Great Goddesses? Dismantling The Historical Hype

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller, Beacon Press, Boston, $26.

EVER SINCE THE SECOND WAVE of the women’s movement began in the ’60s, many feminist scholars have embraced a theory of a prehistoric Middle Eastern and European past when women ruled the world. Benignly, of course. This theory, which is based mostly on archaeological evidence, originated in the 19th Century, and was later popularized by such classical scholars as Jacquetta Hawkes and the writer Robert Graves. Supposedly, the theory goes, a peace-loving matriarchy existed in prehistoric times, based on agriculture and not war. People worshipped the Great Goddess, not gods, who supposedly had yet no place in religion. But then a cataclysm occurred, in the form of invading nomads who swept down from the north. They displaced the all-nourishing Goddess with their patriarchal and oppressive pantheon, from which we women today are still trying to shake free.

But in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, Cynthia Eller, after examining the evidence for this theory, shows that it is at best highly tentative. She argues, for example, that the Minoan snake-goddess figurines that Sir Arthur Evans excavated in Crete or Paleolithic cave-art in the south of France that include designs resembling vulvas do not necessarily add up to a vanished golden age in which power depended not on brute force but maternal instinct. In fact, Eller says, the vulva-like designs could just as well be interpreted as expressions of misogyny, much like the vulgar graffiti with which teenage boys deface public walls.

Eller, an associate professor of religion at Montclair State University in New Jersey, is a feminist herself. But she criticizes her feminist colleagues for incorporating this theory so uncritically into the field of gender studies. In the end, she argues, their bad scholarship will hurt their political cause. Eller is not the first feminist scholar to question the existence of a long-ago world ruled by women. As early as 1975, classicist Sarah Pomeroy, for example, expressed the same reservations in her book Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves.

Although Eller’s prose sometimes suffers from repetitions and academic jargon, we can forgive her because of her thorough research, and because of her willingness—as a feminist—to challenge popular feminist theories.