The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   72

Ancient Goddesses

The Myths and the Evidence

edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris

London: British Museum Press, 1998

And Never Called Her Mother

The nice thing about modern myths (as opposed to the ancient ones) is that most of them have left broad paper trails, and we can track them pretty easily, sometimes even to their lairs, to the books, if not the heads, in which they first appeared. The myth of the Great Goddess is almost ideally suited to scholarly hunting, since it has a very definite point of origin and author: the Swiss-German academic J. J. Bachofen, in his book Das Mutterrecht of 1861. The story (if by some chance you've missed it) goes as follows. Long, long ago, well before writing but after or just a bit before farming, humankind (or at least the part of it which counts, i.e. the inhabitants of Europe and the Near East) worshiped a single deity, the Great Goddess, who was in charge (as solitary deities usually are) of everything, but put a special emphasis on birth, fertility and death, and was symbolized by the earth, caves, the moon, and (in some versions) darkness, pigs and snakes. The societies worshiping the Great Goddess were egalitarian and matriarchal, i.e. more or less mirror images of patriarchies; this is the ``mother-right'' of Bachofen's title. (There was, in Bachofen's original scheme, an even more primitive first stage of society which was neither matriarchal nor patriarchal, but more of a group grope; this has tended to drop out of subsequent versions of the myth.) This era was eventually replaced --- still before the arrival of writing --- by hierarchy, patriarchy and polytheism, but was reflected in myths of sky-gods slaying various reptilian or chthonian monsters which were, supposedly, symbols of Her, and a few odd Mediterranean customs invoking maternal descent. Bachofen, unregenerate male chauvinist that he was, saw this as a Great Advance, a crucial step on the road towards people like himself, and the true, Christian, religion.

Prior to the nineteenth century, and even for the most part up to Bachofen's day, the historical world accessible to most educated Europeans went back three thousand years at the outside and barely extended beyond the Mediterranean basin. Peering back through the Middle Ages, they saw Rome, Greece and Israel, and some flickers that vaguely resembled Egypt and Babylon, these last largely derived from the mystical gibberish of late antiquity; China, Persia and India were smears occasionally useful to satirists. Bachofen's mundane job, as a professor of Roman law, was supposed to put him in touch with hoariest antiquity. One of the great achievements of western thought in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was to make this ancestral vision quaint, to push back the frontiers of the known past in all directions, spatial and temporal. Those who want a symbolic date can fight over the decipheriment of Egyptian hieroglyphics; the recognition of the Stone Ages and so of ``pre-history''; or the excavations at Nineveh which opened up Mesopotamian civilization. What mattered was the continued process of discovery. (The Biblical inspiration of much of this research, and the way it undermined belief in the Bible, is another story for another time.) In any event, almost from the moment Bachofen's book hit the presses it was based on an increasingly discredited image of the past, and of what would constitute an acceptable base for global history. Homer and Genesis, far from speaking out the bottom of the well of the past, proved to be but echoes (if splendid ones) of voices much further down. The past became not just deeper but broader: it became obvious that, even in the Old World of Eurasiafrica, Europe was not the only civilization, was not even a uniquely pre-eminent civilization before modern times: which is the story of Ashoka, and of the Silk Road, and of how classical learning was preserved and augmented not by Irish monks but by Muslim philosophers. This had basically nothing to do with multiculturalism or anti-imperialism, and much to do with the historians' and archaeologists' responsiveness to evidence and active inquiry, which eventually assembled a case so manifestly convincing that even such racists frauds as Oswald Spengler were forced to acknowledge it. One might expect that, in the face of such a total revolution of the image of the past, an idea like Bachofen's, even if written up in a few hundred pages of densely-footnoted German, would be left behind for collectors of curious speculations.

Such was not to be. For want of almost anything else on the history of family structure, Bachofen's book proved very influential (Engels took it up, for instance). Bachofen's magpie-on-growth-hormones style of research into pre-history reached its culmination --- I'm tempted to say apotheosis --- in Frazer's The Golden Bough, and the story told there, about god-kings who were ritually and periodically sacrificed to ensure the fertility of their land and its inhabitants, proved to be even more influential than Bachofen's. In any event the two soon fused, Frazer's dying god becoming the son and/or consort of the Goddess. On top of all this, the early years of the century saw Arthur Evans's excavations at Knossos in Crete, revealing a sophisticated Aegean civilization (the ``Minoans,'' Evans called them, and the name has stuck; what they called themselves, we don't know) which long pre-dated that of the Greeks. Its decorative art showed women occupying (apparently) a high place in society, perhaps a dominant one, and snakes were somehow tied in to the mix as well. Here it seemed were Bachofen's goddess-worshipers (though, given their palaces and mercantile empire, perhaps not so egalitarian and primitive as he said...). But there was essentially no recollection of this culture in the later world, at best a few myths which carried a few heavily distorted fragments of what had happened. What happened?

Enter the Indo-Europeans --- another of the great historical discoveries of the last century. Most of the languages of ancient and modern Europe are visibly related to each other, and more similar the further back we go in time. (The principal exceptions are Basque, Etruscan, Magyar and Finnish; the later two are related, but Basque and Etruscan have no known affinities.) These in turn are related to the languages of ancient Anatolia, to Kurdish, to Persian, and to (most of) the languages of Afghanistan and the northern half of the Indian subcontinent. On the other hand, they are not related to ancient Egyptian (or its modern descendant, Coptic), or to the Semitic languages of north and east Africa and the Middle East (Hebrew, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic, etc.). It is astonishing that nobody in the ancient world --- say, an inhabitant of one of the Hellenistic states in Bactria and India --- twigged to this, but it seems that was so. The realization that the languages of India are related to those of Europe was first made by a British judge in Calcutta in 1796.

By comparing the oldest forms of the Indo-European languages, linguists were able to reconstruct the original language from which they descended, now called ``proto-Indo-European,'' or at least make good guesses about its pronunciation, its syntax, and that part of its vocabulary which was kept by descendant languages. An obvious question, given the spread of those offspring, is where Indo-European came from. For a number of reasons (including ingenious arguments based on what plants and animals had names in the pool of common Indo-European roots), opinions converged on the Eurasian steppes. Another obvious question is what the speakers of proto-Indo-European were like: here again linguists and historians went on vocabulary. This tells us that horses, cattle and fighting were very important, and that they thought very highly of themselves. (They called themselves something very close to Aryan, meaning pure or noble; ``Iran'' ultimately derives from ``Aryana,'' the land of the Aryans. I need hardly rehearse the damage done by fools getting hold of this factoid.) The scholars also went on the commonalities in the myths told in the different Indo-European languages, which had pretty big squabbling pantheons of deities, drinking ambrosia or something very like, more or less under the thumb of a big daddy sky-god who hurls thunderbolts at rivals and monsters. (The monsters may be more or less distantly related to the gods, but usually have something snaky and/or dark and earthy about them.)

When did the Indo-Europeans reach Europe and India? Well, the Minoan cities, like those of the Harrapan civilization in India (discovered at about the same date, and whose writing is likewise quite undeciphered) went up in flames (some literally) within a few hundred years on either side of -1500. This rough-edged period is also when all sorts of strange, new and rather violent peoples appear in the records of Egypt and Mesopotamia, when the Rig Veda seems to have been composed by Sanskrit-speaking Indo-Europeans in India, and about when we start finding some inscriptions in Indo-European languages in the Middle East. (It is also when we start finding a script, Linear B, at Minoan sites which we can read: it was used for a recognizable ancestor of Greek, and is thought to belong to a successor civilization called the Mycenaean.) So the general view among archaeologists and pre-historians is that the Indo-Europeans arrived in the Balkans, Anatolia, Iran, India, etc. from the steppes about -1500, which was also about when a (new) wave of Semitic-speaking peoples came into the Fertile Crescent. That at least some of the peoples these new-comers encountered were matriarchal and Goddess-worshiping was accepted by even such hard-headed (and influential) archaeologists as V. Gordon Childe. These scholars saw the agricultural societies of Europe, particularly those which carved the stone temples on Malta and raised the megaliths in northwest Europe, as affiliated with the Goddess-worshiping cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. Classicists (e.g. the great Jane Harrison) attempting to trace the influence of the Minoans on later Greek religion, generally accepted this picture of what the Minoans were like in the first place. This seems to have been the stage of development at which it was decided that the Goddess was really a triune deity. Many Greek goddesses come in threes (e.g. the Graces and the Furies), or in multiples of three (the nine Muses), for no apparent reason, and there are some representations of Persephone, her mother Demeter and Hecate together as a triad, so a triple Goddess, Her three canonical aspects being Maiden (an actual title of Persephone's), Mother and Crone was projected back on to the Minoans, and outward across the Mediterranean. (Of course, groupings of every size up to about twelve are ubiquitous in mythologies, for tolerably obvious and non-mystical reasons...)

In the hands of these scholars, the story was relatively light on value-judgments, though not entirely free of them. From them, however, the story passed to cranks of genius like Robert Graves, to archaeologists turned cranks like Marija Gimbutas, and to lumpen-feminists and peddlers of newage. (Also to another Swiss-German crank-with-credentials, Carl Jung; but that fascinating limb of the tree of nonsense will be saved for another time.) It became very definitely ideological and mythical, an account of why the world is so bad and how it may yet be saved. The Minoans now became the most spectacular flowering of an aboriginal, peaceful, earth-friendly, Goddess-centered matriarchy extending across Europe and the Near East. (Africa, even North Africa, is almost never mentioned, nor anywhere east of the Euphrates.) All went Edenically for millenia until disaster struck, in the form of horse-riding, cattle-rustling, patriarchal, sky-god-worshiping, warlike, Indo-European-speaking nomads who, someplace out in the wilds of central Asia, had gotten completely deranged and lost touch with everything valuable. Having burned down the original civilization, they forgot about it completely, except for myths about their gods killing monsters. Exit the Goddess and her worshipers, except for secret mystical traditions; enter the violent and unhappy world we know to this day. Now, through great good fortune, the Goddess has been rediscovered, and not a moment too soon to keep patriarchy from destroying the planet.

Like most theodicies, it's not logically compelling (where did those unwashed barbarians come from, and why didn't it occur to anyone else that power grows from the shaft of a spear?); and the quality of the scholarship associated with it has declined drastically. Say what you like about the methods of people like Bachofen, Frazer, or Harrison, they were philologically almost impeccable. Graves, by contrast, advanced etymologies which he must have really known wouldn't hold water, and treated historical texts like clues to crossword puzzles. I have even seen contemporary writers argue that Greek geometry was really a mystery of secret Goddess cults surviving into the classical era, deriving ``geometria'' from ``Gaia mater'' and ``diametros'' from ``dea mater.'' (I also wonder if there isn't a certain affinity here with the Protestant theme that the true, primitive religion, practiced in ancient times, has been lost and corrupted, and only now rediscovered.) In any event, the book under review is not about the history of the modern Goddess myth (though some contributors wave their hands in that direction), but about the relevant archaeological evidence --- not about the history of contemporary ideas, but whether those ideas have historical merit.

The answer is no, at least not if you require the Goddess of the myth. There are and have been lots of goddesses, of course, but that's quite a different story. For starters, societies where women have extremely low positions (like classical Athens, or modern Mexico) can have very extravagant goddess-cults (of Pallas Athene and Our Lady of Guadalupe, respectively), and ones where their status is rather high (like modern Holland) can have no noticeable goddess-worship at all. (It would be interesting to learn whether there's any correlation at all between goddess-worship and female social status.) So even if we found that a given ancient society went in strongly for worshiping goddesses, even for worshiping one Goddess, that wouldn't be strong evidence that it displayed the rest of the syndrome of features specified by the Goddess-myth (matriarchy, egalitarianism, pacifism, environmentalist sensibility, etc.).

That said, how do we go about deciding whether a congregation of the long dead were worshiping a goddess or not? In essence, in the same ways in which we try to scope out any facet of ancient belief --- ways which differ radically depending on whether or not they left us anything which we can read. If they did, the matter is reasonably simple: we read it, and look to see what they say about worship. In the cases examined in Ancient Goddesses --- Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Arcadia in Greece, Romano-Celtic Europe --- we always find at least one goddess (even in Israel), but nothing like the Goddess. In the oldest writings available to us, from both Egypt and Sumer, we read of people enduring kings, taxes, oppression, wars, fraud, (patriarchal) families and dubiously comforting religions, all the while busy transforming the landscape by massive engineering projects: in short, not an Eden of the mothers but an all-too-recognizable kind of civilization.

Her modern followers may not be too disheartened by this, however: after all, She is supposed to have reigned before the day of those societies, in their predecessors. (This dodge won't work for Egypt or Sumer, however.) Conveniently, these societies either had no writing, or employed undeciphered scripts, so we can't rely on texts. (The cases of cultures who have left us no writings mentioning religion, and the beliefs of the illiterate majorities of cultures with writing, are similar.) Then the cases for the Goddess --- or any other religious belief --- rests on interpreting statuary, paintings, and other artifacts. Often these interpretations have been blatantly circular. Artifacts (e.g. the famous Maltese statues of obese human figures) are interpreted as depicting females, if not Herself, when they have no clear sexual attributes at all, because the society which produced them is a priori believed to have worshiped the Goddess. (I would put figs. 53a and 54a-b, unhesitatingly identified by Goodison and Morris as showing females, in the same category of ``not proven.'') The resulting preponderance of sacred objects depicting women then confirms the Goddess-worshiping character of the society.

This really cannot stand, and the contributors to Ancient Goddesses don't let it. In no case that they examine do the artifacts which are (plausibly) sacred representations exclusively or even preponderantly depict figures which are clearly female. To be blunt, even for the Minoans and the Maltese, we have next to no evidence at all for any specific kind of doctrine or belief, for anything more than ``well, they probably wouldn't have gone to all this trouble and expense making statues and erecting buildings without mundane function if they'd been atheists or Unitarians.'' This is not, to put it mildly, adequate support for ambitious visions of the past.


There is a load --- especially in the first few chapters --- of methodological baffle-gab. For instance, in the introduction Goodison and Morris write as though archaeologists must have spiritual or mystical experiences of their own in order to adequately address the spiritual lives of ancient peoples, which is akin to saying they must use wooden rulers to measure wooden objects. Equally baffling is the notion that that ordinary empirical caution and measured doubt in interpretation and inference are somehow ``feminist''. Thus in ch. 1, Tringham and Conkey write that

One of the most important aspects of the feminist practice of archaeology is to emphasize the need to demystify the authoritative optimistically-worded `facts' about the past. The process by which the archaeological record --- in this case [i.e. that of their chapter], figurines and spatial contexts --- is interpreted and reconstructed by archaeologists and by which it is given meanings that modern readers can relate to is a complex series of inferential steps. In practice each step is fraught with its own challenge of ambiguity and problems of validation. To ignore the ambiguity and to work within the illusion of `proven facts' is to claim that one's interpretation is knowledge rather than a `mode of transmitting knowledge'. Feminist theory encourages a celebration and discussion of this ambiguity rather than its mystification. [p. 44; admirers of rhetorical sapping will note, in addition to the scare-quotes, the ironic defusal of ``authoritative''; also the idea of transmitting something which, ex hypothesi, nobody has.]
Put a bit differently: it's bloody hard to say anything reliable about the past, especially woolly questions about what people thought, rather than what they ate or wore or built or died from. It's next to impossible if they've left you no writings which you can read. Even in the easiest cases there lurks the possibility of error and mistake. None of these pitfalls and difficulties should be glossed over or ignored, especially when you write up your report and the temptation to leave out all the probablies, maybes, and on the other hands is strongest. Well, how can one respond but by a nod, and maybe a muttered ``hear, hear''? But where's the feminism? Archaeologists may be more afflicted by the embarrassment of premature asseveration than are any others (I'd put my money on the psychiatrists); feminists, alas, are not conspicuously more free from it than the common run of humanity.

Miserable writing almost always accompanies this sort of methodological rumbling, and Ancient Goddesses is not, in this respect, a book to disappoint. The introduction and first chapter are appallingly bad --- jargon-ridden without being precise, wordy without having a style, and full of thought-cliches and canned thinking. The remainder isn't so bad, but (at least here) the contributors' best proves to be competent grant-application prose. This is what archaeologists, like other scholars, usually write, but hardly the ``human and accessible voice'' promised by the dust-jacket. (Are the writers of such copy trained to avoid claims which could be actionable under the laws of false advertising?)

In any case, these calls to take up the cause of ambiguity and doubt tend to be forgotten when the contributors write about what they've dug out of the ground. Take the (very impressive) Minoan fresco from Thera that Goodison and Morris examine on pp. 126ff (fig. 56). This shows a woman seated on a raised platform, with two strange beasts on either side, and human figures who seem to be bringing her crocuses. Even assuming that the last bit is right, it still doesn't mean that the seated woman is a goddess, as our authors assert; for all we know, it's a memorial to the founder of the saffron export industry, and the beasts (a monkey and a griffin, it seems) are symbolic representations of the countries which are the trade's principal customers. (I become fonder of this notion the more I contemplate it, so it's probably wrong.) --- This license to interpret at will is tangibly, and welcomely, revoked as soon as readable texts appear.

There is a valuable message to be had as a reward for making one's way through the thickets of academese, and even the morass of the first chapters. Namely: a widely-held belief about the past has little or nothing to recommend it. The archaeological evidence from prehistoric societies, as from ones with writing which we can't read, is only slightly more indicative of the worship of a Great Goddess than it is of Spinozistic pantheism. (Slightly, because they saw something in idols.) In no society with an accessible written record do we find the Great Goddess, or anything really like her. I doubt we'll ever really know what the megalith-builders or the Maltese were thinking, and without a great linguistic breakthrough we won't even be better off with the Minoans. Almost certainly, what they believed was much more complicated, much stranger, and much less neatly tailored to our present concerns, than the myth gives them credit for.

As modern myths go, that of the Great Goddess isn't a terribly important one --- certainly it's not up there with the biggies, like that of the Elders of Zion (thank the gods!) --- but it's still a nuisance, and worse, a growing one. Three features make it objectionable. In the first place, it distorts our vision of the past, which is always bad in itself. Second, it isn't even good feminist tactics, since people are perfectly free, like Bachofen, to accept its factual claims, but reject the values, and say that the societies which replaced those which worshiped the Goddess were infinitely superior; a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist could go further and say that She was just Satan in drag. Thirdly, it's simply absurd to proceed as though the way some of our ancestors happened to live a few thousand years ago fixes the way we ought to live now and in the future. Suppose (to steal an example from Ernest Gellner) that tomorrow some archaeologists in Iraq (or the Rift Valley or wherever) dug up a copy of the original social contract. Should anti-feminists change their minds if it had equality of men and women as article 1? Should we feminists repent in dust and ashes if it enshrined patriarchy? No --- not just that people wouldn't actually change their opinions on such a basis (since some might), but that they'd not be justified in doing so; if nothing else, the original Contractors might've been wrong. (This point is made by one of the contributors in passing.)

I see nothing wrong with worshiping a goddess, or even the Goddess. (Or rather, to be parenthetically blunt, if you must bow down before something so transparently a product of human hopes and fears as to have a sex, as well one as the other.) I would actually be surprised if there weren't people leading better, happier lives because they worship Her, just as I'd be surprised if there weren't people leading happier, better lives for having accepted Jesus into their hearts as their personal savior, or having made submission to Allah, or, longer ago, having been unfailing in their sacrifices and libations to the Olympians. We can argue about whether humans can ever reach anything like reasonable agreement and knowledge about such matters of faith, or whether this kind of belief must remain privileged, incorrigible, and a matter of leaps in the dark. Belief in the Goddess, or Genesis, in some (none-too-clear) symbolic or allegorical sense can plausibly claim such ``benefit of clergy.'' But when religious believers make claims about ordinary, garden-variety facts --- about history, or geography, or astronomy --- then they are certainly not in some private, protected realm of faith, but in the shared and public forum of inquiry. It doesn't matter, then, whether they have nasty politics, like (for the most part) Creationists, or nice politics, like (for the most part) Goddess-mythers: their claims should be, and with a little luck will be, scrutinized and critiqued just like any others, and ought to be rejected if they can't stand up to that. The claims the Goddess myth makes about human history aren't as definitely exploded as those the Creationists make about the history of life on Earth, but we have no grounds to give them any credence either, and many for doubt.

This is not the book that needs to be written to dispose of the Goddess; that is one which would adequately marshal the evidence from archaeology, anthropology and history, and point out the irrelevance of the myth to the real issues, and have a genuinely human and accessible voice. Until that book arrives, this one will have to do.


224 pp., endnotes (almost unusable), many black-and-white photos and drawings, index
Anthropology and Archaeology / Ancient History / Feminism / Religion
Currently in print as a hardback, ISBN 0-7141-1761-7, UK£18.99, LoC BL473.5 A5
8 March 1999