Some Pagans and spiritual feminists have chosen to use the myth of matriarchal prehistory as an inspirational sacred story, rather than understanding it as pure history. In this way, the story has supported activists in working for a more peaceful and more egalitarian society. By imagining a just society that might once have existed, feminist Pagans and Goddess-worshippers galvanize themselves to try to create such a society in the present day. Other Pagans, however, have been critical of the matriarchal myth. Greer, for instance, notes that the myth of matriarchal prehistory has many similarities to the story of the Garden of Eden. In the story from Genesis, humankind falls from grace and is cast out of utopia because of Eve’s disobedience. In Christianity, Eve’s “sin” has sometimes been blamed on women in general, and the Genesis story has been used to discriminate against women. The matriarchal myth reverses this sexism by envisioning a female-led utopia that was destroyed by “patriarchal invaders”— in other words, by men. Although both the matriarchal myth and the myth of the Garden of Eden can be interpreted in a non-sexist fashion, both narratives have been used to teach gender-based prejudice.
–Christine Hoff Kraemer, Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies
I remain firmly convinced of the power of story. Story shapes our world. And, reality is socially constructed in an active process of storying and re-storying.
I’ve share these quotes in my classes and they feel relevant again today:
“The universe of made of stories, not of atoms.” –Muriel Rukeyser
“Power consists to a large extent in deciding what stories will be told.” –Carolyn Heilbrun
While the matriarchal myth has been critiqued and attacked from an anthropological and sociological perspective, I think it has important value—it doesn’t have to be true or verifiable to have a potent impact on society. The very fact that people feel that the matriarchal story is a myth that needs to be “debunked” to me is proof of the mythic power of our old, patriarchal story on current culture. Earlier this year I finished reading Reid-Bown’s book Goddess as Nature and he says this: “What is significant, however, is that the matriarchy thesis has considerable mythopoetic value for the Goddess movement: it affirms that the world was not always distorted by patriarchy, it contributes moral meaning to the state of the world today, and it aids in an imaginative revisioning of a better goddess-centred future” (p. 18). The power of the matriarchal story—myth or fact—is in the assertion that the world CAN be different. Patriarchy and war are not the “just way its always been,” or a “more evolved” society, or the only possibility for the future. The matriarchal myth opens up the door for a new FUTURE story, not just a revisionist look at the past.
Reid-Bowen goes on to explain: “Myths may be understood as narratives which enshrine a number of religious and cultural meanings within a framework where exceptional and supernatural events may take place; they are imaginative construals or presentations, in story form, relating to such issues as the origins and nature of the universe and the meaning of life; they possess a certain explanatory power; they reflect aspects of a particular world of meaning; and in most cases they provide an interpretive lens by which to understand the world. Difficult questions admittedly arise when myth and history are conflated or confused, and when one attempts to assess the epistemic status of a myth. However, it is important to emphasize that myths are, first and foremost, imaginative stories that carry with them a cluster of meanings relating to the way significant things originally were, or are, or ought to be” (p. 34). This is what I mean about story creating and shaping our world. Story also legitimizes social, political, cultural, and religious structures as in the classic quote from Mary Daly: “If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling his people, then it is the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male dominated. Within this context, a mystification of roles takes place: The husband dominating his wife represents God ‘himself.’ The images and values of a given society have been projected into the realm of dogmas and “Articles of Faith,” and these in turn justify the social structures which have given rise to them and which sustain their plausibility.”
Returning to Reid-Bowen, he goes on to describe that, “Myths may also serve to legitimate states of affairs that may be either oppressive or empowering, they may be subject to revision or stagnation, or else may lose credibility in the face of alternative or competing narratives. For Goddess feminists, patriarchy is understood to have produced myths that have served to legitimate the oppression of women and the degradation of the non-human world, and also systematically empowered men to the detriment of women. Goddess feminists, in turn, recognize that patriarchal myths must be challenged by the creation or reclamation of gynocentric alternatives. That is, women must be empowered, female power legitimated and human relations with the rest of nature improved by a process of re-mythologization. The invidious ethos of patriarchy can, it is asserted by many Goddess feminists, only be supplanted by the provision of an alternative feminist mythos or worldview. The creation of gynocentric myths is conceived thealogically as a necessary component in the development of a post-patriarchal society, and it is also understood as vital to an ongoing process of female ontological and political becoming and liberation. Feminist mythmaking – whether understood as ‘psychic activism’ or as ‘re-spelling the world – is a remarkably important thealogical activity” (p. 34). I completely agree with this assessment—a remarkably important thealogical activity. Indeed, it may be the first step, the first introduction women have to realize that there is more “out there” than the classic, Abrahamic religions of their youth. So, in this way, I almost feel like the thealogical myths are a sacred task as well as community outreach!
In my readings for my Ecofeminism class, when discussing animal studies through a male-biased lens, Warren observes, “When those values, attitudes, assumptions and beliefs reinforce or maintain social constructed views of females and males in ways the inferiorize female behavior, they are ‘male-biased’…” (158) This reminds me of the question of whether a human matriarchal past is a myth or history—I firmly believe that most visioning of history and understanding of historical artifacts is rooted in a solidly male-biased (and Abrahamic) lens. Our interpretation of artifacts AND of animal behavior tell us more about our own current society and beliefs than they tell us about the past (or animals). “It has been noted that one of the most significant aspects of the contemporary feminist movement is its drive to reclaim from patriarchy the power of symbolizing and naming, to define femaleness from a female perspective and with a female voice, ‘to discover, revitalize and create a female oral and visual tradition and use it, ultimately, to change the world’.That is, in recognizing that languages and symbols mediate and in part construct reality (and most significantly patriarchal reality), many feminists have adopted a pro-active and interventionist role with regard to the formation and utilization of languages, narratives and symbols” (Reid-Bowen, p. 33)
The matriarchal myth is an “oral history.” As Eller explains, “Feminist spirituality’s sacred history is not a matter of doctrine or scripture; it is living story remade in every telling, by every teller.” (p. 153) Eller also says, “The rhythm of this story is unmistakable, moving in a great wave pattern across human history. Respect for the female surges, then ebbs; perhaps it will surge again. This rhythm is the heartbeat of the feminist spirituality movement. It pulses out into the greater culture where it gradually leaches into the popular mentality as something between folk wisdom and historical fact.” (p. 150-151)
What if history, as it is presently defined, leaves out a whole swath of human history, relegating it to “pre-history” status instead?
Spretnak states, “Patriarchal culture holds that a strong, courageous independent woman is an aberration, an unfortunate freak of nature. We know this to be a lie because we have discovered widespread traditions of mythic and historic women of power, our potential shapers of identity” (p. 89). So, how do we learn about the past and put our lives into a larger historical and sociocultural context? In Merlin Stone’s classic essay, she writes, “…many women of today suspect, or even firmly believe, that a study of the religious accounts ‘of different races and faith’ would probably result only in finding that womanhood has always been perceived and portrayed as secondary to manhood. Statements, some even by well-educated feminists, often convey the idea that if actual accounts from societies that regarded woman as powerful, as supreme creator, or as important culture heroine, ever did exist, such information is now buried in the dust of prehistory—a Goddess name here or there all that is left to ponder” (p. 92).
Stone goes on to note, “The gradual formation of these attitudes has been accomplished in various ways. One has been to confine grade school and high school studies primarily to what has existed in relatively recent, generally Caucasian, male-oriented societies. Another has been through reassurances by university teachers, and texts, that if some cultures had viewed women as supreme deity, or had had a female clergy that had deeply influence moral and social structure, indication of this occurs only in the scantiest (and, therefore, inconclusive) of references. A more subtle factor at work has been the rejection of all things ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual,’ by many who might agree with the need for finding positive images of woman but would prefer not to discover them in other than secular sources—thus ignoring the power and influence that contemporary male-oriented religions have upon even the most atheistic or agnostic of women today.”
In Spretnak’s footnotes on page 129 regarding anthropology and women she explains, “…anthropologists must refuse to consider at least eighty years of archaeological matrifocal finding from the prehistoric era…on a very basic level many of the perceptions of the above scholars are informed by patriarchal concepts the validity of which they have not yet examined and rejected. I have great respect for their work as descriptive analyses of patriarchy, but they repeatedly treat contemporary (patriarchal) attitudes and cultural structures as eternal ‘universals of the human condition,’ e.g., that women are always subservient because we bear children and because we are associated with nature more closely than are men (culture) and because ‘polluting’ menstrual blood and ‘messy’ lactation flow out of us. Nowhere do these scholars acknowledge the archaeological evidence that these female phenomenon carried positive—even awesome—value for 20,000 years prior to the advent of the patriarchal era. If childbearing is always considered limiting and degrading, why did our Paleolithic ancestors from Spain to Siberia carve myriad statues of powerful female figures whose vulvas, large breast and bellies cyclically yielded the very mysteries of life? One rarely sees infants hanging on these statues (a reflection of the diffusion of childcare within a clan system?); they are simply monuments to woman’s elemental power.”
Stories ARE power and that is why a feminist, matristic, Goddess-oriented narrative has value, regardless of whether it is myth or fact. As we know too well, the victors write the history books—they get to tell the stories and those stories, logically, may involve significant distortion of the facts of the past.
Sociocultural changes can occur rapidly and due to this writing of the history books it is difficult to fully assess the social structures that were in place prior to the invasion of the theoretically matriarchal and peaceful people by a warrior class. However, the idea that social evolution means becoming warrior-based and patriarchal and that patriarchy is more “advanced” or “civilized” is a fundamental flawed story underlying much of our “modern day” history. I believe that a re-visioning of the current “story” of the past is helpful in the critical assessment of present social structures and ideas. As Christ states on page 61, “…the institutionalizing of warfare as a way of life…is the single most important factor in the subordination of women.” Broadening our scope of consideration to include a matrifocal legacy brings hope as well as context to our current culture in a meaningful way. When warfare is way of life, boys are trained to dominate and be aggressive and to see women as possessions or “spoils” of war. We see this type of training on a global scale right now and to consider the notion that this is not an appropriate or inevitable “evolution” of society is radical and potentially transformative.
Eller addresses the notion of a dominator vs. partnership model—again, this doesn’t have to be mythic past to be a better future. As a matter of fact, I use the idea of dominator and partnership in the human services classes I teach. As she notes, Goddess scholars have thus successfully, “…detached feminist spirituality’s sacred history from its original roots…[and] made it possible for people to celebrate a ‘partnership’ past and condemn a ‘dominator’ present without feeling any compulsion to worship a goddess, practice magic, or meditate on menstrual fluid.” (p. 156)
Since stories create culture, create future people’s history, I take no issue with the detachment of the history in this manner—we desperately need alternate conceptions of possibility to the dominator present. If those conceptions can become even marginally “mainstream” and accessible to people from many faith traditions, not just Goddess
women, then we may actually be making meaningful progress!
One form of “evidence” that Eller regards as potentially questionable, but strikes me as logical (and I’ve addressed it many time previously) is that of the role and value of childbirth. “Women’s ability to bear children, spiritual feminists say, gave natural cause for ancient peoples to image their creator deities in the form of a woman…’When our ancestors came out of caves, what did they think? Of course, woman gives birth. Whatever gave birth to us is a woman.’” (p. 158) Heck, even with all of the trappings of “modern” life, I STILL find the birth event to be magical, one of the truest, purest, and most authentic human experiences of magic there is. And, it was in giving birth gave me my first direct, explicit contact with the Goddess.
When discussing the story of Adam and Eve, Eller observes, “…childbirth is no longer a woman’s goddesslike creative miracle, but her cruel destiny of suffering and pain; her husband is no longer her delight freely chosen, but her master appointed over her…Adam is not born out of Eve, in the way that all men are born of women; rather, Eve is born of Adam, in a way the world has never seen before or since. Human reproduction, central to the goddess’s former power, is not a male prerogative.” (p. 167) This is the root of Christian patriarchy and continues to have a powerful legacy today.
So, in conclusion, the primary function of value of this sacred history is that patriarchy is no longer the only story we’ve known. An alternate past gives hope for an alternate future.
“Stories are medicine…They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything—we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in stories.” –Clarissa Pinkola Estes
**This post is based on lessons completed for my Historical Roots of Goddess Worship class at OSC. Also, returning to my opening quote, are you interested in learning about Pagan theology? Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies is on sale at Amazon this week for $2.99 (half price). Paperback version also available! The book includes activities and discussion questions for individuals and groups. **