Reclaiming Quarterly Web Features Back Issues Subscribe Ads/Submissions Site Index Reclaiming Home

Reclaiming Our History

Dancing Between Myth and History

by Archer

The recent publication of Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon and Charlotte Allen’s “The Scholars and the Goddess” in Atlantic Monthly has once again stirred up the controversy surrounding pagan ideas about the deep past.

That past, the “pre-history” that came before written records, has always been a blank slate on which humans have written their dreams and fears. We pagans, like every group before us, tell a story about what humans were like “in the beginning” and draw our inspiration from that. One of our most popular stories (and one with a surprisingly long history) is that prehistoric societies were women-centered and goddess-worshipping.

But historians and archaeologists, by and large, have a slightly different story to tell. Chipping away at the more sweeping conclusions of Marija Gimbutas and Riane Eisler, these scholars ask us to look again at our ideas about the past.

To some of us, prehistory has seemed a battleground in which women had their original power stolen from them and good societies were destroyed by those with less desirable characteristics.

But there is another story about the past, one in which there are no heroes and villains.

If I told it to you, would you listen?

At the beginning of human history, people got their food by hunting and gathering, moving often to follow the animals. They tried to limit births by long weaning and carried only a few light possessions. Women gathered most of the food and may even have participated in communal hunts using nets they wove (Pringle passim*).

Then someone, perhaps a woman, discovered that you could cultivate plants — enough to feed people and animals, enough to settle down and have more children, make crafts, and acquire goods. The new need to nurse and care for many small children meant that these women could most easily do work close to home. So they did the planting, weaving, pottery and other crafts while the men traveled to trade or hunt. As women’s horticulture took off, they became not only the major food producers but the center of society — their art reflected the themes of fertility and the female body (Barber 76-77). But to judge by contemporary “horticultural societies” like the Hopi, sex roles at this time, while balanced, would have been rigidly defined. Custom ruled, for survival would still be fairly precarious and experimentation risky.

Several new discoveries slowly changed this world. The domestication of animals and the use of their milk, skin and meat meant yet more food and prosperity. The use of draught animals meant men had to become more involved with farming — the spread-out fields tilled by large oxen were not the best place for small children (Barber 98). The new processes of mining, smelting and smithing led to new tools and to more trade. Once again, these activities were incompatible with nursing and childcare, and women couldn’t do them as freely as men.

More people, more visible wealth, more travel: While there is evidence of combat and violence even in the Paleolithic (Hutton, Pagan Religions 14-19), it was at this point in the Late Neolithic that the ingredients for hierarchy and war were most present. Cities — and the division of labor that the new farming technologies allowed (and even required) — appeared, and with them the need for more formal types of leadership. The increase in population led to competition for resources, the threat of war, and the need for war leaders.

Women were still major producers of food, clothing and craft goods — many of the things men fought over and traded. They may even have invented writing as part of household management (Freymer-Kensky 42). But trapped as they were on the “squirrel wheel” of childcare and endless production, they didn’t have the opportunities for innovation and leadership that men did (Barber 258). As in ancient Sumeria, the city leaders, the traders, and the war leaders would most often be men (Freymer-Kensky 32, 70-80). As societies moved away from small groups and subsistence living, circumstances increasingly favored male prominence, hierarchy and war.

But these circumstances varied from place to place. For example, Crete’s rocky landscape worked against herding and the use of draught animals. As an island it needed little defense, though it sent its men off to trade, conquer and colonize (Hayden 25-26). Under these conditions women may have remained at the center of things much longer than in other places. Certainly, Cretan art depicts many more women than men. Unfortunately, we cannot decipher Cretan script, so all we know of Crete’s early political structure is what the ruins suggest: That it had “a palace-dwelling monarchy” and thus some degree of hierarchy (Hutton Pagan Religions 103).

In other areas, the domestication of large animals made the mobile herding life feasible and even desirable, especially when changing climate or increased population made farming less productive. The life of herding and large-scale animal husbandry was also one in which women would have trouble taking a leading role (Ehrenberg ch. 3). With animals to pull wheeled carts piled high with possessions, pastoral groups could spread far from their farmed-out homelands, living off their herds and searching for ores to process and trade (Barber 100). Once some groups became mobile in this way, the possibility for interaction and conflict with other groups increased exponentially.

We are used to hearing that these herders invaded horticultural societies and destroyed their egalitarian and woman-centered way of life, replacing it with their own violent and patriarchal one. This is supposed to be the case especially in “Old Europe” (southeastern Europe) which, Gimbutas held, was invaded by Indo-Europeans from the steppes (Gimbutas xx). But many archaeologists think that the Old European societies began to change on their own (once again, in response to climate and population) and that some changes were a result of cultural influence rather than actual invasion. The evidence is fragmentary enough that several interpretations are possible (Mallory 182-185, 243-250). Whatever the reality, the pastoral invaders probably had a horticultural past of their own and had undergone the same changes they may have imposed on Old Europe. Had the Indo-Europeans not invaded, Old Europe might have changed without them.

So this is a story in which there are not two opposing groups (matristic and patriarchal) but one human race reacting predictably (at different times and places) to changing conditions. A story not about patriarchal intentions, but about fate.

A parallel set of stories exists about whom we worshipped and what that meant. The idea that hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies worshipped a Great Goddess almost exclusively is much challenged these days. Examining Stone Age art, writers hold ancient phalluses, male figures and paintings of male animals up against etched vulvas, female figures, and womb-like tombs (Hayden, passim). They debate the vulture breasts and the bull horns of Catal Huyuk. They remind us that some male divinities were traditionally not portrayed — “aniconic” storm gods like Baal, Ramman and Yahweh. Though they left no images behind, they were probably worshiped long before they emerged in the first writings (Jones 6).

No writing accompanies prehistoric artifacts, so it is hard to know if they suggest the worship of one Goddess, or the veneration of many gods and goddesses such as we find in the earliest written records — or something else entirely. In any case, the worship of a goddess, even a supreme one like those in Japan or parts of India, does not in itself guarantee sexual equality (see also Freymer-Kensky 80). Aboriginal societies in which goddesses and Earth Mothers are predominant are nonetheless often male-dominated and even warlike (Hayden 26-27). Yet, in Gimbutas’s eyes, the loss of the Goddess after the Indo-European invasions is at the core of patriarchy’s triumph (Gimbutas xix-xx).

We are used to thinking, for instance, that the Indo-European invasions of Greece subordinated the earth Goddess to the gods of the sky, and that the myth of Gaia and her monsters being conquered by male gods is a memory of that historical event and of the coming of patriarchy. But it turns out that some of the male gods thought to be patriarchal imports may actually have been pre-Indo European (Jones 9-11, Mallory 67) and that the Indo-European sky gods simply merged with native weather gods (Mallory 129-130). Probably both Indo-Europeans and those they conquered had mixed pantheons of earth and sky, male and female deities (Jones 5-6, Hutton Pagan Religions 102-3). The real dichotomy may not be earth goddesses versus sky gods, but localized clan deities versus the internationalized deities of the invaders. These new gods and goddesses had once themselves been local deities, but as their worshippers became mobile so did the deities, becoming identified more with the individual and less with a certain place or family. According to Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, you can see deities from these two stages of religion battling it out in Greek mythology (Jones 10-11).

If the evidence for an ancient, universal, woman-centered religion of the Goddess is shaky, why does the idea of it keep its hold so firmly? Freud would say we are attracted to the idea of a primeval Great Goddess because of the power of the mother in our own infancy and early lives. He would say that myths about her being overthrown (whether that is seen as good or bad) have to do with our own separation from our mother as we grow up. The Greeks imagined the first mother as Gaia, whose sons and grandsons came to rule the earth. We pagans imagine our first mother as the Goddess everyone worshipped in prehistory, when we were all one in the Mother, before the patriarchs came along and made life nasty and complicated. Are these stories about history, or about the current concerns of the people who tell them? Are they a window to the past, or a mirror?

The bias of myth is that there was once a distant past very different from the present, but then something big happened and things became as they are. My own bias runs the other way. I think human nature is pretty constant, with a constant potential for domination as well as for fairness. I think in prehistory we were as smart and as mean, as altruistic and as greedy as circumstances permitted, just as we’ve always been. So to me the differences between prehistory and history are ones of degree, not kind — not the result of some radical discontinuity, but due to the predictable consequences of our human nature interacting with changing conditions.

There is a Greek myth in which Zeus, fearing a prophecy, destroys an unborn child by eating its mother. But the child, Athena, forces herself out of his head instead. Some see this story as being about men trying to appropriate the power of women to give birth. I see it as proof that the men who told the story understood both that they feared women, and that women’s power would not be destroyed by such fear. Men have known that women have real power, and these same men have felt fear and guilt about women’s lack of official power, however it came about. The idea of women’s power has always been the alluring or frightening underside of things, at times a fascinating male projection. Now, however, it is also a women’s projection and a vision of how things could be better for everyone, men and women alike. That’s what Gimbutas, Eisler and other feminist thinkers have given us.

The shadow of women’s power, the fear of or desire for an all-powerful goddess, stories of sirens and witches and enchantresses under the full moon — all this runs like a subtext beneath “official” religion. Modern pagans want to make that subtext conscious, drawing away the distortions of fear and redefining it as the necessary balance to our lopsided culture. What was pushed down, what was left out and grew in the shadows will, when brought into the light, become the very thing that the culture didn’t know it needed, the thing that will make us whole.

We want a different world here and now, one in which women and men are equal, where the assumptions about who should have power and what has value are different. The time is right. In the developed world at least, women don’t have to have so many babies and babies don’t tie them down the way they used to. Work itself is more flexible and survival isn’t our first concern. So now we have the opportunity to throw off custom and look in new ways at women’s work and women’s power. We can give it the value it deserves, not basing our standards of worth merely on who makes the most noise or writes the most books or has the biggest weapon. By loosening the rigid roles of the past, we can make both women and men freer.

We have to look at the past in context and try not to clothe it in our current bias. But we can also, within these limits, find endless inspiration in its images. From these images we are building our own new mythology of where we came from and where we are going.

Archer is a Toronto pagan, mother of Neil and Angie. She occasionally manages to write for publication.

Works Cited

Allen, Charlotte. “The Scholars and the Goddess.” Atlantic Monthly, January 2001
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.
Ehrenberg, Margaret. Women in Prehistory. London, 1989.
Freymer-Kensky, Tikva. In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. New York: Ballantine, 1992.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Hayden, Brian. “Old Europe: Sacred Matriarchy or Complementary Opposition?” in Bonano, Anthony, ed., Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean. Amsterdam: B.R. Gruner, 1986.
Hutton, Ronald. Pagan Religions in the Ancient British Isles. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon. Oxford: Oxford Press, 1999.
Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Mallory, J.P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
Pringle, Heather. “New Women of the Ice Age.” Discover, April 1998.