Ancient Goddesses

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Ancient Goddesses: The Myth and the Evidence.
Goodison Lucy & Morris Christine (eds)
British Museum Press 1998. ISBN 07141 1761 7 hb 18.99

"The idea of an original Mother Goddess in prehistory is surrounded by an intense controversy, but one in which neither side speaks to the other. In entering the debate on the nature of female divinity in ancient European and Mediterranean societies, this book is intended to bridge the gap between the two camps, shedding light on areas of prejudice and showing that in this fascinating area of study we all still have more questions than answers."(p.6).

This opening paragraph of the introduction sets the scene for ten archaeologists and historians to provide specialist material and insights into their areas of Goddess study, which gives us a most valuable and interesting book. But its own premise of a Goddess movement that sees the 'nature of the female divine' as a single 'original Mother Goddess' which the scholars can and largely do disprove is irritating and detracts from our enjoyment. Wood and Water readers are familiar with "The One and the Many" controversy, where we propose that for Goddess people generally, the term "the Goddess" describes all aspects of female divinity, Goddesses singular and plural; academic determination to impose a monotheism on us is misplaced and counter-productive.

Joan Goodnick Westenholz, in an illuminating and factual account of goddesses of the Ancient Near East prefaces it with the assumption that modern writers "bent on 'recovering' a postulated Goddess-centred religion have assumed there is just one archetypal Goddess..." (p63); she suggests that such writers have tried to force all ancient goddesses into this preconceived mould. Her excellent account is set in this context, which appears to me to be unfortunate. Elizabeth Shee Twohig provides a splendid survey of megalithic tombs in North West Europe but contextualises it into disproving a "Mother Goddess" element, although she admits that there are evidences of representation of females in, for example, Northern France in the later neolithic period ( p168). Whether these figures were worshipped as goddesses or not, it does not appear necessary or her to reiterate so forcefully that they do not represent a single Mother Goddess.

On the other hand some writers go straight into their discussions without bias, notably Mary . E. Vouyatzis whose "From Athena to Zeus" provides "an A-Z Guide to the Origins of Greek Goddesses", and Miranda J. Green whose paper on "Some Gallo-British Goddesses" maintains this author's usual highly lucid and accessible scholarship. Miranda Green makes the point that since there is lively archaeological debate about the validity of suing the word "Celtic" to describe the culture of the European Iron Age ( p 180)she has decided to stay with purely geographical nomenclature. Her arguments, description and illustrations are all satisfying and stimulating and provide us with a wealth of information.

A survey by Karel van der Toorn of female divinities in early Israelite religion brings forward the goddesses Anat and Asherah, either or both seen as the consort of Jahweh in the period referred to. That the early Hebrew religion was not monotheistic but worshipped a divine couple, male and female, has now gained pretty standard acceptance among scholars, although with reluctance from those with a religious background. The author discusses the mystery of the many hundreds - perhaps thousands - of female figurines found on territory that comprised the land of Israel and while not opting for them all to be goddesses proposes that they may be "cult images used for devotional or prophylactic purposes (p94).

Crete, Egypt and Malta are discussed in some depths by the editors, byFekri A. Hassan and by Caroline Malone respectively. Again, a wealth of information and excellent illustrations are provided.

In turning to the first two papers of the book which discuss the matter of goddesses from a political perspective, it is necessary to say that it is impossible here to give sufficient time and attention to these important contributions.. Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey focus their attention on the work of Marija Gimbutas, while Lynn Meskell discusses the implications of the discoveries - both in the sixties and currently - at Catal Huyuk. Both discussions assert that the work of Gimbutas and of Mellaart (at Catal Huyuk) have been pivotal to the Goddess movement, creating a set of assumptions as its framework. Over-simplification and essentialization form the basis of the critique by Tringham and Conkey: they argue that Gimbutas tends to treat the whole of European prehistory as a homogenous unit from the point of view of religious and social organisation ( p 23), whereas in fact new studies in archaeology based in a gendered framework show wide variations of "roles, relations, ideologies and identities" (p22).These must be set against Gimbutas's view of the society of Old Europe where "the roles and symbolic place of men and women are set and fixed ( ibid). They call for openness to accept that valuable as has been the work of Gimbutas, it is time to incorporate it and to move on: feminist archaeology is changing the old "certainties" and Gimbutas has played her part in breaking them down. Today's researchers proceed with less certainty than Gimbutas herself: everything is ambiguous and must be tested: there are no "proven facts". Lynn Meskell take a similar view, providing, on the way, a thoroughly informed and sympathetic account of goddess idea associated with the site of Catal Huyuk, and providing some account of alternative explanations. She is concerned to discount emphasis on a "Mother Goddess", and believes that "invoking the 'Goddess' as an empowering modern construction is positive for many people whereas claiming archaeological validity for ancient gynocracy, social utopia and a single 'Mother Goddess' at Catal Huyuk may be seen as problematic and dangerous".(p55).We should not rest our desire for the future on an imagined golden age of the past, but rather our aims for social change should be based on a "fundamental humanity by which we have learned the lessons of our own recent history and reached realisations about our future" (ibid).

As a 'Goddess person' over a period now touching three decades I welcome this new feminist archaeology: Gimbutas and Mellaart were of their time; they broke down enormous barriers and they helped put the idea of female divinities on the map of today's consciousness. We are enormously grateful to them as we struggle on. Many of us - perhaps the majority - never felt that the story had to be of the single mother goddess - rather there was and still is work to do to show that the idea of divinity has not always been totally male, and that females have been and are divine too. This book provides us with marvelous accounts of such divinities and a treasury of illustrations. Thought provoking and controversial in its analyses, its actual material is outstanding. I just do hope that sooner or later the scholars will stop transposing on to us their own (mistaken) views as to what goddess people actually believe, and ask us instead.

Wood and Water, number 65, Winter Solstice 1998


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