Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory

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Eller, Cynthia. The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory:
Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future.
Beacon Press, Boston 2000.

ISBN 0-8070-6792-x $26.00

Cynthia Eller is the author of a previous well-researched and well-grounded book, "Living in the Lap of the Goddess" (1993,1995) which was a pleasure to read. It provided an onlooker's astringent yet sympathetic understanding of the Goddess movement, and in particular described the wide variety of views within that movement and the openness with which Goddess oriented women approached apparently paradoxical thealogical statements. (see WW review...)

Her new book, alas, exhibits no such good humour. Eller has invented a new myth, that of the 'matriarchal feminists' whose doctrines and standpoints she has created and outlined, in order, it appears to show how wrongheaded and ridiculous they are.

These matriarchal feminists, often appearing as 'feminist matriarchalists' throughout the book. believe in 'the myth of matriarchal prehistory (which ) is foundational for feminist spirituality... goddesses are proof of matriarchy, reminders of it, and calls to recreate it"(p. 36). They have a Jungian view of masculinity and femininity, essentialist in character. They adhere firmly and unquestioningly to the supposed teachings of Marija Gimbutas, all believing in a 'golden age' of matriarchy which underpins their desire to reclaim for themselves and for the future an updated version of this desirable state. Eller warns them that it won't work and lusting after it "will only hurt us in the long run".

Eller does not provide a sense of the shift of ideas in the goddess movement over its near three decades of growth, nor does she set her arguments in a gender context, or in the dynamic world of spiritual feminism or feminist theology. She sticks with the term 'matriarchy' in its various forms, and although she concedes that writers in the movement use other terms, she discards them and provides her own definition. She writes, "'matriarchal' can be thought of... as a shorthand description of any society in which women's power is equal to or superior to men's, and in which the culture centers around values and life events described as 'feminine'" (12/13).

This would be all very well from an uninformed observer, but it won't do from the clever and disciplined scholar that Eller has shown herself in the past to be. Certainly, the 1970s Goddess movement started by defining itself as' matriarchalist,' although always in a context of gender struggles; certainly Marija Gimbutas has been a major influence on spiritual feminist thought, particularly in the US; surely, essentialism and Jungism have had their effects on different streams in the movement. It is also the case that scholars from various disciplines, notably archaeology, have complained of the hijacking of their science to polemical ends.

But predicating the growth of the Goddess movement on 'feminist matriarchy' is little short of a nonsense. Most of those women who do fit into a "matriarchalist" picture (and they are far fewer than suggested) would probably not identify themselves as feminists. Spiritual feminists (as I have outlined elsewhere) have left their certainties of the 70s about matriarchies far behind. What is important today to such feminists and such non-feminists alike is the central drive of the gender struggle that Eller hardly admits of mention: that women have been sidelined, obscured, demeaned, deprived of status, and in particular, of spiritual status over a vast period of time.

Women's Studies of all kinds, not least feminist theology, seek to redress this imbalance. In so doing, often using Schussler Fiorenza's methodology of the 'hermeneutics of suspicion', they find evidence that such androcentrism has been deliberate. It has become possible, at least to some extent, to find written and other evidence of women's influential part in the societies of the near and far past of history; as far as prehistory is concerned, the jury is still out. As far as Gimbutas' work is concerned, the certainties of her generation of scholars, expressed in the meta-theories of modernism, have given away to the uncertainties and multiple discourses of post-modernism. The huge skies of Old Europe and its Goddess civilisation remain a golden age, one that is cherished as a possibility rather than as an historic truth (if there is such an animal!).

More important to spiritual feminists is the self empowerment that comes with the knowledge that they need no longer be cut off from the divine by reason of their gender; no longer created second; no longer need their bodies be viewed as impure, their biology a "curse". The idea of Goddess, or Goddesses- in however many forms, under however many names, from however many places, functions to replace these false concepts. These concepts do not depend on belief in a matriarchal myth, but rather on a broader more whole, and indeed a more accurate view of the history of the human race.

© Asphodel P. Long (Wood and Water 73, Winter Solstice 2000)


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