 'male supremacy' has all but destroyed manhood." Just what these "positive ways of being male" are Noble does not say, though she remarks that it is "ugly and gross to equate masculinity with murder and rape, pillage, greed, and a mindless ransacking of the planet," and she articulates the hope that "some other manifestation of the Masculine" is "waiting to be revealed to us." As Monica Sjoo remarks, "boy children are not born patriarchs, nor is it through a natural process that men become such." [15] In other words, according to most feminist matriarchalists, men are not beyond hope.

In fact, many feminist matriarchalists do not regard maleness as a problem at all. In its place, "masculinity" is as important and valuable as "femininity"; the key is that the two must be in balance, not only in society as a whole, but in individual human beings as well, some say. All" creative and inspirational thinking, all nurturing, mothering and gestating, all passion, desire and sexuality, all urges towards connectedness, social cohesion, union and communion, all merging and fusion as well as impulses to absorb, to destroy, to reproduce, and to replicate" are included in the "universal archetype of the feminine," say Jennifer and Roger Woolger, but this does not mean that these qualities are closed off to men. Feminist matriarchalists sometimes invite men to encounter their "feminine side" or the "feminine within." Likewise they suggest that women have a "masculine side" with which they are more or less closely in touch. [16] "Masculine" and "feminine" thus become congeries of characteristics which, while arranged under gendered labels, have nothing to do with the potentialities of either gender or with physical sex.

Or so the theory goes. But it is very difficult to disconnect terms like masculine and feminine from male and female persons. When feminists were fighting the battle against the use of generic male terms, they pointed out, quite rightly, that so long as the same term was used to mean both male-specific and person-general, people would continue to "see" the normative person as male and woman as "other." Surely the same is true of the adjectives "feminine" and "masculine": apologetics aside, hearers will always call up mental pictures of the requisite sex when these words are in use. If feminist matriarchalists were truly eager to make the point that the characteristics we have labeled "feminine" and "masculine" were erroneously attached to sexed persons when they are actually the property of all regardless of sex, then one would think that they would simply dispense with the terms. The reason they do not is because they are not eager to lose the gendered connotations of the terms (in spite of occasional protestations to the contrary), and it is worth asking why.

In fairness, some feminist matriarchalists have made earnest attempts to discard the terminology of "the feminine." Starhawk, for example, has increasingly resisted the use of such terms, telling Mary Beth Edelson in 1989 that '''feminine principle' doesn't mean much -- it's one of the many terms that makes us think we know what we're talking about when we don't. I think we should declare a moratorium on its use." [17] But most feminist matriarchalists do not want to sacrifice their special access to "the feminine" on the altar of gender neutrality; at least not yet. So they grope around for alternative terms (never very successfully), hedge themselves about with disclaimers, and then wade right back into the morass of gender stereotypes they profess some interest in escaping.

There can be no better exemplar of this phenomenon than Riane Eisler. Eisler has been particularly diligent in instructing her readers not to confuse "femininity" with women, or "masculinity" with men, and to recall that these sexual stereotypes are "socially constructed" rather than corresponding "to any inherent female or male traits." [18] Yet her work is filled with these terms (always carefully enclosed in scare quotes).

The idea that femininity belongs most properly to women, while men are also capable of possessing it, conforms to common usage. (That is, "femininity" is the sum of all those characteristics thought to be descriptive of -- and appropriate to -- women, but men sometimes evince those traits, and when they do, they are called "feminine" or "effeminate.") It is peculiar though that feminist matriarchalists like Eisler should retain this usage, as it is based on a deep dichotomy between women and men, femininity and masculinity. And arranging the world into dualisms (like feminine and masculine) is said by feminist matriarchalists to be a patriarchal practice. Indeed, some feminist matriarchalists claim that this was the key patriarchal innovation that put an end to the matriarchal way of thinking, which was "wholistic" and "deliberately non-dualistic." [19]

In spite of this, the entire premise of feminist matriarchal myth is dualistic: there was a time in the past, associated with women, when people lived and thought one way; now there is a time, associated with men, when people live and think in another way. Furthermore, matriarchy and patriarchy are not simply two ways of being in the world, existing in a complementary balance (the sort of relationship feminist matriarchalists sometimes envision for women and men, "feminine" and "masculine"); they are polar opposites, one good and the other evil. In feminist matriarchal thought, the goddess, who abjures dualisms, is constantly pitted in direct opposition to the patriarchal god of western cultures, whose primary failing is his penchant for separating "us" from "them," "good" from "bad," "mind" from "body," and, of course, "women" from "men." In a remarkable piece of double-think, Elizabeth Judd tells us that "the recognition of rigid gender distinctions is characteristic of males but not females"; [20] and yet here she is, female, marking out rigid gender distinctions upon which her entire theory of human life and history rests.

The hope seems to be that with the one, correct, overarching dualism -- whether matriarchy versus patriarchy, partnership versus dominator, goddess versus god -- all the other terms will lose their polarizing grip. Eisler says this explicitly: "Through the use of the dominator and partnership models of social organization for the analysis of our present and our potential future, we can ... begin to transcend the conventional polarities between right and left, capitalism and communism, religion and secularism, and even masculinism and feminism." But in Eisler's work, nothing like this happens. Instead, the oppositional terms proliferate. All manner of human qualities and behaviors are relentlessly assigned to partnership and dominator categories, yielding long lists of dualistic pairs. In The Partnership Way, the study resource for The Chalice and the Blade, these pairs are presented in table form, with two columns running side by side to help the reader compare and contrast the "two basic alternatives for the organization of human society." [21] There are clear value judgments in this table. No one would have to think too long or hard to decide whether war was preferable to peace, hoarding to sharing, or indoctrination to education.

Where do these differences between female and male, feminine and masculine come from, and how inescapable are they? Feminist matriarchalists differ on this point. We have already seen that biology, primarily the experience of childbirth and the possession of a uterus, plays a role. Feminist matriarchalists are certainly not above employing (and occasionally even admitting to) biological determinism. For example, Jane Alpert proudly proclaims that "female biology is the basis if women's power [her emphasis]''' that "biology is ... the source and not the enemy of feminist revolution." References to "female psyche" and "female soul," to "the spirit, the energy, the frequency, the form of women," indicate that gender differences are not a superficial matter for feminist matriarchalists. Gender differences reach far down into realms where even patriarchal religions have hesitated to find them. Thus while feminist matriarchalists wish for harmony between the genders, they rarely express a hope for nondifferentiation. [22]

But biological determinism does not tell the whole story of how feminist matriarchalists understand gender. There is a cultural component as well, particularly in the insistence that the qualities women evidence today are at least in part the product of the social roles they have occupied over the past several millennia, roles assigned to them by male dominant cultures. Some cite the psychological theories of Nancy Chodorow, suggesting that women's closeness to nature and to others comes from having been parented primarily by their mothers, the parent of the same sex -- traits that therefore might change if men became more involved in child care (which is indeed what Chodorow recommends). [23]

In fact, the myth of matriarchal prehistory could almost be read to say that gender, at least as we know and experience it, is a cultural invention. One of the greatest strengths of matriarchal myth from a feminist perspective -- arguably, one of the main reasons it was created -- is that it gives historical rather than biological reasons for the dominance of men. [24] And, at least in theory, matriarchal myth could also give us license to believe that what we think of as femininity and masculinity are not inborn traits but are the cultural constructs of a patriarchal system, and thus are rooted no more deeply than this five-thousand- year-old social organization.

Tellingly, feminist matriarchalists rarely make this move. [25] Sexism is certainly said to be a historical construct, but femininity -- however it is understood -- is usually taken to be timeless. Women are seen as a class of people who have predictable attitudes, values, and preferences almost regardless of their social context. This class of people experiences fortunes and reversals over the span of prehistoric and historic time, but their fundamental nature does not change. Matriarchal myth was conceived in strong reaction to the thesis that human society has always been patriarchal because of biologically determined sex differences, yet its basic approach has been to accept these biologically determined sex differences, while shrugging off the inevitability of their current arrangement.


With its celebration of the unique capabilities and attributes of females, feminist matriarchal thought places itself firmly in the camp of "difference feminism," a way of thinking about women's liberation that dates back at least as far as the first wave of American feminism in the nineteenth century. The goal of difference feminism is to see that women's special roles and values are accorded adequate respect, a respect equivalent (or perhaps superior) to that accorded to men's. Difference feminism has been defended on two grounds: first, that it is more effective to appeal to sex differences than to "sameness" between the sexes, whatever the reality; and second, that "difference" is in fact a more accurate reflection of reality. Inevitably though, the two positions drift together. As Kwame Anthony Appiah points out in reference to race, "group identity seems to work only -- or, at least, to work best -- when it is seen by its members as natural, as 'real.'" Certainly in the case of feminist matriarchal thought, that differences exist between the sexes is almost always believed to be the way things really are. Difference feminism is not a position that feminist matriarchalists adopt only for temporary convenience; rather there is a set of defining features about women and men that are expected to continue indefinitely. Given this, say the proponents of difference feminism, it would be folly to behave as though women and men were fundamentally the same. To do so may even constitute sexual violence toward a group (in th is case women) "whose difference is effaced." [26]

Difference feminism has some strengths, especially tactical ones, but it also creates-or at least permits-a wide range of problems that feminist matriarchal thought illustrates especially well. These pitfalls sort themselves into three basic groups: the content of the feminine ideal that feminist matriarchalists uphold; the fact that they uphold a feminine ideal at all; and finally, the question of how closely this feminine ideal conforms (or does not) to "naturally" occurring sex differences.

The first thing one notices about the matriarchalist vision of femininity is how very familiar it is: nurturance, relationality, embodiedness, and links to the earth and nature are hardly new connotations for femaleness. Surely it is reasonable to want to rehabilitate activities and values habitually defined as -- and denigrated as -- feminine. But to do so by keeping these activities and values affixed to women is problematic. For one thing, it is not as though this collection of gender stereotypes has never cast women in a positive light before: it is a staple of right-wing antifeminist rhetoric to stress the nurturing, affiliative qualities of women, along with their undoubted ability to give birth and lactate. The valorization of motherhood -- as an ideal type separate from individual women's experiences of it -- is a tactic that has served patriarchal cultures very well. Even as women's childbearing and childrearing activities have been named as the seat of a higher and purer morality -- on the face of it, a very positive move -- women have been bracketed off from historical processes, indeed from the entire project of culture. Romantics have hailed "Woman" as the avatar of "nature" for centuries now, as a being that could rescue us all from "the artificiality of civilization." [27] But such views have typically left women firmly in their traditional places, not significantly disrupting the public, patriarchal world or its policies.

It is hard to believe that staying within a patriarchal culture's lexicon of femininity can provide a hardy alternative to the present order. Falling back into the traditional meanings of these stereotypes will be the path of least resistance. This is particularly worrisome when one takes note of the longevity and cross-cultural prominence of associations between women, the body, and nature. These associations reach back through Western history for millennia, but, as Sherry Ortner notes, they are "hardly an invention of 'Western culture.'" According to Ortner, all cultures seek to negotiate the divide between "what humanity can do" and "that which sets limits upon those possibilities." This divide has frequently been linked to gender, with males representing freedom and females constraint, males "culture" and females "nature." There is a natural human tendency to favor possibility, opportunity, and achievement over impotence, restraint, and stasis, and so long as women are linked with the latter they will be relatively devalued. In Simone de Beauvoir's estimation, a "renewed attempt to pin women down to their traditional role" (which she describes as "woman and her rapport with nature, woman and her maternal instinct, woman and her physical being"), "together with a small effort to meet some of the demands made by women -- that's the formula used to try and keep women quiet." [28]

Of course, feminist matriarchalists believe that associations between women, the body, and nature are not theirs to adopt or discard at will, because they bel ieve these associations are rooted in a reality they cannot change. You can't buy, bribe, pretend, or achieve your way our of femaleness, feminist matriarchalists say, and they consider it both foolish and morally reprehensible to try. Indeed, feminist matriarchalists have a lively interest in the phenomenon of "pseudomen": women who adopt roles or attitudes that are thought to be traditionally male. They think such women have been sold a bill of goods: sometimes by "the patriarchy," but more often by other feminists. Feminist matriarchalists cast slurs on these women, extend pity to them, and fear becoming them. They relate conversion narratives in which striving, "male-identified" women come to a crisis in their lives that teaches them how important it is to "get in touch with" their femaleness. In one such cautionary tale of male-identification, Jean Shinoda Bolen relates the story of her friend Freya, who accompanies Bolen on a pilgrimage to goddess sites in an attempt "to be more in touch with her feminine energies." Prior to this, Freya had "lived too much in her head and intellect and had spent most of her time with men." Freya's was no idle quest; she had developed cancer of the uterus, and she saw "a meaningful coincidence" between her uterine cancer and the male environment she had called home. [29]

In The Heroine's Journey, Maureen Murdock discusses in more general terms the sad fate of "male-identified women." These women adopt the "stereotypical male heroic journey," seeking worldly success and choosing male mentors and role models. But on the very thresh hold of achievement, these women find themselves exhausted, ill, unhappy, and confused. They develop substance abuse problems, or "they are silent until the lump in their breast or cervical cancer makes them come to terms with the fact that the heroic journey did not take into account the limitations of their physical bodies and the yearnings of their spirit." These women, Murdock says, have been "injuring their feminine nature." To heal their feminine nature they take up ceramics, cooking, gardening, or massage; they redirect their energy to "giving birth to creative projects, rediscovering the body, and enjoying the company of other women"; they may abandon their careers and seek marriage and motherhood. Though this may look like "dropping out," Murdock argues that what is really happening is that women are finding their true, feminine selves and coming to understand how reckless it is for women to attempt to live by a male model. [30]

And so feminist matriarchalists set off on a quest for an authentic womanhood which "has been dormant in the underworld-in exile for five thousand years." [31] But in the absence of any sure information regarding what "femininity" is ("into what exactly are we to develop?" asks Kim Chernin, "if we are not ... taking on masculine attributes, clothes, and qualities?" [32]), feminist matriarchalists typically fall back on the image of femaleness they grew up with: woman as mother, as the tender of children and gardens (and even husbands), as she who lives in the world of emotion and relationships and does not soil herself with the pursuit of money or power. Feminist matriarchalists construct this as an exceptionally strong version of femaleness, a "world-building" one not to be confused with the sentimental Victorian "angel in the house," and yet the two have much in common. In their creation of a "feminist femininity," matriarchalists have done remarkably little to move off the territory of patriarchal femininity.

Even if they did, however, there are difficulties associated with declaring anything inherently "feminine." For to the extent that a woman becomes the embodiment of "the feminine," she gains an archetypal identity, but loses a human one. Feminist matriarchalists gaze in at themselves, in the wonder of self-discovery, but what looks back at them is not their individual self, but the eternal feminine. It can be difficult to resist this idealization. As Andrea Dworkin points out, "It is hard for women to refuse the worship of what otherwise is despised: being female." [33] But it is dangerous not to refuse it. The practical effect of clinging to a single concept of femaleness-whatever its content -- is that it becomes not an ideal type that you naturally express, but one that you must live up to, whether or not it fits with your interests and inclinations. Your only options are to follow the path laid out for you, or to forge off into the underbrush and at best be branded as "inauthentic" and "male-identified," and at worst die of uterine cancer. This is if you happen to belong to the same social classes and ethnic groups as most feminist matriarchalists. If you do not, your cultural versions of femaleness are either nothing more than delightful variations on the eternally feminine theme, or they are smokescreens impeding the view of your true femininity. In short, instead of broadening the concept of what women can be, feminist matriarchal thought narrows it, making "femininity" about as inescapable as a pair of leg irons.

Further complicating the matter is that in order to construct femininity, one must construct masculinity too. And dividing human characteristics along gendered lines is an invitation to sexism. Theoretically, it should be possible to make sharp distinctions between classes of people while still valuing each class equally and providing them with equivalent opportunities in life. [34] In practice, this rarely happens (something the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Brown v. Board of Education, when it ruled that "separate but equal" education could never be truly equal). It might not be a pleasant fact about ourselves, but it seems that human beings have a hard time making a clear distinction without at the same time being tempted to make a differentiation in value. This has long been the case with gender, where distinctions between women and men devolve effortlessly into assertions of superiority and inferiority. [35] The doctrine of genetic inferiority -- which some feminist matriarchalists happily apply to men -- has long been employed as a device to subordinate whole groups of people, including nonwhite races, women, and the working classes. [36] Feminist matriarchalists presently lack the means to marginalize and subordinate men on the basis of men's supposed genetic inferiority. Much more important, they lack the motivation. Feminist matriarchalist visions of a matrifocal, gynocentric future almost always include men as active, respected participants. Nevertheless, their frequently veiled, occasionally explicit embrace of the doctrine of genetic inferiority leaves room -- in principle if not in practice -- for such abuses.

A strong conception of femininity not only encourages sexism, it also encourages racism and c1assism. Defining femaleness by a few key biological attributes and their supposed psychological corollaries implicitly trivializes differences across cultures, over time, and between individuals. As Sue Monk Kidd proclaims of women's journeys to discover the goddess and prehistoric matriarchies, "women's differences tend to give way to something more universal ... we find a deep sameness beneath our dissimilarities. We find we are all women, and down deep we ache for what has been lost to us." With all women thus enfolded within the deep sameness of their femaleness, any other way a woman chooses to (or is forced to) identify herself is arbitrarily rendered secondary by feminist matriarchalists. If, for instance, a working-class woman feels herself to have more in common with working-class men than with upper-class women, she is simply misguided. As with class, so with race. [37]

Perhaps though, gender is just this determinative, overriding all other identities we might have or take on. Perhaps, as feminist matriarchalists sometimes state, femaleness is written on every cell of our being, and any attempt to deny the absolute centrality of our feminine identity is a flight of fancy that we cannot afford to indulge.

These are not conclusions that sex difference research, for all its flaws, supports. Feminist matriarchalists cite sex difference studies occasionally, but they resolutely fail to note their most important finding: that variations between individuals of the same sex are invariably greater than categorical differences between the two sexes. [38] In other words, if the distribution of a particular trait forms a bell-shaped curve within each sex, the two curves overlap, usually by quite a lot.

What does this mean in practical terms? To take an example, one sex difference study reported that among a sample of children, 15 to 20 percent of the boys scored higher on a measure of "rough-and-tumble play" than any of the girls. This is a comparatively large difference, by the standards of sex difference research. But this study also concluded that 80 to 85 percent of the boys were not rougher or more physical in their play than 80 to 85 percent of the girls: an impressive overlap. [39] Or to take a more intuitively obvious example, one can measure the heights of women and men and conclude quite factually that men are on average taller than women. But one cannot reliably predict an individual's sex by height alone: short men are shorter than most women, and tall women are taller than most men. This also means that if you have work that needs to be done by short people, it would be decidedly inefficient for you to ask that only women apply, since many women would not fit the job description, and many men would.

In other words, statistically significant sex differences are achieved long before socially significant ones are. And even statistically significant sex differences are less common than the rhetoric of feminist matriarchalists would suggest.

This is especially impressive when one considers that sex difference research -- like feminist matriarchal thought-is strongly biased in favor of positive findings (that sex differences exist) over negative findings (that the sexes are similar in important ways). As neurophysiologist Ruth Bleier remarks sarcastically, "there is ... no field of 'sex similarities.' " Further undermining the credibility of this research is that it cannot be carried out on fully precultural beings, so whatever sex difference it uncovers is potentially a contribution of culture rather than biology. For example, one study of differential mathematical ability in boys and girls proclaimed that it had found an inherent difference between the sexes. But as some of its critics pointed out, "anyone who thinks that seventh graders are free from environmental influences can hardly be living in the real world." In fact, we know that people treat even infant boys and girls differently, which suggests that culture may play a very dramatic role in constructing gender. Researchers playing videotapes of babies dressed in gender-neutral clothing have found that observers will identify a baby's behavior as an expression of "fear" when they are told the baby is a girl and "anger" when they are told the baby is a boy. Mothers playing with infants variously dressed in "gender-appropriate apparel" and" cross-gender apparel" behaved more physically with the "boys" and "responded with soothing and comforting actions" in response to the "girls." Parents have been shown to encourage their daughters, as early as seven weeks of age, "to smile and vocalize more than their sons." [40]

Discussions about sex difference often degenerate into a fruitless argument between those who see women and men as being dramatically different, for biological reasons, and those who assert that no such differences exist. Both positions are untenable. The former, as just noted, has not been supported by sex difference research, even in an environment where we know sex differences to be exaggerated by cultural forces. The latter, even if it has some deep philosophical truth, will simply not wash for people who can spot women and men at a hundred paces and make an accurate identification 95 percent of the time. But also, and more importantly, even if there are significant biological differences between women and men -- differences that affect not only reproductive roles, but also aptitudes, values, and preferences -- this does not necessarily entail everything feminist matriarchalists assume.
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Re: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

Postby admin » Tue Oct 23, 2018 1:17 am

Part 2 of 2


Suppose for a moment that the behavioral differences feminist matriarchalists identify between women and men are real, and are biologically based. Even so -- even if "biology is destiny" -- there is still a lot of flexibility built into that equation. People frequently react to the suggestion that we choose anything other than what is most "natural" for women and men as though this were heresy: both psychologically dangerous and morally wrong. And yet we make choices "against nature" all the time, every day. We wear clothes, we drive cars, we heat our homes, we cut our hair; we do everything in our power to live as long as we can, far past what "nature" has allotted to us, even supplying ourselves with prosthetic limbs and artificial hearts if we need them. To act as though we would never be so foolish or presumptuous as to tamper with our biological destiny is the purest hypocrisy. We develop a sudden squeamishness about interfering with our "natural" biological destiny when it comes to gender -- which is very convenient for systems of male dominance -- but clearly what is most "natural" to us as human beings is the use of culture to adapt our bodies and environments to suit our needs, wishes, and values. [41]

Steven Goldberg, author of The Inevitability if Patriarchy, notes sarcastically that the differential in male and female strength could be eliminated by making women lift weights and confining men to bed. [42] Though he regards this as a ridiculous proposition, in fact, he is right: this would undoubtedly be an effective means of reversing biological tendencies, making women generally stronger and men generally weaker. There are other ways of negotiating the tendency of men to be physically stronger than women. Separate athletic competitions can be held for women and men in most sports; girls can be given remedial physical fitness training; physical strength can be taken advantage of whether it is women or men who exhibit it; and there is, of course, the middle-class Victorian favorite, its echoes still audible today, of exaggerating a biological differential in women's and men's strength by putting men to work and keeping women in their parlors. There is no a priori reason, written on our genes, that forecloses any of these options. Some may be more practical or desirable than others -- certainly in feminist terms -- but these are decisions of culture, not biology.

Nevertheless, biology continues to hold a mystical attraction for most contemporary westerners. It continues to be seen as bedrock, the firm foundation upon which culture is built. This assumption permeates discussions of feminist matriarchal myth, pro and con. For example, scholar of religion Rita Gross concludes that "biological explanations for male dominance, if accurate, would suggest that efforts to eradicate patriarchy are futile." [43] But if biology is bedrock, it is geologically active, constantly moving and shifting. This is the entire premise behind Darwinian evolution. If humans move to a new environment, their biology gradually adapts, via natural selection. In other words, a cultural choice -- to migrate -- eventually makes a biological difference. Or to take a classic sociobiological example, if women preferentially select bigger, stronger males as mates-perhaps a sensible choice in a warrior culture, for example-the entire population may gradually become bigger and stronger. Again, culture may be seen to move biology: very slowly, but definitely.

Sociobiologists themselves rarely recognize these as cultural choices. They assume, to take the above example, that human females are biologically programmed to select bigger, stronger males as mates. Yet the enormous variety in how different cultures value different traits would suggest that there is nothing biologically determined about such choices. Genetically altering the human population as a method of producing, say, a gender egalitarian society may not be practicable or morally sound, but it is simply false to insist that our biological makeup is a fixed unchanging essence over which cultural conventions are forever doomed to dance ineffectually.

This leads directly to a logically prior question, however: whether "biology" and" culture" can be productively separated at all, their relative influences pinpointed and quantified. This is a difficult concept to grasp in a world where the nature/nurture game is played out endlessly in books, on radio talk shows, and in the conversation of parents trying to fathom why their children behave as they do. But the point is not just that we can be wrong (as we often have been in the past) about what is irreducible human nature and what is the product of cultural learning. Rather it is that the two don't exist independently of one another. Our biological "essences," if we have them, cannot, by definition, have an arena in which to express themselves that will not also inevitably affect the content of that expression. It is impossible to have an organism without an environment. The idea of a biological "essence" to human nature (or to women and men separately) may be a helpful tool for thought, but its existence and character are only stipulated, never demonstrated.

This calls into question the usefulness of the classic feminist distinction between "sex" -- which is biologically foreordained -- and "gender": that set of role expectations and stereotypes built upon it. This is true first in practice: though "sex" is supposed to be a set of obvious biological facts, these "facts," as science has described them, have changed dramatically over time, typically shifting in response to changing political needs regarding gender. But it is also true in principle: sex -- biological sex -- is never "outside or before culture," and thus it cannot be distinguished from gender, which is more usually taken to be the site of cultural practice. As Thomas Laqueur says, the actual existence of sexual dimorphism notwithstanding, "almost everything one wants to say about sex ... already has in it a claim about gender." [44] Rooting sex in biology, then, is not the last word on anything, even though it typically postures as such.

Despite their claims of biological determinism and robust sex difference, feminist matriarchalists recognize the cultural determinants of gender. This is seen most obviously in their frequent exhortation to women that they must learn to be women. There is a feminine nature captured within women that is struggling to be free of the cultural doctoring of patriarchy, say feminist matriarchalists, and it is the task of women living now to find out what that nature is. This task can be challenging. As Vicki Noble explains: "Women do not know how to be feminine. We may think we have a corner on the market, since we were born with feminine bodies, but it's just as new to us as if we were men. We have to create the feminine." [45]

What feminist matriarchalists don't tell us is why we have to create the feminine. Why can't we just ignore it and see if it goes away? Surely if sex differences are as strongly determined as feminist matriarchalists suggest, they will continue to bubble up regardless of what we do culturally to change them. In the absence of any gendered expectations, presumably men would continue to grow beards; why would women not as easily continue to evince traits of nurturance and relationality, whatever they were taught to the contrary, if this is in fact our biological nature?

The feminist matriarchalist answer to this is undoubtedly that women do evince these traits, over and over again, across all cultures, all the way back to prehistoric times. But if this is so, why can't they leave it at that? Let women become who they naturally are, but don't suggest to any individual woman that she's not doing a good job of being female, and that therefore she must learn to be feminine? On the face of it, it is odd that the same people who are most devoted to the "naturalness" of sex differences -- from fundamentalist Christians to feminist matriarchalists -- also seem to be afraid that these "natural" sex differences will disappear if we don't constantly reinforce them, sometimes by outright coercion. What nightmare do they imagine awaits us if we stop obsessively labeling characteristics as feminine and masculine? Will we fail to recognize who we need to have sex with to make babies and the entire race will come to an end? (I say this with tongue in cheek, but I also believe that our addiction to labeling everything as masculine or feminine is part and parcel of our heterosexism.)

Why is it that feminist matriarchalists continue to cling to the edifice of gender difference, where women have been walled in for millennia? Perhaps the best explanation is that they see no escape. Whether "femininity" is produced by the possession of two X chromosomes or by a lifetime of cultural indoctrination is beside the point. Either way, gender is a reality against which everyone -- but particularly women -- must contend. Given this reality, maybe the best we can do is to see how the facts of femaleness can be negotiated to serve women's interests ... which is precisely what the myth of matriarchal prehistory does. Popular culture shows no sign of ceasing to regard sex differences as important. (The Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus phenomenon is sufficient to prove this.) If anything, the pink and blue blankets have been swaddled ever more tightly over the past ten to fifteen years in reaction to feminist claims for equality. Feminist matriarchalists are not imagining that sex differences exist; they do exist, and they legislate life choices with a sometimes frightening force.

This is something that is easy to overlook if one has spent too much time in the rarefied air of gender studies. Currently popular theories about both sex and gender are that they do not exist outside of culture -- a point to which I have already given my enthusiastic assent -- and that furthermore they are only able to exist through their constant reiteration in acts and symbols. Gender is, these theories say, "not a fact or an essence, but a set of acts that produce the effect or appearance of a coherent substance." Gender is not embodied, they say, but performed, over and over again. [46] Whatever the intent of this analysis, the psychological effect of dwelling on the insubstantiality of gender is to make gender appear ephemeral and therefore powerless. If gender is only able to retain its force because we reinforce it today and then again tomorrow, theoretically it will stop dead in its tracks the minute we announce a sit-down strike.

Gender may in fact be nothing more than the effect of a performance (and I obviously have no wish to suggest that it is the unmediated outcome of biological sex difference), but it still has incredible social power which we ignore at our own risk. Biological, cultural, or performed, gender is very, very real.

The closest available parallel to gender in this sense is probably race. Both gender and race are assigned at birth, and people are then "tagged for life by certain phenotypic markers." Both types of identities are arrayed in hierarchical social systems. And race, like gender, is assumed to make a statement about an individual's true nature that reaches far beyond the "visible morphological characteristics" which are initially used to place an individual in a specific category. Until recently, race was believed to be determinative in exactly the same way as gender: biologically. Though this theory is now in disfavor among biologists and anthropologists (who believe that race "refers to nothing that science should recognize as real"), the fact is that race is still terrifyingly real. As Kwame Anthony Appiah explains, "belief in races" -- which has "profound consequences for human social life" -- "is real enough to make up for the unreality of races." [47]

The great advantage to difference feminism is that it takes account of this reality where gender is concerned. It meets people where they are, in a world where sex determines quite powerfully and completely. This alone goes far toward explaining the appeal of feminist matriarchal myth. Since "femininity," "femaleness," and "womanhood" are categories against which all women are measured -- with or without their consent -- it is arguably a stroke of psychological genius to revalue those categories such that they become marks of pride rather than discomfort or shame. Basically, if one has to be a woman, with all that implies in terms of opportunities and expectations (or lack thereof), then imaging femaleness as strong, praiseworthy, beautiful, and possibly superior to maleness would seem to have its merits.

Again, the parallel to race is instructive. Construing race as a positive source of identity -- instead of as an imposed insult -- has historically been one means of dealing with racism. It is the "difference feminism" of racial politics. But while this approach has a definite payoff in terms of enhanced dignity and self-esteem, it does nothing to escape the straitjacket of race itself. And since the categories of race have been from the beginning tools of racism -- since this may indeed be their only raison d'etre- -- here is something discomfiting about accepting race as a positive identity.

All these drawbacks are as present in feminist matriarchal thought as they are in racial politics. Feminist matriarchalists construct femaleness as a positive identity. But both the category of femaleness and its content are to a large degree determined by prior discrimination against the very people who are forced to occupy that category. Difference feminism then, for all its apparent support of women, underwrites the system upon which sexism feeds.

Is there any other option? I like to think that there is, but it is important to appreciate how difficult it is to criticize the way women are perceived and treated and simultaneously insist that there is no such thing as femaleness per se. Obviously there is, or it wouldn't be possible to know who we -- the mistreated -- are, There is a deep and compelling desire among feminists to have it both ways: we are women, and there are things about femaleness that we treasure and want to celebrate; yet we will not be limited in our choices and actions just because we happen to fall into the category you have labeled "woman," Without femaleness -- the category of women -- feminism "would be lost for an object, despoiled of a fight"; but with this category firmly in mind, it is too easy to forget that "femaleness" serves sexist interests, was possibly created to do so, and will always threaten to continue to do so. [48]

Fortunately, this dilemma may yield up its own solution. We can begin by acknowledging that within patriarchal cultures, theories of "femaleness" or "femininity," as well as the general division of people into two incommensurate sex categories, serve to rationalize the social domination of one class (women) by another (men). These notions of femininity (and masculinity too) do not correspond to some objective reality, some biological or cultural "really real" gender difference. They are, quite simply, "the mechanism by which women are subordinated to men." Returning to the very overworked language of sex and gender, it is because gender exists -- i.e., because the social positions of women and men differ hierarchically -- that it becomes worthwhile to take note of biological sex. Gender "naturalizes" male dominance, just as race naturalizes -- that is, provides a supposed biological excuse for -- racism. [49] As feminist theorist Christine Delphy argues:

No one is denying the anatomical differences between male and female humans or their different parts in producing babies, any more than ... that some humans have black and some white skins. But since science has thrown out all "biological explanations" of the oppression of the working class and non-whites, one after another, we might have thought that this type of account of hierarchies would have been discredited .... Why should we, in trying to explain the division of society into hierarchical groups, attach ourselves to the bodily type of the individuals who compose, or are thought to compose, these groups? [50]

If gender exists only (or primarily) as the means through which oppression is achieved, surely there can be no merit in reifying it, as feminist matriarchalists do. The obvious option seems to be, as feminist scholar Denise Riley suggests, "to stand back and announce that there aren't any 'women.''' [51] And yet there are. I meet them on the street every day, and they and I both know that they are women and that that has no small effect on what sort of lives they are able to live.

It seems to me that it is more productive to recognize this reality, to call these people women, just as they have been named in the service of a male dominant ideology, but at the same time to insist that what makes them women i, not their genitalia or any sex differences that mayor may not follow from their biological sex, but simply their secondary status in a male dominant culture. Women are not then a sex, as we commonly understand the term, or even a gender, but a group of people who have been placed in a sometimes idealized, often despised category. The gendered category in which women have been placed has formed their experience. But they are not the rightful occupiers of this category; they are merely the product of the category's existence. Essentially, this is a stalwart refusal to play the game of gender -- which is the game of sexism -- while recognizing that its victims (both male and female) are very real. So long as the category exists, and people are placed in it, there will be women, and they will be in need of political action directed toward their liberation.

On the face of it, this approach has the disadvantage of making women seem to be nothing more than their victimization, and of course we are much more than that. But we need not be more than that as women; we can simply be more than that, just as all people are arguably more than the categories into which they have been (productively or tragically) placed.

In her book Women's Mysteries, Christine Downing discusses her ambivalence regarding female identity: "I want to embrace the word women and cast it off," she says. "I would like to say (to myself and others), Choose if you belong and how. Yet I also see that it is not entirely a matter of choice. Even resisting our inclusion in the category seems inevitably to be possible only in the context of having already internalized containment by it." [52] I would put it a bit differently: Whatever you think you are choosing, there are plenty of people out there who have already decided where you fit in the scheme of things, and if you think you arc going to convince them that you are not female because you personally "resist inclusion in the category," then you are sadly mistaken.

This was brought home to me several years ago when I was being interviewed for an academic job. In the course of this interview, there was a rather heated exchange about sex difference. One of the interviewers responded to a remark of mine with the comment, "If it were appropriate for me to say so, which it isn't, I would tell you that yours is a very male way of thinking." Did this mean) was in some sense a man? Could I decide that I felt more comfortable thinking in this male way, and as a result, would people recognize that I was "really" a man? This question was answered rather forcefully when I left the interview and walked out into a dark and deserted downtown area in my dress-for-success suit and high heels. Certainly none of the men I encountered on my very nervous walk back to my hotel recognized that I had opted out of femaleness by choosing to think like a man. They saw a woman, and, as I concluded from their stares and catcalls, they saw a target.

This is, I suggest, what femaleness is -- the experience of being perceived to be a woman and being treated as women are treated (however it is they are treated in any particular cultural context, whether it is to their personal detriment, or benefit, as it sometimes can be). Femaleness can be other things, of course; it can be defined by the experience of bearing and nurturing children, the claim to a close connection to nature, the cozy community of the kitchen after a family dinner -- wherever female individuals or groups find it to be, feminist matriarchalists included. But none of these is femaleness per se, nor should they be confused with it. They are pockets of femaleness, experiences of subgroups of women. The only femaleness that is characteristic of all women as a class is the experience of having the label "woman" affixed to one's being.

On the positive side, this understanding of who women are has the potential to enable women to work together across other lines of social difference. Sexism comes at women in very different guises depending on race, class, and other measures, and these different sexisms must be approached individually. But if the fact of sexism applies to women of many different sorts, this provides an opportunity for making common cause, for building coalitions with one another.

Defining women by the sexism that labels them also does not rule out the possibility of rehabilitating values traditionally dismissed as "feminine." We can work to make the world a place that practices compassion and nurturance, that values relationships and the natural world. In doing so, we can note that these qualities have been attributed to women in recent Western history, and perhaps elsewhere as well. We can even suggest that more women than men embody these values today, since having been given these identities, women to some extent have become them. Insights like these can play a valuable role in the broader context of a feminist movement. They can provide useful political perspective and increased self-esteem (as they do for proponents of feminist matriarchal myth). But this must not degenerate into universal claims about who "women" really are, what traits they will (or ought to) evidence as a result of their biological sex. These stereotypes can ricochet back on us in potentially disastrous ways. In the inimitable words of Millicent Fawcett, a nineteenth-century British feminist: "We talk about 'women' and 'women's suffrage,' we do not talk about Woman with a capital W. That we leave to our enemies." [53]
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Re: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

Postby admin » Tue Oct 23, 2018 2:57 am

CHAPTER 5: Finding Gender in Prehistory

Matriarchal myth is problematic on feminist grounds. By organizing itself around "the feminine" -- an ideologically strong but politically regressive foundation -- feminist matriarchal myth cannot recommend itself to us as a remedy for male dominance. We still have to confront the possibility though that prehistory happened just as matriarchal myth says it did. And if matriarchal utopia and patriarchal revolution are our true heritage, we must find ways to encompass that, even if our understanding of sex and gender and our goals for feminism differ from those of feminist matriarchalists.

As it happens though, matriarchal myth fails completely on historical grounds. Evidence from prehistoric times is comparatively sparse, and hard to interpret conclusively. However, even taking these difficulties into account, what evidence we do have does not support the thesis that prehistory was matriarchal and goddess-worshipping, or even that it was sexually egalitarian.

Probably the greatest challenge for the myth of matriarchal prehistory is, of course, the fact that matriarchies are said to have occurred prehistorically, before written records of any kind. Thus one very important source for reconstructing the human past -- texts -- is absent. [1] Feminist matriarchalists sometimes claim this is no handicap: they regard the nonliterate record as so rich and deep that written texts are simply not necessary to establish important truths about prehistory. Certainly it is important not to overvalue written texts, or to rely on them to the exclusion of other sorts of evidence. Written sources, just like material sources, must be interpreted, and can be misinterpreted. [2] But even if the availability of written documents is not considered a watershed in our ability to know the past, it adds dramatically to the sheer volume of evidence at our disposal. Still, a variety of resources can be brought to bear on the task of discovering what gender relations were like in prehistoric times and whether or not they fit the model of peaceful, woman-honoring theacracies that feminist matriarchalists envision.


Cultural anthropology's contribution to reconstructing prehistory is its documentation, via ethnography, of other cultures. Information about contemporary and historical tribal groups is used both to help interpret the material remains that archaeologists uncover and to speculate about prehistory in the absence of material evidence from the past. The assumption here is that the ethnographic record, as compiled over the past few hundred years, provides data that allows us to observe important correlations in human social life (say, between communal ownership of property and non hierarchical social relationships); illustrate specific phenomena that may have been relevant in the past (for example, that hunting is generally a male preoccupation); or, most grandly, serve up full-bodied exemplars, living untainted by modernity in remote parts of the globe, of what past human societies "must have been like."

When early anthropologists (and colonialists and missionaries) first encountered other cultures, they used this method extensively. They placed the cultures they documented on a continuum from most primitive to relatively more advanced. This continuum doubled as a timeline, recording the stages of human progress. Primitive peoples -- encountered not only in South Sea isles, but even in urban ghettoes and among peasant farmers -- were "living fossils": they represented "the history and experience of our own remote ancestors when in corresponding conditions." It was further thought that the social practices of prehistory could be inferred from vestiges of those practices incorporated into contemporary cultures: this was the so-called doctrine of "survivals." [3]

These postulates have been roundly criticized by twentieth-century anthropologists. First, even the most "primitive" peoples we know of have been on earth as long as the rest of us "civilized" folk and so have had ample time to develop in a variety of directions away from our shared deep prehistory. Second, the choice of which cultural characteristics are to count as "survivals" of a prehistoric past and which are more recent inventions is quite arbitrary, based mainly on what one hopes, in advance, to confirm for prehistory. [4 ]Most cultural anthropologists today forswear the tendency to draw easy equivalences between the practices of living peoples and our prehistoric ancestors. Even attempts to compare a wide swath of living cultures in search of their common features are increasingly out of fashion among anthropologists.

Still, anthropologists continue to speculate about prehistory through the use of ethnographic material. It is very tempting to do so, and besides, it makes good sense. Without going to the extreme of suggesting that all human societies are blindly marching through a predetermined historical trajectory (with some -- conveniently for prehistorians -- getting stuck in the early stages), it is still reasonable to hypothesize that there may be certain regularities in human social relations, ones we can uncover by looking at as many different societies as we can. Granted that tribal groups are not fossils from the Stone Age, they nevertheless have more in common with how we believe our prehistoric ancestors lived (namely, in small groups, subsisting by hunting and gathering or horticulture) than we do. [5] When feminist matriarchalists attempt to make their case for a gynocentric prehistory through ethnographic analogy then, it is not their basic premise that is flawed.

Actually, these days the greatest limitation of ethnographic analogy as a means of reconstructing prehistory is probably not its sloppy application to prehistoric questions, but how the ethnographic record was and is constructed. Though on the face of it, it might seem a straightforward matter to go live with the natives, learn their language, and report on their customs, it is notoriously difficult to give accurate, informative portrayals of human cultures. What is seen has a great deal to do with who is seeing it, and with who is giving the "insider" accounts that ethnographers so often rely upon. Ethnographers face the further problem of choosing between the evidence of their observations and the reports of informants. These do not always agree, even on the most basic matters. For example, I have heard fundamentalist Christians assert that the man is the undisputed head of the household and then watched as fundamentalist women transparently bulldozed their preferences into family policy. Clearly, both the assertion and the behavior are important, but they are just as clearly contradictory, and for ethnographers eager to be responsible mouthpieces for the people among whom they have lived, navigating their way between these two can be tricky.

These difficulties are only compounded when the attempt is made to gather together these various partial and biased ethnographies in order to hazard guesses about what counts as a general rule of human social life. Existing ethnographies have been composed with a huge variety of agendas in mind, including everything from converting the primitive heathens to Western values to learning from the wise natives how to reform corrupt Western culture. Some groups (unfortunately, many groups) are now gone, and therefore we must rely on whatever existing records we have, no matter how poor, if we wish to learn anything at all from them. But even investigations undertaken now, presumably with a heightened methodological sophistication, must be carried out by many people. No one person could do the fieldwork necessary to have a firsthand appreciation of a large number of peoples. So if the quest is to reconstruct prehistory, armchair anthropology is a necessity. We have to be prepared then to work around its shortcomings.

One attempt to correct its shortcomings has involved setting down in advance what cultural features ethnographers should document. This greatly eases the task of comparison. But collecting data on some predetermined item like cross-cultural religious practices assumes that there is something like "religion," as the researcher defines it, among the people under observation. Looking for religion is a near guarantee that one will find it, even if it's not there. The opposite holds true as well: walking into another society with the expectation that the people there may think about everything from ontology on up in a way completely foreign to you is likely to produce an ethnography full of fascinating exotica accompanied by reflections on the irreducible uniqueness of human cultures and thought systems. Finally, even relatively valid generalizations are likely to fall victim to the Kamchatka syndrome: that there is some place in the world-say, Kamchatka -- where the rule doesn't hold. [6]

This only becomes more complicated once the sensitive topic of gender is tossed into the mix. For quite some time, it was thought that a full and accurate picture of a group's gender roles could be attained as soon as there were enough female ethnographers in the field, dutifully quizzing female informants. Early male ethnographers rarely asked about women's roles, and when they observed women in other lands, what they saw was influenced by their biases and expectations. On the one hand, if native women seemed to have freedoms that women in their own homeland lacked, the tendency was to give an exaggerated estimation of their autonomy, simply because it appeared unusual by Western standards. On the other hand, many assumed that males were always dominant, foreclosing in advance the possibility of discovering less obvious forms of women's social power.

But the introduction of female fieldworkers into the discipline did not, as expected, suddenly throw a great light upon women's lives. If anything, the opposite occurred. The more cultural anthropologists looked at gender, the less, it seems, they were able to see ... or at least to agree upon. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult to determine just what women's status was in anyone group, not to mention across many cultures. [7] Perhaps this should not be surprising, when one stops to consider how differently people view the status of women in contemporary American cultures. Feminists are virtually unanimous in believing that women's status is always worse than men's, differing only in how dreadful they assess the situation to be. But there are others who think that women are better off than men, experiencing less pressure to achieve success in the world of work, savoring the deep satisfactions of bearing and caring for children, having emotional lives and networks of support that are far more rewarding than men's, and so forth. Just how women are faring in the United States is not an idle question, for if we are unable to come up with any standard to evaluate women's status at home, what makes us think we can do so abroad, or in the past?

Indeed, the same range of perceptions of women's status that we see in the United States arises when observing cultures not our own. Two ethnographers reporting on the same group can -- and sometimes have -- come back saying opposite things. [8] Often it seems to come down to the attitude of the observer: does she want the glass to be half full, or half empty? If half full, she will return with reports of women's separate rituals, the significant amount of productive work women do, and informants' own statements that relations between the sexes are as they should be. She will tell a story about a savvy woman who worked around formal sex inequality to assure that she got her own way. If half empty, she will return with reports of women's exclusion from male rituals, the undervaluation of their work, and anecdotes of culturally approved beatings of wives by their husbands. She will tell a story about a girl baby left to die during a food shortage while a boy born at the same time was tended carefully.

The greatest divide in ethnographies of gender seems to be between those anthropologists who focus on official ideology and those who are more attuned to behavioral variation and face-to-face interactions. Those anthropologists who have come to the conclusion that women are everywhere subordinate to men are usually looking at ideology, while those who see women as at times equal or dominant are generally drawing their conclusions from behavior. This makes sense: presumably women's power is always there, if you trouble yourself to look for it and aren't too picky about what form it takes. As Sherry Ortner notes, "whatever the hegemonic order of gender relations may be -- whether 'egalitarian,' or 'male dominant,' or something else -- it never exhausts what is going on"; for "every society/ culture has some axes of male prestige and some of female, some of gender equality, and some (sometimes many) axes of prestige that have nothing to do with gender at all." [9]

Whether out of loyalty to their informants or fear of ethnocentrism, many feminist anthropologists have been loath to see and name sexism in other cultures in places where they would find it in their own. Or conversely, they emphasize women's status and autonomy in other cultures in forms they would not recognize as such on their own turf. Anthropologist Alice Sch legel assures us, for example, that corn-grinding by Hopi women is not "the onerous and time-consuming task it would appear to be" since "women sing corn-grinding songs as they work to lighten the task and express its life-giving contribution."  [10] Perhaps we should not automatically assume that this is an instance of sexism, but it should at least raise a red flag in our minds. American slaves sang songs too (much to the satisfaction of their masters, who interpreted this as a sign of contentment), but this cannot justify the conclusion that slavery was not really an oppressive institution. Even if we had reports from slaves themselves in which they swore that they considered themselves fortunate in their lot, we would have to regard those reports with suspicion. Similarly, we should regard with suspicion women's statements from ethnographic contexts that appearances of sexism notwithstanding, they find their lives to their liking. This does not mean that these women are being dishonest; individuals can enjoy and appreciate their lives while still being in structurally disadvantaged positions relative to others.

Given the frustrations inherent in attempting to pin down the status of women, many feminist anthropologists have abandoned the task as such. Some go so far as to argue that women and men do not exist anywhere except as cultures create these categories. Therefore the responsible anthropologist will not even assume that there are women and men in a given culture until she has been shown that these are relevant social categories for the groups under study. Au courant goals in the anthropology of gender are to "favor specific histories, debunk essentializing categories" and turn attention to "the subtleties, complexities, contradictions, and ambiguities of gender relations in different contexts." [11]

Again, this is not the level at which the myth of matriarchal prehistory operates. It is a very general story, based on generalizing premises. One could, of course, reject the story on that basis alone, and many anthropologists (feminist and otherwise) do. But it seems more fruitful to give feminist matriarchalists the benefit of the doubt, and ask if the ethnographic record, mixed and contradictory as it is, lends support to their claims.


Archaeologists look first and foremost at the actual remains of prehistoric cultures: those things that can be dug up out of the ground, held in one's hands, and seen with one's eyes. Material evidence like this could provide an impressive amount of information about prehistory if our ancestors planted their remains to send us a message about their cultures: a sort of time capsule. But what we actually find -- "the accidentally surviving durable remnants of material culture" [12] -- is more of a scattershot affair and, unfortunately, most remains are not detectably gendered.

This has not stopped archaeologists from reading gender into material evidence from the past, however. Particularly over the past fifteen years, archaeologists have been eagerly playing catch-up, bringing thirty years of academic and political debate on the topics of sex and gender into their discipline. For a variety of reasons, archaeologists came late to this debate. Inherent difficulties with attributing gender to prehistoric material culture combined with a naive sexism to produce an archaeology that was rarely explicit about gender, ruling it out as a conceptual category while all the time smuggling it in in the form of unquestioned assumptions. The situation has changed altogether since then, as unprecedented archaeological attention is given over to questions of gender, among not only self-described feminists, bur archaeologists of all stripes. Great hope is held out that archaeologists can shed light on such questions as "the universality of gender ideologies and gender divisions of labor, how and why gender relations vary, how and why they evolved, whether or not truly egalitarian societies have existed, and the origins of gender inequalities" [13]  -- questions of obvious interest to feminist matriarchalists.

Though almost everyone seems game to find gender in the archaeological record, no one is quite sure how it should be done, or even if it can be done. Skeletons can be sexed as male or female (within a margin of error), and then examined in order to draw tentative conclusions about women's and men's diet, life expectancy, and patterns of work based on bone degeneration, tooth wear, and mineral content in the bones themselves. Grave goods, if they differ between female and male skeletons, may also offer clues to prehistoric gender, and some paintings and sculptures give clear evidence of sex. But beyond this, it is impossible (at least without historical or ethnohistorical support) to know which artifacts go with which sexes. Even the most basic questions -- who makes those weapons? who uses those grinding stones? -- cannot be answered definitively through the preliterate material record alone. And so archaeologists typically rely on ethnographic analogies to other cultures to help them interpret the gendered significance of their material finds. For example, spear points are generally attributed to men, since in most human societies we know of, men are responsible for hunting.

Attributions like this are inevitably controversial. Recently it has even become difficult to make arguments about prehistoric gender based on sexed skeletons, for there is concern that a biological female may have been a social man (or vice versa), or that other gendered categories beyond the standard two existed. These would be impossible to detect if it were unproblematically assumed that female skeletons are the remains of women, and male skeletons the remains of men. Even this is not the end of the potential ambiguities of prehistoric sex and gender, for as we now know, biological sex itself is not set on a simple male/female switch, but may be composed of a variety of chromosomal and morphological anomalies. [14]

This difficulty with identifying prehistoric women is probably exaggerated. Ethnographic evidence supports the notion that gender is a cross-cultural phenomenon of impressive universality, and the vast majority of individuals can be -- and are -- easily differentiated into sex classes on the basis of their genitalia. [15] Nevertheless, the fact that most archaeologists of gender are taken by the possibility of "third genders" has a decisive impact on the questions they ask of their material evidence, and indeed how they view the entire enterprise of discussing prehistoric gender. Catherine Roberts has distinguished between "the archaeology of gender," which asks that questions of gender be added to the archaeological agenda, and "gendered archaeology," which has the broader ambition of reframing archaeological inquiry altogether. Most feminist archaeologists have been rather contemptuous of "the archaeology of gender," referring to it as the "add gender and stir" approach. "Gendered archaeology" is still developing, but it rests on two basic assumptions: that gender was a pronounced category in prehistory and that it was characterized by "variability, permeability, changeability, and ambiguity," that it was "dynamic and historically specific." [16] This is something quite different than what feminist matriarchalists imagine for the past, for where feminist archaeologists expect variety, feminist matriarchalists expect uniformity.

Indeed, feminist archaeologists have relatively little in common with feminist matriarchalists, in spite of their shared interest in the role of women in prehistory. They operate out of entirely different assumptions, owing mainly to the fact that feminist matriarchalists are greatly indebted to the work of Marija Gimbutas. Gimbutas, for all her research on gendered symbols in prehistory, never entered the gender and archaeology discussion. She began her work much earlier than most feminist archaeologists, and like other archaeologists of her generation -- especially European archaeologists -- Gimbutas was a grand theorist. She was not interested in reconstructing one possible account of one particular archaeological site; rather she was intent on telling the historical truth about a huge swath of human prehistory.

Gimbutas's defenders have suggested that her work has been dismissed by archaeologists because she portrayed prehistory as goddess-worshipping and matricentric. [17] And yet earlier archaeologists made extensive claims for prehistoric goddess worship-and even for a female priesthood -- while retaining a high standing in their field. More likely, Gimbutas's status in archaeology was peripheral because she represented a way of approaching prehistory that her colleagues had repudiated: she was considered passe, embarrassingly so. Like someone's eccentric uncle Henry, Gimbutas was infrequently criticized, and more often stolidly ignored by her archaeological colleagues, who did not wish to disown her but, on the other hand, didn't want to be publicly associated with her. As archaeologist Bernard Wailes reports, "Most of us tend to say, oh my God, here goes Marija again." [18]

It would be relatively easy to pit the arguments of feminist matriarchalists against, say, the claims of the archaeological establishment today, but this is ultimately unfair to all parties involved. There is no archaeological consensus, and if there were one, we would still have to question whether or not it were correct. Feminist matriarchalists are seeking a matriarchy in the past, which undoubtedly colors what they find there. But other prehistorians are also "seeking validation in the past" for their own scholarly and political agendas. [19] No prehistorian can abstract herself away from the sorts of passions -- sometimes explicitly political passions -- that drive her to study prehistory.

Some feminist matriarchalists have explicitly defended the investigation of prehistory as a political exercise. Eschewing "objectivity" as neither possible nor desirable, they wish to work their "life experiences, histories, values, judgments, and interests" into their research as legitimate interpretive tools. This is not a view limited to feminist matriarchalists. Other prehistorians have enunciated it too, with somewhat different emphases. For example, in Reading the Past, archaeologist Ian Hodder notes that each generation asks their own questions of the past, viewi ng new or altered evidence in novel ways. With these constantly shifting agendas and methods, Hodder claims that "the ultimate aim" of archaeology "can only be self-knowledge. In projecting ourselves into the past, critically, we come to know ourselves better." [20]

On the one hand, to say this is merely to state the obvious: history (and prehistory) is authored in the present by human beings, each of whom has interests and is situated within a particular world of meaning. But it is an entirely different thing to suggest that because the past can be known only imperfectly, through the agency of biased individuals, that therefore one account of the past is as good or bad as another. There are dangers associated with this idea, dangers that feminist matriarchalists have no trouble recognizing. Feminist matriarchalists do not wish to claim that all accounts of prehistory are relative, that there is no basis for choosing among competing accounts apart from individual preference and political usefulness, because then they would have to admit that androcratic interpretations of prehistory that stress the inevitability and universality of patriarchy are as valid as their own.

All prehistorians are interested in establishing the plausibility of the stories they tell about prehistory; all want to offer coherent accounts based on the available data. What is required then is some way of adjudicating competing truth claims about prehistory, a way of building rigor into accounts of prehistory. In judging the adequacy of feminist matriarchalist accounts of prehistory I will be working from a few simple standards that are not specific to particular archaeological, anthropological, or historical methodologies, but are inherent in all of them. First, an adequate account of the past must offer data in its support. Second, it must seek to interpret all the data, and not merely that which is convenient to or supportive of the theory. Third, it must strive to have conclusions follow evidence, rather than the other way around. And finally, it must be possible to show that an account is wrong or implausible: in other words, it must be falsifiable. This last standard of adequacy for an account of human prehistory is the most important one, and to a large extent subsumes the others. A theory may be interesting and provocative, even true; but if there is no way to tell whether or not it is true -- that is, no way to disprove it -- it can only be a conversation piece. It is no more likely to be accurate than any of dozens of imaginative and even compelling stories told about prehistory, stories that draw their persuasive power not from what we see in the prehistoric record but from our own culturally limited notions of what we wish or believe prehistory to have been like. [21]

In light of these basic standards, I will examine those prehistoric materials that archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, and feminist matriarchalists have relied upon in reconstructing prehistory, particularly those of late Paleolithic and early Neolithic Europe and the Near East, asking if the evidence feminist matriarchalists cite truly supports the story they tell, and if the evidence they don't cite tells another story.
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Re: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past

Postby admin » Fri Nov 02, 2018 4:57 am

CHAPTER 6: The Case Against Prehistoric Matriarchies I: Other Societies, Early Societies

There are many claims that feminist matriarchalists make for prehistoric societies that can be tested against the ethnographic and archaeological records. For convenience, they can be collected into four broad categories: reproduction and kinship, goddess worship, women's economic roles, and interpersonal violence. The question of whether or not prehistoric cultures practiced extensive goddess worship will be examined in the next chapter, when we turn to prehistoric art and architecture. Here, confining ourselves to ethnographies from contemporary and historical societies and nonrepresentational material evidence from prehistoric societies, we will judge the plausibility of such central feminist matriarchalist claims as men's ignorance of their role in conception, the correlation between goddess worship and women's social status, women's invention of agriculture, and the peacefulness of prehistoric societies.


According to feminist matriarchalists, the miracle of childbirth -- especially miraculous when no male role in conception was recognized -- caused all women to be viewed with respect and honor. Strong links between mothers and their children led to matrilineal kinship systems and matrilocal residence patterns which placed women in positions of social power.

The idea that prehistoric peoples might not have recognized paternity was first proposed in the nineteenth century. From the comfort of their armchairs, several anthropologists speculated that "primitives" either were so promiscuous that fatherhood could not be determined or that they were ignorant of the connection between sexual intercourse and conception. This speculation received some grounding in ethnographic evidence when reports filtered back from Australia and Melanesia that certain aboriginal peoples denied that sexual intercourse had anything to do with pregnancy. One of the earliest of these reports came from W. E. Roth in 1903, who said the Tully River Blacks of North Central Queensland believed pregnancy resulted from a woman roasting black bream over a fire, catching a bullfrog, responding to a man's verbal instruction to become pregnant, or dreaming of having a child placed in her womb. Bronislaw Malinowski's reports from the Trobriand Islands engendered even more excitement back home in Europe. As Malinowski stated categorically in 1927, "The views about the process of procreation entertained by these natives ... affirm, without doubt or limitation for the native mind, that the child is of the same substance as its mother, and that between the father and the child there is no bond of union whatever." [1]

Most contemporary anthropologists agree that these "proofs" of the ignorance of paternity were actually errors in ethnography. In the Trobriands, even Malinowski's own findings left room for suspicion: he reported that Trobrianders believed sexual intercourse was necessary for pregnancy (a woman's womb had to be "opened" so that a spirit child could enter); that children were thought to resemble their fathers as a result of the father's continued sexual intercourse with the mother; that the children of unmarried women were deemed illegitimate; and that pigs were thought to be conceived through their sexual intercourse with one another. Later ethnographers of the Trobriand Islanders came back with reports that differed from Malinowski's. For example, H. A. Powell was told that conception was a result of semen "coagulating" menstrual blood, clearly indicating the necessity of sexual intercourse. When Powell told his informants that this was different from what Malinowski had been told, they maintained that Trobriand beliefs had not changed, but rather that Malinowski had been listening to "men's talk," reserved for formal situations, whereas "women's and children's talk" -- intended to convey helpful information to youngsters -- had always maintained a connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. [2]

Later ethnographers also cast doubt on the theory that Australian aborigines did not recognize physiological paternity. They noted that Roth did not spend more than a month among the Tully River Blacks (who even at the time told him that sexual intercourse was the cause of conception in animals), and that Roth neglected the fact that there was a word in their language meaning "to be the male progenitor of," connecting a particular act of copulation to conception. In all cases, it seems that anthropologist Edmund Leach is correct in concluding that these peoples were saying, albeit in different language and with different metaphors, the same things that many contemporary Westerners say about reproduction: that "conception is not predictable in advance but is recognized by certain physiological signs after the event"; that "sex relations are a necessary preliminary to this condition"; and that "the foetal embryo has a soul." [3]

Indeed, what seems to be more often in doubt across the ethnographic record -- even in the interesting cases of Australia and the Trobriands -- is how or whether mothers are related to their own children. Peoples are of course everywhere acquainted with the fact that babies emerge from women's bodies, but in the absence of an avowed role for insemination, women were not thought to reproduce parthenogenetically, magically creating children out of their own substance (the scenario most often envisioned by feminist matriarchalists for prehistoric peoples). Instead it was thought that women were impregnated by "spirit children" and that thereafter the mother "was merely the incubator of a spirit-child." [4]

This should be a familiar theory to Westerners, since it was articulated by no less a light than Aristotle. Aristotle claimed that the form and essence of a child are given by the father and remain uncontaminated by the woman, who merely supplies the material substance for the child and contains it during pregnancy. We tend to think of the equal contribution of mother and father to their children's biological makeup as the truth of the ages, but it is a very recent discovery. The way in which we now understand physiological reproduction -- as the result of the joining of ovum and sperm -- was not even in place at the time when nineteenth-century anthropologists first began speculating about the ignorance of paternity among prehistoric peoples. Anthropologist Carol Delaney has shown that in present-day Turkey, Aristotelian beliefs about reproduction continue to flourish. As one villager explained, "If you plant wheat, you get wheat. If you plant barley, you get barley. It is the seed which determines the kind of plant which will grow, while the field nourishes the plant but does not determine the kind. The man gives the seed, and the woman is like the field." Or as one Albanian informant explained the facts of reproduction to ethnographer Rene Gremaux, "The woman is a sack for carrying." [5]

The ethnographic record -- like the history of the West -- displays varied and contested ideas about human reproduction. The sheer quantity of these ideas suggests that it is possible that people did not always recognize a connection between sexual intercourse and conception. But a notable commonality among all this variety is the insistence that there is a necessary relationship between sexual intercourse and conception. Other events may also be necessary -- such as the entrance of a spirit child through the top of the head (in the case of the Trobriand Islanders), or the entrance of a soul into a fertilized egg (in the case of Roman Catholics) -- but it is simply not believed that women bear children without any male participation whatsoever. It is also doubtful on commonsense grounds that human beings would be wholly ignorant of paternity. As Edmund Leach points out, "human beings, wherever we meet them, display an almost obsessional interest in matters of sex and kinship," and "presumably this has always been the case." Even evidence from the material record suggests that prehistoric peoples were aware of the relationship between sexual intercourse and conception. Paleolithic cave paintings depict animals mating, pregnant, and giving birth in such a way that these events seem connected. And a plaque from Catalhoyuk carved in gray schist shows "two figures in an embrace on the left and a mother and child on the right," an artifact which some -- including some feminist matriarchalists -- read as a visual text on the results of copulation. [6]

It seems quite likely then that prehistoric peoples were aware of the male role in reproduction. Some feminist matriarchalists could agree to this quite readily, saying that prehistoric peoples were aware of biological paternity but simply chose not to grant it much significance. This is a hypothesis that cannot be disproven, but there is no ethnographic evidence for it whatsoever. Wherever we have encountered human groups, we have found individual men forming paternal relationships with the children of their wives or other female partners. Additional relationships between particular men and children definitely occur, but that between fathers and their children seems primary. [7] Suggesting that there was a time when this was not so raises the thorny question of why men were content to ignore their physiological relationships to particular children (apparently taking a passive, benign interest in children in general) for hundreds of thousands of years, only to begin to care very much about this issue around 3000 BCE. [8]

It is important to recognize that the feminist matriarchalist devaluing of paternity is at the same time a construction of motherhood. As we have seen, feminist matriarchalists routinely imagine childbirth as an occasion for awe, and motherhood as a role and relationship to which men habitually deferred. Why this would have been true prehistorically and not equally true today is not clear. If it is possible for us and for many generations of our ancestors to systematically disadvantage women in spite of (or perhaps because of) their unique and essential mothering capabilities, why should it not have been equally possible for our prehistoric ancestors to do the same? In fact, ethnographic evidence suggests that childbirth does not regularly work to women's advantage. Anthropologist Sherry Ortner has noted that women tend to lose rather than gain status when placed in reproductive roles, and to be permitted greater liberties and occupy more powerful public positions when virginal or menopausal. [9] This is difficult to accept in light of examples we are familiar with in which motherhood is elevated to a divine calling, but as anthropologist Alice Schlegel points out, "a highly valued role will [not] necessarily grant prestige to one who holds it. Motherhood, open only to women, may be highly valued by both men and women without women necessarily receiving prestige as mothers." [10]

Anyway, given what we know of human nature, it would seem doubtful that childbirth would cause men to revere or even respect women in any pure or uncomplicated manner. When one group of people has a monopoly on a much-valued resource, the reaction of the have-not group is not typically one of worshipful awe. More often, the reaction is one of jealousy and resentment, and a wish to gain their own access to the coveted resource. Some feminist matriarchalists acknowledge this, and describe relationships between men and women as being driven first and foremost by men's "womb envy," by men's desire to participate in or control women's childbearing powers. [11]

There is in fact some ethnographic evidence of men trying to gain some share of women's childbearing and other reproductive functions through ritual efforts, a practice that might be understood as womb envy. L. R. Hiatt describes what he calls "pseudoprocreation" rituals among Australian aboriginal men, rituals used to assert men's "supernatural contribution" to conception, and to "rebirth" boys from men (to symbolically supersede their birth from women) as a part of their initiation into manhood. Similarly, Anna Meigs reports that Hua males (from New Guinea) engage in "rituals of imitation, adulation, and control of female reproductive power" in the confines of the men's house by mimicking menstruation and consuming foods thought to be related to women's fertility. Other customs have sometimes been said to testify to a desire on the part of males to take some part in women's reproductive roles. One of these is couvade, in which fathers act out the pain of childbirth and follow the same postpartum taboos as their wives who have just given birth. Another is a ritual in which the underside of the penis is cut open and allowed to bleed, apparently in imitation of menstruation. [12]

Significantly, however, none of these ethnographic examples of male imitation of female reproductive powers is accompanied by any rise in women's status, Hiatt reports that the Australian aboriginal men who imitate childbirth regard themselves as superior to women and children; Meigs says that Hua women have no political voice and cannot own land or control the products of their own labor. In both these cases women are excluded from the female-imitating rituals themselves, sometimes on pain of death. [13] Feminist matriarchalists typically work around these reports by insisting that such rituals and practices date from a time during or after the patriarchal revolution, when men became intent on coopting women's childbearing powers. But again there is no explanation for why men did not experience womb envy as a source of pain and frustration before then, And going on these particular ethnographic examples, it would seem that if prehistoric men did envy women's reproductive abilities, it would have worked to women's detriment.

One also has to ask how much prehistoric peoples valued reproduction. If it were extremely difficult to propagate, if tribes were in constant danger of dying out, it might be the case that fertility and childbirth would be highly valued. But ir is doubtful that children were such a scarce commodity in prehistoric times. Prior to the Neolithic revolution, we have every reason to believe that prehistoric peoples, like contemporary hunting and gathering peoples, were more interested in restricting their fertility than enhancing it. Contraception, abortion, and infanticide are all practiced in hunting and gathering groups, and in horticultural societies as well, with infanticide rates ranging from 15 to 50 percent. [14] Skeletal evidence suggests that childbirth was dangerous for mothers and children alike. Infant mortality rates were high at Catalhoyuk, for example, and women there and elsewhere died very young by our standards (on average in their late twenties, earlier than men) in part because of high maternal mortality. [15] It seems unlikely under these conditions that pregnancy and childbirth were invariably regarded as miraculous and welcomed as the gift of a munificent goddess.

Feminist matriarchalists also argue that motherhood structured social relations, making women the hub of society, the power center around which all others revolved. The most tangible forms this centrality is thought to have taken are matriliny -- in which family status, clan membership, and sometimes property are passed through the mother's line -- and matrilocality, in which husbands come to live with their wives or their wives' families upon marriage.

The matricentrism of prehistoric societies is said by feminist matriarchalists to be apparent in their "sensitive and careful burial of the dead, irrespective of sex, with a relatively uniform grave wealth." This evidence, if accurate, does not support assertions of matriarchy or even of sex egalitarianism. In their introductory archaeological textbook, Kenneth Feder and Michael Alan Park suggest that "if some future archaeologist were to walk into a twentieth-century graveyard, he or she would almost certainly be provided with some insight into our perspective on life, social system, religion, and, of course, death." [16] But what insight would this future archaeologist get about, say, gender relations in the contemporary United States? I am told by several cemetery directors that it is rare to see any distinctions between male and female burials apart from the type of clothing placed on the corpses. And while it is still common to bury a woman under her husband's name, a future archaeologist who could not decipher our mortuary inscriptions would not be aware of this patronymical custom. Even signs of variations in wealth in U.S. cemeteries -- principally in casket materials and plot size and position -- are not terribly large. On the basis of contemporary u.s. cemeteries, we might conclude that twenty-first-century Americans lived in a sexually egalitarian society where there were only minor distinctions of wealth.

Some feminist matriarchalists have ventured to find evidence of matrilineal and matrilocal social structure in the overall layout of prehistoric graveyards. This has been especially true of Catalhoyuk. The people of Catalhoyuk seem to have practiced excarnation, a mortuary practice in which the bodies of the dead were exposed to insects and birds of prey outside the settlement. Once their flesh had been stripped, the skeletons were recovered for burial in the houses under "sleeping platforms." According to James Mellaart, the site's first excavator, men were buried under a small platform whose location was variable, while women were buried under a large platform that was always in a fixed spot in the room. Children were sometimes buried with women under the large platform or under additional platforms, but never with men. [17]

Feminist matriarchalists have suggested that the woman under the large platform was the head of the household, while the man under the small platform was her brother or son. [18] But there are other equally valid ways of interpreting the burial pattern at Catalhoyuk. If these were sleeping platforms, perhaps women's platforms were larger because women were expected to share their beds with more people (say, their children). Or maybe the dead were not placed under the spot where they customarily slept. Perhaps the large, fixed platforms belonged to the men, and they buried their wives and children under them to feel close to their deceased family members, or even to underscore the fact that in death -- as in life -- these people were considered their property. In actuality, very few skeletons recovered from Catalhoyuk were found complete, and it is possible that individual skeletons were not buried in a single location, but split up and "shared out among various buildings or platforms within a building," [19] just as some people are cremated today and have their ashes spread in several different locations.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that the evidence from Catalhoyuk is apparently not as Mellaart presented it. Though adult men and women do seem to be buried in separate areas, it is now clear that children were sometimes buried with men and that women were buried in other locations besides under the large platform Mellaart identified as theirs. The current excavators of Catalhoyuk are speculating that burials in anyone room were those of extended family members, and that buildings were abandoned upon the death of the senior member of that family. Based on the one room that has been fully excavated as part of the new work at Catalhoyuk, principal investigator Ian Hodder concludes that this senior member was probably a man. [20]

Another matter of interest pertaining to the graves at Catalhoyuk is the disproportionately high percentage of female skeletons. Some feminist matriarchalists have explained this by saying that men, who were less important to the life of the community, did not always merit burial within the inner sanctum of the home. Archaeologist Naomi Hamilton has made the veiled matriarchalist suggestion that there were fewer men among the skeletons because women were killing male babies to oppose "an ideology of women as mothers and carers [sic] of males" and to create "their own majority" during a time when women's "social power was being eroded." [21] This is a highly implausible scenario without any known ethnographic parallel, and one which presupposes that something detrimental was happening to women's status at Catalhoyuk -- something that hadn't already happened under earlier conditions. A rather obvious explanation for the disproportionate number of female skeletons is that men were not dying at home, but elsewhere, and that no one thought to (or was available to) bring their bodies back to the village. We know that the people of Catalhoyuk engaged in long-distance trade, [22] and if men dominated this activity -- as men have tended to do in the ethnographic contexts of which we are aware -- they had plenty of opportunities to die away from their small sleeping platforms. The evidence of grave patterning does not, by itself, allow us to determine what gender relations the people of Catalhoyuk had in mind when they buried their dead as they did.

Matriliny and matrilocality certainly could have occurred prehistorically, if not at Catalhoyuk, then elsewhere. These kinship and residence patterns are attested ethnographically (though considerably less often than patriliny and patrilocality). However, they are associated with only "modest benefits for women," if any at all. [23] Indeed, in most societies we know of, matricentric and patricentric customs are mixed together. For example, the matrilineal Nairs "worship only male ancestors"; the patrilineal Mundurucu settle matrilocally, while the matrilineal Trobrianders settle patrilocally; in Wogeo, New Guinea, potential marriage partners are selected matrilineally, but succession of political office and inheritance of property are patrilineal. We also have reports of adjoining groups who practice different means of reckoning kinship and yet are virtually identical in all other relevant respects (such as religion, means of subsistence, form of habitation, and -- significantly -- relative gender status). Impressively, kinship can even be matrilineal in groups that insist that women are only passive carriers of men's seed, and patrilineal in groups that swear that men have no procreative role. We also know that matrilineal kinship has been practiced at times simply because it is politically or personally inexpedient to acknowledge paternity (for example, in the slaveholding United States, slave owners imposed a rule of matriliny on the slave community so that the children of slave mothers and white fathers would be counted as slaves). And finally, the feminist matriarchalist assertion that matriliny and matrilocality are the "original" forms of human kinship, dominant all over the world before the patriarchal revolution, is belied by the fact that matrilineal kinship systems are found at all levels of social complexity, not just in groups judged to be most like the social model we conjecture for prehistoric times. [24]

Marriage is another matter of interest to feminist matriarchalists, if only by omission. Some feminist matriarchalists like to imagine that marriage did not exist prehistorically, but some form of marriage is so consistently found cross-culturally that it is extremely likely that prehistoric peoples practiced it. And if the ethnographic record is any guide, marriage was probably not especially beneficial for women. One of the few things we can say with confidence about marriage cross-culturally is that it is overwhelmingly a heterosexual institution. Same-sex marriages have been found in many cultures, but they are rare compared to heterosexual unions, and often (though not always) mimic them. It is within the institution of marriage, then, that women are most clearly defined as women, in opposition to men. For example, among the African Mbuti, terms of address and reference rarely distinguish between male and female. But there is an important exception when discussing partners in a reproductively active marriage: terms for these partners are consistently gendered. [25]

As feminist matriarchalists are quick to point out, distinguishing between the genders does not necessarily mean discriminating against either one, and it may mean discriminating in favor of women. What is key to the feminist matriarchalist vision of prehistoric marriage is not its heterosexuality or lack thereof, but that marriage (if the institution existed) did not restrain women's autonomy, sexually or otherwise. However, one of the things marriage seems to do most efficiently -- cross-culturally speaking -- is to restrict women's choice in sexual partners (and men's too, though generally to a lesser extent). Within marriage, the demand for female sexual fidelity is quite common, as is the belief that a wife is the sexual property of her husband, who can use or transfer his rights in her as he sees fit. These characteristics are true of both societies that are "sex positive" (which legitimate and promote human sexuality) and "sex negative" (which regard sexuality as sinful or polluting). [26] lf one agrees that the ethnographic record provides clues to prehistoric life, we have to assume that marriage in prehistoric societies did not routinely enhance women's sexual freedom.


More even than the ignorance of paternity or the centrality of motherhood in prehistoric cultures, feminist matriarchalists feel that the prevalence of goddess worship in prehistory confirms the gynocentric nature of these societies. As Judy Mann puts it, "if the goddess is female, then females are goddesses." [27]

Several facts confound this interpretation of prehistoric goddess worship. The first is that feminist matriarchalists almost always posit a form of goddess monotheism for prehistory -- though it is rarely called that [28] -- and what evidence we have seems to cut the other way. Goddess monotheism has not been documented any place on the globe. Historical religions, from classical antiquity to the present day, are home to many different goddesses if they include female deities at all. In classical Greece, for example, the various goddesses had diverse roles and functions. The Greeks did not regard them as "aspects of a unitary goddess." [29]

Another troubling fact about goddesses as we know them ethnographically and historically is that they do not always resemble the image that feminist matriarchalists stipulate for prehistoric cultures: the loving mother, the giver and taker of life, the embodiment of the natural world. Some goddesses are incredibly violent-and not in a way that suggests the benevolent function of watching over the natural cycles of death and rebirth. For example, an Ugaritic text from 1400 BCE Canaan says of the goddess Anat: "She is filled with joy as she plunges her knees in the blood of heroes." The Sumerian Inanna is also a goddess of war, and, significantly, neither she nor Anat is portrayed as a mother. Shitala, worshipped today in Bengal, "tempts fallible persons, and especially mischievous children, with irresistible delicacies, which then break out on their bodies as horrifying and fatal poxes." [30]

More troublesome than these deviations from the feminist matriarchalist ideal is the fact that goddesses are often known to support patriarchal social customs. Goddesses may have nothing whatsoever to do with women's religious needs, representing instead men's fantasies of "the Eternal Mother, the devoted mate, the loving mistress," or even the fearful nature of women's power (should it be allowed to wriggle out from under strict male control). [31] Goddesses may be strongly, if ambivalently, distinguished from human women, and the differences between the two repeatedly emphasized: that is, goddesses "accentuate what womanhood is not" as often as they reflect a culture's notion of what women are. In her research on goddess worship in India, Cynthia Humes has noted that devotees see important commonalities between goddesses and human women, especially related to their "natural maternal instincts." But devotees also report that there is "an unbridgeable chasm between goddesses and human women, since female bodies are irremediably permeated by evil and pollution." As one male pilgrim told Humes, "the difference between the Goddess and women is like the difference between the stone you worship and the rock on which you defecate." [32] Goddess worship has been reported for societies rife with misogyny, and at times goddesses even seem to provide justification for beliefs and practices that are antiwoman. Contrariwise, the worship of male gods can coincide with relatively greater power for women. [33] There is simply no one-to- one relationship between goddess worship and high status for women.

Feminist matriarchalists do not deny the phenomenon of patriarchal goddess worship; they suggest that it was pioneered by the Kurgan invaders. But what they are proposing for prehistory is something different: goddess worship that is culturewide, exclusive, and consistently supportive of women's power and independence. They thereby put themselves in the very difficult position of arguing for a type of goddess worship that has never been seen, either historically or ethnographically.

The fallback option for feminist matriarchalists is to insist that all the historic and ethnographic knowledge we have cannot tell us for certain what prehistory was like. If a worldwide patriarchal revolution occurred before scribes or ethnographers could (or would) accurately record what preceded it, then prehistory could be a world unto itself, not interpretable in terms of the cultures that followed. This is, however, a very drastic thesis. And as calamitous as the patriarchal revolution is taken to be by feminist matriarchalists, it is rarely seen in terms this grandiose. So the usual tack is to simply keep insisting that there is an important equation between the worship of goddesses and an enhanced status for women, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Feminist matriarchalists are basically going on instinct in believing goddesses to be positively related to the status of women -- and instinct, in this case, does not prove to be a very good guide. They note that male dominance is correlated in recent history with the veneration of a male god or gods and assume that the obverse must also be true because it "seems logical." They imaginatively place themselves in cultures that worship goddesses and cannot believe that "with such a powerful role-model," girls and women would not "naturally consider it their right and duty to fully participate in society and to take the lead in government and religion." Their own experience suggests that this must be true, since they have themselves been empowered by the presence of the goddess in their lives. As Sue Monk Kidd enthuses about the goddess, "believe me, there is no way this word, this symbol, can be used to hush women up or get them back in line [her emphasis]." [34]

In fact, so passionate is the desire to believe that goddess worship benefits women that feminist matriarchalists frequently see such benefits in unlikely places. For example, though Jennifer and Roger Woolger admit that for women in Athens "there was little choice between being a homebound matron, a hetaera or high-class prostitute, or a slave," they nevertheless argue that "the mere existence of the various cults to goddesses as individual as Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, and Athena provided many rich possibilities for women's psychic and spiritual life, many more than were later retained in Christianity or Judaism." Likewise, Gerda Lerner argues that "no matter how degraded and commodified the reproductive and sexual power of women was in real life, her essential equality could not be banished from thought and feeling as long as the goddesses lived and were believed to rule human life." This is a peculiar way of assessing women's status. Women's self-esteem, secured through the worship of something female, may be a valuable commodity under harsh patriarchal conditions, but this is not remotely akin to the amelioration of those conditions via goddess worship. "Free" women in classical Greece were lifelong legal minors who were mostly forbidden to leave their homes and who were not even their husbands' preferred sexual partners. What exactly is the point of celebrating this ancient culture's goddess worship and contrasting it to our own culture's lack of the feminine divine? [35]

Feminist matriarchalists sometimes retreat to the argument that such societies were" less male-centered than those which worshipped ... an omnipotent male deity, exclusively," even if they were not absolutely female-centered. [36] But some scholars of religion argue precisely the opposite of this thesis. Indeed, this is what a Marxist analysis of religion would predict: goddess worship would compensate women for what they lack in real economic and social power and would serve to keep women from rebelling against their actual low status. In examining the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico, Ena Campbell notes that although Guadalupe "has eclipsed all other male and female religious figures in Mexico," she is worshipped more by men than women and is used in recompense for women's "actual position in the social scheme." Comparing data from Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Campbell concludes that "mother goddess worship seems to stand in inverse relationship with high secular female status." [37] Thus, far from being a sign of special respect accorded to women, goddess worship would, in the absence of other evidence, be expected to correlate with a poor state of affairs for women.

It seems more likely that goddess worship can coexist with various degrees of status for women, high or low. Certainly, ethnography has not uncovered a consistent pattern. In The Status of Women in Preindustrial Societies, anthropologist Martin King Whyte attempted to uncover the determinants of women's status. Of the items he investigates having to do with religion, only one of them -- equally elaborate funerals for women and men, as opposed to women having none or less elaborate ones than men -- is shown to correlate with women's status at all, and that only weakly. The others, including "sex of gods and spirits," "sex of mythical founders," "sex of shamans," "sex of witches," and "religious ceremony participation" all vary independently of other markers of the status of women (such as menstrual taboos, husbands' authority over wives, and property ownership). [38] It seems that people can worship gods or goddesses, have priests or priestesses, remember ancestresses or ancestors, without it having any particular effect on how ordinary women are treated. There is no warrant for the feminist matriarchalist assumption that prehistoric goddess worship, insofar as it existed, conferred greater respect upon women or insulated them from misogyny or subordination to men.


Feminist matriarchalists often suggest that woman-favoring social systems arose prehistorically partly in response to women's important economic roles. In foraging societies, they say, men do all or most of the hunting, but it is women's gathering work that usually provides most of the group's diet. And once agriculture was invented -- by women -- their added labor is said to have enhanced women's status further, giving them control over the group's produce and property. It is not until men seized control of agriculture by making more intensive use of land through plows and draft animals that feminist matriarchalists see women's economic power decreasing dramatically.

Virtually all societies of which we are aware do stipulate different work for individuals based on their sex or gender, usually along the lines that feminist matriarchalists note: in foraging societies, men hunt and women gather; in horticultural societies, men continue to hunt or fish, but also clear and prepare land for farming, while women tend fields, carry wood and water, and care for children; in more intensive agricultural economies, the same pattern continues, with men doing proportionately more farm work and less hunting and fishing. Children are typically inducted into their gender-specific roles at a young age. [39] In all these different types of economies, women tend to work closer to home, performing tasks that have to be done daily, while men are more inclined to travel and perform tasks that vary. Grave goods provide some support for the notion that these same divisions existed prehistorically. Generalizing for the Middle Neolithic in Europe (Gimbutas's "Old Europe"), Sarunas Milisauskas describes the contents of men's graves as "flint tools, weapons, animal bones, and copper tools" while women's included mostly pottery and jewelry.  [40]

A notable fact about the sexed division of labor is that it is fairly arbitrary. Broad patterns aside, there is considerable variation in how different groups assign different tasks by sex: women's work is not everywhere the same, nor is men's, and cultures do not hold to preassigned roles with equal rigidity. One culture may demand that men make pottery, while another says that only women can do so. But even the general patterns can be regarded as arbitrary from the point of view of physiological capability. As James Faris notes, "even game hunting ... depends far more on organization than on superordinate strength"; likewise, gathering, cooking, and child care (after weaning) are not dependent on female-specific attributes. Yet these patterns recur frequently, and anthropologists typically explain them in terms of what they say is a nearly universal desire to have women's work be compatible with caring for small children: women should perform only "tasks that are not dangerous, do not require distant travel, and are interruptible." [41]

Another notable fact about the sexed division of labor among humans is that it is always characterized by some degree of reciprocity: the sexes perform different tasks and then engage in exchange with one another. One might expect that this mutual dependence would lead to mutual respect. [42] This is the hope upon which feminist matriarchalists hang their vision of prehistory, for they almost never challenge the idea that women in matriarchal societies were gatherers and horticulturalists who provisioned men with vegetable foods while in turn accepting the products of men's labor. But the ethnographic record shows that the vital labor women provide in foraging and horticultural economies does not usually give them social power comparable to men's.

Foraging societies are often said by cultural anthropologists to be "egalitarian," so this looks like a hopeful place for feminist matriarchalists to begin. However, anthropologists mean something by the term egalitarianism that turns out, oddly enough, to be compatible with the most virulent misogyny and sexism. Egalitarian societies are defined by anthropologists as small groups which lack any elaborate political hierarchy. Individuals are free to come and go as they please; they have immediate access to resources and can exert influence over other individuals in their group. There are pecking orders in egalitarian societies, but they depend "more upon personal qualities and skills than upon inherited wealth or status at birth." But among the "personal qualities" most frequently used to determine status in so-called egalitarian societies are "age, sex, and personal characteristics." Now age and sex are not earned. An individual's age changes, inexorably, and in this sense can be regarded as a kind of achieved status. But this is not so for sex, which is "ascribed for life." Thus arises the irony of speaking of societies which systematically discriminate against one sex in preference to the other as "egalitarian." [43] Such discrimination can be relatively minor, as it is among the Mbuti and San of Africa, where men are slightly more likely to participate in collective decision-making, but there are also many glaring examples of male authority, dominance, and disproportionate prestige in foraging societies. Even in societies that lack class systems or political leadership, one can find fathers giving away their daughters, husbands beating their wives or having legitimate control over them sexually, men raping women without penalty, and men claiming a monopoly on the most significant forms of ritual power. [44]

Foraging peoples do rely more, calorically speaking, on women's gathering than on men's hunting, with foods contributed by women typically making up 60 to 80 percent of the group's diet. Women in horticultural societies also frequently contribute a greater share to the group's subsistence and spend more hours at their appointed tasks than men do at theirs. But whatever women's work is, however valuable -- even crucial -- it may be to the local economy, there is simply no correlation between the type, value, or quantity of women's work and women's social status. [45]

We do not need to look beyond ethnographic analogies to our own history to suspect that this would be the case. Who provided the labor that made the economic engine of the antebellum South run? Enslaved Africans. Did social power, authority, and respect accrue to them as a result? Hardly. Prehistoric economies were drastically different from the antebellum South, of course. Social groups were much smaller and economies aimed to produce little more than what subsistence required. But the basic relationship does seem to hold for horticultural societies just as it does for later slave societies: those who hold power make others work for them. Economically speaking, the quickest index to social power would seem to be who is working least, not who is working most. [46] The fact that women work harder in horticultural societies should, if anything, arouse our suspicion that these cultures are dominated by men.

Furthermore, men's work -- whatever it is -- tends to be more valued than that of women in foraging and horticultural societies. Hunting, for example, is generally a high-prestige activity. Men also tend to win greater prestige even when they engage in work identical to women's. For example, among the Trobriand [slanders, both men and women cultivate yams, but only men's yams are used as an object of exchange. In other words, while the content of men's work can vary, it seems to carry with it a characteristically male level of prestige. Women's work, in contrast, is more often viewed as routine and pedestrian.  [47] This is not to say that women's work is never a source of prestige, or that men's always is; the ethnographic record is nothing if not variable on this point. But it is at least clear that the vision feminist matriarchalists paint of hard-working women standing as the economic pillars of their communities, respected as tribal mothers by all, is not very plausible in light of what we know of contemporary foraging and horticultural societies.

Some cultural anthropologists have suggested that the crucial question is not what kind of work -- or how much of it -- women do, but whether or not women can own or control the distribution of resources. Women, especially in horticultural societies, often own land. In these societies, however, this is rarely a significant category of wealth. Land is quickly exhausted, and new land must be cleared. Thus the sense in which we tend to think of land -- as valuable, transferrable property -- has little to do with how most horticulturalists think of it: as a temporarily useful commodity, "owned" -- for whatever it's worth, which isn't much -- by those who cultivate it. Even female control over a group's principal economic resources does not correlate with a high social status for women. Among the Mundurucu of the Amazonian jungle, the principal horticultural product, farinha, is entirely under women's control; moreover, men give all the game they kill to women, who then decide to whom it will be distributed. And yet this is a group with gender relations that no feminist in her right mind could either envy or endure: women are expected to keep their eyes lowered and their mouths covered when in the company of men; they cannot venture outside the village alone without consenting -- in effect -- to being raped; decisions affecting the community are made in the men's house with no women present; men hold the monopoly on religious ritual, and any invasion of their domain is punished by gang rape (as are other infractions); and the dominant ideology is that women must be subordinate. [48]

In feminist matriarchal myth it is said that women enhanced their already high status in prehistoric times even further by inventing agriculture in the first place, extending their knowledge of plants to the deliberate cultivation of them. [49] There is no way to prove that women invented agriculture, and as speculative arguments go, this one is relatively weak. Men in foraging societies gather too -- in order to feed themselves when on long hunting expeditions, if not on a more regular basis -- so it seems likely that men had as much opportunity to familiarize themselves with plant life cycles as women did. And given that women and men in small foraging societies interact with each other a great deal, it seems unlikely that women would not have shared with men any potentially helpful information about securing food sources as soon as it arose. More likely, the sexes worked together to introduce and perfect this technology. [50] Indeed, agriculture has never been the preserve of women to the extent that hunting has been the preserve of men.

When the technology of deliberate cultivation arose, its effect on women seems to have been variable. The severity and location of degenerative joint disease (arthritis) among Native Americans as agricultural technologies were adopted tells us something of women's and men's differential work patterns. These patterns vary from site to site, with women showing the scars of a heavier workload in some locations, while at others, men appear to have borne the brunt of the new technology. [51] In terms of raw measures of skeletal health, the change to agriculture was sometimes beneficial for women and sometimes not.

The move to intensive agriculture (as opposed to horticulture) was an enormous transition for human societies, one that is generally said to have been unfavorable for women. Intensive agriculture made unprecedented population densities possible. In hunting and gathering societies, population density is generally quite low, and local groups are rarely much larger than baboon troops. With the introduction of agriculture, babies could be weaned earlier (to be fed with agricultural foodstuffs), so women could conceive again more quickly. And once babies no longer needed to be carried from place to place, it was possible for women to care for more young children at one time. Under these conditions, human societies have been known to increase very quickly, as fast as 3 percent each year (which yields a doubling of the population in only twenty-three years). [52]

With the increased population density made possible by intensive agriculture came greater levels of social stratification. Unlike "egalitarian" societies, divided on lines of age and sex, these "complex" societies could be divided along class lines too: aristocrats and slaves, royalty and commoners, natives and foreigners, and so on. Given that one of the most common axes of inequality in so-called egalitarian societies is sex, one might expect that it would persist, and perhaps become exaggerated, under conditions of heightened stratification, such as that experienced with the rise of state-level societies. However, the effect of social stratification on women is not all negative; or rather, it is not negative for all women, since one of the groups state-level societies stratify is women. Although a woman may not outrank a man of her class, she may -- and frequently does -- outrank men in lower classes. [53] It becomes increasingly difficult under such conditions to talk about the status of women (and it was never easy, as we have seen). Women of the upper classes may have access to economic and political power that would have been unimaginable to men in simpler societies; on the other hand, women of the lower classes may be subordinated more completely than they ever could have been in "egalitarian" societies.

What, then, does the ethnographic evidence tell us about women's status in relation to the economies and technologies that we can safely assume applied in prehistoric times? It tells us most basically that there is no reliable connection between forms of subsistence and women's status. [54] If there is one broad pattern regarding women's status, it is that it is lower than men's, whatever the prevailing economy or women's specific place in it. Within this generalization, however, there is a staggering amount of variation, from vague nuances of differential personal autonomy or authority to unmistakable sexual slavery. If ethnographic reports are any indication, then women's status prehistorically was variable, not uniform; in some places it was probably very good, while in other places it was probably horrific.


Feminist matriarchalists also claim that prehistoric human societies were peaceful, a claim that is doubtful on both ethnographic and archaeological grounds. Warfare is common in ethnographic contexts at all levels of technological sophistication. And violent death -- probably not the result of accident -- is archaeologically attested for many prehistoric populations dating to the purported matriarchal era. For example, Steven J. Mithen notes that numerous skeletons from Mesolithic cemeteries dating thousands of years earlier than any proposed patriarchal revolution "have injuries caused by projectile points." Brian Hayden reports on mass graves from the European Neolithic containing as many as seven hundred skeletons, some with arrowheads embedded in their bones. Some archaeologists have even theorized that certain skeletal features from Minoan Crete indicate human sacrifice. [55]

Weapons have been discovered in many Paleolithic and Neolithic graves in Europe and the Near East, particularly in those of men. Gimbutas repeatedly insists that "no weapons except implements for hunting are found among [the] grave goods" in Old European burials; at times she goes further to say that "there were no weapons produced at all" by Old Europeans, or at least no "lethal weapons." But if the technology exists to hunt deer and pigs -- and to slaughter domesticated sheep, goats, and cattle -- then the technology exists to kill human beings, who are merely large mammals like the rest. In addition, maces are present among Neolithic grave goods from Catalhoyuk to the Balkans, which, according to archaeologist David Anthony, are specialized "anti-personnel" weapons, of little use in hunting or splitting wood, but very effective at bashing in the skulls of other human beings. [56] Finds of daggers and arrowheads are not as conclusive in proving the presence of warfare as armor or shields might be, but the latter are made of metal, and metallurgic technologies did not exist in most of the times and places feminist matriarchalists deem matriarchal. This raises the possibility that Old Europeans and other putatively matriarchal peoples had forms of weaponry and other technologies of warfare that have not survived in the material record. The Nantucket Whaling Museum in Massachusetts has an exhibition of weapons of war from the South Pacific, clearly identified as such by the people who brought them back to the United States. They are mostly enormous wooden clubs which would rot away in the earth long before we could dig them up. Some are inlaid with rows of sharks' teeth to better inflict injury. Such a weapon could well end up hundreds of years later as nothing more than a handful of sharks' teeth, which the unwitting archaeologist might interpret as jewelry or as a means of exchange.

Larger settlement patterns also point to greater interpersonal and intertribal violence than feminist matriarchalists imagine for prehistory. Feminist matriarchalists often claim that Neolithic villages in Europe had no defensive fortifications. For example, Gimbutas argues that the "occasional V-shaped ditches and retaining walls" surrounding Old European villages were "structurally necessary." But other archaeologists, looking at the same or additional evidence, are quite certain that many of these settlements were designed to fend off attack from outside. David Anthony reports the use of deep ditches in Neolithic Europe, "backed by multiple lines of palisade walls with elaborate gate-like constructions," and dismisses the argument that they were "peaceful flood-control devices." Indeed, some of these ditches are filled with mass graves. [57]

Even if there were no evidence of fortifications in Old Europe, this would not mean there was no war. Defensive fortifications would not have been necessary for groups that conducted their warfare on other people's territory. Marvin Harris suggests that Minoan Crete, for example, may have been warlike, but if "military activities were focused on naval encounters" -- which one might expect for an island society -- there would be little material evidence of warfare on their home territory. A New World example helps make this clear. The Mayas, whose cities were completely unfortified, were long thought to be "an unusually gentle, peaceful people living in a relatively benign theocracy." But as the Mayan writing system began to be deciphered and as new excavations were undertaken, a different picture emerged. Archaeologists found depictions of severed heads and bound captives and unearthed dismembered skeletons of sacrificial victims under public buildings. As archaeologist Arthur Demarest concludes on the basis of this new evidence, "the Maya were one of the most violent state-level societies in the New World." [58]

Of course, feminist matriarchalists are in a difficult position when confronting ethnographic and archaeological evidence. What they most want to find in prehistory is the absence of things with which we are all too familiar -- sexism, warfare, and environmental degradation, among others -- and it is much harder to prove the absence of something than its presence. If feminist matriarchalists were in search of the dominating power of women, one could imagine archaeological finds that might validate this: for example, burials with murdered men interred beside a richly equipped female, [59] or wealthy grave goods allocated to women and poor ones to men. But sexual egalitarianism, peace, and harmony with nature -- the qualities most feminist matriarchalists seek -- are more elusive. Digging up comfortable homes, material prosperity, even bodies free of disease or spared untimely death (all things we might reasonably want) still does not mean that we have excavated a society free of sexual oppression. What then (other than texts, which are not available for this period) might speak of matriarchy, as feminist matriarchalists envision it? To this, feminist matriarchalists have a ready answer: pictures ... which, as the old adage goes, are worth a thousand words.
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